This week marks Hebrew Language Day, set on the birth date of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who is credited for the incredible revival of Hebrew as a spoken language.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman on January 7, 1858, in the Lithuanian village of Luzhky, now Belarus. His date of birth according to the Jewish lunar calendar is the 21st of the Hebrew month of Tevet in the year 5618. His Hebrew birthday this year – 21 Tevet, 5776 – fell on Saturday, January 2.
Mainly as a result of Ben-Yehuda’s determination, Hebrew, which for centuries had been a dead language, became the everyday language of communication in Israel.
At the weekly cabinet meeting Sunday morning, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stated: “Today we mark Hebrew Language Day. Yesterday was the birthday of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who revived the Hebrew language. Ben-Yehuda said nearly 140 years ago that Israel’s rebirth will be in the Land of Israel and in the Hebrew language, because there is no nation without a common language. Today, we mark it, and we are actually fulfilling the dream of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. I must say that when the revival of the Hebrew language began, there were those still in exile, including my father, who learned Hebrew as their mother tongue. I would like to see us return to the level of Hebrew that the generation which revitalized the language was familiar with. That would be very helpful. In addition to the renewal of the language, we should know its origins and its foundations, and this is what is being done today.”
Having excelled in his studies at yeshiva during childhood, Ben-Yehuda gained a strong knowledge of the ancient Hebrew language. He studied for four years at Sorbonne University in France before moving to the Land of Israel in 1881, which was then part of the Turkish Ottoman Empire. He insisted on speaking to his son Ben-Zion, from infancy, in Hebrew only, leading the boy to become the first native speaker in modern history.
Ben-Yehuda urged rabbis and educators to converse in Hebrew when teaching young students. He, too, would speak only Hebrew to anyone with a Jewish education who, therefore, would have had a basic knowledge of the ancient Hebrew language.
In his words: “The Hebrew language will go from the synagogue to the house of study, and from the house of study to the school, and from the school it will come into the home and… become a living language.”
As explained in the Jewish Virtual Library, “But if he wanted the entire society to use Hebrew, then the words would have to be precise and accurate, according to strict philological rules. Therefore, Ben-Yehuda became a scientific lexicographer…culminating in his 17-volume A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew.”
Ben-Yehuda, who died in 1922 of tuberculosis, also helped found the Language Committee, which by the 1948 War of Independence, was active across the country and aided in the formation of governmental terms for the new state, although it eventually closed down.
New immigrants were arriving from all corners of the globe, necessitating the implementation of a common language among peoples of diverse languages and cultures. In 1954, the government launched a campaign to strengthen the knowledge of Hebrew, offering special Hebrew-language courses for adults and using posters and handbills on message boards.
The Academy of the Hebrew Language, established in 1949, has continued Ben-Yehuda’s efforts as the world’s premier institution for modern Hebrew, where new words and terms are created and standards are set for grammar, transliteration, punctuation and orthography. Located at the Givat Ram campus of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, its decisions are binding on all government agencies.
In his book Was Hebrew Ever a Dead Language, British historian Cecil Roth summed up Ben-Yehuda’s contribution to the Hebrew language: “Before Ben‑Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.”
By: United with Israel Staff
(With files from The Academy of the Hebrew Language, Jewish Virtual Library and archives of the World Zionist Organization)