“I heard an inner voice calling to me: ‘Revive Israel and its language in the land of the fathers!’”
Israel marks Hebrew Language Day every year on the 21st of the Jewish month of Tevet, the Hebrew birthday of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, father of Modern Hebrew.
Special features celebrating the Hebrew language appear on everyday items like milk cartons, and there are family events planned in honour of the day. It’s fair to say that Israelis are pretty excited about the Hebrew language, and quite rightly so!
The uniqueness of Hebrew
Even though it is one of the oldest languages in the world (if not the oldest), and although it has evolved in different ways throughout the millennia, Hebrew speakers today can still read the Biblical Hebrew of ancient texts perfectly well. It’s a little different from Modern Hebrew, perhaps just as Shakespeare is a challenge for English speakers, but it’s still readable and understandable. The root words are packed full layers of meaning and some even believe the shapes of the letters hold significance. There are profound peculiarities in some of the grammatical structures, including the very name of God.
Hebrew is the language of the Torah, the Prophets and the Writings, but in the New Testament, we see that Jesus and Paul also spoke Hebrew. It’s true that the New Testament was penned in Greek, and that we read of Jesus speaking Aramaic, but the text says that Jesus spoke to Paul in Hebrew on the road to Damascus (Acts 26:14). Later, Paul addresses his fellow brethren in Jerusalem in the Hebrew language (Acts 21:40, 22:2)1. Hebrew was still alive and kicking as the language of the Jewish people even after the various exiles and conquests.
Not only is Hebrew an extremely special language but it is the only language in the world that has ever been resurrected from the dead.
It has been continuously used throughout the ages in Jewish liturgy, like a fabric weaving the people of Israel together with common prayers and blessings, but it was considered a holy language – not for everyday use.
God, however, had other plans.
For then I will restore to the peoples a pure [or clear / clarified] language, That they all may call on the name of the LORD, To serve Him with one accord [literally, shoulder to shoulder, as one]. (Zephaniah 3:9)
Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “They shall again use this speech in the land of Judah and in its cities, when I bring back their captivity: ‘The LORD bless you, O home of justice, and mountain of holiness!’ (Jeremiah 31:23)
Indeed, the Jewish people will one day call out together to welcome Jesus in Hebrew, “Baruch ha-ba be Shem Adonai!” which means, “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord!” (Matthew 23:39).
Ben Yehuda’s quest to revive the Hebrew Language
But the restoration of Hebrew from a dead language of liturgy to the common language of the people of Israel did not come easy.
Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s life and family suffered and struggled profoundly in his determination to respond to the call he had heard back in the late nineteenth century. Here’s how the experience of hearing that voice came about: Bulgaria was demanding independence from Ottoman rule during the Russian-Turkish war of 1877-78, and it stirred something in the young Eliezer. He explains what happened in the introduction of his Hebrew dictionary:
“During this time, suddenly – it was as if the heavens opened and a light shone forth – a pure and gleaming ray flashed before my eyes, and a mighty inner voice called in my ears.”2
Having empathized with the Bulgarian people in their yearning for national autonomy, his heart was open and he heard a “mighty inner voice” charging him: Revive Israel and its language in the land of the fathers. This was the turning point in his life. He dedicated his entire life – and the life of his family – to the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. He continued to explain:
“The more the nationalist concept grew in me, the more I realized what a common language is to a nation…”
Raised with a religious Hebrew education, Ben Yehuda was more inclined towards secular enlightenment thinking, but was still passionate about the people of Israel returning to the land of their forefathers. He later wrote in an article:
“Just as the Jews cannot really become a living nation other than through their returning to their ancestral land, so too, they are not able to become a living nation other than through their returning to their ancestral language”.3
He was born with the name Eliezer Perelman, but signed his article “E. Ben Yehuda”, which means Son of Judea / Judah, and continued with that name from that time on. He married his wife Devora en route to Palestine in 1881, and they vowed to speak nothing but Hebrew from the moment they arrived. They raised their child to be the first to have Hebrew as his mother tongue since ancient times, but at tremendous cost: he was shielded from social contact so that he wouldn’t pick up any other language. It’s hard to imagine how difficult it must have been, but they were determined, and ultimately successful.
Eliezer Ben Yehuda had to invent new words for the modern reality, since the vocabulary of the Bible didn’t include words for things such as ice cream, bicycle, omelette, handkerchief, towel, and a myriad of others. He got creative using biblical root words for some of these modern challenges. For example, the words for car and train are based on the word for chariot in the Bible.
The British declared Hebrew the official language of the Jews of Palestine during the mandate era, and just one month later, on December 16, 1922, the man that made it happen passed away. Today, the vast majority of Israelis have Hebrew as their mother tongue.
As Jewish historian, Cecil Roth, observed, “Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew, after him, they did.”
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- The Greek word in those three references (Acts 21:40, 22:2 and 26:14) is Ἑβραΐς (Hebraïs)
- Levi Soshuk, Azriel Louis Eisenberg (Eds), Momentous Century: Personal and Eyewitness Accounts of the Rise of the Jewish Homeland and State 1875-1978 (Herzl Press, 1984) P.51
- Anton La Guardia, Holy Land, Unholy War: Israelis and Palestinians (Penguin, 2007) – this phrase is translated slightly differently in different books, but the basic idea remains the same: a challenge to restore the language of Israel to the people of Israel in the land of Israel.
Photo by Natalia Y on Unsplash