A Brief History of Hebrew

Hebrew is the language of the children of Abraham, who sojourned in Egypt, were enslaved there, and who were led forth by Moses. They lived in Israel approximately 1700 years. The five books of Moses, called the Torah in Hebrew, or the Pentateuch in Greek, was written in Hebrew.

Hebrew basically ceased to be a spoken language in 70 C.E. when the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem and the temple. However, Hebrew remained alive, via the study of the Torah and use in Jewish prayers.

At first, some thought Eliezer ben Yehudah (1858-1922), was idle dreamer, but today he is known as the restorer of Hebrew as a modern language. When he moved to Jerusalem, Ben-Yehuda became a teacher at the Alliance School, and with his efforts, became the first school where some courses were taught in Hebrew.

By the age of twelve he had been studying in Hebrew for nine years and had read large portions of the Torah, Mishna, and Talmud. His parents hoped he would become a rabbi, and sent him to a yeshiva. However, he became interested in the secular world, eventually attending the Sorbonne in Paris.

Ben-Yehuda created a three-part action plan: “Hebrew in the Home,” “Hebrew in the School,” and “Words, Words, Words.” Before he moved to Israel, he had successfully tried several lengthy conversations in Hebrew. He made the decision to speak only Hebrew with every Jew he met. Althought he was able to speak Hebrew with little problem, there was indeed a shortage of Hebrew words on certain topics.

He got his wife Deborah to agree to raising his son, Itamar Ben-Avi (born in 1882) with only Hebrew. He once became infuriated when he came home, and his wife was singing a Russian song to their son. One of the biggest problem he face was the lack of words that were needed to describe all the daily events and encounters of modern life, including machinery, electricity, airplanes, radio etc…

Ben-Yehuda understood that the revival could succeed only if the younger generation would begin to speak Hebrew with ease. When he came to the Alliance Isralite Universelle School in Jerusalem, students were from different Jewish communities around the world, and Hebrew was the only language they had in common. Ben-Yehudah seized the opportunity to teach Hebrew using a direct system, i.e. with no translations from other languages. After a few months, the students were able to chat in Hebrew about daily topics.

Ben-Yehudah constantly wrote articles in other papers, but eventually began to publish his own newspaper Hatzvi. It’s purpose was to teach adults, both via its content and its language. It was alos used to introduce new words which were desparately needed, such as: editor, telegram, soldier, among others.

One of his culminating works was the “Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew.” In 1910 he published the first of six volumes, but the ultimate edition completed by his second wife and son was 17 volumes. Ben-Yehuda also founded “Va’ad HaLashon”, the predecessor of the Hebrew Language Academy.

A big moment for Hebrew occured in 1922. The British mandate authorities recognized Hebrew as the official language of the Jews in Palestine. This was the fulfillment of Ben-Yehudah’s dream. Sadly, he died one month later from tuberculosis which had plagued him numerous years. Cecil Roth’s summed up the his life long work and passion: “Before Ben-Yehuda… Jews could speak Hebrew; after him they did.”

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