Hebrew: A Dead Language Revived

S1
E4
27mins
Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on pinterest
Share on whatsapp

If you’ve learned anything about the spread of Modern Hebrew, you probably heard that it’s all thanks to one man – Eliezer Ben Yehuda – that Israel’s national language is Hebrew and not Yiddish (or even German!). Not to spoil a good story with fact, but that’s not exactly how the rebirth of Hebrew went down. Far from being a crusade of one, it took an entire nation to revive a language that had been close to death for millennia.

Subscribe to this podcast

Episode Transcript

Back in 2017, the NY Times published an article about Amadeo Garcia Garcia, the last living speaker of the Taushiro language. Once spoken for centuries by thousands of members of an Amazonian tribe, Amadeo was the sole survivor and the last person on earth to know the language. His tribe — which had lived uncontacted for centuries along the Amazonian river in Peru — slowly died out due to the weapons and diseases brought to them from intruders. When Amadeo’s brother passed away, his last remaining relative, a missionary, asked Amadeo how he felt. Amadeo responded in the broken Spanish that he had, the only way he had to communicate with the outside world. He said “it’s over now for us”. Why? Amadeo no longer had someone to speak to, and when you have no one else to speak to, you will lose your language. That’s why it was over for Amadeo. Losing a language is losing an identity, a culture, a history. I don’t mean to sound dramatic here, but losing a language is losing one’s self.

Looking back at the history of the Jewish people, the Jews faced a very similar problem and the reality today is that over the last 150 years a modern miracle took place.

For almost two thousand years, Hebrew — the language of the Torah, the Bible and so much Jewish liturgy – you know the prayers — was mostly reserved for the ritual. And now? Jews all over the world speak Hebrew, a language that was essentially dead as a spoken language.

Something like this has never happened in the history of language, ever.

The fact that the majority of Jews around the world speak Hebrew today is not something to take for granted. There are approximately 14.7M Jews in the world and 6.7M of them live in Israel, where Hebrew is the national language. And many hundreds of thousands outside of Israel speak it as well, learning it in Jewish day schools and in summer camps or at home.

Sure, the Bible, prayers, and religious texts were written and read in Hebrew, but literally nobody spoke it in daily life for almost two thousand years.

So how did an almost extinct Biblical language re-emerge as a spoken language in the span of only a few decades? Was it Zionism that deserves the credit? A certain figure named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda? And, was it always obvious that Hebrew would be the national language of the Jewish State?

History of Hebrew

Let’s jump back in time to learn about the history of the Hebrew language. Details about the spoken language of Hebrew in ancient times are not perfect. Here is what we know. In the Bible, the Jews, otherwise known as “Hebrews,” spoke an ancient — “biblical” version of Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew was the spoken language of the Jews for over 1,000 years. But when the Romans destroyed the second Jewish Temple in 70 CE, Hebrew began to die out. It was essentially completely dead 65 years later in 135, after the failure of the Bar Kokhba Revolt, when Roman emperor Hadrian expelled, enslaved, or killed most of Israel’s remaining Jews — the final native Hebrew speakers. The remaining Jews left in the Land of Israel continued using Hebrew in the study of the Torah, but they only used it as a written language.  

Even though Hebrew was zealously preserved, by the turn of the 2rd century, Aramaic had become the common language of the Middle East. At the turn of the 3rd century, Rabbi Yehuda Hanasi, aka Judah the Prince, the leader of the small remaining Israeli Jewish community in Israel, chose Hebrew — not Aramaic — in his editing of the Mishna, the compilation of Jewish law, which became the basis for the Talmud. Though this might be a hot take, his choice to codify Hebrew as the language of the Mishna kept written Hebrew alive. Lewis Glinert — whose book was super helpful in research for this pod — called it an ACT OF SPIRITUAL RESISTANCE to use Hebrew as language of Mishnah and Midrash.

Even still, it didn’t catch on as the main language in Torah study. The Talmud, the encyclopedic work forming the basis of essentially ALL Jewish law, was composed in the 6th century in Aramaic. Now, the nerds among us will point out that actually around 50% of the Talmud is in Hebrew…But don’t worry, nerds, I’m here to out-nerd you.  AT LEAST 1,000 GREEK WORDS APPEAR IN THE MIDRASH AND TALMUD. kategor — prosecutor — Greek; pinkas — writing pad — yea, that’s Greek too. How about the word for rabbinic high council? — HOW ABOUT SANHDEDRIN — Yea, Greek.

Somehow, Hebrew stayed alive even though by any reasonable linguistic yardstick, prospects of native Hebrew’s survival was now minimal. Think about it, no land, scattered across the globe. Um, unlikely. 

Hebrew seems to be a language that was always competing for attention among the Jews. From 500 BCE to 500 CE, Hebrew was in competition with Greek, Latin and Aramaic. Consider this, ever been to a wedding and heard someone read out a marriage contract and have no idea what’s being said? Yea, that’s in Aramaic. Ever attend a divorce proceeding? Probably less likely..Those docs are also in Aramaic. Documents which are at the core of the Jewish relational experience are written in Aramaic, not Hebrew. One point to Aramaic. None to Hebrew.

Fast forward a bit and Hebrew got some help from Judaism’s top rabbis. Medieval scholars across the world wrote their commentaries on the Bible and Talmud in Hebrew, including Rashi, who was writing in Christian France, and Rabbi Avraham Ibn Ezra in Muslim Spain.  Maimonides, otherwise known as Rambam, the 12th century leader of the Jewish community in Egypt, wrote his Mishneh Torah, or “Code of Law” in Hebrew..

This all helped…like, it really did, but speaking Hebrew? Still not a thing.

18th and 19th Century Enlightenment, Hasidut, and Cultural Zionism

So, who saved Hebrew? Hasidim, maskilim (enlightenment Jews), and Zionists. 

Quite the motley crew, but I’ll explain.

  1. In the 18th century, during the Age of Enlightenment, the study of language rose in popularity.  And Hebrew was no exception.  Around the turn of the 19th century, secular Jewish intellectuals — part of the Jewish Enlightenment movement known as “Haskala,” — founded multiple Hebrew-language periodicals and newspapers with the goal of spreading the language and showcasing its beauty.  Hamagid and Hamelitz were a few of these newspapers. Their circulation didn’t compare with the Yiddish numbers, but they were still reaching tens of thousands of Jews throughout Europe. 
  1. In Eastern Europe, the founder of the movement known as Hasidut, the Baal Shem Tov gave many public talks but did not write much down. Eventually, his talks were translated from his spoken Yiddish into written Hebrew. A new Hasidic literature arose that was more “populist” than ever, read by many, and was much more like a spoken language. The Baal Shem Tov’s grandson, known as Rebbe Nachman from Breslov published his tales in a bilingual Hebrew-Yiddish edition. As many of the non-elite Jews were reading this, Hebrew was finding a new home. 
  1. And, then come the Zionists. In the late nineteenth century, as the Zionist movement began to take shape, Cultural Zionists, i.e. those who cared more about the language and culture of the Jewish people than anything political saw Hebrew as a way to return to their ancient Jewish roots. Although it may seem obvious today that Hebrew would be the language of Zionism, it wasn’t obvious back then. Think about it. If you’re Jewish growing up in the 1800’s, what languages did your grandparents or great grandparents speak growing up? Chances are it wasn’t Hebrew. If you’re Ashkenazi, meaning Jewish and from most of Europe (but not really Spain) chances are your recent ancestors spoke Yiddish. If you come from a Sephardi or Mizrachi background, perhaps you spoke Ladino or Judeo-Arabic. There were options that weren’t dead languages already, like Hebrew. Why would the Zionists pick one that hadn’t been spoken for thousands of years? And, how did it happen?

Yiddish — in some ways like Aramaic earlier was really vying for power in the Jewish world. Some Yiddishists (i.e. people who love Yiddish) in  the late 19th and 20th centuries argued that Yiddish, not Hebrew was the real unifying national language of modern Jewry and suggested that the future Jewish homeland should adopt Hebrew as the national language. The Yiddishists argued that Hebrew was a language of the highly-educated Jewish elite whereas Yiddish belonged to the Jewish masses. 

The founder of Political Zionism, Theodor Herzl himself, had another plan in mind…and it sounds wild. He didn’t even know Hebrew. He believed that German was the natural choice for Zionism and the future Jewish state.  He famously said, “who knows enough Hebrew to buy a train ticket?” Another major obstacle was the perspective of most Ashkenazi Haredi Jews, many of them Hasidic, who firmly believed that Hebrew, Lashon Hakodesh, the Holy tongue, should be used only for Torah study and prayer and not for mundane purposes. So, I’ve been looking into this, and I think that is only partially true. It is much more likely that their opposition to the Hebrew language was due to its association with the Enlightenment and Zionism. Today, most Haredim in Israeli speak Hebrew, even though Haredi hasidim mostly speak Yiddish. Ok, I know that is confusing, but it’s a pod for another time. 

The Man of the Hour:

And then there was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the man who is remembered today as the one who revived the Hebrew language. Little-known trivia fact: Ben-Yehuda was actually born Eliezer Yitzhak Perelmen and he had some pretty wild ideas. Eliezer’s obsession with Hebrew started as a child in Europe, when his yeshiva teacher secretly introduced him to specific secular Hebrew literature, such as the works of Ahad Ha’am, the leader of Cultural Zionism I mentioned above. (Ahad Ha’am’s real name was Asher Ginsberg…I always feel compelled to mention that.) Anyway, Eliezer discovered that in rare cases, when two Jewish communities that spoke different languages — say Yiddish and Arabic — needed to correspond with each other, they would sometimes use a form of medieval Hebrew as a common language. This strengthened his opinion that Hebrew was the way to unite global Jewry. So, in 1881,he packed his bags and made the trek to the Land of Israel.  

Hear it in his words:

Will our language and literature last much longer if we do not revive it, if we do not make it a spoken language? And how can that work other than by making Hebrew the instructional medium of our schools? Not in Europe, nor in any of the lands of our exile, where we are a significant minority and no amount of teaching effort is going to succeed, but in our land, the Land of Israel. 

His ideas were pretty simple – if modern-minded Jews resettled the Holy Land and spoke Hebrew, then Hebrew literature would be saved. Ipso facto — I think that’s how to use that phrase — Jews will be saved. Adopting the Biblical sounding name “Eliezer Ben-Yehuda,” he and his first wife Dvora established the world’s first strictly Hebrew-speaking household in almost 2,000 years, and soon produced the world’s first native Hebrew speaker in almost 2,000 years — their son Ben-Zion.

How?

Ben Yehuda was hardcore about implenting the Hebrew language. Like super hardcore. He forbade anyone, including his wife, from speaking to their son Ben-Zion in any language other than Hebrew. You can imagine this was difficult, most of all for Dvora, who did not know Hebrew…which meant she did not really speak in the house, essentially taking a vow of silence. 

The experiment got off to a rough start. By the age of four Ben-Zion still wasn’t speaking at all, and Ben Yehuda was so obsessed with proving that Hebrew could exist as a modern, daily language he actually prevented Ben-Zion from playing with other kids to avoid any corruption of his Hebrew. Ben Yehuda wasn’t messing around.  His friends and colleagues were telling him to give it up. There is a story which may be true and may be apocryphal that Eliezer once caught Dvora singing a Russian lullaby to Ben-Zion and he got sooo angry, but it was the little boy Ben-Zion [who later changed his name to Itamar Ben Avi – nice little trivia fact] who saved the day by saying “abba, abba!” [father, father]. Ben Yehuda wrote in his diary that there was now no room for doubt that Hebrew could become the spoken language of a community.  

Got it, so one kid started speaking Hebrew…but how did that turn into a movement?

How did Hebrew win the day?

We’ll go into it all, but think of it like this: 1. Romantic nature of Hebrew, 2. Power of the education system, 3. practicality.

Ok, let’s get into it. In 1890, Ben-Yehuda founded the Va’ad Halashon, or the Language Council, which still exists to this day as the Academy of the Hebrew Language. The council published bulletins and dictionaries, coming up with neologisms, i.e. coining thousands of words you don’t find in the Torah, like buba – ‘doll’, glida – ‘ice cream’ and ‘ofanayim – bicycle’. Not every word he invented caught on, in fact only 150 did… but Ben Yehuda took it upon himself to keep the language growing. Even today, the Academy of the Hebrew Language is the go-to for all things Hebrew. They are the ones to publish the newest Hebrew words. They answer questions about Hebrew grammar and spelling and are seen as the foremost experts on the continued development and evolution of the Hebrew language. It’s pretty cool.

Soon after Herzl’s death in 1904, the Zionist Congress declared Hebrew the official language of Zionism. 

The language spread through schools and homes in Israel, and developed through trial and error with each school becoming a word-minting factory. So, while the committee was a big deal, the daily-lived experience in schools was critical.  Eliezer Ben-Yehuda had achieved his goal. Shortly before Ben-Yehuda died in 1922, Britain officially recognized Hebrew as the language of Palestine’s Jewish inhabitants and in 1948, Israel became an official Hebrew speaking state.

But just like the story didn’t begin with Ben Yehuda, it doesn’t end with him either. He became the face of the movement, but there was still work to be done. Like I mentioned, Ben-Yehuda invented about 150 words that stuck, but his son Ben-Zion and others came up with thousands more. Between 1918 and 1948, thousands of Hebrew words emerged like mahberet – notebook, and meshek – economy. In fact, the first major Hebrew dictionary wasn’t officially completed until 1959, eleven years AFTER Israel was founded. By the way, dictionary = milon, also a neologism developed by Eliezer. And just think about the fields of medicine, science and law – entire dictionaries needed to be written to cover new concepts that hadn’t even existed when the Bible was written. Men like Dr. Aharon Meir Mazie. I taught his great-grandson and daughter when I used to be a principal. I’m not bragging, you’re bragging. So Mazie took on the task, advising Ben Yehuda during his life and continuing the work after his death. Biblical Hebrew has about 7000 words whereas modern Hebrew has upwards of 33,000.

Just 12 years before the Jewish State was re-established in 1948, in 1936, 100k of the 300k Jews in Israel could not speak Hebrew. But, by 1948, 93% of children under 15 were using Hebrew as their sole language. Overall, of the 650k Jews in the new state, half were already native speakers, and an additional 25k spoke it as their main language.

With refugees pouring in from all over the world at that time, the need for a common language was front and center.  Hebrew was still battling Yiddish as a popular language, but many in Israel’s booming immigrant population considered Yiddish a language of exile and a reminder of things they’d rather forget — not to mention, all the Jews from North Africa and the Middle East who didn’t speak it felt no connection to Yiddish.  With the new state founded, Israeli leaders wanted to cement an Israeli identity and they knew Hebrew was a key ingredient needed to bond them all together.  And although the Yiddish language and its culture made up an illustrious era in Jewish history, it was ultimately Hebrew that had been studied, used, prayed in and cherished by all Jews in all of Jewish history in all places that Jews resided. It only made sense that Hebrew would be the choice as the national language of the Jewish State. It was the romantic language of the Jewish people. 

Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion was pretty intense about this. He went so far as suppressing Yiddish from being used in any public role, using a well organized political system to force Hebrew usage through its comprehensive services to the immigrants: Schools were in Hebrew. Youth movements were in Hebrew. Compulsory military service was in Hebrew.  

In June, 1948 it was declared:

The citizens of a Hebrew state cannot continue to appear in personal and public life with foreign names, which account for 90% of the surnames among us. A radical change is required.

Ben-Gurion issued an order that all senior diplomats and army officers had to Hebraize their names just as he had done.  For example, Shimon Persky became Shimon Peres. Levi Skolnik became Levi Eshkol. Golda Meyerson became Golda Meir. She kept her Yiddish name Golda because she was a baller like that. 

But, today, one can’t exactly say Hebrew is the exclusive thing you’ll hear among Israeli Jews. For example, when Ariel Sharon was Prime Minister of Israel, he railed against the use of non Hebrew words in everyday Hebrew. For example, most Israelis when hanging up the phone will end the call with “Nu, yalla bye”, Nu, Yiddish, yalla, Arabic, and bye, English. Kind of funny.

Sharon pleaded for Israelis to use the more beautiful word “Shalom”.

Back to Ben-Yehuda:

So it would seem like Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was responsible in many ways for reviving and modernizing Hebrew. THAT IS A COMMON MISCONCEPTION. It took an entire people, over many centuries, to ensure that this tremendous feat could be accomplished.  So while some credit Ben-Yehuda with single-handedly bringing Hebrew back to life, it’s really more complicated than that.  As Zionist leader Menachem Ussishkin later said of Ben-Yehuda, “The people needed a hero, so we gave them one.” In fact, it was Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s second wife Hemda (Dvorah’s sister) after his first wife passed, who was the brains behind the dictionary project and Glinert says, “she deserves equal credit” for the dictionary.

Still, it was Ben Yehuda who steered the language past the array of obstacles facing it in the 19th and early 20th century.  Remember, not everyone wanted it that way. If Herzl had his way initially, Israelis would be speaking German today. And the word for butterfly is waaaay nicer in Hebrew. What would you rather, an onomatopoeia like “parpar” or “shmetterlink”?

Conclusion

Yep, you just listened to a 20-minute podcast about how and why Hebrew was revived.  I know, it seems a little crazy that there was so much argument and back and forth about which language to choose – but it’s actually pretty important.

And, I’m going to get a little philosophical here. We know that language informs culture and the way we think and act. I’m super interested in language and linguistics — and learned recently about the Aymara language, a language native to countries in South America including Chile and Peru. In Aymara, the word for future translates to “behind time” and the past is “ front time”. So when they gesture to remember things about the past, they gesture ahead of them.  And when they talk about the future they point behind them. Super interesting, right? In the Aymara language, “past” means eye, or sight, because you know the past, you’ve seen it, so it’s in front of you.

The future is unknown, you haven’t seen it — so it’s behind. Super cool example — but shows us really what it means for a language to completely impact culture and the way we think and act. And that’s why it truly mattered to have one national language, and for that language to be Hebrew. Israeli culture wouldn’t exist in the unified way it does if different communities spoke Ladino, Yiddish and German. And although my Hebrew isn’t perfect, and I certainly do insert English words in sometimes, I feel so honored to know and learn and love a language that united Jews across the word.

So, yeah. That’s how Hebrew miraculously came back to life after being a dead language for 2,000 years.

Five Fast Facts

  1. Theodor Herzl, the founder of political Zionism believed German should be the official language of the Jewish State while Yiddishists advocated for Yiddish.
  2. Hebrew is the only dead spoken language to be revived in the history of languages (as far as I know).
  3. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his wives — first Dvorah and then Hemda — were the first parents to raise their children entirely in Hebrew in nearly 2000 years.
  4. David Ben-Gurion enacted various laws to ensure Hebrew was part of the new Israeli national identity.
  5. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s Hebrew dictionary wasn’t completed until 1959, 37 years after his death. Hemda (his second wife) was equally instrumental in the realization of the dictionary.

Those are the facts, but here is one enduring lesson as I see it. One of my favorite rabbis of all-time is the eccentric Menachem Mendel of Kotzk, known as The Kotzker. The Kotzker said, “more miraculous than reviving the dead is reviving the living.” Meditate on that for a moment. Hebrew was never dead. It was always alive, but it’s revival remains the most miraculous thing about Zionism and the modern story of the Jewish people for me. 

And with that, “Shalom!”

Enjoy this podcast with friends by hosting a podcast listening party.

Share on twitter
Share on facebook
Share on whatsapp
Share on email