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Ivrit - revived Hebrew

by Alfred Esch

Dead language?

Ivrit, the modern Hebrew, is often spoken of as the revived, dead, classical Hebrew. But was that old, Biblical Hebrew actually dead? It is true indeed that, already in Biblical times, the Hebrew as spoken language, was pushed aside by Aramaic. For centuries Hebrew was exclusively used as a written, religious language. Yet it was kept alive. At first by the Babylonian scholars, later, in the Golden Age, among others by Spanish Jews. Even from the Middle Ages we know Jewish poetry in classical Hebrew. Through all these ages, up until today, the Tenach is read (or sung) and the prayers are spoken in this sacred language (lashon-ha-kadesh) in the synagogue.

The Jews in the Diaspora usually adopted the language of the country. For the East-European Jews Yiddish was outstanding as the spoken language. However, at the end of the 19th century books were still written in the old Hebrew (e.g. by Asher Ginzberg).

Eliezer Ben Yehuda

Ivrit would never have become Ivrit without Eliezer Ben Yehuda. When he was born in Lithuania in 1858 he was still called Eliezer Perelman. He was raised Jewish-orthodox and already at a young age he was taught the classical Hebrew. But once at the Yeshiva (Talmud-school) his view on orthodoxy changed completely. The secular range of thought appealed more to him; he became a ‘freethinker’. At the age of 17 he had a revelation, which defined the course of the rest of his life. In this he was strongly convicted of the restoration of Israel. The more he warmed towards a Jewish nation, the stronger became his conviction that then there should also be one common language. This became the goal of his life: The restoration of the Jewish people, in their own country, with a common language. He started by changing his own surname. Ben Yehuda seemed more appropriate to him than Perelman (in fact he was the son (Hebr. ‘ben’) of his father (Hebr. ‘Yehuda’).

1881: Turning point

The year 1881 was a turning point in the emigration of Jews to Palestine.

Most Jews, who settled in the Land after 1881 were convinced that only their own Jewish state could bring the solution for the sad situation, in which the Jews were situated. With the first large aliya 70.000 immigrants reached the Promised Land. Ben Yehuda was one of them; he took up residence in Jerusalem.

His call to all Jews to revive the Hebrew language was welcomed enthusiastically. Many wanted to devote themselves to speaking one common language. In several cities schools were started, where Hebrew was the language of communication. But as Eliezer himself wrote later on: “For everything that has to be achieved, you need one wise, intelligent and active man in the end. Someone who dedicates all his energy into it… it is necessary that there is one pioneer, who takes charge….” Eliezer Ben Yehuda was that pioneer.


Ben Yehuda worked at three fronts. Hebrew had to be spoken at home, used in school and many new words had to be added. In the classical Hebrew terms for everyday things were lacking like: a handkerchief, bicycle, ice cream, etc. Together with his wife Deborah, Eliezer decided to raise his first son, Ben Zion, with only Hebrew. The child was not allowed to hear any other language! When (only at the age of 4) he started talking, he was the living proof that reviving the language was possible.

Ben Yehuda understood the importance to teach the youth Hebrew. Rabbis and teachers were encouraged to use only Hebrew in their lessons. But also for grown-ups it had to become a living, common language. To reach this goal he edited a cheap paper: Hatzvi. In this paper you could just find anything, from weather-reports to fashion and world news. Eliezer also used the paper to introduce new words. In the mean time he worked inexhaustibly on his dictionary. The ‘Complete Dictionary of old and modern Hebrew’ would in the end cover 17 volumes!

Prosperity and adversity

On his own Eliezer could never have made Ivrit what it is now. He had many enthusiastic supporters. Teachers like Judelevitsch and Yellin later described how tiresome it had been: We had no books, too few words, no expressions, lacked teaching materials …. each teacher secretly had his own French or Russian teaching manual to fall back on ….”

Ben Yehuda experienced outspoken opposition from the ultra-orthodox Jews. They continued to see Hebrew as the ‘sacred language’, in which Moses had taught and in which the prophets had preached. That ‘sacred language’ could not just be used for profane and secular means. Even today there are those, who for the same reason, do not want to speak Ivrit and continue to prefer Yiddish. Even great leaders, among whom was Theodor Herzel, were certainly not all convinced of the necessity to introduce Hebrew as common language.

Dream becomes reality

On November 29, 1922 Hebrew was recognized by the British Mandate as the official language of the Jews in Palestine. The reviving of the Hebrew language was a fact, Ben Yehuda’s dream had become reality. Less than a month later Eliezer died of tuberculoses. Even this devastating illness, of which he suffered so long, had not been able to keep him from his life’s work.

In 1890 Ben Yehuda had founded the Committee for the Hebrew Language, to help with the solution of the many problems which he encountered. The pronunciation, spelling and meaning of new words, as also the use of punctuation marks had to be worked out. This is a continuing effort, which later (1953) was taken over by the Academy of the Hebrew Language. Up until today this institute guards the Ivrit. They strive to maintain the Semitic qualities and the typical idioms. Then the language had also to remain flexible enough to be able to express all modern thoughts. Even the great Ben Yehuda had to be corrected sometimes. His word for orchestra: orkester was replaced by tzimoret, derived from the Hebrew stem zmr (= melody, song). With the Ivrit the centuries-old Hebrew has become a modern common language.