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Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the revival of the Hebrew language

Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the revival of the Hebrew language.

“The success of Hebrew proves that an old language can adapt to a new reality” (Academy of the Hebrew language).

The Hebrew Language Committee was created by Eliezer Ben Yehuda in 1889 in Jerusalem. In 1953, the Knesset (Israeli Parliament) replace it  by “the Hebrew Language Academy”

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, was born on January 7, 1858 in the Belarusian village of Luzhki. His birth name was Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman.

Born into a Hassidic Jewish family, he studied Hebrew and the Bible at the “Cheder”. From the age of twelve he started studying  the Torah, Michna and Talmud as well.  He became a talmudic student at the local  “Yeshiva”.

His family had hoped that he would become a rabbi. However, his affinity with the Hebrew language was of more significance to him than religion.

Eliezer Ben Yéhuda was deeply convinced that the redemption of Israel would only be accomplished by the revival of Hebrew as a national language.

In 1877 he wrote:” A country cannot really become a living nation other than through their return to the land of the Fathers”. And again: “Hebrew is the only way to achieve the redemption of the Jewish nation. The revival of the Hebrew language in the Land of Israel could unite all Jews around the world “.

He left Russia in 1878 for Paris, where he undertook studies of History and Politics of the Middle East at the Sorbonne University. Unfortunately, his fragile health did not allow him to end these studies. In 1881 however, he arrived in Palestine with his plans to revive the Hebrew language.

He and his wife Dvora decided to adopt Hebrew as their mother tongue.

Ben Yehuda’s leitmotif was: “Hebrew at home, Hebrew at school, and words, words, words”.

Their first son, Ittamar Ben-Avi, born in 1882, was the first Hebrew-speaking child in modern history. The need to find Hebrew words, suitable for the ordinary activities of daily life, had become a necessity.  Eliezer Ben Yehuda therefore created new words and expressions in Hebrew. Four other children were to be born from this union, before his wife Dvora fell sick and died of tuberculosis.

In 1884 he founded the newspaper “HaTsVi” (“the deer “), in which articles were written in Hebrew and in which he urged the young pioneers and the future founders of the State of Israel to speak only in the Hebrew language. He instructed schools to study only in Hebrew. In his newspaper he wrote columns with new words he created to enrich the modern Hebrew language.

Having also become a teacher at the School of the Alliance Française Universelle, he constantly propagated Hebrew, despite the lack of textbooks in this language.

Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, who were opposed to Zionism and the revival of Hebrew language, denounced him to the Turkish government as revolutionary. He was arrested and was only released by the intervention of Baron de Rothschild.

He remarried Hemda, Dvora’s younger sister. Their home became the Hebrew Language Committee Center, a  meeting place for the whole community wishing to practice Hebrew.

He went into exile in 1914 in New York, fleeing the Ottoman persecution, and returned to Eretz Israel at the end of the First World War to pursue his ideology. He was delighted to see the City of Jerusalem had grown, and that the Hebrew language had caught on.

Despite all his work, the family lacked means. Living in permanent discomfort, Ben Eliezer fell ill again with tuberculosis. However, his bad health condition did not stop him from travelling to Europe, where he visited various universities to study works written in ancient Hebrew, so he could write a dictionary of modern Hebrew.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda died in peace in 1922. During his lifetime, Hebrew was recognized as an official language by the British Mandatory Administration. After he died, three days of mourning were declared for this Great Man. Thousands of people came to pay their respect at his grave.

Eliezer Ben Yehuda and his wife Hemda

Eliezer Ben Yehuda and his wife Hemda