Hebrew was not a dead language at the turn of the 19th century, but it was primarily used in Torah study. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the great 20th-century lexicographer, brought the language off of the scrolls and to the streets, stores and homes.
Ben-Yehuda dedicated his life to modernizing the Hebrew language into what it is today. He and his family published 17 volumes of modern Hebrew dictionaries; the set was the first of its kind.
But he had to overcome personal tragedies and strong opposition to see his goals come to fruition.
Laurie Zittrain Eisenberg, professor of history at Carnegie Mellon University, talked about Ben-Yehuda Monday night in a lecture titled “Jewish National Resilience: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the Rebirth of the Hebrew Language.” The lecture was part of a communitywide Tisha B’Av service at Tree of Life-Or L’Simcha Congregation.
Although Tisha B’Av programming generally focuses on mourning of the destruction of the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem, Eisenberg noted that the Jewish people survived those tragedies and many others and returned to Jerusalem and Israel as a sovereign nation in 1948.
Ben-Yehuda helped to enshrine Hebrew as Israel’s official language, making the lecture appropriate for Tisha B’Av.
“He really was one of the original Jewish nationalist thinkers,” said Eisenberg. “This was a part of that huge phenomenon of nationalism that really swept the globe at the end of the 19th century. The idea that the borders of a state should not just reflect how far the army was able to project its power, but rather the borders of a nation-state should reflect some commonality of the people who live within it.”
Ben-Yehuda was sickly as a child in Russia and usually stayed inside of his house listening to his father speaking Hebrew when studying Torah.
“This is the language that he heard growing up,” Eisenberg said.
At age 4, Ben-Yehuda watched his father die of a seizure while studying.
“Later, as an adult, he tells people that his father’s last words were ‘the language, the Torah, fix it,’ ” Eisenberg said. “In fact, Eliezer’s mother comes and finds her husband dead slumped over the Torah, and little Eliezer is there trying to rub away the blood, trying to make clean the Hebrew letters.”
Ben-Yehuda moved in with his uncle to continue his education at age 8. But by his teenage years, after he became involved with a secular crowd, he found a rough Hebrew translation of “Robinson Crusoe” and a Hebrew grammar book. He then made a vow to try and speak only Hebrew with every Jew he met.
“After quite a few very short conversations, he gets the impression that there may be some work for him to do,” Eisenberg said. “He might have stumbled upon a field in which he could find meaningful and purposeful work.”
By that time, Ben-Yehuda put aside his Orthodox ways, and his uncle kicked him out of his house. He moved a few villages away where he supported himself by tutoring. The Jonas family took him in and taught him Russian and German.
Ben-Yehuda fell in love with Devorah Jonas, one of the daughters of the family. When they married, he told her that she must only speak to him in Hebrew if she ever wanted a response.
“She’s a very good sport,” Eisenberg said. “They take long walks in which their conversation consists entirely of him naming things for her and her repeating the names.”
They moved to Jerusalem in 1881with a three-stage plan. They wanted to take Hebrew from the synagogues and introduce it into the house, the street and the schools.
He began publishing a Hebrew language newspaper, which had a small circulation because of the few Hebrew speakers. He also ran into resistance from the Orthodox community, which opposed his idea of making Hebrew a secular language.
The couple had their first son, Ben-Zion, and Ben-Yehuda became adamant that the only language the boy would hear growing up was Hebrew. Ben-Zion becomes the first native Hebrew-speaking child in more than 1,000 years. The couple had four other children.
Devorah died of tuberculosis in 1891, and three of their five children die of diphtheria within the next 10 days.
Ben-Yehuda quickly married Devorah’s sister, Paula “Hemda” Jonas, with whom he had six children. Together, the new couple published Hebrew newspapers to get people reading and speaking Hebrew.
But Ben-Yehuda’s Orthodox rivals continued to resist. They misrepresented his work in front of the Ottoman authorities, who in turn jailed him. Ben-Yehuda was released a week later, but he faced a temporary ban on publishing his newspapers.
Alternatively, Ben-Yehuda devoted himself to his landmark work, the first modern Hebrew dictionary.
“He’s at home, he can’t publish the newspaper, but he has this urgency,” Eisenberg said. “He doesn’t have long on Earth and he needs to advance the project.”
Ben-Yehuda published the first edition of his dictionary in 1908, but two wars disrupted the next editions from coming out: World War I and the Language War.
The Language War was a debate in the Jewish community in Palestine over what the language of the emerging Jewish country would be. Some thought it should be German, French or Yiddish. But Ben-Yehuda made the case for Hebrew.
“One of the arguments is nobody knows Hebrew; that means it’s a great equalizer,” Eisenberg said. “All of the new immigrants are going to have to learn Hebrew.”
The Jewish community adopted Hebrew for all of its official functions, and the British authorities acknowledged Hebrew as the official language.
Ben-Yehuda died in 1922, but his family continued his work. His son, Ehud, finished the project, publishing the final volumes in 1959.
“Anybody on the ground floor who bought their first volume in 1908,” Eisenberg said, “didn’t get the last volume until 50 years later.”
(Andrew Goldstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)