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Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

(1858 – 1922)

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was a Hebrew writer and lexicographer, generally considered the father of modern Hebrew, and one of the first active Zionist leaders. Born Eliezer Yiẓḥak Perelman in Luzhky, Lithuania, he officially adopted the pseudonym Ben-Yehuda, which he had previously used in his literary activities when he went to Palestine. Ben-Yehuda’s father, a Chabad Hasid, died when Eliezer was five years old. At the age of 13, he was sent to his uncle to attend the yeshivah in Polotsk. The head of the yeshivah, a maskil in secret, introduced him to secular literature. To save him from heresy, his uncle sent him to study in Glubokoye, in the Vilna district, where Ben-Yehuda made the acquaintance of Samuel Naphtali Herz Jonas, also a Chabad Hasid, who was writing for Hebrew periodicals. Jonas persuaded him to prepare for secondary school matriculation, and his eldest daughter, Deborah, taught him Russian. After a year of preparation, he entered the Dvinsk Gymnasium, from which he graduated in 1877.

The Russo-Turkish War (1877–78) and the struggle of the Balkan nations for liberation planted in Ben-Yehuda the idea of the revival of the Jewish people on its ancestral soil. He maintained that the Jewish people, like all other peoples, had a historic land and a historic language. What was needed was to actuate a national movement that would restore Israel to its land and to its language. He wrote in the preface to his dictionary: “In those days it was as if the heavens had suddenly opened, and a clear, incandescent light flashed before my eyes, and a mighty inner voice sounded in my ears: the renascence of Israel on its ancestral soil.” He determined to settle in Ereẓ Israel, and in 1878 went to Paris to study medicine so that he might have a profession to sustain himself. H

e discussed his plan for a Jewish national movement with some Hebrew writers; they, however, were not interested. His article “She’elah Lohatah” (“A Burning Question”) was published in P. *Smolenskin’s Ha-Shaḥar in 1879 (after Ha-Maggid had refused to accept it) under the name “E. Ben-Yehuda.” For the first time, the idea of a national spiritual center in Ereẓ Israel was clearly propounded. Ben-Yehuda linked the Jewish national revival with the general European awakening and said that the Jewish people should learn from the oppressed European peoples that were fighting for political freedom and national revival. The Jewish people must establish a community in Ereẓ Israel that would serve as a focal point for the entire people so that even those Jews who would remain in the Diaspora would know that they belong to a people that dwell in their own land and has their own language and culture. In this essay, the fundamental principles of spiritual Zionism are anticipated: the settlement of the land not for the return of the entire people from exile, but for the creation of a national center designed to save from assimilation those Jews that are scattered all over the Diaspora.

In Paris, Ben-Yehuda met George (Getzel) Selikovitch, a Jewish journalist, who told him that in his travels through Asia and Africa, he had spoken Hebrew with the Jews of these lands, so that in fact, Hebrew was not dead. When Ben-Yehuda contracted tuberculosis in the winter of 1878, he decided to discontinue his medical studies and make his home in the more favorable climate of Ereẓ Israel. He enrolled in the teachers’ seminary of the Alliance Israélite Universelle, to qualify for a teaching post in Mikveh Israel. There he attended the lectures of the Assyriologist Joseph Halevy who, in the periodical Ha-Maggid, had advocated the coinage of new Hebrew words as early as the 1860s.

As his health deteriorated, Ben-Yehuda entered the Rothschild Hospital in Paris, and there he met the Jerusalem scholar A.M. Luncz who spoke Hebrew to him in the Sephardi pronunciation and told him that the members of the various Jewish communities in Jerusalem were able to converse with one another only in Sephardi Hebrew. This reinforced Ben-Yehuda’s opinion that the Jews could not hope to become a united people in their own land again unless their children revived Hebrew as their spoken tongue. The Hebrew living language must have Sephardi phonetic sounds because that was the pronunciation that served in the transliteration of biblical names in ancient and modern translations of the Bible.

In 1880, he published two articles in Ha-Ḥavaẓẓelet in which he advocated that Hebrew rather than the various foreign languages become the language of instruction in the Jewish schools in Ereẓ Israel. In 1881, he left for Palestine. He traveled by way of Vienna, where he was joined by his childhood acquaintance, Deborah Jonas, whom he married in Cairo. In October 1881, they arrived in Jaffa, where Ben-Yehuda informed his wife that henceforth they would converse only in Hebrew. The Ben-Yehuda household thus was the first Hebrew-speaking home established in Palestine, and his first son, Ben-Zion (later called Ithamar Ben-Avi), was the first modern Hebrew-speaking child.

To ingratiate himself with the Orthodox Jews who knew written Hebrew and could, therefore, readily learn to speak the language, Ben Yehuda at first adopted their customs. He grew a beard and earlocks and prevailed upon his wife to wear a sheitel (“wig”). This did not last very long because the Orthodox Jews of Jerusalem soon sensed that for Ben-Yehuda Hebrew was not a holy tongue, but a secular, national language and that his purpose for introducing spoken Hebrew was solely nationalist and political. They began to suspect him, and Ben-Yehuda became an extremist in his antireligious attitude. He registered as a national Jew “without religion.”

As early as 1881, Ben-Yehuda, together with Y.M. Pines, D. Yellin, Y. Meyuḥas, and A. Masie, founded the society Teḥiyyat Israel based on five principles: work on the land and expansion of the country’s productive population; the revival of spoken Hebrew; creation of a modern Hebrew literature and science in the national spirit; education of the youth in a national and, at the same time, universal humanistic spirit; and active opposition to the ḥalukkah system.

During the period 1882–85, Ben-Yehuda worked on Ha-Ḥavaẓẓelet and put out a supplement to the periodical under the name Mevasseret Ẓiyyon. At the same time, he taught in the Jerusalem Alliance school, which post he accepted only after he was permitted to use Hebrew exclusively as the language of instruction in all Jewish subjects. The school was thus the first in which at least some subjects were taught in Hebrew.

In 1885, Ben-Yehuda published a geography of Palestine, called Ereẓ Yisrael (only part 1 appeared). Toward the end of 1884, he founded a weekly, Ha-Ẓevi, which later became a biweekly, under the new name, Ha-Or. In 1908, it became a daily, known first as Ha-Ẓevi, and from 1910 onward as Ha-Or; it appeared until 1915. For several years, from 1897, Ben-Yehuda also published a weekly (from 1904, biweekly) called Hashkafah. In his periodicals, he fought against the ḥalukkah system, championed agricultural labor, the new settlement, and, especially, the revival of spoken Hebrew. He spared no effort to enrich the language by coining new terms and introducing transliterations from foreign tongues. Financial difficulties in the economically poor Jerusalem environment were mainly responsible for the shortcomings of his magazine. Despite all its defects, however, Ben-Yehuda’s periodical was the first in Hebrew to meet European standards. It removed the barrier between strictly Jewish topics and secular subjects, and discussed, insofar as the strict Turkish censorship permitted, all aspects of general political and cultural life.

In 1891, Ben-Yehuda’s wife died, and about six months later, he married her younger sister. She adopted the Hebrew name Ḥemdah. A constant companion to her husband in his literary activity, Ḥemdah Ben-Yehuda published translations and original Hebrew stories in his periodicals. It was she who incited Ben-Yehuda’s extremism against the Jewish tradition. Ben Yehuda’s unorthodox behavior, and the campaign which he waged in the columns of his periodicals against the ḥalukkah system and its administrators, aroused the vehement opposition of the extreme Orthodox Jews. Seeking a pretext for revenge, they found it in an article by Jonas in the 1894 Chanukah number of Ha-Ẓevi, which contained the phrase “let us gather strength and go forward.” Some of Ben-Yehuda’s more bigoted enemies distorted its meaning and interpreted it to the Turkish authorities as “let us gather an army and proceed against the East.” Ben-Yehuda was charged with sedition and sentenced to a year’s imprisonment. The affair created a great stir throughout the Jewish world; an appeal was lodged, and he was released.

Turkish censorship of Ha-Ẓevi, however, became more stringent from then on. As a result, Ben-Yehuda began to concentrate more on linguistic questions to which the censors could make no objection. He became increasingly engrossed in his dictionary for which he had begun to collect material from the day he arrived in Ereẓ Israel. In order to conduct research and raise funds for its publication, Ben-Yehuda traveled several times to Europe, and later also to the United States, where he worked in American libraries.

In 1910, assisted by various sponsors, he began to publish his Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew volume by volume; after his death, his widow and his son Ehud continued his publication which was completed in 1959 (17 vols.), with an introductory volume, Ha-Mavo ha-Gadol (“Prolegomenon”).

In 1890, together with David Yellin, Aaron Masie, and others, Ben-Yehuda founded the Va’ad ha-Lashon, over which he presided until his death. This va’ad was the forerunner of the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which Ben-Yehuda had also suggested in 1920.

Ben-Yehuda was among the supporters of the Uganda scheme; he wrote articles in Ha-Ẓevi advocating the idea, and even a special pamphlet called Ha-Medinah ha-Yehudit (1905). His views incurred many enemies for him among those who were not prepared to exchange Zion for any other country. On the other hand, he won general respect when he led the fight (1913–14) against the plan of the Hilfsverein der deutschen Juden to introduce German as the language of instruction in its secondary schools in Palestine and in the technical college, which was about to be established in Haifa.

During World War I, when Jamal Pasha, the Turkish commander in Palestine, outlawed Zionism, Ben-Yehuda left for the United States. There he wrote his book Ad Eimatai Dibberu Ivrit? (“Until When was Hebrew Spoken?” 1919). He returned to Palestine in 1919. Together with M. Ussishkin, he prevailed upon Herbert Samuel, the British high commissioner, to declare Hebrew one of the three official languages of the country. He founded Sefatenu, a society for the propagation of Hebrew, and also served as secretary of the Planning Committee of the Hebrew University. A number of his writings were collected and published posthumously: the anthology Yisrael le-Arẓo ve-li-Leshono (1929) and Avot ha-Lashon ha-Ivrit; part 1: Rabbi Akiva (1945).

Ben-Yehuda’s cultural activities and achievements fall into four divisions: (1) The revival of spoken Hebrew. Hebrew was spoken before the days of Ben-Yehuda but only intermittently. The very sanctity with which the language was invested prevented its daily use. Ben-Yehuda made Hebrew speech a national goal. He was convinced that a living Hebrew, spoken by the people in its own land, was indispensable to the political and cultural rebirth of the nation. In this view, Ben-Yehuda differed from Smolenskin, Lilienblum, and Herzl, who were able to envisage a Jewish homeland without Hebrew as its mother tongue. Ben-Yehuda fought untiringly and uncompromisingly for this ideal. He lived to see his vision realized: the revival of the Hebrew language as a spoken tongue after more than two thousand years. (2) The creation of a simple, popular style in Hebrew literature. Ben-Yehuda fought against the use of inflated rhetoric and the archaic expressions and forms which had lost their appeal. He demanded simplicity and concreteness in Hebrew prose which, until then, had been rhetorical and florid. With this objective in mind, he translated a number of stories from various languages into plain, unadorned Hebrew. (3) Ben-Yehuda was the first to make a regular and systematic practice of coining Hebrew words. Neologism was not new to Hebrew, but it had never been done methodically and specifically to meet the practical demands which were constantly being made on the language in daily speech, journalism, science, and literature. (4) His dictionary complemented his achievement of the revival of spoken Hebrew. The dictionary attempts to include all the Hebrew words used in the different periods and developmental stages of the language. It is also arranged in the manner of modern European language dictionaries, and not according to word roots, as was customary in former Hebrew dictionaries. A characteristic feature of the dictionary is its bold omission of all Aramaic words, as well as other foreign words found in the Bible, Talmud, Midrash, and other works that are not of Semitic origin.

Ben-Yehuda died on December 16, 1922.


R. St. John, The Tongue of the Prophets (1952); R. Brainin (ed.), Sefer Zikkaron le-Eliezer Ben Yehuda (1918); D. Yellin, Ben Yehudah and the Revival of the Hebrew Language (c. 1924); I. Ben-Avi, Avi (1927); J. Kena’ani, Eliezer Ben Yehuda (Heb., 1929), contains bibl.; Ḥ. Ben Yehuda, Ben Yehuda, Ḥayyav u-Mifalo (1940); idem, Ha-Loḥem ha-Me’ushar (1932); J. Klausner, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Toledotav u-Mifal Ḥayyav (1939); A. Herzberg, The Zionist Idea (1960), 158–65; J. Fichman, Be-Terem Aviv (1959), 195–203, 215ff.; R. Sivan, in: Leshonenu la-Am, 12 (1961/62), 35–77; G. Kressel (ed.), Ḥol va-Ru’aḥ (1964); idem, Toledot ha-Ittonut ha-Ivrit be-Ereẓ Yisrael (19642), 67–100; Kressel, Leksikon, 1 (1965), 275ff. (includes bibl.). ADD. BIBLIOGRAPHY: J. Fellman, The Revival of a Classic Tongue: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the Modern Hebrew Language (1973).

Source: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.

Photo: Public Domain.