History of Eliezer Ben Yehuda

            December 1999    
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Eliezer and Hemda Ben Yehuda


Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the Resurgence of the Hebrew Language

By Libby Kantorwitz

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, (1858-1922) was one of the most influential persons who contributed greatly to the character of the modern State of Israel. Regarded by many to be the father of the modern Hebrew language, he is credited for making Hebrew a language of living and vibrant use after two thousand years of not being spoken.

Ben Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman in Luzhky, Lithuania to an Orthodox family. His father died when Eliezer was a young boy of five years old. After struggling with poverty and a young family, the mother tried marrying twice but ended in divorce. Eliezer was sent to his mother's brother, David Wolfson who had the financial means to support the young boy.

Young Eliezer was a gifted student and did well in his learning. After his bar mitzvah, his uncle sent him away to a Yeshiva in a nearby town. It was here that Eliezer changed his direction in life. While at the Yeshiva he met a Rabbi who introduced to Eliezer the ideas of the "Maskilim", those who believed in the pursuit of the intellectual free thinking and gentile culture, even above that of the traditional Torah studies. Here Eliezer learned the classic works of many gentile writers and was very impressed by them.

Eventually he was caught with "heretical" books and forced to leave the Yeshiva. His uncle, being furious at Eliezer's incursion with heretics cast him off. Eliezer wandered for a short period of time until he was "adopted" by a Jewish family who enjoyed the literature of the world. The father, Shlomo Yonas, was a wealthy businessman who was impressed with the young man of fourteen years. He encouraged Eliezer's development and supplied him with his oldest daughter, Deborah, who was four years older than Eliezer, to tutor him in French, German, and Russian. They learnt together for two years.

Eliezer was a brilliant student and learned quickly. During this time Eliezer was transformed from a religious Yeshiva student to a modern freethinker. His traditional sidelocks were shaved off and his observation of the traditional way of life gave way to the popular modern cultural life.

Eliezer entered the Dvinsk Gymnasium graduating in 1877. During this time, the Russian Turkish War gave many intellectuals ideas of national liberation. Eliezer began thinking of Jewish liberation and a homeland for the Jews with their own national language, like all other nations.

In 1878, he traveled to Paris, to begin studies in medicine. Paris was an intellectual hot bed of thought. Eliezer met many people and exchanged many thoughts. It was here that the concept of spoken Hebrew became a fixation that caused Eliezer Ben Yehuda to transform the language from one used only by Rabbis and scholars to discuss in writing rabbinical responses to a language used by women buying produce in the markets.

He began writing his ideas of a Jewish homeland with a common language, Hebrew. His ideas were published under the pen name of Eliezer Ben Yehuda. Unfortunately Eliezer developed a case of consumption, a tubercular type disease in which he had coughing spells that he coughed up blood. This required him to travel from France to Algiers. There in the warm climate he recuperated and here for the first time the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew. This enchantment him and he decided to adopt this manner of speech for his own.

After returning to France he continued writing and decided that to be a truly convincing advocate for the development and settlement of Palestine, he would have to move there. He notified his former host, Shlomo Janas of his intentions to go to Israel (then known as Palestine) who proposed marriage with his daughter, Deborah. They met on the way to Israel and were married in Egypt 1881. Eliezer made one stipulation for the marriage: the only language that she would be allowed to speak to their forth coming children would be Hebrew. He made her promise that their children should hear no "foreign" languages - only Hebrew. Deborah agreed to have the first child in two thousand years to be raised hearing (and speaking) Hebrew only.

Landing in Jaffa they were introduced to the life style of the Middle East. Filth and sewage were strewn in the streets. Arabs hawked their wares and the smells of the Orient clashed with those of cultured Europe which the pair had known.

Upon arrival in Jerusalem, Eliezer and Deborah took upon themselves the dress and customs of the religious Jews who were currently living there. Deborah covered her hair in the traditional style, and Eliezer began frequenting the synagogue. Through this means, Eliezer and Deborah hoped to have influence on the local people to revive the ancient language of Hebrew.

Most of the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem were pious Jews, who wished to live their lives in the holy center of Judaism. Most knew Hebrew though the prayers and study books, but communication was normally in the native language of origin. Although some worked, many received support from abroad in a financial distribution called the "chalukah". The various Jewish groups raised monies and these monies were distributed to the Jewish inhabitants of Jerusalem, hence the word, "chalukah", meaning portion.

Eliezer began to research the Hebrew language. He needed new words to describe those everyday needs that became common with modern living. Although there was a tradition from the Sephardic communities to speak Hebrew, it lacked the richness of a modern language. Eliezer began publishing a weekly newspaper, the "Zvi", (meaning the deer, based on a biblical reference to the land of Israel). His newspaper was popular because of the challenging intellectual ideas he presented. In his newspaper, he would include new words that he would coin to describe modern needs. The words that he set forth in the newspaper were reused in many articles and were adopted by the readers of his newspaper.

Although Jerusalem was basically a religious center, many other areas of Israel were being settled by idealistic pioneers who came from Europe imbued with the Zionistic fever. They set up settlements such as Rosh HaPinah, Rishon LeZion and Rechovot. They settlers were not religious but were inspired by Ben Yehuda and were intent upon speaking Hebrew.

When the Sabbatical year came, the Rabbis issued warnings that it was forbidden to work the lands in keeping with the Biblical prohibition. Even purchasing the produce from a Jew who worked the land was forbidden. To Eliezer, this decree was absurd. It would bring a hardship to the already suffering agricultural communities that he was encouraging to be developed.

With his typical obstinate approach he lambasted the Rabbis and their ideas on the observance of the Sabbatical year. The Jerusalem public was shocked at such a disrespectful approach to the Rabbis. The Rabbis ex-communicated Eliezer and his paper. With this the Ben Yehuda's gave up their facade of religiosity and began living a non-observant life, breaking with all of their religious friends.

Shortly afterwards, in 1891, his wife Deborah died leaving him a widower with several young children. His departed wife's youngest sister, Hemda, came to visit and soon Eliezer and Hemda who was 14 years younger than him were married, This caused quite a stir with the Jerusalem community who had no good feeling for him. Eliezer became a very anti religious person venting his anger towards the religious leaders whom he accused of subverting monies for their own personal usage.

Shortly afterwards, in 1894, Eliezer published an article by his father-in-law, in which the phrase, "let us gather strength and go forth" was used. Turkey, who was the governing power in Palestine did not support any Zionist ideas and held them to be treacherous. Ben Yehuda was imprisoned and only after much bribery and international intervention was he released. However he was prohibited from publishing his newspaper for a year.

During this time he began working in earnest on his project of a modern Hebrew dictionary. Eliezer wanted all of his words which he had researched in various manuscripts, culled from other languages to be available to everyone. This would aid in making the Hebrew language universally accepted and available to all.

During Eliezer Ben Yehuda's period, Theordore Herzl began his famous Zionist convention. Although Jewish pioneers were settling the land, there was not a central organization for arranging financial support. Land had to be purchased from the Arabs and supplies to set up industry were needed. Herzl ignited the spirit of Zionism in Europe and America. Ben Yehuda was an active supporter of Herzl.

When the British declared their intent to allow the Jews to claim the then territory of Uganda and settle it to become the national home, Herzl championed the idea. Many of the Zionists tried to talk him out of it. Eliezer Ben Yehuda, lacking any religious feelings saw Uganda as the answer to the Jewish problem in Europe and also in Palestine. There the Jews could have their homeland, free from the bother of the Turkish government; there the Jews could develop normally.

The Jewish settlers in Palestine, non-religious as they may have been, became opposed to Ben Yehuda. He became a traitor in their eyes. His newspaper fell in to disrespect. To the settlers, Palestine was Eretz Yisroel, the Promised Land; no other land would do.

Herzl eventually collapsed and died from the outright rejection of his masterpiece. Ben Yehuda went back to his dictionary. With the help of his spirited wife, Hemda, they were able to raise funds to have the dictionary published. Seventeen volumes were published. Most were published by his wife after his death in 1922.

Although Ben Yehuda had a tremendous impact on modern Israeli life, since he was openly anti religious, many factions in the Orthodox life refused to speak Hebrew. Although the anti Ben Yehuda feeling in those Orthodox circles have subsided and Hebrew has become accepted, still Ben Yehuda with his anti religious fanaticism accomplished the task. Hebrew is the spoken language of the Jews today.

Incidently, there are scholars who say that the usage of modern Hebrew by Israelis causes problems in studying their Torah and Talmudic texts since many of the words in modern Hebrew do not have exactly the same meaning as those in the ancient Jewish literature. This causes the students to assume certain passages to have meanings based on their modern language usage, yet the meanings of the words as used in the Talmud and Bible commentators have slightly different meanings.

Yet to sum up Eliezer Ben Yehuda's contribution to the rebirth of the Jewish Nation, would be to say that he supplied a vastly needed element to the adhesion of the various cultures of the Jews. Without modern Hebrew, the country would be engulfed in a struggle for language supremacy and unable to unite.


from the December 1999 Edition of the Jewish Magazine

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