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Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

1858 - 1922.


Source: Ya'ackov Ben-Dov, id.lib.harvard.edu.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, originally named Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman, was a Russian linguist, grammarian, and journalist who played a vital role in the revival of the Hebrew language.


He is well-known for his work as the editor of HaZvi, one of the first Hebrew newspapers published in the Land of Israel, and for creating the first Hebrew dictionary. His efforts were instrumental in restoring Hebrew to a living language. He is widely recognized as the main driving force behind this linguistic revival.


You can listen and understand (via this dedicated article) the song written by Mati Caspi, one of Israel's most know musicians and singers, about Eliezer's journey to re-establish the Hebrew Language.


Although Hebrew, the language of the Bible, never completely disappeared, it was primarily used for religious texts, study, and prayer, rather than everyday communication. During their long Exile, Jewish communities largely adopted the languages of their host countries for daily use. They also developed their own distinct languages, such as Yiddish and Ladino.


However, it was largely due to the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, that Hebrew was revived as a daily spoken language and became the primary language of the modern State of Israel.


Born in the Russian Empire, he attended a traditional Jewish school and then studied in a yeshiva. The head of Yeshiva was secretly an enlightened thinker, and he introduced him to secular literature. Ben-Yehuda, after moving to a Russian school, soon developed a deep passion for modern Hebrew literature. He eagerly consumed Hebrew periodicals, particularly those related to Jewish nationalism. To him, nationalism became a way to embrace Hebrew without religion.


In 1881, Ben-Yehuda made Aliya and settled in Jerusalem.


He secured a teaching position but was also determined to create a "new language" that would replace Yiddish and other regional dialects. This new language would enable everyday communication among Jews who migrated from various parts of the world. Ben-Yehuda believed that Hebrew and Zionism were mutually supportive, and he established the first modern Hebrew-speaking household.


His son, Itamar Ben-Yehuda, became the first modern Hebrew-speaking child.


To him, if a child can be brought up speaking entirely Hebrew, an entire nation should be able to adopt the language as well. Ben-Yehuda tried to prevent his son from playing with other children and hearing other languages.


To create a modern Hebrew vocabulary, Ben-Yehuda developed new words based on root forms or analogous concepts from classical Hebrew and other Semitic languages. He also served as editor of several Hebrew-language newspapers, including Hazvi and Mevaseret Zion. On the other hand, Ben-Yehuda gained the support of educators to use Hebrew as a language of instruction and study in schools. They were enthusiastic Jewish nationalists and identified with his project.


However, ultra-Orthodox Jews in Jerusalem, who used Hebrew only for studying the Torah, rejected Ben-Yehuda and his language once they realized his secular-nationalist intentions.


This YouTube video is a song written by the Israeli kid TV show Saba Tuvia (Grandpa Tuvia), imagining how he attributed Hebrew names to objects.


Ben-Yehuda helped establish the Committee of the Hebrew Language (Va’ad HaLashon), which later became the Academy of the Hebrew Language. This organization still exists today.


In 1910, he began publishing his dictionary, which eventually comprised 17 volumes and was named the Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew. Although many of Ben-Yehuda's words have become part of the Hebrew language, some were not widely accepted by the public.


Ben-Yehuda did not live to see the establishment of the State of Israel. He died in 1922, just one month after British authorities declared Hebrew the official language of the Jews in Mandatory Palestine. This was due to sufficient Jewish pioneers who spoke Hebrew at that time thanks to him.


Nevertheless, his vision of Israel as a nation speaking its own language was realized. Ben-Yehuda's contributions to the revival of the Hebrew language are considered a significant achievement in Language history.


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