The prophetic revival of the Hebrew language

When Theodor Herzl saw the prophetic vision of the Jewish People returning to the Land of Israel, he saw the revival of Hebrew as not only impossible, but impractical.

By
January 3, 2016 16:42
2 minute read.
Hebrew Ben-Yehuda

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)

For then will I turn to the people a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the Lord, to serve him with one consent. (Zephaniah 3:9)

Since the destruction of the Second Temple in the year 70 A.D., the Jewish People wandered the globe in exile, speaking the local languages of every place they inhabited. Hebrew was reserved for special occasions – prayer, religious study and blessings – and was no longer the language of the common Jew.

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In the late 19th century, when Zionist leader Theodor Herzl saw the prophetic vision of the Jewish People returning to the Land of Israel, he saw the revival of Hebrew as not only impossible, but impracticable. A language that was stuck in linguistic terms from 2,000 years ago (or more) could not describe all the changes that the Industrial Revolution was bringing. They would speak German, he argued, the language of modernization.

But other Zionists disagreed. How can a nation be considered a nation if it doesn’t have its own language?

Indeed, rabbinical literature recounts that God redeemed the Israelites from Egypt in merit of three vital aspects of their life that they didn’t change: The Israelites didn’t change their dress, they didn’t change their names and they didn’t stop speaking Hebrew.

So instead of sitting back, a group of individuals, led by the highly motivated Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, made it their goal to help bring the prophetic redemption and to turn Hebrew into the everyday language of the Land of Israel. They encountered resistance from all the sides – the ultra-Orthodox said Hebrew was a holy language reserved for holy purposes only, the secular said there is no need to speak an out-dated language and others were just plain skeptical.

But Ben-Yehuda and the determined language pioneers didn’t relent. They used words from the Bible, the Talmud and rabbinical literature in order to create and innovate new terms from the modern world. A classic example is the word “electricity,” in Hebrew “hashmal,” which describes “the color of amber, out of the midst of the fire,” from Ezekiel 1:4.

Finally, in 1921, the British government recognized three official languages for Mandatory Palestine: English, Arabic and Hebrew. Today, Hebrew continues to be the official language of Israel, alongside Arabic, and the government gives all new immigrants the opportunity to study for free for six months in a Hebrew-intensive ulpan to help them improve their language skills upon arrival.

National Hebrew Day falls every year on the 21st day of the Hebrew month of Tevet, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s birthday. This year’s date fell on Saturday, January 2, and therefore was postponed to Sunday, January 3.

As early 20th century national-religious leader Rabbi Abraham Kook said, “The old shall be renewed and the new shall be sanctified.”

For more on the prophetic revival of the Hebrew language, check out The Jerusalem Post - Christian Edition’s upcoming February issue.
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