The triumph of the holy language in the Holy Land

Jews in Israel live and breathe Hebrew, just as their ancestors did more than 2,000 years ago.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda
(photo credit: Wikimedia Commons)
In the lead-up to the spring semester of the 1913 school year, the board of trustees at Ottoman Palestine’s new Jewish university and high school made a simple pedagogical decision.
The board at Haifa’s Technion - Israel Institute of Technology and Technion Preparatory Technology High School, decided that the newly founded institutions would use German as their language of instruction.
The trustees, which were appointed by Ezra – a German-Jewish organization and the most prominent organization in the field of education in Ottoman Palestine, as well as a champion of Hebrew education, said the exact sciences and engineering will be taught in German, because German, which is a more civilized language, will act as a bridge for the development of science in the new era.
Textbooks were already in German, and the amount of technical terms the German language had eclipsed the developing, yet still mostly Biblical and liturgical Hebrew. The first institute dedicated to science and technology, in not only Israel, but the entire Ottoman Empire, thus would be a bastion for education in German and not Hebrew.
The Jewish community living in Ottoman-ruled Palestine greatly disapproved of the decision. The almost 100,000 Jewish residents of the territory, who had mostly immigrated in what was known as the First and Second Waves of Aliya, believed in the prophetic vision of the nation of Israel coming back to life and speaking the language of the Bible in the Holy Land.
The phrase “Ivri, Daber Ivrit” could be seen on posters all through the Jewish neighborhoods, meaning “Hebrew [Israelite], speak Hebrew.”
It was now or never to make a stand for the Hebrew language – either it would be established as the language of the nation or it would remain the language of a select few, dividing the nation and extending the exile.
The Yishuv, the body of Jewish residents in Palestine, joined forces in the battle: those living in the moshavot agricultural settlements and those living in the cities protested together; principals resigned, educators refused to teach and students went on strike; intellectuals and various public figures flooded the public with literature on the severity of the decision; those of Ashkenazi descent and those of Sephardic descent forgot their differences, and simple workers and bourgeois, parties and organizations also came together, along with writers and Hebrew journalists from Eastern Europe, to support the fight.
And they had a lot to fight for – their history and their future. The “War of the Languages,” more than 2,000 years in the making, had officially begun.
By the time the First Temple was destroyed and the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar exiled the Jewish People in 586 BCE, Aramaic had already begun making serious inroads into the day-to-day language of the Jews. The Books of Ezra and Daniel contain significant parts in Aramaic, and what was once only the language of foreigners, such as Jacob’s father-in-law, Laban, was now becoming the nation’s main dialect, supplanting the holy tongue of Hebrew.
Despite the rebuilding of the Temple, as the people’s religious observances declined so too did their connection to the land and the language. In the year 70 CE, the Jews, now entering the long and hard Roman exile, had lost their temple, their autonomy and, most significantly, their spiritual hub of Jerusalem – there was no longer any concrete attachment that would keep the Hebrew language alive and well. Except for hope.
In the almost 2,000 years of exile, Jews wandered from country to country, adopting the customs and languages of the native people. Some communities spoke the local dialect, while others adopted a Jewish patois, spicing up the indigenous language with endearing terms to all members of the Jewish faith, such as the case of Yiddish in Eastern Europe and Ladino in North Africa. But they never stopped praying in Hebrew. And they never stopped believing in the God of the Hebrews.
And after 2,000 years of prayers, God brought his children back to his land. He wanted to hear his children speak the Holy Language again – not just in synagogues and not just over sacramental wine on Friday nights – but in the fields, on the streets and in the schools.
The wave of the Second Aliyah, which unofficially began in the early years of the 20th century and concluded sometime around the beginning of the First World War in 1914, was of the most idealistic waves of immigration to reach Israel.
Wanting to throw off the shackles of the Exile, these mostly central and eastern European young and single immigrants began building the Jewish Yishuv in Palestine based on the ideology of the Bible and God’s word to the prophets.
They began building kibbutzim – communal agricultural settlements – they tamed the sand dunes of the eastern Mediterranean Sea, founding what would become the first Hebrew city, Tel Aviv, and, of the utmost important, in light of the pogroms that helped chase them away from anti-Semitic Europe, they founded a defense organization called the Shomer (“Watchman”), the forerunner of the Haganah, which eventually consolidated and became the Israel Defense Forces.
Yet the one element that unified them, and all subsequent immigrants to the Land of Israel, was the language that they chose specifically to speak – Hebrew. For all the achievements the Second Aliya accomplished, and for all the Zionist giants that came out of that wave of immigration, such as renowned Torah scholar and first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and second President Yitzhak Ben-Tzvi, their main triumph was establishing Hebrew as the de facto (and later becoming de jure) language of Eretz Israel.
One man, however, needs a special mention in this “War of the Languages.” In 1879, 21-year-old Polish-born Eliezer Ben-Yehuda wrote an op-ed in Vienna’s Hebrew monthly HaShachar (“The Dawn”), saying that the resurrection of Israel will only happen thorough the Land of Israel and through the language of Hebrew, for there is no nation that doesn’t have a common language.
Two years later, Ben-Yehuda, now married, made aliya, living in Jerusalem and connecting with other Hebrew-language visionaries and founding newspapers to get the message across to the residents of the Holy Land.
The man who would read standing up in the middle of the night so he wouldn’t fall asleep never stopped developing and promoting the language. He introduced new words into Hebrew, drawing from biblical and rabbinical resources, founded the Committee of the Hebrew Language (which became today’s Academy of the Hebrew Language) and to show how serious he really was about this revival, he even instituted a rule in his house that the only language that would be spoken was Hebrew.
Also part of the struggle was Ben-Yehuda and his colleagues’ idea of “Hebrew in Hebrew” in schools across the country, meaning that Hebrew would be the central language of education and teachers would utilize the language as if it were the mother-tongue of the students.
But opposition was fierce within his hometown of Jerusalem. The “Old Yishuv,” a small minority of Jews living in Israel before the wave of the First Aliya in 1882, who were mostly religious Jews living in Jerusalem, Safed, Tiberias and Hebron, wasn’t in favor of messing around with the redemption, saying that this was the messiah’s job, and that the status quo should be kept until such time.
Ben-Yehuda’s response was clear. True, we are not the messiah, but we will do everything that we can to bring him quicker. Legend has it that his reigning moment came during a demonstration that ultra-Orthodox Jews had organized in Jerusalem to protest his work. Ben-Yehuda couldn’t have been happier – they were protesting in Hebrew. It was now conclusive. Hebrew would be the official language of the Jewish People in the Land of Israel.
With the entire Yishuv – both old and new – on the side of Hebrew, the “War of the Languages” would be simple. The fight, which was originally directed against the Technion university, became a fight against the Technion high school. Academic boycotts against the Ezra German-language schools took place around the country and new institutions, independent from outside influences, began to prop up with teachers and parents alike agreeing that the method of “Hebrew in Hebrew” education would be used.
Less than a year later, seeing that there was no chance to change the outcome, the Ezra-appointed board of trustees recanted their decision. On February 22, 1914, they reached a new decision: the primary language of instruction in the Technion would be Hebrew.
In the current era of globalization, the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya, Tel Aviv University and even the Technion all offer courses in English. But they are the minority of the minority. Hebrew is flourishing. And as the Land of Israel continues to develop so too does Hebrew.
The “War of the Languages” has ended. The Holy Language is no longer reserved for the study hall – Jews live and breathe Hebrew, just as their ancestors did more than 2,000 years ago.