Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the Father of Modern Hebrew

The official language of Israel is Hebrew, but many people don't know that until the end of the 19th century almost no one spoke Hebrew colloquially. Lashon Hakodesh, the holy tongue, was used only for prayer and study.

Much of modern Hebrew usage must be credited to the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (originally Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman), about whom the historian Cecil Roth noted: “Before Ben-Yehuda... Jews could speak Hebrew; after him they did.” Born in Luzhki, Russia, Ben-Yehuda abandoned his traditional background for more secular studies when he was a young adult. He also became an ardent Zionist.

Ben-Yehuda and his wife Devora arrived in Jerusalem in 1881. Even before he left Paris (where he had studied at the Sorbonne), Ben-Yehuda tried to use Hebrew to communicate with other Jews, and many were able to respond to him because of their knowledge of Biblical Hebrew.

The Ben-Yehudas tried to raise their children speaking only Hebrew. As they grew, Ben-Yehuda was forced to create new words for many objects that did not have a Hebrew equivalent. (Devora Ben-Yehuda died of tuberculosis shortly before 3 of her children were taken in a diphtheria epidemic. Later, Ben-Yehuda married Devora's younger sister, Hemda.)

Ben-Yehuda taught Hebrew in schools, lectured in public forums and printed Hebrew newspapers. His cause was not always popular. The majority “ultra-Orthodox” population of Jerusalem was highly opposed to the use of lashon hakodesh (the holy tongue) as an everyday language.

The Committee of the Hebrew Language (later the Academy of the Hebrew Language) was created by Ben-Yehuda as another means of furthering the development of Hebrew. The Committee helped coin new words, worked through idiomatic difficulties and helped Ben-Yehuda create his 17 volume dictionary. Only 6 volumes were published before Ben-Yehuda died of tuberculosis in December 1922. His wife and son, Ehud, completed the remaining volumes.

(Photo above taken from Wikipedia)


  1. Did he have a sister Bashya? My great great grandmother Basia Perelman/Perlman was of the same luzhki shtetl and would have been born around the time he was, and may have been his sister, or a first cousin or young aunt? I belive a sister.

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