Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Miracles in Israel: 7: Reviving the Hebrew Language and How Important This Was

1898 in Rishon Lezion, Palestine
Jewish Kindergarten starting to learn Hebrew full of immigrants from Eastern Europe,
Middle East from 1st Aliyah
Nadene Goldfoot                                                
Hebrew starts from the right side and moves to the left, like Arabic.
Here you see that it is written without vowels or vowel markings.
It says Happy Birthday-in English but
Yom Ho-leh-det Sa-may-akh, which is:
Year of birth happy
This miracle was so well timed.  If our founding fathers had waited much longer to bring this miracle to Eretz Yisrael, it would never have happened.  It started with the 1st Aliyah in the 1880s.  "Coming from Eastern Europe and from Yemen,  an estimated 25,000–35,000 Jews immigrated to Ottoman Palestine during the First Aliyah."  The 2nd Aliyah started 1904 and 1914, during which approximately 35,000 Jews immigrated into Ottoman-ruled Land of Palestine, mostly from the Russian Empire,  some from Yemen.   I believe a few came from Romania as well during this period.  Jews were returning from several countries and running into language problems in understanding each other.  These were the days that the Ottoman Empire was in charge, and they spoke Turkish.  Russians were returning in this first group.  They couldn't understand each other.  Everyone there spoke a different language.  If this miracle took place later, chances are they would have arrived speaking English, which has become an international language, like Aramaic was in the 1st Century CE for the Jews.  .
As it was, the Jews who arrived from different countries all were attending a synagogue and the men had most likely been bar-mitzvahed, meaning that they could read and pray in Hebrew.  They may not have even understood more than a few words of what they were saying if they were anything like some American Jews, but if their Torahs had a translation in their own language, that would have helped them to understand the
Hebrew words, for Hebrew had become almost a dead language, not used in conversations anymore.  Yiddish was the language of the European Jews, which was a mixture of German and Hebrew; and Ladino was the language of Sephardic Jews, a mixture of Spanish and Hebrew.  Here they were in the land of Mizrachim Jews, and they may have been speaking Turkish or Arabic.  Not all returning Russians spoke the same language, either.
Jewish leaders had discussed settling somewhere in Africa, but all decided that for the last 2,000 years, their ancestors and they have prayed 3 times a day for the return to Eretz Yisrael.  This need was in their writings and in their soul.  Nothing else would do.  They respected their religion and believed in its authenticity.  Moving there in their desperate times seemed like the only place they should be.
Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman b: January 7, 1858 in Luzhky, LithuaniaHe decided against a Yeshiva for his schooling but went to a Russian gymnasium, completing his studies as an external student in 1877. In the same year Russia proclaimed war on the Ottoman Empire to aid their fellow Slavs, the Bulgarians, to regain their independence from the Turks.
Eliezer Ben Yehuda (Perelmann), (1858-1922) had traveled from Lithuania where he was born and raised, and had gone to Paris in 1878 to study medicine.  He had acquired TB and could not continue his studies.  The next year he began to publish article pushing for Jewish settlement in Palestine.
In 1881 he made aliyah, being a member of the 1st group,  and settled in Jerusalem where he taught and edited a succession of Hebrew journals.  He became determined to speak only Hebrew and to fight for its acceptance as a spoken language once again.  Eliezer insisted that he, his wife and child would speak nothing but Hebrew in the house.   It was his persistence that brought this miracle about.

For many years he was one of the principal personalities in Jewish life in Jerusalem.  During the 1st and 2nd Aliyah, "the first Hebrew schools were established in  Settlements,   Hebrew increasingly became a spoken language of daily affairs, and finally became a systematic and national language. Yet Ben Yehuda's fame and notoriety stems from his initiation and symbolic leadership of the Hebrew revival.                   

""Over 50 percent of all male Jews in 1879  were able to understand the pentateuch, the daily prayers, etc. and some 20 percent could read a Hebrew book of average difficulty, allowing for a much higher proportion in eastern Europe, north Africa and Yemen, and a very much lower one in western countries.” This being the case, we note Cecil Roth's penetrating axiom on Ben-Yehuda's role in the revival: “Before Ben-Yehuda... Jews could speak Hebrew; after him they did.”

Reading about Golom in Hebrew
Hebrew's revival can be seen in 3 separate periods.  "In the first period, the activity centered on Hebrew schools in the Settlements and in Ben Yehuda's club; in the second period, Hebrew was used in assembly meetings and public activities; and in the third period, it became the language used by the Yishuv, the Jewish population during the Mandate Period, for general purposes. At this stage, Hebrew possessed both spoken and written forms, and its importance was reflected in the official status of Hebrew during the British Mandate. All of the stages were characterized by the establishment of many organizations that took an active and ideological part in Hebrew activities. This resulted in the establishment of Hebrew high schools (גימנסיות), the Hebrew University, the Jewish Legion, the Histadrut labor organization, and in Tel Aviv – the first Hebrew city.

From 1915 to 1919 during WWI, he lived in the United States.  His main publication was a comprehensive dictionary of ancient and modern Hebrew in which he coined many words to meed modern life.  During his lifetime that ended in 1922, he wrote volumes from aleph to mem (A to M), and the work continued after his death by his widow and other leading philologists.  

He had founded the Vaad ha-Lashon ha-Ivrit ("Hebrew Language Council") in 1890, and served as its chairman until his death. 

" Modern Hebrew, along with Modern Arabic, has been an official language in Israel since the British Mandate of Palestine, a situation that continued after the Israeli Declaration of Independence in 1948. More than purely a linguistic process, the revival of Hebrew was utilized by Jewish modernization and political movements, and became a tenet of the ideology associated with settlement of the land, Zionism, and Israeli policy."

Hebrew most likely was spoken by the Ivrim that came from the East into Eretz Yisrael with Terah, Abraham's father. in the 2nd millennium BCE.  Then a calamity happened when they moved onto Egypt during a terrible drought.  Not realizing it, they remained for a period of 400 years as they were feared by the Egyptians and were taken as slaves to build storage cities, and probably were rubbing elbows with slaves from other countries as well.  

Of course, language has a habit of rubbing off to other people, which is why "televisia" is a Hebrew word for television.  After they left Egypt with Moses and wandered for 40 years in getting back to Canaan, Joshua finally had to take over the movement and established Hebrew as their national language. 

 They used it until Aluf Bar Kokhba (General Simeon Ben Kosiba) of Davidic descent lost the 3 year war against the Romans from 132-135 CE ..  He lost his Jerusalem, the war, and the life of Hebrew used as a spoken language.  It would have been lost completely in 70 CE when the Romans had attacked, but was a revolutionary leader and tried his best to retake Jerusalem.  Holding out for 3 years against the world's mightiest army was no mere feat.  He showed it could be done.  
Suad, a Palestinian Israeli and Amit, a Jewish Israeli
speaking Hebrew.  Both languages are taught in public school
in Israel.  Israel  now has 6 million Jews and 1.7 million Arabs. 

"Against the exilic Yiddish language stood revived Hebrew, the language of Zionism, of grassroots pioneers, and above all, of the transformation of the Jews into a Hebrew nation with its own land. Yiddish was degradingly referred to as a jargon, and its speakers encountered harsh opposition."

Israel's destiny has been the return of Jews from the 4 corners of the world and also the finding and return of the 10 Lost Tribes, and both have been happening.  It was "to be" that they would be able to return to their Mama Loshen-Hebrew.  This is a must in having one's own country. Israelis speak Hebrew.  It's a wonderful miracle!  I'm a product of their 10 month program in an Ulpan of learning Hebrew.  Luckily, my teacher in Haifa, Sarah, the very one who taught Russians secretly via mail, could speak English and Hebrew.  

PS: to Elisheva, my Christian friend who thought that the revival of Hebrew was indeed a miracle and gave me the idea to write  this article for my "miracles" series.  

Resource:  The New Standard Jewish Encyclopedia (Ben-Yehudah (Perelmann(, Eliezer
The Settlers, a Novel by Meyer Levin  Set in Palestine from the turn of the century to the Balfour Declaration, encompasses over 1/4 of a century of turbulent events; hardships of the first Jewish pioneers, tyranny of the Turkish overlords, neighboring Jews and Arabs, etc.


  1. from Sandra: I learned in graduate school that languages that are essentially not spoken die and cannot be easily revived, with the sole exception of Hebrew in Israel!!

  2. Thank you, Sandra. So this makes Hebrew even more of a miracle in that is was revived and is the language once again of Israel.