Ben-Yehuda, Eliezer

June 15, 2006

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is considered the “father of modern Hebrew.” His great achievement was that he restored a language that had been forced by history out of the category of a spoken language to that of a language that existed and was in fact used widely by the Jewish People – but only in the realms of prayer and Torah study – to become again the spoken language of the People in its homeland.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born Eliezer Yitzchak Perelman in the Lithuanian village of Luzhky on January 7, 1858. Like most Jewish boys of this period, he was given intensive training in Talmud, in the hope that he would become a rabbi. But like many of his young peers, he became more interested in secular studies, and abandoned the yeshiva for the Russian gymnasium.

This was a time of national revivals, and he became convinced that the time had come for the Jewish People as well to reclaim their homeland and, in particular, their spoken language: Hebrew. In 1881, Ben-Yehuda arrived in Palestine and settled in Jerusalem. He began at once to put into action his plan for the restoration of Hebrew in the Holy Land. It was a three-part program: 1) Hebrew in the Home 2) Hebrew in the School 3) Development of New Words.

He began to implement the “Hebrew in the Home” part of his program in his own home. He made his wife promise that their son, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda would be brought up as the first exclusively Hebrew speaking child in modern history. The son wrote later that his father carried this policy to the extent that whenever a non-Hebrew speaking guest would visit their house, he would be sent to bed, so as not to have to listen to the “foreign” language. He laments that he was not even allowed to listen to the “chirping of birds and the neighing of horses” because those animals weren’t using Hebrew.

Before he influenced teachers to teach Hebrew he actually became the first teacher of Ivrit b’Ivrit at the Alliance Israelite school in Jerusalem. But Ben-Yehuda also attempted to root the “Hebrew in the School” aspect of his program by influencing all teachers, whether of religious or secular subjects, to use only Hebrew in their lessons.

In order to create the words that a modern state needs to function in a modern society, he began work on a new Hebrew dictionary and founded the Hebrew Language Council, whose mission it was to create words, patterned closely on the model of the three-letter root-based ancient language, for use in all situations of modern life. Major lists of words were created for the fields of medicine, psychology, physics and all the arts and sciences.

So complete was the restoration of Hebrew in Eretz Yisrael that the language permeates the society at all levels, restoring the status of the language to what it was in Biblical times.