When in 1958, on the occasion of Israel's tenth anniversary, the
first president of the independent Irish republic, Eamon de Valera,
came to Israel, he told his host David Ben-Gurion, "I am astounded
by the rapid development of your country, by its sophisticated
agriculture and its industry in full swing, but, in my eyes, your
most extraordinary achievement is your success in reviving a
language that had been dead for 2,000 years - Hebrew." "In 1921,"
he added bitterly, "when Ireland achieved independence, the people
in scores of Irish villages continued to speak Gaelic, our native
Celtic language. However, in spite of a brief surge of literary
output in Gaelic, we have failed to revive and reinstate our
language in our country. Today, 35 years after we achieved
independence, English has permanently supplanted our language, even
if the official name of our country is Gaelic - Eire."
Undoubtedly, one of the most remarkable successes of Zionism is to
have taken a language that, like Latin, had been used exclusively
for prayers and theological studies for 2,000 years (even during
the time of Christ, Aramaic and not Hebrew was the language spoken
in the land of Israel), and to have transformed it into a living
national language, within the space of a few decades.
Not without a tough struggle. The Jewish schools in
Eretz-Israel/Palestine at the end of the 19th and at the beginning
of the 20th centuries were divided between schools under German
influence (the Hilfsverein network), French influence (Alliance
Israelite Universelle) and English teaching schools. William
Chomsky describes the battle for Hebrew in the newly founded
Technicum, later renamed in Hebrew Technion, in Haifa. At the
outset, the board of governors decided that German would be the
teaching language so that this "most cultural language may serve as
a bridge to the development of modern science." It took a general
strike of teachers, throughout the country, to obtain a reversal of
this decision and impose Hebrew as the language of teaching. When
the cornerstone for the Hebrew University was laid in Jerusalem in
July 1918 (one year after the Balfour Declaration on the creation
of a "Jewish national home" in Palestine), the question of which
language should be chosen for teaching was no longer a matter for
discussion. It was taken for granted that all the courses were to
be taught in Hebrew at the university which opened in 1925.
Hebrew's successful implantation in Eretz-Israel/Palestine was
favored for several factors and mainly two. First was the necessity
to have a common language in a country founded by immigrants
arriving from all over the world. East European Jews spoke Yiddish.
Many Sephardi Jews spoke Ladino. Many others spoke only the
language of their country of origin, but most, if not all, those
Jewish newcomers were familiar with the ancient tongue, Hebrew,
only through their prayers. They did not speak Hebrew, but had some
knowledge of it. Second, in addition to being the linguistic common
denominator of those different Jewish communities, Hebrew was also
the language of the Bible and the Bible was the main historic and
geographic reference that could enhance the Jews' national revival
in Eretz-Israel, the land of their ancestors. The life of those
ancient Israelites, full of misgivings and hope, of wars and
periods of prosperity, of slavery and liberation, was depicted in
the epic story told by the Bible - in Hebrew.
It all started in the second half of the 19th century, with the
first quickenings of Zionist aspirations by the Jews of Russia,
Poland and elsewhere in eastern Europe, as a result of the ideals
of national awakening propagated by the "Spring of Nations" of 1848
Europe. Literary and political Hebrew periodicals saw the light in
Odessa, Vilno, Warsaw and in other great Jewish cultural centers.
The renaissance of Hebrew is perhaps best illustrated by the epic
of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, a Jew from Russia who came in the 1880s to
settle with his family in Jerusalem.
Ben Yehuda published a Hebrew journal, but he had the
revolutionary, and perhaps ingenuous, idea to address his relatives
exclusively in Hebrew. When his wife or one of his children - who
knew little Hebrew - would respond in Russian or Yiddish, he would
pretend he did not understand. "If it is only written and not
spoken, Hebrew will remain a dead language," Ben Yehuda would
reiterate. Soon all his family conversed in Hebrew. He even called
his dog in Hebrew, scandalizing his neighbors, religious Jews, who
got indignant at such profanation of the holy language of the
Bible. Religious extremists pelted him - already! - with stones and
broke the window panes in his printing shop. Ben Yehuda did not
give in. He was soon going to publish the first dictionary of
modern Hebrew, which included many new words he had coined
specially to designate concepts and objects that did not exist at
the time of King David and King Solomon. It was also Ben Yehuda who
decided on how spoken Hebrew should be pronounced. As no records
existed of spoken Hebrew from the biblical age, a choice had to be
made between the Ashkenazi accent used in reading psalms aloud and
the Sephardi accent used in religious rites. Although himself an
Ashkenazi Jew, Eliezer Ben Yehuda opted for the more melodious
Sephardi pronunciation. For all these reasons, Ben Yehuda is
considered the father of modern Hebrew.
To revive and, especially, to implant spoken Hebrew in
Eretz-Israel/Palestine, before, then after the birth of the State
of Israel, proved a Herculean task. First, because it was a
voluntarist, in fact, artifical act that could not rest on any
natural habitat, as spoken Hebrew had since centuries disappeared
from this region. Secondly, because each wave of new immigrants
brought with it its native language, and only a minority of Jews
spoke Hebrew. Thus the humorist Kishon could say, "Israel is the
only country in the world where mothers learn their mother tongue
from the mouths of their children."
These obstacles not withstanding, Hebrew took root and rapidly
became the language of the country, to the surprise of everybody.
It became the language taught in primary schools, in high schools
and universities; the language used in the army, in the workplace
and for entertainment; a spoken and literary language used by a
growing number of writers, dramatists, and cinematographers that
created works, albeit uneven, but of significance and reflective of
an extraordinary vitality.
During the time of the Bible and the Talmud, the Hebrew language
had around 50,000 words; today Hebrew comprises more than 200,000
This is the unique adventure of the Hebrew language, which only
yesterday was considered a dead language, buried under the dust of
ancient prayer books, and unchanged since centuries.