Revival of the Hebrew language

The revival of the Hebrew language took place in Europe and Palestine toward the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, through which the language's usage changed from the sacred language of Judaism to a spoken and written language used for daily life in Israel. The process began as Jews started arriving in Palestine in the first half of the nineteenth century and used Hebrew as a lingua franca.[1] However, a parallel development in Europe changed Hebrew from primarily a sacred liturgical language into a literary language[2] which played a key role in the development of nationalist educational programs.[3] 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[4] and Israeli policy.

The process of Hebrew's return to regular usage is unique; there are no other examples of a natural language without any native speakers subsequently acquiring several million such native speakers, and no other examples of a sacred language becoming a national language with millions of "first language" speakers.

The language's revival eventually brought linguistic additions with it. While the initial leaders of the process insisted they were only continuing "from the place where Hebrew's vitality was ended", what was created represented a broader basis of language acceptance; it includes characteristics derived from all periods of Hebrew language, as well as from the non-Hebrew languages used by the long-established European, North African, and Middle Eastern Jewish communities, with Yiddish (the European variant) being predominant.


Main article: Hebrew language

Historical records testify to the existence of Hebrew from the 10th century BCE to the late Second Temple period (lasting to c. 70 CE), after which the language developed into Mishnaic Hebrew. (From about the 6th century BCE until the Middle Ages, many Jews spoke a related Semitic language, Aramaic.) From the 2nd century CE until the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language circa 1880, Hebrew served as a literary and official language and as the Judaic language of prayer.[5] After the spoken usage of Mishnaic Hebrew ended in the 2nd century CE, Hebrew had not been spoken as a mother tongue.

Even so, during the Middle Ages, Jews used the language in a wide variety of disciplines. This usage kept alive a substantial portion of the traits characteristic of Hebrew. First and foremost, Classical Hebrew was preserved in full through well-recognized sources, chiefly the Tanakh (especially those portions used liturgically like the Torah, Haftarot, Megilot, and the Book of Psalms) and the Mishnah. Apart from these, Hebrew was known through hymns, prayers, midrashim, and the like.

During the Middle Ages, Hebrew continued in use as a written language in Rabbinical literature, including in judgments of Halakha, Responsa, and books of meditation. In most cases, certainly in the base of Hebrew's revival, 18th- and 19th-century Europe, the use of Hebrew was not at all natural, but heavy in flowery language and quotations, non-grammatical forms, and mixing-in of other languages, especially Aramaic.

Hebrew was used not only in written form but also as an articulated language, in synagogues and in batei midrash. Thus, Hebrew phonology and the pronunciation of vowels and consonants were preserved. Despite this, regional influences of other languages caused many changes, leading to the development of different forms of pronunciation:

Within each of these groups, there also existed different subsets of pronunciation. For example, differences existed between the Hebrew used by Polish Jewry and that of Lithuanian Jewry and of German Jewry.

In the fifty years preceding the start of the revival process, a version of spoken Hebrew already existed in the markets of Jerusalem. The Sephardic Jews who spoke Ladino or Arabic and the Ashkenazi Jews who spoke Yiddish needed a common language for commercial purposes. The most obvious choice was Hebrew. Although Hebrew was spoken in this case, it was not a native mother tongue, but more of a pidgin.

The linguistic situation against which background the revival process occurred was one of diglossia, when two languages—one of prestige and class and another of the masses—exist within one culture. In Europe, this phenomenon has waned, starting with English in the 16th century, but there were still differences between spoken street language and written language. For example, Russians spoke popular Russian to each other, but wrote in a more literary style of Russian or in French, while Germans spoke in local dialects and wrote in Standard German. Likewise, Arabs spoke locally-specific forms of Colloquial Arabic, but their writing reflected (and still does) Standard Arabic. Among the Jews of Europe, the situation resembled that of the general population, but with:

In the Arab Middle East, Ladino and Colloquial Arabic were the spoken languages most prevalent in Jewish communities (with Ladino more prevalent in the Mediterranean and Arabic, Aramaic, Kurdish, and Persian more widely spoken by Jews in the East), while Classical Arabic was used for secular writing, and Hebrew used for religious purposes (though some Jewish scholars from the Arab world, such as Maimonedes (1135-1204), wrote primarily in Arabic or in Judeo-Arabic languages).

Revival of literary Hebrew

The revival of the Hebrew language in practice advanced in two parallel strains: The revival of written-literary Hebrew and the revival of spoken Hebrew. In the first few decades, the two processes were not connected to one another and even occurred in different places: Literary Hebrew was renewed in Europe's cities, whereas spoken Hebrew developed mainly in Palestine. The two movements began to merge only in the beginning of the 1900s, and an important point in this process was the immigration of Haim Nahman Bialik to Palestine in 1924. But after the transfer of literary Hebrew to Palestine, a substantial difference between spoken and written Hebrew remained, and this difference persists today. The characteristics of spoken Hebrew only began to seep into literature in the 1940s, and only in the 1990s did spoken Hebrew start widely appearing in novels.

Hebrew during the Haskalah

First known translation of Shakespeare to Hebrew by Solomon Löwisohn, 1816. The "Are at this hour asleep!" monologue from Henry IV, Part 2.

A preceding process to the revival of literary Hebrew took place during the Haskalah, the Jewish movement paralleling the secular Enlightenment. Members of this movement, called maskilim (משכילים), who sought to distance themselves from Rabbinic Judaism, decided that Hebrew, specifically Biblical Hebrew, was deserving of fine literature. They considered Mishnaic Hebrew and other varieties of Hebrew to be defective and unfit for writing. The Haskalah-era literature written in Hebrew based itself upon two central principles: Purism and flowery language. Purism was a principle which dictated that all words used should be of biblical origin (even if the meaning was not biblical). The principle of flowery language was based on bringing full verses and expressions as they were from the Tanakh, and the more flowery a verse was, the more quality it was said to possess. Another linguistic trait thought to increase a text's prestige was the use of hapax legomena, words appearing only once in the text.

But while it was easy to write stories taking place in the biblical period and dealing with biblical topics, Haskalah-era writers began to find it more and more difficult to write about contemporary topics. This was due mostly to the lack of a broad and modern vocabulary, meaning translating books about science and mathematics or European literature was difficult. Although an earlier, little known attempt at scientific writing was made when Israel Wolf Sperling translated Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea and Journey to the Center of the Earth in 1877 and 1878,[6] this barrier was breached with more lasting effect in the 1880s by a writer named Mendele Mocher Sfarim.

Mendele Mocher Sfarim

Mendele (1846–1917), whose given name was Ya'akov Abramovitch, but is often known by the name of his main character, "Mendele Mocher Sfarim" (מוכר ספרים), meaning "bookseller." He began writing in Hebrew as a Haskalah writer and wrote according to all the conventions of Haskalah-era literature. At a certain point, he decided to write in Yiddish and caused a linguistic revolution, which was expressed in the widespread usage of Yiddish in Hebrew literature. After a long break he returned in 1886 to writing in Hebrew, but decided to ignore the rules of biblical Hebrew, and proponents of that style, like Abraham Mapu, and added into the vocabulary a host of words from the Rabbinic Age and the Middle Ages. His new fluid and varied style of Hebrew writing reflected the Yiddish spoken around him, while still retaining all the historical strata of Hebrew. For the purposes of his Hebrew works, some of which were translations of his Yiddish books, Mendele needed a language to represent the vernacular language, which contained linguistic jokes and detailed descriptions. He satisfied this need by discarding the restrictions of the Haskalah's biblical flowery language and using figures of speech and vocabulary from the Rabbinic literature while incorporating characteristics of spoken syntax found in European languages.

Mendele's language was considered a synthetic one, as it consisted of different echelons of Hebrew development and was not a direct continuation of a particular echelon. However, today, his language is often considered a continuation of Rabbinic Hebrew, especially grammatically.

See also Robert Alter, and his book The Invention of Hebrew Prose, who has done significant work on modern Hebrew literature and the context which enabled the language to revive itself via creative writing. The book has a large section on Abramovitch. Yael S. Feldman also gives a short overview of Mendele and his milieu in her book Modernism and Cultural Transfer. She notes the influence of Yiddish on his Hebrew, and traces this language interaction to Gabriel Preil, the last Haskalah poet of America.

Eventually, writers like Yosef Haim Brenner would break from Mendele's style, and utilize more experimental techniques.

Continuation of the literary revival

Mendele's style was excitedly adopted by contemporary writers and spread quickly. It was also expanded into additional fields: Ahad Ha'am wrote an article in 1889 using the style entitled "This is not the Way," and Haim Nahman Bialik expanded it into poetry with his poem "To the Bird" of the same year. Additionally, great efforts were taken to write scientific books in Hebrew, for which the vocabulary of scientific and technical terms was greatly increased. At the same time, Europe saw the rise of Hebrew language newspapers and magazines, while even sessions and discussions of Zionist groups were conducted and transcribed in Hebrew. In addition, poets and writers such as David Frischmann and Sha'ul Tschernichovsky began avidly translating European works into Hebrew, from the Finnish epic the Kalevala to works by Molière, Goethe, Shakespeare, Homer, Byron, Lermontov, and Aeschylus. At the same time, writers like Micah Yosef Berdichevsky and Uri-Nissan Gnessin began to write complex works of short fiction and novels in Hebrew, using the language to express psychological realism and interiority for the first time. As Hebrew poets and writers began arriving in Palestine armed with the new literary language, they exerted a certain amount of influence on the development of spoken Hebrew as well.

Revival of spoken Hebrew

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858–1922) (אליעזר בן יהודה), is often regarded as the "reviver of the Hebrew language" ("מחיה השפה העברית"), yet his major contributions were ideological and symbolic; he was the first to raise the concept of reviving Hebrew, to publish articles in newspapers on the topic, and he took part in the project known as the Ben Yehuda Dictionary.[7] He worked tirelessly to raise awareness of the topic, while fighting its opponents. However, what finally brought about the revitalization of Hebrew were not Ben-Yehuda's activities in Jerusalem (at least for the most part), but developments in the Settlements of the First Aliyah and the Second Aliyah. The first Hebrew schools were established in these 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.

The revival of spoken Hebrew can be separated into three stages, which are concurrent with (1) the First Aliyah, (2) the Second Aliyah, and (3) the British Mandate Period. 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.

Throughout all periods, Hebrew signified for both its proponents and detractors the antithesis of Yiddish. 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.

Nonetheless, Ghil'ad Zuckermann believes that "Yiddish is a primary contributor to Israeli Hebrew because it was the mother tongue of the vast majority of language revivalists and first pioneers in Eretz Yisrael at the crucial period of the beginning of Israeli Hebrew".[8] According to Zuckermann, although the revivalists wished to speak Hebrew with Semitic grammar and pronunciation, they could not avoid the Ashkenazi mindset arising from their European background. He argues that their attempt to deny their European roots, negate diasporism and avoid hybridity (as reflected in Yiddish) failed. "Had the language revivalists been Arabic-speaking Jews (e.g. from Morocco), Israeli Hebrew would have been a totally different language – both genetically and typologically, much more Semitic. The impact of the founder population on Israeli Hebrew is incomparable with that of later immigrants."[8]

First Aliyah

Further information: First Aliyah
Part of a series on
Jewish immigration to the Land of Israel
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With the rise of Jewish nationalism in 19th-century Europe, Eliezer Ben Yehuda was captivated by the innovative ideas of Zionism. At that time, it was believed that one of the criteria needed to define a nation worthy of national rights was its use of a common language spoken by both the society and the individual. On 13 October 1881, while in Paris, Ben Yehuda began speaking Hebrew with friends in what is believed to be the first modern conversation using the language.[9] Later that year, he made aliyah and came to live in Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem, Ben Yehuda tried to garner support for the idea of speaking Hebrew. He determined that his family would only speak Hebrew and attempted to convince other families to do so as well, founded associations for speaking Hebrew, began publishing the Hebrew newspaper HaZvi, and for a short while taught at Hebrew schools, for the first time making use of the method of "Hebrew in Hebrew." Yet Ben Yehuda's efforts were not all too fruitful: In 1902, over two decades into his efforts, his wife recorded that she baked a cake for the tenth family to agree to speak only Hebrew.

On the other hand, widespread activity began in the moshavot (agricultural settlements) of the First Aliyah, which was concentrated in the Hebrew schools. In 1886, the first Hebrew school was established in the Jewish settlement of Rishon LeZion, where a part of the classes were taught in Hebrew. At this point, progress was slow, and it encountered many difficulties: Parents were opposed to their children learning in an impractical language useless in higher education; the four-year schools for farmers' children were not of a high caliber; and a great lack of linguistic means for teaching Hebrew plus the lack of words to describe day-to-day activities, not to mention the absence of Hebrew schoolbooks. Added to these, there was no agreement on which accent to use, as some teachers spoke taught Ashkenazi Hebrew when others taught Sephardic Hebrew.

In 1903, the Union of Hebrew Teachers was founded, and sixty educators participated in its inaugural assembly. Though not extremely impressive from a quantitative viewpoint, the Hebrew school program did create a nucleus of a few hundred fluent Hebrew speakers and proved that Hebrew could be used in a day-to-day format.

Second Aliyah

Further information: Second Aliyah

As the Second Aliyah began, Hebrew usage began to break out of the family and school framework into the public venue. Motivated by an ideology of rejecting the Diaspora and its Yiddish culture, the members of the Second Aliyah, established relatively closed-off social cells of young people with a common world view. In these social cells – mostly in the moshavot – Hebrew was used in all public assemblages. Though not spoken in all homes and private settings yet, Hebrew had secured its place as the exclusive language of assemblies, conferences, and discussions. Educated Second Aliyah members already were familiar with the literary Hebrew that had developed in Europe, and they identified with the notion that Hebrew could serve as an impetus for the national existence for the Jewish people in Israel. This group was joined by the aforementioned graduates of Hebrew schools, who had already begun to raise the first native-born speakers of Hebrew in their families. During this period, the World Zionist Congress also adopted Hebrew as its official language.

In 1909, the first Hebrew city, Tel Aviv, was established. In its streets and in cafes, Hebrew was already widely spoken. The entire administration of the city was carried out in Hebrew, and new olim or those not yet speaking Hebrew were forced to speak in Hebrew. Street signs and public announcements were written in Hebrew. Such was the prominence of Hebrew in Tel Aviv that in 1913 one writer announced that "Yiddish is more treif than pork. To speak it a person needs great courage."

Accordingly, Hebrew education continued to expand, as more and more Hebrew educational institutions came about, including Hebrew high schools. Hebrew teachers recreated the Hebrew Language Council (later the Academy of the Hebrew Language), which began to determine uniform linguistic rules, as opposed to the disjointed ones which had arisen previously. The Council declared as its mission "to prepare the Hebrew language for use as a spoken language in all affairs of life," formulated rules of pronunciation and grammar, and offered new words for use in schools and by the general public. The widespread production of Hebrew schoolbooks also began, and Mother Goose-style rhymes were written for children.

The pinnacle of Hebrew's development during this period came in 1913, in the so-called "War of the Languages:" The Company for Aiding German Jews, then planning the establishment of a school for engineers (first known as the Technikum and for which construction had begun in 1912),[10] insisted that German should be its language of instruction, arguing among other things that German possessed an extensive scientific and technical vocabulary while a parallel vocabulary drawn from Hebrew would need to be created from scratch, often using adaptations or translations of terms anyway. (The process of importing a foreign compound word or phrase as a translation into one's own language, as opposed to just carrying the original words forward, is called loan translation or calque. English superman from German Übermensch is an example.) Substantial unanimity of opinion in the Yishuv ran against this proposal, which was defeated, leading to the founding of Israel's foremost institute of technology, the Technion, with a curriculum taught in Hebrew. This incident is seen as a watershed marking the transformation of Hebrew into the official language of the Yishuv.

Researchers studying the Google Books database noted a fivefold increase in the rate of appearance of new words in printed Hebrew between books published in 1915 and 1920, which they credit to the Balfour Declaration of 1917 and the Second Aliyah.[11]

Mandate Period

Further information: Mandatory Palestine

After World War I, it was clear that Hebrew would be the spoken language of Israel. Although the immigrants arriving from the diaspora did not speak Hebrew as a mother tongue, their children learned Hebrew as their native language. At this time, Hebrew speech was already a fait accompli, and the revival process was no longer a process of creation, but a process of expansion. In Tel Aviv, the Legion of the Defenders of the Language was established, which worked to enforce Hebrew use. Jews who spoke other languages on the street were admonished: "Jew, speak Hebrew" (יהודי, דבר עברית), or, more alliteratively, "Hebrew [man], speak Hebrew" (ivri, daber ivrit/עברי, דבר עברית) was a campaign initiated by Ben-Yehuda's son, Itamar Ben-Avi.

See also


  1. Parfitt , Tudor (1972) 'The Use of Hebrew in Palestine 1800–1822.' Journal of Semitic Studies, 17 (2). pp. 237-252.
  2. Parfitt, Tudor (1983) 'Ahad Ha-Am's Role in the Revival and Development of Hebrew.' In: Kornberg, J., (ed.), At the crossroads: essays on Ahad Ha-am. New York: State University of New York Press, pp. 12-27.
  3. Parfitt, Tudor (1995) 'Peretz Smolenskin, the Revival of Hebrew and Jewish Education.' In: Abramson, G. and Parfitt , T., (eds.), Jewish education and learning : published in honour of Dr. David Patterson on the occasion of his seventieth birthday. Chur, Switzerland: Harwood Academic Publishers, pp. 1-11.
  4. Paul Johnson, A History of the Jews, p.442. " Yet in all [of young David Ben-Gurion's] activity, three salient principles remained constant. First, Jews must make it their priority to return to the land; ‘the settlement of the land is the only true Zionism, all else being self-deception, empty verbiage and merely a pastime’. [Quoted in Encyclopaedia Judaica, iv 506.] Second, the structure of the new community must be designed to assist this process within a socialist framework. Third, the cultural binding of the Zionist society must be the Hebrew language.
  5. A Short History of the Hebrew Language, Chaim Rabin, Jewish Agency and Alpha Press, Jerusalem, 1973
  6. "Online Books by Israel Wolf Sperling". University of Pennsylvania. Retrieved 26 September 2016.
  7. Harshav, Benjamin (2009), "Flowers Have No Names: The revival of Hebrew as a living language after two thousand years was no miracle", Natural History, 118 (#1 February): 24–29.
  8. 1 2 See p. 63 in Zuckermann, Ghil'ad (2006), "A New Vision for 'Israeli Hebrew': Theoretical and Practical Implications of Analysing Israel's Main Language as a Semi-Engineered Semito-European Hybrid Language", Journal of Modern Jewish Studies 5 (1), pp. 57-71.
  9. Omer-Man, Michael (12 October 2011). "This Week in History: Hebrew goes conversational". The Jerusalem Post. Retrieved 12 October 2012.
  10. Technion Israel Institute of Technology. "Technion History: A story of how one stone changed the world [Web page]." (n.d.)
  11. Alexander M. Petersen, Joel Tenenbaum, Shlomo Havlin, and H. Eugene Stanley. "Statistical Laws Governing Fluctuations in Word Use from Word Birth to Word Death." Scientific Reports 2, Article number: 313 (2012).

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