This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Hebraic Headlines *

As we come to celebrate the State of Israel on Yom Ha-‘Atzma’ut, it is a daunting challenge to choose which of its manifold achievements should be given top billing. I could focus on Israeli arts and culture, military exploits, technological innovation, economic miracles and much more.

But for me, the most amazing of those accomplishments was the transformation of Hebrew from an archaic, bookish language accessible only to a small scholarly elite into the everyday vehicle of spoken communication for an entire nation. Even the prophet of Zionism, Theodor Herzl, who dared to imagine some boldly imaginative scenarios in his Old-New-Land, still assumed that its residents would be conversing in German or other European languages.  

The person who is usually credited with the revival of Hebrew is Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (originally: Perlman), the Lithuanian-born writer and activist whose single-minded devotion to this goal reaped a success that was nothing less than miraculous. Although scholars are often quick to limit the proportions of Ben-Yehuda’s contributions by reminding us of his precursors and collaborators, and the peculiar constellation of ethnic and social realities that facilitated the process—for me it is still impossible to imagine the revival of modern Hebrew without the zeal of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.

Ben-Yehuda’s campaign to revive our national tongue took many forms and was applied in numerous settings, ranging from his own family hearth to the national and international spheres. It is appropriate that this article that I am submitting to a newspaper should focus on the part played by Ben-Yehuda’s journalistic endeavours in the renaissance of Hebrew.

Ben-Yehuda founded his own newspaper Ha-Ẓvi in Jerusalem in 1884. To be sure, there were other Hebrew and Jewish newspapers being published at that time in Europe and in the holy land. On his arrival in Jerusalem, he was initially hired by the journal Ḥavaṣelet edited by Israel Dov Frumkin, but he soon grew disenchanted by its lack of ideological commitment to the Jewish national movement.

The publication of Hebrew periodicals in the nineteenth century was in itself a rather ironic development, since many of them originated in modernist Enlightenment circles and were promoting assimilationist ideologies that encouraged Jews to master the languages of the lands in which they resided. Initially the publishers turned to Hebrew only as a last resort, recognizing that their target audiences could not read German or Russian—and of course the barbaric Yiddish “jargon” was entirely out of the question!

Nevertheless, whatever their initial motives for producing their Hebrew journals, several publishers developed a paradoxical affection for their ancestral tongue and made serious efforts to craft it into an effective vehicle for expressing modern ideas and literary genres. For the most part, they strove to uphold the purity of the biblical style and vocabulary, dismissing later dialects as corruptions of the classical paradigm. Ben-Yehuda recognized that this kind of linguistic purism was too inflexible to serve as the foundation for a vibrant language of a reborn nation.

Ben-Yehuda’s Ha-Ẓvi differed from the other Hebrew journals that were available at the time in that its principal contents were not educational or ideological, but actually devoted to...reporting the news! The market for such newspapers would normally have been very limited, since coverage of world events was available (for those Jews who were cosmopolitan enough to be interested in them) in publications in other languages.

However far-fetched the prospects for success might have seemed, Jerusalem was actually an opportune locale for promoting a Jewish language. The delicate demographic balance between the Ladino-speaking Sephardic and the Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazic Jewish communities had already forced them both to make considerable use of a “market Hebrew” as the means of enabling communication between the groups; whereas the immense diversity of the Turkish, Arabic and assorted European gentile enclaves prevented any single one of their languages from acquiring the status of a lingua Franca.

Indeed, Ben-Yehuda’s journalistic enterprise filled a unique niche in Ottoman Jerusalem. At that time, newspapers did not exist at all in Arabic or Turkish. Though some Ladino publications could be imported from Turkey for the Sephardic readership, the ultra-traditionalist Ashkenazic community eschewed the pursuit of secular news. In fact, Ben-Yehuda targeted Ha-Ẓvi largely at Jews in Russia who were eager for information about developments in Palestine and in Middle-Eastern politics (which had taken on a more immediate urgency for them when the Crimean raised questions about the durability of the Ottoman empire).

This broad spectrum of journalistic subject matter compelled Ben-Yehuda to expand the vocabulary of Hebrew in order to equip it to describe international political and military developments, as well as the minutiae of daily life in Jerusalem. For these purposes he insisted on opening up the language not only to the full range of post-biblical Hebrew dialects, but also to the sister tongue, Arabic, on which he pinned great hopes as a potential wellspring of serviceable Hebrew expressions.

It was important for him that the newly forged spoken and literary tongue should evolve naturally from previous versions. Thus, Ben-Yehuda had to discover or coin words with which to report on such non-traditional subjects as politics, wars, the arts and sciences, as well as terms related to the craft of journalism itself. Between the columns of news items in Ha-Ẓvi—which enthusiastically reported all the latest advances in Hebrew-language education in the Jerusalem community—the editor would insert his own manifestos for the future directions of the language’s revival.

Ben-Yehuda’s flexible model of living Hebrew, as it was publicized in the columns of Ha-Ẓvi, had a surprising impact on the linguistic standards that were establishing themselves in Palestine and in the Jewish diaspora. Often he accomplished this stealthily, by making use of one of his thousands of ingenious lexicographic usages, without explicitly calling attention to it, on the assumption that the word would be spontaneously understood and adopted by the newspaper’s readers.

As the constricting atmosphere of Jerusalem’s religious society began to relax, the appearance of each issue of Ben-Yehuda’s Ha-Ẓvi came to be perceived as an exciting event, and the numbers of copies sold and read reached astonishing levels. Contemporaries reported how intensely and avidly each copy was scoured for its precious linguistic gems.

I can only pray that some of my own humble contributions to the fourth estate might occasionally be snatched up with similar enthusiasm—and make even a fraction of the contribution that Eliezer Ben-Yehuda did to the advancement of Jewish culture.

This article and many others are now included in the book

A Time for Every Purpose
A Time for Every Purpose

published by

Return to the main index of Eliezer Segal's articles

My email address is:

  • First Publication:
    • The Jewish Free Press, Calgary, April 12, 2013, p. 10.
  • For further reading:
    • Fellman, Jack. The Revival of a Classical Tongue; Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the Modern Hebrew Language. Contributions to the sociology of language 6. The Hague: Mouton, 1973.
    • Gilboaʻ, Menuḥah. Hebrew Periodicals in the 18th and 19th Centuries. Jerusalem and Tel-Aviv: Mosad Bialik and the Ḥayim Rosenberg Institute of Jewish Studies, Tel-Aviv University, 1992.
    • St. John, Robert. Tongue of the Prophets; the Life Story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda. Westport, CN: Greenwood Press, 1972.