Eliezer Ben Yehuda was very systematic in the way that he went about reviving the Hebrew language as a spoken language.
His first step was: Hebrew at home.
Ben Yehuda began to tell all of his friends and associates that they would never revive the language unless they committed to speak only Biblical Hebrew at home. And, I’ll tell you, he was a radical about this. He gave strict instructions to his wife that they were to only speak Biblical Hebrew.
In 1882, shortly after they arrived in Jerusalem, their first child was born, a son, who was name Ben-Avi. Ben Yehuda said this his son was going to be the first true modern Hebrew speaking person. He said, “We are not going to allow anybody in his presence for 12 years unless they can speak Biblical Hebrew.” Well, nobody spoke Biblical Hebrew, except for a small group of people. So, the young boy had no playmates. If they had somebody over, he would take his son and put him in an isolated room because he was afraid the people might speak Russian or some other language, and he didn’t want the boy to hear anything but Biblical Hebrew.
Ben Yehuda was so obsessed that later when he had two daughters he would not let them marry until their suitors could pass an exam in Biblical Hebrew. Needless to say, neither one got married until they were in their 30’s. So, this was a man who was really determined in what he was doing in his first step that Hebrew only was to be spoken in the home.
His second step was: Hebrew in the schools.
Ben Yehuda thought the only way he could really revive this language was to get the young people to speak it. So, he went to all the Jewish schools in Jerusalem and he tried to talk the headmasters into introducing Biblical Hebrew. One of the problems with that idea was that most of the teachers were willing to teach it, but they didn’t have any written materials for the kids. So, Ben Yehuda began to develop a small group of followers whom he would teach how to teach Hebrew, like he did himself. These teachers began to spread out in the schools of Jerusalem to teach the young people the Hebrew words.
I’ll just pause here and say that when Ben Yehuda was reviving this language, he had to invent many, many words. Over 2,000 years there were many concepts, many ideas, and many inventions that there were just no Hebrew words for. Being a purist, Ben Yehuda wouldn’t take a word like television or radio and just transliterate it. It had to be a pure Hebrew word with a pure Hebrew root. So, he and his followers would often argue hours over a particular word as he would create word after word after word.
So, the first was Hebrew in the home. Second was Hebrew in the schools.
The third step he took was: to establish a newspaper.
Begun in 1884, this newspaper was Ben Yehuda’s way of getting Hebrew out to adults. By establishing a newspaper, he had to become the editor of the newspaper. It was a daily newspaper about news in Palestine as it was called in that time, and news of the world. In the process, he was constantly having to create new words, resulting in constantly publishing new vocabularies of words and testing words out on people. So, the newspaper was the way that Ben Yehuda began to get the adults to read Biblical Hebrew as it was being modernized.
So, we have Hebrew in the home. Hebrew in the schools. And, Hebrew in the newspaper for the adults.
His fourth step was: to compile a dictionary of the Hebrew language.
The dictionary this was really what Ben Yehuda spent most of his life writing. He would travel to England and he would travel to any place where someone found a lost Hebrew word. He was just obsessed with these words. He put together an incredible dictionary of some 17 volumes entitled, Ancient and Modern Hebrew.
By the time Ben Yehuda had died, he had not completed the dictionary. He only had 17 of what I think came to 20-odd some volumes. But, his second wife was able to complete that incredible dictionary. His first wife had died actually of TB.
The fifth step in reviving the language was: the creation of a language council.
Ben Yehuda created a language council in 1890. He put together a group of friends who had been studying with him and working with him, and they became the official council to determine issues of grammar, punctuation, new words, which words would actually would be adopted and used, etcetera.
I was doing some research on his systematic approach, and I just can’t begin to imagine all the words that he had to create. We mainly think of scientific words for new inventions, but that wasn’t always the case. For example, there were no words in Biblical Hebrew for doll, ice cream, jelly, omelet, handkerchief, towel, bicycle, and hundreds more of just daily words of that nature. Or, for example, there were no words for newspaper, editor, telegram, subscriber, soldier, and fashion. On and on it went. All of these words had to be created. And again, being a purist, Ben Yehuda wanted to create these new words from Biblical Hebrew root words, so it was a major effort.
Within a biblical generation of 40 years, from 1881 to 1921, Ben Yehuda and his friends were able to revive the Hebrew language from the dead as a truly spoken language. They were so successful that in 1922 Biblical Hebrew was adopted as one of the official languages of Palestine. At that time, the British were in charge of the land and they declared three languages to be the official languages of this land: Biblical Hebrew, English, and Arabic. One month later, after that declaration in November of 1922, Ben Yehuda died at that age of 64.
Some language experts in Hebrew and language experts in general have argued in recent years that Hebrew never was really a dead language that people stopped using. Even at the time of Ben Yehuda, they estimate that 50% of the men could read Biblical Hebrew due to going to the synagogue and reading the Scriptures. Probably 20% of them could have read a book written in Hebrew, but they didn’t speak it, and they couldn’t speak it because there weren’t enough words to be used in speaking it. One expert on language put it this way, he said, “Before Ben Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew. After him, they did.” And that’s true, for Eliezer Ben Yehuda is the one who revived Biblical Hebrew as a spoken language.
Here is a fact that was found in his diary before Ben Yehuda died. In fact, it was published in his newspaper in 1908. Here’s what he wrote about himself, “For everything there is needed only one wise, clever, and active man with the initiative to devote all of his energies to it, and the matter will progress all obstacles in the way notwithstanding. In every new event, every step, even the smallest in the path of progress, it is necessary that there be one pioneer who will lead the way without leaving any possibility of turning back.”
For the revival of the Hebrew language, that pioneer was Eliezer Ben Yehuda.
Dr. Reagan: The life story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda is truly a remarkable one. And that remarkable story is contained in the book, Tongue of the Prophets, by Robert St. John.
When I went recently to Jerusalem, I found the grave of Ben Yehuda while I was exploring the thousands of Jewish graves on the Mount of Olives. It is the most ornate grave on the side of the mountain, surrounded by a high ironwork fence. What a blessing it was for me to put a stone of remembrance on his tomb!
Like all Orthodox Jews, Ben Yehuda desired to be buried on the Mount of Olives, because Orthodox Jews believe that when the Messiah comes He will come first to the Mount of Olives. The Orthodox therefore believe that those who are buried on the Mount of Olives will be the first to be resurrected.
That belief, of course, is very biblical, because Zechariah 14 says that when Jesus returns He will return to the Mount of Olives, and that when His feet touch the mountain it will split in two. Jesus will then speak a supernatural word that will destroy all the forces of the Antichrist and He will begin His reign over all the earth as the King of King and Lord of lords.
So, the Orthodox Jews are correct in their expectation that the Messiah will return to the Mount of Olives. What is going to surprise them is His identity, for the Messiah is going to have nail prints in His hands.
In the fourth segment of this series that marvels at the revival of Biblical Hebrew coming back from the dead, we’ll explore some of the other end times prophecies related to Israel that have been fulfilled, particularly the reclamation of the land.