The Revival of Hebrew

The Hebrew language was re-embraced by proponents of the Jewish enlightenment, then fully reborn in Palestine.

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Reprinted from A History of the Hebrew Language with the permission of Cambridge University Press.

The transition from Medieval to Modern or Israeli Hebrew came about slowly, over several decades. According to some experts, a new phase of the language had already begun in the 16th century. Among its earliest manifestations were A. dei Rossi's Me'or Einayim (1574), the first Hebrew play by J. Sommo (1527‑92), and the first Yiddish‑Hebrew dictionary by Elijah Levita (1468‑1549). Hebrew continued to be used in writing, and attempts were made to adapt it to modern needs. 

The Haskalah

The 18th century saw the first examples of Hebrew newspapers, in connection with which I. Lampronti (1679‑1756) at Ferrara and, from 1750, M. Mendelssohn at Dessau were pioneers. From 1784 until 1829 the quarterly review Ha‑Me'assef appeared fairly regularly. Edited by the "Society of Friends of the Hebrew Language," it received contributions from important figures of the Haskalah [the Jewish Enlightenment]. The first regular weekly, Ha‑Maggid, began publication in Russia in 1856.

revival of hebrewIn the second half of the 18th century, the Haskalah made a significant impact on the language. The new "illuminati" or maskilim viewed Rabbinic Hebrew with disdain, believing it to be full of Aramaisms [i.e. Aramaic derivatives] and replete with grammatical errors, and they lamented the sorry state of Hebrew in the Diaspora. According to them, the blame lay with the paytanim [medieval liturgical poets], the influence of Arabic in medieval philosophy, the use of the "corrupt" Yiddish language, and with the inadequacies of Hebrew itself in comparison with other languages.

The most important representatives of this cultural movement tried to restore Hebrew as a living language. Not only did they attempt to purify the language and to promote correct usage, but they also increased its powers of expression, and showed little aversion to calquing modern terms from German and other western languages.

Although certain figures regarded Rabbinic Hebrew as a legitimate component of the new language, the majority settled on a pure form of Biblical Hebrew for poetry and on an Andalusian style of prose, similar to that used by the Ibn Tibbons [a family of Jewish translators who flourished in the 12th and 13th centuries].

Poets like A.D. Lebensohn and J.L. Gordon, writers like M. Mendelssohn, N.H. Wessely, I. Satanow, and J.L. Ben‑Ze'ev, dramatists like D. Zamoscz (who wrote the first modern play, in 1851), novelists like, A. Mapu (who, in 1853, composed the first work to use this new style), and even translators of Yiddish like S.J. Abramowitsch (Mendele Mokher Seforim), at the close of the 19th century, all helped in important ways to lay the foundations of Modern Hebrew.

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Angel Saenz-Badillos

Dr. Angel Saenz-Badillos is Professor of Hebrew Language and Literature at Universidad Complutense, Madrid.