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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Although some 19th‑century writers tried to use a fundamentally biblical form of language, they often introduced structures that were alien to its spirit and frequently made grammatical errors, incorrectly employing the article with nouns in the construct state, treating intransitive verbs as transitives, confusing particles, and so on.

Also, they frequently had recourse to turgid paraphrase in a desperate attempt not to stray from the limited vocabulary of the Bible for expressing contemporary referents, thus endowing many biblical expressions with new content. A. Mapu, whom we have already mentioned, emphasized the inadequacy of Biblical Hebrew for the demands of literature and advocated the use of post‑biblical sources.

This tendency is clearly seen in the work of Mendele Mokher Seforim (1835‑1917), whom many regard as the real creator of Modern Hebrew. Jewish culture underwent a marked change at the end of the 19th century, with the abandonment of the ideal of assimilation and its replacement by the nationalist and Zionist program of the Hibbat Zion.

Mendele, who wrote in both Yiddish and Hebrew, accepted into his language the most varied elements not only from Biblical Hebrew but also from all the later stages of the language, as well as from Yiddish. J.H. Alkalai, A.J. Schlesinger, Y.M. Pines, and others also made successful contributions to the task of ensuring that Hebrew would once more possess the character of a spoken language.

Hebrew in Palestine

A new era opened with the publication in 1879 of Eliezer Ben‑Yehuda's article entitled "A burning question." The use of Hebrew as a spoken language was to be for Ben‑Yehuda one of the most important aspects of the new plan for settlement in Palestine.

From 1881, Ben‑Yehuda lived in Jerusalem, and starting with his own family, forged ahead with his objective of changing Hebrew into a language suitable for daily use. With enthusiastic backing from such supporters of the nationalist cause as Y.M. Pines and D. Yellin, he struggled to give new life to the language. One of his greatest endeavors was to develop an appropriate vocabulary, in which Ben‑Yehuda incorporated material from ancient and medieval literature and created new words eventually to be included in his monumental Thesaurus (continued after Ben Yehuda's death by M.H. Segal and N.H. Tur‑Sinai).

Although the Jews who were already established in Palestine had previously used Hebrew as a lingua franca [a common language spoken by people who have different primary languages], it was not employed more generally, and the various immigrant communities continued to speak their native languages. Among the factors that helped turn Ben‑Yehuda's dream into reality were the lack of a national language in the region, a desire on the part of successive waves of immigrants from central and eastern Europe to renew Jewish culture, and memories of the centuries of ancient grandeur that the Jews had once experienced in the very place they now lived.

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Angel Saenz-Badillos

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