The Hebrew lexicographer and editor Eliezer Ben Yehuda
(1858-1922) is known as the father of spoken Hebrew. He revived the
Hebrew language and forged it into a modern and viable instrument of
Eliezer Ben Yehuda was born in the
small town of Lushki in the province of Vilna, Lithuania, where he
received a traditional Jewish education. At an early age he moved from
town to town in search of good religious and secular schooling. He
completed his secondary education in Dvinsk. Realizing that he would
not be accepted in a Russian university because of discriminatory laws
against Jews, Ben Yehuda went to the University of Paris, where he
studied medicine in 1879.
The struggle for independence in the
Balkan countries made Ben Yehuda aware of the homelessness of the Jews
and of the need to restore the ancient, wandering people to its
homeland - Palestine. In 1879 Ben Yehuda published his first Hebrew
article in Hashahar (The Dawn), the foremost Hebrew monthly of
the time. He presented the then novel idea of the return to Zion and
revival of the ancient Hebrew tongue as the spoken language of a
During his stay in Paris, Ben Yehuda
succumbed to tuberculosis and had to postpone his plan to settle in
Palestine. He went first to Algiers, where he continued to publish
articles in the Hebrew press, including the weekly Havazelet,
printed in Jerusalem. In 1881 he was invited to Jerusalem as assistant
editor of that weekly. His health having improved, he accepted the
post. On his way he married Dvora Jonas, who shared his ideals. Upon
his arrival in Jerusalem he organized a group which dedicated itself to
the task of using Hebrew as a daily language. It took Ben Yehuda many
years of persistent work to convince the skeptics that Hebrew could be
made to live again. He was also bitterly attacked by religious factions
in Jerusalem, who opposed the secular use of the holy tongue. In his
own newspapers, which he had begun to publish, he coined new Hebrew
terms and words for daily use. His children were the first in modern
times to speak Hebrew as their mother tongue.
To make available
the riches of ancient as well as modern Hebrew, Ben Yehuda concentrated
his efforts on his monumental lifework, The Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, Old and New.
He worked daily on the dictionary and continued the task during the
years of World War I, which he spent in New York. At his death five
volumes of the dictionary had been published. Ben Yehuda left enough
material to complete the work. In all, 16 volumes were published, the
last one appearing in 1959. Ben Yehuda also wrote textbooks in history
and literature and translated literary works into Hebrew.
Yehuda's first wife, Dvora, died in 1891. His second wife, Heinda, a
sister of Dvora, was the first woman to write stories on life in the
new Palestine. Ben Yehuda suffered from poor health; at times he
endured hunger and persecution; yet at the end he witnessed the triumph
of his ideal. The Hebrew language, which has become the national tongue
of Israel, today serves as the mortar that cements the multilingual
Jews who have come from the far corners of the world into one nation.
A fine biography of Ben Yehuda in English is Robert St. John, Tongue of the Prophets: The Life Story of Eliezer Ben Yehuda (1952).
Ben-Yehuda, Eliezer, A dream come true, Boulder: Westview Press, 1993.