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The History & Revival of the Hebrew Language

– Today, the Hebrew language
and the state of Israel seem inseparable. But what’s crazy is that, for millennia, spoken Hebrew was an
all-but-dead language. Sure, the Bible, prayers,
and religious texts were written and read in Hebrew, but nobody spoke it in daily life. So, how did an almost
extinct biblical language become the mother tongue of world Jewry in the span of only a few decades, something that had never happened in the history of language? And what role did a radical
linguistic revolutionary named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda play in the miraculous rebirth of Hebrew? (upbeat music) Let’s go back, way back. In the Bible, the Jews,
otherwise known as Hebrews, spoke an ancient, well, more
biblical version of Hebrew. Biblical Hebrew remained
the native tongue of Jews for over a 1,000 years, but Hebrew as a spoken language began to die out around the year 70. That’s the year the Romans destroyed the Second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and exiled a vast number of
Jewish people from Israel. And Hebrew as a spoken language really kicked the bucket
about 65 years later in 135 after the failure of the Bar Kokhba revolt when Roman Emperor Hadrian
expelled, enslaved, or killed most of Israel’s remaining Jews, the final native Hebrew speakers. So that should have been
the end of Hebrew, right? Well, no. Hebrew as a spoken language was dead, but the few Jews left in Israel continued using Hebrew
in the study of Torah but, and this is key, they’d only use it as a
written literary language. According to Lewis Glinert in his book “The Story of Hebrew,” reading Hebrew became a
sort of spiritual resistance by Jews against the Roman oppressors. By the turn of the 2nd century, Aramaic had become the
commonly-used language in the Middle East, but Hebrew as a written
language for Torah study still persisted. And at the turn of the 3rd
century, Rabbi Judah the Prince, then the leader of the small remaining Israel Jewish community, was determined to give written Hebrew an even better shot at survival. He decided that he would
exclusively use Hebrew in his editing of the Mishnah, the compilation of Jewish Law, and the basis for the Talmud. His very deliberate
choice to codify Hebrew as the language of the Mishnah
kept written Hebrew alive. But by the 6th century, Hebrew’s use for Torah
study was very limited. This is when the Talmud,
the encyclopedia of work forming the basis of all
Jewish Law, was composed. It was a whopping 5,400 or
so pages in mostly Aramaic. Still though, Hebrew held on. Medieval scholars wrote their commentaries on the Bible and Talmud in Hebrew, from Rabbi Shlomo Yitzchaki,
or Rashi, in France, to Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra in Spain. Maimonides, the 12th century leader of the Jewish community in Egypt, wrote his Mission of Torah,
or Code of Law, in Hebrew, covering every detail
of Jewish observance. Okay, we’ve got the ancient
and medieval history covered, so it’s time to talk
about Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, who resurrected Hebrew
as a spoken language in its modern form, right? Not so fast. The revival of Hebrew as a modern language actually started well before his time, with one period often overlooked. The 18th century saw the
Age of Enlightenment, during which the study of
language rose in popularity, and Hebrew’s no exception. In fact, many Christians
obsessed over Hebrew, regarding it as a classical
language akin to Latin, as you can see from some of the emblems of Ivy League schools. Some of American Founders were well-versed in Hebrew as well, James Madison and Alexander
Hamilton chief among them. In 1783, secular Jewish intellectuals part of the Jewish Enlightenment movement known as the Haskalah, started a Hebrew language
periodical called “HaMe’asef.” Their goal was to spread the language and demonstrate its beauty. By publishing Hebrew language newspapers distributed to tens of thousands, they furthered a new Hebrew style closely tied to the vernacular and very different from
old school rabbinic Hebrew. So, while this new Hebrew 2.0
was still mainly literary, it was now used to write about
all sorts of mundane things, not just the Bible. Okay, enough about reading
and writing Hebrew, when and how did Hebrew actually
become a spoken language? Well, in the late 19th century, the Zionist movement began to take shape. And amongst cultural Zionists, as opposed to Theodor Herzl’s
more political Zionism, Hebrew was a way to return to
their ancient Jewish roots. But modern Hebrew still
faced some major hurdles. One of them was Yiddish. Yiddish wasn’t just the spoken language of most European Jews, it was their mother
tongue, their way of life. The Hebrew pioneers themselves didn’t start off speaking Hebrew. Imagine these Yiddish speakers struggling to use a
language in their daily life that must have sounded
terribly formal and stilted. It’d be like trying to
order a pizza in Latin. And there were more than a
fair share of Zionist leaders who didn’t have much faith in
the resurrection of Hebrew. Moshe Lilienblum, a
pre-Herzl Zionist leader, actually said Hebrew’s time was up. Herzl himself even thought German was the natural choice for Zionism. After all, he said, “Who knows enough Hebrew
to buy a train ticket?” And of course there were
the Ashkenazi Orthodox Jews, many of them Hasidim, who still held firm in their belief that Hebrew should only
be used for holy topics like Torah study and prayer, even more so now that modern
Hebrew had become associated with secularism and Zionism, things they were not huge fans of. So, all in all, the opportunity
to revive spoken Hebrew seemed quite slim. And then, there was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman, he believed the future of the Jews required both their own
land and their own language, and Hebrew was the way to
unite Jews across the globe. Eliezer’s obsession with Hebrew
started as a child in Europe when his yeshiva teacher
secretly introduced him to secular Hebrew literature such as the works of Ahad Ha’am, a leader of the cultural Zionist movement we spoke about earlier. Eliezer also discovered that in rare cases when two Jewish communities
spoke different languages, say Yiddish and Arabic, needed to correspond with each other, they would sometimes use
a form of medieval Hebrew as a common language. This strengthened his resolve, and in 1881 he packed his bags and made the trek to Palestine. Adopting the biblical-sounding
name Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, he and his wife established the world’s first
strictly-speaking Hebrew household in almost 2,000 years, and soon produced the world’s
first native Hebrew speaker in almost 2,000 years, their son, Ben-Zion. Now, it’s easy to criticize
how Ben-Yehuda raised Ben-Zion, in a home that spoke a
language no one else was using. But sometimes it takes
a little bit of crazy to create profound change. The experiment got off to a rough start. By the age of four, Ben-Zion
still wasn’t talking, and Ben-Yehuda was so obsessed with proving that Hebrew could exist as a modern and daily language, he actually prevented Ben-Zion
from playing with other kids to avoid any corruption of his Hebrew. Ben-Zion later wrote that his father wouldn’t let him listen
to the chirping of birds or the neigh of horses, since they didn’t do it in Hebrew. Maybe an exaggeration, but
Ben-Yehuda wasn’t messing around. Ben-Yehuda’s friends and colleagues were telling him to give up. But suddenly, the kid’s
first word finally came. Abba, daddy. Ben-Yehuda wrote in his diary that there was now no room for doubt that Hebrew could become
the spoken language of the community. But how do you make this change happen? Ben-Yehuda believed the key was to use it as the language of instruction in schools. Hebrew wouldn’t just be a subject studied, it would be the language used
to teach all other subjects, like math and history. The first all-Hebrew elementary
school was founded in 1899, and within 10 years the
number of all-Hebrew schools grew to 20, with 2,500 students. Ben-Yehuda argued that Hebrew
would become a living language by moving from the schools into the home, and his work convinced many
secular nationalist Jews of the same thing. In 1890, Ben-Yehuda
founded the Va’ad Halashon, or the Language Council, which still sexists to this day as the Academy of the Hebrew Language. The Council published
bulletins and dictionaries, coining thousands of words
you don’t find in the Torah, like doll, ice cream, and bicycle. Not every word he invented caught on, but Ben-Yehuda took it upon himself to keep the language growing. Like we mentioned earlier, Theodor Herzl, the founder
of political Zionism, initially preferred German to Hebrew as the language for Israel. But he soon reversed his
position, even embracing Hebrew while embarrassed that
he could not speak it. After his death, the Zionist Congress officially declared Hebrew
the language of Zionism. The language spread through
schools and homes in Israel and developed through trial and error. But Eliezer Ben-Yehuda
had achieved his goal. Shortly before Ben-Yehuda died in 1922, Britain officially recognized Hebrew as the language of Palestine’s
Jewish inhabitants. 26 years, Israel became an
official Hebrew-speaking state. But just like the story
didn’t begin with Ben-Yehuda, it certainly doesn’t end there either. He became the face of the movement but there was still a
lot of work to be done. While Ben-Yehuda invented about 150 words, his son Ben-Zion and others
came up with thousands more. In fact, the first Hebrew dictionary wasn’t completed until 1959, 11 years after Israel was founded. And just think about
the fields of medicine, science, and law. Entire dictionaries needed to be written to cover new concepts
that hadn’t even existed when the Bible was written. Men like Dr. Aharon Meir Mazie took on the task of advising
Ben-Yehuda during his life and continued his work after his death. By the time of Israel’s establishment, over 90% of Israeli kids under 15 were already fluent in Hebrew. With refugees pouring in from all over the world at that time, the need for a common
language was front and center. Hebrew was still battling
Yiddish as a popular language, but many in Israel’s
booming immigrant population considered Yiddish a language of exile and a reminder of things
they’d rather forget. With the new state founded, Israeli leaders wanted to
cement an Israeli identity and they knew Hebrew was a key ingredient needed to bond them all together. Ben-Gurion went so far
as suppressing Yiddish from bring used in any public role, using a well-organized political system to force Hebrew usage through
its comprehensive services to the immigrant masses. Schools were in Hebrew, youth
movements were in Hebrew, compulsory military service was in Hebrew. Political leaders, he
prayersized their names. David Grun became David Ben-Gurion. Golda Meyerson became Golda Meir. And thus, Hebrew as a
language finally won. So, it would seem like Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was responsible in many ways for reviving and modernizing Hebrew. But it took an entire
people over many centuries to ensure that he would be
able to accomplish this feat. So, while we usually credit Ben-Yehuda with single-handedly
bringing Hebrew back to life, it’s really more complicated than that. As Zionist leader Menachem Ussishkin later said of Ben-Yehuda, “The people needed a hero,
so we gave them one.” Still, it was Ben-Yehuda
who steered the language past the array of obstacles facing it in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Remember, not everyone
wanted it to succeed. If Herzl had his way initially, Israelis would be speaking German. It doesn’t sound right, does it? So, can your average American teenager read and understand a
300-year-old English manuscript without help? Unlikely. But any Hebrew speaker can open up a 3,000-year-old Hebrew
text and make sense of it, religious or not. Hebrew’s rebirth returned
a common language to an ancient people, and its revival also helped lead to the miracle of Israel’s rebirth. Jews now have both a land and a language, just as Ben-Yehuda envisioned. Thanks for watching,
see you guys next week. (upbeat music)

30 Replies to “The History & Revival of the Hebrew Language”

  • The language is still growing with many slang terms popping up all the time. There is a think-tank in case a new word has to be invented. When it is agreed on what the word will be, it is highly published as part of the news. Can you imagine that in English?

  • Really interesting. It occurred to me that if Eliezer Ben Yehuda's household was the first Hebrew speaking household in 1900 years, and his son was the first native born Hebrew speaker, then the Ben Yehuda family is the ground zero for how native sounding Hebrew sounds today.

  • It is of course a good thing to have a unifying national language, but I still think it's a pity Yiddisch is all but gone now.

  • How does a modern day Hebrew dialect/pronunciation measures up against the ancient native? Ivrit sounds more Yiddish/German that it does as a Semitic language.

    I heard that around 80% of the vocabulary was added to the language over the past 120 years. Is that true?

    If a modern day Israeli Jew got inside a time machine and traveled back 2000 years, will he/she be able to carry an effective discussion with an ancient native?
    Wait didn't the natives speak Aramaic with a Judean dialect even centuries before the common era?

  • Arameic had technically replaced Hebrew as a spoken language by the time of the destruction of the temple (let's assume that's a fact..)

  • There seems to be some discussion as to whether it was Hebrew or Aramaic which was spoken in the first century A.D. I found some very interesting ideas about the language situation in Israel around that time, and about what language it was Jesus Christ (or Yeshua) and the people of His days actually spoke with eachother in everyday life, which I copy here in extenso. With my thanks to author and scholar Dr. David Reagan (University of Texas, Austin).

    Aramaic is a Semitic language related to Hebrew in much the same way as Spanish is related to Italian. It was a major language in the Middle East and beyond in the centuries before and after the time of Christ. It seems to have been (in varying dialects) the language of the common people throughout much of the Middles East at the time of Christ.

    Although the Jews of the time must have known and spoken Hebrew, it is still likely that the common language of the Bible lands was Aramaic. Of course, they may have simply considered it a different form of Hebrew in the same way that the Arabic of Morocco cannot be understood by the Arabs of Iraq and vice versa, but they all consider themselves to be speaking Arabic. I say this because Aramaic is not mentioned as a distinct language in the New Testament. Therefore, it may have been considered as another form of Hebrew because of its similarity.

    The evidence for Jesus speaking Aramaic is found in some of the statements in the gospels that are transliterated in the King James Bible. For instance:

    Mark 5:41

    <<And he took the damsel by the hand, and said unto her, Talitha cumi; which is, being interpreted, Damsel, I say unto thee, arise.>>

    The statement is said to be Aramaic and not Hebrew or Greek. Also notice that it is translated for those who were reading it in Greek. Another example is:

    Matthew 27:46

    << And about the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?
    This statement is also said to be in Aramaic. As I said before, Aramaic is closely related to Hebrew but it is not the same language. Therefore, whenever someone was speaking in Aramaic in the Bible, this had to be translated into Greek before it was put in the New Testament books as Greek. However, this pretranslation would have been required whether they spoke Aramaic or Hebrew (for another example of pretranslation see Acts 21:40, where Paul spoke in Hebrew but the book of Acts was written in Greek). Greek was the universal language, Latin was the governmental language, Hebrew was the religious language of the Jews, and Aramaic was the common language of the Middle East. These folks were quite linguistic no matter how you look at it. ☺

    Quotations from older Bible Books in Aramaic: Daniel 2:4-7
    :8; Ezra 4:8-6:18; 7:12-26; Jeremiah 10:11.

    This almost certainly goes back to the Persian influence in language at the times these books were written.
    Dr. David Reagan

  • The death of the Hebrew language and its revival is an exaggerated myth.
    A language can not revive from death in such a short period.

  • woah wait hertzl himself proposed german as the language for the jewish state. imagine if that realy caught on.

  • Please consider changing your channel theme music to this:

    It's more, well, Hebrew!! 😉

  • They got their original land back and their original language back , what a timing!! Prophecies are being fulfilled. All points to the return of the Messiah

  • Good thing we can be super cheery about a movement that forced Jewish people to move to a place most didnt want to go to and slaughtered natives indiscriminately and is now the reason for the world's largest open air prison where they deprive children and the elderly of medicine and wheelchairs and food. Yaaay Zionism….

  • The statement that Deutschland would have forced Western Countries to speak in German is extremely ignorant and obviously wrong to anyone who knows their History. Hebrew was an Egyptian Mystery Language used by occultists and practitioners of The Mystery’s in Mizraim which is why vowels were left out. KMT was not an actual name for Egypt but instead was used to refer to the land of Black Magick or Alchemy (Al Khem y) and KMT is where our word Chemistry comes from roughly meaning the study of dark things and nowhere until modern times were Black and White used in terms of identity as it makes no sense at all. Modern Hebrew is basically just Aramaic and very, very similar to Assyrian, which makes sense as that was the go to language systemically and recreationally in that time period and in that “Near East” part of the world.

  • Amazing, congrats to Israel and the Jewish people from India. We have 30 states here and more than 50 languages in our country. We will work hard to preserve every single one despite the invasions and genocides.

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