Revival of Hebrew
The Hebrew language was re-embraced by proponents of the Jewish
Enlightenment, then fully reborn in Palestine.
By Angel Saenz-Badillos
Reprinted from A
History of the Hebrew Language with the permission of Cambridge
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 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.
In 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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
Many other personalities played a part in this
undertaking, which at the beginning appeared little less than impossible.
Among them were important groups of teachers who adopted the cause
of teaching Hebrew via Hebrew.
During this first stage of the revival, which lasted
up to 1918, consideration was given to a number of problems in phonology
(adaptation of Hebrew to the pronunciation of foreign names, resulting
in the introduction of some graphemes that are followed by an apostrophe),
orthography (adoption of scriptio defectiva), and morphology and
syntax (no deliberate major changes).
However, the process did not follow just one path--at
the end of the 19th century, for example, I. Epstein and other leading
teachers cultivated a separate pronunciation in Galilee that continued
to gain ground until 1920 before eventually disappearing completely.
But the most pressing issue was the creation of
new words, the basic task of Ben-Yehuda and the Va'ad ha-Lashon
[Language Council], which began to operate in 1890. In the introduction
to Ben-Yehuda's Thesaurus, the methods employed for adapting the
language to everyday needs are explained.
These include a return to the scientific and technical
Hebrew vocabulary of the Tibbonid translations and the introduction
of Arabic loanwords on the basis of semantic proximity to Hebrew,
with their forms adapted to Hebrew patterns. From the Mishnah, Talmud,
and midrashim, Ben-Yehuda adopted any potentially useful Hebrew
and Aramaic expressions, and even Greek and Latin loanwords.
Aramaic morphological patterns and suffixes were
employed, and precise senses established for infrequent biblical
words, especially hapax legomena [a word that appears only once
in the texts of a given language], the meanings of which are not
evident from context. Roots attested in Biblical Hebrew were exploited
to derive additional vocabulary according to traditional morphological
patterns. The end result of this was an immense and thoroughgoing
enhancement of the expressive potential of the language.
Dr. Angel Saenz-Badillos is Professor of Hebrew
Language and Literature at Universidad Complutense, Madrid.
© Cambridge University Press 1993