The official language of Israel is Hebrew, but until the end of the 19th century, almost no one spoke Hebrew colloquially. Lashon Hakodesh, the holy tongue, was used only for prayer and study.

Modern Hebrew usage is credited to the efforts of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (originally Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman, born January 7, 1858), about whom the historian Cecil Roth noted: “Before Ben-Yehuda… Jews could speak Hebrew; after him they did.” Born in Luzhki, Russia, Ben-Yehuda abandoned his traditional background for more secular studies when he was a young adult. He also became an ardent Zionist.

Ben-Yehuda and his wife Devora arrived in Jerusalem in 1881. Even before he left Paris (where he had studied at the Sorbonne), Ben-Yehuda tried to use Hebrew to communicate with other Jews and many were able to respond to him because of their knowledge of Biblical Hebrew.

The Ben-Yehudas raised their children speaking only Hebrew. As they grew, Ben-Yehuda was forced to create new words for many items that did not have a Hebrew equivalent. (Devora Ben-Yehuda died of tuberculosis shortly before three of her children were taken in a diphtheria epidemic. Later, Ben-Yehuda married Devora’s younger sister, Hemda.)

Ben-Yehuda taught Hebrew in schools, lectured and printed Hebrew newspapers. His cause was not always popular. The majority “ultra-Orthodox” population of Jerusalem was highly opposed to the use of Lashon Hakodesh (the holy tongue) for everyday life.

The Committee of the Hebrew Language (later the Academy of the Hebrew Language) was created by Ben-Yehuda as another means of furthering the development of Hebrew. The Committee helped coin new words, worked through idiomatic difficulties and helped Ben-Yehuda create his 17 volume dictionary. Only six volumes were published before Ben-Yehuda died of tuberculosis in December 1922. His wife Hemda and son, Ehud, completed the remaining volumes.

This Treat was originally posted on October 10, 2013.

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