Tongue of the Prophets
The rebirth of Hebrew as a spoken modern language in Israel is truly a great miracle! A bit of history will help us to understand the magnitude. The Bible (T’nakh) clearly teaches that God created Adam and Eve with the gift of language. It is clear from Genesis 11:1 that there was only one language before the Tower of Babel and conservative Judeo-Christian tradition has always held Hebrew as the mother of all languages, i.e., the original language. Dr. Jeff Benner of the Ancient Hebrew Research Center believes the Semitic peoples continued to speak Hebrew after the confusion at Babel. Hebrew was the language of Moses and all the prophets and of course, the language of the T’nakh. It was a living language used by the Israelites until the Babylonian exile in 586 B.C. when it began to be replaced by Aramaic, the political and cultural language of the Near East. The fact that the Word of God had to be translated when read to the returning exiles by Nehemiah (Neh. 8:8) after the Babylonian Captivity indicates the Isralites had lost fluency in Hebrew. Once they returned to the land of Israel, and under Nehemiah’s leadership, they did regain their use of Hebrew and it remained the common spoken language of the Israelites until the Dispersion in 70 AD.
The Dispersion (Hebrew: Galut – גלות) lasted almost two millennia, much longer than the 70 years of the Babylonian exile, thus the Diaspora Jews adopted as their common vernacular, the languages from the lands where they resided. Dr. Alvin Schiff was once the the President of the National Center for the Hebrew Language. In his essay, “Why Hebrew is Fundamental” (1999), he writes that Hebrew, “never ceased to be a medium of religious expression for the Jewish people” and that “it is the vehicle of the sacred past, of eternal Jewish values.” Ahad Ha’am (1893), in his essay, “Imitation and Assimilation”, viewed the role of Hebrew during the Dispersion, as both the expression of Judaic heritage and the key to the survival of the Jewish people during the long millennia. He thought that when the Holy Land was once again the ‘physical center of the Jewish people’, then ‘the Hebrew language would be the bridge between the Land and the Diaspora.’
Dr. Schiff writes, “although the initial steps towards the revival of Hebrew in modern times took place in Europe, its full-blown development occurred in the Jewish homeland” with the arrival in the Holy Land of Eastern European Zionist pioneers, chief of whom was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda originally from Lithuania. According to the excellent biography, “Fulfillment of Prophecy” written by Ben-Yehuda’s grandson of the same name, at age 19 Ben-Yehuda already had a vision of a national and spiritual home for the Jewish people. He felt that a Jewish state would need a common language to unify the people and he thought it should be Hebrew. He dedicated his life to this goal. Ben Yehuda and his wife, Devorah, moved to Jerusalem in 1881. He told her they would speak only in Hebrew in their home. Their first son, Ben Zion, was the first Hebrew speaking child in two millennia. With a child about, they had to speak about every day topics – all in Hebrew. Ben Yehuda began to “invent” Hebrew words for things that he did not have a word for. His wife and children must also receive full credit for the revival of Hebrew because they put his ideas into practical, everyday life and sacrificed greatly to “birth” modern Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda suffered with tuberculosis much of his life and his wife, Devorah, contracted it from him and died of it in 1891. At Devorah’s own request, Ben-Yehuda eventually married her younger sister, Hemda who encouraged and helped him in what is probably his greatest work – his Hebrew dictionary. From the 7,704 Hebrew words contained in the T’nakh, Ben Yehuda produced a Hebrew dictionary with over 100,000 Hebrew words that he had gleaned from extra-Biblical writings. He ‘invented’ about 300 Hebrew words. [There is a great movie called “The Word Maker” about Ben-Yehuda’s life that I highly recommend.] Ben-Yehuda died before completing the dictionary, but Hemda and his son Ben Zion completed and published it in 1922.
Dr. Schiff concluded his essay with a powerful observation: “the survival of Hebrew as a Holy Tongue, the survival of the Jewish people in their homeland and in the Diaspora, and the continuity of Jewish nationalism are interdependent.” Hebrew has been the language of the Jews throughout their existence. During dispersions from the Land, its use has waned. During returns to the Land, there have been revivalists of the language like Ben-Yehuda and Nehemiah before him. These visionaries have realized that Hebrew was essential for the survival of the Jewish people, for their spiritual continuity and for the establishment of the Jewish state. So of course, before the nation of Israel was reborn in 1948, the language of that nation had to be reborn and the “mid-wife” was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda! There are some differences between Biblical and Modern Hebrew, (obviously Modern Hebrew has a larger vocabulary), but basically the language is one and if Moses or the prophets could walk down Ben-Yehuda street in Jerusalem today, they would certainly understand much of the Hebrew that they heard! No other language on earth can claim this type of continuity!