How Ben Yehuda Revived Hebrew Part 1

Ron Cantor —  March 11, 2019 — Leave a comment
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Walk around Israel today and you will hear a lot of Hebrew. It’s our national language. But did you know that in the late 1800s, as Jews began to stream back into Israel, Hebrew was a dead language.

Hi everyone, I am Ron Cantor and you are listening to the podcast: The Miracle of Modern Israel. Before we get started, I want to send you my book, The 15 most important facts about the Israeli Palestinian Conflict free of charge. Just go to roncan.net/Israel48. This podcast is sponsored by Up-to-Zion Israel tours. Checkout uptozion.net to get information on one of our upcoming life-changing tours to Israel.

For the past six years I’ve had the privilege being the senior leader and now evangelist of one of the first modern day Hebrew-Speaking New Testament congregations in the world, right here in Tel Aviv.

It’s true, for nearly 2000 years, not one child grew up speaking Hebrew as his or her mother tongue. Yes, it was used in the synagogue, in the reading of the Hebrew Scriptures and the Siddur, the prayer book. But at the end of the service, no one continued to converse in the language of the prophets. In fact, to do such a thing would have been considered an unholy act. Hebrew is a holy language and can never be spoken in a mundane, everyday way, thought the rabbis.

However in 1882, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, a Jew from Lithuania, decided to challenge this idea. He would resurrect Hebrew as the language of the Jewish people. By this time people we were already speaking of the possibility of the Jewish Nation being reborn, but no one dreamed that the dead, non-spoken language of Hebrew would become the official language of the new Jewish State. However, Ben Yehuda felt that the revival of Hebrew was essential in uniting the Jewish people. 

For Ben Yehuda it was not enough to be able to read and write Hebrew in religious institutions—no—meals would be ordered in Hebrew, children would be praised and reprimanded in Hebrew and haggling over the price of vegetables in the market, would be done in Hebrew.

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Ben Yehuda and his wife immigrated to Palestine with the goal of only speaking Hebrew. This wasn’t too hard for Eliezer, as he was quite the linguist, being fluent in French, German, and Russian, as well as Yiddish and Hebrew. However, his wife’s barely spoke a word in Hebrew. 

There was one other stipulation before they said their vows in Egypt en route to the Holy Land: she would only speak to their children in Hebrew. She promised him that their children would only hear Hebrew. And thus Deborah Ben Yehuda dared to dream that’s she could be the woman to give birth to the first child in millennia that spoke Hebrew as his mother tongue.

When their first son, Ben Zion (Son of Zion) was born, they went to great lengths to make this happen. When visitors came over that could not be speak Hebrew, Ben Zion was sent to his room, lest he pick up foreign languages.

When you think of what was riding on this young man speaking Hebrew—the future generations of Israelis growing up speaking the language of King David and Jeremiah—it is no surprise that there was demonic resistance. More than three years passed and the boy uttered not a word. People began to tell Ben Yehuda that he was raising an idiot. 

Amazingly, in the midst of a domestic argument did Ben Zion find his tongue at four years of age.

Having come here as an immigrant myself with the goal of becoming fluent in Hebrew, I can imagine the stress of Deborah. Somedays, you just need to communicate in your native tongue. One day, without thinking she began to sing lullabies in Russian to Ben Zion. When Ben Yeshua heard a foreign tongue in his home he scolded his young wife. The boy wrote about the emotional scene: “It caused a great shock to pass over me when I saw my father in his anger and my mother in her grief and tears, and the muteness was removed from my lips, and speech came to my mouth.” He cried out, Lo Abba…not father.

And from then on, he spoke Hebrew, like a Frenchmen speaks French.

In part two, we will talk about the struggle to see Hebrew become the language of the Jews of Palestine.

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