The Evolution of Hebrew, Then and Now
By ISJL Education Fellow Mackenzie Haun
All languages change and evolve over time, but few have had the dramatically condensed and drastic change that Hebrew has undergone in the last 150 years. By the 1800’s, Hebrew was more or less a “dead” language. While it was still used in prayer, Torah reading, and religious study, it was neither employed daily nor usable in conversation. While this was not a pressing problem for most people, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was very troubled by it.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was born in Luzhky, Lithuania in 1858. Like many Jewish children of that time, his early education included biblical Hebrew and the eventual enrollment in a y’shivah (yeshivah/sitting/Jewish study house) to learn Talmud. Though he eventually pursued a more secular education, he was inspired by other self-contained communities with their own languages and histories to ensure that Jews had their own country and language as well. In 1881, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda moved to the Mutasarrifate of Jerusalem with a plan to start the revival of Hebrew as a spoken language. He began using Hebrew to speak with people that he met, with moderate success, but he was intent on having it be the only language Jews spoke in the region. When Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda (also known as Ittamar Ben-Avi), Eliezer Ben-Yehuda’s son, was born, Eliezer was intent on having him be the first child in modern history who spoke only Hebrew. While it took fairly extreme measures to accomplish this, it worked, making their family an embodiment of the movement for others to emulate. He also worked with schools, wrote a newspaper, compiled a dictionary, and worked with other Jewish immigrants along every step of the way. His efforts came to fruition on November 29, 1922, when British Mandate authorities recognized Hebrew as the official language of the Jews in Palestine. Ben-Yehuda passed away only a month after this declaration, so he never saw the establishment of the State of Israel. Though he did not do it alone, he is considered the true pioneer of the revival of the Hebrew language.
Continuing Evolution of Hebrew
While the bulk of Hebrew evolution happened in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it continues today. As technology continues to advance and social structures change, Hebrew is forced to grow and evolve as well. One of the biggest changes that is being pursued right now is the introduction of non-gendered language and pronouns. One of the limitations of Hebrew is that every aspect of it is gendered, which is what organizations like the Nonbinary Hebrew Project are working to combat. The ending of every Hebrew noun depends on whether the word is feminine or masculine as well as the gender of the person speaking. In 2016, the Habonim Dror camps were some of the first to start modifying Hebrew terms in order to foster a more inclusive space for their campers. As time has passed, many have worked to create a more systematized approach that can augment and modify the existing Hebrew lexicon. Like Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, Jews today are drawing on existing Hebrew framework both in roots of words and structure in order to keep growing and building the Hebrew language to keep up with the ever-evolving Jewish people.