Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) was a pioneer in the revival of spoken Hebrew who used newspapers, the popular media of his time, to bring his ideology to the general public. At the same, time he helped found the Language Committee and composed the largest and most comprehensive Hebrew dictionary of his era, which aimed to record the Hebrew vocabulary from all periods (The Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, 1908-1959). Ben-Yehuda’s work is continued in spirit at the Academy of the Hebrew Language in the Historical Dictionary Project.


Young Ben-Yehuda

Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman was born on January 7, 1858 in Luzhki, which was then part of Vilna in the northwest region of Imperial Russia, today northern Belarus. His early education was in a traditional Jewish heder, or school, for young boys. In 1871, after his bar mitzvah, Ben-Yehuda was sent to his uncle in Polotsk to study in a yeshiva, or traditional Talmudic academy. The head of the yeshiva, Rabbi Yossi Bloyker, who secretly was part of the Haskala (Jewish Enlightenment movement), acquainted the teen with Hebrew grammar (which was then forbidden to learn), and Enlightenment literature.

Ben-Yehuda and Hebrew Journalism

Ben-Yehuda began his journalism career in the Holy Land at the newspaper Habazeleth (=Havatselet) which was owned by Israel Dov Frumkin. He continued working there until the end of 1884. While working with Frumkin, Ben-Yehuda also published his first newspaper, Mevasseret Tsiyon, which appeared as an insert to Havatselet in 1884. After leaving Havatselet, Ben-Yehuda began to publish his first independent newspaper, Hatsvi (1884).

Ben-Yehuda worked in journalism for 30 years, until shortly after the beginning of World War I. He used his newspaper as a tool for the dispersion of his ideologies concerning the revival of the Jewish nation — and against the old settlement in Jerusalem and the Haluka management that ran it — and also as a means of publicizing his innovations in reviving the Hebrew language.

Ben-Yehuda’s struggle and his attempts to create a free press were met with an angry response by the Turkish government, which occasionally shut down his papers. By Hanukkah of 1893, the Turks even censored the papers for a short period. To continue publication, Ben-Yehuda was forced to engage in subterfuge and to change the name of his publications.

Ben-Yehuda and the Language Committee

Ben-Yehuda’s work was not confined to journalism. In 1882 he established, with Yehiel Michal Pines, Hevrat Tehiyat Yisrael (the Organization for Rejuvenating Israel), which focused on the revitalization of the Nation of Israel in the Land of Israel, including the rebirth of the Hebrew language.

After almost eight years, in September 1889, Ben-Yehuda founded Safa Brura (Clear Speech) with Rabbi Ya’akov Meir (the sometime Rishon LeTsiyon), Rabbi Haim Hirshenson, and Rabbi Haim Kalami. The organization’s goal was the “instilling in all the residents of our ancestral land one clear language, the tongue of our early ancestors, which is of upmost sacristy,” as was written in a letter by the leadership in 1889.

A few short months later, at the end of 1890, Safa Brura founded the Literature Committee. Ben-Yehuda was chosen as president, and with him served Rabbi Haim Hirshenson, David Yellin, Ze’ev Ya’vets, Avraham Moshe Lunts, Rabbi Ya’akov Meir, and Yehiel Michal Pines. Shortly thereafter, the committee changed its name to Va’ad HaLashon (the Language Committee), which existed until 1891. In 1904, the committee renewed its efforts, and after the establishment of the State of Israel, it served as the basis for the foundation of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

Innovations in Hebrew and the Dictionary

Ben-Yehuda was first taken by the idea of the revitalization of the Hebrew language while living in Paris. He spoke about the lack of Hebrew jargon for foreign concepts and began to renew Hebrew words to fill the vacuum. Appropriately, the first word Ben-Yehuda created was “millon” for dictionary, which replaced the construction “sefer millim” (a book of words) which had been used until then as a translation of the German “Woerterbuch.” Additionally, Ben-Yehuda began to list words from Hebrew literature of all periods as a basis for an overarching Hebrew dictionary.

After three unsuccessful publication attempts (in 1887, 1895, and 1900-1905) his dictionary, the Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew, began to be published in Berlin in 1908. The dictionary was published in stages from 1908-1959, and was planned for 16 volumes, with an additional introductory volume. Five volumes were published before the start of World War I, and these were the only ones Ben-Yehuda saw before his death on December 16, 1922.

Ben-Yehuda did edit the sixth and seventh volumes prior to his death, which were printed posthumously. The eighth and ninth volumes were edited by Moshe Tsvi Segal, who was Professor of Bible and Semitic linguistics at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The remaining volumes, including the introduction, were edited by Naftali Hertz Tur-Sinai (né Harry Torczyner), who was Professor of Hebrew Language at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the President of the Language Committee, and later the first President of the Academy of the Hebrew Language.

Ben-Yehuda also published a pocket Hebrew-Yiddish-Russian dictionary in 1901 and a larger Russian-Hebrew-Yiddish dictionary with Yehuda Grazovsky in 1907.

Among the many hundreds of words Ben-Yehuda is credited with creating are “bubba” (doll), “glida” (ice cream), “zehut” (identity), “havita” (omelet), “haydak” (bacteria), and “rishmi” (official).

Eliezar Ben-Yehuda Memorial

The Eliezer Ben-Yehuda Memorial at the Academy of the Hebrew Language was first opened in 1973. On display is a selection of furniture, books, artwork, and tools from the dictionary research from Ben-Yehuda’s home in Jerusalem, which was donated by the family to the Academy.

The books from Ben-Yehuda’s library represent his world, the world of an enlightened Eastern European Jew transplanted to the Holy Land. Among them are sacred Jewish texts, many Hebrew dictionaries in various languages, encyclopedias from the turn of the 19th century, and more.

In 2008, upon the 150th Anniversary of Ben-Yehuda’s birth, UNESCO honored the linguist and his life’s work as an outstanding contribution to education, science, and culture.

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