Modern Hebrew

sholem-yakov-abramovichMendele Mokher Sefarim (the pen name of Sholem Yakov Abramovich, 1836-1917) is often called the Creator of Modern Hebrew (as opposed to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the Father of Modern Hebrew). Whereas Jews in Central Europe had turned away from Hebrew in expressing secular subjects in favor of the local vernacular, Jews in Eastern Europe did not have access to non-Jewish culture and therefore still utilized Hebrew for writing secular thought.

Mendele is considered the father of two literary languages, Hebrew and Yiddish, which until then had been relegated to less academic usages. Mendele was very precise in his writing and found it difficult to express fully his ideas in a Biblical Hebrew-based Hebrew. He therefore decided to create a Hebrew language of his own.

In Mendele’s Hebrew there is significant exploitation and influence of Mishnaic Hebrew, both in terms of grammar and lexicon; he also utilized Aramaic. Mendele turned to other sources as well: the siddur (prayer book), Medieval Hebrew, the widely-known Rashi commentaries, and other popular texts.

Mendele was successful in his new literary Hebrew, but he had no interest in reviving the language as a spoken tongue. Indeed, in one of his short stories he even mocks those who try to speak Hebrew. Spoken Hebrew needed a different patriarch, which it found in Eliezer Ben-Yehuda.


Shalom Yaakov Abramovitch, also known as Mendele Mocher Sforim, published his great work, “Natural History,” in three volumes. The first volume, “Mammals,” was published in Leipzig in 1862. The second, “Birds”, was published inZhytomyin 1866. And the third volume, “Reptiles,” was published in Vilnius in 1872. The image displayed here was scanned from the work’s accompanying illustrations, which were published at the end of the first volume.

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