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The miracle of modern-day Hebrew

New olim learn Hebrew at an ulpan at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1967. MOSHE MILNER ISRAEL NATIONAL PHOTO COLLECTION

To celebrate Chanukah, The CJN is running a series, eight miracles for eight days. In this final instalment, Martin Lockshin examines the miracle of the revival of the Hebrew language.

In 1924, the first Jewish university in the land of Israel, the Technion, was ready to open its doors. But what would be the language of instruction? At first, it was decided that classes would be in German, the dominant scientific language of the time. After all, how could teachers who didn’t know Hebrew well teach science without proper terminology and with no Hebrew textbooks? But those who advocated for Hebrew were vocal, if not numerous. And they had some practical arguments—the Technion’s students would presumably arrive from countries around the world. Hebrew would unify them in a way that German or any other “secular” language never could. After a lengthy argument, the Technion reversed the decision. Classes were conducted in Hebrew.

The successful revival of Hebrew as a language of science and culture, and perhaps even more surprising, as a spoken language, was one of the most impressive of the many accomplishments connected with the modern State of Israel. A survey of the history of the Hebrew language shows just how impressive.


In biblical times, until around the sixth century BCE presumably all Jews spoke Hebrew. But that was the last time that was true.
In 586 BCE, the First Temple was destroyed and the Jewish People were exiled to Babylonia. Some years later, a minority returned to the Land of Israel. Judging from the late books of the Hebrew Bible, many Jews had already stopped speaking Hebrew. Some books from this period of exile, return and reconstruction – like Malachi and Esther – are written in Hebrew, but others – like Daniel – are written in a combination of Hebrew and Aramaic. (Aramaic is a sister Semitic language with many similarities to Hebrew, but it was primarily the language of non-Jewish Semites who lived in the ancient near east.)

Immigrants read the daily Hebrew paper outside an absorption centre in 1979. MOSHE MILNER, ISRAEL NATIONAL PHOTO COLLECTION

In the fifth century BCE, Nehemiah bemoaned the fact that children born to Jews in the land of Israel “spoke the language of Ashdod and the language of . . . various other people, and did not know how to speak Judean [= Hebrew]” (Nehemiah 13:24). Most of the biblical book of Ezra, which relates stories about Nehemiah, is written not in Hebrew but in Aramaic.

The events of Chanukah in the second century BCE, culminated in a miraculous victory against the Syrian-Greek king, Antiochus. The Jews were led by the Maccabees with their Jewish names – Mattathias, Judah and Simon. They rejected Hellenistic culture, including the Greek language, and the first Jewish kings after the victorious revolt minted coins with Hebrew writing. Yet only 50 years later, the Jewish kings that succeeded them had Greek names like Hyrcanus and Aristobulus. They minted coins with Greek writing, good evidence that Jews in the land of Israel were not all speaking Hebrew.

A hundred years after the Maccabees, the Romans occupied the land they called Palestine. During this period, few if any Jews there spoke Hebrew in their daily lives. Various passages in the New Testament (written in the first century CE) indicate that Jesus and his disciples, all Jews living in the land of Israel, conversed in Aramaic. Some Jews also spoke Greek. Both the Jerusalem Talmud and the Babylonian Talmud were written in a mix of Hebrew and Aramaic.


Around the year 200 CE, the Mishnah was written in the Land of Israel in Hebrew, not in Aramaic, which might show that Hebrew was still a living language. But many scholars argue that already at this point, learned Jews used Hebrew purely as a literary language, not for daily conversation.

Diglossia (a situation in which two languages, or two varieties of the same language, are used under different conditions within a community, often by the same speakers) was very common in the pre-modern world. Learned Christians in medieval France, for example, wrote in Latin but spoke French. Learned Muslims wrote in classical Arabic but spoke a colloquial dialect that was very different. (This is still true in most Arabic-speaking countries today.) Similarly, learned Jews wrote in Hebrew but did not speak the language. Both Rashi (1040-1105) and Maimonides (1136-1204) wrote in beautiful rich Hebrew but they clearly did not speak it when they sat down to dinner with their families.
Most of the classics of medieval Jewish philosophy were written in Judeo-Arabic, a Jewish dialect of Arabic written in Hebrew letters and containing some Hebrew words. Maimonides wrote the Guide of the Perplexed, Rabbi Judah Halevi (1075-c. 1141) wrote the Kuzari, and Saadiah Gaon (c. 882-942) wrote The Book of Beliefs and Opinions—all in Judeo-Arabic. Apparently they felt that Hebrew lacked terms for philosophical concepts. Similarly, some of the earliest and most important works of Hebrew grammar – by Judah Hayyuj (945-1000) and Jonah ibn Janah (990-1055) – were written in Judeo-Arabic. Even when discussing Hebrew grammar and syntax, they felt they lacked the proper terminology.

Throughout these periods, learned Jews continued to read, study, and even to write in Hebrew, but the language had a relatively limited vocabulary. Moses Maimonides wrote that biblical Hebrew was called the holy language since it lacked terms for the sexual organs and for fornication. Perhaps he was right. Or perhaps the texts from antiquity that he saw, from the time when Jews really did speak Hebrew, simply had no occasion to record whatever words were commonly used for the sexual organs, or preferred to use euphemisms or circumlocutions, just as many cultured people do today.

One of the world’s greatest experts on the history of the Hebrew language, Prof. Moshe Goshen-Gottstein, used to point out that significant segments of the vocabulary of spoken Hebrew from antiquity must have been lost. The Bible does not name a single fish – no tuna, salmon, or mackerel. Archeological evidence shows that fishing was a very important industry in biblical Israel, so words for each of the local varieties of fish must have existed. Why are they not preserved in the Bible? Because it didn’t happen to come up!

To summarize, from 100 BCE to 1900 CE, most Jews lived outside of Israel and had no opportunity to speak Hebrew, even if many of them read it. Even Jews in the Land of Israel generally spoke a version of the language of whatever conqueror was in power. And even traditional Jewish authors who wrote in Hebrew turned to languages with more established technical vocabularies when writing scientific or philosophical works.

Israeli Minister of Culture Miri Regev at the opening of Hebrew Book Week at Rabin Square in Tel Aviv. Around seven million Jews are now fluent in Hebrew. KOBI GIDEON, ISRAEL NATIONAL PHOTO COLLECTION

Thus the challenge in modern times of turning Hebrew into a spoken language was formidable. Aside from its not having been spoken on a regular basis for millennia, Hebrew lacked everyday kitchen words, like “jam,” “sauté,” or “banana.” Modern scientific terms, like “atom,” “neuron,” or “deductive reasoning” also did not exist.

Intelligent naysayers opposed the attempt to revive Hebrew. Theodor Herzl did not speak Hebrew and never imagined that the Jewish state he dreamed of would function in Hebrew.

The only way that Hebrew could become the language of the land of Israel was through obstinacy. Eliezer Ben Yehudah (1858-1922), often seen as the father of modern Hebrew, truly was its extreme promoter. He decided to raise his family in Jerusalem totally in Hebrew, forbidding the use of any other language in his home, and causing his children to feel the isolation of not having a common language with their peers.
Undaunted, he and many others worked hard to create new words that would bring Hebrew into the 20th century, words like hilukhim for the gears of a car and galgelet for a pulley, both words built on biblical Hebrew roots. Some of these words caught on, but often Hebrew speakers simply borrowed words from other languages, just as all languages do. (Consider the English words “kindergarten,” from

German, or “montage,” from French.) Sometimes a fight between a newly created Hebrew word and a foreign loan word continues for years. Many Israelis use a fine new Hebrew word, balamim (again constructed from a biblical root), for the brakes of their car; others just say breksim.

A crucial tool for convincing modern Jews to speak Hebrew was social pressure. In the years just before and after the creation of the State, people who spoke another language in public were often chastised: “Ivri, dabber ivrit!” (Hebrew person, speak Hebrew!)

Convincing people to abandon the language of their childhood and start speaking another is an amazing accomplishment. Just as surprising was the successful creation of a language that functions well in the 20th and 21st centuries after so many years of disuse. Modern Hebrew is both new and old: its speakers can discuss cubism or physics, but they are still able to open a Bible and understand at least its prose passages, much better than we modern English speakers can understand medieval English. Modern Hebrew unites Jews who moved to Israel from dozens of countries speaking dozens of languages; it unites them with Diaspora Jews who take the trouble to learn the language; and it is used by both secular and religious Jews.

Languages generally develop on their own and are not engineered. (Witness the failure of Esperanto advocates to manufacture a language and convince people to use it.) But this social engineering project was an amazing success. Around seven million Jews are now fluent speakers of Hebrew, the largest number of Jews speaking Hebrew at any time in history. Wonder of wonders, miracle of miracles!