Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was appropriately known as the father of the Hebrew language. Ben-Yehuda, an ardent Zionist, believed it was shared language that would help turn the Jewish people from a diaspora to a united nation.
He spent decades in pursuit of refining this common language, working as a lexicographer and reviving the Hebrew language for the modern world.
Born January 7, 1858, in what is now Belarus, Ben-Yehuda received a thorough Jewish education. He attended cheder and yeshiva, reading large portions of the Torah, Mishna and Talmud by the age of 12. He was exposed to Hebrew writing not just in religious texts, but also in secular Hebrew writings from the enlightenment.
Ben-Yehuda was a master at languages, studying French, German and Russian, but Hebrew was his first love. While studying at the Sorbonne in Paris, he enrolled in advanced Hebrew classes, eventually learning to speak the language fluently.
He moved to then-Palestine in 1881, settling in Jerusalem and finding work as a teacher at the Alliance Israelite Universelle school. There, he began developing a standardized Hebrew that could replace the colloquial forms of Yiddish spoken by most Jews at the time.
The goal was fueled by an awareness that so many of the Jews making aliyah spoke different languages and had no way to communicate with one another once in the homeland.
Ben-Yehuda became a noted journalist, as well. He was the editor of a handful of Hebrew publications, including HaZvi, Hashkafa and HaOr. While working in the media, he continued his lexicography, becoming a leader in Israel’s Committee of the Hebrew Language. That group eventually became the Academy of the Hebrew Language, which still operates today.
He is credited with authoring the first Hebrew dictionary and earned the affectionate nickname of ”reviver” of the Hebrew language.
In his personal life, Ben-Yehuda was married twice. His first wife, Devora, died of tuberculosis in 1891, leaving behind five young children. As her dying request, Devora asked Ben-Yehuda to marry her younger sister, Paula. The two did indeed marry, with Paula taking the Hebrew name Hemda.
Ben-Yehuda’s oldest son, Ben-Zion Ben-Yehuda, would become known as the first native Hebrew speaker in over a thousand years. When Ben-Yehuda died in December 1922, 30,000 people attended his funeral.
His is a legacy that is still remembered today, as Hebrew continues to flourish in Israel. As he once said, “The Hebrew language can live only if we revive the nation and return it to the fatherland.”