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  • Daniel Botkin

Rebirth of a Dead Language: A Short History of Hebrew

The Hebrew language has a history unlike the history of any other language. After the Romans destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70, the Hebrew-speaking Jews in Israel were scattered. Sometime after that, Hebrew ceased being a spoken language and was used only for scholarly and religious purposes, somewhat like Latin was used in the Roman Catholic world after Latin ceased being a spoken language.

Scholars disagree about whether or not Hebrew was ever a “dead” language. William Chomsky, in his book Hebrew: The Eternal Language, points out that throughout history there were thousands of Jewish and Christian scholars who studied Hebrew. For Chomsky, this is proof enough that Hebrew never died. But other scholars quite plainly refer to Hebrew as being dead prior to its resurrection as a spoken language in Israel. Menachem Mansoor, associate chairman of the department of Hebrew and Semitic studies at the University of Wisconsin, writes, “It is the only known revival of a dead language in the history of nations.”1

Whether one prefers to describe it as dead, half-dead, or dormant, the fact remains that for nearly 2,000 years no one spoke Hebrew as their mother tongue. Native speakers of Hebrew were nonexistent.

The man primarily responsible for Hebrew’s rebirth as a spoken language was Eliezer Ben Yehuda (1858-1922). This sick with tuberculosis, penniless man left Lithuania and moved to Jerusalem in 1881. For the next 41 years he labored day and night to see Hebrew restored as the mother tongue of the Jews in Palestine. He was ridiculed, criticized and opposed, yet he triumphed.

One might get an idea of the task Ben Yehuda faced by this comparison: Suppose a poor, sickly scholar were to decide that Latin should not be used only for scholarly and religious purposes. It should also be the mother tongue of Catholics in Italy. And suppose this man were to go to Italy and insist that Latin be resurrected and adopted as the national language for all Catholics in Italy. The possibility of success would be almost nonexistent, especially if the majority of the people opposed the idea.

When looked at in these terms, the word “miracle” does not seem hyperbolic. Many people view the 1948 rebirth of the nation of Israel as a fulfillment of Biblical prophecy. And some see the rebirth of the Hebrew language, like the rebirth of Israel, as something that came about by Divine decree. Eliezer Ben Yehuda was just a willing instrument in the hand of God.


Throughout history there have been Jewish and Christian scholars who regarded Hebrew as the “Mother of Languages.” If one accepts Genesis as historical fact, then one must conclude that there was one original, God-given language shared by all people until the Tower of Babel. That language, according to some, was Hebrew.

This is not just romantic speculation with no linguistic basis. There are several places in the Hebrew Bible where the reader can see plays on words - puns, if you will - that are evident only in the Hebrew text. If the Hebrew text is only a translation of what God and Adam said, how does one account for the plays on words? There are far too many to be accidental.

One well-known example is when Adam says, “She shall be called woman (ishah) because she was taken out of man (ish).” When Adam calls her “Eve” (Chavah), it is because she is the mother of all living (chai). Adam’s name also bears witness to his source. God forms man (adam) from the dust of the ground (adamah). Inside the man (adam) there is blood (dam). Many similar examples appear throughout the Hebrew Bible.

The written form of the Hebrew alphabet has undergone changes. It has been suggested (or assumed) by some people that the ancient Hebrew symbols evolved from pictographic writing. Others argue that there is no evidence for this idea. The symbols, they say, are arbitrary and artificial. The names given to the various letters (aleph, beit, gimel, etc.) do not mean that the symbols were originally stylized drawings of an ox (aleph), a house (beit), a camel (gimel), etc. Rather, the names were given to the symbols as a mnemonic aid, just as an English-speaking child learns “A is for apple, B is for ball, C is for cat,” etc.

Although the way of writing the Hebrew alphabet has changed, the grammatical changes have been few. The original linguistic pattern has remained much the same. The Hebrew Bible was written over a period of approximately 1,000 years. Other Hebrew documents from the Biblical period use a style that resembles that of the Bible in syntax and grammatical form.

Even though Moses wrote over 3,000 years ago, a native Israeli today can read the writings of Moses with very little difficulty, once they get used to the way verbs are conjugated and the somewhat archaic style. Even I can read the narrative passages with very little difficulty. Passages written in a poetic style, using many rare, obscure words, are more difficult for me.

Why did Hebrew undergo so little change compared to other languages? One probable reason is the place of honor given to the Bible. This Book, especially the Torah, was the center of Jewish existence. The life of every faithful Jew revolved around the Torah. Therefore all faithful Jews were familiar with the style of Hebrew that Moses used. It was read in the synagogues and quoted in the streets. The mind of the Hebrew nation was saturated with the Hebrew of Moses.

Another reason the language was so resistant to change may have been the notion of its holiness. After all, this was the language that God had used to talk to Moses.

A third factor that helped keep Hebrew pure was the fact that it was a language that belonged only to the Israelites. Israel’s identity as a people set apart from the Gentiles acted as a shield that limited the intrusion of foreign words.


How and when did Hebrew cease being a spoken language? According to Saadia, a tenth century Hebrew grammarian, the Jews abandoned Hebrew and adopted Aramaic when they were taken into Babylon around 2500 years ago. However, this seems illogical to me. The Babylonian Captivity lasted only seventy years, and then the Jews were free to return to their homeland. Why would a proud people with such a rich heritage abandon the language which was so interwoven with that heritage? After seventy years in Babylon, when the Jews returned to rebuild Jerusalem, Nehemiah was one of the leaders. Writing of those days, Nehemiah says:

“In those days also saw I Jews that had married wives of Ashdod, of Ammon, and of Moab: and their children spake half in the speech of Ashdod, and could not speak in the Jews’ language, but according to the language of each people. And I contended with them, and cursed them, and smote certain of them, and plucked off their hair....” (Neh. 13:23-35).

This passage makes me wonder why Saadia’s view was ever accepted, especially given the fact that Nehemiah wrote it in Hebrew, not in Aramaic. Surely “the Jews’ language” refers to Hebrew, not to Aramaic. It is not feasible to think that Nehemiah would have been so zealous and eager to preserve Aramaic, a language shared by several non-Jewish peoples.

Most scholars now agree that Hebrew continued to be used as a spoken language in Israel at least as late as the period of the Maccabees (c. 165 BC), and possibly even as late as New Testament times. I have read claims that the Jews spoke Hebrew at this time and I have read claims that they spoke Aramaic. Some believe that the Jews at this time were conversant in both languages.

Hebrew and Aramaic are closely related sister languages. An amusing story is told in the Talmud (Ned. 66b) that illustrates the similarities and differences in the two languages. An Aramaic-speaking Jew from Babylon married a Hebrew-speaking girl from Palestine. One day he asked her to bring him two botzinei (young pumpkins). This word was used in Hebrew to refer to candles, so the wife brought him two candles and asked what she should do with them. In his frustration, he told her to just break them on the baba (Aramaic for “door”). The only “baba” that the wife knew was the local rabbi, Baba Ben Buta, so she went in search of the rabbi. Finding him teaching Torah, she broke the candles over his head in the presence of his disciples. Surprised, Baba Ben Buta asked her why she had done it. “Because my husband commanded me to do it,” she replied. The rabbi then bestowed a blessing on her for obeying her husband.

After AD 70, the number of native speakers of Hebrew gradually dwindled. Without a homeland, Hebrew had very little chance of survival as a spoken language. The Jews were scattered into various lands and eventually adopted the native tongues of the people among whom they lived.


Hebrew continued to be used for scholarly and religious purposes after it died as a spoken language. In the 10th century, an interest began to develop in Hebrew grammar as an independent science, apart from strictly religious use. Saadia (882-942) is known as the first Hebrew grammarian. He wrote a grammar and was the first to write out paradigms of the verbs. Other Medieval scholars began studying and analyzing the grammar. In the 13th century interest in Hebrew grammar began to fade among the Jews, but then Christian scholars began to study it.

At the beginning of the 18th century, Jewish scholars once again began studying the grammar. There were even some attempts to coin new words. However, the scholars of this movement (known as Haskalah) were purists. The only “authentic” Hebrew was the Hebrew found in the Bible. If a new word was needed, Biblical words and phrases were put together that defined the object or idea.

Thus when a word for “microscope” was needed, two Bible verses were used: 1 Kings 4:33, which speaks of “the hyssop that springeth out of the wall” and Psalm 92:12, which states that the righteous “shall grow like a cedar in Lebanon.” Thus a new “word” was formed to translate “microscope”: zekhukit asher ba-adah ha-ezor asher bakir ka-erez be-levanon yisgeh, “a glass through which the hyssop on the wall will grow like a cedar in Lebanon.”

Fortunately, modern Hebrew linguists later coined a shorter term, magdelet, “an enlarger.” Now you can hear Israelis call it a mikroskop, a transliteration of the English word.


By the 1800s the Jewish people were weary of suffering among the Gentile nations for so long. The trumpet call went out for the outcasts of Israel to return to their ancient homeland. Among the Jews who responded to that call was Eliezer Ben Yehuda. Shortly before departing for Palestine in 1881, he wrote in a letter to his future wife:

“I have decided that in order to have our own land and political life, it is necessary that we have a language to hold us together. That language is Hebrew, but not the Hebrew of the rabbis and scholars. We must have a Hebrew language in which we can conduct the business of life. It will not be easy to revive a language dead for so long a time.”2

When Ben Yehuda arrived in Palestine, the number of Jews there was estimated to be between 24,000 and 30,000. All but about 500 of these lived in poverty in Jerusalem. Jerusalem at that time was a Babel of languages.

Ben Yehuda’s vision to see Hebrew restored as the national language was opposed by several groups. The religious Jews condemned him as a heretic, claiming that Hebrew was too sacred for common, everyday speech. Several schools in Palestine were sponsored and directed by French, German, and English-speaking Jews. Each of these favored their own respective language. Many argued that Yiddish would be a more sensible choice, since it functioned as the lingua franca among European Jewry. Another obstacle was the fact that women were forbidden to study Hebrew. And of course there were the “realists” who argued that it was impractical. It was a bookish language, it had been dead too long, it lacked too many words for things in modern life.

Even without opposition, the revival of Hebrew would have been a monumental task. Before Ben Yehuda left for Palestine, a friend told him he would have to be detective, scholar, magician, and midwife. His friend’s prediction was quite accurate.

Ben Yehuda began by publishing articles promoting his ideas. Schools were eventually started to teach Hebrew. Ben Yehuda was ridiculed by children in the streets, condemned by rabbis in the synagogues, scolded and cursed by his neighbors. But eventually he gained a small following of intellectuals who organized themselves into “The Army of the Defenders of the Language.” They drew up and signed a pact which read:

“The members residing in the Land of Israel will speak to each other in Hebrew, in society, in meeting places, and in the streets and marketplaces, and shall not be ashamed. They will make it a point to teach their sons and daughters and the rest of their household this language. The members will watch in the streets and marketplaces over the Hebrew speech, and when they hear adults speaking Russian, French, Yiddish, English, Spanish, Arabic, or any other language, they wil not spare a remark even to the eldest amongst them, saying, ‘Aren’t you ashamed of yourselves!’”3

Shortly after this pact was signed, Ben Yehuda’s wife Deborah gave birth to their first child, Ben Zion. Before the child was born, Eliezer had made his wife take a solemn pledge to never speak anything to the child but Hebrew. Furthermore, their son had to be shielded from hearing any foreign words from the lips of others. Their home was to be a “Hebrew sanctuary” where Ben Zion would be protected from the contamination of other languages. Thus Ben Zion would be the first native speaker of Hebrew in nearly 2,000 years.

Ben Yehuda’s unique experiment was difficult at times. Many who visited the home spoke little or no Hebrew, and had to be silent in the child’s presence. One of Deborah’s closest friends knew no Hebrew and became known as “the dumb godmother.” By his second birthday, Ben Zion still had not spoken a word. Ben Yehuda’s critics pointed to this as proof that it could not be done. Eliezer’s eccentric idea was going to turn his son into a speechless idiot, they said. But by the time he was five, Ben Zion spoke fluent Hebrew as his only language. He heard no other language until he was nine years old.

In 1884 Ben Yehuda began publishing a small weekly Hebrew newspaper, HaTsvi. This newspaper was used to introduce new words that Eliezer had coined. Many complained. Who gave this man the right to decide such matters?

Ben Yehuda’s major lasting work was not HaTsvi but the compilation of a Hebrew dictionary. This was a task for a group of scholars, not one single man. But since no such group existed to do it, Eliezer decided he would do it. Once work began on the dictionary, his life was one of constant labor. After 25 years in Jerusalem, he was ready to publish Volume 1, which covered aleph and beit. Robert St. John describes the dictionary in his biography of Ben Yehuda:

“Those who thought that his dictionary was going to be a mere list of Hebrew words with brief definitions were in for a great surprise. Except for the few who had seen the manuscript, no one was aware that this was to be unlike any dictionary ever compiled.

“There were pages and pages of type, for example, on that first word alone, av. The word kee (because) would have twenty four columns.

“After each Hebrew word would come the translation into French, German, and English. This made the work unique; a multilingual dictionary with translations into three languages, besides references in Arabic, Assyrian, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin.”4


Ben Yehuda was a purist and wished to avoid borrowing words from other languages whenever possible. When a word was needed, his first step was to see if the word had once existed in Hebrew and been lost through lack of use. He spent hours poring over volumes of ancient literature.

Many Hebrew words had “immigrated” into other languages and remained there so long that they became “citizens” of that language. Hundreds of years earlier, a scholar had compiled over 2,000 Hebrew words which he claimed were the original sources of words in Latin, Greek, and Italian.

If a word could not be located by this method, Ben Yehuda would look for a Hebrew root-cluster that shared some semantic property with the idea or object that needed to be expressed. The various prefixes and suffixes in the Hebrew grammar leave many lexical gaps that can be filled and used to form new words with different shades of meaning. Many nouns have been formed using this method:

CH-B-T, to beat, begat maCHBeT, a bat or tennis racquet. TS-L-M, to shade, begat maTSLeMah, a camera. T-R-F, to tear, begat maTReF, an egg beater. TS-H-B, yellow, begat TSaHeBet, juandice.

Other nouns were formed by compounding and blending words:

Shoev (he draws) + avak (dust) = shoev-avak (a vacuum sweeper). Kol (voice) + noa (motion) = kolnoa (a movie). Tapuach (apple) + zahav (gold) = tapuz (an orange). Madad (measure) + chom (heat) = madchom (a thermometer).

Compounding and blending have been used to form verbs as well as nouns. The verb l’adken, “to bring up to date,” was formed by blending ad (“until; up to”) and kan (“here”).

Sometimes when a new word was needed, a new meaning was given to an old word. One of the best-known examples of this is the modern Hebrew word for electricity, chashmal. This word was used by Ezekiel to describe a shining substance coming out of a fiery cloud that he saw in a vision.


Even though Ben Yehuda tried to avoid borrowing from other languages, a certain amount of outside influence was inevitable. Hebrew was an old language. If it was to be used to discuss contemporary subjects, this meant change. It also meant prescribing grammar. Some linguists talk about the supposed superiority of descriptive over prescriptive grammar, but a hundred years ago the vast majority of Hebrew speakers did not speak Hebrew as their native tongue. It was still a foreign language to them and they needed prescriptive grammar.

One language from which Ben Yehuda did not mind borrowing was Arabic, a sister language. Arabic words were adopted even if they had a Latin base. Sabon (“soap”) is one such example. Sometimes an Arabic word would need to be Hebraized to conform to the Hebrew pattern. Thus the Arabic noun zift (“tar”) became zefet. This is then used to form the verb lezafet (“to tar”).

Because Yiddish was familiar to so many Jews, it has had some influence on the development of modern Hebrew. A few words and idioms crept into the language as well as some syntax. In Yiddish the word for “terrible” is used as a superlative, as in “this is terribly good.” The Hebrew adjective nora (“terrible”) is now sometimes used the same way. Yiddish idioms such as er makht mir dem toit (“he annoys me to death”) have been translated into Hebrew. This particular idiom states in Hebrew “he makes/does to me the death.”

Many of the early immigrants to Palestine were Russians, so Russian has left its mark on Hebrew. Probably the most commonly heard Russian morpheme is the suffix -nik to denote a person who belongs to a particular group. We use the -nik sufffix that way in English, too (peacenik, beatnik, no-goodnik, etc.). In Israel a man who lives on a kibbutz is a kibbutznik. The feminine form of -nik in Russian is -nitza. However, a woman who lives on a kibbutz is not a kibbutznitza; she is a kibbutznikit. The Russian -nik suffix is feminized with the Hebrew suffix -it.

Of course English has been a source of new words. Words such as supermarket, jeep, radio, and telefon are spoken with a “Hebrew accent.” A person with blonde hair is a blondi; a redhead is a gingi. Some verbs have been formed by taking the consonants of English words and conjugating them according to Hebrew grammar. Thus “to flirt” is le-flartet. “To telephone” is le-telfen. “To bluff” is le-balef.


In 1976 I was living in an apartment in Jerusalem. Some of the other young people staying in the apartment told me that a Christian lady was going to take the group to meet the elderly daughter of Eliezer Ben Yehuda. She lived within walking distance from our apartment and was a friend of the Christian lady.

“Who is Eliezer Ben Yehuda?” I asked.

“He had something to do with modernizing Hebrew,” they said.

I had started learning Hebrew and was definitely interested in the language. I wanted to learn to read, write, understand, and speak the language. But I was not interested in listening to some old lady talk about her dad. It sounded like it might be boring. Besides, I was tired and wanted to take a nap. So I declined the invitation.

A few months later I read the biography of Ben Yehuda. When I found out who he was and what he did, I felt like a fool for declining the opportunity to personally meet his only surviving daughter. To this day I regret that missed opportunity.

| DB



1Menachem Mansoor, Biblical Hebrew, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1980), 9.

2Robert St. John, Tongue of the Prophets (N. Hollywood: Wilshire Book Co., 1952), 40.

3Ibid., 92.

4Ibid., 296.


Image: Ben Zion Ben Yehuda, the first modern Hebrew speaking child.

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Frank Payne
Frank Payne
Feb 18

There has been much speculation about Hebrew being the mother tongue of humanity. If it is the mother tongue we are forced to make certain assumptions and presuppositions on how it was handed down to Moses. Presumably, it would have come from Noah, through Shem, through Eber (from which we get Hebrew), through Nahor, through Terah, and finally Abram. It must still be presumed to have been passed on to Isaac, then Jacob. With Jacob we have a dilemma. When God tells him to leave Laban and return to the land of his father, Isaac, with his herds and his family, Laban catches up to him in the hill country of Gilead in Genesis 31. They make a covenant and…

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