Ben-Yehuda, Eliezer (1858-1922)

Litvak lexicographer and newspaper editora

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was one of the first Zionists and is credited with the revival of Hebrew as a modern tongue spoken by a renascent Jewish nation.

Eliezer was born in Luzki, Lithuania, in 1858 to Yehuda Leib and Feyga Perelman. Raised as an orthodox Jew, he studied in a Yeshivah until one of his Rabbis, a "secret maskil" (enlightened Jew), caused him to change course and become a "free thinker" and a revolutionary. However, at the age of seventeen he had an overwhelming "revelation" which was to decide his course in life, "it was as if the heavens had suddenly opened, and a clear incandescent light flashed before my eyes, and a mighty inner voice sounded in my ears: the renascence of Israel on its ancestral soil." This vision remained with him, as he wrote, "the more the nationalist concept grew in me, the more I realized what a common language is to a nation..." Thus he dedicated himself to this goal: 'Yisrael be'artzo uvilshono' the rebirth of the nation of Israel in its own land, speaking its own language.

Eliezer changed his surname to Ben-Yehuda when he began his political activity with his first essay, "A Burning Question," which was published by the Hebrew periodical, "The Dawn," in 1879. Making good on his essay's call to emigrate to the Land of the Fathers, Eliezer moved to Jerusalem in 1881, meeting and marrying his childhood sweetheart, Deborah Jonas, when he stopped off in Vienna to meet with Peretz Smolenskin, publisher of "The Dawn". Together, Eliezer and Deborah established the first Hebrew-speaking home in Eretz Yisrael, and their son, Ben-Zion (who became known by his pen-name, Itamar Ben-Avi) was the first child in modern times to be nurtured with Hebrew as his native language.

Eliezer made friends and allies in Jerusalem, and before long established two organizations: "Tekhiyat Yisrael" -- the Rebirth of Israel -- and "Safa B'rura" -- Clear Tongue -- to implement his goals. It was in response to his article in "The Dawn" that the first group of halutzim (pioneers), the BILU group, came to settle on the land.

Eliezer believed in the need for unity among the Jews for his purpose to succeed, and so he returned to his childhood custom of observing the mitzvot (commandments) as a pious Jew. He asked his wife to do the same, and she accepted. The Orthodox community, however, quarreled with him when they realized that he had a political and national agenda. They subsequently hounded and persecuted Ben-Yehuda, eventually excommunicating him (declaring a "herem"). Ben-Yehuda became embittered with the extremely Orthodox community, while maintaining good relations with the Sephardi Chief Rabbi, Ya'akov Meir, and years later also with HaRav Avraham Yitzkhak Kook, first Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi of Eretz Yisrael -- since both Rabbis accepted the concept of Zionism.

Soon after his arrival in Jerusalem, Ben-Yehuda accepted a teaching position at the Alliance School which became the first school where some courses were taught in Hebrew, due to Eliezer's insistence that Hebrew be the official language of instruction for Jewish subjects. Ben-Yehuda wrote for "Hakhavatzelet" (The Lily), a Hebrew literary periodical, and launched "Hatzvi" -- The Deer -- a weekly newspaper. "Hatzvi" was the first Hebrew paper to report what was happening throughout the land. For this paper Eliezer needed to coin new Hebrew words for objects and verbs that did not exist in the days of the last Hebrew commonwealth.

Ben-Yehuda's wife, Deborah, died of tuberculosis in 1891. Six months later, her younger sister offered to marry Ben-Yehuda and care for Deborah's two small children. An emancipated woman of great drive and conviction, she made it her life's work to support Eliezer and his enterprise. Adopting the Hebrew name Hemdah, she learned Hebrew fluently in record time, became a reporter for his paper, and in time took over as editor, in order to allow Eliezer to concentrate on his research of the lost Hebrew words that the reborn tongue required. The extreme Orthodox Jews, angered by his paper's reports of corruption in the distribution of Halukah -- their funding allocations --, mistranslated a line in a Hanukkah story in his paper, "Let us gather strength and go forward" to mean: "Let us gather an army and proceed against the East," and used it as a pretext to inform the ruling Turkish authorities that Ben-Yehuda was calling his followers to revolt! He was arrested, charged with conspiracy to revolt and sentenced to a year's imprisonment. Jews throughout the world were outraged; his sentence was appealed and he was eventually released.

Ben-Yehuda founded and presided over "Va'ad HaLashon", the forerunner of the Hebrew Language Academy, and worked 18 hours a day on his "Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew." In 1910 he published the first of six volumes that saw light before his death in 1922, and after his death his widow and son Ehud continued publishing his manuscript, a task which was completed in 1959 (17 volumes). The dictionary lists all the words used in Hebrew literature from the time of Abraham to modern times. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda was fortunate enough to see his dream become a reality: A modern nation speaking an ancient tongue -- Yisrael be'artzo uvilshono.

Entry taken from "Junior Judaica, Encyclopedia Judaica for Youth" CD-ROM


by C.D.I. Systems 1992 (LTD) and Keter.

Additions by R. Eliezer Ben Yehuda 




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02 May 2005 / 23 Nisan 5765 0