Hebrew is a fascinating and ancient language that can be documented as being over 3,000 years old. It also has an unique standing in the world, as it is the only language that has been brought back from the ‘dead’ to being a living language, and is the official language of Israel and spoken around the world by millions of Jews.
In antiquity there were 2 distinct types of Hebrew used – Religious Hebrew and Everyday Hebrew. Religious Hebrew (also known as Classical/Biblical Hebrew) was, and still is, the language used in the Bible, ceremonies and prayer. Today’s Religious Hebrew is almost identical to the Classical Hebrew used over the last 3,000 years as it was faithfully recorded and passed down in temple from teacher to student. Known as Leshon HaKodesh ‘the Holy Language’ it was and is held as sacred and not to be used in everyday speech, so it has survived intact throughout the millennia with little change.
Everyday Hebrew (Modern/Revival Hebrew) is a success story of determination. Everyday spoken Hebrew had all but disappeared from the world by the end of the Roman Empire and all that stopped Hebrew from being classified as an extinct language was the Religious Hebrew used in Temple and prayer. But everyday use had stopped as the Jewish people had been spread over the world, during the diaspora, and had started to adopt the languages of the countries they settled in. When these Jewish migrants had dealing with each other they no longer used Everyday Hebrew but instead used ‘local’ variants like Yiddish (an evolutionary mix of Hebrew, Aramaic and German) and Ladino (a Judaeo-Spanish mix).
This continued until the 19th century. It was during this time that Hebrew, as we know it now, began the process of revival. It happened through 2 parallel but independent strains – written Hebrew and spoken Hebrew. During the 19th century written Hebrew had started to be used again in Europe outside of the temple. Articles, poetry and scholarly dissertations were starting to be produced by Jewish writers in Hebrew as a concerted effort to bring Hebrew back to the people (the Haskalah movement). At the same time spoken Hebrew was being brought back in Palestine through the processes of the Great Alliyah’s as Jewish people who returned to Palestine started to converse in Hebrew as they re-established their identities.
The 2 separate lines of revival didn’t merge until the Alliyah of several scholars to Palestine. As these scholars got together they started to produce work that was taken to ‘the masses’. Works like the poem El Hatzipor by Hayim Nahman Bialik were written in Hebrew and directly aimed at the Jewish people, translations of existing literary and scientific works were being translated by writers like David Frischmann and Sha’ul Tschernichovsky. The point of all these works was to get people to challenge the idea that Hebrew was only allowed to be used as a religious language and to reclaim the language as part of the Jewish history and heritage.
One of the biggest turning points in the revival of the Hebrew language was the input from journalist and lexicographer Eliezer Ben–Yehunda. He is regarded as being the driving spirit behind the success of the revival of Hebrew as a modern language. He tirelessly wrote newspaper articles on Hebrew being the language of the Jewish people and brought attention and energy back to this subject each time it could have failed. He had a large part in codexing the language into a workable, usable form and gathering the people together to complete this task. By the time of the beginning of the 20th century Hebrew was being spoken by the Jewish people in the emerging state of Israel and throughout Europe.
It has gone on to be the official spoken language of Israel, the language of Jewish people from all over the globe and this once ancient dead language now is a living breathing language spoken by over 5 million people throughout the world.
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