By Dr. David R. Reagan
Who was the key person in reviving the long dead language of Hebrew?
God orchestrated the revival of spoken Hebrew through a baby born to an Orthodox Jewish family in 1858 in Lithuania, which at that time was part of Russia. He was given the name of Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman.
When Eliezer was 5 years old, his father died of tuberculosis. A few years later, the boy was sent to live with his mother’s wealthy uncle, who was a stern taskmaster. As soon as Eliezer turned 13 and celebrated his Bar Mitzvah, he was sent to a yeshiva (Rabbinical training school) in Belarus. There he fell under the influence of a young progressive rabbi who was caught up in the Jewish Enlightenment Movement.
The Key Teacher
One day the rabbi asked Eliezer to stay after class. When all the other students had left, the rabbi handed Eliezer a book and ask him to read it aloud. It was a Hebrew translation of Robinson Crusoe, and Eliezer was amazed by it.1 This was in 1872.
Eliezer’s amazement was rooted in the fact that Orthodox Jews considered the Hebrew language to be a holy language that was appropriate only for use in the synagogue and for Rabbinical writing.2 To use it for secular purposes was considered ungodly and blasphemous.3 In fact it was taken to be an attack on the Jewish religion.4
From the moment Eliezer saw that Hebrew could be used for other than liturgical purposes, he was hooked on it and its revival as a spoken language. Near the end of his life, while thinking back on that moment, he wrote: “Since the first glance at a Hebrew Robinson Crusoe, I fell in love with the Hebrew tongue as a living language. This love was a great and all-consuming fire that the torrent of life could not extinguish.”5
The Key Situation
Eliezer had grown up with Yiddish as his natural spoken language. He was a prodigy, so at the age of 3 he was reading Hebrew in the Scriptures and prayer books. But it was not used for everyday conversation, and not only because it was considered holy. Another problem was the fact that it did not contain sufficient words to carry on a modern day conversation.
It is estimated that in the 1880s only about 50 percent of all male Jews could understand the Hebrew readings in the synagogue, and as few as 20 percent could read a book written in Hebrew.6 In that same decade, the Jewish poet, Yehuda Leib Gordon (1830-1892), wrote: “Perhaps I am the last of Zion’s poets, and you are the last readers.”7 Although Gordon was a part of the Jewish Enlightenment, he saw little hope for Hebrew becoming a daily spoken language or even a language of literature.
Hebrew, because of its lack of use, was just too clumsy. One of Eliezer’s biographers summed it up this way:8
Young writers preferred to write in Yiddish or in a European language, full of feeling and color. By contrast, Hebrew was bare and stiff, the dry language of the scholar. No one used Hebrew for everyday expressions. Orthodox Jews had a different reason for not speaking Hebrew. They believed it was wrong to use a holy language to say something like, “Take out the garbage.”
Moshe Lilienblum (1843-1910), who was considered the “dean” of Hebrew authors at the time Eliezer was introduced to Robinson Crusoe in Hebrew, was also disillusioned with the future of the language. In a newspaper article, he announced that “Hebrew’s time has passed, and it no longer has a purpose or task in Jewish life.”9
The Key Family
When Eliezer’s great-uncle discovered that the boy had fallen under the influence of a teacher mixed-up in the Jewish Enlightenment, he pulled him out of the yeshiva and disowned him. Eliezer wandered about on his own and ended up at a synagogue in Russia. There he met a remarkable man named Solomon Jonas who asked the boy to come live with his family. Jonas was a wealthy whiskey maker with six children of his own, the oldest of which was a daughter named Deborah who was 18 years old.10
Eliezer lived with this family for the next two years and was tutored by Deborah in French, German and Russian. During that time, his heart grew fond of Deborah.11
At the age of 16, Eliezer’s adopted father decided he needed to pursue his education at a state school in Latvia. But this, as we will see, was not the end of Eliezer’s relationship with the Jonas family.
It is significant to note that during his stay with the Jonas family, Eliezer developed a constant cough.12
Visit the Lamb & Lion Ministries’ website for a list of references.
In the third segment on the amazing prophetic fulfillment of the return of the Hebrew language, we’ll look at the key event that flared Ben-Yehuda’s passion.