By Dr. David R. Reagan
What was the key discovery that directed Ben-Yehuda’s pronunciation of Hebrew?
In 1880 Ben-Yehuda decided to take the advice of his doctor and go to Algiers in North Africa where he was assured the climate would be much better for his health. The advice proved true.
But what turned out to be more significant was a linguistic discovery Ben-Yehuda made there. For the first time, he encountered Hebrew as spoken by Sephardic Jews – the Jews who had settled around the rim of the Mediterranean Sea. He discovered that their pronunciation of Hebrew was so different from his Ashkenazic pronunciation that he could not understand them, nor could they understand him.23
As he studied their system of pronunciation, he fell in love with it. He found it to be more flowing and melodic, more natural to the lips and easier on the ears.24 Deciding rather arbitrarily, Ben-Yehuda concluded that the Sephardic pronunciation had to be closer to the original in biblical times, and he demanded it and taught it from that day forward.25
The Key Land
Although the climate of North Africa was very beneficial to Ben-Yehuda’s health, he decided that if he was destined to die from TB, he would die in his homeland. So he decided to move to Palestine and reside in Jerusalem.
This was an incredible decision for anyone in that day and time, especially for a sick person. Palestine was a barren wasteland full of great hardships, and Jerusalem was an incubator of diseases – a backwater town where the sewage ran down the middle of the streets.
Before departing, Ben-Yehuda felt compelled to write Solomon Jonas and let him know he had decided not to marry Deborah because any wife of his would face terrible hardships and diseases and the possibility that he might die at any moment.26 But despite this letter and the fact they had not seen each other in seven years, Deborah would have none of it. She wrote back and insisted they get married. She stated that she was as bound to his fate as Ruth of biblical times had been bound to the fate of her mother-in-law, Naomi.27
They were married in Cairo in 1881. She was 27; he was 23. They agreed that Deborah’s name would be changed to the Hebrew equivalent of D’vorah.28 They also agreed that they would never again speak to each other in any language except Hebrew – despite the fact that D’vorah spoke little Hebrew and the language lacked words for many everyday things.29 This led to communication through a lot of hand signals and finger pointing over the next few years.30
The couple proceeded immediately to Palestine and arrived at the port of Jaffa in the fall of 1881. From there they traveled by carriage to Jerusalem where they resided for the next 41 years. Many years later, Ben-Yehuda wrote that he had only two regrets in life: “There are two things for which I am sorry, and for which I can find no consolation: I was not born in Jerusalem, or even in the Land of Israel, and the first words I spoke were not spoken in Hebrew.”31
The Key City
For 2,000 years, ever since their expulsion from the land by the Romans, the Jews in the Diaspora had been ending their prayers with the phrase, “Next year in Jerusalem.” At long last that prayer had been answered for Eliezer and D’vorah. But the Jerusalem they found was not the Jerusalem of Scripture which is referred to in Isaiah as “a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord” (62:3) and “a praise in the earth” (62:7).
Instead, the city proved to be what they had been warned it would be. They found a small town of only 25,000 residents who were living in filth.32 The Jews constituted about half the population, but they were divided up into close-knit communities that had little to do with each other. And to Ben-Yehuda’s despair, he discovered them speaking Ladino, Yiddish, Arabic, Spanish and Russian – but no Hebrew.33
At first, they tried to court the Orthodox community by dressing like Sephardic Jews, observing the kosher laws and attending the synagogue services on the Sabbath.34 But this effort proved to be of no avail. Ben-Yehuda’s reputation as a Zionist with the aim of reviving Hebrew as a spoken language had preceded him. The result was that the Orthodox community, especially the Ashkenazis (European Jews), ostracized them.
Ultimately, this treatment convinced Ben-Yehuda and his wife that they should return to European ways and dress. Accordingly, Ben-Yehuda cut off his side curls, shaved his long beard into a closecut goatee and started wearing suits instead of robes.35 This change convinced the Orthodox that they had been right all along in viewing the couple as pagans.
Ben-Yehuda’s zeal became focused. He made a large sign of his motto (“The day is short; the work to be done is so great!”), and he hung it on the wall above his stand-up desk (he argued that he could think better standing up).36 He proceeded to work 15 to 19 hours each day, most of it standing!
Visit the Lamb & Lion Ministries’ website for a list of references.
In the fifth segment on the amazing prophetic fulfillment of the return of the Hebrew language, we’ll look at Ben-Yehuda’s plan for reviving Hebrew.