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The Man and the Miracle that Revived Hebrew: Eliezer Ben-Yehuda


A word cloud of the Hebrew Bible. (Wiki Commons)

Would you like to know Hebrew?  You may be surprised to discover how many Hebrew words you already do know, such as halleluyah, amen, and shalom.

Let’s take a brief look at what these three words really mean and discover the man and the miracle that has revived the Hebrew language around the world after 2,000 years of linguistic exile.


Orthodox Jewish children watch as Israelis gather at the Western (Wailing) Wall for prayer.

Halleluyah actually consists of two Hebrew words: hallelu, meaning praise (a plural imperative) and Yah (shortened form of Yahweh, the personal name for God and often written as LORD)

Amen, a Hebrew word commonly said in prayer means dependable, faithful, certain and true.  This word has the connotation of faith, since its root A-M-N can mean faithful, have faith, believe, reliable, confirmed, and to be firm.

Amen is often translated as truly or verily in the Brit Chadashah (New Testament), which we will see later is quite Hebraic.

“In that day you will not question Me about anything. Truly, truly, (amen, amen) I say to you, if you ask the Father for anything in My name, He will give it to you.” (John 16:23)

And, of course, people around the globe know the Hebrew word shalom, but not many know that it means much more than peace.  It encompasses wholeness, blessing, and well-being.  It is also used conversationally to greet others hello and goodbye.

The Hebrew word Shalom, read from right to left.

The Hebrew word Shalom, read from right to left.

The Miracle of the Survival of Hebrew

Hebrew has against all odds defied extinction.  The fact that it’s now a modern language used daily by more than seven million people in Israel and in Jewish communities around the world is an absolute miracle.

Logically, Hebrew should have died out two millennia ago after Rome destroyed Jerusalem in AD 70 and defeated the Bar Kokhba revolt in 135, resulting in the scattering (Diaspora) of God’s Chosen People to lands near and far.

In the Diaspora, the Jewish People acquired the local language for everyday use. But Hebrew didn’t completely fade away; it survived primarily in the synagogues and yeshivas (Jewish seminaries) as a scholarly and liturgical language.

Great Synagogue Budapest Hungary, Dohany Street Synagogue

The Great Synagogue on Dohány Street in Budapest, Hungary is the largest synagogue in Europe and one of the largest in the world. It seats 3,000 people.

While noticeable differences between Ancient and Modern Hebrew exist, they are not drastic.

In fact, if Moses were to return today, he would likely understand modern Hebrew, though he would have to learn some new words as well as adjust to some differences in syntax (arrangement of words to form a sentence).

Some of these syntax changes are due to the influence of Yiddish, a combination of German, Hebrew, Slavic, and other European dialects that became the spoken vernacular of Ashkenazi Jews in central and eastern Europe beginning in the ninth century.

And, of course, many words had to be introduced to accommodate technical and cultural innovations.


A Jewish man reads at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda: Father of Modern Hebrew

Throughout the Tanakh (Old Testament), we see men of courage leading the Jewish People out of their exile and into their destiny:  God used Moses to bring the children of Israel out of slavery into freedom.  He used Joshua to bring them out of the wilderness into the Promised Land.  And He used Cyrus to bring them out of Babylon and even help them rebuild the Temple.

The movement of Jews back to the Biblical land of Israel in the last two centuries required many such courageous partners and visionaries.

In the area of language, God used a man named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda to help teach the Jewish People leaving the Diaspora how to speak Hebrew again in modern pre-state Israel, a move of God that was prophesied 2,700 years ago:

“Do not fear, for I am with you; I will bring your offspring from the east, and gather you from the west. I will say to the north, ‘Give them up!’ and to the south, ‘Do not hold them back.’ Bring My sons from afar and My daughters from the ends of the earth.”  (Isaiah 43:6)

Eliezer Ben_Yehuda

Eliezer Ben_Yehuda

Ben-Yehuda, whose name means son of Judah, was born Eliezer Yitzhak

Perlman in Luzhki, located in the former Soviet territory and modern nation of Belarus.

He believed that the revival of the Hebrew language in the Land of Israel
could be the key to uniting the scattered Jews.  As such, he rejected the Diaspora lifestyle, including the speaking of Yiddish and other regional dialects.

Making aliyah (immigrating) to the Promised Land in 1881 at the age of 23, he set out to revive Hebrew as the native tongue for future generations of Jewish olim (immigrants).

History has proved his strategy to be successful.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and wife

Ben-Yehuda and his wife Hemda, 1912

Ben-Yehuda: Radical Approach to Reviving Hebrew

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda took a radical approach to his mission:  some might even say fanatical!

He insisted that only Hebrew be spoken in his home.  He is even reported to have admonished his wife after hearing her sing a Russian lullaby to their child.

The first native speaker of Modern Hebrew was his son, Ben-Zion (Zion’s son), who also was only allowed to speak Hebrew.

His extreme efforts paid off.  By setting an example in his own family and taking students into his home to learn Hebrew, along with the help of others passionate for the cause of national unity, he helped to start a linguistic revival.

Yarkon Park in Tel Aviv, Israel

Yarkon Park, Tel Aviv: In 1909, the first Hebrew city, Tel Aviv, was founded. Hebrew so dominated the scene here by this time that one writer announced in 1913: “Yiddish is more treif (non-kosher) than pork. To speak it a person needs great courage.”

The Development of Modern Hebrew

Ben-Yehuda’s deep calling and conviction caused him to push forward even amid ultra-religious Jews who accused him and his work of being blasphemous.

After millennia of isolated use, Hebrew had been viewed by these Orthodox Jews as the one and only Holy Language, which should be spoken only during prayer and in the synagogue.

Through one of the newspapers that he edited, Ha-Zvi, Ben-Yehuda not only promoted his edgy Hebrew vernacular, he waged war against certain religious practices and customs in the Land, which led to his arrest and the closing of the paper for fourteen months in 1894.  (National Library of Israel) 

The Orthodox community even declared Ben-Yehuda herem (excommunicated), but he did not waiver.  (My Jewish Learning)

In 1890, he established the Hebrew Language Committee (Va’ad ha-lashon ha-Ivrit).  The Committee set out to establish uniform standards in grammar, terminology, and pronunciation that would be used throughout schools, commerce, and government.

It published bulletins and dictionaries and established thousands of Hebrew words that are in everyday use today.  Ben-Yehuda’s English–Hebrew / Hebrew–English Dictionary is still one of the most commonly used dictionaries.



Ben-Yehuda, who immigrated a year before the First Aliyah movement (1882–1903), saw the fruit of his efforts in the Second Aliyah (1904-1914).  In this movement, 35,000 olim (immigrants), mostly from Russia, entered the Ottoman-ruled land of pre-state Israel and many embraced Hebrew as their new spoken and written language.

In 1922, with the region now under control of the British Mandate of Palestine, Ben-Yehuda and his supporters crossed a great milestone—the formal declaration of Hebrew as one of the land’s three official languages, alongside English and Arabic.

Near the end of that year, on December 16th, Ben-Yehuda died at age 64 of tuberculosis, a sickness he suffered from for most of his life.

Such was the honor and respect that the Israeli people had for him that
30,000 people attended his funeral.  He was buried on the Mount of Olives in Jerusalem.

A view of the Temple Mount from the Mount of Olives

Nearly 150,000 cemetery plots line the western slope of the Mount of Olives, facing the Temple Mount platform. (Photo: Go Israel)

To honor Ben-Yehuda, large Israeli cities often have a street named after him.  In fact, the most famous and busy streets in both Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are named Ben Yehuda Street.

In the book Was Hebrew Ever a Dead Language?, Cecil Roth succinctly
summarized Ben-Yehuda’s contribution this way:  “Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews speak Hebrew; after him, they did.”

Just five years after the Modern State of Israel was reborn in 1948, the
Israeli government replaced The Hebrew Language Committee with the
Academy of the Hebrew Language, which operates out of Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

The Academy continues to create new words from Hebrew root word structures as it replaces loaned words derived from other languages.

It also continues to set standards for Modern Hebrew grammar, orthography,
transliteration, and punctuation based on the historical development of the language.  Though it has been labeled Israel’s “language police,” the Academy considers its decisions binding only on formal speeches and written texts. (Hebrew Academy)

Though Hebrew is now the native tongue of new generations of Israelis and integrated throughout society here, in the ultra-Orthodox religious neighborhood of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, some still reject Hebrew and use Yiddish for their everyday spoken language.  Even so, when they pay bills, deal with Israeli companies on the phone, and interact with the larger society, they do have to speak Hebrew.

The Mea shearim neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem.

The Mea Shearim neighborhood in the heart of Jerusalem.

The Hebrew Bible

While Aramaic was at one time the common language of the Israeli people, including Yeshua (Jesus), it accounts for less than one percent of the Tanakh (Old Testament), which was written primarily in Hebrew.

Out of the over 23,000 verses in the Tanakh, only 250 are written in Aramaic.  We find Aramaic, for example, in Ezra 4:8–6:18 and 7:12–26, Daniel 2:4b–7:28, and Jeremiah 10:11.

And although the Brit Chadashah (New Testament) is written primarily in Greek with some Aramaic, it is very Hebraic in nature.  Why?  The writers are Jewish, the culture is Jewish, the religion is Jewish, the traditions are Jewish, and the concepts are Jewish!

The apostle Paul who wrote thirteen of the twenty-seven books of the Brit Chadashah even identified himself as being “circumcised on the eighth day, of the people of Israel, of the tribe of Benjamin, a Hebrew of Hebrews; as to the law, a Pharisee.”  (Pilippians 3:5)

Because of the strong Jewish identity of its writers, we find throughout the Brit Chadashah numerous references to the prophecies and practices of the Hebrew Scriptures.

For that reason alone, learning Hebrew helps us to better understand the true plans and purposes of God.

 A Jewish man reads the TorahRoy Blizzard, Jr. in Understanding the Difficult Words of Jesus said,

“If any additional advances are to be made, especially in better-understanding the words of Jesus, the concentration must shift to the study of Hebrew history and culture, and above all, the Hebrew language.”

Believers who learn Hebrew today are doing far more than simply learning another language; they are participating in a great end-time move of the Spirit of God, reconnecting the Church to its Jewish roots, and revealing the true identity of HaMashiach (the Messiah)—Yeshua.


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