Glubokoye Home Page
Glubokoye Stories Menu
Glubokoye Stories
Ben-Yehuda, Eliezer (1858-1922)


His grandson wrote....
".....Well, we can begin by turning the spot light on one frail Jew
who lived from 1858 to 1922. His name was Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, and I am
his grandson. He was born Eliezer Yitzhak Perelman in Luzhky,
Lithuania, to Feyga and Yehuda Lieb Perelman, a Habad Hasid, died when
Eliezer was only five years old. He attended Yeshivah in Polotsk, and
was introduced there to the changing ideas in Judaism, Haskalah --
enlightenment, and secular Hebrew literature. "Discovered" in this
"heresy," he was expelled from his uncle's home and found shelter in
Glubokoye, a small town in the Vilna district, in the home of Samuel
Naphtali Herz Jonas, also a Habad Hasid, who was quit learned, writing
and reading Russian, French and Hebrew. Jonas persuaded him to prepare
for secondary school matriculation, and his eldest daughter Deborah
taught him Russian and French. He entered the Dvinsk Gymnasium, from
which he graduated in 1877.
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
From Encyclopedia Judaica for Youth;
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"
More from his grandson;
.".....In an unfinished autobiography which he wrote while in the U.S.
in 1917-18, he revealed that "In those days 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 resurrection of
Israel on its ancestral soil.' Because of that voice, which has not
ceased from that moment on to ring in my ears day and night, all my
thoughts and plans which I had for my future life were shaken up. As
night visions pale in the face of the light of day, so were my dreams
of dedicating my life to the cause of freedom in the Russian nation
replaced with a single ideal, manifest in two Hebrew words, 'Yisrael
b'artzo' -- Israel in its own land! I was challenged by many, and one
argument said that the Jews are not now and could not be in the future
a nation -- because they did not possess a common tongue. I tried to
argue, as others did, that there are nations such as the Swiss and the
Belgians, who speak more than one language -- but the more I thought
of the national revival the more I realized what a tongue can do to
unite a people. I realized that just as the Jews could not become a
living nation except by returning to their ancient homeland -- so also
they could not become a living nation except by returning to the
language of their ancestors, speaking it not only in prayer and study
but also in all matters of life, young and old alike, at all hours of
the day and night -- just like every other nation, each with its
tongue. That was the decisive moment in my life, when I saw that the
two things without which the Jews could not become a nation are the
land and the language! " Eliezer began to actively 'preach' that the
Jewish people, like all other peoples, had a historic land and a
historic language. What was needed was to actuate a national movement
that would restore Israel to its land and to its language. He
determined to settle in Eretz Israel, and in 1878 went to Paris to
study medicine so that he might have a profession to sustain himself.
He discussed his plan for a Jewish national movement with some Hebrew
writers he met there; they, however, were not interested. His article
"She'elah Lohatah" ("A Burning Question") was published in P.
Smolenskin's Ha-Shakhar in 1879 (after Ha-Maggid had refused to accept
it) under the name "E. Ben-Yehuda." For the first time the idea of a
national rebirth of a Jewish nation in Eretz Israel was clearly
propounded. Ben-Yehuda linked the Jewish national revival with the
general European awakening and said that the Jewish people should
learn from the oppressed European peoples that were fighting for
political freedom and national revival. The Jewish people must
establish a community in Eretz Israel that would serve as a focal
point for the entire people, so that even those Jews who would remain
in other lands would know that they belong to a people that dwells in
its own land and has its own language and culture. In this essay, the
fundamental principles of Zionism were actually anticipated: the
settlement of the land not for the return of the entire people from
the exile (as in the days of Messiah in a fulfillment of prophecy),
but for the creation or a national entity, an independent nation
designed to save from assimilation and annihilation those Jews that
are scattered all over the world and who wish to migrate there. While
studying medicine in Paris Ben-Yehuda contracted tuberculosis in the
winter of 1878 and his doctors did not forecast a long and happy life
for him. He resolved to discontinue his medical studies and make his
home in the more favorable climate of Eretz Israel, where he hoped he
could continue his advocacy for a national reawakening for a while
before succumbing to his illness. He enrolled in the teachers'
seminary of the Alliance Israelite Universelle, to qualify for a
teaching post in their agricultural school, Mikveh Israel. There he
attended the lectures of the Assyrologist Joseph Halevy who in the
periodical Ha-Maggid had advocated the coinage of new Hebrew words as
early as the 1860s. As his health deteriorated, Ben-Yehuda entered the
Rothschild Hospital in Paris, and there he met the Jerusalem scholar
A. M. Lunz who spoke Hebrew to him in the Sephardi pronunciation, and
told him that the members of the various Jewish communities in
Jerusalem were able to converse with one another only in Sephardi
Hebrew. This reinforced Ben-Yehuda's opinion that the Jews could not
hope to become a united people in their own land again unless their
children revived Hebrew as their spoken tongue. The Hebrew living
language must have Sephardi phonetic sounds because that was the
pronunciation which served in the transliteration or biblical names in
ancient and modern translations of the Bible. In 1880 he published two
articles in Hakhav'atzelet in which he advocated that Hebrew rather
than the various foreign languages become the language of instruction
in the Jewish schools in Eretz Israel. Ben-Yehuda, alone among and
unique from all the prophets of Jewish national renaissance, saw the
whole picture of the need for a people wedded to a land, speaking its
own language. In 1881, he left for Jerusalem. He traveled by way of
Vienna, where he was joined by his childhood sweetheart, Deborah
Jonas. He had written to her of his illness and his dim chance of a
long and full life. He bade her forget him -- but she surprised him
with a Ruth-like pledge, "wherever you go, I will go; and where you
lodge, I will lodge..." They married in Cairo, on their way to make a
home in the once and future land of Israel. In October 1881, they
arrived in Jaffa where Eliezer informed his wife that henceforth they
would converse only in Hebrew. The Ben-Yehuda household thus was the
first Hebrew-speaking home established in Jerusalem, and their first
son, Ben-Zion (who later became known by his pen-name, Itamar Ben-Avi)
was the first modern Hebrew-speaking child. Soon after he and Deborah
arrived in Jerusalem, before the end of 1881, Ben-Yehuda, together
with Y.M. Fines, D. Yellin, Y. Meyuhas, and A. Mazie founded the
society Tekhiyat Israel based on five principles: work on the land and
expansion of the country's productive population; revival of spoken
Hebrew; creation of a modern Hebrew literature and science in the
national spirit; education of the youth in a national and, at the same
time, universal humanistic spirit; and active opposition to the
halukkah (dole) system. During the period 1882-85, Ben Yehuda worked
on a Hebrew periodical published in Jerusalem, called Ha-khavazzelet,
and put out a supplement to the periodical under the name Mevasseret
Zi'yon. This journalistic work satisfied his need to be politically
active for the nationalist cause. At the same time, he taught in the
Jerusalem Alliance school, which post he accepted only after he was
permitted to use Hebrew exclusively as the language of instruction in
all Jewish subjects. The school was thus the first in which at least
some subjects were taught in Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda published a geography
book called 'Eretz Yisrael,' and translated many texts to use in his
classroom to teach everything from mathematics to world literature.
Toward the end of 1884, he founded a weekly, Ha-Zevi, which later
became a biweekly under the new name, Ha-Or. In his class and in his
papers he constantly coined new words for everything that had no words
since Hebrew was last used. He published a "list of words" in every
paper he published, but before long it became obvious that people
could not keep collecting these lists -- there was a need for a "book
of words" -- yes, even the word for dictionary did not exist in the
tongue of the prophets. Ben-Yehuda thus was launched on his greatest
undertaking: Milon Halashon Ha'ivrit ha'yshana vehakhadasha -- the
Dictionary of the Hebrew Language, ancient and modern. In 1891,
Ben-Yehuda's wife, Deborah, died of the disease that he had contracted
in Paris. On her death bed she wrote a letter to her sister, sixteen
years her junior. "If you want to be a queen," her letter said, "then
hurry to Jerusalem and marry my prince, my darling Eliezer."
Ben-Yehuda was a broken man after the death of his Deborah -- but the
sister began her campaign to fulfill her sister's wish. She wrote to
him, pretending an interest in Hebrew -- which he, of course, could
not resist. She chose a Hebrew name for herself -- Hemda. It meant
"darling" -- and that's how she unlocked his heart. About six months
later he married her, and she became his constant companion in his
political and literary activity. Hemda Ben-Yehuda mastered Hebrew
quickly, published translations and original Hebrew stories in his
periodicals, and wrote columns for his papers on everything from
fashion to cooking to advice for love-struck maidens. Ben Yehuda's
unorthodox behavior, and the campaign which he waged in the columns of
his periodicals against the halukkah system and its administrators,
aroused the vehement opposition of the extreme Orthodox Jews. Seeking
a pretext for revenge, they found it in an article by his father in
law, Samuel Naphtali Herz Jonas, in the 1894 Hanukkah issue of Ha-Zevi
-- which contained the phrase "let us gather strength and go forward."
Some of Ben-Yehuda's more bigoted enemies distorted its meaning and
interpreted it to the Turkish authorities as "let us gather an army
and proceed against the East." Ben-Yehuda was charged with sedition
and placed in jail where he spent a year. Condition in the jail were,
of course, appalling, as befits a prison in the Turkish Empire in
those days. Eliezer, whose health was never good, began to cough
blood. Hemda turned heaven and earth trying to enlist influential
people in his behalf. The affair created a great stir throughout the
Jewish world: an appeal was lodged, aided by a large bribe to the
governor of Jerusalem, and Eliezer was suddenly released. However,
Turkish censorship of Ha-Zev'i became more stringent from then on, and
Ben-Yehuda ceased his journalistic work and began to concentrate more
on linguistic questions to which the censors could make no objection.
He became increasingly engrossed in his dictionary for which he had
begun to collect material from the day he arrived in Eretz Israel. In
order to conduct research and raise funds for its publication,
Ben-Yehuda traveled several times to Europe together with his wife
Hemda. Turkey joined the First World War on the side of Germany, and
Eliezer's continued presence in Jerusalem was a risk not worth taking.
He was whisked away to Egypt in a caravan of camels, and from there to
the United States in a U.S. Navy ship. He was a house guest of the
Whorthiem family in New York, where he worked in American libraries,
being the only man ever to be given a room to do research at the New
York public library on 42 street and Fifth Avenue. In 1910, assisted
by various sponsors, he began to publish his dictionary volume by
volume; Having finished the manuscript for the entire dictionary --
but not the editing, his life came to an end on the second night of
Hanukkah, the Festival of the Maccabees, those ancient champions of
the Jewish nation. After his death in 1922, Hemda and his son Ehud, my
father, continued his publication which, because of the ravages of the
depression and the second World War and the battle for Israel's
independence, was completed, in sixteen volumes plus an introductory
volume called Ha-Mavo-ha-Gadol (the great introduction) in 1959.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda has been recognized by history -- Jewish and
non-Jewish, for his role in the revival of the tongue of the prophets.
His role in the rebirth of the Jewish nation is much less known or
acknowledged. However, it needs to be -- it should be proclaimed from
the rooftops daily! Why? Because it lends legitimacy to the Zionist
enterprise and dates its beginning beyond any reasonable doubt. His
work of the Hebrew was a tool for Zionist success. It is doubtful if
the Jews returning from the four corners of the world could have
agreed in a national language for their reborn state had Hebrew not
been prepared for them ahead of time by Ben-Yehuda. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda
is buried in the Mount Olives cemetery in Jerusalem, in a family
grave-sight bordered by a wrought iron fence with a gate above which
there is an inscription in old Hebrew characters -- the same type of
characters that he used on his family crest -- a map of eretz yisrael
framed in the shape of a house. In is the Hebrew Homeland -- and above
its roof is the legend, "ein zo agada" -- it is no dream! Why is it
not a dream, you ask? Maybe because he willed it so much, dedicating
his life, his wife, his children, to that cause. "