In our last episode we talked about the great challenge of Eliezer Ben Yehuda to establish Hebrew as the language of his household, now, let’s learn how Hebrew became the language of Israel.
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A great challenge for Ben Yehuda was the need for Modern Hebrew words. So many things that existed in the late eighteen hundreds did not in ancient Israel. Ben Yehuda had to invent words for doll, ice-cream, jelly, omelet, bicycle, and so many more. Of course today, you would add to the list: telephone, microwave, nuclear, computer, cellular, light bulb…
Ben Yehuda felt from the beginning of his quest to rebirth Hebrew, that in order for it ever to take root in the minds and hearts of Jews living in the soon to be country, Hebrew would need to be the language of the school as well as the home. At the time, not one school in Palestine taught in Hebrew. However in 1882 a principal turned to Ben Yehuda out of necessity. His students came from many different lands and languages, so they decided that they would teach the students Hebrew by teaching in Hebrew. To this day, that is how immigrants are taught Hebrew in the local ulpans (language schools) throughout the country—total immersion without translation. This is how I am so many immigrant learned Hebrew.
Within no time, these children picked up the ancient language and were conversing fluently among themselves during recess and mealtimes.
The rabbis were none too excited about Ben Yehuda’s plan to revive Hebrew. In their minds, Hebrew was a holy language meant for Torah study and praying—not buying potatoes. However when Ben Yehuda wrote against one of their edicts in his newspaper—encouraging people to reject it—he was excommunicated. They went so far is to call a herem, the most severe religious censure in Judaism. No Jew would even be allowed to speak to the heretic. A shofar was sounded throughout the city and black candles were lit—Ben Yehuda was dead. Many Messianic Jews have suffered a similar fate with their families.
By 1922, when the British controlled Palestine, Hebrew was the recognized language of the Jews living here. Ben Yehuda started a Hebrew language newspaper called Hatsvi (the Deer) shortly after his arrival. He went on to complete a 17-volume dictionary for Hebrew and birthed the Hebrew Language Council, whose task it was to create modern Hebrew words. They are the final authority on Hebrew. Or, at least they think they are. In truth, they recommend and the public decides what to adopt.
The Academy will seek to find an ancient word and update it to represent a modern word. For instance, darcon (passport) comes form the word derech, which means road or way. However, the English word passport is universally recognized. Tzelem means image, so matzlama (having the same root) became camera. And a tzalam is a photographer. Michashev is to calculate, so machshev became computer. With telephone, whatever word they came up with never took hold. Israelis preferred the English word. But cell phone is called a pelephone—a word created by an advertiser, combining the words Pele, which means miracle and Telephone. So in Israel we use miracle phones.
In 1948 there were only a 25 documented Messianic Jews in Israel. That number has grown to about 18,000. However, most congregations conducted their services in other languages. Sometimes services were translated into Hebrew. Later many congregations did the reverse. Sermons were given in Hebrew, but translation, was provided via headphones in English, Russian and sometimes Spanish.
However, in 1995 Ari and Shira Sorko-Ram birthed the first Spirit-filled, Hebrew-only congregation in modern day Israel. The decision was made not to exclude non-Hebrew speakers, but to create an environment that is culturally Israeli. When Israelis come into our service, it is clear that we are not a traditional synagogue, but it is equally clear that we are Israelis. The word is preached in Hebrew, the songs are sung in Hebrew, and the fellowship at the end of the meeting is in Hebrew.
In our next episode, I want to share with you, how I learned Hebrew.