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  • Writer's pictureJewish Examiner

The Jewish Deep Nation XI—
Old Yishuv, Older Language

Below I flog the Hebrew horse for the seventh time. In the previous forays, I argued as follows:

1. The Hebrew awakening in Eretz Israel, identified with Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and launched in 1882, was cantilevered atop a living Jewish national language. The project succeeded too sweepingly, and too quickly, to have been built on a dead tongue.

2. It’s conventional to define a language as dead if no one speaks it. If you define “speak” in a certain way, however, you find that masses of Diaspora Jews spoke Hebrew on a daily basis for centuries. Some did so at the top of their lungs. Still, they did not use it as their vernacular. Thus Hebrew never died; it just went into active hibernation.

3. By “active,” I mean that members of the rabbinical elite, wishing to impart sophisticated teachings to the non-elite Jewish masses, specifically chose Hebrew as their medium of expression. Two explicit examples are given.

4. It’s often argued that few among those masses truly understood Hebrew. Indeed, the examples above were embraced mainly by the elites. But even those who “spoke” Hebrew without understanding a word (an impossibility given that all Jewish tongues had/have large stocks of Hebrew-origin words) helped to keep the hibernating language alive.

5. The Hebrew modernizers in Eretz Israel met with resistance from various quarters, in what were widely called then and now “language wars.” I dispute this term because the opponents of modern Hebrew faced a national juggernaut against which their strategies and tactics didn’t stand a chance. In the example given, modern Hebrew won because its opponents had to use it in order to contest it.

6. I identify three additional “language wars,” waged by Diaspora devotees of elitist literary Hebrew, cultural pragmatists, and commercial elements that represented recently landed repatriates in Eretz Israel. All were lost causes.

Now I head back to Old Yishuv of the pre-Ben-Yehuda era in then-Turkish Palestine. My source is Prof. Uzzi Ornan. Now 95 years old, he has lived a moving life—from the Canaanite movement (as a member and as the brother of its founder) to the Irgun to the League against Religious Coercion in Israel. And if his Wikipedia entry is up to date, he is a member of the Academy of the Hebrew Language and a professor of “natural languages computing” at the Technion today. The work of his that I use below is “Hebrew in Palestine before and after 1882” ( He wrote it under the auspices of the Oxford Centre for Postgraduate Hebrew Studies, evidently in the early 1980s, and identified his affiliation as with the “University of Jerusalem,” leaving out the “Hebrew” part. A man in motion.

Citing the British historian Tudor Parfitt, who based himself on sources from 1839 (mainly foreign envoys and travelers, not local Jews), Ornan remarks:

“If a foreigner was interested in communicating with the Jews in Palestine, it behooved him to learn Hebrew, *since Hebrew was spoken fluently by the Jews.* It is true that part of the evidence relates to written Hebrew, and there is no disagreeing with the fact that the Jews, not only those living in Palestine, wrote their documents for the most part in Hebrew. However, part of the evidence claims that ‘the Jews speak Hebrew’ and not merely write it.”

In the 1860s, Yoel Moshe Salomon described the growing inclination of Jewish parents to teach their children Arabic. “It will not be long,” he concludes, “before the children of the people of Zion are speaking Arabic eloquently, *just as many of them speak Hebrew eloquently.”*

Ephraim Cohen-Reiss (b. 1863 in Jerusalem), founder of the first Hebrew school system in Eretz Israel, reports the following scene in his childhood:

“Salih [an Arab] from the village of Silwan who sold sand for scouring utensils not only knew how to chatter away in Spanish and Yiddish [...] but also to recite in Hebrew a complicated doggerel poem for Purim which the children of the street had repeatedly chanted for him.”

In 1875, petitioning the Turkish governor of Palestine for permission to establish an abattoir separate from that of the Sephardi community, representatives of the Ashkenazim stated the following:

“All the Jews, whether Sephardim or Ashkenazim, we are all of us [...] descendants of Israel son of Isaac son of Abraham, the one Torah [law of Moses] [...] instructs us to believe in the oneness of the Creator. The difference in our spoken languages occurred simply because our forefathers were carried into exile in Germany, while theirs were banished to Spain. Nevertheless, *the language of our prayers and of our Torah is one; the Hebrew language.”*

[I use asterisks above for emphasis; this platform does not accommodate boldface and italics.]

This spoken Hebrew, Ornan stresses, was not a vernacular. It wasn’t spoken as it is today. When his sources refer to speaking, they mean “They know how to speak Hebrew and they do so when they so wish.” For example, “When someone in their group does not know their spoken vernacular, then they speak to him in fluent Hebrew.” Sometimes the interlocutors’ Ashkenazi and Sephardi pronunciations were so far apart that they resorted to writing to communicate.

I add: Since Hebrew was “the language of our prayers and of our Torah,” women were scarcely represented among its speakers at that time. As for their prominence in the Hebrew awakening that followed, Ouzi Elyada remarks on it (World in Yellow, cited in Submission 5) and, basing myself on him, I elaborated on the dismay with which the Old Yishuv greeted it (Submission 9).

My point here, and in those previous floggings, is that Hebrew was then, and throughout, a living national language -- or enough of one to allow me to get away with saying so, if I back it convincingly. Ornan sidesteps the question: “The description of a society and the languages it uses cancels out the need to go into the semantic question as to whether Hebrew was a ‘dead language’ or a ‘dying’ or ‘obsolete language,’ or to define the meaning of these terms.

As for the awakening that followed, however, he pulls no punches:

“Apparently in the history of linguistics no such distinct precedent exists of a language in only partial use by people who used it, which became the exclusive language or the principal one of the offspring of a section of those people. There are many who have dismissed this exceptional occurrence as ‘a miracle’ and hence considered themselves as being exempt from asking what made such a thing possible. On the other hand there were linguists who were of the opinion that such a happening ‘was impossible’ and consequently made every effort to deny outright the process of revival, claiming that Hebrew has been spoken uninterruptedly in Palestine since ancient times. Yet the revival really did take place.”

I dare to add one point to this: Hebrew lies at the national core of Jewishness, and at the first signs of the modern national awakening, it shed its somnolence and roared into action.

Next week: Ornan found no “distinct precedent” for Hebrew’s awakening. But is there an indistinct precedent, as in the case of Iceland?

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