On this day in 1881, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda held the first-known conversation in modern Hebrew. Hebrew had not been spoken in a mother tongue since the second century CE. It had endured for more than a millennium until 135 CE and was then only used in literature or prayer.
Ben-Yehuda (born 1858) grew up in Belarus, in the former Russian Empire. He began learning ancient Hebrew at three in a cheder, a yeshiva for young children. As an adult, he became convinced that reviving the Hebrew language in Israel would bring Jews around the world together. He said, “The Hebrew language can only live if we revive the nation and return it to the fatherland,” and he made the decision to move to Palestine.
Ben-Yehuda raised his son to speak only Hebrew. When friends visited, he banished his son to his room so he would not hear another language. He even reprimanded his wife for singing Russian lullabies to his son. His son became the first native speaker of modern Hebrew.
Ben-Yehuda planned to reintroduce Hebrew in three ways: through “Hebrew in the School,” “Hebrew in the Home,” and “Words, Words, Words.” He compiled the first modern Hebrew dictionary and coined new Hebrew words for doll, bicycle, ice cream, jelly, and omelet. Originally, his dictionary was just a way for him to translate words for himself. He wrote them on the back of a small notebook he used for his grocery shopping. Eventually, this list of words grew to be the 17-volume A Complete Dictionary of Ancient and Modern Hebrew.
He said, “The Hebrew language will go from the synagogue to the house of study and from the house of study to the school, and from the school it will come into the home and … become a living language.”
It was in Paris that Ben-Yehuda met a Jew from Jerusalem and who agreed to speak Hebrew with him. On October 13, 1881, Ben-Yehuda and his friends made the agreement to speak exclusively in Hebrew.
It is said of Ben-Yehuda that, “Before Ben-Yehuda, Jews could speak Hebrew; after him, they did.”