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A Window into the Chareidi World

15 Adar 5766 - March 15, 2006 | Mordecai Plaut, director Published Weekly








Introducing Spoken Hebrew: It was the Brink of War

by Rabbi Aryeh Geffen

These are chapters of history about the battles over the introduction of loshon hakodesh and Hebrew as the central language spoken in Eretz Yisroel. We tell here of a plot that was an inseparable part of an entire plan to cut out religion in Israel.

With malicious intentions, both covert and overt — the central one being to conquer and control the whole character of education in Israel and by doing so to neutralize the chareidi education system of the old yishuv and its impact on the residents of the country — the Hebrew language was made into the central language in the schools and among the residents of the country. The goal was to create one language and one people, possessing a secular culture, and cut off from their religious roots.

The Zionist leaders discussed their plot to infiltrate the Hebrew language as a means of gaining power and establishing their rule over the Jewish people. The language was only part of a well-oiled system, which worked tirelessly in all kinds of varied ways to cut out religion and to secularize both the old and new immigrants.

Let us look at a few quotes of the Zionist leaders of that period, pre-Palestine Zionism:


"The supremacy of the Hebrew language in the Land of Israel is not solely the supremacy of a language, it is also an immense political power which makes its mark on the country, and to a considerable extent imparts itself to the people who speak it. Negligence and lack of attention to this highly respected subject makes for not only a depletion in culture, but also a depletion in political power and a weakening in the political functioning"—Nachum Sokolov, president of the Zionist Federation in a lecture in the Committee for Language and Culture in Vienna, Av 5673 (1913).


"We intend to destroy the whole structure of the old yishuv, the life of the disgusting chaluka money, the life of handouts, this malignant leprosy, which demeans the people of the country both physically and spiritually," wrote Ben Yehuda in his article "Ben Bli Dat" (A Son Without Religion), conveniently forgetting how he himself had traveled to Russia to collect money to publish his dictionary!

The language was introduced to the people under duress. All the methods were considered legitimate—the insults, the accusations, the making fun of and deriding those who spoke the original languages that had been part of the nation for hundreds of years. For the maskilim, Yiddish symbolized the height of the golus in all its "ugly" aspects and, according to them, it was time to do away with the old system, and let the "rejuvenated" language bring about a revival of the people and the nation.

In a special booklet which was published by the "Safah Berurah" publishing company in 5549 (1889), it says: "We have to uproot these clumsy languages from the Jews who live in the Land of Israel, those Ashkenazi and Sephardi jargons, etc., which have a divisive effect on the people who speak them, making it as if they were people from different nations, and creating a dreadful emotional division between them, in terms of opinions, manners, and customs" . . .

The choice of the Hebrew language, and with it "the resurrection of the nation," which they tried to slip in with the new words of the language, was made first and foremost to bring about a new social absorption of the immigrants in a secular manner devoid of religion, without the yoke of Torah, or any direct link to their heritage. It was a premeditated attempt to sever them from the Diaspora, and from their Jewish roots through the "rejuvenated" language, among other things.

"To discard the symptoms of the Diaspora identity"—they stated and wrote. They wished to reshape the relationship between families, and between parents and their children, and to identify with the new Israeli Sabra type, who was seen as emerging from the golus towards the new light which beamed from the greenish wheat fields on the outskirts of the moshavs.

Language is an expression of one's identity and definition, and, of course, it created a certain political identity which those who were "rejuvenating" the Hebrew language wanted to create.


From a historical perspective, we have to look backwards because, although this war over the predominant language in the schools of the country was nicknamed, "the war of languages," the first original "war of languages" in the country actually occurred at the time of the First World War, and it was not between the chareidim and the Zionist maskilim.

With the advent of the first aliyah to the country, the war between the Zionist leaders and the modern educational schools and personnel in the country intensified. Here the battle was actually over the predominance of the Hebrew language as a language of instruction vis-a-vis the predominance of the German language which the maskilim teachers had brought with them from the schools in Germany. The war between them was dirty, and represented a disgraceful chapter in history, and in the history of Zionism. It was an ideological war that included, among other things, informing on them to the army at the time of the World War, the imprisonment and deportation of foreign citizens, and unpleasant disruptions of every kind, all this being done in order to impose the Hebrew language in the schools.

"The war of languages" between the Zionist leaders and the leaders of the chareidi community in Israel, between Yiddish as a spoken language and the new Hebrew language, was the second one fought by the Zionist leaders with the new immigrants and the people of the old yishuv. This was after they had fully established themselves among the secular olim of the First and Second Aliyah, and in the secular schools, overturning everything that was precious and holy in the process, and had imposed the Hebrew language supreme as the official spoken language in Israel.

Even at the beginning of the war over language, it was being compared to a "war of blood." The secret was soon out that there was much more than language involved here, and very quickly blood got mixed in with language and speech. It is hard to believe the extent to which the Zionist leaders were swept away, during that first battle for the Hebrew language over the German one, to the point where they were willing to sacrifice other people's lives . . .

Eliezer Ben Yehuda was beside himself and declared, with great solemnity: "Not only the people of the Land, but also the language calls for sacrificial victims. How fortunate we are to have come to this, our blood is called for, new blood" . . . During the dispute over language in the Technion in Haifa, the same man declared: "If the decree is not abolished immediately, a great deal of blood will be spilled on the steps of the Technion" . . .

In fact, Ben Yehuda's zealousness for Ivrit sometimes bordered on insanity. History has it that when his wife and son were sitting on a tree trunk and a scorpion came up to them, and his wife screamed, "Help, help, here's a creature," he only replied sourly, without coming to her aid, "How many times have I told you that it is called in Hebrew an akrav?"

They say that the happiest day of his life was when he heard someone curse his friend in clear Hebrew. He told him, "Curses in Hebrew are blessed" . . .

Ben Yehuda's son relates that in his house they forbade him to listen to conversations between people that were not in Hebrew. He added, wryly: "If he could, he would have forbidden me to listen to the birds chirping, the donkeys braying and the butterflies whistling, because they speak in an unknown language, which in any case is not Hebrew"...

Incidentally, his son did not speak nor utter one word until he was three years old, because of the fear there was in that house of speaking freely, and rumor had it that he was retarded.

In 5673 (1913), at a committee of Russian delegates, Zeev Jabotinsky came out with a demand to set up Hebrew schools in the Diaspora, in which all studies would be conducted in Hebrew! He even proposed that all gatherings be conducted only in Hebrew, stressing that, "it is not just a question of culture . . . but a political issue, of the existence of the nation as a political nation, the foremost political rights that our nation can receive as a nation are nothing but the rights to a national language."

There were those who expressed their reservations about the imposition of the Hebrew language in an arbitrary way for different reasons. In a statement by the famous rav of Yaffo in Kislev of 5674 (1913), against the attempt to impose the German language in the Technion, he wrote: "As long as those who espouse the restoration of the Hebrew language pay no attention to the restoration of all that is sacred in Israel, to stand up for the Name of Hashem, the G-d of Israel and His Torah, which is the very foundation of our national as well as our individual lives, there is no hope whatsoever that the language alone, which is bare of all its original holy living content, will ever encompass our national lives in the Land of our forefathers."

Or, the other way round. Using Hebrew would make the Jewish people different from other nations, and there was no need to use a language which would segregate the people, because are we not huge and universal? Using a unique language in a few negligible countries and states is unworthy of us . . . "Use of the Hebrew language should be avoided, since the national foundation in a language has a divisive and segregating impact, and therefore Judaism as a universal religion must be careful of this" (Geiger, in an assembly of rabbis in Frankfurt, 5606 (1845).


Historical researchers have established that it was only the connection between the language and matters of holiness and Jewish wisdom that enabled the Hebrew language to infiltrate into the residents of the Land. The maskilim, in a cynical manner, exploited the basic and deeply rooted knowledge the Jews of Israel had of loshon hakodesh, to defile it and introduce divisive changes with the aim of openly contradicting it.

"The deep roots of loshon hakodesh in traditional society, the knowledge of the religious sources, the prayers, sayings and statements of Chazal made it easy for the Maskilim to impart the renewed Hebrew language to others and resuscitate the buds of their culture among the people." ("Techiyat HaIvrit" (The Revival of the Hebrew Language) by Yehoshua Blau).

The same researcher added: "A miracle happened for the dream of the Hebrew language, because the Zionist movement brought enough Jewish immigrants to the country who had received their education in the traditional society before leaving it, to constitute a nucleus of Hebrew speakers there."

In contrast, other researchers asserted that loshon hakodesh, which was in constant use by the Jews of the Diaspora and had been preserved by them throughout the years, through Torah learning and the fulfillment of the mitzvos, was not relevant to the "renewed" Hebrew language. The reason for this was, according to researcher Chaim Rubin, that the language was only, as they put it, "used passively." Reading from the text and prayers did not make for "a language of the people," especially when the reading was not being done for the purposes of communication with someone else.

"Speaking when the occasion arises, no matter how many times people have read the Tanach, is a passive use, and cannot be called a living language" . . . Incidentally, it should be noted that, at the time, there were those who defined the Hebrew language itself as a dead language, and as "a broken glass vessel."

However, loshon hakodesh, and its broadened use as a language of the people, a living language teeming with the inner life of the Jewish communities, did not require their consent and approval. Way back from ancient days, the importance of using loshon hakodesh on Shabbos Kodesh was brought down in halocho seforim, and such was the custom of the gedolim and the gedolei hador.

On the importance of speaking loshon hakodesh, and its being preferred over other languages, the rav of Posen, HaRav Akiva Eiger, writes: "What a disgrace it is for us among the nations. Every single nation has its own language and loves its language, and we would forsake our sacred language. They teach their sons French and Latin and such like, and abandon loshon hakodesh, aaah! And that is how your wisdom and understanding appear to the other nations."

Even the Shloh HaKodosh cites: "Only loshon hakodesh must be spoken. Fortunate is he who habituates himself to speaking loshon hakodesh even on weekdays, for the value of loshon hakodesh is beyond estimation, and whoever can get into the habit of speaking loshon hakodesh with his friends should do so, and has acted most wisely."

The Beginnings

How the Modern Hebrew language entered the scene is described in the memoirs of a teacher and mechanech from the "Committee for the Hebrew Language" who accompanied Achad Haam during visits he made to the settlements in Israel. She describes the condition of the languages that were spoken in the country in the year 5674 (1913), and how hard it was to impose the language on the schools:

"That jargon (a derogatory term used to refer to Yiddish) was still prevalent and in full force throughout the country and in the settlements. Whenever I listened in on the conversations of the children in the houses and in the streets I could only hear the sounds of that language, for the most part. The Hebrew language that was heard in the air sounded flowery and literary, in the realm of school books, not a language that had simple and useful words for a towel, socks, apathy, a factory.

"And what about Jerusalem? There was less Ivrit spoken in Jerusalem, the nest of Ben Yehuda's zealotry, than there was in Yaffo or the settlements. Aside from two or three families no one spoke Ivrit at all, and Ben Yehuda's influence on the schools was nonexistent.

"The Alliance Israelite Universelle school was pure French, and there was only one teacher who specialized in Ivrit for all the 600 students. The Lemel school had one teacher, Mr. Yellin, who taught from his book Lefi Hataf, one of the basic books for teachers and pupils in Palestine and in the Diaspora."

He goes on to depict that period: "Even the most experienced teachers had to teach Chumash, in the Yerushalmi German translation in fact, although there had been a few attempts to teach Ivrit in Hebrew. In the English "Fraternal Association" schools, Ivrit was much denigrated, and the two Ivrit teachers were considered so abnormal that they never even came into the teachers' room."

As said previously, the Hebrew language began to filter into the other languages that were taught in the schools, and even into the kindergartens, through qualified teachers and kindergarten teachers who infiltrated the system and taught all subjects specifically in Ivrit. The shortest way to get the new language spoken on a day-to-day basis in the homes was through the children speaking to the parents and the rest of the family. Newspapers and Hebrew literature were also founded to impart the Israeli culture into the country.

Dr. Ben Zion Moseson, one of the educational leaders, stated at the Committee for the Language in Vienna: "Many mothers learned the language from the little children . . . Jews from all over the world have assembled in Palestine. It is hard for a Yemenite to meet with an Ashkenazi, for a Babylonian Jew to meet with a Jew from Poland. But as for the little children who sit and play together, they hit each other and then make up right away, they bond together and unite as one living, complete unit."

According to Meir Lifshitz, an educator and researcher who was an eyewitness to the revolution that was unfolding: "The greatest miracle of the revival of the Hebrew language is actually in the conversations of children and in their games in the Hebrew language in the streets of the city and in the hiding places of the kindergarten. They imbibe the language from the moment they come out with their first word, and there is no place for any other language at the forefront of their speech and thoughts. At any rate, these children are Hebrew-speaking from the womb and from their birth."

He goes on to extol that same researcher, who turned everything round to make it look like an ethical victory of values:

"Not without hesitations and not without conflicts, an education network has been created, and an educational and school system built in Hebrew. Those who were far away have been drawn closer; schools which were ideologically distant have been conquered; and even schools and talmud Torahs in settlements and in the new yishuv are now Hebrew- speaking, without question or doubt. It is the victory of the Hebrew language, as the language of children and the home. It is the victory of the schools, because Ivrit has become the language of study in the schools, and the official language of instruction for all subjects."


The leaders of the Old Yishuv saw in the introduction of the Hebrew language not merely an issue of a spoken language, but also an indication of something defective, a plot to overturn the system and to pull the youth and even the older community to areas that were dangerous for Judaism and its heritage. They saw the language as a forewarning of the breach of the Zionist enlightenment movement into the holy Ark, so to speak.

Not that anyone was trying to hide this ulterior motive. A real, explicit attempt was made to bring secular subjects into the schools, and with it a general knowledge and proficiency in arts and crafts, and the study of foreign languages like English, French, German, Turkish and Arabic. All this was done to instill a general knowledge of secular subjects, and to get the residents of the old and new Yishuvs to abandon Torah and mitzvos.

The battle drew many families, moshavs, and places in the Palestinian settlement, and affected donors and contributions in Israel and in the world. Large donations from contributors who tried to impact the education system were rejected, among them that of Sir Moses Montefiore who tried to introduce the study of the Arab language into the talmud Torah Eitz Chaim in Jerusalem, with the aim of improving its economic position.

The Eida Chareidis rabbis of Jerusalem, who led the battle, explained that the whole ban against bringing in language studies and secular studies, including the introduction of the Hebrew language, was due to lessons learned from recent history having to do with the secularization and destruction which had taken place in Western Europe, causing many to even convert to another religion Rachmono litzlan.

When Diaspora rabbis and those who were more lenient tried to bring up the advantages of a talmid chochom knowing the language of the people and similar arguments, they were met with the fiercest and sharpest criticism, especially as the countries of the Diaspora provided a bad and negative example of the evil of the Haskoloh for the young and frivolous.

Jerusalem was in tumult in the year 5616 (1856), when the first modern school was opened there. The Jerusalem rabbis fought it, among them HaRav Yehoshua Leib Diskin the Brisker Rov, the Rov of Kalish HaRav Meir Auerbach, and HaRav Nachum of Shaddick.

In later years, in 5632 (1871) and 5638, and even in 5656 (1896), 5665 and 5674 up till 5681, other excommunications were imposed and bans put out against the opening of the schools, and the studies in them, by the Jerusalem rabbis: HaRav Shmuel Salant, the Aderes, the Rebbe of Lublin, HaRav Chaim Berlin, HaRav Yosef Chaim Zonnenfeld, and others. Among those under excommunication were the Gertz Orphanage, the Ezra institutions, and the Mizrachi schools.

However, despite the excommunications and bans, the Hebrew language got in through the back door, until it indeed became dominant in the country and the spoken language.

Even in Tel Aviv, the principals of the talmud Torahs introduced the study of foreign languages — though not in the regular framework of the studies but in different settings outside the walls of the school. The compromise was that although the administration was doing that which was banned, the talmud Torah itself remained pure and clean from within.

Under pressure from parents in Petach Tikva, the Rov of Jerusalem HaRav Chaim Zonnenfeld stated, as attested by his secretary HaRav Moshe Blau, these forthright words: "If parents want it, there is no opposing it! Maybe we were wrong in not deciding when we first came to Eretz Yisroel to introduce loshon hakodesh as the spoken language because then we would have preceded the secular people, and we would have thus taken the most powerful weapon out of their hands."

HaRav Moshe Blau further attests that only once did he see HaRav Zonnenfeld lose his calm and sharply retort that he was the "baal habayis and the final posek!" This happened when the School for Midwives under the administration of Mr. Altschuller, wanted to introduce the Hebrew language as the language of instruction, and a few of the Jerusalem zealots came to his house to fiercely protest this.

HaRav Zonnenfeld absolutely refused to respond to their request, and with great emotion announced that his decision not to ban the study of Hebrew in that place was final and there was no appealing it, because he was the final posek and "contrary to his custom to ignore his rabbinic standing, and all the more so to utilize its crown."

Indeed, did they really revive the language? It sounds absurdly like something had died that needed to be revived. We exist, and the fact of our existence, in the reality of the here and now, serves as the definitive answer to all the intentions that lay behind the words, and the speeches.


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