Eliezer Ben-Yehuda

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda - a Jewish lexicographer and newspaper editor - was the driving spirit behind the revival of the Hebrew language in the modern era. For centuries Hebrew was thought of mainly as the language of the Bible and the prayer book. Largely the result of the work of Ben-Yehuda, Hebrew today is a live and modern language, used by millions of people as their primary language.

Ben-Yehuda was born in Luzhki, Russia (now Vitsebsk Voblast, Belarus) in 1858. His parents hoped he would become a rabbi, and sent him to a yeshiva. The head of the Yeshiva, who was a secret supporter of the enlightenment movement, helped Ben-Yehuda study ancient Hebrew as well as get exposed to the Hebrew of the enlightenment, including secular writings. Ben-Yehuda later attended a secular Russian high school.

Reading the Hebrew language newspaper HaShachar, Ben-Yehuda became acquainted with Zionism and started to believe that the Zionist goal of the return of the Jewish people to their homeland in the Land of Israel must be supported by the revival of the Hebrew language, because a nation must have a common language. In the years 1878-81 he studied at the Sorbonne University in Paris. His first political article expressing the need to revive Hebrew as the spoken language of the Jewish people was published in 1879 in HaShachar.

In 1881 Ben-Yehuda immigrated to the Land of Israel, then part of the Ottoman Empire, and settled in Jerusalem. There he taught and edited a number of Hebrew journals. He obstinately insisted on speaking only Hebrew on every occasion, thereby proving, as time went by, that Hebrew can be a language for everyday use, and that Hebrew was a practical alternative to the Yiddish, Ladino, and other regional dialects as a means of everyday communication between Jews who made aliya from various regions of the world.

Ben-Yehuda was married twice, to two sisters. His first wife, Devora, died in 1891 of tuberculosis, leaving him with five small children. Her final wish was that Eliezer marry her younger sister, Paula Beila. Soon after Devora's death, three of his children died of diphtheria. Six months later, he married Paula, who took the Hebrew name Hemda.

Ben-Yehuda raised his son, Ben-Zion (meaning "son of Zion"), entirely through Hebrew. He refused to let him get exposed to other languages during childhood. Ben-Zion is considered the first native speaker of modern Hebrew.

Ben-Yehuda founded the Hebrew Language Council as the institution concerned with development of the Hebrew language and which today is known as the Hebrew Language Academy. He compiled a comprehensive dictionary of ancient and modern Hebrew, in which he coined many words to meet modern requirements. The volumes covering the letters alef to mem were published during his lifetime, but the remaining volumes were only completed later; the concluding volume was eventually published in 1958. Eliezer Ben-Yehuda died in Jerusalem in 1922.

The stamp was issued in 1959. Designer: Z. Narkiss.