Hebrew is the ancestral language of the Hebrew and Israelite peoples and thus that of their descendants, the Jews. It is also the language in which Judaism’s sacred texts are written, which is why the Jews refer to it as Leshon HaKodesh, or ‘the Holy Language’.
Old or Paleo Hebrew, the earliest known form of the language, dates back to the 10th century BCE, making it one of the oldest recorded languages on Earth. It served as the language of the early Jews until another Semitic language, Aramaic, began to supplant it. Although it fell out of common usage, it didn’t die out; it was still used for liturgical purposes, and as a lingua franca between Jews from different lands.
But as the Diaspora spread further out across Europe, more localised Jewish languages developed, such as Yiddish, the common tongue of the Ashkenazi Jews, which infused elements of Hebrew with Aramaic, German dialects, and Slavic and Romance languages. Other languages include Judezmo, Judeo-Arabic and the Bukharian languages. In all cases, the common factor, incorporated into the languages native to a particular area, was Hebrew.
Hebrew’s great resurgence as a spoken and written language began towards the end of the nineteenth century, with the work of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. Born Eliezer Yitzhak Perlman, Ben-Yehuda began studying Hebrew at the age of three; by the age of twelve, he’d progressed to the Torah, the Mishna and the Talmud.
His parents hoped that he would become a rabbi; instead, inspired by the nascent Zionist movement Ben-Yehuda helped found Va’ad HaLashon, the Committee of the Hebrew Language, which became the present-day Academy of the Hebrew Language, and wrote the first modern Hebrew dictionary. With Jews making aliyah to Palestine every year, the time was ripe for Hebrew to emerge as Judaism’s lingua franca once more.
Today, Hebrew is now one of the two official languages of modern-day Israel (the other being Arabic) and is now spoken by over 5 million people worldwide. Quite an achievement, when we consider that less than two hundred years ago, this language was at the point of extinction.