Hebrew – Eliezer Ben Yehuda part 2

An earlier article mentioned how Eliezer Ben Yehuda moved to Yerushalayim, disguised as a devout Jew, to create a new national language for the Jews. After denigrating and attacking the city’s talmidei chachomim, he was ostracized twice with a cherem. During 5654/1894, he was excommunicated a third time, after printing an article in his newspaper, HaTzvi, the consequences of which erupted with the force of an atomic bomb, threatening the Jews not only in Eretz Yisroel but of the whole Turkish Empire.

The mysterious writer of this potentially explosive article, who signed off with the initials S.N.H.Y., later turned out to be Ben Yehuda’s father-inlaw, Shmuel Naftali Herz Jonas. This article, printed on an Erev Shabbos shortly before Chanukah, had the misleading title of “Mitzvot Tzerichot Kavannah.” If you are wondering why this secular newspaper mentioned Talmudic terms, keep in mind that articles like this were aimed not only at secular Jews but at the observant as well, in the hope of nudging them into the enemy’s camp.

With this goal in mind, the article begins with an impassioned description of Jews worldwide lighting Chanukah candles and storing up huge merit in the World to Come. However, the article continues, “Mitzvot lav leihanot nitnu.” Giving this phrase a new twist, the article argues that although lighting candles is a mitzvah, it will contribute nothing toward the pleasure of having a Jewish state. For that, Jews must emulate Yehuda Hamaccabi, who was willing to kill Antiochus’ generals and rout his armies.

“We pay no attention to this mighty, courageous person, to learn from him that we, too, should arouse a sacred emotion of courage for the love of our nation and the land of our forefathers,” the article continues. “That we should encourage each other to unite for our restoration, to do all in our strength and not despair, to protect our honor, to stand up for our lives, to gather our strength and go forward, forward and not like a crab that goes backward.”

What was so terrible about this article that it inflamed the Jews’ Turkish overlords? In Hebrew, the last clause, quoted above, of this tirade reads as follows: “… le’esof chayil velalechet kadimah, kadimah velo ke’sartan haholeich achoranit.” Apparently, Turkish censors understood, either of their own volition, or, some claim, because of a tip-off from Ben Yehuda’s enemies, that “le’esof chayil velalechet kadimah” meant “to gather an army and head East …”

To the Turks, whose rule over Palestine would cease at the end of World War I, such a statement was like a spark in a powder keg. By this time, Turkey was jokingly referred to as “the dying man of Europe,” since European powers were waiting for this decrepit empire to break apart in order to share its remnants among themselves.

In fact, due to fear of Jewish nationalism, the Turks had been making it difficult for Jews to immigrate into Palestine ever since the great aliyos of the 5640s/1880s.

As the Palestine Exploration Fund reported in 5648/1888: “The restraints the Turkish government makes against Jews coming to Palestine are becoming gradually more severe. When coming, they are allowed only to stay one month, and then they have to return. When not returning by themselves, they are sent back by the police, and [regarding those] desiring to become Turkish subjects, [who] could formerly do so without much diffi culty, [they discovered that] now a very high tax has been imposed [upon them].”

Immediately after Shabbos, askanim informed the Chief Rabbis of Yerushalayim, Rav Shmuel Salant and Rav Yaakov Shaul Elyashar, that this article had created a serious danger — the entire Jewish yishuv might be accused of plotting an insurrection against the Turks.

To divert this hazard, a Jewish communal leader, Elimelech Perlman, rushed to the pasha’s palace to give an advance report that the community at large had nothing to do with Ben Yehuda’s article. If so, the pasha insisted, the Chief Rabbis should print a notice to this effect, and so it was. On that very day, the 17th of Kislev, the walls of Yerushalayim bore the following announcement:

“Public Protest: This is to announce that the matters printed in the HaTzvi newspaper, Edition 10, of the 16th of this month, in an article entitled ‘Mitzvot Tzerichot Kavannah,’ and signed [by the initials S.N.H.Y.], were issued and written without our will or knowledge, and we had absolutely no knowledge of all written in it until we read it. When we read those strange things, we were fi lled with sorrow and misery that a Jew in our midst could write terrible things like those in the article. We hereby openly protest against this in the name of all those who dwell in our holy land …” The announcement concluded with the Jews’ pledge of allegiance to the Turkish sultan and the signatures of the two Chief Rabbis.   Rav Naftali Tzvi Porush, Rav Shmuel Salant’s private secretary, recorded in his diary that when the Turkish sultan himself heard of the matter in Istanbul, he ordered the Chief Rabbi of Turkey, Rav Moshe Halevi, to clarify the issue with the Chief Rabbis of Yerushalayim.

They immediately sent a reply to Istanbul, along with a copy of their original protest: “Although we yearn and pray each day, ‘May we return to Yerushalayim, Your city,’ and other prayers for the redemption of Yisroel and renewal of the kingdom of Israel,” they explained, “we request this only from G-d. G-d forbid that we would rebel against the kingdom under whose rule we shelter. On the contrary, we are bound by three severe oaths … to not rebel against the nations, to not force the end [of days to come] …”

Satisfied by this explanation, the Turkish Sultan grasped Rav Moshe’s two hands between his own and told him, “I did not want to cause you sorrow. Now, however, I can inform you that, in a Cabinet session, the ministers strongly pressured me to take aggressive measures against the Jews. I had to promise them that if it turned out to be true that the Jews were undermining the kingdom, I would issue a decree banishing the Jews from the entire Ottoman Empire. This letter that you brought, signed by the two old Rabbis, has saved the Jews from banishment.”

The danger was not over, however, since the streets were rife with rumors that the Jews intended to mount a rebellion assisted by an offshore squadron of British warships. The Turkish Chief Rabbi wrote that the only way to stifle these dangerous rumors would be to place Ben Yehuda under cherem, and thus Ben Yehuda found himself banned from Jewish society for the third time, this time for the rest of his life.

Although a local Ottoman court sentenced Ben Yehuda to a year’s imprisonment, he was released after a week, pending an appeal to his sentence, in return for a bond of 300 Turkish pounds. Indeed, as a contemporary member of Chovevei Tzion wrote in Europe, it was vital for the nationalistic cause to get Ben Yehuda off the hook:

“According to the latest news we have received from Jaffa, the government has been regarding our national organization as the framework for a rebellion. If we keep silent at this time and are found at fault, all our work will go up in smoke. Therefore, the faithful of Chovevei Tzion must strive with all our might to remove this suspicion from the Turkish government’s mind …

“This is impossible except with money necessary to hire an advocate and, of course, for bakshish (bribes), in order to prove their innocence. Through this, the false accusation against the yishuv will fall away.”

Meanwhile, Ben Yehuda and his allies did their best to publicize that he had been victimized by the Rabbis of Yerushalayim. Using this accusation to dissuade people from contributing to the chalukah funds, they claimed the Rabbis had deliberately turned him over to the Turks by publicly disassociating themselves from his article.

Four months after the publication of the article, Ben Yehuda’s appeal was upheld in Beirut. By the judicial distribution of 10,000 francs, he was exonerated of any wrongdoing and walked out free to continue his dream of reviving the Hebrew language through newspaper articles, education, and his new dictionary, which would create thousands of new words from old sources or, when necessary, out of thin air.

Although knowledge of Hebrew greatly facilitates the return of secular Israelis to their Jewish roots, Ben Yehuda’s goal did Hebrew a disservice by transforming lashon hakodesh into a corrupted language of the modern street. Also, modern Hebrew has stripped many words of their original meaning, sometimes causing confusion for the observant Jew and baal teshuvah alike.

The recently published book Tohar Halashon lists examples of this tendency. For example, whereas adiv means “painful” in lashon hakodesh, the Arabic-derived adiv of modern Hebrew means “polite.” Bilui, which means “destruction” and “wearing out” in lashon hakodesh, nowadays refers to relaxation and leisure. Chazon, prophetic vision, nowadays connotes any inspirational concept. Liftan, a word the Gemara uses to describe the main course of a meal, nowadays means dessert.

Although Ben Yehuda invested stupendous efforts in his seventeen volume dictionary, often working on it for eighteen hours a day, it was never published during his lifetime.

After his passing in 5683/1923, his second wife wanted to dispose of his remains in the manner he had advocated during his lifetime: “I knew that more than once he spoke openly against the early customs of internment of the dead; he was in favor of cremation. I examined my finances and found that I had enough money to do this in Egypt, since there was no institution such as this in our land …”

She wrote that her plans were thwarted, because “before I had done anything, emissaries came, requesting permission to arrange a funeral on behalf of the people. I soon understood that refusal would be in vain.” Since the cherem against him was never annulled, he was buried in an empty section of Har HaZeisim, far from any adjacent graves.

During the four decades since his arrival in 5641/1881, Hebrew had become as much a part of the new yishuv as the tractor and orange grove.

(Main source: Rothschild, Shmuel. Tohar Halashon, Safah Berurah Publications: Yerushalayim, 5768.)

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