Letters from Ben-Yehuda
These are personal letters written by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his second wife, Hemda, who dated their letters according to the number of years that had passed since the 1917 Balfour Declaration.
The first of these letters was written by Eliezer Ben- Yehuda on behalf of the Vaad HaLashon HaIvrit (Hebrew Language Committee), the organisation he established to promote the study of Hebrew. In addition to the correct calendar date (1919), Ben-Yehuda also wrote that it was the second year since the Balfour Declaration.
The second letter is a personal letter of Hemda Ben- Yehuda. Her letter was written in 1940, during World War II, but she dated it as twenty-three years since the Declaration.
Both letters demonstrate the fervent belief at the time in the significance of the Balfour Declaration. While this might have been expected from the Ben-Yehuda family (who were at the forefront of the Zionist movement), these letters are by no means the only example of such enthusiasm.
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda moved to Palestine in 1881 and accepted a position as a teacher, insisting on Hebrew as the language of instruction. He soon became convinced of the need to recreate the Hebrew language and was responsible for founding the Vaad HaLashon HaIvrit (Hebrew Language Committee) and disseminating lists of words and pronunciation guides to the press, including plant names, clothing, food, furniture, and geography. Once the British had gained control over Palestine, the committee began negotiations over the acknowledgement of Hebrew as an official language. The committee, with Ben-Yehuda as its driving force, ensured that Hebrew became the national language of the Yishuv and its institutions.
Hemda Ben-Yehuda married Eliezer after her older sister, Devora, his first wife, had died of tuberculosis. Hemda immigrated to Israel in 1892 and devoted herself to assisting her husband in the mission to revive the Hebrew language. A journalist and writer in her own right, she wrote in her diary about the responsibility for reviving the Hebrew language:
"I was utterly shocked at the unbearably heavy burden which the reviver of language placed upon my shoulders. He did not ask for my consent but for a vow, which I gave. Ben-Yehuda’s personality was so compelling that I did not dare to doubt my own ability.”
Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the revival of Hebrew, Jewish Virtual Library
Obituary notice of Hemda Ben-Yehuda, Jewish Telegraphic Agency, August 30, 1951
The Hebrew Language Committee, The Academy of the Hebrew Language
These two letters could be used by Jewish History teachers when teaching about the history of Zionism and the status of the Balfour Declaration in pre-state Palestine. The letters could also be used in Jewish History or Jewish Studies classes to discuss the subject of dates and dating systems.
Hebrew teachers could also use this resource to discuss the revival of the Hebrew language, Ben-Yehuda, the Hebrew Language Committee then, and the Academy of the Hebrew Language today.
Who wrote these letters?
Which organisation is the first letter from?
What language are these letters written in?
What additional date was written on the letters?
Reading Between the Lines
Why was the extra date added?
Why was the Balfour Declaration so significant for the Yishuv?
What was the significance of the Hebrew Language Committee (Va’ad HaLashon HaIvrit)?
Letters written in Hebrew count the years from the creation of the world according to Jewish belief. In most letters in English, we use the Gregorian calendar, which counts the years since the birth of Jesus.
Are there any other significant dates in Jewish history that we could use as a dating system?
What is the Hebrew Language Committee called today and what does it do?
How important is it for the Jewish people to have their own language? If all Jews around the world spoke Hebrew, would this help to create stronger connections between them?
What other languages are modern creations? Why were these languages created?
Is this the same reason that Modern Hebrew came into being?
What year would it be if you were to date a letter according to the number of years since the Balfour Declaration?
What other important event would you date letters from?
Why did you choose this event?
How would you write the date?