During the past millennium and a half, Hebrew was used by Jews mainly as a literary language (and, in fact, as the sole literary language). However, Jews did use Hebrew in speech as well, when it was necessary to communicate with other Jews.
Linguist Chaim Rabin points out that since every Jewish man had to know Hebrew on some level, Hebrew was the natural candidate for the inter-Jewish 'lingua franca' - the common language.
As we'll see, Israel was the one place where Hebrew was consistently in use. Both because Israel is the birthplace of Hebrew and traditions remained for generations, and because Israel was the place where Jews from all over the world converged. And they usually shared only one language: Hebrew.
Since this use of language was anecdotal, all evidence is also anecdotal. This article does not intend to be complete - there are many more examples, from all over, of Jews speaking Hebrew.
Rabbi Saadia Gaon, of the 10th century, wrote the first Hebrew-language dictionary, where he explains: I've seen that many Jews aren't using our language properly, even on its simple level; and so of-course they aren't familiar with its more difficult words. And when they speak, they use many words erroneously."
"ראיתי שרבים מבני-ישראל אינם בקיאים בצחות לשוננו הפשוטה, ועל אחת כמה וכמה במלים הקשות שלה. וכאשר הם מדברים, הרי מלים רבות בשגיאות."
"שוח ישיחו בו עם אלהינו , בצאתם ובבואם , ובכל משלח ידם , ובחדרי משכבם, ואל עולליהם."
We have a few pieces of anecdotal evidence regarding 10th century Jews speaking Hebrew in Tiberias. Eli ben Yehudah ha-Nazir, a Hebrew grammarian, writes (in his Arabic book on the Hebrew language): "I would sit long hours in the town squares of Tiberias and its villages, listening to the speech of the simple and common folk, and studying the language and its foundations, and what they pronounced in the Hebrew language, and the Syriac language and its kinds, that is, the language of the Targum and the rest, for it is close to the Hebrew language..."
Aharon Ben Moshe Ben Asher, a grammarian as well, writes that a certain Hebrew pronunciation was common in Tiberias, "whether they read from the Torah or speak in conversation: men, women and children".
Jacob Mann, the great researcher of the Cairo Genizah, wrote that those documents show that Hebrew might have been spoken during the 10th-12th centuries, and that they supply material for study "on Hebrew in speech and in writing throughout the centuries both in Palestine and in the countries of the Diaspora."
Writing about a 12th century woman's letter, written in fluent and poetic Hebrew, he points out that she came from a learned family and that it "would not be unusual for her to have possessed a good knowledge of the Hebrew language".
The ability to write personal letters - which we can find Jews doing throughout the generations - shows that Jews had the vocabulary and capability to handle a Hebrew-language conversation. If you can write your friend what you did today, then, theoretically, you can also speak to him about it.
Rabbi Shlomo Parhon, a 12th-century North African scholar, wrote a lexicon in Hebrew called "Mahberet He’arukh" (מחברת הערוך). At the time, Sephardi linguists wrote their books in Arabic, which meant they were inaccessible to Ashkenazi Jews. Rabbi Shlomo Parhon wanted to introduce Ashkenazi Jews to the advances of Hebrew grammar by the Sephardi linguists.
In the introduction he apologizes for his bad Hebrew. Unlike European Jews, he says, he wasn't very experienced in speaking Hebrew.
"Because those who live here were not so accustomed to speaking the holy tongue, because all the places in Muslim lands share the same language, and all the visitors who come to them are familiar with their language, so that they had no need to use the holy tongue or to be accustomed to it. But each of the Christian lands has a different language, and when visitors come to them they don’t understand what they are saying, and they had to speak to them in the holy tongue, and therefore are more accustomed to it."
"Sefer Hasidim", written in Germany in the early 13th century, also mentions spoken Hebrew .
In one story, an elderly man is asked what he did to deserve such long life. He answers: "Because I had guests in my home and they did not understand my language and spoke Hebrew to me while I was in the bathhouse, and I never spoke [Hebrew] in the bathhouse or toilet, also for secular matters, even though it's allowed. And because I was strict [about the sanctity of Hebrew], I was awarded with long life."
Notice that the man spoke Hebrew, and could do for both religious and secular matters, but refrained from speaking it when he was in the bath or toilet.
Another story describes a Jew who was taken captive in a distant land. One day a group passed by, and the captive identified them as Jews, as they spoke Hebrew amongst themselves.
Sefer Hasidim also gives advice to those who don't speak Hebrew well. "If somebody comes to you who doesn't understand Hebrew and wants to focus in his prayers, or if a woman comes to you, tell them to learn the prayers in a language they can understand."
Obviously, not everybody could understand or speak Hebrew. Women, for example, weren't even expected to in that era. But most men were expected to pray in Hebrew and understand what they were saying.
Another example of Hebrew speech doesn't even involve Jews. Bertrandon de la Broquière, a French nobleman, visited Israel in the early 15th century and wanted to return to Europe overland, a very risky venture at the time for a Christian. In Damascus, he approached a Muslim, Kodja Barqouq, who was going towards Bulgaria and asked to join him. Barqouq who was concerned about whether Broquière could pass himself off as a local, asked him whether he could understand Arabic, Turkish, Hebrew, the vulgar tongue or Greek.
In the late 15th century, a German traveler by the name of Arnold von Harff visited Jerusalem and wrote down a few words and sentences he learned from a few local German Jews. The accent, as he wrote it down, is very much Ashkenazi, and there are some mistakes, but they even gave him an example of a short conversation: "Are you Jewish? Yes."
"יהודי אתה? כן דיברת!"
Towards the end of the 16th century, in 1597, Rabbi Yosef ben Elchanan Halperin wrote a grammar textbook for children called "Em Hayeled" (The Child's Mother). This book was meant to teach Hebrew verb conjugation to seven-year olds. As the author explains: it's meant to teach children to speak properly and to write Hebrew, so that when a father asks his child a word, the child could respond without hesitation and without confusing tenses etc.
A year later, Rabbi Morderchai Yaffe wrote of his own experience: "I've heard the author's seven-year-old students with my own ears and they knew all the verb forms."
Rabbi Isaiah Horovitz, the Shelah, came to Israel in the early 17th century. He passed through Aleppo, where he gave a sermon. He tells about it in his letter to his family (written in Hebrew): "They only speak Hebrew, and whenever I gave a sermon there, I did so in Hebrew."
"וכל לשונם לשון הקודש, ובכל עת שדרשתי שם, דרשתי בלשון הקודש באר היטב"
Obviously, the Jews of Aleppo did not only speak Hebrew. But they could communicate with a rabbi who came from afar and did not know Arabic.
This is just one example of many. Many Jews were sent by the Israeli community to collect money abroad. They too often spoke Hebrew with their Jewish hosts.
One chapter is dedicated to talking business, or in other words: a conversational guide. Here's part of the conversation he brings, discussing going to the market: "We'll get there first, then we can choose the better and cheaper produce. After that, a lot of traders come to the fair, and they raise the prices."
Back to Israel. The early 18th century German Franciscan Monk, Friar Elzearius Horn, reports from Jerusalem that the Europeans mostly speak Italian, the Orientals speak Arabic or Turkish, and the Jews speak Hebrew.
Stephan Schultz, a German Protestant missionary, visited Israel in the mid-18th century. He tells of his meeting with Jews in a yeshiva in Tiberias, "which they, after that of Safed, hold to be the biggest in the Orient. Here I found about 20 youngsters who were studying the Talmud; some of them were from Poland, others from Italy and elsewhere. One among their teachers still knew some Yiddish, but the others, however, because they had left their fatherland very young, spoke Portuguese or Spanish and Arabic. I had to speak Hebrew therefore, which they understood best, but were not used to speaking."
And now we get to the 19th century, and to Eliezer Ben-Yehuda. In his article "The Dream and its Realization" (החלום ושברו) (*), he explains that he believed Hebrew could be revived as a spoken language, because he met Jews who spoke Hebrew.
The first person Ben-Yehuda met who spoke conversational Hebrew was George (Getzel) Selikovitch - a Russian Jew who spent some time in North Africa. It was also the first time Ben-Yehuda heard the Sephardi accent. Selikovitsch told Ben-Yehuda that, until he learned Arabic, he spoke to the North African Jews in Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda summed up his meeting: "The question of the revival of spoken Hebrew was immediately solved".
Ben-Yehuda met M. Zundelman, an Israeli teacher, in Paris, where they sat at a cafe, and spoke in Hebrew for a couple of hours about Ben-Yehuda's plans. This was Ben-Yehuda’s first long, serious conversation in Hebrew, which wasn't aimed at 'speaking Hebrew', but rather to discuss the topic at hand.
Ben-Yehuda, who for the first time felt that he spoke Hebrew as if it was his natural language, realized how difficult it would be to use this language in day-to-day life and that he needed to make a list of words. He therefore coined his first new word: מילון ("milon", dictionary).
[Though Rabbi Saadia Gaon already coined a perfectly good word for it: אגרון - agron. Today this word developed to 'egron', meaning 'theasaurus']
In 1875, Ben-Yehuda was hospitalized in Paris, and there he met Avraham Moshe Luntz, who came from Jerusalem and spoke Hebrew fluently. All of Ben-Yehuda’s conversations with Luntz were in Hebrew, and he started getting used to the Israeli (ie, Sephardi) accent. Luntz told Ben-Yehuda that all the Jewish communities of Jerusalem spoke amongst themselves in their own tongue, but the only language they all shared was Hebrew, which they spoke with a Sephardi accent.
Ben Yehuda wrote that these conversations strengthened his belief that Hebrew could be revived in Israel.
It's interesting to note that by this time, the situation had completely changed from Parhon's time. Ashkenazi Jews all spoke a common tongue (Yiddish), while different Sephardi communities spoke different languages and could not understand each other. Therefore Sephardi Jews were more used to speaking Hebrew.
Ben-Yehuda could speak to people in Hebrew almost immediately when he got to Israel. When he spoke Hebrew to the landlord of his inn in Jaffa, the man was surprised, but answered him in Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda then went out for a stroll. The city was mostly Arab at the time, but there were a few Jewish merchants. He stopped by a Jewish money-changer, and conducted his first business deal in Hebrew. The man's easy Hebrew was like a 'salve to a sore soul, and the revival of the language shined again before my eyes."
"ויהי לי הדבר הזה באמת כצרי לנפש העגומה. תחיית הלשון הבריקה שוב לפני עיני."
Ben-Yehuda took a wagon to Jerusalem. Ben-Yehuda asked the driver if he knew Hebrew. The driver answered 'a little', and though he stuttered, he was able to speak it in light conversation.
In Jerusalem he was met by Dov Frumkin, his boss at the Hebrew-language Havatzelet newspaper, who spoke to him in Hebrew. While he was by Frumkin, Ben-Yehuda had time to observe the many guests who came by. The Sephardi Jews spoke Hebrew, while the Ashkenazi Jews spoke Yiddish, though they also spoke a bit of Hebrew, in honor of Ben-Yehuda.
Ben-Yehuda also met with Yehiel Michael Pines, with which he spoke Hebrew. Ben-Yehuda noted that Pines' wife could understand some of that conversation. However, Ben-Yehuda was critical of Pines, who always spoke Hebrew with him, but not with his family and friends.
Because Ashkenazi Jews continued to speak Yiddish to each other, though they could speak Hebrew to Sephardi Jews, later on Ben-Yehuda took to dressing up like a Sephardi Jew. That way Ashkenazi Jews didn’t feel uncomfortable speaking Hebrew to him.
Throughout the generations, Jews spoke Hebrew. They did not use Hebrew in regular speech, but they could, when they needed to.
Hebrew is the only language in the world today to have been "revived", but that's because it was never dead. Ben-Yehuda did not start from scratch, and as he himself recognized, that was a most significant factor in the revival of spoken Hebrew.
(*) Ironically, in modern Hebrew the phrase is used to mean "a dream and it's dissolution”.
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