Why Hebrew? A Comparative Analysis of Language Choice in the Early Hebrew Press

Oren Soffer. Media History. Volume 15, Issue 3. 2009.

The second half of the nineteenth century saw the establishment of several Hebrew journals in Eastern Europe. These provided a platform for a vivid political discourse reflecting varied ideological approaches. The Hebrew journals were part of an extensive network of Jewish journals, published not only in Hebrew but in Yiddish and other European languages (Bartal ‘Herald’ 160). If the emergence of the press in general had a great significance for nations (or future nations) in territories that were (or would be) considered their homeland, its importance was even more profound for what would become the Israeli-Jewish nation in the modern era (Slutsky Russian Jewish Press 9). For Jewish communities—far from their homeland, lacking central political and economic leadership, and spread throughout the world—the press functioned as a printed-word public sphere (Penslar 7): it was an intertwined network or forum that spanned geographic and linguistic boundaries (Frankel 45). In Benedict Anderson’s terms, these journals had an important role in re-imagining the religious Jewish communities as a modern nation (see also Tsur).

As Sarah Stein notes, the language of newspapers that members of Jewish communities chose to read was a highly complex and delicate issue (14). If the decision with regard to the reading language was so difficult and critical, the decision regarding the publication language of a Jewish journal would have probably been much more so. In fact, in the multilingual context of Eastern European Jewish communities, where Yiddish and the state vernacular (Russian, for example) were used for daily communication and Hebrew was used mainly in religious and scholarly contexts (Harshav Language 119; Lowenstein 49), there was no natural or obvious language for a journal. Good reasons, however, could be found against publishing a Jewish journal in any of these languages.

Jewish-oriented journals published in Russian, as those who initiated them in the early 1860s discovered, failed to attract subscribers and were short-lived. In fact, before the end of that decade, no Russian-language Jewish journal remained in publication for longer than a year. This was due to the fact that in Jewish communities at that time, few could read the state languages (Orbach 52, 182). Furthermore, obtaining a Russian licence to publish a ‘Jewish journal’ written in the Russian language was a difficult task; in 1856, Russian authorities refused one such request, but declared that they would be willing to license a journal written in Hebrew or Yiddish (Zinberg 37). Even when the publication of Russian-language journals was authorized, they (along with other journals of the time) faced intransigent censorship (Orbach 182). And because these journals were accessible to non-Jewish readers, their editors had to be constantly aware of the Jewish image they reflected (Orbach 33).

The use of Yiddish in Jewish journals was also problematic, but for different reasons—those arising from the inferior status conferred on this language. Yiddish, sometimes identified with the feminine domain, was not considered a modern language and was not deemed suitable by the maskilim for discussion of the lofty principals of the Haskalah. It was perceived to be a corrupt jargon through which no serious work or abstract idea could be expressed; and, as such, it was seen to be a serious obstacle to the enlightenment of the Russian Jewry (Zinberg 37). The decision to publish a journal in Yiddish was seen as a betrayal of maskilic ideas, raising questions about whether Yiddish should be considered on par with modern state languages or with Hebrew (Orbach 204). During the nineteenth century, then, Yiddish journals failed to attract readers, and journals that published in this language did not last long (Shmeruk 236).

In addition to these internal Jewish considerations and the low esteem in which Yiddish was held, the Russian government was also an obstacle to publishing in Yiddish. Towards the end of the nineteenth century, it was impossible to gain permission to publish a journal in this language (Cohen 303). One notable nineteenth-century attempt to do so was the case of the bilingual weekly, Der Beobakhter an der Vayksel, written in Polish and Yiddish (transcription of German into Hebrew letters with Hebrew words and phrases). It was published in Warsaw in 1823 (Greenbaum 1261). But this journal’s publication ceased after 44 volumes (Cohen). The fate of other such publishing attempts, such as the weekly Tsaytong in Lwów in 1848 or the weekly Varshoyer yudishe tsaytund in Warsaw in 1867, was similar. The longest lasting Yiddish weekly in Eastern Europe in the nineteenth century was Kol mevasser (this journal, which will be discussed later on, was produced by the publisher of the Hebrew journal HaMelitz). Kol mevasser, published in Odessa from 1862 to 1873, was written in simple Yiddish and was identified with a female readership, a factor that probably did not increase its social esteem at the time. It was not until the twentieth century (in 1903) that a daily journal was published in Yiddish (Greenbaum 1261). Indeed, there was a flourishing of Yiddish journalism in Eastern Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century, which was part of a more general social change in the perception of Yiddish, reflecting the identification of this language with Jewish folk life (Novershtern 1371).

Those who tried to publish Hebrew journals in the middle of the nineteenth century also faced serious difficulties. Hebrew was mainly used for religious and scholarly purposes (Lowenstein 49). Of course, Hebrew was never a ‘dead language’: the collective existence of the Jewish people was based on Hebrew texts; children studied Hebrew and it functioned as a written language (Harshav Language 116-17). But in the first half of the nineteenth century, Hebrew was far from being suitable for journalistic discourse: it lacked an active basic vocabulary for many spheres of modern life and was not used in everyday and political discussion (Kressel 10). Because it was not a language in which dialogue was normally conducted, there was very little innovation in its oral construction. Hebrew, at that time, was not considered to be the mother tongue of the Jewish people (Harshav Language 119).

In this paper I wish to concentrate on why publishers chose Hebrew as the language of their weeklies in the second half of the nineteenth century. I am focusing here on the Hebrew press because of the important role it played in the development of modern Jewish nationalism. My analysis will mainly consider three Eastern European weeklies of the time: HaMaggid, HaMelitz and HaTzfira. These three weeklies were long-lived (although they had some breaks in publication) and constituted a vivid arena for socio-political discussion. Their format and attitude prepared the ground for the publication of Jewish dailies—in fact, both HaMelitz and HaTzfira were converted into dailies in 1886. The regularity of these journals seems important to me as it symbolizes Hebrew’s entry into the everyday political sphere and its adoption by modern mass communication—along with the national implications of these processes. The frequency of these journals touches upon the weakness of Hebrew at the time: its detachment from everyday life and modern socio-political circumstances.

The centrality of Hebrew in the Zionist revolution could lead one to assume that this new Hebrew journalism, which preceded the emergence of the national Zionist movement by about four decades, was simply related to early nationalist considerations on the one hand. On the other hand, Eastern European weeklies could be also seen as part of the early Haskalah epoch and its linguistic ideology, which saw the use of Hebrew as an end in itself, related to the revitalization of Jewish society (Pelli 73). But such conclusions miss the complexity of considerations behind the choice of Hebrew as a journal’s language. As I will show in this paper, these considerations were varied, relating to the ideological background of the publisher, the publisher’s goals and the targeted readership. However, before turning to discuss the linguistic choice of these journals, I will present a brief historical background of the Hebrew periodicals in general and the Hebrew weeklies in particular.

The Seeds of the Hebrew Press

Attempts to publish Hebrew periodicals were made as early as the end of the seventeenth century (Gilboa). But their social and ideological importance, as well as the practical efforts to publish them, increased dramatically following the Haskalah movement in Germany. These Hebrew periodicals were to be educational tools, presenting modern ideas to Jews in a language they had at least partly mastered (Orbach 56). But their appearance was also part of the maskilic ideology that saw Hebrew as an end in itself; it was believed that a social change in Jewish life was closely linked to the revitalization of Hebrew (Pelli 73).

These Hebrew periodicals played a central role in the Haskalah literary corpus. As Waxman argues, ‘There is hardly a literature in the world in which periodicals played such an important role in its development as the modern Hebrew’ (Vol. 3, 333). Hebrew literature did not rise in response to wide public demand; in fact, the majority of Jews looked upon it with suspicion. For many years during the Haskalah epoch books were in little demand. They were published by the authors themselves and their contribution to the development of literature was limited. The publication of periodicals, however, had some advantages over the publication of books. Periodicals contained information, and later on news, not available in books, attracting readers who were uninterested in literature. They contained a variety of subjects, attracting wider readerships and involving a relatively wider circle of writers (as the Hebrew press developed and increased in frequency, a large portion of their content was submitted by readers). Their frequent appearance also helped disseminate them among wider circles of readers (Waxman Vol. 3, 333).

The Hebrew periodical identified most closely with the first German Haskalah epoch, and which set the tone and reflected the cultural agenda of the maskilic cycles (as well as of the following Hebrew periodicals), was Hame’asef (Waxman Vol. 3, 85; Gilboa 54). It was established as a monthly journal by four young men in Königsberg, and was published there from 1784 to 1786. In its first years, Hame’asef devoted itself to spreading Enlightenment knowledge. It became a centre for Jewish writers in and outside Germany. Many writers were recruited by this journal; the most famous of these was Moses Mendelssohn, whose students came to be identified with this journal (Tsamaryon 83). Hame’asef‘s publishers moved to Berlin in 1787, after which the publication of the journal ceased for a year. When it was renewed in Berlin, it manifested a more radical liberal spirit. In 1791, the journal stopped publishing again and attempts to renew it were unsuccessful until 1809, when it reappeared and published regularly for three years (Waxman Vol. 3, 121-22).

Another Hebrew periodical that demonstrates their central place in the Haskalah era was the annual Bikure ha-‘itim, published in Vienna for 12 years (1820-31). This periodical greatly influenced the stimulation of and interest in Hebrew literature of the time:

It was a gathering place, a kind of literary clearing house, for numerous writers from all lands of the West, and several countries of the East, whither they turned and each brought his mite into the treasure-house of the Hebrew literature. (Waxman Vol. 3, 159)

The journal carried moral fable discussions and poems, a large number of which were translated from German or French. In addition, it presented philological analysis of the Bible and the Talmud (160).

The Hebrew annual Kerem Hemed, published in Galicia from 1833 to 1843 and from 1854 to 1856, also had significant influence within the Haskalah circles. A relatively wide circle of important writers contributed to it, making it an important cultural centre (Gilboa 22). Kerem Hemed mainly focused on Jewish matters: history, Hebrew poetry of the Middle Ages and so on (Gilboa 70-73).

Along with these more successful journals, the first half of the nineteenth century saw hundreds of attempts to publish Hebrew periodicals in various Jewish centres. Most of them, however, only appeared once or twice (Waxman Vol. 3, 334). All these early periodicals contributed greatly to the development of Hebrew literature, constituting an important cultural and spiritual catalyst. But as Gilboa argues, with the appearance of the Eastern European weeklies—the first of them, HaMaggid, published in 1856—a new journalistic era started, one in which the modern Hebrew press was shaped (Gilboa 24). The Hebrew weeklies are distinct from earlier periodicals in both content and form. Unlike the early Haskalah periodicals—which published mainly literary works for contemplation and whose chief aim was to satisfy spiritual and religious needs (Kressel 10-11)—the weeklies increasingly emphasized worldly matters, information and the publication of readers’ letters. This trend was accelerated with the emergence of the Hebrew dailies in 1886, which responded promptly to political events (Gilboa 25).

These journals functioned as a forum for real political debate (Kressel 14-15). As some of them survived for decades, they developed into vivid socio-political arenas (Orbach 57), constituting a ‘public sphere’ for open-ended debate. They were part of the establishment of Jewish political institutions that were relatively independent from state tutelage. And, as Lederhendler argues, they contributed significantly to the introduction of a new point of orientation for Jewish communities—that of ‘the voice of the people’ (133). Furthermore, these weeklies preserved a more or less permanent graphical form, unlike earlier periodicals whose page structure and location of sections changed from issue to issue (Gilboa 29).

HaMaggid was followed by Hebrew journals such as HaMelitz in Odessa and HaKarmel in Vilna (1860), HaTzfira in Warsaw (1862), HaLevanon and Khavazelet in Jerusalem (1863), and HaKol in Königsberg (1876) (see Gilboa). It is important to note, however, that this ‘journalistic turn’ saw the emergence of Jewish journals in other languages as well. In 1862, the publisher and editor of HaMelitz launched a Yiddish weekly called Kol mevasser. Although this journal was a Yiddish supplement to HaMelitz, it had its own interests (Orbach 181). Attempts were made to establish Jewish weeklies written in Russian as well, largely a result of the Russification trend and the involvement of Jewish figures in the Russian press in the second half of the 1850s (Orbach 25; Zinberg 37). The first such weekly journal, Rassvet, appeared in 1860 in Odessa. Its aims were to campaign for Jewish civil rights and religious interests and to fight against conservative forces in Jewish communities (Orbach 29). But at the end of its first year, Rassvet had only 640 subscribers, and it faced rigorous opposition of the censors to its Jewish emancipation agenda. As a result, it ceased publication in 1861 (Zinberg 50-51). The same year, Sion—another Jewish weekly written in Russian language—appeared in Odessa. Trying to avoid censorship, its editors tried at first to steer clear of current events, concentrating on historical Jewish themes (Zinberg 53; Orbach 43). However, like Rassvet before it, Sion garnered few readers and ceased publication in 1862 (Orbach 51).

The condition of Hebrew journals was only slightly better than that of Russian journals. During the 1860s, Hebrew journals had no more than 2,500 subscribers (Miron 58). But this number is not a reliable indication of their circulation. A single copy would have passed from one reader to the next—both for reasons of economy and because readers feared that subscribing to these journals would be considered an act of heresy (Miron 60). But in the 1880s and 1890s, the number of readers of Hebrew literature in general and Hebrew journals in particular increased dramatically. The internal opposition to the use of Hebrew weakened and the language penetrated wider cycles (Waxman Vol. 4, 430). The annual publication of HaAsif in the 1880s, edited by Nahum Sokolov, sold 10,000-12,000 copies. According to Miron, it is reasonable to assume that each of these books was read by 100,000 people. HaTzfira also had 12,000 subscribers; but again, the actual number of readers exposed to the journal would have been much higher.

The increasing demand for Hebrew literature led to the establishment of Hebrew dailies. The first of these, HaYom, was published in Petersburg in 1886. This was followed in the same year by the conversion of the weeklies HaMelitz and HaTzfira into dailies, acts that were linked to a changing perception of the immediacy of news within Jewish communities. In the earlier years of Hebrew weeklies, ‘news’ items were often a few weeks or even months old (Kressel 11). This was similar to early American newspapers (1690-1783), where news was considered simply to be the most recent report of events available (Sloan and Hedgepath-Williams 207).

The rapid adaptation of Hebrew from a language that was usually used for religious needs and scholarship into a language used for everyday political discussion is striking. It has been argued that this shift was related to a discursive transition, reflecting a change in the relationship between text and reality (see Soffer). My aim here, however, is to analyse the various reasons for choosing to use Hebrew in this modern journalistic arena. And the obvious starting point for such an analysis is HaMaggid.

HaMaggid‘s Linguistic Rationale

As mentioned above, the first Eastern European Hebrew weekly was HaMaggid. This journal was founded and edited (in its first years) by Eliezer Lipmann Silbermann in 1856 in a small town (Lyck) on the border of Prussia and Russia. This Prussian border town was chosen to avoid the difficulties involved in getting a Russian licence for a journal and to allow the distribution of HaMaggid to the Jewish community in Russia (Zinberg 10). In time, it became an important journal with wide distribution. It dealt with contemporary issues and published the work of important Jewish figures (Orbach 57). Silbermann—an observant Jew—emphasized the moderate tone of his journal, rejected calls for religious reforms and avoided adopting radical maskilic attitudes (Gilboa 117-35; Kressel 14-15). As Tzitron argues, Silbermann’s general knowledge was rather limited. He had no training in journalism or in-depth knowledge of literature or politics. Further than this, this pioneer figure of the Hebrew press had only a mediocre mastery of Hebrew, and his editorial assistants worked constantly to correct his grammatical errors and make his utterances comprehensible (Tzitron 11-12).

HaMaggid saw itself as obliged to provide readers with current political news (it also gave space to articles on issues of popular science, medicine, Jewish history and so on). As Silbermann explained to his readers in the first issue:

the desire to know about all the matters that occur in the world is rooted in every man’s heart, and the man that is not familiar with historic and contemporary events will be considered as a wild donkey foal. And while so far you have only heard about matters that, before they reached you, were already sealed […] now you will know everything quickly and with trust. (‘My Dear Honored’)

Silbermann noted that his journal would present what the readers needed to know ‘in a clear and easy Hebrew language’ so that all would understand. The use of Hebrew was related here, then, to his main target: to improve the accessibility of news to the Jewish readers.

But Hebrew was perceived as far more than a tool in HaMaggid. As even the subtitle of this journal reveals, HaMaggid had a second, linguistic mission:

[HaMaggid] will tell Jacob about what happens in the entire world and among all the universe inhabitants, [matters that] will please and be worthy of knowing by every Israeli man—for his sake and for the benefit of the lovely Hebrew language.

According to this journal, then, not only would the readers benefit from the journalistic use of Hebrew—in that they had better access to the news—but the language itself would profit. HaMaggid aimed to demonstrate the ability and the advantages of using Hebrew in new contexts (Orbach 76). Journalistic discourse serves the language and improves its condition: its essentiality and liveliness.

HaMaggid‘s perception of Hebrew as an asset, one that needed to be taken care of, was part of a nationalist-religious instinct. Using Hebrew was seen as a religious commandment; it was thus perceived as a holy language (Gilboa 120). This rational for using Hebrew was very similar to HaMaggid‘s attitude some years later with regard to the settlement of the land of Israel. As explained in HaMaggid in 1863, Jews worldwide prayed for their return to Jerusalem: it was therefore only natural that they would try to fulfil their religious aspiration through political means (‘Calmly’). The holiness of the language, like that of the land, provided a justification for human intervention—both using Hebrew and settling the land of Israel were means to spiritual-nationalist fulfilment. This attitude stemmed from HaMaggid‘s moderate religious position, and it differed from the perceived human passivity of earlier historical periods. These saw Hebrew as a heavenly language—the vehicle and source of absolute truth—which greatly limited initiatives for linguistic innovation. In a similar spirit, the redemption of the land of Israel was seen as dependent on the messianic revelations. The holiness of both the land and the language—which made them territories of God—thus prevented human intervention. In HaMaggid, however, human activity was seen as a means to bring God’s gifts to fruition.

HaMaggid‘s use of Hebrew was also part of the perception that it was the common dominator linking Jews scattered throughout the world. As Silbermann notes, continuing to use Hebrew and maintain its well-being was critical for the survival of the Jewish nation: ‘the holy and lovely language, our magnificent estate and the splendor of our head that with it we adhere one to the other, the listener will listen and those who do not [listen] will cease!’ (‘My Dear Honored’). As Kressel notes, HaMaggid was the first journal inspired to present a ‘general-Israeli’ spirit—to reflect the events of Jewish communities all around the world (Kressel 14-15). Silbermann’s declared aim was to bind the sons of Israel together ‘in ties of fraternity, love and peace’ (‘My Dear Honored’). HaMaggid revealed an awareness that the only language that could appeal to and present the general existence of ‘Jacob’ beyond the communal-geographic framework was Hebrew.

As we will see, HaMelitz, which was published some years later, also viewed Hebrew as a national asset. But its interpretation and ideological agenda differed from HaMaggid‘s. Whereas HaMaggid‘s use of Hebrew was part of evolving nationalist perceptions, HaMelitz in its early years intended to harness Hebrew to support the maskilic yearning for integration in non-Jewish society.

HaMelitz’ Linguistic Rationale

HaMelitz, founded by Alexander Ha-Levi Zederbaum in 1860, was the first weekly journal in Tsarist Russia (Gilboa 137-57). Zederbaum took advantage of the willingness of Russian authorities—following their rejection of the request to publish a Jewish-oriented journal written in Russian (Rassvet)—to license a Hebrew journal. As Lederhendler argues, Zederbaum was a Jewish publicist who saw himself as a shtadlan (lobbyist) on maskilic matters (127). He saw himself not only as a publisher, but as spokesman and leader—and an expert on Jewish public life. In this spirit, Zederbaum believed that his journal should function as a guide for public opinion rather than as a mere news source. Early articles in HaMelitz praised the Haskalah and described its benefits for the Jewish people. As an educational project, the journal was even supported by the Jewish censor at the time (Orbach 57). Because German was a common language among Russian maskilic circles (Gilboa 141), in its first year HaMelitz included articles in that language, transcribed into Hebrew. These articles were meant to eradicate the jargon of Yiddish by presenting the alternative of German (Orbach 79). Yet, like many others maskilic figures of the time, Zederbaum emphasized that the Haskalah did not contradict religious faith. This perception was expressed in the journal’s subtitle: ‘Between the Yeshurun People [the people of Israel] and the Government, the Faith and the Haskalah.’

Of the three journals discussed here, HaMelitz’ perception with regard to the use of Hebrew, as well as the state language, followed the linguistic agenda of the late Haskalah movement most closely. As Ron Kuzar argues, linguistic issues of the Jewish Haskalah, like those within the European Enlightenment, reflected the larger trend of rejecting traditional values and life while glorifying the distant past. This included ‘a loving respect for Biblical Hebrew as a symbol for past accomplishments’ (Kuzar 7). The maskilim in the Eastern European communities did not try to end the multilingualism of Jewish communities, but they aimed to change their functioning languages (Bartal ‘Traditional’ 144-45). Yiddish would be replaced by the state or other European language, and the holy language, which included rabbinic-Talmudic Hebrew and biblical Hebrew, would be replaced by strict biblical Hebrew, which they saw as a mimetic language with rigid rules of grammar (Rabin 47). In the Haskalah spirit, Zederbaum emphasized that Jewish life could be renewed through the revitalization of Hebrew, and he stressed the importance of Bible study (Orbach 73-74). According to Zederbaum, Hebrew functioned in the past both as the holy language of Judaism and as a force unifying distinct Jewish communities since the time of their dispersion. But the undermining and vulgarization of Hebrew within Jewish communities were negative signs for the future of the Jews.

Yet, Zederbaum did not entirely follow the reserved maskilic attitude towards the use of Yiddish: along with Hebrew and Russian journals he also published a book in Yiddish, and he even added a Yiddish supplementary to HaMelitz in 1862 (Slutsky ‘Zederbaum’ 528-29). This move was most likely driven by pragmatic and financial considerations—to increase the demand for HaMelitz (Orbach 92). In 1862, as mentioned above, Zederbaum published the Yiddish weekly Kol mevasser. Yet, he was initially ashamed to publish a Yiddish journal (Zinberg 17), and claimed that Yiddish was to be used as a tool to educate the people and that its use would be temporary (Orbach 110). As Orbach argues:

When faced with important decisions involving the continuation of his papers, he invariably placed the welfare of the Hebrew and Russian papers ahead of that of the Yiddish one, in spite of the fact that it was the Yiddish one which was at the time more popular and financially more lucrative. (71)

Zederbaum’s perception of Hebrew, as expressed in HaMelitz, definitely reflected the maskilic recognition of this language as a source of pride in the Jewish past. Hebrew would stress the contribution of Jews to human history, which went hand in hand with the maskilic wish for integration among the modern Enlightened nations:

This is the ancient honored language that the book of the history of the universe and its descendants was written in […] [I]n this [language] God was revealed to us, in it the poets wrote their songs of praise that are alive and exist among all G-d-fearing […] Jews and non-Jews; in [Hebrew] the prophets preached to us and to all the nations wisdom and morality; it is [Hebrew] that the sages of our people in each and every generation used […] [I]n it all the sons of Israel, from east to west, pray to God every day […] And it is not our Jewish brothers alone that respect and admire it, but also among the peoples it is respected and its memory is blessed. And even though all our Holy Scriptures were translated to other languages […] all their priests learn the Hebrew language, the source of their faith and religion, and also recall in their prayers from time to time Hebrew words and phrases […] [A]nd it is therefore so holy and precious for us and for all human kind. (‘Language for the Faithful’)

The non-Jewish appreciation of Hebrew along with its universal characteristics are stressed here. Another place in the journal warned against abandoning Hebrew learning among the youth. The instruction of Hebrew was compared to that of other ancient classical languages, such as Roman or Greek. It was also argued that training boys in Hebrew would allow them to cope more easily with their state language later on (‘Language for the Faithful’). Hebrew was linked again to the image of the Enlightened Jewish man. And the Hebrew language—with its segregate and nationalist characteristics—was described as a resource for integrating into non-Jewish society.

Along with the need to preserve Hebrew as a source of cultural pride in modern times, HaMelitz argued in the Haskalah spirit that in an era characterized by increased use of national vernaculars, Jews must also adapt their state language (Polish, Russian, etc.) in order to integrate into non-Jewish society. Zederbaum noted that a Jew must learn the state language in order to communicate with, for example, a judge, minister or another educated person. In this way, Jews would avoid being considered as guests, detached from their non-Jewish surrounding, and therefore not entitled to citizenship (Tzitron ‘HaMelitz 2’). However, Zederbaum explained, knowledge of the state language was a tool rather than a goal in itself:

[W]e must learn these [foreign] languages in order to understand scholars’ utterances at their sources. The knowledge of foreign languages is also crucially needed in this time, since the nations hearts came closer, as without them […] a man will not understand his partner’s language while conducting commercial or property transactions. And therefore, learning the language is a tool (and not a goal) to broaden our actions in the country and to bring us inside the wisdom hall, to learn to better and purify our spirit. (‘Seeing Eye’)

The important place reserved for Hebrew in HaMelitz is well demonstrated through an initiative of the journal that reveals seeds of linguistic ideology and planning: the dictionary project. Zederbaum explained to his readers that, unlike European languages, Hebrew lacked literary aids. He also noted that Hebrew suffered from a lack of words, which rendered it unable to reflect modern ideas. He called on the readers to contact HaMelitz to take part in a joint initiative of composing a Hebrew-German-Russian dictionary:

These who desire to get engaged in that heavy and honored work should notify us in a letter to the HaMelitz board, and tell us in what area they excel at […] whether in the Hebrew, German or Russian parts, and […] we will divide and allocate to each man the letter that he will work on so there will not be ten people working on one letter while all the other [letters] are lacking care. And it will be much better […] if we could give each of the letters to two different and distant people, so they will be able to complete what the other has missed. (‘Treasure Activity’)

This initiative illustrates the linguistic role that HaMelitz felt compelled to fulfil. In a similar manner to HaMaggidHaMelitz saw itself not only as a user of Hebrew, but also as an agent meant to improve it. This initiative (which failed due to lack of response of the readers) is even more interesting in that the journal attempted to recruit a relatively wide social circle—that of readers—to take part in the project. Zederbaum promised his readers-writers he would publish this dictionary in a distinguished manner, after a careful referee process conducted by linguistic scholars, and suitable editorial work. He also declared that all the profits from the selling of these dictionaries would be divided among those who took part in its writing (‘Treasure Activity’).

Although Zederbaum referred, in the spirit of the Haskalah, to the grammatical and linguistic errors that characterized rabbinic literature, he still called the readers-writers of the dictionary to include words from all sources available: not only the Bible, but rabbinic literature, Hebrew philosophy and so on. His emphasis was on giving ‘Hebrew images’ to modern ideas (‘Treasure Activity’). This deviation from the maskilic linguistic model can be explained by the need for newspapers—meant to present actual life events—to focus on clear language rather than on preserving strict biblical Hebrew. As Shlomo Kodesh notes, maskilic reliance on the latter led to ambiguous utterances: phrases or half-phrases from the Bible were linked together, sometimes regardless of relevance, in order to cover the biblical language’s deficiency in representing and dealing with everyday matters (25). In time, criticism of these characteristics—criticism that contained the seeds of a modern perception of the text as ‘a mirror of life’ reflecting reality ‘as it is’ (Papirna 27)—led to new aspirations for an exact language.

HaMelitz’ attitude fits well, then, the late maskilic perception of the use of Hebrew, as well as future trends such as that of the early twentieth-century ‘word factory’ of Ben-Yhuda in Palestine, which invented words and terms as part of the adjustment of Hebrew to everyday speech (Harshav Language 105-106). As we will see, HaTzfira also contributed to the adjustment of Hebrew to modern life. But in HaTzfira, this was seen as a practical need rather than an ideological issue.

HaTzfira‘s Linguistic Rationale

HaTzfira was founded by Haim Zelig Slonimski in Warsaw in 1862 (publication ceased after six months and was re-established 12 years later). The journal’s original objective was to disseminate scientific and technological ideas among the Jewish communities of Eastern Europe. This was part of Slonimski’s spiritual enthusiasm about the development of the sciences (Sokolov). But Slonimski was also an observant Jew, knowledgeable in the Talmud. In the first years of his journal, he tried to avoid political and ideological debates, especially those over the future of Jews and religious reforms, aiming to appeal to observant readers and especially to Talmudic students (Soffer 83-84). Slonimski therefore emphasized the harmony between the sciences and the Jewish faith. In this spirit, HaTzfira harnessed scientific methods to solve Talmudic queries.

The linguistic choice in HaTzfira seemed to reflect functional considerations rather than ideological ones. As was revealed some years later in the context of the settlement of Israel, Slonimski opposed any modern nationalist trends among the Jews, seeing them as negative chauvinist influences of non-Jewish society (Soffer 111). Slonimski meant to provide his Talmudic readers with a window to modern scholarship—to natural and technological wonders—in Hebrew. Readers would have had at least minimal mastery of this language of prayer through the Jewish education system and religious-communal activities. Seeing its task as didactic, HaTzfira meant to open areas of knowledge to the Jewish audience that had previously been closed to them, written as they had been in the countries’ vernaculars—in which few Jewish people had any proficiency.

The first issue of HaTzfira expressed this functional attitude. Slonimski referred to the contribution of the Hebrew journals to public education: ‘[S]ince Hebrew journals started to be published among our people, the experience taught us the goodness concealed in them for the value of the people’s education’ (Preface). In a book Slonimski published a couple of years later (in Hebrew), he indicated language as a chief barrier to the engagement of Talmudic Jews in scientific studies. According to Slonimski, although Talmudic studies sharpened the mind and prepared students for scientific study, these benefits could not be realized due to the lack of relevant books of learning in Hebrew:

[M]any of our people in this country, which had stagnated for a very long time, the time spirit aroused them to seek a wisdom and understanding of these new sciences, as those who grew up since their youth at the knees of the Talmud will yearn for wisdom, will love to enjoy themselves in the diligence of the mind, in matters that don’t contradict the religion and faith. And although they have an advantage in knowing, understanding and in education of all the sharp sciences, all this is canceled as they will not find the books they need, as the books are written in the peoples’ languages, which some of them don’t understand and some see as a study of secular literature while they are engaged with G-d’s Torah all their lives. (vi)

In a similar spirit, Mendele Mocher Sforim (pseudonym of Sholem Yakov Abramovitz), who contributed significantly to HaTzfira in its first year, emphasized the importance of the use of Hebrew for the education of the Jewish people, since Jews were not familiar with state languages: ‘Let Hebrew be ancient and lacking new terms in its words, let it be even dead, we don’t have business with that now; we just know that it is a good and reliable means to educate the sons of Israel’ (Abramovitz 26). He saw the use of Hebrew as an interim stage that would end when Jews acquired proficiency in the state language. He warned that choosing languages other than Hebrew for the Jewish journals would keep this literature within the same small circle of those enlightened people who had mastery in the state languages and could gain access to modern knowledge outside of the Jewish communities:

And even if the Hebrew language is not understood by all our people, still you must admit that it is more understandable to our people than the Russian language and if you will want to write in it [Russian] to help our people by it, you will work hard for nothing; you will write and your utterances will be understood only by handful of people, those whose deprivation of and benefits from the enlightenment you don’t need to teach, and before whom all the non-Jews journals and books are opened; but the rest of the people from middle class […] for whom you made all this effort, will move away from your journal and will not take it to their hands. (Abramovitz 24-25)

It seems that precisely this functional perception of Hebrew contributed to its transformation into a clear, everyday journalistic language. Unlike Zederbaum in HaMelitz, Slonimski and his helpers did not complain that Hebrew’s poor corpus made it unsuitable for modern writing. Without any declared aspiration to expand the language corpus, they engaged in the process of de facto creating new names and expressions in Hebrew (Buki Ben Yogli 70-71).

Hebrew Journals and the Seeds of Nationalism

As we have seen, the three journals discussed above had different reasons for using Hebrew. HaMaggid‘s choice was linked to religious perceptions, which were related to early nationalist consideration. For HaMelitz, Hebrew emphasized the Jewish contribution to human history and modernity, justifying the journal’s aspirations for equality and integration among non-Jews. In HaTzfira, however, the emphasis on Hebrew was mainly based on a functional perception, which saw the language as a tool to promote modern knowledge among Jews. Yet, it should be noted that these reasons for the use of Hebrew among the journals were not rigidly distinct from each other, but rather fluid. As we have seen, HaMelitz’ impetus (part of the general yearning for integration) was very close to HaMaggid‘s reasoning (that Hebrew was a national-religious asset). In addition, all these journals were part of the increasing openness of Jewish communities to non-Jewish society, as well as to new domains of knowledge in which Hebrew, as part of the Haskalah influence, was being used for the first time.

Ultimately, regardless of their justifications for using Hebrew, these journals contributed to the development of the modern Jewish nation. This, however, was not due to any general increase in the hegemony of Hebrew culture in early twentieth-century Jewish life. In fact, this era saw a decrease in the centrality of Hebrew in the life and culture of Eastern European Jews (Miron 89). The multilingual trends in Jewish literature (including Zionist literature) were still strong at the time. Increasing assimilation strengthened the role of state languages among the Jews (Miron 86-87). They could have turned to general (non-Jewish) journalism or to Jewish-oriented journals published in the state language, which were being printed in increasing numbers at the beginning of the twentieth century. For example, Russian-language journals targeting specific readerships appeared in many Russian cities, and Jewish-oriented journals were also published in many other national languages, such as Polish, Romanian and so on (Greenbaum 1265-67).

Another reason for the decrease in the centrality of Hebrew literature and journalism was the strengthening role of Yiddish in Jewish communities. With the cultural achievement of the secular literature composed in Yiddish and the flourishing of the Yiddish press, the attitude of the intelligentsia towards this language changed (Slutsky Twentieth Century 40). The Russian authorities, which had forbidden the publication of Yiddish journals at the end of the nineteenth century, were by 1902 willing to permit them. The Yiddish press recruited many talented Hebrew writers, offering them better payment for their work and much wider exposure (40). The successful Yiddish daily—the Idishes Tageblat—was published in 1906 and reached the unprecedented circulation of 70,000 copies (Greenbaum 1261). In the same year, five Yiddish dailies appeared in Warsaw alone. Their circulation reached 96,000 copies. During this time period, only three Hebrew dailies appeared in Warsaw, whose circulation reached only 12,000 (Shmeruk 240).

The weakening of Eastern Europe as a centre for Hebrew literature was also due to the fact that the Yishuv (the Jewish settlements in Palestine prior to the establishment of Israel) was becoming the dominant Hebrew centre (Harshav ‘Essay’ 16). In the first two decades of the twentieth century, the society in the Yishuv was far from being a Hebrew-speaking one. It was only in 1913, after a long debate, that it was decided that Hebrew should replace German as the language of schools. Over time, Hebrew became the main language of the Yishuv, promoted by the press and educational institutions. In 1936 a major step was made when a ‘Hebrew hour’ was broadcast on the British mandatory radio (Liebes).

In many ways, the Yishuv was an extension of ideological, cultural and political trends of the European centres, which included the revival of Hebrew both in general and in journalism (Kressel 10). But while in the multilingual Eastern European communities it was possible to conduct a lively cultural life in written Hebrew while speaking Yiddish, in the Yishuv, Hebrew became an important integrating component in society. Hebrew was transformed from an embodied language into one that ruled all domains of life and that played an important role in the constitution of the new society (Harshav ‘Essay’ 9).

The diffusion of secular Hebrew literature to the Yishuv created an overlap between two major features that relate to national existence: a national literary language and the yearning for political autonomy (Hroch 4). This overlap touches upon one of the basic national yearnings: that ethnic boundaries will overlap political ones (Gellner 1). Historically, vernacular languages emerged in geographic enclaves, and these expanded geographically due to capitalist processes (mainly through commerce in print products) beyond distinct communities. This created vernacular reading publics, whose geographic range was wider than that of the preliminary vernacular enclaves but much more limited than that of Latin in the pre-nationalist era (Anderson 44). This constituted the cultural and linguistic infrastructure for the emergence of nation-states. But examination of the Jewish case since Exile time reveals geographic dispersion. In many ways, the Jewish journals discussed above constitute a ‘paper territory’ (admat neyar), a shared public sphere that linked Jews from distinct communities. The first phase of the modern national movement could have taken place on the ‘soil’ of this ‘territory’—a linguistic phase—as a kind of preparation stage for the language planning and institutional dissemination of the Yishuv era.

According to Hroch, three different phases exist in the development of a national movement. The final two phases are characterized by political action: in phase B, activists emerge and agitate compatriots to join the national project; and in phase C, the vast population responds to the patriotic call. In phase A, however, one sees linguistics playing a preliminary role in the creation of nationalism. In this phase, ‘a small group of intellectuals devoted themselves to scholarly enquiry into the language, history, traditional culture and so on’ (Hroch 4). Language is essential in creating a culturally homogeneous group of people (Hroch 7). As Smith argues, ‘[l]anguage groups are usually regarded as the basic network of nation’ (108). In the national context, language is not simply a matter of communication or even culture, but of power, status, politics and ideology (Hobsbawm 154).

The Hebrew press, as a cultural and linguistic production, fulfilled many of the components of Hroch’s framework (Hroch 13-19). In fact, in the Jewish case the linguistic phase seems to have been split into two stages occurring in distinct geographical locations. The first stage occurred in the Diaspora and the second on the soil of Palestine. The first stage, in which the Eastern Europe journals took a major part, included the celebration of the language—its aesthetics, its past (see HaMelitz’ attitude), its ability to convey information (see HaTzfira‘s attitude), its intellectualization and the early perception of the national importance of language (see HaMaggid‘s attitude). The second stage included components such as language standardization and planning, the homogenizing of dialects, introducing a national language into the schools, making linguistic issues’ political conflict matter and demanding that the language be introduced equally into all of the state’s domains (Hroch 13-19).

In Anderson’s spirit, Hebrew journals also contributed to the creation of an imagined community. In fact, in the case of the Hebrew journals—because there is no territorial anchor for the community—the imagined component is much more extreme than in Anderson’s examples. According to Anderson, it is the shared perception of progress in time that creates an imagined community in the process of reading a newspaper. This is explicitly expressed through the printed date at the top of the newspaper (Anderson 33) and through the knowledge that other unknown people are reading the same newspaper at the same time. In most national cases, however, people have at least a vague idea of the boundaries of their community—usually related to some geographical location. But the readers of Hebrew journals had to be involved in a much more abstract process of imagination, which included the parallel movement of communities divided over great distances (these journals published reports about Jewish communities all over the world—from Europe, the Russian Empire, the Land of Israel, Baghdad, the USA and further) and with no territorial centre. During the periods of exile, the self-image of the Jewish people as a nation was anchored in a religious-cosmological perception. But the Hebrew journals provided their readers with a unique potential of imagining the simultaneous movement of J ewish communities in a new and secular framework.

In closing, I suggest that while in other historical cases, such as American journalism, the emergence of the press was linked to the colonial period and the struggle for political independence, the rise of the Hebrew press illustrates an important pre-colonialist stage, which prepared the ground for mass communication that evolved in Palestine. These journals have also made an important contribution in the creation of a common political language and symbols shared by different communities, and they served as a stage for the secularization of Hebrew. This was a significant step toward the construction of a modern political system; according to one of the functional definitions of nationalism: that of the construction of communication networks (Deutsch 27).