Prior to the First Exile of the Judean aristocracy to Babylon in 586 BCE, Israelites referred to themselves as ‘Hebrews’ (ivrim – עברים)—e.g.:
It stands to reason, therefore, that their language was known as ivrit (Hebrew)—although, in the century and a half after the fall of the Israel (northern) kingdom, since Judea was the sole remaining sovereign Israelite entity, the notion of a ‘Hebrew’ nationality lost its meaning, and its inhabitants began to refer to themselves as yehudim (Judeans), and their language as yehudit (Judean):
- Speak, I pray thee, to thy servants in Assyrian—for we understand it— and talk not with us in Judean in the ears of the people that are on the wall [II Kings 18:26]
After two or three generations in Babylon, the exiled Judeans naturally acquired Aramaic as their native language, and Hebrew might have been forgotten entirely, were it not so critical to preserving their cherished history and traditions.
It was clear that Hebrew would the language in which the written record of the oral traditions—which we now know as the Hebrew Bible—would be recorded. However, the notion of a Hebrew nationality had long been lost, and referring to the language as yehudit suggested that, as good Judeans, they should speak it as their native tongue—which they were loathe to do, because by this time, they felt more at home in Aramaic, which was also a more prestigious language, since it was the lingua franca of the region.
So to reflect Hebrew’s new special status, and to ‘compensate’ it for losing its status as the native everyday language, it was now referred to as leshon haqodesh (‘the holy tongue’). This state of affairs continued until the arrival of the first Zionists in Palestine in the late nineteenth century, who—as avowedly secular Jews intent on resurrecting the notion of a Jewish nationality, rather than religion—revived the concept of Hebrew as a nationality and as a language.
This mindset continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century: the Zionist Jewish community in Palestine referred to itself, its autonomous institutions and enterprises, and even the future independent state, as ‘Hebrew’.
In his declaration of independence of the newborn State of Israel in 1948, however, Prime Minister Ben-Gurion inadvertently referred to the new country as a medinah yehudit (‘Jewish state’). Although he meant it in the nationalist/Zionist sense of a ‘state of the Jews’, religious political parties were quick to seize upon this expression to mean a ‘Jewish state’ in the religious sense—whose agenda, therefore, was therefore implicitly theirs to dictate.