1886: First Hebrew Newspaper Is Published — in Russia

It was difficult to publish a modern newspaper, about contemporary issues, in an ancient language.

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A Hebrew typewriter. (illustrative)
Doubly out-of-date: A Hebrew typewriter with soon-to-be changed arrangement of letters. (illustrative)Credit: Dreamstime
David Green
David B. Green

February 12, 1886 marked the publication of the first issue of Hayom, the first-every Hebrew-language newspaper to come out on a daily basis.

Published in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Hayom (“today” in Hebrew) was a response to a growing sense of national identity among Jews living within the czarist empire, which in turn was a reaction to the deadly wave of anti-Semitic violence that had begun sweeping across the Russian empire earlier in the same decade.

Hayom was an ambitious undertaking, not only because it was published on a daily basis, but also because it was aimed at highbrow readers and tried to resist the temptation to offer them cheap thrills, and also because it was not associated with any particular ideological camp.

Its founding editor, Judah Leib Kantor, stated that his intention was “to lay bare the facts, indications and events before the reader, and let him judge them as he sees fit.”

Founding editor: A rabbi and a doctor

The Vilna-born Kantor (1849-1915) was an individualist, whose independent spirit made him suspect to all those who were affiliated with a specific political or religious stream.

Before he became an editor, he attended the state-sponsored rabbinical seminary in Zhitomir (in today’s Lithuania), receiving ordination in 1873.

Following his ordination, in 1873, Kantor earned a medical degree in Berlin, but because he could not practice that profession in Germany, he returned to Vilna.

All the while, he wrote for the Hebrew periodicals Hamelitz, a weekly, and Hashahar, a monthly.

Though they emerged from the Haskalah — the Jewish Enlightenment movement, which aspired to have the Jews integrate into the larger surrounding culture — both of these journals became increasingly sympathetic to the proto-Zionist Hovevei Tzion camp, which saw redemption coming out of the Jews’ return to the Holy Land.

Kantor, however, did not want to openly take sides with either Hovevei Tzion or with those who believed the Jews could find refuge only in America.

Even after the outbreak of pogroms, starting in 1881, Kantor, writing at the time in the Russian-language Jewish monthly Evreiskoe Obrazovanie, expressed the hope that there was still a future for his people within Russia.

Suddenly, competition

The initial response to Hayom was positive, with the paper attracting 2,400 subscribers in its early months. But very quickly, Hamelitz and the other Hebrew weekly, Hatzefira, responded to the challenge by switching to a daily format themselves, upping the competitive ante to Hayom and to Kantor.

Similarly, when Kantor undertook the expense of subscribing to the Northern Company wire service, Hamelitz did the same, a luxury that it relinquished after Hayom folded.

Kantor envisioned Hayom being an all-purpose paper, not simply a Jewish one, and so he had translators rendering articles on business and economics from the Russian press into Hebrew.

“I speak in the name of people who are screaming like cranes: Give us clear reports, give us nature reports, give us physics and chemistry, technology, physiology, geology, economics,” said Kantor, as quoted by David Tal in a recently published biography of the editor.

“And they wanted these reports in Hebrew, which had not yet adapted to modern times,” noted Rafi Mann, in a review of Tal’s book published in Haaretz in 2012.

Many of the columns in Hayom were written by Kantor himself, often using one or another pseudonym.

Other contributors included David Frischmann, an early author of modern Hebrew poetry and fiction, and the intellectual Moshe Leib Lilienblum.

When circulation began to drop, Kantor threw in a monthly literary supplement, called Ben-Ami, but that raised expenses without augmenting revenues.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Hayom lasted only slightly more than two years: It published the last of its 594 issues on March 12, 1888.

Kantor went on to work at a Yiddish paper and also at his former competitor Hamelitz.

When his health began to fail, he worked as a rabbi, serving, successively, as the state-sponsored rabbi of Libau (today, Liepaja, Latvia), Vilna and Riga. He died in 1915.

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