Judah Loeb Ben Ze'ev (1764–1811), grammarian and lexicographer; the first Jewish scholar to apply Western research methods to the study of Hebrew. Born near Cracow, Ben Ze'ev received a traditional Jewish education, but covertly, on his own, studied Hebrew philology and secular subjects. He belonged to the group of Polish-Jewish writers that published Ha-Me'assef, a literary organ in the spirit of the early Haskalah. Later, in 1787, when he moved to Berlin, he was admitted to the circle of Haskalah scholars there. In Berlin, he devoted himself to secular studies but returned to his native city which he was forced to leave when persecuted by Orthodox Jews because of his liberal opinions. He settled in Breslau and worked as a proofreader in a Hebrew publishing house. Later he moved to Vienna where he was employed in the same capacity, in the Hebrew printing establishment of Anton von Schmid.
Ben Ze'ev's versatile literary activities spread over a number of fields: grammar and phonetics, lexicography, Bible exegesis, translations, poetry, parodic works, and the editing of medieval texts. Talmud Leshon Ivri (Breslau, 1796), probably his best-known work, is a grammar which served as the main source for the study of Hebrew in Eastern Europe for a hundred years; it was frequently reissued and exerted considerable influence on subsequent grammarians. In it, Ben Ze'ev discusses phonetics (and vocalization); the theory of forms (parts of speech); the noun, the verb, the particles; selected aspects of syntax (particularly the combination of sentences); aspects of literary theory (parallelism, rhyme, and meter); and the theory of ta'amei ha-mikra ("biblical accentuation and cantillation"). In his study of phonemes, he followed the line of thought of S. Z. Henau; in the definition of the parts of speech that of M. Mendelssohn; in his description of the noun and the verb the ideas of Elijah Levita and in his discussion on syntax the foundations of David Kimhi in Sefer ha-Mikhlol. Ben Ze'ev applied the methods used in the study and research of European language grammars; his rules, based on logic, are organized in a manner suitable for instruction. Many of the concepts in his books are original, not to be found in any previous grammatical work: especially, a new terminology in the field of composition and syntax; innovations in syntax; and the study of poetry. His most important achievement is Ozar ha-Shorashim (Vienna, 1807–08), a Hebrew-German and German-Hebrew dictionary which was inspired by the works of David Kimhi. It is arranged in alphabetical order, e.g., in the German section, verbs with prefixes are listed alphabetically according to the prefixes; the definitions of the terms often include synonyms and examples of usage taken either from the Bible directly or cited in sentences formulated in biblical style; the German terms are written in Hebrew characters. Ben Ze'ev laid the basis for the modern Hebrew terminology in linguistics, translating grammatical terms from German into Hebrew and indicating their German equivalent.
Among his translations is Ecclesiasticus rendered into Hebrew (Breslau, 1798; at a time when the Hebrew text had not yet been discovered). When later parts of the Hebrew text were recovered it was found that Ben Ze'ev's translation in a biblical gnomic style was imbued with the very spirit of the author. Melizah le-Furim, a collection of ironic prayers and selihot for Purim (Breslau, 1800), containing also many clever parodies on well-known Jewish texts and poetic writings, mainly in the genre of the fable, is among his literary creative works. Ben Ze'ev lacked a poetic flair and it is in his grammatical studies that he excelled.