Ha-Yom was the first daily Hebrew-language newspaper ever to be published. The paper was founded and published in St. Petersburg by the veteran journalist Judah Leib Kantor (1849-1915), with the help of David Frischmann and Judah Leib Katzenelson (Buki ben Yogli). The publication’s first issue appeared on January 31 (February 12) 1886 and the last issue came out on February 29 (March 12) 1888. In an article introducing the very first issue, the editor outlined the two main objectives of the newspaper: 1) to create a universal, pluralistic forum rising above the internal differences of opinion among Russian Jews, such as between proponents of the Hibbat Zion movement and supporters of immigration to the United States; and 2) to move beyond the realm of exclusively Jewish issues, adapt to European journalistic standards, and introduce the Hebrew reader to events in Russia and around the world. Kantor recognized the great broadening of scope and requirements among Hebrew readers which occurred during that period, and he sought to fill the gap. At the same time, he expressed doubts and concerns that the daring venture would be successful, in light of the grave challenges placed in its path: Would there be enough press material to support a daily publication? Could the Hebrew language as it then existed serve as the comprehensible, adaptable, informative tool required for modern journalistic reporting? Could enough steady readers be found, when the entirety of its potential audience was already accustomed to satisfy its needs with established newspapers in other languages?
Ha-Yom (St. Petersburg) was published in a large format (28.5 x 44 cm), and included a diverse range of sections and content: a leading political editorial by Kantor, news from the capital city, contributions by authors and reviewers from various areas of Russia and abroad, commerce and exchange news, articles on scientific and educational matters, reviews of new books, travelogues, descriptions of art exhibitions, short stories, and literary feuilletons. The paper’s feuilleton section was filled almost exclusively with David Frischmann’s Otiyot Porchot (Flying Letters) and Michtavim al Davar Ha-Sifrut (Letters on Literature), which served as a continuous lesson to readers on the theme of aesthetics. J.L. Katzenelson primarily contributed articles examining issues of natural science. J.E. Triwosch, Moses Leib Lilienblum, Eliezer Isaac Shapira (Eish), Simon Bernfeld, Zev (Wolf) Schur, and others also contributed to the paper. Particularly outstanding in the area of literature were I.L. Peretz’s short story “Ha-Kaddish,” Mendele Mocher Sefarim’s “Beseter Ra’am” (which symbolized his return to writing in Hebrew), and various works by David Frischmann.
Several months after the establishment of Ha-Yom (St. Petersburg), two well-established weekly papers of the Haskalah movement — Ha-Melitz and Ha-Zefira — followed its lead and became daily publications. From that time on, a number of different conflicts and debates raged between the three newspapers. While the situation occasionally sank to slanderous, personal disputes between the editors, the controversy was basically ideological and based on the papers’ different values. Ha-Yom (St. Petersburg) was accused by its competitors—particularly by Ha-Melitz—of displaying a neutrality and apathy towards Jewish matters, and even harboring an implicit hostility towards the Hibbat Zion movement and settlement in Eretz-Yisrael. In the background of this conflict stood the commercial rivalry between the different publications, which continuously battled for the same readership, until Ha-Melitz and Ha-Zefira finally came out on top. One of Kantor’s efforts at survival was the establishment of a monthly literary publication entitled Ben-Ami, which was distributed to Ha-Yom’s readers and was dedicated to Jewish Studies and belles-lettres. Its four issues were published between January and May 1887. This experiment did not succeed in saving Ha-Yom, however, and the paper’s economic failure led to its closure shortly after the beginning of its third year of operation. In the history of Jewish press, Ha-Yom (St. Petersburg) remains a pioneer, not merely as the first Hebrew-language daily, but also as the first and fairly successful attempt of a Jewish paper to free itself of Haskalah rhetoric and create a functional, concise, and precise Hebrew reporting style and terminology.