Ha-Zefira, the first Hebrew-language newspaper in Poland during the period of Russian rule, was founded in Warsaw, as a weekly publication, by Hayyim Selig Slonimski (Hazas) in 1862. However, events of the period – the Polish uprising of 1863 and Slonimski's appointment as the supervisor of the Rabbinical Seminary in Zhitomir – prompted publication of the newspaper to cease after only six months and twenty-five issues. Slonimski succeeded in reviving Ha-Zefira in Berlin in 1874, and after a year there, the paper's editorial staff returned to Warsaw, where it remained throughout all the subsequent years of its continued publication. In 1886 Ha-Zefira became a daily publication, a format it maintained uninterruptedly for the next twenty years, while from 1906 and onwards it was published intermittently and in varying formats until its final closure in 1931.
During its most prolific period as a weekly, Ha-Zefira’s circulation stood at around 2,500 subscriptions, and once the daily format was adopted – and particularly after the paper passed to the exclusive management of Sokolow in 1894 – the number of subscriptions continuously rose until it exceeded 10,000.
Ha-Zefira was the product of its founder and editor’s endeavor to disseminate knowledge of the practical sciences among Jews. Slominski, a graduate of the traditional rabbinical seminary who even in his youth was considered a prodigy, was a self-taught scientist and gifted inventor who published books (in Hebrew and German) in such fields as mathematics and astronomy. These publications turned him into a figure of great admiration among Jews of the Tsarist Empire and an honored personage among the intelligentsia of Russia and Germany. Because Slonimski entered the publishing world as a well-known and celebrated man, he sought to leverage on his public status in order to create a mouthpiece for his Enlightenment doctrine in simple, clear Hebrew, and intended the paper he established (probably as a result of economic and distributional considerations) for the Hebrew-reading audience among the Jews of Poland.
Slonimski was an intelectual (maskil) who drew his inspiration from the West, admired German culture, and openly disagreed with all 'Russian Philosophy.' The orthodox nature of most of the paper’s potential readers – as well as Slonimski’s own tendency to distance himself from all conflict or dispute – lent Ha-Zefira a moderate line which helped to endear it to ultra-Orthodox circles, even as it actually undermined the Halakha as an expression of an ideological point of view. Slonimski did not interest himself in politics, refused to publish works of literature or poetry, and preferred that Ha-Zefira adhere to his scientific dogma. Many see his creation of a new type of Hebrew-language discourse to be Slonimski’s most significant contribution. The popular science articles which became the identifying feature of Ha-Zefira during Slonimski’s time encouraged – for the first time – an “extra-textual” discussion. This differed significantly from the traditional, casuistic 'intra-textual' discourse, which never deviated from the boundaries of the religious text or the religious thought process in its attempt to find answers to different questions. Thus were cast the foundations of the modern, secular discourse in Hebrew, which enabled the mental transformation required for the transition to a national-political discourse.
In the early 1880s, as he turned seventy, Slonimski gradually began to cut back his activities at the paper, particularly once Nahum Sokolow (1859-1936) joined the editorial staff. Sokolow would go on to turn Ha-Zefira into the leading journal of the Jews of the Russian Empire at the beginning of the twentieth century, and himself become the most dominant figure of his time in the world of Hebrew-language journalism. Sokolow was born in Wyszogrod (Płock County), Poland where he received a traditional education in the home of his father and various other Hasidim, together with a secular education that he acquired largely on his own. Before he reached the age of twenty-three, he had completely mastered eight languages, and he began contributing to Hebrew-language papers while still in his adolescence. He first joined the staff of Ha-Zefira in 1880 where he advanced from the position of assistant to acting editor, and ultimately succeeded the elderly Slonimski and became (in practice) Ha-Zefira’s single authority (1894-1916). Sokolow was responsible for implementing most of Ha-Zefira’s improvements, and he was the initiator and primary figure in the paper's transition to the daily format. One of his many talents was his ability to explain complex concepts – on a broad range of subjects – in simple Hebrew, which allowed him to greatly expand his readers' political understanding and awareness.
Under Sokolow's leadership, Ha-Zefira
maintained a moderate and cautious ideological line, particularly towards anything relating to the 'burning questions of the time' of that period (nationalism, immigration, settlement in Palestine, etc.). This line was in direct contrast to the unbridled enthusiasm of Ha-Magid
(under Gordon) and Ha-Melitz
in their support for Hibbat Zion and the endeavor to establish a Jewish settlement in Palestine. Sokolow initially even had reservations about Herzl and his book, Alt-Neuland. However, after meeting Herzl at the First Zionist Congress (to which Sokolow was invited by virtue of his renown and influence as a journalist), he was drawn to the idea of Zionism, and as a result of this revelation Ha-Zefira
became the official mouthpiece of political Zionism. Sokolow even began a political career within the framework of the various institutions of the Zionist movement, which in the later years of his life led him to serve as president of the Zionist Organization for two consecutive terms (1931-1935).
The first two decades of the twentieth century marked the high point of Ha-Zefira’s circulation, and it became the leading Hebrew-language newspaper in the Russian Empire. Of particular note was the flourishing of literary work published by the paper; its literary departments and supplements were home to the publications of such prominent writers as Sholem Asch, Uri Nissan Gnessin, Micha Josef Berdyczewski, David Fogel, Jacob Steinberg, Devorah Baron, Hayyim Nahman Bialik, and S.Y. Agnon.
Beginning with the conclusion of World War I, the paper was forced to contend with the departure of its senior editors and writers, a reduction of its readership, and continuing economic difficulties, all of which ultimately led to its final closure in 1931.