Modern Hebrew to Prepare for Biblical Hebrew

Posted on by Brooke

Often, students who have pre-registered for a seminary course in biblical Hebrew will contact me ahead of time, asking what sort of preparation they might do in the weeks or months before the course begins. I always reassure them that no preparation is strictly necessary: we begin at zero, with no prior knowledge needed. That said, some students have good reasons for wanting to get a jump on the material: maybe they expect a heavy course load, maybe they feel that getting started is the best way to scratch their anxiety itch, maybe this is just how they roll with all of their courses.

For the past couple of years, I have offered a suggestion that few if any students have taken me up on. I suggest that they work with modern (Israeli) Hebrew instead of biblical Hebrew. I don’t yet have enough student feedback on this to report on results, but my theory is that the pros outweigh the cons on this.

First, the cons:

  • Modern Hebrew differs in some distinct particulars from most biblical Hebrew. A good example is the handling of possessive constructions like "your horse”: most biblical Hebrew places a possessive pronominal suffix on the noun (e.g., suseka “horse-of-you”), where modern Hebrew usually follows the definite noun with a compound possessive adjective (hassus shelleka “the-horse which-is-yours”).

  • Modern Hebrew is normally learned wholly or principally as an oral/aural language, while the initial hurdle in most biblical Hebrew courses is the script (I would not say, “the written language,” since the script does not represent a different language).

  • Modern Hebrew involves a lot of vocabulary and situations that are rare or absent in the biblical material: renting a car, inviting a friend to lunch, and so on.

How about the pros? Since my argument is that these outweigh the cons, some of these will be constructed as responses to the above cons:

  • Modern Hebrew tapes or CDs are freely available in many public libraries.

  • Learning orally/aurally is just more fun, especially in nice weather. You have a choice: hunker over a kitchen table in semi-darkness and wrestle alone to learn a language in utter silence and without feedback, or skip happily along a multi-purpose path in the summer sun while a professional reader murmurs confidently and accurately into your ear in patient dialogue. Where do you want to be?

  • Even where modern Hebrew differs from biblical Hebrew, there is nearly always an application. In our example above: the suffixes used on the possessive adjective are the same personal suffixes used ubiquitously biblical Hebrew, as object suffixes, possessive suffixes, and suffixed prepositions. Also, the “which” element in the modern Hebrew possessive adjective (she-) obviously is also used (as is its longer form) in biblical Hebrew, in usages which a student of modern Hebrew will readily understand.

  • What about the oral/written business? For my part, I do not begin biblical Hebrew with the aleph-bet. Instead, I spend ten hours (five sessions) guiding the students through a series of dialogues, lessons, and songs designed to immerse them in sounds and structures of biblical Hebrew. Only then do we go to the aleph-bet and proceed with a very conventional, grammar-based curriculum. I am still finding ways to link these two course elements together, but overall I am convinced that it has been a good approach (maybe another blog entry on this will come along later). So, a student who has been working (playing) through modern Hebrew should find the first sessions of by biblical Hebrew curriculum to be comfortable, if not an outright cakewalk.

  • Learning even the rudimentary elements of any modern language is an educational good in its own right: it broadens horizons, provokes the imagination, and prepares one for opportunities to be a good neighbor.

As more of my students take me up on this suggestion, I will be interested in their feedback. The numbers will be small enough that the data is more anecdotal than statistically significant, but that’s where knowledge begins.

Ad-yoter me'uchar!

[Update: I had accidentally allowed comments to close. Sorry: comments are open again. GBL]