Modern Hebrew to Prepare for Biblical Hebrew

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]

13 Responses

  1. Just discovered your blog. Great stuff!

    I am really intrigued by this paragraph: “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.”.

    I will be teaching a class on BH (for the first time), and I think that this sounds like an interesting approach. Would you care to elaborate more?

  2. Hi Parkersmood,
    I think there are probably lots of ways to do it, and I’ve revamped it each of the last three years. My initial inspiration was a presentation by Sharon Alley and Garry Alley at SBL 2005 (abstract: scroll down or search at ).

    I do five sessions of two hours each; I break each session into four 20-minute modules with five-minute breaks between each mod. The first mod is simple conversations (Hi, what’s your/his/her name, how are you, fine/okay or not well, and so on). The second is nominal sentences involving a set of big and small masculine things (usually books, separim) and feminine things (usually stuffed animals, behemot): I guide them into This is a book, these are books, this/these are (a) big/small book(s), this/these book(s) is/are big/small, and so on toward Where are the big books? The big books are under the table, and so on. The third mod is verbal sentences, beginning with commands (imperatives and prohibitions: this is the Total Physical Response) and working toward narrations of present, past, and future events using the participle, perfect, and imperfect respectively (arise, sit, walk, stop, etc.; again, this part comes most directly out of the Alleys’ presentation). The fourth mod is just singing songs out of the Jewish liturgy: the Shema, the Torah Blessings Before and After, the Hammotzi.

    None of this is translated, and there are no texts/labels of any kind: everything is oral. Students are welcome to ask questions in English, but I try to answer in Hebrew, pantomime, and magic mental powers. Of course, we have ten minutes at the end of class where we have normal discourse in English, about the syllabus and whatnot.

    I think the main thing is to get oneself very comfortable with extemporaneous dialogue in a simple vein; I spent a summer with modern Hebrew tapes, and also taking long walks talking to students who weren’t there. There’s nothing in my approach that I think is pedagogically necessary, and I’m likely to re-vamp the whole thing next year in light of some reading I’ve been doing on learning outcomes and rubrics.

    I think once you start going with modern Hebrew CDs and thinking about possible plans, you’ll probably come up with a bunch of ideas that work better for you than the exercises I’ve outlined. If so, then by all means let me know, and tell me what works for you and what doesn’t!

    Thanks for visiting, and I hope you’ll come back.

  3. I should have added: I make mp3 recordings and post them to BlackBoard. These are more like traditional language-learning tapes, in English, and teaching dialogues and giving practice in those dialogues. These keep them busy between sessions, and they have no other homework except to greet one another and other professors in Hebrew whenever possible.

    It’s been a lot of work! You have to have a light load and/or a summer to get it going, but maintaining/changing it is much easier.

  4. Brooke, thanks for sharing! I hope to incorporate similar techniques this summer with my class. At the SBL annual meeting I took in a session on communicative language theory from a project called the cohelet (out of Asbury, link below). We need to stop killing dead languages by outdated approaches to language acquisition. I have been working on visual aids for vocabulary memorization, but I think I may like to bring in auditory material as well.

    Thanks again for sharing your insight.

    Adam Couturier

  5. I think your advice is very wise, and in case you missed it, Pimsleur is finally offering a second and soon the third level of modern Hebrew in their all-audio programs. I highly recommend them!

    • James,
      Thanks for your comment, I appreciate it.

      Your tip on Pimsleur is timely: I am working through the second level now, but I didn’t know to keep my eye out for a third. Thanks!


  6. Gary and Sharon Alley did their 2005 presentation because they had been teaching Biblical Hebrew in Biblical (not Modern) Hebrew for the last few years at the Biblical Language Center – BLC in Israel (see Having done my PhD in Israel, I had the privilege of seeing the program in action, and have since become involved with BLC myself. Consequently, I too adopted this method in teaching Biblical Hebrew here at Fresno Pacific University, and student response has been more than positive. I had eight students last year (my first year), and based on their enthusiasm and “advertizing” among peers, I have almost twenty signed up for next year. I use BLC’s curriculum (see the website) which has the advantage of already coming with hours of audio material (in Biblical Hebrew) for practicing drills, learning dialogues, listening to Scripture, etc. I would encourage any Biblical Hebrew instructor wishing to incorporate some aural/oral dimension to their teaching to consider using the BLC material. Contact BLC directly if you plan to do so, as there is an unpublished discount for students enrolled in a course that requires the BLC books as textbooks.

    • Brian, thanks for for taking time to pass on that helpful information. Right: the educational issue is not one of content (modern or biblical Hebrew, where distinct) but one of methods, especially the emphasis on inductive learning and oral/aural immersion.

      What a great jump in enrollment! I just love to see students emboldening one another to take risks, and bootstrapping each other through the tough spots.

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  8. I studied Biblical/Classical Hebrew for some time before I decided to learn modern Hebrew for conversational purposes. And I have to agree – learning modern Hebrew first is definitely a better way to go. Modern hebrew is more simple in verb conjugation and would give the student a good foundation for tackling the more complex rules of classical Hebrew. Besides, if one is going to study Hebrew, why not make it a second spoken language for yourself. This of course can’t really be done with Biblical Hebrew since it mainly consists of religious terms and a good portion of outdated grammar.

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  10. It’s maybe a bit late for a comment, but I hope my contribution is worth something. I am a student of Hebrew at the University of Amsterdam (UvA) and have also taken classes at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. The Hebrew bachelor-master program at the UvA features whole spectrum from Biblical to Modern, so it includes also Mishnaic Hebrew, Hebrew from the Middle-Ages etc. At the UvA it is standard policy that the students commence studying Biblical Hebrew only after they have studied Modern Hebrew for half a year. And I must say it is an excellent preparation for Biblical Hebrew, the only real hurdles are the differences in the use of verbs & syntax (the forms are almost exactly the same) and the vav-consecutive system. The big difference here being that Biblical Hebrew has aspects while Modern Hebrew makes use of tenses. This switch is already becoming apparent in Mishnaic Hebrew, from the first few centuries AD when Hebrew was still a spoken language, so it isn’t exactly a modern invention, as some have said. Besides that, Modern Hebrew literature and poetry is often very biblical, not only grammatically but also on the terrain of vocabulary. Especially the literature from the early period of Modern Hebrew can be very biblically oriented, linguistically speaking. Anyhow, I absolutely agree with learning (some) Modern Hebrew before taking to Biblical. based on my experience it really eases learning Biblical Hebrew. I hope this is of some help, and if it’s not, well, no harm done.

    • Dion, I think these are great points, and really informative.

      This is the kind of thing that makes me glad I keep comments open on older posts. :^)

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