Learning Hebrew

Let’s say I were to finally sit down and learn biblical Hebrew. What textbook should I use? Would it make any difference if I was hoping I could eventually also make sense of rabbinic Hebrew?

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12 Responses to “Learning Hebrew”

  1. Brennan Breed Says:

    When I teach, I use C.L. Seow’s Grammar for Biblical Hebrew. He was my teacher, so I learned with it, and this probably explains my preference. But also, it works as a reference grammar (it’s got most of what you’d need for scholarly work), it never lies to you (some grammars of Hebrew clean things up for the first ten lessons or so and then surprise you with the fact that it doesn’t work like that at all), and all the exercises are biblical texts (other grammars invent biblical-ish Hebrew exercises, which can be unhelpful). But it can be terse at times.

    I have also used Alan Ross’ “Introducing Biblical Hebrew,” which is longer, with more hand-holding, and better diagrams. But it’s unwieldy as a reference grammar. Perhaps a combination of Seow and Ross would be ideal- read them at the same time, see how they explain things in different ways, and get the best of both.

    Be sure also to get a Hebrew Bible (BHS, or Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia, is the leading critical edition, though several biblical books’ worth of the new revision, BHQ, are out in fascicle form). Also, you’ll need a dictionary, like the Brown-Driver-Briggs dictionary (a 19th century but comprehensive and dirt cheap dictionary) or go with a less comprehensive but newer, more reading-focused dictionary (Holladay’s “Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament” is a great one, as is Clines’ “Concise dictionary of Classical Hebrew.”) You’ll also want to use (maybe not buy) a syntax for thornier issues – the big one is Waltke/O’Connor’s “Biblical Hebrew Syntax” but the abridged version, Arnold/Choi’s “Biblical Hebrew Syntax” is cheaper but with less examples. These will all be very affordable used on Amazon.

    I should mention that Pratico and Van Pelt have a good biblical Hebrew grammar out. Also, Hackett has a brand new grammar out that is, I have heard, pretty good. Beware of things like “The First Hebrew Primer” that try to make classical Hebrew easy but cut off lots of important corners along the way.

    After learning biblical Hebrew, mishnaic/rabbinic Hebrew is really easy – the problem is learning the idioms and shorthand characteristic of those texts. The grammar I used was Segal’s “Grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew” (be sure to get Jastrow’s dictionary of Targum, Talmud and Mishnaic Hebrew, too). It will take you a couple of months or so of casual study to get the hang of rabbinic Hebrew once biblical Hebrew is in your grasp.

    Sorry for the long comment.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Thanks — no need to apologize for length! I had a suspicion that the relationship between biblical and rabbinic Hebrew would be similar to that between classical and medieval Latin, so that’s good to get some confirmation.

  3. david cl driedger Says:

    I second Seow as a starter.

  4. Matt Frost Says:

    They’re kind of two different things — and yet if you want to deal in Rabbinic Hebrew, you had as well learn the Tiberian/Masoretic language of the OT. As I understand it, you can stand on that to reach the Rabbinic dialect.

    As with anything, you need to build up to fluency. And so my standard first recommendation is Simon, Resnikoff and Motzkin’s First Hebrew Primer, . It’s a great scratch pedagogy, it’s easy enough to use solo, there are a lot of resources for use with it, and it even makes a good refresher on the basics if you’re out of it for a while. In my experience, people come out of this book actually liking (and capable of reading) Hebrew. Once you’ve got that under your belt, you can dive into something like Seow or another of the more detailed and grammatically precise textbooks and build deeper knowledge of the scriptural “dialect”. You’ll also want a lexicon — Brown, Driver and Briggs (BDB) is kind of the standard for English students of the OT, because for all of its quirks it hasn’t really been surpassed for comprehensiveness at that task. Get yourself to a point where you can work reliably with a lexicon and reference grammar, and dig into some texts and their contexts. Ruth and Job are sort of standards — and the primer will have you working through Ruth easily enough. Maybe dive into the Kings. Poetics are always harder, and the prophets are often quite poetic, but the DtrH and the Kethuvim tend to provide good intermediate pieces.

    For Rabbinic, you’ve got another textual dialect to learn, and I’m not qualified to tell you about good or bad textbooks there. (I’ve hit my limits, though I have similar ambitions … someday!)

  5. Matt Frost Says:

    @Brennan, seconded on Ross, I have friends who like that one, but it’s a very all-things-to-all-people approach and gets unwieldy. It needs a professor. As to the Primer, you’re right to “beware,” but it’s good for what it’s good for. Think of it as teaching the basics, from a more natural-language pedagogy standpoint. Anyone who tells you that you can stop when you’re done with it, or that you “know Hebrew” at that point, is fooling you — but it’s a valuable level 1 curriculum. It doesn’t so much “cut corners” as lay the groundwork for later understanding.

  6. Matt Frost Says:

    I get the “it never lies to you” advantage to Seow. Really I do. It is a technically lovely textbook that Does The Right Things. But it is the perfect demonstration of why Ross exists. There needs to be that handholding and diagramming, and without it (i.e. poorly taught), Seow can destroy the desire to learn the language. The one-year-one-language textbook idea is the real problem I see. It’s a curricular necessity, not a pedagogical one. The Primer follows the pedagogical necessity, perhaps too far in the opposite direction. We can’t lie to the student with bad abstractions, but somehow we have to work in usable increments, building blocks that don’t lean quite so hard on the rote method and still convey all that proper comprehension that Seow crams into in one terse, precise volume.

  7. Adam Kotsko Says:

    Just for context, in the last few years I’ve managed to gain a workable reading knowledge of German, Latin, Greek, and Italian without a formal class. I think I can handle something without a lot of hand-holding.

  8. Robert Says:

    I’d also recommend Seouw or the Ross text. Of course if you think you’re up to it you can also get Gesenius. Though I don’t know how useful this is in modern academics.

    One thing that also might help is to check out the (amazingly free) lectures from Concordia (I think) available in video and audio formats on iTunesU. It will get you through a first year’s worth of grammar instruction. I use them from time to time to brush up…but it doesn’t help much.

  9. Matt Frost Says:

    @Adam, yeah, I soapboxed there for a sec. Sorry. You aren’t the usual student, even the usual adult student, of second languages. Research language acquisition is another thing, for people who are used to learning languages. It depends on how you learn language best. I happen to route everything through my Latin and Greek grammar, for example.

    Hebrew is quirky from your existing languages. If you’re solid on the ways of flexible-syntax inflected languages like patristic Greek, once you’ve got the basics of the language you can jump into decoding. Semitics take more decoding, but Tiberian is built to be “correctly” decoded as a polytonic form. That’s part of what the Masoretes did, was mark out the “correct” decodings in an era of diminishing fluency. And to use BDB, you have to get good at decoding, because we’re dealing with the basic abstraction of “triliteral roots” that vary in paradigms and with a whole range of affixes. So you basically get good at cutting out the affixes, figuring out the inflection, getting the root, and then putting the word back together to get the meaning. Once you’ve got the words and their inflections, the syntax starts to appear, plug it into the grammar, and away you go. Practice makes perfect, and you start reading more than translating eventually. The question is how best to get to that point. You’re going to wind up in Seow one way or another for the nuts and bolts.

  10. Carl Gregg Says:

    We used Lambdin in seminary, which I thought was terrible. Having found it much easier to learn Greek with Mounce (which is oriented way more evangelical than I am theologically — but many fundamentalists care about learning the original languages and Mounce has a great pedagogy), I bought Pratico and Pelt’s “Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar” (which models its pedagogy on Mounce’s approach to Greek), and found it really helpful to use that text to supplement Lambdin.

  11. Adam Kotsko Says:

    UPDATE: I went with the Seow grammar and Holladay lexicon to start with. A colleague of mine at Shimer has a copy of the “First Hebrew Primer” he can loan me if the Seow turns out to be too tough.

  12. Brennan Breed Says:

    Let us readers know if we can help. I have handouts that I can send you that summarize each chapter (starting with lesson 7, I think) and provide better charts.


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