Studying Biblical Hebrew
About learning Biblical Hebrew
Why this page?
I started off with the intention of putting together information on stand-alone courses on Biblical Hebrew (that is, ones that aren’t necessarily part of a degree or connected with conversion to Judaism) from a starting point of London, England. This has also led me into areas like Why study Biblical Hebrew? and Do you need to do a course?
Do feel free to email me if you think I can help you with this topic, you have information on some possibility I haven’t covered, or you just want to disagree!
Why study Biblical Hebrew?
One needs to think about why one wants to do any such thing. The Orthodox churches accept the text of the Septuagint (possibly as translated into Church Slavonic or whatever) rather than the Hebrew text. Where there are quotations from the Old Testament in the New Testament, they appear to come from the Septuagint rather than the Hebrew text. It is possible to argue that the Septuagint is in a sense closer to the sources, since the text is attested from about 200 BCE as against 1000 CE for the Masoretic text in Hebrew.
Is it difficult?
Perhaps different would be a better word than difficult. I have noticed people experiencing three major issues:
i) they don’t have a realistic idea of the amount of effort required to make progress;
ii) the words are different and need to be learned;
iii) the grammar is different. It’s not complicated, and is quite consistent in its own terms, they’re just different terms.
From the point of view of an English speaker, there are languages that are relatively easy because they’re closely related to English (Germanic or Romance) and languages that are difficult, either because they work on radically different principles (languages of East Asia: Chinese, Japanese and so on) or because they just are (the most famous example is Arabic, perhaps because a rather idiosyncratic version was taken as the norm). The rest–the vast majority–are reasonably accessible or moderately difficult, depending on which way you want to look at it, and Biblical Hebrew falls into this category.
The main thing is to keep at it! I think the Open University recommendation is an hour a day for learning ancient languages. One can probably expect to have made some appreciable progress after 150 hours (half a year at this rate) and to have a reasonable grasp of most of the Hebrew Bible after two years or 600 hours. It is notorious that some parts of the Hebrew Bible are very difficult, but much of it is straightforward narrative that is really pretty…straightforward.
How to do it
I think the best thing to do is to start off by getting a book and having a go. This is quite cheap (you can always resell the book on Amazon!) and will give you an idea of how interested you are. I give some advice on books below.
After that, there seems to be a choice between some kind of organised course, finding a private tutor, and learning over the Internet/via Skype. I don’t know anything much about the third alternative. I suspect the first two come to much the same in terms of cost. A course will typically be about £ 250 for a term, while a tutor will change about £ 25/hour, and I think 10 1-hour sessions probably come to the same thing as a term in class.
Classes and courses
Classes in London
I can really only speak for London. There used to be courses at Birkbeck, SOAS, and the London Jewish Cultural Centre, but they all seem to have disappeared over the past few years. However, the City Lit now have a range of courses for 2014/15, taught by Rachel Montagu (of whom more below).
Rachel Montagu also runs an advanced course independently to replace the one Birkbeck used to do. I’ve dedicated a posting to the 2014/15 edition of Rachel’s course here. If you’re interested in this, you can email her directly. Or if you’re feeling shy you can email me instead.
Rachel adds: I am teaching – or hoping to teach – 2 beginners groups this year, one at the Benedictine Study and Arts Centre, Ealing Abbey and one at home in Kilburn. There will also I hope be an Intermediate course at Ealing, completing the EKS textbook and reading from 1 Samuel. I also take private students for individual or small group lessons and that might be useful to mention.
Residential and short courses
In Israel, you can do an Ulpan in Biblical Hebrew (or indeed Koine Greek). There are also summer courses at HUJ. As well as an updated link, I’ve received the following further information about the Ulpan: they also have course material that is like a personal language lab, all the Hebrew material is recorded with time for responses. In Rome, the Pontifical University of the Holy Cross offers intensive summer courses in Biblical Hebrew.
There are of course the eteacherbiblical people, who seem to have linked up with HUJ nowadays.
As ever one can always try Gumtree, and there are various sites that specialise in advertising language tutors, for instance here. The question in many cases is whether people who advertise as teachers of (Modern/Israeli) Hebrew can also teach Biblical Hebrew…
The one that Rachel used–and it’s the best I know of if you’re doing it without a teacher–is the First Hebrew Primer from Eks .
There’s also an answer book and a set of CDs you can get from Amazon (or directly from the publishers). They also have readers and so on so there is something to go on to once you’ve done the elementary course. The other thing I like the look of is the Cambridge Biblical Hebrew Workbook .
In any case, you need something that gives simple stroke-by-stroke instructions as to how to do the letters…
The standard dictionary is Brown-Driver-Briggs .
Unfortunately, you have to know rather a lot of Hebrew to use it! I find Holladay more useful, while the only useful systematic grammar that I know of is the Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar . There are a lot of things called grammars out there, but they tend to be 1-year courses for people who ‘have to’ do some Hebrew in a seminary or whatever.
And of course there’s the Hebrew Bible itself .
There are some grammatical exercises (based on the First Hebrew Primer) here, and some more grammatical exercises here, while the Blue Letter Bible offers some explanation and parsing of the Hebrew text and Bible Study Tools has an interlinear-text-with-lexicon (with thanks to Cornelia Linde for pointing this last one out).
Noriko Inagaki has now kindly pointed out a Hebrew Audiobible where you can hear the whole text read.
And of course there are also the eteacherhebrew.com people, who do teaching over the Internet.
If you want to prepare your own copies of the texts, for instance in a nice large font with wide spacing between the lines, there are various places on the Internet that have the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible), such as here and here.
You probably need some special fonts for Biblical Hebrew as well. There are some you can download from the SBL site, while as I recall you can get both fonts and a free-ish keyboard driver for Word covering both Biblical Hebrew and Ancient Greek from Antioch. But I have the feeling that the champion amongst free downloads is the Tyndale House kit.
Learning Biblical Hebrew vocabulary
This is a bit more difficult with Hebrew than with European languages, since the basic elements are a little more alien and you don’t have comforting compound words as in Greek for instance.
I find the following approach (from Mastering Arabic–some blatant copyright violation here!) helpful:
and with Biblical Hebrew the script really isn’t a problem and you don’t have to worry about either handwriting or unpointed texts! To make it even easier, I confine myself to 5 new words a day and only Hebrew-English without worrying about the reverse direction. I also find it more convenient to use a file card box and dividers rather than envelopes.
Do feel free to write to me with any corrections or new information. (Last update 02 October 2015.)