July 28, 2008

Chapter 4 - Vocab

Note: the English given is a one-word gloss, not a comprehensive lexicon entry.

vocab list
video downloads

July 18, 2008

Chapter 3 - Hebrew Today

• See the word for "house" (and the transliteration of the last name) on the title of this sign: "b(a)y(i)t brnstyyn," or "house of Bernstein"

• This museum in Tel Aviv is called the Eretz Israel Museum, or "Land of Israel Museum"

• A major daily newspaper in Israel is called Haaretz (short for "Haaretz Israel," or "The Land of Israel")


Haaretz website

• See the Hebrew Wikipedia entry for sus (the heading is "domestic horse": "bayit sus," literally "horse of the house")

Chapter 3 - Key Concepts


more on syllabification:
-Cook p.13 (p.23 of the PDF)
-Parsons U 3

the shewa

more on the shewa:
-Cook p.9-10 (p.19-20 of the PDF)
-Parsons U 3.5 and 3.6

Chapter 3 - Key Verses

דבר [dabar]


nēr-ləraḡəlî ḏəḇāreḵā
Your word is a lamp to my feet.

Listen to my reading of this verse:

Listen to a rabbinic reading of this verse:

download | more | info
Listen to a slower version of this rabbinic reading:

download | more | info

Eccl. 1:8

kāl-hadəḇārîm yəḡē‘îm
All things are wearisome.

Listen to my reading of this verse:

Listen to a rabbinic reading of this verse:

download | more | info

more verses

ארץ ['erets]

Gen 1:1

bərē’šîṯ bārā’ ’ĕlōhîm ’ēṯ haššāmayim wə’ēṯ hā’āreṣ
In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.

Listen to my reading of this verse:

Listen to a rabbinic reading of this verse:

download | more | info


layhwâ hā’āreṣ ûməlwō’āh
The earth is the Lord's, and everything in it.

Listen to my reading of this verse:

Listen to a rabbinic reading of this verse:

download | more | info

more verses

סוס [sus]


’ēlleh ḇāreḵeḇ wə’ēlleh ḇassûsîm wa’ănaḥənû| bəšēm-yəhwâ ’ĕlōhênû nazəkîr
Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we will trust in the name of the Lord our God.

more verses

* About the Audio: The complete audio of the Hebrew Bible is made available by the University of Washington, which links to this information about the reader.

Chapter 3 - Vocab

Note: the English given is a one-word gloss, not a comprehensive lexicon entry.

vocab list
video downloads

Chapter 3 - Linguistic Background & Field Notes

• learning syllabification

Here is the first example and explanation I was given for dividing a word into syllables. The word was [midbar]. The syllabification process was outlined like this:

1. Start at the end of the word.
2. Note that the word ends with a consonant. Therefore, the last syllable must be closed.
3. Because syllables begin with a consonant and contain one vowel, this syllable must begin with the "B" and be [bar].
4. Keep going "backwards" (this word confused me at a point where I was still getting accustomed to reading right-to-left rather than left-to-right).
5. Note that the "next" letter has a shewa.
6. Determine that this shewa is a silent shewa (it wasn't clear how to reach this conclusion).
7. Recall that a silent shewa occurs at the end of a closed syllable.
8. Conclude that the "D" with the shewa closes the syllable.
9. Because syllables begin with a consonant and contain one vowel, this syllable must be [mid].
10. Conclude that this word has two syllables, with the second accented: [mid]|[bar]'
11. (Move on the the next word and repeat this process.)

(Parsons gives similar breakdowns that are slightly simpler since they make syllabification mainly a function of vowel length. But even that approach has layers of complexity, and presupposes memorization of which vowels are long and short.)

I struggled with this kind of approach, because:
• It's long.
• It seemed "backwards" to start at the end of the word.
• The relationships among numerous syllabification factors--vowel length, accent, distance from tonic syllable, vocal or silent shewa--wasn't clear.
• The reasoning seemed circular: is it a silent shewa because the syllable is closed, or is it a closed syllable because the shewa is silent?
• It made it sound as though there was one precise correct way to pronounce this word.

At this point I was lost, but grimly determined to get all of the rules straight in my mind before going forward. But when I consulted with a former Hebrew student, she gave me a liberating piece of advice: don't try to master syllabification yet. Just start going through the lessons and after a while you'll get a feel for the words. In short, she was recommending the inductive approach over the deductive. This was a lifeline, and I was able to get through the first few lessons with less pressure on myself and more willingness to tolerate uncertainties. I didn't get the "feel" for syllabification as soon as she said I would, but for me, this was the only way I could have gone forward.

• learning shewa

Parsons helpfully says that the number of syllables in a word is equal to the number of vowels in the word. This helped simplify things, but I still got stuck on how to count the shewas. (I don't think he says it outright, but I later concluded that you count the vocal shewas but don't count the silent shewas.) You can't syllabify without knowing the difference between the two shewas.

Most explanations of vocal and silent shewas suffer from many of the same problems on the list above; they're long, multilayered, seemingly circular at times, and hyper-precise. After finally sitting down and listing the five main questions textbooks give for the shewa, I'm starting to get the hang of it, but I'm still not sure how the rules relate to each other--which one you should start with, which ones rule out the other ones (all I have is that the end-of-the-word silent shewa rules out the second-of-two vocal shewa in cases such as [katabt]).

But ultimately the biggest cloud cast over conventional treatments of the shewa comes from historical linguistics. Joel Hoffman, in his notably accessible and provocative In the Beginning, concludes startlingly that the shewa could only have had one function for the Masoretes. Among his arguments:

• The claim that the shewa in the word [shema] is vocal conflicts with the claim that the word [shema] is monosyllabic; but these claims are sometimes made by the same textbook author. This shows how incoherent the traditional two-shewa theory can be.
• The Masoretes would be unlikely to represent two different sounds with the same symbol.
• Most significantly, the rule of the vocal shewa occurring under beged-kephet letters is based on a linguistic fallacy about vowel behavior as governed by "triggers" from proximate consonants.
• The sole purpose of the shewa could only have been to indicate the lack of a vowel.

Confusingly, Hoffman then proceeds to discuss whether the shewa, with this sole purpose, was pronounced; his conclusion seems muddled and barely distinguishable from the two-shewa theory he has just rejected: "As a guess, we can assume that the shewa was pronounced [by the Masoretes] whenever it had to be, and only then."

I could only conclude that there were serious historical question marks about the shewa's original function and sound in Masoretic times.

Then I came to realize another question mark about the shewa: how do you NOT pronounce a silent shewa? How do you produce no sound in moving between consonants? (I think this pertains to adjoining labials and coronals, but it could apply to others sounds as well.) Take [katabt]. From my mouth that tends to come out as something like "ka-tab-uh-tuh," with tiny little "uh" vowels after the ending B and T. I can shrink them, but I can't make them disappear. So in many cases, the difference between a silent shewa and a vocal shewa is phonetically negligible. If so, then all the energy spent on silencing the shewa in, say, [hokmah] (which is additionally dubious in that it's supposed to be silent because the vowel is qamets hatuph, but Hoffman's criticisms of the two-shewa theory could also apply to the two-qamets theory) is misplaced, and needlessly overwhelming to beginning students.

So what are textbooks supposed to do--pull the rug out from under the rules they're trying to teach? Isn't it simpler just to teach the rules rather than try to question them via historical linguistics and phonetics?

I'd say the traditional rules are worth teaching exactly--and only--because they're just that: traditional. They give us the systematic interpretation of the Masoretes' work that has guided all students and scholars of biblical Hebrew for the last several centuries. Additionally, Masoretic markings give us a method for rhythmically reading or chanting the Hebrew text aloud, which has some liturgical use. The rules are worth learning for those reasons.

But not for other reasons. Not because these rules give us the one correct reconstructed pronunciation of ancient Israel (which is not only elusive, but also impossible given the dialects and natural change throughout ancient Hebrew's history). Not because the Masoretes have the best guess as to what Hebrew sounded like (I think their guesses were good in a lot of ways, but not magically perfect). Not because Hebrew cannot be read aloud intelligibly without mastery of these rules (because the difference between a silent and vocal shewa is often negligible). Not because this is the most likely and sensible system ancient Hebrew speakers must have followed (says who?)

With these strides toward a clearer purpose for learning syllabification--and the qualifiers that this system is product of tradition and not beyond debate--I believe would have had more confidence and less frustration in learning syllabification as a beginning Hebrew student.

July 09, 2008

Grammar Groaners

As I say here, I think the Pratico & Van Pelt textbook is a step forward for introductory grammars of biblical Hebrew. So I was surprised to find it used as Exhibit A for dense Hebrew textbooks in this compelling article by William Griffin. He holds up this sentence (from PVP p. 157) as one that must make beginning students' eyes glaze over:
The verb ['rr] differs from [sbb] in one way. In the second and first position forms, singular and plural, the Geminate consonant rejects the Daghesh Forte and the Pathach under the [aleph] becomes Qamets due to compensatory lengthening.
Nothing technically inaccurate there, but shouldn't beginning students have to learn only one foreign language when taking biblical Hebrew, and not be forced to penetrate a forest of grammatical jargon? No doubt this kind of gobbledy-gook leads many students to drop their Hebrew class early on, or to shut the book on Hebrew once they've finally slogged through it, never to read Hebrew again. In Griffin's words, this amounts to "killing a dead language."

I still think PVP is better than most at unclogging the pipeline of biblical Hebrew lessons, but the authors do pull off their share of what I'd call Grammatical Groaners—sentences so stultifyingly obfuscating that they make me, a self-proclaimed grammar geek, blink, rub my eyes, and make monosyllabic utterances in a foreign language of my own. (Submit your favorite (or least favorite) Groaners!)

• "Two-syllable nouns that are accented on the final syllable and have either Qamets or Tsere in the first or pretonic syllable will experience what is called "propretonic reduction" with the addition of plural endings." (p.32)

Related Category: Fancy Terms in Plain English

July 08, 2008

Chapter 2 - Prayers

See the vowel markings on the Shema and the basic blessing (from before) from Parsons.

July 07, 2008

Chapter 2 - Key Concepts

vowel markings
How I learned the 7 basic vowel markings:

(fine print for sticklers: in dictionaries and in the IPA the upside-down E is actually a schwa (from the Hebrew "shewa"); while the sound I represent above with a regular E is given in IPA as [ei]. But the association between the upside-down E and the shorter sound was how I kept these two vowel markings apart in Hebrew.)

Chapter 2 - Useful Exercises

Plug your ears, I'm going to sing!

more exercises:
Cook Lesson 2, #'s 3,5,6

July 03, 2008

Chapter 1 - Fancy Terms in Plain English

transliteration (1.1) - "translating the letters": writing one language in the letters of a different language

begadkephat letters (1.5) - The letters B,G,D,K,PH,&T(taw only). Since this is a made-up word anyway, I prefer a word that is actually pronounce-able and remember-able: Bigfoot Kid letters: BiG-PHooT KiD

daghesh lene/daghesh forte (1.5,2.13,3.5) - "little dot"/"big dot" (the dots are actually the same size, but can be "lene"/"little" in Bigfoot Kid letters to change the sound. (When Bigfoot Kid steps on the dots, they tend to get "little" and stop breathing.)

gutturals (1.6) - "throaty" letters--they come from your throat, like the H in our throat-clearing word ahem.

June 30, 2008

Chapter 1 - Hebrew today

• Transliterate the name "McDonald's" into the Hebrew alphabet. Then click the picture to see the transliteration on this sign at a McDonald's in a Jerusalem bus station.

• See the Hebrew transliteration of "Wikipedia" at Hebrew Wikipedia:

• Unmentioned in PVP is the importance of proper spelling on your Hebrew tattoo. Caveat tattooer.

more on this from Tyler Williams

• See the Hebrew letters of the name of assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin at Rabin's Gate for Peace:

• See the transliteration of street names on this trilingual sign in Jerusalem.

Chapter 1 - Key Concepts

similar-looking letters (PVP p.4)

June 23, 2008

Chapter 1 - Key Verses

Judges 12:6

wayyō’mərû lwō ’ĕmār-nā’ šibōleṯ wayyō’mer sibōleṯ wəlō’ yāḵîn ləḏabēr kēn
They said to him, ‘Then say Shibboleth’, and he said, ‘Sibboleth’, for he could not pronounce it right.

June 20, 2008

Chapter 1 - Prayers

PVP doesn't include prayers, but for me, this has been a meaningful way for Hebrew to come alive, and for my study to be a liturgical and not just linguistic activity. Here are some basic prayers and invocations:

The Shema

Also see Parsons on the Shema

The Basic Blessing

From Parsons:
Barukh hamelamed et yadi lesapper et ha’otiyot.
Blessed is the One who has taught my hand to scribe the letters.

Chapter 1 - Useful Exercises

• Try to name each letter when it turns maroon before the narration gives the name. see PVP p.1-2.

• Name the letter before the narration gives the name; this page is at the H-BANES website, which has some excellent resources and drills for learning the alphabet

• Match the English name to its Hebrew source; this list is from Cook & Holmstedt p.6

more exercises:
Cook p.3-7
Dobson Lesson 1

Chapter 1 - Linguistic Background

My interest in the history of the alphabet began with this fascinating book. It's helped me, as I learn the alphabet, understand why these letters literally took shape the way they did, and how important the Phoenician alphabet was as the common ancestor of the Hebrew and Roman alphabets.

Looking at the original forms of the alphabet--their pictures and meanings--can help explain why they look the way they do, and maybe even help keep similar-looking letters apart. But I didn't do too much of this at first because I didn't want more to memorize.

Here's Sacks on aleph: (also see Benner on aleph)


* Fancy Terms in Plain English
* Field Notes
* Hebrew Today
* Inscriptions & Archaeology
* Key Concepts
* Key Verses
* Linguistic Background
* Mnemonic Devices
* Prayers
* Rabbinic Literature
* Reflections for Meditation and Preaching
* Useful Exercises
* Vocab


Help out a Hebrew student: buy any of these books by clicking on these links and I get referring credit. Thanks! Nathan






Buy something else


I warmly offer all of my original material on this site to be freely used under these conditions.

The attribution I'm requesting (for the 3rd item in the license, Attribution) is either my name ("Nathan Bierma") or the URL of this blog ("basichebrew.blogspot.com") or both. If possible, I'd love to know (contact me) how you were able to use the material, and how I could improve it.





Cook, John and Robert Holmstedt. Ancient Hebrew: A Student Grammar (Unpublished PDF draft, 2007)

Dobson, John. Learn Biblical Hebrew (Baker Academic, 2005)

Kelley, Page. Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar (Eerdmans, 1992)

Kittel, Bonnie P.; Vicki Hoffer; and Rebecca A. Wright. Biblical Hebrew: Text and Workbook (Yale, 1989)

Lambdin, Thomas. Introduction to Biblical Hebrew (Prentice Hall, 1971)

Pratico, Gary and Miles Van Pelt. Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammmar (Zondervan, 2001) (W) (buy)

Ross, Allen. Introducing Biblical Hebrew (Baker Academic, 2001)

Seow, C.L. A Grammar for Biblical Hebrew (Abingdon Press, 1995)

Waltke, Bruce and Michael O'Connor. An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax (Eisenbrauns, 1990)

Annotated reviews and companion resources from Tyler Williams

Web Lessons






Hebrew Linguistics

Groom, Sue. Linguistic Analysis of Biblical Hebrew (Paternoster, 1969). (G)(buy)

Hoffman, Joel. In the Beginning: A Short History of the Hebrew Language (NYU Press, 2004). (G)(buy)

Miller, Cynthia. The Representation of Speech in Biblical Hebrew Narrative: A Linguistic Analysis
(Scholars Press, 1996). (G)(buy)

Nahir, Moshe. Hebrew Teaching and Applied Linguistics (U. Press of America, 1981) (G)

Steinberg, David. "History of the Ancient and Modern Hebrew Language." Version 8.1, 21 July 2008. Accessed at www.adath-shalom.ca/history_of_hebrewtoc.htm

Young, Ian. Diversity in Pre-Exilic Hebrew (Mohr Siebeck, 1993) (G)

Young, Ian, ed. Biblical Hebrew: Studies in Chronology and Typology (T&T Clark, 2003) (G)

Hebrew Pedagogy

Griffin, William. "Killing a Dead Language: A Case against Emphasizing Vowel Pointing when Teaching Biblical Hebrew." SBL Forum, May 2007. Accessed at www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?articleId=675

Helabe, Rahel. "Ancient Languages are still Around, but do We Really Know how to Teach Them?" SBL Forum, March 2008. Accessed at www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?articleId=756

Helabe, Rahel. The Introduction to Biblical Hebrew the Practical Way. Master's thesis, University of British Columbia, 2005. Accessed at www.hebrew-with-halabe.com/intro%20biblical_hebrew.htm

Isbell, Charles David. "The Hebrew Teacher: Guru, Drill Instuctor, or Role Model?" SBL Forum. Accessed at www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?articleId=452

Nahir, Moshe. Hebrew Teaching and Applied Linguistics [see above]

Zahavi-Ely, Naama. "Teaching the Biblical Hebrew Verb." SBL Forum, 2007. Accessed at www.sbl-site.org/publications/article.aspx?ArticleId=771














Buy These FlashcardsIs there a better way to learn vocabulary other than flashcards? Well, I guess there's immersion (the linguistic kind, not the baptismal kind), and maybe divine foreknowledge, which neither you nor I are likely to have. So whether you make your own, install the Teknia program (which I can't get to work on my computer), use Davar, bookmark a cool web program like this, this, this, or this, or—my recommendation—buy the companion flashcards to PVP, it's time to get flashing.


To avoid the problems of font and browser displays of the Hebrew alphabet, at times I'll opt for transliteration at this blog. But the characters of the actual Hebrew alphabet are only a click away.

Granted, transliteration can actually be a barrier to getting familiar with the Hebrew alphabet (which is why Cook and Dobson, among others, use only the Hebrew alphabet for Hebrew). But I've also found that in the beginning stages, transliteration is one helpful check on pronunciation and spelling.

My own transliteration scheme is simplistic and imprecise (which, in a way, is a good reminder that romanization is only an approximation of Hebrew sound--plus, of course, we don't know what Ancient Hebrew actually sounded like). For verses, I tend to use the transliteration from Sacred Texts, which appears to use ISO 259.

I've realized another benefit of transliteration: it makes the sounds of Hebrew feel more like words. That, of course, is purely my bias and limitation as someone whose native language and other languages I've studied use the Roman alphabet. But the danger in reading a non-native alphabet is that it feels like you're deciphering, not reading. Transliteration helps remind me that these are words and sentences, not just symbols.

PVP has a good transliteration table on the first page of the book; but here are some printable transliteration guides from other textbooks.

About this blog

I've always been interested in language and languages, so when I started studying Hebrew, I knew that for me, biblical Hebrew couldn't just be a chore, a class, a exegetical tool, a grammatical system, or a bore—it had to be a language, and it had to come alive.

The Textbook
This blog follows the chapters of the Pratico & Van Pelt textbook, which, as I say below, is a step forward for biblical Hebrew grammars. If you click here and then buy it (or click here and buy something else), I get referring credit.

Basics of Biblical Hebrew
Basics of Biblical Hebrew Grammar
by Pratico & Van Pelt
Buy from Amazon.com
Problem was, I was taking a course that used the old Lambdin textbook—a handy resource for scholars; but a dense, dry blast of Hebrew grammar for beginning students like me. The stiffness of the book's presentation threatened to squelch my love for the language, and its almost complete avoidance of actual Scripture and prayer threatened to separate me from the core purpose of learning the language in the first place. (I started a blog—where some of the material at this blog originally appeared—to help correct that, and it did help, but it wasn't enough.)

The Lambdin book is worse than many but hardly unusual. Few would disagree that traditional Hebrew courses in seminaries have historically taught the language in such a way, and at such a level of detail, that they actually deter future pastors from reading and using Hebrew in their work—the exact opposite of what they should be doing.

Charles David Isbell describes the problem this way:
If a student has a desire to learn Hebrew for any reason, it should be considered a teacher’s sacred duty to fan the flames of that desire by every means possible. And I believe the best way to quench the fire of desire is by continuing to teach Hebrew the way most of us learned it. The routine is well known. Memorize these words. Learn these rules. Identify these forms. Translate these meaningless English sentences into “biblical Hebrew,” which you don’t understand yet and which modern scholarship assures us Moses himself did not write so clearly. Spend at least one full semester on these numbing exercises before you ever get to open the text of the Bible to an exciting narrative. continued...

(Most blatant, in my opinion, is the over-emphasis on patterns of vowel reduction related to grammatical inflection, which are often presented too intricately and
without a hint that these patterns, like the entire vowel pointing system, are the admirable but inevitably flawed effort of the Masoretes, centuries after Hebrew was actually spoken as a native language. Given such historical question marks surrounding the vowel marks, the hyper-precision seems out of place—and needlessly daunting to beginners. More here.)

And so the Pratico&Van Pelt textbook is a huge step forward for 1) simpler presentation more appropriate for beginning students, 2) meaningful interaction with digital technology (which is making the old grammatical-paradigm-driven pedagogy obsolete) and—most importantly in my opinion—3) application for reflection and preaching.

But still more is needed on all three fronts. I await a Biblical Hebrew textbook that will more fruitfully involve, as consultants or co-authors, people with a palpable vision for 1) language pedagogy, 2) digital technology, and 3) preaching, or, best yet, one person for each (in which case, I realize, they'd have to divvy up the royalties into tiny slices).

In the meantime, here is my blog scrapbook that tries to engage these three areas. I am an amateur in each. But to me, each is a essential connecting point with the fascinating, beautiful, historic, God-breathed language of Hebrew.