Notes for Learning Ancient Hebrew

A different method for learning Biblical Hebrew which may not work for everyone–learn modern Hebrew first. A look into those theory and how it applies to ancient Hebrew.

Classical Hebrew, the text for the majority of the Old Testament, is only a small part of the available Hebrew writings available today.

It doesn’t take much more effort to learn modern Hebrew over learning to read classical Hebrew texts. Utilizing the same amount of time learning modern Hebrew gives one a much more comprehensive toolkit.

Why one may ask?

Modern Hebrew gives one the ability to straddle among many eras of Hebrew literature. Not only that, it gives one the quickness, speed and the necessary knowledge to do it.

Those who learn solely classical Hebrew are stuck to a ninth-century or so text that is interpolated with Greek Septuagint and Latin chapter divisions. Not only this, but the vowel system, known as niqqud (sometimes spelled as nikkud), is not dominant in most Hebrew writings. It is considered at least from a modern Hebrew perspective, as a child’s aide.

The Dead Sea Scrolls, the Talmud and many other Hebrew writings do not have niqqud.

As one delves further into the Hebrew writing system, it is a crossover between a written and oral system. It has to be read and understood from this perspective. For example, the Talmud is written is such a way to make memorization easy. It is designed for the fact that that there was a limited supply of printed material (since everything at the time had to be laboriously copied out by hand). The importance of persons and communities memorizing the source material was paramount for the perpetuation.

Modern Hebrew helps with understanding this important concept.

Classical Hebrew has its own nuances, especially the vav conversive and its uses of the verb tenses, but it is not hard to learn by those who know modern Hebrew.

It also opens the world to later Hebrew documents such as the book of Daniel, which has Aramaic in it.

It also allows one cross into Talmudic texts. There is a caveat here though, the Talmud seems to have its own proprietary words and phrases. It is a writing unto itself. Modern Hebrew doesn’t align completely with the language of the Talmud, but it still is helpful to have modern Hebrew than classical when approaching this unique text.

Modern Hebrew also opens the gateway to other authors such as Rashi, whose writings are powerful but little known in the Western world.

It also exposes one to many different font types from classical to modern handwriting. It gives one the ability to adapt to almost any Hebrew text of interest.

Because there is no niqqud available in most Hebrew texts, one has to learn how to read by context. A word with no vowels can mean or sound differently according to what precedes and goes after it. Learning modern Hebrew allows one to quickly identify the context and what the word sounds like and ought to be translated. It becomes second nature.

Those with a modern Hebrew ability also can become involved in contemporary writings such as reading ha’aretz, one of the leading Israeli newspapers. Unlike Western newspapers, Israeli life and their journalists always cross-over into the religious realm. There really is no concrete distinction between religion and society in Israel. It makes for some really good contemporary religious dialogues.

Where would one start to learn modern Hebrew? Many local universities have courses in modern Hebrew. Or, if one is really adventurous, there are full-fledged immersion courses offered by universities in Israel, such as the Hebrew University, etc., but these can be expensive. There are also online courses too.

If one wishes to do self-study, this can be done too. has many resources to draw from.

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