While I was housebound with whooping cough for most of a winter, I began the process of learning Biblical Hebrew, partly because it was on my list of things I had wanted to do for a long time and partly because I was bored out of my mind. Along the way, I learned a great deal about how to learn Hebrew and that may be of use to others, especially if learning a language (any language) is as much of a chore for you as it is for me. This page is narrative-y, describing the process I went through (and why I did it). I am adding sub-pages for resources and specific topics as I go.ברוך המלמד את ידי לשפר את האותיותBlessed is the One who has taught my hand to scribe the letters.
|The Disciples Prayer (Aveinu/Our Father), Hebrew Caligraphy
Quick Index To Sub-Pages
WhyLet's start with why I was learning Biblical Hebrew in the first place and what my constraints were, as this will explain some of the choices I made and options I explored.
First, I wanted to learn to read the Hebrew Bible. I had been taught my aleph-bet by my girlfriend in college and another friend had given me a Hebrew-Greek keyed study Bible which had included a concordance and a Hebrew/Greek/Chaldee (Aramaic) lexicon (dictionary). This was during a time that I was religiously-seeking: I had been raised in the Catholic school system, had gone through Confirmation classes, but elected, at the time, to not be confirmed. In college, I was taking a course on early Christian history, studying philosophy, and also took the opportunity to seek out and read many religious texts. Given that my girlfriend was Jewish, I took the opportunity to learn about her religion both for its own sake and as a key to the origins of my own faith.
Knowing the alephbet, being able to use the concordance and lexicon was a tool to learn about the Bible text at a different level. It also helped to be able to read references to the Hebrew in commentaries. Over time, however, I did not progress much further than that. After I converted to Lutheranism, with one thing and another, even those skills became a bit rusty. Eventually, however, in arguing with a friend on questions of Christian faith, I reached a point where I was confronted with questions which took more than a knowledge of a lexicon, they rested on matters of syntax and grammar.
My friend had sent me copies of the Walks in the Light series of books discussing the ways that modern Christianity has acquired pagan customs and lost touch with its Old Testament roots. In order to continue the conversation and learn whether the arguments the author made were true, I had to be able to read and understand the texts for myself. That meant polishing and greatly expanding my knowledge of Hebrew (also of Greek and the remaining bits of school Latin).
At the same time, I became more involved in political activism and in law enforcement volunteer work, both of which required a better understanding of terrorism, therefore of Middle Eastern culture, Islam, and Arabic. My knowledge of the Koran was about the same as my understanding of the Hebrew Bible: I had read it in translation and could use a keyed-text/lexicon when needed. To understand more, I needed Arabic. Scriptural Arabic is a Semitic language with a right-to-left alphabet and a grammar which is very difficult for Westerners to really understand. I had found several good sources suggesting learning Biblical Hebrew first and using that as a stepping-stone for learning classical Arabic. Hebrew is also a Semitic language, many of its core grammatical structures are similar, but it is a simpler language with a smaller vocabulary than classical Arabic. There are very few Arabic-English cognates (words which are the same or nearly the same in both languages), but many between Arabic and Hebrew. For the same reasons I was interested in Arabic, being able to eventually learn modern Hebrew would not hurt, and all three languages (Classical and Modern Hebrew, Classical Arabic) would give me access to a world of religious commentary, including Medieval Bible commentators writing in Arabic or Judeo-Arabic (e.g. Maimonides).
This left me with Classical Hebrew as a starting point and a set of long-term goals. If I got through all of those goals, great. If not, I would have plenty to learn along the way. All of those long-term goals required me to gain a true understanding, not just of the Hebrew language sufficient to read the Hebrew Bible but of a Semitic thought-process and context alien to Western thinking. That thought-process could then be used both for scriptural exegesis and for a better understanding of modern Near-Eastern, Middle Eastern religious and cultural context.
People Learn Languages DifferentlyFrom grade-school to college, I had taken Spanish through the Intermediate level. I got good grades, but the process was often frustrating. Stumbling my way through Gabriel Garcia Marquez in Edgar Chamorro's college class was practically nightmarish at times. Even worse, as soon as I passed a test and stepped away from the classroom, I lost fluency rapidly. I had learned that, for me, learning and holding onto language skills had to be immersive: I had to read the language, write it (over and over and over), speak it, and hear it. I listened to language tapes, Spanish music, commercial jingles, even a few telenovelas, until I thought it was running back out my ears. I also hate memorizing vocabulary, verb forms, etc., without context. In order to hold on to the information, I had to be able to quickly plug it in to a larger context (sentences, graduated readings, songs).
I knew I had to take the same approach to learning Hebrew. Therefore, I put a great deal of effort in finding materials which would structure the learning process and would fit in with audio, video, and reading/writing. I had to have repetition but at the same time not get bored. And, of course, because I was sick as a dog, I had to do it from home, self-taught, not in a classroom. I had to be able to pick it up when able, put it down when needed, and not have the knowledge melt away. I was willing to pay money for good materials, but could not spend a lot of money and on many different things or all at once, so I looked for good free resources when available. I especially liked the option of trying something first and then deciding what I really needed to spend money on as I learned more.
I also preferred being able to get some kind of certificate or credit if possible. For some of the things I do, including the law enforcement volunteer work and related certifications, it is useful for me to demonstrate continuing education credit. I can sometimes make use of non-accredited, unapproved coursework for credit, but having a recognized certificate or transcript is easier. At the very least, I needed to be able to record progress and keep a record of related work, both for my own morale and for potentially seeking later credit.
Perhaps you learn languages the same way I do. Perhaps you don't. Because I need varied types of resources to learn a language well, however, it is likely that some of those resources will be useful to practically anyone.
What I NeededThis left me with a priority list to fill (potentially with more than one resource):
- A core set of course materials to provide structure and track progress as well as to recommend other resources that fit with the method being taught. Ideally, this would include text, workbook, video/audio lectures, recommendations for a grammar, lexicon, etc.
- Workable from home and once I got over illness, on the go.
- I don't do Windows(tm): any software has to be cross-platform, specifically Linux and Android, Chrome or Mozilla.
Finding CoursewareIn the last ten years, online courseware has really taken off. I had taken a variety of courses through various systems, much of it emergency response-related, ranging from an hour to ten weeks, many of which offered transcripts and either college or CEU credit. I was hoping to find something similar in a Classical Hebrew course.
In the end, I did not find any courseware that met my criteria in one go. In particular, I was unable to find a well-rated, cross-platform, online, at-your-own-pace course for credit in Biblical Hebrew for love or money. I did find several for Modern Hebrew. I found a few following a fixed schedule, more or less 'distance-learning' alongside classroom offerings. By happy accident, I found a Master's Seminary class which met my other criteria but had been discontinued when the instructors retired. The happy part is that the materials had all been posted online:
- The videos were freely available.
- The textbook could no longer be ordered, but there is a free PDF.
- It included a printable workbook.
- It contained a resource list including other books: student vocabulary, practice software, reference grammar, Hebrew Bible, audio resources, etc., which were still available for purchase and/or download.
- It was put together by a well-known Hebraist who had been dissatisfied with paradigm-memorizing-madness and developed an approach based on understanding why Hebrew worked the way it did (to the extent possible).
- It does not any longer offer a certificate, but it does track/report progress, and the workbook, etc., would provide a permanent record of coursework
- It offered several years worth of study and materials in other Biblical languages.
- The course included 'exegetical insights' scattered throughout, building toward higher-level courses.
Dr. Barrick recommended Mitchel's A Student Vocabulary for Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic published by Zondervan, a slim portable paperback which I ordered. Zondervan also offers a (roughly) matching Old Testament Hebrew Vocabulary in audio read by Jonathan T. Pennington which was available through Audible or on CD. The course required a copy of the Biblia Hebraica Stutgartensia (I'll list sources for Hebrew Bibles, paper and electronic, in the resources list) for the required readings. Finally, there was a link in the course notes to a complete audio Hebrew Bible in the professor's preferred Yemmonite pronunciation from the University of Washington's Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilization.
With the various audio content synced to my phone and the student vocabulary, I could listen to and study the vocabulary while sick or on the go. With some hints from the instructor, I also found a decent Android app by Sand Creek Software, Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary. I ended up testing several different apps for vocabulary quizzing, and this was one of the only ones which seemed to work well. In particular, a promising app which supported both Biblical Greek and Hebrew, Ginoskos, never worked reliably for me. I also installed an application called Biblical Hebrew Flashcards which is actually an aleph-bet practice app to brush up on Hebrew letters and particularly the vowel pointing which I had never been very good at.
Sprinkled throughout the courses, Dr. Barrick also includes various songs for practice, some of which can be found in MP3 form. When alphabetizing in English, I still run through the alphabet song in my head, and now I do that in Hebrew and Greek as well.
By the time I had gathered these things, I had a fairly complete set of materials to work with. Even when very sick, I could listen to the audio vocabulary or listen to the Hebrew Bible, picking up a little more each time. As I learned vocabulary and worked through sections of the workbook, I watched the appropriate lectures. But I did run into some trouble which was solved by working through materials from a different Hebrew student grammar.
Weingreen's Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew (PGCH)One of the limitations of the free lectures was that I could not ask questions when I got stuck. Sometimes the students in the recorded class would get stuck at the same place and ask questions I needed. Sometimes they did not. Dr. Barrick has a habit of asking for translations in the workbook for things he has not explained yet or words not actually in his glossary and he explicitly says not to use a Bible translation to figure them out. I needed another source to be able to look things up in with different explanations. If I could find the same concepts explained different ways, it was more likely one of them would make sense to me. I looked through several other study guides without finding anything I liked. While visiting family, I happened to stop into the Riverow Bookstore in Owego, NY and searched their language section. I found a used copy of Weingreen's 1939 Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew, bought it on a lark and have been extremely pleased with it.
Weingreen follows roughly the same approach as Dr. Barrick to teaching the grammar in that he does not push memorization of bajillions of verb paradigms. He focuses on teaching basic patterns which allow the student to understand most of the common forms without brute memorization. This allows the student to start working with the language quickly, then memorize the patterns through actual usage. It is less cumbersome, less boring, and easier to retain. Weingreen, however, presents things more thoroughly, in a slightly different order, explains them differently, and includes a better reference section/glossary, all in a fairly slim and portable hardback. I have found this to be an ideal companion to Dr. Barrick's course when I get stuck (and vice-versa). It can be found used (there is actually a later edition than the one I have), there is a PDF floating around and even an old discussion archive of a self-study group that works through the exercises.
One of the nicest features to me, however (you may differ), is that Weingreen focuses on composition. One of my complaints about Dr. Barrick's workbook is that it does not have enough composition. I mentioned above that I need to write things over and over again in order for them to stick. Weingreen gives just enough raw information to get the student started with Hebrew and then as soon as possible goes into exercises translating Hebrew to English and English to Hebrew. He starts with simple phrases and builds up piece by piece until you are composing full sentences surprisingly quickly. Working through the exercises on paper gives me plenty of writing practice and I find that while working through the sentences, I will suddenly start to understand certain Hebrew concepts or expressions which had otherwise been difficult. If pressed, I probably could learn the language (at least the first couple of levels) entirely from Weingreen and few references. The OT 503 course videos make it easier, though.
Weingreen also approaches Hebrew verb "tenses" in a manner compatible with Dr. Barrick's course. In particular, classical Hebrew (and Arabic) don't actually have anything like our past, present, future tenses. Their verb forms mean something else entirely. Now that I have read their explanations and Ralph Patai's commentary on classical Arabic/Hebrew, I can see that many Hebrew courses have taught them wrong. Misunderstanding time in Hebrew text leads to bad translation and bad exegesis.