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Hebrew—An Introduction to Reading the Old Testament
About this course
Lesson 1: The alphabet
Text and Worship (step 2 of 8)
Aim of this course

The goal of this course is to get you reading and understanding the Hebrew Bible with a basic grasp of the grammar.

Let me be clear—this course is not to make you an expert in Biblical Hebrew, even if you completely master the material. But, on the other hand, any student who diligently and persistently presses through the lessons and assignments of this course can expect to go away from the course able to read his/her תנ״ך (Old Testament) with genuine comprehension.
תנ״ך
Hebrew Bible / Old Testament (abbr.)
Warning

This is a language course.

Now some who read that sentence have never studied a language as an adult and have no idea what they are getting into. From the get-go, I am telling you that you are going to feel lost, dumb and overwhelmed. There is no way around it. Languages are really hard, but it is worth it. (See the next section below.) I am telling you for the same reason my wife and I tell couples about to become new parents that the first month is going to be horrible beyond their imagination. Knowing this fact does not make the first month less difficult, but it does reassure the new parents that what they are going through is normal and something that will not last forever. Same goes for you as you begin learning Hebrew. It will be horrible for a time and you will feel like you will never get it, but with God's help you can and it is worth it.
I also must tell you up front that each lesson in this course is packed with information on purpose. Remember, the goal of this course is to get you in the text, and in order to do so, you need to get in the text! True, when you drink from a firehose, you by no means catch every drop. But you drink far more than those whose aim is to keep from spilling. To succeed in this course, you will need to put your mouth in front of the Hebrew firehose.

Do not be discouraged if you do not understand or remember everything we cover. Take in as much as you can and keep practicing. You can always return and review lessons, and the more you use your new skills in your studying, the more solidified they will become.
Why should I study the biblical languages?

If you are still reading, then you likely have already concluded that learning Hebrew is worth the effort. Still, you are going to need encouragement along the way, and even now as we get started.

The video below communicates the worth of learning the biblical languages in a very compelling way. Here is a summary of Dr. Starner's seven reasons (reworded).
  1. God chose Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek to communicate his eternal Word.
  2. A text simply cannot mean what the grammar of that text (in its original language) does not support.
  3. The biblical languages unveil the interpretive options of a passage.
  4. Knowing the biblical languages enables us to effectively use exegetical tools and understand scholarly resources.
  5. Study of the original languages reinforces a careful and detailed approach to interpretation.
  6. The original language of a text often identifies the author's emphases through untranslatable rhetorical features.
  7. Learning biblical languages keeps you from unfounded certainty or preformed conclusions.
Our learning approach

Children learn languages far better than adults. Conventional wisdom suggests this is a result of possessing more youthful brains. That probably is part of it. But I would suggest a far greater factor is how children typically go about their language learning.

Being an immigrant to Israel with children, I have first-hand knowledge on this point. Evangeline, my third child (presently 4 years old), does not speak Hebrew much at all. While we have certainly made efforts to teach her, the fact is that she is still at home during the day where we primarily speak English. Yoseph, my oldest (presently 7 years old), is in third grade. He is fluent in Hebrew, though not nearly as comfortable as he is in English. The reason is that he speaks English with all his closest friends. However, my first-grader Abi (presently 6 years old), speaks excellent Hebrew though she could not say a word before entering kindergarten. The reason: she speaks and hears it all the time, both at school and with friends. 

Adults rarely learn a language that way. Instead of living in the language, adults typically try to acquire a language through focused study alone. Don't get me wrong, there is a place for focused study. But the far more significant factor is the time you spend soaking in the language.
But how can you soak in Hebrew if you don't live in Israel?

Answer: worship with those who do.

This answer, of course, is predicated on the assumption you love to worship God in song, and that you love his word. Assuming these things to be true, it is a small and joyful step to learn to love worshipping via songs which use the original language of the Bible, if you have the right helps. For that reason, this course is dedicated to teaching Hebrew through worship songs from Israel whose lyrics are direct quotations from the תנ״ך. And the goal is that you will not only learn from these songs, but that you will love them. And as you do, the Hebrew scriptures will seep into your bones.
Grammar essentials

Yes, you will still need to spend focused time in studying grammar and memorizing vocabulary, but not as grammarians who love grammar for grammar's sake. Our approach will be to learn what is needed to get you reading (and singing), leaving out what can wait until later.

Instead of memorizing endless paradigms, we will bank on the intuitive part of our brains. To illustrate, consider the word “do” in English. How do you decide when is appropriate to use the word “do”? Do you think you could produce a valid set of rules or paradigms that would answer this question? Probably not. Yet, you do use the word “do” quite often and, if you are a native English speaker, you can spot a misuse of it instantly. The reason is that we do not speak, read and understand language naturally via paradigms and rules, but through extensive exposure.

“But I am not a native Hebrew speaker,” you may contend. True, but non-native English speakers can master “do” as well. They do so by living in English far more than through academic study (though academic study has its place). And the more you surround yourself with Hebrew worship and reading, the more you will master it, with academic study of grammar essentials as accompaniment.

This is one of the reasons that we also will be simplifying certain aspects of Biblical Hebrew for this course, much in the way that Modern Hebrew does. This includes vowels distinctions, cantillation marks, doubled letters, and more. Doing so, we will be skipping over about 25 pages in your typical Biblical Hebrew grammar book and get to reading the text far more quickly. The other reason for this simplification is that all these details are actually not original, but were added centuries later by masoretic scribes. They can certainly be helpful once you have learned them, but they can also be cumbersome to learn and our priority lies in immersing ourselves in the text itself.
Vocab through connections, not lists

I mentioned memorizing vocabulary—something of great importance to living in the text. So what is our approach to vocabulary?

There are those among us who love to memorize vocabulary lists. Our approach, however, assumes that most people do not. Thus, instead of a list-centric approach, we are going to learn words as we meet them in songs and scripture texts. In addition, Hebrew has this glorious feature of using 3-letter roots which allow for intuitive connections between groups of words sharing the same root. We will take advantage of this feature to multiply our vocabulary by learning word groups instead of only individual words. (See the examples of this on this and the previous step.)

We will learn every word in the songs we will sing (since you cannot worship if you do not know what you are saying!) and words from the readings that appear at least 40 times in the תנ״ך. Doing so will allow us to not only learn the lemmas (dictionary forms) of Hebrew words, but also the forms they actually appear in, something of great importance. For, the more we memorize in this fashion, the more morphological reference points we will have. (Eg. Instead of struggling over whether דִבַּרְנוּ in Lev 21:7 is piel given that it has a patach under the ב, you will have no problem knowing it is because it is just like הִלַּלְנוּ in the song we will learn later this lesson.)

And believe it or not, by taking this approach, you will learn over 70% of the words which appear in the תנ״ך by the end of this course.
No transliteration

Finally, you will not learn conventions for transliteration in this course. Transliteration is where the pronunciation of words are written in different characters—in our case, it would be writing Hebrew pronunciation of words in English letters (i.e. using the Latin alphabet). We will intentionally not do so in this course so as to press you rather to fluently master the Hebrew script. Furthermore, English words derived from Hebrew (i.e. names, etc) will be appear in Hebrew throughout this course. Again, this is for your benefit, so that as you meet them in the text of the תנ״ך, you will know them without hesitation.
That's the plan. Ready to get started?