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Hebrew—An Introduction to Reading the Old Testament
About this course
Lesson 2: Verbs—perfect
About verbs (step 2 of 9)
Anchors first

Now that you have learned the Hebrew alphabet, it is time to begin the long road of learning Hebrew grammar. Our approach will be to start with verbs.

For those who have learned another language as an adult, you will know that verbs are often the most difficult part of language learning since they change form so much. For example, in English, learning a noun like “language” requires that you only learn two forms—singular (“language”) and plural (“languages”). However, learning a verb like “learn” requires you learn many forms—past (he “learned”), perfect-singular (he “has learned”), perfect-plural (they “have learned”), present-singular (he “learns”), present-plural (they “learn”), continuous-singular (he “is learning”), etc. The same is true for Hebrew—there is much more to learn with verbs than with nouns, adjectives, prepositions, conjunctions, etc.

So why are we starting with verbs if they are harder?

One reason we are starting with verbs is that it is best to tackle the hardest part while your brain is fresh. By the time many students get to studying verbs in a language, they already feel overwhelmed and struggle to add so much more complication to the picture. But by beginning with verbs, we will be laying out virtually all the complication from the start. Of course you will not master everything immediately, nor are you expected to. But you will have a complete map (almost) of Hebrew grammar from the get-go, from which we can fill in details with our study of other parts of speech.

However, the bigger reason to begin with verbs is that they are the anchor to a language. Nouns do not stand alone, but function as the subject or object of a verb. Conjunctions connect verbal ideas together, or connect parts together within verbal clauses. Likewise, prepositions, adjectives and adverbs are all modifying some part of the verbal idea which has a verb at its center. Thus, to really begin reading and understanding Hebrew, the most important words to understand are the verbs.
Optional: If you are weak on grammar terminology and parts of speech in general, you are going to want to take a few moments to refresh your understanding in this area. Below are two videos you might find helpful. 
Fresh inspiration

If basic English grammar can be a challenge for some of us, certainly learning Hebrew verbs can be intimidating. But it is worth the effort! Check our Ligon Duncans thoughts on the matter for some fresh inspiration before we dive in.
Parsing categories for verbs

So if we want to learn the grammar behind Hebrew verbs, what are we going to need to know? What are the categories of ways in which Hebrew verbs change form?

Standard verbs in Hebrew have five different parsing categories.
  1. stem  the template of the verb

    The term “stem” in Hebrew grammar refers to something completely different than what it refers to in English, and is best understand by distinguishing it from a verb’s root. The root of a verb in Hebrew is a group of three letters which establish its base meaning. (Verbs will also share their root with nouns, adjectives and adverbs with related meaning, as you have seen in some of the vocab we have learned.) On the other hand, the stem of a verb in Hebrew is one of seven templates for that root to be injected into.

  2. aspect  the angle of the verb

    Unlike English which is built around tenses, Hebrew verbs have an aspect. And while this can often lead us to understand the implied tense of a verb (i.e. whether it is speaking about the past, present or future), it is by no means the same thing. 

  3. person  helps identify the verb’s subject

    Here, Hebrew is more precise than English. Whereas the form of English verbs tell us very little about their subject, Hebrew tells us much more. For instance, the form of a Hebrew verb indicates if the subject is 1st person (i.e. I or we), 2nd person (i.e. you) or 3rd person (i.e. they). 

  4. gender  helps identify the verb’s subject

    The form of a Hebrew verb can also indicate whether the subject is masculine or feminine.

  5. number  helps identify the verb’s subject

  6. And Hebrew verb forms also indicate whether the subject is singular or plural. (English often does the same, as seen in the difference between “he goes” and “they go.”)

The category of Hebrew stems is new for English speakers as noted above. However, the concept behind it will be not be too hard for you to grasp once we start looking at some examples. More than that, you will soon discover that verb stems make learning Hebrew vocab much easier. For example, you will only need to learn a single root word (קָדַשׁ) to know the Hebrew for to be holy, to sanctify, to consecrate, and to dedicate—since they are all the same word in Hebrew, utilizing different stems to communicate the different senses. We will be working with the most basic stem for now, and will learn the other six in lesson 4.
be holy (verb)
The aspect of a Hebrew verb is going to be the biggest challenge for you to understand, since it is not only a new category for English speakers, but a whole new way of thinking. We will tackle aspect in the rest of this lesson.

Finally, note that person, gender and number all serve to identify the verb's subject—far more information about the subject than English verbs provide. As a result, often times this is enough to indicate the verb's subject and no other pronoun is needed. We saw this in the worship song בֵּֽאלֹהִים. There we find the verb “הִלַּלְנוּ” which is translated “we have boasted.” Hebrew does have a pronoun for “we,” but it is not used here because it is unnecessary. The form of the verb has already indicated “we” as the subject!
Illustrating the categories via example

But before we get to the details on verb aspect, let’s make sure the categories are clear by way of example.
And God blessed the seventh day and sanctified it, because on it God rested from all his work that he created to do.

Genesis 2:3 (extra-literal translation)
There are five verbs in this verse, all underlined. Let’s examine the parsing of the Hebrew words behind each of these verbs. The point here is not to understand all the details (you won't!), but simply to get a sense for the five parsing categories for standard verbs.

stem: qal (the most basic stem)
aspect: sequential-imperfect (indicates a step forward in the narrative)
person: 3rd (because the subject is a 3rd party and not I/we or you)
gender: masculine (because the subject is a masculine noun—God)
number: singular (because the subject—i.e. God—is one)

stem: piel (the intensive verb stem, giving this verb the meaning “sanctify” and not just “be holy”)
aspect: sequential-imperfect (indicates a step forward in the narrative)
person: 3rd (because the subject is still God)
gender: masculine (because the subject is still God)
number: singular (because the subject is still God)

stem: qal (the most basic stem)
aspect: perfect (indicates a completed action)
person: 3rd (because the subject is still God)
gender: masculine (because the subject is still God)
number: singular (because the subject is still God)

stem: qal (the most basic stem)
aspect: perfect (indicates a completed action)
person: 3rd (because the subject is still God)
gender: masculine (because the subject is still God)
number: singular (because the subject is still God)

stem: qal (the most basic stem)
aspect: infinitive-construct (in English, infinitives are always proceeded by the word “to” as in “to do.”)
(infinitives do not use the other parsing categories)
Roadmap to learning verbs

In this lesson and the next, we will learn the primary verb aspects. In lesson 4 we will tackle stems. And in lessons 5 and 6 we will examine non-standard verb forms (commands, infinitives and participles). Thus, we have five lessons dedicated to understanding verbs, leaving four remaining lessons in the course to let them fully sink in. Ready to get started?