Learning Hebrew is fun, and it’s really not hard. It can be a little daunting for beginners that Hebrew uses a different alphabet (see below), but it’s a much smaller and simpler language than English, and Hebrew is a very logical language. So we’ll quickly get you up to speed on the alef-bet and on your way to learning Hebrew.
Learning Hebrew for beginners
If you are a beginner, we’ll start by learning the alef-bet, the Hebrew alphabet. Then we’ll quickly move on to reading and speaking simple phrases and sentences (and believe me, Hebrew sentence structure is a lot simpler than English).
Learning Hebrew for intermediate and advanced students
If you have some Hebrew learning, we can work on building your vocabulary and your fluency, all customized to what you need. Some of my students want to learn modern Hebrew, the language of modern Israel. This is especially helpful for visitors to Israel, people married to Israelis, and people who want to move to Israel (which is called making aliyah – going up to Israel).
Learning Biblical Hebrew
Some of my students, whether Jewish or Christian, want to learn the language of the Hebrew Bible, which of course means learning Biblical Hebrew. (The Book of Daniel is mostly in Aramaic, but aside from that, the Hebrew Bible is, naturally enough, written in Hebrew.) Learning Biblical Hebrew opens up the original text to Bible students who want to know what the original means. With my Biblical Hebrew students, we often work on a book of the Bible that is of special interest to the student.
Biblical Hebrew is different from modern Hebrew, but they are the same language. The verb tenses are different, and of course there are words in modern Hebrew that do not appear in the Bible (see below for the re-invention of Hebrew as a modern spoken language). The Bible doesn’t speak of elevators or cell phones!
Learning Modern Hebrew
Modern Hebrew is an amazing revival of an ancient language. If you think about it, Hebrew is the language of the Bible and other Jewish sacred texts. Yes, Jews have always prayed in Hebrew, but for the most part, Hebrew became a language used in holy texts more than a spoken, everyday language.
Enter Eliezer Ben Yehuda, born in Russia in 1858. By age 13, he was conversant with large parts of the Bible and Talmud, and looked to be well set on the way to becoming a rabbi, as his parents hoped. However, through people he met while studying in Paris, he became a Zionist, and moved to the land of Israel. He set about the task of modernizing the language of the Bible. He wrote a dictionary of Hebrew, including many new words he invented, while using the Hebrew roots found in the Bible. For example, there was no word for dictionary in the Bible, so he took the word milah, which means “word,” and added the suffix -on, which denotes a place. The Hebrew word for dictionary is now milon.
He insisted that his family speak only Hebrew at home, going so far as berating his wife for singing a Russian lullaby to their children. Thus, his son Itamar became the first Hebrew speaking child in modern times.
Today, Hebrew is the spoken and written language of modern Israel, and every large Israeli city has a major thoroughfare named Ben Yehuda in it.
The Hebrew Alphabet: the Alef-Bet
Did you know that the word alphabet comes from the first two letters of the Hebrew alphabet: alef and bet? Hebrew is read from right to left (just like Arabic), and so Hebrew books also open from right to left. The last letter of the Hebrew alphabet is tav, so when Hebrew speakers want to say “from A to Z,” they say “from alef to tav.” (Except, of course, that they don’t really say “from” and “to” – in Hebrew, we say “me-alef ad tav.”)
There are only 22 letters in the Hebrew alphabet. That’s partly because there are no letters for the vowels. Vowels are indicated by little lines and dots under or over the letters. When people used to write on animal parchment (remember, Hebrew is a language that goes back a few thousand years), they had to save space, since it was super-expensive.
Five of the letters are written differently if they are at the end of a word. If you think that sounds complicated, in Arabic, they have not just special final letters, but special middle ones too!
Recommended textbooks for learning Hebrew are here.