Modern Hebrew sine qua non

yochanan bitan ButhFam at
Fri Nov 12 10:49:05 EST 1999

> Why is modern Hebrew 
>essential, if it is? 
>Because of linguistic similarities with biblical? 

Excellent reason. 100% of modern morphology is used in BH. 
After internalizing modern morphology one only needs to add a little for
100% of modern morphology, nice, huh?! (even modern regularizations like
dibber 'spoke', with tsere instead of segol, are still biblical in pause.
(100='not 95', '98-100', there are always quibbles and definitions to deal

>So that one can read books in modern Hebrew about biblical 

Excellent reason. To which can be added the ability to easily read mishnaic
hebrew and rabbinic commentaries, i.e. dialects in between. more below

>and converse with Israeli scholars? 
Good reason. They would prefer talking about the bible in hebrew, wouldn't
you? It saves lots on misunderstanding and makes communicative assumptions
easier in gauging how much is getting through. Though as scholars they are
all required a high level of english, for additional teaching, conferences
and publication. 

>Or simply because it is easier to learn a living language and then
transfer into a similar dead one? 
That is true to the degree that there is sufficient overlap. E.g. This is
much less true of italian and latin. for one, they do not have the unique
100% morphological transfer into the old language. But 'easier' partially
obscures the point. see (extra1) below.

>I guess you think all three of these are good reasons, 

There are more. 

(extra1) level of achievement.
given current teaching programs in graduate schools it is fair to ask
whether a PhD student ever learns the language to a high level. that is,
how fluent do BH-only learners become? 
Can a PhD pray in Hebrew, freely and at length, when they are done? 
(compare: could a BA in german/russian pray in german/russian?
possibly/hopefully. certainly/assumedly a phd.)
Have they reached a level of language competence where they do not
consciously manipulate the morphology but it takes care of itself
Can they think in/with Hebrew?
Would you accept any less of a spanish phd researching don quixote? 
(a great/fun song: "ho don qishot, tit`orer lema`ani, kax o kax tisha'er
ha-abir sheli" danny sanderson [mhebrew]) 
where will they get the feel for the language to savor the word choices, to
be aware of little 'bumps' in the flow of the story, appreciate the poetry
(33% of bible)? read large stretches and compare hebrew with hebrew, and
always directly? (less positively, how will they more easily avoid brittle,
mistaken language use that clutters a lot of biblical scholarship?
metaphor: like explaining to an intermediate 2nd language essay student why
the structure or word choice is not appropriate despite its following the
rules as learned or the lexicon.) 
What mechanism will allow them to easily maintain a vocabulary in the 5000
word range? many phd's seem to struggle to maintain half of that. is that
what a student wants to do with the rest of their life? (notice, i left the
number small because of the many hapax and debatables. one does not
internalize those, one discusses.) 

(extra 2) The history of the language is seen and maintained more easily. A
person learns and feels how the language developed in second temple times
into proto mishnaic qoheletian hebrew, 4QMMTian, et al, and finally
mishnaic itself. a lot of vocabulary is attested in mishnaic times that
should not be overlooked by biblical scholars. mishnaic helps in three
ways: it shows the flow of the language, its directions of change; it
further exemplifies specific idioms and vocabulary that may be weakly
attested in BH; it also reveals large semantic domains that are only
partially attested in biblical. classic example is kelev 'dog'. its
semantic domain should include Hatul 'cat' (unattested BH). Does a student
of the Bible want this material at their fingertips, available in the
background? especially true in agricultural, daily contexts.

(extra 3) Full fluency and internalization makes closely related languages
much easier to retain in larger configurations. E.g., aramaic becomes easy
for those who enjoy reading targum or later midrash, a bit like spanish and
italian, likewise for ugaritic.

>and I would agree that all can be helpful, 
>but I don't see any of them as essential. 

it depends if someone wants to really know the language inside and out. 
maybe were using 'essential' differently? i'm not talking about a 'one
year' student (120-240 class hours). for that i recommend a listening
comprehension, audio-lingual approach to BH-only. i'm talking about the
potential phd candidate in bh.

>Any more comments?

be the best that you can be. 
anyone who devotes a significant part of their study and life to the hebrew
bible will be better off with modern hebrew fluency. 
and to all graduate students i always give the following advice [some on
this list have taken it :-)  do your phd anywhere, under a mentor with whom
you find a good rapport, 
BUT after you've internalized  hebrew. anyone who ignores modern hebrew in
their training is leaving a 'governor'/'limiter' on their scholarship,
wonderful as it may be. 

we're dealing with a 'win-win' situation here, though it requires vision,
desire and planning. it isn't really a debate. those that have become
fluent in modern hebrew simply wouldn't trade it off for a BH-only program.

randall buth

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