[b-hebrew] A Jewish perspective on reading biblical hebrew

Shoshanna Walker rosewalk at concentric.net
Sat Nov 27 17:19:53 EST 2004

I was born and raised in NYC, in October, 1950.  I went to a 
religious nursery school and kindergarten, and to Yeshiva elementary 
and high school through 9th grade.  In kindergarten we began learning 
Hebrew vocabulary, in elementary school (I remember in first grade I 
didn't know the word "Chacham" and the teacher told me that I 
wasn't.....) - first in Forest Hills, Queens, then in 3rd grade we 
moved to Queens/LI border, we learned to read Tanach at an early age, 
as you say, and we ALSO learned dikduk - grammar - also at an early 
age, and throughout all my years at Yeshiva, year after year, at a 
very advanced level.  All our Hebrew and tanach classes were 
conducted in spoken Hebrew.

Beginning with 10th grade, when I left Yeshiva to study at the High 
School of Music & Art, I had no more formal Hebrew education.  Four 
or five years later, after having no further exposure to Hebrew 
conversation,  in 1969, I went to Israel for the first time, and had 
to negotiate renting an apartment in Shaarey Chesed in Jerusalem, 
with a landlady who spoke no English, and I was completely shocked 
that the Hebrew just flowed easily out of me.

In later years, when I actually lived in Israel, there were many 
times, while speaking Hebrew, when my grammar was more correct than 
my Israeli friends' grammar.

The most common mistake I remember among Israelis was "renting an 
apartment" - in the distinction between the action of the renter and 

Nowadays, in NY, having sent 2 children to different Yeshivot, I have 
learned that there are 2 different schools of thought regarding 
religious education in today's yeshivot.  Either they teach Hebrew 
and religious and Tanach classes in spoken English, or in spoken 
Hebrew.  One method produces people who can actually speak Hebrew, 
the other method - where they only learn conversational Hebrew for 
the regents exam - does not.  My daughter and I were educated in the 
first method, my son in the second, with expected results, now my son 
is in Tzefat for the year, hopefully he is learning Hebrew....

My father was an infant on the boat that brought his family to NYC 
(first the East Village, then they moved to the Bronx) on 
Thanksgiving Day (Nov 26), 1920.  He was educated in NYC yeshivot, 
went on to study at Yeshiva University, and was fluent in 
conversational Hebrew.

 From what I have heard throughout the years, the typical ulpan method 
of teaching adults Hebrew, in Israel, by exposure to spoken Hebrew 
alone, and without formal dikduk classes, makes it very very 
difficult to learn Hebrew.


>I must agree with both Noam and Chris' friend, but only to a degree. Modern
>Hebrew speakers begin reading Tanakh at an early age, before they really can
>have a grasp of grammar - modern or biblical. Think of an English-speaking
>six year old reading the KJV. How aware is he of the specific differences
>between the English he speaks and the English that the KLV uses? Sure, there
>are some difficult words and expressions, but that's true of anything that
>the six year old reads.
>Most Israelis and Jews who learn Hebrew as a language of prayer and study
>from an early age do not get far beyond this stage. Of course, their
>vocabulary expands and so does their ability to understand the text, but how
>many native speakers actually dissect every verb? You "know" what the text
>means by its context and by being taught. Only those few who happen to study
>biblical grammar at a university level are even aware of the issues, and
>even then they seem more like nit-picking than really important for
>understanding the text.
>Specifically, the WAYYIQTOL form is called "Vav Hahippukh", "the inverting
>Vav", which turns a future-tense verb into past tense. Now I know that this
>is a very simplistic way of looking at it, but that's what we were taught in
>fifth grade (or whenever). "Perfect", "imperfect" and so on are term that we
>first learn when we learn English!
>And as far as "And to Hannah he will give...", many Israelis tend to use
>present tense when speaking of the past ("he tells me...") anyway.
>----- Original Message -----
>From: "Peter Kirk" <peterkirk at qaya.org>
>To: "Noam Eitan" <neitian at nyc.rr.com>
>Cc: <b-hebrew at lists.ibiblio.org>
>Sent: Thursday, November 25, 2004 11:32 PM
>Subject: Re: [b-hebrew] A Jewish perspective on reading biblical hebrew
>> On 25/11/2004 20:21, Noam Eitan wrote:
>> > ...
>> >
>> >I'm curious what are the feelings of Modern Hebrew speakers on this board
>> >about this issue. I have a vague impression that they have been
>> >quiet on this thorny grammatical problem on this board, maybe because
>> >Hebrew speakers don't experience any tension or cognitive dissonance when
>> >following the tenses (if that's what it is) in the text.
>> >
>> >
>> >
>> But surely there are places where the Hebrew Bible simply doesn't make
>> sense if all verb forms are read as if they were modern Hebrew tenses?
>> Aren't there? Can anyone suggest any examples? Perhaps 1 Samuel 1:5: is
>> this understood as "And to Hannah he will give..."?
>> And what do modern Hebrew speakers make of WAYYIQTOL and WEQATAL forms?
>> I assume they cannot understand these simply as future and past
>> respectively, plus the conjunctions. That approach would certainly lead
>> to cognitive dissonance, not least in putting most of the historical
>> events of the Bible into the future!
>> --
>> Peter Kirk
>> peter at qaya.org (personal)
>> peterkirk at qaya.org (work)
>> http://www.qaya.org/
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