[b-hebrew] Post biblical forms of Hebrew

K Randolph kwrandolph at gmail.com
Thu Oct 15 11:05:59 EDT 2009

James and Randall:
In this message, I use “dialect” to refer to the different periods of Hebrew
usage that have been more or less codified: the three main ones being
Biblical, Mishnaic and modern Hebrews.

On Thu, Oct 15, 2009 at 3:10 AM, James Christian
<jc.bhebrew at googlemail.com>wrote:

> Hi,
> with regard to the differences and similarities and their effect on the
> learner I'm not sure you are justified in making such a broad
> generalisation

There is also the question of why one wants to learn Hebrew, which dialect
he should learn and master first. I will emphasize “master” as in really
learning it well.

If his purpose is to read Tanakh, learning modern Hebrew before he has
mastered Biblical Hebrew may actually detract from his understanding of the

> One of the fundamental qualities in the way the learner chooses to put
> focus
> on similarities or differences and how the learner typically treats them.
> Those who focus on similarities tend to learn quicker. Those who focus
> negatively on the differences do not learn well.

A difficulty is that those who learn Hebrew as a second language seldom
master any dialect, even if they study only one. Then if they study more
than one dialect, the dialects become mish mashed in their mind with the
result that they really don’t know any.

> James Christian
> >
> >
> > Also, those who control both Greek and Hebrew may question whether
> > Greek and Hebrew are a helpful comparison. Modern Greek morphology
> > and ancient Gk morphology are different. modern Hebrew morphology
> > maps onto ancient/biblical morphology 100%. (Allowing, of course,
> > for high register modern "matsiti" 'I found' to map onto mishnaic Hebrew,
> > while standard modern "matsati" does fit biblical "matsati". If
> exceptions
> > like
> > this are disallowed, then you can use 99+% as the comparison figure.)
> >
> > braxot
> > Randall
> >

I think that part of the problem of understanding the different verbal forms
stems from the fact that some of them were used differently from Biblical
Hebrew as early as Mishnaic Hebrew, yet the scholars who wrote about those
forms in grammars and lexicons knew both or more dialects so tended to mix
them up. I include Gesenius and BDB among these scholars.

One of the toughest things to deal with when learning more than one dialect
is where words have changed meanings (at least that is my experience). That
results in that a person may *think* he understands a text where a word has
changed meaning, when he really doesn’t.

How many other differences were there between Biblical Hebrew and Mishnaic
Hebrew? And Mishnaic Hebrew to modern Hebrew? One that comes to mind from
modern Hebrew is that the waw is pronounced like a “V”, a contribution of
German/Yiddish to modern pronunciation. What about BeGaD KePhaT, that
existed in Mishnaic Hebrew, but did it exist in Biblical Hebrew? There is
some evidence that it didn’t. What about the use of materes lexionis? Were
they full consonants in Biblical Hebrew, that could be left out in poetry
without losing understanding, like “v” in “e’er”? But became materes
lexionis in Mishnaic Hebrew?

Now my 2¢ on the question of learning modern Hebrew.

If the student’s main interest is in reading Tanakh, I recommend that he
read Tanakh completely through a few times before studying another dialect.
Preferably at least once without points, if not a few times that way as
well. If his main interest is in Talmud, then master that dialect first
before studying others. If his main interest is in communicating with modern
Israelis, find an immersion study program, or go to Israel.

As for me, I know only Biblical Hebrew.

Karl W. Randolph.

More information about the b-hebrew mailing list