The Importance of Learning Hebrew

If you have been a student of the bible for any amount of time, then you know that the scriptures inside of the bibles that we read today, were originally written in Hebrew. You also know that the torah, which is Yah’s instruction manual for us to live as a people, is the foundation that the rest of the scriptures were built upon. Therefore, you know that we must first understand the torah, in order to understand the rest of the scriptures.

However, although many of us know this much; instead of learning to read the torah in Hebrew, we choose to read it in English. We feel as though since we speak English and the scriptures that have been presented to us are written in English; then there is no need for us to learn the torah in Hebrew. If you are one who upholds this view, let me share with you how learning the Hebrew language will help you better understand the torah; and what you are missing out on by only reading it in English.

FIRST, A STORY

Picture this: you’re taking a much-needed vacation to Morocco, but you don’t speak or read Arabic, nor do you recognize the letters. One day, you walk by the market and smell something so delicious that you have to stop and find out what it is. “What is this?” you ask the vendor, hoping he understands you. “Beef, beef stew” he says with a smile, and you’re thrilled that it’s something you can eat. You buy a bowl, find a place to sit, and dig in; the stew tastes even better than it smells, and you devour it within minutes.

You go back and take a picture of the stall so you can find it again tomorrow, and when you get back to your hotel, you upload the pic to Facebook, hashtag #BestBeefStewEver. You check your notifications moments later, and see a comment from a friend of a friend that makes your heart stop: “umm I read Arabic and that sign definitely says camel stew….” You freeze, your mind racing in different directions. You ASKED the man what it was, and he told you it was beef…was he lying? did he make a mistake? maybe it was beef and this person is mistaken? You feel sick to your stomach, knowing that relying on others for translation may have led you terribly astray.

HEBREW IS FREEDOM

Reading the Torah in English is like eating that mysterious meat stew – you are relying on someone else to give you information that may or may not be accurate. Since the Torah is our literal guide to life, this means you are putting your very life and soul in someone else’s hands, with no way of confirming if they’re steering you in the right direction. Metaphorically speaking, (and then I’ll leave the food analogy alone, I promise), you may be consuming camel meat thinking it’s beef, and not even know it!

Learning Hebrew gives you control over your own life. It allows you to process the Law in its original language, engage with your own history from a Hebraic standpoint, and puts English translations in perspective. Language and culture are inseparable, and learning our language is one huge and necessary step to reclaiming our culture.

LEARNING HEBREW

Your first step to learning Hebrew is to learn the Hebrew alefbet, or alphabet, and the vowel sounds. (Technically, the Hebrew has an abjad, which is a writing system that is made up solely of consonants; vowels are not letters, and are added separately.) Although Hebrew is written from right to left, and uses letters that look very differently than English letters, most of the sounds will be familiar to you, and the sounds remain constant. By constant, I mean the letter Gimel, for instance, will always make the hard “g” sound, as in go. In English, however, g can make either a hard “g” or a “j” sound (as in go or giant); pair it with h and it might be silent, like through, or make the “f” sound, like cough. Can you imagine how confusing this can be to an English language learner?! Hebrew has no such nonsense; once you learn your letters and vowels, you will be able to successfully and confidently read any Hebrew word.

So how do you complete this first step? You can take my Hebrew Reading 101 class, which not only teaches how to read, but also numbers, colors, and simple vocabulary, and introduces you to basic Hebrew grammar. If you’re more of a Do-It-Yourself kind of person, I recommend the book Learn Hebrew Today: Alef-Bet for Adults. It’s easy to follow and offers lots of reading practice, and I’ve used it to teach both children and adults how to read Hebrew.

HEBREW RESOURCES

Once you are able to read, you’ll want to start learning Hebrew grammar, verbs, and vocabulary. A verbs conjugation resource is a must-have tool; the 501 Hebrew Verbs book and the Hebrew-Verbs (free) website are both excellent. A good translator/Hebrew-English dictionary is necessary as well. I love Morfix (free) and have the app on all my devices, but there are lots of printed options if you prefer a book. A concordance can be helpful for learning Biblical Hebrew, which is the basis for the Modern Hebrew that is spoken today. (While there are substantive differences in grammar, Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew verbs and vocabulary are largely the same. If you learn words from the Torah, you will be able to use those words in modern conversation, and conversely if you learn modern words, you will see many of them in the Torah.)

Another resource I love and have had since I was a child is a set of Biblical Hebrew Vocabulary Cards, and again, the words included are also used in today’s spoken Hebrew. Hebrew Podcasts is a fantastic site for learning conversation, and all lessons are fully transliterated so even non-Hebrew readers can become Hebrew speakers. There are also online courses you can take, including this Biblical Hebrew course and my conversational Hebrew courses; eTeacher Hebrew is another popular option. You can also check out free Hebrew lessons on YouTube, and some places to start include my channel (of course), Shalom Sesame (you can learn A LOT from children’s shows), HebrewPod101 (they also have a website), and Learn Classical Hebrew. Finally, you can find language practice partners and low-cost language teachers at italki.

A FINAL NOTE

Being able to read and understand the Torah in English is great, and shouldn’t be minimized. Being able to read and understand the Torah in its original tongue, however, in the language of our forefathers, is far greater. To learn Hebrew is to take a step towards independence, towards self-determination, and towards freedom. Hebrew is more accessible now than it’s ever been, and with all the learning resources available, we owe it to ourselves and to our ancestors to learn the language.

T’helah Ben Dan

T’helah Ben-Dan is the founder of The Kefar, an education collective that supports Hebrew and Torah learning through classes, curricular materials, children’s books, and consultation services. She is an early childhood educator, Hebrew teacher, and curriculum designer. You can learn more about her work at www.thekefar.com.

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