The Case for Learning Modern Hebrew

היי חברים! האם אפשר לקרוא עברית מודרנית כשאתם קוראים רק עברית מקראית? זה נראה לכם בלתי אפשרי? ובכן, יש לי חדשות טובות עבורכם: אתם קוראים את זה עכשיו! העברית המודרנית קרובה יותר לעברית המקראית ממה שחשבתם, נכון? להלן אני מנסה לטעון שאתם צריכים ללמוד עברית מודרנית. שמרו על ראש פתוח!

In my last post, I argued students of Koine Greek should read non-biblical papyri (and inscriptions — thank you to the reader who reminded me!). This was more controversial than I expected.

Well, like a moth to the flame, allow me now to suggest an idea even more pernicious: students of biblical Hebrew should learn its living counterpart, modern Hebrew. Yes, I understand there are issues here. Differences between the two have been endlessly demonstrated (there is a case to be made that because cognition motivates language change in certain specified and constrained ways, some features of MH today may have been inevitable for CH). I am aware that modern Hebrew is not simply biblical Hebrew on the streets of Tel Aviv. It is part Bible, part mishna, part Aramaic, along with various Slavic, Indo-European, and Semitic influences. The syntax is significantly influenced by Indo-European (not the first semitic language to borrow in this way — go read Akkadian!), an entire section of the lexicon is basically neologisms, and there are many aspects of MH that ancient Israelites would not understand, including its pronunciation.

However, I want to suggest that a sufficient amount of features from classical Hebrew survive in its living counterpart to motivate Hebraists to learn it and Hebrew teachers to use it. In the words of Lewis Glinert:

[If] I catapult Moses 2000 years into a Tel Aviv street…neither the Hebrew grammar nor the lexical structure will pose major problems. It’s still basically the same Ancient Near Eastern language – much more the same than Old ‘English’ and Modern English.

Hebrew’s history is all very complicated, and the origins of modern Hebrew are no less complex (you’d need to look at the Bible, early Jewish diglossia, mishnaic Hebrew, medieval Hebrew poetry, devotional works by Baal Shem Tov, and the early Zionist use of ‘vernacular’ Hebrew in Palestine…just to begin with). Glinert’s point is that even with all this complexity, MH still shares a sufficient amount of grammar with its classical counterpart to be referred to as Hebrew. In fact, it shares so much that Moses and Ido from Ramat Gan could understand each other today (unless Ido wants to talk about…well , anything after 1200 BCE).

Takamitsu Muraoka, patron saint of biblical scholars who learn Modern Hebrew.

What follows is a simple beginner’s introduction to the relationship between MH and CH. I’ll be referring throughout to an excellent paper from Aaron Hornkohl. In sum:

The great similarities in orthography, morphology, morpho-syntax, and lexicon, as well as the significant overlap in syntax, mean that a high percentage of Modern Hebrew forms, words, and grammar—including many of the most basic elements of the language— echo and reinforce their biblical counterparts.

Students should learn MH because the benefits are enormous and the drawbacks are trivial. You have the opportunity to experience as a living language what you’ve studied for years as an ossified text. Plus, it is beautiful and incredibly fun. In what other language can you hear words that were once on the lips of Moses used to describe how ‘hot’ the club is tonight?

Advantages of Learning MH

(1) Morphology. MH morphology follows the standard templates and is nearly identical to its biblical counterpart. Even the neologisms are ‘hebraized’ (טלוויזיה, אמבולנס, etc). Nouns, pronouns, demonstratives, prepositional prefixes, adjectives, verbs—there is remarkable continuity in morphology, and even the differences can be helpful (MH maintains a strong distinction between inflectional and derivational morphology, for example). The amount of continuity should be enough on its own to convince you to learn MH. If you could read the paragraph above, even barely, I’ve already proven my case.

(2) Morphosyntax. MH’s morphosyntax has undergone change, but not so much that it is no longer useful for students of CH. The article and waw are the same (although Israelis don’t tend to observe the phonetic changes for waw in CH). So is the order of constituents in the noun phrase. Possession can occur through the use of lamed, the construct state (a higher register), or through the presentative יש (e.g. Gen. 18:24) followed by lamed with a possessive suffix (etc ,יש לי, יש לך, יש להם). Verbless clauses are still used frequently. The directional heh refuses to go, along with the direct object marker (in certain cases). The construct state is very productive. Adjectival participles stayed on for the ride too. The same congruency features exist between head and modifier in the clause, and the infinitive construct as a complement is still formed and used in the same way. As can be the case in CH, active participles are used for the present tense, while the perfect is past and the imperfect is future (it is also still used to form directives). Even the binyanim maintain continuity with their semantic values in CH. The pa’al is unmarked, the hif’il is causative, while the middle and passive binyanim are basically identical to CH.

Even where there is innovation, it is still ancient. Hornkohl writes,

…of the seven principal Modern Hebrew verbal forms—i.e., qatal, periphrastic haya qotelyiqtol, the active participle, the infinitive (construct), the imperative, and the shem peʿula verbal noun, only the last, which, again, is part of the Rabbinic system, is an innovation with respect to Biblical Hebrew.

(3) Orthography. The aleph-bet is the same and the orthography is almost identical to classical Hebrew (except cursive!). Even the lack of nikkud in standard orthography is beneficial. Hornkohl explains,

There is pedagogical value in reading texts written in more plene orthography with minimal or no pointing: namely, that students can be coaxed away from sounding out known words syllable by syllable and toward the useful practice of reading by word shape according to context, which is how all fluent readers decode texts.

(4) Phonology (Pronunciation). Yes, the differences here between CH and MH are the most impressive (disappearing glottals, multiple vowel shifts, no gemination, several new phonemes). But let me suggest that the shared phonology that does exist when combined with the use of written texts is more of an advantage to the student than trying to reconstruct the phonology of an ancient era. The margin for error is large, and without a living language community, standardization between teachers is an extraordinary challenge. The primary advantage to learning Israeli pronunciation is the opportunity to use what is shared between the two in the form of a real language, rather than a code to be deciphered based on reconstructions from the past. Yes, you’ll see some new phonemes and need to learn some new graphemes (e.g. the ‘j’ sound exists now in MH: גי), and the pronunciation is obviously different than what Moses would have spoken, but it is still mostly Hebrew phonology (e.g. roots are still mostly tri-consonantal). Don’t let indistinguishable gutturals or a runaway resh stop you.

(5) Lexicon. The core of the lexicon in MH comes from the Bible (numbers vary, but perhaps 65% is related to the biblical lexicon). Lexemes are often borrowed from the Bible or are a clever reproduction of biblical elements:

For example, the word essence (מהות) derives from the CH what (מה) while the word quality (איכות) comes from the CH how (איך). Creative examples like these could be endlessly supplied. Even words that aren’t lifted from a biblical page are nonetheless semitic and/or related to an existing biblical word. And they’re fun! In my experience, learning common words I needed for conversation with Israelis improved my CH vocabulary. I simply noted where there were divergences and remembered them.

(6) Research. By learning to speak modern Hebrew, you are inadvertently learning several syntactic and lexical features of rabbinic Hebrew, an added benefit that can be useful in biblical research—not a little of which takes place in MH anyhow.

Disadvantages

(1) Morphosyntax. This is also where the differences are most apparent at first. MH is no longer a pro-drop language. Prepositions are conjugated (you heard me right). Word order is S-V-O. Verb chains don’t exist (farewell Wayyiqtol!) and tense is absolute rather than relative (except is very specific contexts). Somehow the shem peʿula found its way in. Various new particles now exist, including the interrogative ה) האם is considered far too formal or archaic) and the possessive של. The amount of differences could go on and on. MH however is not the first semitic language to behave in this way. When an alien spaceship dropped Sumerian on us (what I have written, I have written), Akkadian borrowed its vocabulary, word order, and direction of writing while remaining a semitic language. It’s not the first time this has happened.

(2) Lexicon. There are plenty of Hebrew words in MH that either did not exist (electricity, duh) or underwent semantic bleaching (כי). Others underwent semantic drift and no longer carry the same meaning as they did in CH. Gil’ad Zuckerman gives two amusing examples of the latter:

“How many Israelis know that an egla meshulleshet [Genesis 15:9] is not a triangular cow but ‘a heifer of three years old’? …Most Israelis misunderstand yeled sha’ashuim [Jeremiah 31:19] as ‘playboy’ rather than ‘pleasant child.’”

Personally, I have made many mistakes on vocabulary quizzes (try to argue with your professor that you did get the word right…in MH!) and embarrassed myself enough times in conversation with Israelis to know you cannot simply lift any biblical word from the page and use it in conversation. For example, be careful referring to the letter zayin (it’s an obscenity), stick with מתחת for under not תחת (it can mean a** now), and be careful using the biblical word for anger (חרא) because it is a homophone for the word sh**. Small mistakes can also have disastrous effects. Famously, I once did the following with some accidental metathesis:

Exercising care is needed here.

(3) Morphology. Once in a conversation, I tried to conjugate a verb with the 2nd person plural feminine suffix. My Israeli friend looked at me, surprised, and said: “Wow, that’s fancy! But we don’t say that.” Certain forms of CH morphology are sometimes archaic to Israeli speakers (as noted above, gendered plurals are disappearing). For example, don’t try to use a possessive pronoun on anything except a body part or a family member. It’s an archaism.

(4) Phonology (Pronunciation). This is perhaps the greatest difference between MH and CH. There are some important phonological and prosodic differences in MH that reflect contact between MH and various Indo-European languages (it was, after all, the work of revivers who spoke a variety of native languages). However, for those working with text and not spoken data, there should be no issue here, as I note above.

“In one of the streets of Paris, in one of the cafes…I conversed in Hebrew for the first time with one of my acquaintances while we sat at a round table upon which stood two glasses of black coffee. The astonishing sounds of this dead ancient Eastern language mingled with the din of the gay sounds of the vibrant, lovely and rich French language.” Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1948), Prolegomena to the Thesaurus Totius Hebraitatis.

Conclusion

Learning Modern Hebrew will not make you proficient in classical Hebrew. It does however have demonstrable benefits that can improve your reading comprehension. Hebraists have the opportunity to learn as a living language what they have studied only as an ossified text. The value here is enormous. No biblical scholar prior to the 20th century had this opportunity. Imagine what Gesenius or Reuchlin would have done with it!

So where should you begin? Of course, nothing is as effective as moving to Israel for an ulpan or making an Israeli friend in your city and meeting weekly for conversation practice.

If you write an Israeli, be careful you know Hebrew is their first language, or you may end up like me.

In my experience, Israelis love that you care about their language and enjoy learning it. Where can you find them? I hate to say it, but as one Israeli friend told me: “Go to the mall and find the people selling dead sea products…they speak Hebrew.”

You can also use trusty Duolingo to learn some basic grammar and vocabulary. Lewis Glinert’s Reference Grammar is unbeatable. The app Tandem was made for language users to find each other and practice (beware: it has basically become a dating app). For serious tutoring, find an Israeli tutor on italki ($15-20 an hour). I’ve had enormous success there. In my experience, the Pimsleur materials are also great for commutes, and this teaching grammar is excellent. Israeli TV is widely available as well (with fun shows like סליחה על השאלה). There is no shortage of good resources out there.

Now go learn modern Hebrew!