Basics of Biblical Hebrew

There are two ways to get started in biblical Hebrew. One is to get a taste for the alphabet followed by learning one word at a time. This is a great way to ease in at your own pace. It’s also a wonderful way to grow in your devotional life by learning some words from the Hebrew Bible.

If you want to dive in more fully, a full semester introductory class through a Bible college or seminary is a great way to learn biblical Hebrew. A good first-semester class should cover all the basics, including alphabet, grammar, and learning to look up meanings of words in the lexicon. An intro class should prepare you either to read and translate some Bible sentences on your own, or to move on to a more intermediate class, where you learn more nuances of understanding words and grammar in context.

If you’re ready to jump off the high dive into biblical Hebrew and plan to engage it for the long haul, that kind of class is your best place to start. 

If you want to take it more slowly and learn a few words at a time, here’s my suggestion:

(1) Learn the Hebrew alphabet. It takes some effort up front to learn these letters. But once you have them memorized and begin to recognize them on the pages of the Hebrew Old Testament, you’ll be ready to learn any word you choose. 

Learning the Hebrew alphabet is also a key to looking up the meaning of words in a lexicon. When you learn the alphabet, it’ll also make learning your first Hebrew words less intimidating. You’ll already know the building blocks and be able to see how those sounds come together in words.

So take the time up front to really learn the Hebrew alphabet. You’ll be glad you did. It’ll serve you well going forward. 

א ב ג ד

Those are the first four letters of the Hebrew alphabet.

(2) Learn one word at a time, starting with the most frequently used words in the Hebrew Old Testament. Why start with frequently used words? Because then you will be able to choose from more Bible passages to find those words. You’ll learn more of the Hebrew Bible more quickly that way. You can also look those words up in a lexicon and see the different verses where they are used, along with the nuances of meaning in each verse. If you visit my Biblical Hebrew Lessons page, you’ll find some short lessons that help you get started learning Hebrew words from the Bible.

שׁלום

That’s the word “shalom” meaning peace and complete well being.

(3) Learn some names of persons mentioned in the Bible, as well as names of places, so you can start to recognize those names in Bible stories. Not only will this increase your enjoyment and sense of connection in reading those stories, but you will also see those names jump off the page as they become more familiar. This is a great way to reinforce your learning of the Hebrew alphabet, as you recognize those names that are a little bit easier to pronounce because you already know them in your own language. 

אברהם

That’s the name Abraham in biblical Hebrew.

(4) Start praying with Hebrew words. Say a simple prayer to God in your own language, but include a Hebrew word or two into your prayer. You will enjoy this experience of talking to God in the original language of the Old Testament. And by praying these words, you’ll start to remember them. My Biblical Hebrew Lessons page has a few mini lessons focused on biblical Hebrew and prayer.

תפילה

That’s the Hebrew word for prayer: “te-feel-ah.”

(5) Journal or do a devotional study based on a word from the Hebrew Bible. Choose a new word, perhaps, and look it up in the lexicon. Find a Bible verse where that word is used. Pray over that verse and note the meaning of the Hebrew word. Then ask God to reveal whatever He wants to show you in that verse. Use that as your devotional time, or write about it in your journal. Next time, you can revisit the same word in a different Bible verse (this really reinforces your learning of that word), or choose a new word to reflect on.

אדני

That’s the word Adonai, meaning Lord. The Hebrew Bible is all about God, His relationship with us and His love for us.

(6) When you’re ready, you may appreciate the benefit of learning some basics of grammar. Why? Because this will help you understand the forms in which words appear in your Hebrew Bible.

When you look up words in the lexicon, you need to know the root of the word — that’s how words are written in the lexicon. A resource like Bible Hub makes it simple to find the root, so you can look it up, even without knowing any grammar. (Google the Bible verse you want to see, followed by “Hebrew Text Analysis.” A page will open in Bible Hub, giving each word of that verse in Hebrew and English. Click on the Strong’s number at the left of each word, and a new page will open with the lexicon entries. That’s where you can find out the root of the word and how it appears in the lexicon for each Bible verse where that word is found. You can also find the particular meaning of the word in the context of each verse — and please note that the meaning of a word is specific for the Bible verse where that word appears.)

But if you’re willing to learn a little grammar, you can get even more out of this lexicon experience. You’ll learn how the roots of words get written in the Hebrew Bible as nouns and verbs, etc. You’ll understand the different meanings given to different forms of the same verb. (This is a very exciting part of learning verbs, and I recommend taking the leap!) You’ll also see how prepositions, articles, and pronouns get attached to the beginning and end of words. 

So, basic grammar is worthwhile if you want to go further into biblical Hebrew. You don’t have to become a biblical scholar or linguist. Just learn the basics of nouns, articles, pronouns, and verbs. That’ll take you a long way into having fun looking things up in the lexicon and trying your hand at translating a Hebrew verse from the Bible. 

What’s next? 

If you want to take this process at your own pace, and learn the alphabet and a few Hebrew words and names from the Bible, here’s a self-paced online video course I created just for you: Beginning Words in Biblical Hebrew. (This link opens in a new window at the Adventures with God online school.)

If you’re looking for a semester’s worth of grammar and vocabulary, I can recommend the book from which I learned biblical Hebrew: Beginning Biblical Hebrew: A Grammar and Illustrated Reader by John A. Cook and Robert D. Holmstedt. This book teaches you the Hebrew alphabet and pronunciation, covers the full range of basic grammar, and each lesson introduces words from the Hebrew Bible. Another feature I love about this book is that it gives you three stories from the Old Testament, and these stories are repeated several times. The first time you see a story, the language is simplified. Each time the story is repeated, new vocabulary is added and the sentence structures become more complex. It’s a great way to learn and practice Hebrew vocab and grammar, while reading stories you already know from your native language.

If you decide to go the full grammar route with biblical Hebrew, I do recommend that you engage the help of a teacher or instructor-led class. The instruction and encouragement of a fully immersive class experience gave me the foundation I needed, so that now I can enjoy reading from the Hebrew Bible, learning deeper nuances of words, and translating Bible verses.

I invite you to visit the next page in this series: Learn Biblical Hebrew.

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