Study Biblical Hebrew

The department offers 2 years (4 semesters) of Biblical Hebrew. Hebrew 101 and 102 offer an intensive study of the structure and the basic vocabulary of Biblical Hebrew, bringing students to the point of being able to read any part of the Hebrew Bible with the aid of a lexicon. The texts used are all taken from the Bible without modifications. Hebrew 201 covers readings in prose sections of Biblical Hebrew, mainly narratives. Hebrew 202 offers readings in Biblical Hebrew poetry-including selections from the psalms and the prophets. Hebrew 201 and 202 are cross-listed as Religion 205 and 206.

Can Hebrew fulfill my language requirement?


Why Biblical Hebrew? I am really interested in modern Hebrew as spoken today in Israel.

The College of William and Mary does not offer Modern Hebrew. But if you want to learn Modern Hebrew, taking Biblical Hebrew will get you a good part of the way there. The vast majority of the grammar and vocabulary you would learn in a Biblical Hebrew course are identical to those you would learn in a modern Hebrew class. The morphology is the same; the syntax of modern Hebrew is simpler; and the more common words in the Bible are used with the same meanings, and are usually just as common, in modern Hebrew. The main difference between a Biblical Hebrew class and a Modern Hebrew class is not so much in the grammar and vocabulary studied, but rather in the focus on reading as distinct from conversation skills and writing, in the lexicon used, and in the selection of the texts studied. As a result, one can get to a higher level of reading comprehension and a better familiarity with the structure of the language in one year.

If you wish to learn modern Hebrew, you might as well start with Biblical Hebrew, then go to Israel for a while (for a summer?) to immerse yourself in the language and practice conversational skills. The Jacobs fellowship can help you achieve this objective; there may be other support available as well. Of course, if you wish to converse in Hebrew on the street in modern Israel you would need to learn a few words, like "bus," "electricity," "ice cream" and the like, which surprisingly enough are not to be found in the Bible! Even though such words are not Biblical, though, the rules that govern their form and their use are the same as those you would learn in a Biblical Hebrew class.

If you are interested in Modern Hebrew beyond tourist-conversation level, you should take into account that the Bible in Hebrew is the bedrock of Hebrew literature and writings of any period, including the present. It is and has always been more widely read and studied by Jews than any piece of English literature has been in English-speaking countries. This creates a shared knowledge of vocabulary, phrases, sayings, personalities, and images that is taken for granted and is used by writers of all but the most basic level. Even if your interests are limited to Hebrew political writings of the 20th century, you would miss a great deal if you do not know the Biblical background and connotations of words and phrases.

The Hebrew Bible is an extremely important and very beautiful piece of literature, one of the most influential books in history, and deserves to be read in the original. Even the best translation does not approach the beauty and the shades of meaning of the original text-even to the degree that these can be appreciated by beginning students.

The instructor is a native speaker of (Modern) Hebrew and is willing to assist students who are interested in practicing their Hebrew-speaking skills outside the classroom, if they so wish; one could arrange for a Hebrew coffee hour, or luncheon, or some other such regular activity. And, of course, she will help anybody who wishes to work on any given text of any period outside the classroom.

I had Hebrew at Religious School or had Bar or Bat Mitzvah training. I can read the language fluently. Can I skip a semester and start in the Spring at the 102 level?

Hebrew 101 is very intensive and covers a lot of material. Your facility with reading Hebrew, and your familiarity with some vocabulary and phrases, will help you at the beginning of Hebrew 101. But even students who have had a significant amount of conversational Hebrew find that they have to work hard at Hebrew 101 after the first six weeks or so. Students who had years of Sunday School Hebrew find that, beyond the first 2 weeks of Hebrew 101, they have to work just as hard as complete novices do. Unfortunately, some prospective students of Hebrew don't realize that. They try to join in the middle of the year, at the Hebrew 102 level. But both the level and the kind of knowledge of the language that they miss by not taking Hebrew 101 make it impossible for them to join the class at that point. This is not a matter of some arbitrary rule, but of the substance covered in the class. I always invite such students to check out my web site and come to class; they always disappear after one class meeting, after they realize how much they would need to catch up on before they would be up to the level of the others.

I went to a Jewish day school for years. What is the appropriate level for me to start?

Even several years at Jewish day schools do not always provide students with the level of knowledge of grammar covered in Hebrew 101 at William and Mary. You should probably start at the 101 level; your familiarity with the Hebrew alphabet, and the vocabulary you have probably mastered, will make it easier for you but not to the degree of being able to dispense with 101.

Please contact the [[jfdona, Department Chair]], if you need more information regarding placement.

The Bible was written over 2000 years ago. What about Hebrew literature of later periods?

Once you are familiar with Biblical Hebrew, you will find it relatively easy to master the reading of Hebrew of any other period with a small additional investment of labor; and once you internalize the morphology you learn in Biblical Hebrew, you'll find it possible (in fact, natural) to read Hebrew of all periods without nikud (vowel markings).

I am interested in non-Indo-European languages. What can you tell me about Hebrew?

In studying Hebrew, you'll find the unusual combination of studying a language that is definitely not Indo-European, yet reading a rich text of high artistic quality that is one of the foundation texts of European civilization. The grammatical concepts you'll need to master will be very different from anything you might encounter in French, German, or Spanish-or even Latin or Greek. Yet Hebrew, while having a steep learning curve, also has a very strong internal logic and a relatively small set of basic rules which interact to cause most of the exceptions to the general paradigms. Once you reach a certain level, the language horizons will open up and you'll find it relatively easy to achieve ever-greater mastery of the language.

Hebrew belongs to the Semitic family of languages, which includes also Arabic-a major world language with a rich literature and many dialects-as well as several ancient languages such as Assyrian and Ugaritic, of which abundant stores of writings and literature have been uncovered by archaeologists. Learning Hebrew can go a long way toward making it easier for you to learn these other languages.

I am a Christian and have been reading the Bible from childhood. What would I gain by reading the Hebrew Bible in the original?

The Hebrew Bible is a very beautiful piece of literature; much of its beauty and shades of meaning are lost in translation. Even though the Bible in various translations has had a major influence on European and American society-perhaps more so than any other book-still you will find that you gain a new appreciation of its depth and complexity, its varied and multi-faceted meanings, by reading it in the original. Hebrew 101/102 will get you to the level of being able to read the Bible in Hebrew on your own (though with considerable effort). Hebrew 201/202 will give you practice in such reading. The tools you master in these classes will enable you to continue reading the Bible in Hebrew on your own, if you wish to do so.

I am a Religion major or am interested in Religious Studies. What can Hebrew offer me?

If you wish to get a better sense of the full complexity and richness of the texts that gave rise to both Judaism and Christianity, and if you have an aptitude for languages, you will not regret taking Hebrew. The world of ideas and concepts that you will discover will be very different from the Greek model that dominates Western Philosopy.

I am a Classics major or am interested in Classical Languages. What can Hebrew offer me?

Hebrew is no substitute for Greek or Latin. But if you are fascinated by ancient languages and texts, Hebrew can be a great addition to your studies. Some of the grammatical concepts you'll encounter-like genders, inflected verbs, and a flexible syntax-will be familiar to you. Others, like roots and stems, will be new. The natural world behind the Bible is the same Mediterranean world you encounter in Greece and Italy: olives, vineyards, fig trees, fields of wheat, mild winters and hot summers, and ancient, powerful civilizations beyond one's borders (such as Egypt, Assyria, Babylon and Persia). Other aspects of the natural world are different: a greater fear of drought and appreciation of rain, the presence of a desert, and a sea that forms a border rather than a pathway for communications. Both Athens and Jerusalem were relatively small, fairly unimportant political and economical entities-Judea even more so than Athens. Yet both ended up affecting world civilization far out of proportion to their importance in their own time and place. The world of ideas reflected in the Hebrew Bible is very different from that reflected in the Greek classics. Yet both developed against a similar Eastern Mediterranean culture, ancient and varied, sharing and exchanging gods and goddesses, myths and prophecy, technology and commerce.

I know Arabic or am studying it now. What will I gain by studying Hebrew?

If you wish to learn another Semitic language in addition to Arabic, you'll find Hebrew relatively easy to master. You already know grammatical concepts that are foreign and difficult for your fellow-students: the basic structure of roots and stems or patterns will be familiar to you. Many of the roots you already know from Arabic carry identical or very similar meanings in Hebrew. And, of course, if you are interested in the Arab-Israeli conflict, learning Hebrew will enable you to read both sides in their original language.

I want to study Hebrew, but am a senior and will not be able to continue with Hebrew 201/202 next year. Is there any point in my taking Hebrew?

Hebrew 101/102 provide you with the foundation you need to read the Bible in Hebrew with the aid of a lexicon. Unlike some other Introductory Hebrew classes, we actually cover all of the basics of Hebrew grammar in 101/102. If necessary, and if you wish to do so, you can continue on your own. If you are considering a seminary or a rabbinical school, a graduate school in Ancient Near Eastern studies, or work or research in Israel, Hebrew 101/102 would be of great help.

I really want to learn Hebrew, but I can't start in the fall term. Can I join the Hebrew 102 class in Spring?

You can learn the material covered by Hebrew 101 on your own, with the assistance of the course web site and the instructor. However, that would demand a very considerable effort-the equivalent of taking another intensive college course, without the credit. If anybody would like to do so, please feel free to contact the [[jfdona, Department Chair]] - but you should not underestimate the efforts that would be required on your part.

Is there any chance that William and Mary will start offering Hebrew 101/102 every year?

Hebrew 101/102 is now offered every year, as is Hebrew 201/202.

Is there any Hebrew offered past Hebrew 202, at the 300-level?

The availability of such a course will depend on demand. Naturally, one would need to complete Hebrew 201/202 before taking a 300-level course. If you would be interested in taking 3rd-year Hebrew, please let the instructor know of your interest, so that we can gauge student demand for such a course.

I want to take Hebrew 101. Is there anything I can do now other than register at the proper time?

You can study the Hebrew alphabet ahead of time if you don't know it already. I expect people to learn it in a week or two at the beginning of classes; it can be done, and has repeatedly been done, that quickly-and in fact has to be mastered by that point, to enable students to get into the actual study of the language. If you know the alphabet ahead of time, you get rid of one stumbling block in the beginning of your study of the language. You can learn the Hebrew alphabet with the help of a website, or with a book, or with the help of a friend.

For more information about Hebrew at the College of William and Mary, please contact the [[jfdona, Department Chair]].