Teaching Biblical Hebrew

 I just finished the second week of teaching biblical Hebrew once again.  I’ve been teaching biblical Hebrew—not the modern language—for nearly thirty years now.  During that time, I’ve used a number of different textbooks, ranging from the old classic by J. Weingreen’s A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew, to Menahem Mansoor’s Biblical Hebrew Step-by-Step, to even spending one year trying to use William Sanford LaSor’s Handbook of Biblical Hebrew: An Inductive Approach Based on the Hebrew Text of Esther.  I had LaSor as a professor at UCLA while my regular professor and advisor, Stanislav Segert, was having heart bypass surgery (later, for a quarter or two, we actually had classes at Professor Segert’s home; he was a very gracious and kind man).  My exposure to LaSor as a professor and my enjoyment of his classes prompted me to give LaSor’s textbook a try when I got the chance to teach, but I discovered the inductive method didn’t really appeal to either my students or me when it came to learning biblical Hebrew. 

For a modern language, the inductive method works wonderfully well.  At UCLA the courses I had in French, German and Modern Hebrew were all done by the modern inductive method.  But for dead languages, at least for me, I didn’t appreciate it.  I took several years of Akkadian at UCLA from Georgio Buccellati and his courses were mostly inductive; he commented once that it was “instruction by frustration” which captures well my experience in those classes.  Sumerian, thankfully, was more old school and systematic in the approach, with a different professor.

Thus, now when I teach biblical Hebrew, I do it the old fashioned, systematic and very structured way—the same way I learned ancient Greek at UCLA.  First I teach the alphabet, then the vowels, the other markers like the daggesh, before moving on to nouns—two genders, and the verbs, perfect and imperfect, first in Qal and then moving to the other stems.  Slowly, carefully, step by step.   It may not be the “natural” way to learn a language, like the way we learned our first language as infants and toddlers, but I find for dead languages it usually works better.  The current textbook, which I’ve been using for awhile, since first finding it at a Society of Biblical Literature meeting, is The First Hebrew Primer, Third Edition, by Ethelyn Simon, Irene Resnikoff, and Linda Motzkin.  It’s published by EKS Publishing Co. in Oakland, California.  The students seem to like using it nearly as much as I do.