Introduction to Hebrew

File:Frank-ruehl.pngA year and a half ago I wrote a post about an article I read which urged pastors to go and learn Hebrew in order to more fully understand the Bible.  Well, I’m not a pastor, but I’ve finally decided to take my own advice and learn Hebrew.  I started a month or two ago and have barely scratched the surface.  I’ve discussed it with some others and there are a few people who also have an interest in learning Biblical Hebrew.

For me, one of the easiest ways to learn something is to discuss or write about it, and so that is my new plan.  I’m going to try and go through the Old Testament, verse by verse, word by word, letter by letter to try and understand it in Hebrew.  I probably will not get through the entire thing.  Particularly at the pace I’m likely to set.  Now, granted, I only need to write about a letter when it is new, and there are only 22 letters.  Likewise, I only have to write about a word when it is new, but still, there are 14,691 unique Hebrew words in the Torah alone (first 5 books of the Bible).  So, yeah, this may be insane, but that’s ok.  Worst case scenario: I fail to learn a language almost no one learns anymore.

So, I thought I’d start with some basics about Hebrew.

First things you need to know: Hebrew reads right-to-left, not left-to-right.  This really messes with your head for the first bit.  After you start practicing, then English looks backwards for a bit.  Then it all goes OK again.  I think learning Japanese (which is top to bottom) helped me in this regard.  I have experience with non-left-to-right languages.

Second thing you need to know: In Hebrew, vowels are…weird.  Originally, Hebrew had very few written vowels.  Actually, 2 letters that are often thought of as vowels are really silent letters.  For the most part, you are dealing with consonants in Hebrew.  The consonants are what establish the core meaning of the word.  It’s not like in English where you have hot, hit, hut, hat and they have nothing to do with each other.  In Hebrew, if you have 2 or three consonants that are the same in a group of words, it’s almost guaranteed they are related in some way.

Thirdly: Hebrew is probably not THE original language, but, to me, it is obviously very close.  We wouldn’t expect it to be exactly the language Adam spoke as there are 14 (long) generations from Adam to Moses, when the Torah was written.  In that same timeframe, English has gone from non-existent through old-English, middle English to Modern English, which is still significantly different than the modern English some of our (not my) great-grandparents spoke.  Comparatively, Hebrew is remarkably unchanged over millennia.  That said, it appears to be very close to the original language, because the words are extremely literal.  You don’t see borrowed words from other languages like you do in English.

For example: In English, we have the word “father”.  What does it mean?  Well, if you follow the roots, this is what you get:

Old English fæder “father, male ancestor,” from Proto-Germanic *fader (cf. Old Saxon fadar, Old Frisian feder, Dutch vader, Old Norse faðir, Old High German fater, German vater), from PIE *pəter (cf. Sanskrit pitar-, Greek pater, Latin pater, Old Persian pita, Old Irish athir “father”), presumably from baby-speak sound like pa.

By contact, in Hebrew, the word for “father” is “אָב” (av), which is where we get “Abba”. If you take the word apart, אָ means strength (among other things) and ב means tent (or house, household, and other things).  So, in Hebrew, father literally means the “strength of the household”.  This is why I believe it is close to the original language.  The letters themselves dictate the meaning of the word.  This is something completely foreign to us in English where we borrow from a dozen languages to piecemeal our words together.

So, here is the Hebrew Aleph-Bet (Aleph being the first letter, Bet being the second, remember, right-to-left).  I guess my next post will be about Aleph, and we’ll just go through the Aleph-Bet to start with.  See, Hebrew is not like English.  In English, you have the letter “A”.  Well, what can you say about “A”?  What sound it makes, some words that start with it.  But Hebrew is a richer language.  Each letter is an ideograph as well as a phonograph, meaning, it embodies a concept as well as a sound.  It also has a numerical representation.  So, we’ll see if I can manage to make a post about Aleph, and go from there.

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