Review of a Book and Thoughts on Learning Hebrew

My first Hebrew class was in 1990 or 1991. I was at a Bible college in Chicago. The first day of class we got the syllabus, opened our textbook (Choon-Long Seow’s A Grammar For Biblical Hebrew). The professor went over the Hebrew alphabet with us. Two days later we had a quiz and we moved on to reading Hebrew.

If you are new to Hebrew or remember being new to Hebrew, you’re supposed to be appalled that we would have to learn the alphabet like that. It was too fast. There was no grace. It was a steamroller, baby, and you had to run in front of it or get crushed.

A lot of first year Hebrew was like that. A new verb type? Let’s learn the chart today and by next class be ready to use that verb form along with all the others?

What if you don’t know a predicate nominative from an infinitive absolute or a gerund from a participle?

Well, many, many students of Hebrew have realized all too late that they needed to understand the basics of grammar . . . in English at least, so they could begin to understand grammar in Hebrew.

Welcome to the scene Miles V. Van Pelt and his English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew.

Let me tell you why I like this book and why you might like it too:

(1) It is short at just over 100 pages.

(2) It is not simply English grammar, but relating simple English grammar concepts to Hebrew grammar specifically.

(3) It is written in an interesting, fun style, not dry as the Judean hills which left Yeshua parched and tempted to turn stones into bread.

Let me suggest to you one possible reason not to buy this book: if you feel confident in grammar and want a reference for the more detailed and complicated stuff. This book is not for you. It focuses on the big picture, the simple stuff, and how it relates to Hebrew usage.

Miles Van Pelt is a Hebrew teacher extraordinaire. He wrote, along with Gary Pratico The Vocabulary Guide to Biblical Hebrew (lists of vocabulary in order of frequency in the Bible) and Basics of Biblical Hebrew.

English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2010) is only $11.04 right now on amazon and you can see it here.

I probably have too much to say for one post. So maybe I will only get to a few of my thoughts here.

First, I spent three years in college on Hebrew. One year of classical Hebrew at a Bible college. One year of modern Hebrew at Emory University. One year of Hebrew reading and translation at Emory.

At the end of three years of college Hebrew classes I was prepared to to practically nothing.

Hebrew was a class with tests and it was like all the other classes. Hebrew was not rewarding. It was a tested class. It was a drag. It was not a habit.

After I finished my Master’s degree, I entered the real world — things like delivering pizza, then apartment maintenance, and then some low-level jobs at churches. I kept up my Hebrew by reading a little from the Bible and a little from the Jewish prayer book pretty regularly (yes, I was a weird hybrid of Christian and Jewish practices from my early college days).

I am not gifted at languages. But my Hebrew competence today is pretty solid. I mean plenty of rabbi colleagues are more adept than I at classical, mishnaic, medieval, and modern Hebrew than I, but I am far from the bottom of the pack.

As a semi-successful Hebrew learner, what is my secret?


Hebrew as a habit beats Hebrew as a class any day, any time. A class can be a jump-start to a Hebrew habit. But it is the habit that will teach you and make you remember.

Even if you only read a few prayers every day and a few sentences of Hebrew once a week, that will translate after a few years into a good working knowledge of Hebrew. If you read a few sentences of Hebrew a few times a week or even a sentence daily, multiply your success.

A few ideas to boost your Hebrew or to get started if you’ve waited this long:

(1) Take a modern Hebrew class at your local JCC or similar organization (don’t worry if you’re not Jewish –they don’t mind non-Jews taking classes).

(2) Enroll in a Biblical Hebrew class at an area Christian school.

(3) Use Rosetta Stone to work on modern Hebrew. Any work in Hebrew (modern, classical, prayerbook) will help you learn so it doesn’t matter which area you work on.

(4) Make it a habit to read the first few sentences of the Torah parasha each week. At first, you will consult the English a lot, but try over time to figure out more and more on your own.

(5) You might use one of a number of books produced by the Flame Foundation which combine a bissel of Hebrew with the weekly Torah parasha. See a post I wrote about it here.

(6) If you attend synagogue follow along in a chumash or Hebrew Bible when the scroll is being read.

(7) At synagogue, quit reading the transliteration and start reading the Hebrew!

(8) When you are beyond reading and ready to learn grammar, start with an easy book like English Grammar to Ace Biblical Hebrew.

(9) When you are reading and doing some translating, but ready to clarify grammar issues, use a textbook or grammar of Hebrew such as Seow.

About Derek Leman

IT guy working in the associations industry. Formerly a congregational rabbi. Dad of 8. Nerd.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, Education, messianic, Messianic Jewish, Messianic Judaism. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Review of a Book and Thoughts on Learning Hebrew

  1. robyn says:

    Good reminder! Sometimes when I’m not sure how to pronounce the transliteration, I’ll look up at the Hebrew. I should probably just start out trying to read the Hebrew! :)

  2. Dan Benzvi says:

    I teach Hebrew for years in the congregations I have been member of. I found out that the best approach is to combine modern and biblical Hebrew.

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