Mini Quiz: Biblical or Modern Hebrew

In my last post, I posted a video clip of one of my class sessions for beginning biblical Hebrew.  One of the accusations sometimes leveled at us who try to teach using Communicative Language Teaching is that we are not using/teaching biblical Hebrew but modern Hebrew.  While it is true that “slip-ups” are possible, generally speaking I try to avoid any modern Hebrew term that is not in the Hebrew Bible, or can be deduced from the Hebrew Bible.  Thus, for example, I never talk about a cat in my class, or use the word עַכְשָׁיו (mishnaic and modern Hebrew for BH עַתָּה ‘now’) because we do not have those specific items mentioned in the Hebrew Bible.  (Instead, I talk about lions, but avoid the פִּיל ‘elephant’, since a Hebrew text to 1 Macabbees did not end up as part of the Hebrew canon.)

In one sense, the distinction between modern and biblical Hebrew is somewhat artificial.  Much of biblical Hebrew is found in modern Hebrew unchanged.  I’ve heard it said, for example, that all the morphology of modern Hebrew is found in biblical Hebrew. (E.g., the shape of the word רָאִיתִי ‘I saw’ is the same in both.)  So in one sense, it is inconsequential if I do end up talking about “cat” in my class using the word currently used in modern Hebrew, because by doing so I am not undoing or contradicting anything a student would have to learn to know good biblical Hebrew; I am just adding to it.  Still, keeping the two distinct is a good exercise.

Thus, I have two questions:

  1. Was there anything in the video clip that was not biblical Hebrew, that I should avoid using in the future?
  2. In several instances, I “suppressed” my inclination to use modern Hebrew and used an alternative that is more in line with biblical Hebrew.  How many of these instances are there, and what are they?  What would have been the common way to express it in modern Hebrew?  Is there an even better way to express the thought in biblical Hebrew than the one I used? Or what other biblical options are available?

Let me know what you think.  And since this is the BLC’s blog, I’ll get Randall to weigh in on the responses as well.

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  1. Dewayne Dulaney September 30, 2011 at 11:34 pm


    I haven’t seen your video yet, so I’ll comment on your latest post.

    I agree that such a distinction is artificial. Modern Hebrew is still Hebrew, after all. And it is recognized that BH itself borrowed from other languages from time to time, so I do not have a problem with borrowing from a later phase of Hebrew itself to teach and learn BH communicatively. Those who use Latin today for communication borrow needed words from Romance languages and even English and adapt them to Latinate forms. Those who are using Ancient Greek that way borrow from Modern Greek and even other languages as needed. See, for instance, Akropolis World News at, which uses Attic Greek for current event news stories.

    By all means, focus on the forms found in the Hebrew Bible, or which can be deduced from them. But don’t feel that you have to limit yourself artificially either if you want to talk about things not mentioned there. I might suggest also that if there are additional words from Hebrew inscriptions or papryri or ostraca, or from Qumran Hebrew that would be of service, consider using them too. Given the nature of the Tanakh and the reasons why it was produced, it is likely that there were many words and phrases from the spoken language of the BH period that were in common use but were not used in the biblical documents.

    I’ve started to add a communicative approach to the traditional methods for teaching myself Biblical Hebrew, and I intend to use every means at my disposal to do so. I’ve already starting doing this in talking to our dog and two cats, so I am using the modern term for cat. (The cat won’t complain that it’s not BH. ::> ) And I’ve exchanged a few emails in BH with some people on the B-Hebrew list. Sometimes I threw in a word or phrase from Talmudic or Modern Hebrew and so did my correspondents. Nobody minded.

    Brian, I salute you for your efforts. Keep up the good work!

    Dewayne Dulaney

    דואין דוליני

  2. Randall Buth October 3, 2011 at 11:14 am

    your sentiments are appreciated, and a common-sense approach to BH would certainly include DSS and other Second-Temple period writings. But a true, common-sense approach in the BH field would already have trained all the teachers to speak modern Hebrew and to develop a large vocabulary for the whole history of the language. This is still not a requirement in most programs, which has produced a field in which some of the practioners use a limitation to “BH” as a figleaf. The lack of internalization that such a limitation tends to produce is noticeable to those who have it. So if the bar is going to be raised across the whole field, it may need to work within a “BH”-only framework, at least for this generation. Such a limitation may only need to be applied to the beginning and/or intermediate levels. By the time most students pass through an intermediate fluency level, they often plan for intensive modern training to supplement their BH.

    An important part of Brian’s post is an invitation to work on and to discover truly BH ways of expressing things. As an example, if a student asked permission from a teacher to leave a class, would they use אצאה/אעזבה נא, or הבה לי לעזוב/לצאת, or תן לי לעזוב/לצאת, or הניחה לי לעזוב/צאת, or הרשני לצאת, or what? Such questions have an inherent interest and the discovery process is good all around.

  3. Brian Schultz October 10, 2011 at 11:36 pm


    Just a short post-script to emphasize what Randall said in his last paragraph. I realized something when teaching the Workshop for Hebrew instructors a couple summers ago with Randall. In a beginners’ class, my spoken biblical Hebrew feels more than adequate and I am confident that I am speaking 100% biblical Hebrew 90-100% of the time (the rest being in English). Yet when I sought to provide instruction at the more advanced level required by the workshop, there were many situations in which I was not confident what the biblical Hebrew way of expressing a thought was or would have been. Many times Randall knew, but not always. I think there would be great usefulness in having a workshop, not for developing fluency, but for pushing the boundaries of our fluency even further, and deal with situations like the one Randall brought up in his response to you.

  4. Ben Putnam October 16, 2011 at 6:12 pm

    This comparison is fascinating. I am acquiring modern Hebrew through Rosetta Stone and biblical Hebrew using Buth’s materials. I am finding more and more that I am understanding biblical passages read in the Hebrew from my modern language base and that the biblical language base I am building supplements the modern side, as well. I appreciate the work the BLC and others are doing to promote communicative approaches to biblical language acquisition. Keep it up!

  5. Brian Schultz October 17, 2011 at 10:24 pm

    Hi Ben;

    Thanks for sharing your own experience about how complementary biblical and modern Hebrew can be. If only more could make the same discovery, it would really enhance the field. I have never heard of anyone who has learned modern Hebrew before or while they were learning biblical Hebrew complain that it was a hindrance. Quite the contrary. I had to study 15 hrs/units of modern Hebrew as prerequisite to biblical Hebrew and what a difference it made. And if you do get modern Hebrew in addition to biblical, it will open up the very rich world of Israeli scholarship on the Bible and the Second Temple Period, a significant portion of which fails to get translated into English. Blessings on your studies.

  6. Ben Putnam July 20, 2013 at 10:58 pm

    I watched the video again, and I noticed two things.

    אינני יודעת was used. In modern, this would have been אני לא יודעת, no?

    I also caught אני מודה לך as used instead of modern תודה or תודה לך. I appreciate that discovery. I had been wondering what ‘thank you’ might be in biblical Hebrew.

    I’d be interested in your feedback on these.

  7. Brian Schultz July 23, 2013 at 5:26 am

    Shalom Ben;

    You are right. In the present tense (participle), BH uses אין for negation whereas modern uses לא in speech – in written modern Hebrew still uses אין. The word תודה is found in the Bible, but as a noun for a type of sacrifice. Unfortunately, BH does not record anyone saying “Thank you”. But it does have instances of people saying “I thank X” – see 1 Chr 29:13. The fact that תודה made it into modern Hebrew might be a hint that it was already used in biblical times, such as in Psa 95:2.

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