Why is Modern Hebrew Important for Biblical Studies?

Nowadays it is becoming more and more common for people who study Biblical Hebrew to also learn Modern Hebrew. Understanding this trend requires some awareness of the importance of language work for studying the Hebrew Bible.

Traditional Language Work Required for Hebrew Bible Study

Over the past 100-200 years, biblical scholars have carried out three main kinds of language study:

First, bible scholars have studied ancient languages to understand the original meaning of the text of the Hebrew Bible. They’ve studied Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic to read the contents of the Hebrew Bible. They’ve studied other Semitic languages such as Aramaic, Syriac, and Arabic (and later Akkadian and Ugaritic) to better understand Biblical Hebrew as a Semitic language. They’ve also studied Aramaic, Ancient Greek, and Latin (etc.), to be able to read ancient translations of the Bible and engage in textual criticism.

Second, they have also studied modern research languages. Traditionally, German was the premier language for biblical studies. In the past 60 years, English has emerged as the most important language for biblical studies, but German remains very important even today. Top-trained Hebrew Bible scholars are expected to have reading proficiency in English, German, and usually French as well.

Third, many scholars studied ancient languages such as Rabbinic Hebrew, Aramaic, Greek, and Latin (etc.) to read what ancient commentators had to say about interpreting Scripture. These ancient interpreters focus on various aspects of the text. Many ancient commentators offer a combination of theological, historical, legal, and philological interpretations, just to name a few of their approaches. Although for a time Modern scholarship partially dismissed these ancient interpreters, in the past few decades there has been a renewed interest in their contributions.

The reason Modern Hebrew is becoming more and more important for biblical scholars is because it can help you in all three of the areas listed above.

  1. Studying Modern Hebrew will help you improve your skills in Biblical Hebrew
  2. Modern Hebrew has become an important research language for biblical studies in its own right.
  3. Knowing Modern Hebrew is essential if you wish to study traditional Jewish interpretations of Scripture.

1) Learning Modern Hebrew will improve your Biblical Hebrew

Even knowing just a small amount of Modern Hebrew can be immensely helpful for studying the Hebrew Bible. Here are just a few of the benefits:

  • You will gain a greater familiarity with the forms of words (morphology) of Biblical Hebrew. This is particularly important for dealing with verbs. In fact, becoming proficient in Modern Hebrew can revolutionize the way you parse verbs: rather than struggling to identify irregular roots and/or frequently having to consult conjugation charts, you will simply know many of these conjugations cold.
  • You will become much more comfortable with reading the Hebrew of the biblical text. Sometimes when students only learn Biblical Hebrew, they have difficulty pronouncing words and/or reading the Bible aloud. By learning Modern Hebrew, you won’t just understand Biblical Hebrew visually, but also aurally as well. This can only help you as the study the Hebrew Bible.
  • In some cases a familiarity with Modern Hebrew can help you notice more unusual syntactical features of the biblical text. Irregularities tend to stick out more. However, sometimes this works against you because Biblical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew are occasionally very different from one another, syntactically speaking.
  • Modern Hebrew can also help you build and solidify your Biblical Hebrew vocabulary, although you must be very careful here as well. Often the meaning of a word in Biblical Hebrew can be quite different from its meaning in Modern Hebrew. If you come across a word that you know only from Modern Hebrew and not Biblical Hebrew, you should look it up in a Biblical Hebrew Dictionary.

2) Modern Hebrew is now an important research language in Biblical Studies

In the past few decades, Modern Hebrew has started to become more and more important for biblical scholars. This is because there are many interesting articles and books being published in Hebrew (in Israel) that are not being translated into English.

There is also an important search engine for academic articles called by its acronym, RAMBI “Index of Articles on Jewish Studies” (רמב”י, רשימת מאמרים במדעי היהדות). You can use the search feature in both English and Hebrew.

Also, one of the most important concordances for studying the Hebrew Bible, Even-Shoshan’s A New Concordance of the Bible, is written only in Hebrew (although there is a version with an introduction in English).

3) Modern Hebrew is essential for studying traditional Jewish interpretations of Scripture

Modern Hebrew is a unique language in that it contains elements of Biblical, Rabbinic, and Medieval Hebrew, as well as new words (some based upon pre-existing Hebrew roots and others of foreign origin). Because Modern Hebrew incorporates so many different kinds of Hebrew, it is essential for reading and understanding traditional Jewish interpretations of Scripture.

The Mishnah was written in Rabbinic Hebrew as well as segments of many early midrashim. (The Babylonian and Jerusalem Talmuds and most midrashic traditions were written in Aramaic). Additionally, many medieval scholars such as Rashi, Abraham Ibn Ezra, Rashbam, and Radak (just to name a few) also wrote in Hebrew as well.

Many of the works of famous medieval Jewish commentators are still unavailable in English. Having a decent familiarity with Modern Hebrew is an essential first step for beginning to read these commentators in Hebrew.

There is a project headed by Bar Ilan, the “Online Responsa Project,” which has an extensive collection of almost all extant Jewish works from the biblical period until the modern period. This collection is in Hebrew and Aramaic. The Responsa Project is also fully searchable, making it a very powerful tool indeed. Although you have to register (and pay) to use its online system, many students will find that they have access through their academic institutions. A CD version can be purchased as well.

Tips for Learning Modern Hebrew

With all of the benefits of learning Modern Hebrew, it is a wonder that learning it hasn’t become required for all current Graduate students in Hebrew Bible. However, learning Modern Hebrew is often not a quick or easy process. Perhaps this is what stops many students from learning it. Here are a few things to remember if you do decide to start learning Modern Hebrew:

  • It is not as easy to learn a Semitic language such as Modern Hebrew as it is to learn a Romance or Germanic language. Semitic languages work very differently from English, particularly in terms of their syntax and morphology. What’s more, most texts written in Modern Hebrew are not vocalized (the vowel markings are not written). Both of these differences can take some getting used to.
  • Always remember that Modern Hebrew is not the same as Biblical Hebrew. There are features of Biblical Hebrew that do not appear in Modern Hebrew (such as vayyiktol forms, for example). There are also many features of Modern Hebrew that can be traced to Rabbinic Hebrew, Medieval Hebrew, or the influence of foreign languages upon Modern Hebrew such as English, German, and Arabic.

After the disclaimers above, it should be noted that Modern Hebrew is actually not that different from Biblical Hebrew after all. In fact, your experience in Biblical Hebrew will help you immensely in learning Modern Hebrew. You will already know the alphabet, most verb conjugations, many syntactical constructions, and a good chunk of vocabulary.

Final Verdict

Studying Biblical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew together actually helps to reinforce both languages. As the field of biblical studies continues to evolve, it is likely that the study of Modern Hebrew will become more and more important.