So you want to learn to read Hebrew. Great choice! Hebrew is one of the world’s oldest living languages and it has had a huge impact on the world we live in. It’s spoken by millions of people around the world and learned as a reading language by millions more.
Hebrew is one of the few languages today that connects us with people from 2000+ years ago. Its relationship with the Ancient Near East and other semitic languages makes learning Hebrew an excellent starting point for people interested in that part of the world.
However, Hebrew is not for the faint of heart! For beginners, the learning curve is steep because of how “foreign” the language seems. If you want to learn to read Hebrew, read this article first. We’ll share five things you should know before getting started.
5 Tips Before You Learn to Read Hebrew
Hebrew Reads from Right to Left
Hebrew is one of the many languages, including Arabic and Syriac, which reads from right to left. What catches many beginners off guard when they first open a Hebrew book is that both the text on an individual page is written from right to left, and the book itself is read from right to left.
When laying a Hebrew book on a table, if the front cover is facing up then the binding will be on the right hand side. It may seem different at first, but Hebrew students should remember that at some point – they were unable to read from left to right, too! Even this took practice.
It doesn’t take nearly as long as you think for right-to-left reading to begin to feel natural. If you’re willing to make a habit out of practicing daily, then reading in Hebrew will start to feel much less foreign before you know it.
Hebrew was Originally Written without Vowels
Many trace the development of Hebrew to the end of the 2nd millenium BCE. Yet, for close to 2,000 years the written language never actually included pure vowel markings in the text.
Over time, a few of the consonants became special markers for certain vowel sounds, but it wasn’t until around the 8th century when vowels were added to written text using a series of dots and dashes. These vowels were placed above and below the letters already in use.
It’s important to note that Hebrew reading schools today teach both “pointed” and “unpointed” Hebrew. “Pointed” refers to learning Hebrew with the vowels in the text, while learning “unpointed” Hebrew leaves the vowels out and gets you a bit closer to how it was originally done!
If you travel to Israel, you should expect to see newspapers, books, advertisements, and more written without vowels. For those who know Hebrew fluently, reading these texts isn’t a problem.
Hebrew Uses Letters as Numbers
While the Hebrew language has words for its numerals (one, two, three, etc.) and its ordinals (first, second, third, etc.), there is a shorthand used to shrink the space down considerably when writing numbers.
In English, we do this by using completely different markings altogether for our numbers (1, 2, 3, etc.). But in Hebrew this is done by using letters from the alphabet.
The first nine letters of the alphabet mark out the numbers 1 through 9, with the following 13 letters marking off values between 10 and 400. An additional symbol is added to help with numbers over 1,000.
Consistent Practice is Key
When people attempt to learn to read Hebrew, their biggest struggle is often in how “foreign” the language seems at first. These students will continue to struggle unless they take the necessary time to learn the alphabet well, and get comfortable reading from right to left.
There are a number of solutions to learn how to read Hebrew with greater fluency, but the trick is consistency of exposure to the text. Students should practice daily as opposed to weekly, even if it’s for shorter amounts of time.
When you study Hebrew, you have to remember that you’re learning when you recall the language, not when you review it. So make sure you have time to actually recall what you are learning.
Don’t just read, but force yourself to write down phrases and sentences. If this happens with consistency you will find that whatever you force your brain to recall, it will remember!
Remember What Sparked Your Interest
Our brains are wired to remember things that interest us. Why do you want to learn how to read Hebrew? Are you taking a trip to Israel soon? Keeping your reasons top-of-mind will help you stay motivated along the way.
For example, many people choose to learn Hebrew so they can study parts of the Bible in its original language. Known to Christians as the “Old Testament,” the books of the Hebrew Bible have come to exert a massive amount of influence in our cultural heritage.
Their content has shaped western law, as well as cultural assumptions about rights and human dignity. One of the foundational arguments during the abolition movement, and again during the Civil Rights movement, was often cited from the book of Genesis: humanity is made in the image of God.
There are also many phrases from the Hebrew Bible that we still use today. Sayings like “by the skin of your teeth” or “the writing is on the wall,” have been etched into the English language. Whatever your fascination is with this ancient and influential language, let it continue to inspire you!
3 Steps to Learn How to Read Hebrew
If you are really interested in how to read Hebrew, use the following steps as a guideline to get started today.
- Practice the alphabet sounds daily. Write the letters on your mirror and recite them in your head while brushing your teeth. Once you get the sounds down, open up a pointed Hebrew text and read out loud (even though you won’t understand what you’re reading). Gaining familiarity in this way early on will pay huge dividends down the road.
- Take advantage of the many helpful resources at your disposal. Flashcard apps like Memrise and Quizlet have already done much of the heavy lifting for you. As a beginner, your memorization skills will be stretched, but practicing regularly with fun apps like these will be highly beneficial.
- Lastly, try to find a Hebrew teacher or tutor. When learning the basic building blocks of a complex language like Hebrew, it’s easy to make small mistakes. If they go undiscovered for a long period of time, these bad habits become ingrained into your understanding of the language. With a tutor’s guidance, it’s easy to catch these mistakes early.
Best of luck on your Hebrew learning journey! Have you come across any obstacles while learning to read Hebrew? Let us know in the comments section below.
Guest Post Author: Zachary Stevens has spent the last two years serving as a Hebrew Language Teaching Assistant at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. He has a Master’s in Biblical Studies and is currently working toward a Master of Theology in Hamilton, MA.