How to Teach Introductory Classical Hebrew

How should professors teach introductory Classical Hebrew? That is the question that two recent online articles attempt to answer or at least discuss — and they approach the question from quite different perspectives. The first article by Rahel Halabe is part of the March 2008 SBL Forum, while the second article by John A. Cook was just uploaded to the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures.

As evident from the title of Rahel Halabe‘s article, “Ancient Languages are Still Around, But Do We Really Know How to Teach Them?” (SBL Forum, March 2008), she thinks there is something lacking in the way most professors teach introductory Hebrew. In a nutshell, she argues that, in contrast to the creativity and appropriate pedagogy of modern foreign language acquisition methods, the teaching methods of ancient languages are stuck in antiquity. She acknowledges that many of the most recent introductory Hebrew textbooks employ the latest information technology (e.g., vocabulary flashcard programs), but we shouldn’t kid ourselves into thinking “that the emergence of real new approaches in imparting ancient languages has occurred.” She then introduces some notions of functional grammar and relates them to how Hebrew should be taught, including the need to balance breadth and depth, as well as form and function. Thus, for instance, in teaching the Hebrew verbal system, Halabe maintains:

Rather than a long and confusing list of translation options into English tenses, as usually offered by academic textbooks, one should offer in the introductory course a minimal list of the most common interpretations of any verb form and encourage the students to use context and common sense while reading a straightforward text.

She then moves on to note some insights from pedagogical grammar, such as the appropriate distinction between developmental and variational items in a language, and the need to give more attention and time to the former. Rather than load students down with grammatical rules, pedagogical grammar would suggest a large exposure to text with some simple “rules of thumb” that have descriptive and predictive power is a better way to go.

For more information on Halabe’s approach, you can check out her website Hebrew with Rahel Halabe, and especially her MEd paper, “The Introduction to Biblical Hebrew the Practical Way” available there.

John A. Cook charts out a slightly different course for introductory Classical Hebrew courses in his article, “The Vav-Prefixed Verb Forms in Elementary Hebrew Grammar” in the Journal of Hebrew Scriptures – Volume 8: Article 3 (2008). Cook similarly laments the state of introductory Hebrew textbooks, though not for the lack of pedagogical finesse, but because of the huge gap or disconnect between elementary grammars (which are being published at an ever-increasing rate) and the recent scholarly advances in understanding ancient Hebrew. Instead of offering a more general critique like Halabe, Cook picks one feature of Classical Hebrew (vav-prefixed verbal forms) and “illustrate how these forms might be explained to beginning Biblical Hebrew students in a way that takes into account recent linguistic insights.”

Cook argues that the gap noted above needs to be spanned, since “students deserve the most accurate grammar description of Biblical
Hebrew” and because “the traditional description has tended to portray the Hebrew verbal system as this strange beast without any parallel among human languages” (I find the latter reason more compelling, especially in the light of Halabe’s article). Cook then proceeds to provide examples of how introductory grammars (inadequately) explain the vav-prefixed verbal forms and how their explanations are typically based on antiquated understandings of grammar. Thus, Kittel’s use of “vav-conversive” hearkens back to the sixteenth century, while Bornemann’s use of “vav-consecutive” and Futato’s “vav-relative” derive from the 1800s. Next, Cook discusses three advances in understanding the vav-prefixed forms:

  1. recognition that the imperfect and the vav-prefixed imperfect forms are actually distinct conjugations;
  2. similar recognition that the perfect form and the vav-prefixed perfect are a single conjugation; and
  3. depending on word order, the vav-prefixed perfect form is is more closely aligned syntactically and semantically with the traditional Hebrew modal forms.

While this is not the time nor place to debate these understandings of the Hebrew vav-prefix forms, Cook’s point is well taken. There have been significant discussion of the Hebrew verbal system over the last while, much of which has not made its way into introductory grammars (with some exceptions I should note; I am thinking especially of Rocine’s Learning Biblical Hebrew: A New Approach using Discourse Analysis).

In the final section of his essay, Cook explores how one could teach the “modal” perfect form to beginning Hebrew students. I should note that this section is not just theoretical, since Cook has co-authored (and presumably used in the classroom) an introduction with Robert Holmstedt of the University of Toronto (from what I gather it is still in the pre-publication “working out the bugs” phase. A free version is available for download here).

Cook concludes my re-affirming the need to teach solid, linguistically informed understandings of the Classical Hebrew verbal system to introductory students, and that such theories can be taught in such a way that not only is comprehensible to first-year language students, rather than relying on inaccurate explanations from past centuries.

I found that both of these articles (and the larger projects on which they are based) provide much food for thought. As someone who has taught Classical Hebrew for over a decade, I can validate the concerns of both authors — even though they are slightly at odds with one another. I suspect that Halabe would balk at introducing concepts such as modality and contingency to beginning Hebrew students, while Cook would roll his eyes at the use of language such as “vav-conversive” and other”antiquated” descriptions in Halabe’s grammar.

I find myself in the middle. I try to do all that I can to ensure that my students are successful in their acquisition of Hebrew, and if I fudge on anything, it would be on the introduction of the complexities of the Hebrew verbal system, among other things. I will talk about some of the complexity and will provide handouts that get into it, but because I use Kittel and because I still see the heuristic value in it, I still talk about the vav-conversive prefix form. Now perhaps I will have to re-evaluate how I teach Hebrew and what text I use. I have become increasingly dissatisfied with Kittel (especially since the second edition really didn’t improve much), but am not sure what text I would want to adopt (and the prospect of switching too often seems like a lot of work!). At the very least I will glean what I can from both of these engaging articles and go my own way!

For a discussion of some of the different beginning Hebrew grammars on the market, check out my “Introductory Hebrew Grammars” page.

I am also curious of what some other Hebrew instructors think about either article.

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5 Responses to How to Teach Introductory Classical Hebrew

  1. Michael Lyons says:

    I have taught Hebrew using both John & Rob’s grammar AND other grammars (supplemented with John’s work on the verbal system) and I have found the following:

    It is no harder to ask students “Yes, but what happens when the perfect verbform occurs at the beginning of the clause?” than it is to ask “What does the magical vav on the front of the verb do to it?”

    And the first has the advantage of linguistic support 🙂

  2. Ken says:

    From a student’s perspective, I can say I’ve actually really enjoyed perhaps one of the most obtuse introductory grammars on the market, Lambdin. I used Kittel to start but after three-four years of Hebrew went back to Lambdin and find myself, embarrassingly, learning lots! Maybe that means Lambdin is a better second year textbook but, nevertheless, any good Hebrew course needs to engage the difficult aspects of the language. We are not learning or teaching this language for conversational purposes nor can expect students will naturally improve their Hebrew through everyday conversation! In that way, it’s not like learning modern languages at all. Biblical Hebrew is not even a complete, functioning language with all the necessary vocabulary and our major text is a cross-section of Hebrew written over 400-1000 years and then vocalized by a bunch of Jewish scribes 500-1000 years after that. It’s simply impossible to teach Hebrew properly in the same way you would a modern language. I could see, however, the merit of starting students with modern Hebrew using Halabe type methods and then working your way back to biblical Hebrew as an archaic version of the former in much the same way students learn modern English and then throughout their education encounter more difficult, archaic English in the Canterbury Tales, Shakespeare, or Beowulf.

  3. Pingback: » How to Teach Biblical Hebrew Verbal System?

  4. learnfrenchwiththebible says:

    Have you ever checked into the methodology of Randall Buth? From reports that I’ve heard, it is fairly successful.

    On a related note, in college, my German and French classes were held almost completely in German and French.

    My koine Greek and modern Hebrew classes were held almost completely in English. The same was true with classical Hebrew.

    But how many teachers of Hebrew have the fluency to be able to conduct classes almost completely in classical Hebrew? 🙁

  5. Pingback: Codex: Biblical Studies Blogspot » Blog Archive » Hobbins’s Helpful Hebrew Verbal System

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