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Yet More Hebrew Tattoos You Do Not Want!

10th July 2008

People never learn. Think before you ink! I came across a couple more examples of incorrect Hebrew tattoos. I can’t believe people don’t double and triple check foreign tattoos with someone they know understands the language before they get their skin scarred for life.

For more of my blog posts on incorrect Hebrew tattoos, click here.

The first example comes via The Aramaic Blog (the original tattoo is posted here). This nice looking tattoo is supposed to read “Yahweh/the LORD is my banner” and is more than likely taken from Exodus 17:15.


The first error with this Hebrew tattoo is all too common: the Hebrew is written backwards. For those who do not know, Hebrew is written from right to left, not left to right as English. Thus, this tattoo is essentially gibberish. It means nothing. To add insult to injury, there are also a couple spelling errors in the tattoo: there is an extra vav in the divine name Yahweh (יהוה) and the noun “banner” (נס) has an extra yod.


The second example comes from a google search. This poor fellow went through a couple tattoo sessions to get a nice picture of a lion head tattooed and then topped it off with what he thought was the Hebrew name “Judah” (get it? “Lion of Judah”; see Genesis 49:9 and Revelation 5:5). The problem is that he should of double-checked his Hebrew since it is written backwards and misspelled.


I’m not quite sure how he got the spelling wrong. It should be yod-heh-vav-dalet-heh (יהודה) and he has (backwards) yod-heh-dalet-vav-heh (יהדוה); he has the dalet and vav mixed up.


All this goes to show that if you decide to get a Hebrew tattoo, you really need to get the spelling double-checked before you get it inked. While there are a number of web sites that will do translations, I would be careful with which one you use.

Since I first posted on incorrect Hebrew tattoos, I have got at least half a dozen requests every week asking to double-check this or that spelling. While I am not opposed to do this, I just don’t have the time, so most of the emails have gone unanswered. My wife had a brilliant idea, however. While I am not willing to take the time to check out a spelling or provide the Hebrew for a tattoo for free, I may be persuaded to do it for a very nominal fee. If you are interested, just send me an email to “tattoos AT” and we can talk.

Posted in Hebrew, Tattoos | 2 Comments »

Hobbins’s Helpful Hebrew Verbal System

26th March 2008

Just a short note to follow up on my previous post, How to Teach Introductory Classical Hebrew, which highlighted some recent discussions of how to teach Biblical Hebrew with reference to the verbal system. It appears that John Hobbins over at his Ancient Hebrew Poetry held a little “Hebrew Verb” soirée a few weeks back. His recent post, “The Verbal System of Ancient Hebrew: A Postscript,” provides a brief summary of his take on the issue and links to the previous discussion.

As I am thinking of textbooks for introductory classical Hebrew for next fall, I am really tempted to choose a different grammar. I have used Kittel for a decade with increasing frustration (especially with the supposed “fully revised” second edition which didn’t fix any of the major issues with it!), so I am thinking that it is time for a change.  The question is, what introductory textbook should I use?

Posted in Hebrew Grammar, Hebrew Resources | 1 Comment »

How to Teach Introductory Classical Hebrew

14th March 2008

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.

Posted in Hebrew, Hebrew Grammar, Pedagogy, Teaching & Learning | 5 Comments »

Unicode Hebrew Problem FIXED

13th March 2008

UPDATE: The unicode problem is fixed, though it looks like I will have to redo the Unicode Hebrew in old posts if I want them to show up right. The issue was when I installed WordPress at my new host, I failed to change the character set from the default to UTF-8. D’oh!

So it looks like Hebrew and Greek will now show up fine. The question is whether or not I will bother to go through all my old posts and fix them!

Thanks for all of the suggestions.


OK, as you may have noticed in my last few posts, as well as looking back in my archives, my blog is having some problems with unicode Hebrew. The following line of Hebrew is represented as a string of question marks in my browser:

‏הבל הבלים הכל הבל‎

As far as I can tell, this happened after I moved my blog to a new host provider. I can’t figure out what the problem is. I have the message encoding for pages and feeds set to UTF-8, which I believe is correct. Is there some other setting hiding somewhere that I am unaware of?
Anyone have any ideas?

Posted in Blog Maintenance, Hebrew | 8 Comments »

Bad Sermon: “Him that pisseth against the wall”

7th March 2008

Check out this sermon on the phrase “him that pisseth against the wall” from the KJV of 1 Kings 14:10. The phrase also occurs in 1Sam 25:22, 25:34; 1Kings 16:11, 21:21, and 2Kings 9:8. The rendering by the KJV, while perhaps vulgar to modern ears, is a word for word translation of the Hebrew.

While I — along with this preacher — lament modern translations that simply render the Hebrew idiom with the English term “male” I do so for very different reasons. In absolute contrast with the meaning of the passage, the ludicrous message the preacher takes from the phrase is that “real men” pee standing up (and I would add, should never lift the toilet seat!). If this preacher would have cracked the cover of even the most useless Bible Commentary, he would have discovered that the expression is contemptuously comparing males to dogs who “piss against the wall.” Thus,  I don’t think modern translations bring out the connotative meaning of the original Hebrew by the non-vulgar translation as “male.”  See my post Dogs, Urine, and Bible Translations (On the Importance of Translating Connotative Meaning).

Well, enough preamble, here is the sermon in all its glory:

(HT to Bob Derrenbacker)

Posted in 1Samuel, Bible, Hebrew, Old Testament, Translation Theory | 7 Comments »

Sex and Language?

17th July 2007

For the connection between Biblical Hebrew and Greek and the joy of sex, see here.

I can’t say my experiences learning biblical languages were anywhere near as bad (I do recall being very intimidated when I sat down the first day of Ugaritic class and the professor handed me a text and said “read”!)

While the rant post is quite funny, it does raise the question of how to teach biblical languages in such a way that your students don’t “off” themselves (or at least don’t write a blog post about the horrible experience some years later).

(HT Ancient Hebrew Poetry)

Posted in Greek, Hebrew, Teaching & Learning | Comments Off

MR HBRW WTHT VWLS (More Hebrew without Vowels)

17th May 2007

John Davies, Principal of the Presbyterian Theological Centre in Sydney, Australia sent me this poetic response to Jessica Shaver’s poem:


T’s NT s bd s y mght thnk;
“vwl-lttrs� hlp y swm, NT snk!
Jst whn y mght chck n th twl,
y’r rscd by tht smy-vwl!
Fr ww nd yd nd fnl h
r grt t hlp y fnd yr wy.
Thgh smll, wht nxpcd bns!
Blssd mtrs lctns!

I wonder how many students of biblical Hebrew have exclaimed, “blessed matres lectionis!”? See here for the vowel-less post that started this thread.

Posted in Hebrew, Humour | Comments Off

HBRW WTHT VWLS GN (Hebrew Without Vowels Again)

7th May 2007

In line with this previous post about how to get across to students that Biblical Hebrew was originally written without vowel indicators, I found this great example over at Davar Akher:

Th lphbt s hrd t mstr;
Rdng bck t frnt’s dsstr.
Nlss h’s rd th clssfds,
whr trth, bbrvtd, hds,
th wld-b rdr f th Bbl,
prsntd wth th txt, s lbl
t trn nd rn wth shrks nd hwls-
th hbrw Scrptrs hv n vwls!

- Jessica Shaver

I will have to use this poem next year.

Posted in Hebrew, Teaching & Learning | 4 Comments »

Ancient Egyptian Semitic Snake Spells (or “Snakes in a Pyramid”)

26th April 2007

“Ancient Egyptian Semitic Snake Spells” — say that five times fast! As I am getting caught up on some blogging, Shawn Flynn had brought to my attention an interesting article about some semitic spells found on the walls of the pyramid of King Unas at Saqqara (BTW: Shawn has a relatively new blog called Palimpsest that is definitely worthy of our blogrolls).

Here’s an excerpt of the article from the National Geographic News:

The Canaanite spells were invoked to help protect mummified kings against poisonous snakes, one of ancient Egypt’s most dreaded nemeses.

According to the incantations, female snakes—acting as mediators for Canaanite magicians—used their multiple mouths and sexual organs to prevent other snakes from entering the mummified rulers’ remains.

The passages date from between 2400 to 3000 B.C. and appear to be written in Proto-Canaanite, a direct ancestor of biblical Hebrew.


Experts had attempted without success to decipher the serpent spells as if they were ordinary Egyptian texts composed in hieroglyphic characters.

But in 2002 a colleague asked Richard Steiner, a professor of Semitic languages and literature at New York’s Yeshiva University, if the texts might be Semitic.

“I immediately recognized the Semitic words for ‘mother snake,’” Steiner said at a recent lecture at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he presenting the findings.

“Later it became clear that the surrounding spells, composed in Egyptian rather than Semitic, also speak of the divine mother snake and that the Egyptian and Semitic texts elucidate each other,” he added.

“It was hiding there in plain sight,” Steiner told National Geographic News. “It’s unintelligible to Egyptologists, but it makes perfect sense to Semitists.”

This discovery perhaps has some interesting implications for history of the Hebrew language and relationships between Egypt and the Canaanites.

Yeshiva University also has a press release about the report, while Shawn blogs about the report here.

Posted in Ancient Egypt, Ancient Near East, Archaeology, Discoveries, Hebrew | 1 Comment »

Learning Ancient Hebrew

1st March 2007

John Hobbins over at Ancient Hebrew Poetry has some good tips about learning Classical Hebrew.  John sets the bar high with his introductory paragraph:

If you want to learn ancient Hebrew so as to savor its sounds, understand the nuances of its words and expressions, and recognize the formal structures of its poetry and prose, then you will seek to make the language your own. A standard test of linguistic competence is the ability to engage in simultaneous translation from one language to the other, unaided by a dictionary. When you are able to translate ancient Hebrew into your mother tongue without the aid of a dictionary, you will have moved in the right direction. When you are able to translate from your mother tongue into ancient Hebrew without the help of a dictionary, you will have attained a degree of active competence in the language. Your sense of accomplishment will be great, and rightly so.

Do take a look at his suggestions, especially the resources he mentions that will allow you to make progress on your own.

Posted in Hebrew, Teaching & Learning | Comments Off