How to Teach Yourself Hebrew from Scratch: Part III

Part I. Part II.

Vocabulary and Reference materials

Learning vocabulary-  On the plus side, there’s only 8,446 distinct vocabulary words in the Hebrew Bible, and many of those come from shared roots, such as MeLeK “king,” MaLKah, “queen,” maMLeKah “kingdom,” MaLaK “to reign as royalty,” etc. (Roots are much more important and prominent in Semitic languages than in English.) By comparison, there are estimated to be “a quarter of a million distinct English words, excluding inflections, and words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED” according to this webpage.

On the negative side, this relatively small number of words, due to the small size of the Hebrew corpus, is disproportionately distributed. That is, a few hundred words occur thousands and thousands of times. The most common word, w- (“and, but, while, or, now”) appears some 50,000 times, and you just learned it. And a few thousand words are rare and specialized, and appear only a few times. Fully 6112 of 8446 words (that’s about 72%) occur less than 10x in the whole of the Old Testament. Some words occur frequently, but are limited in distribution to only a few chapters or books. Words relating to sacrifice and animals are heavily weighted, for example, to Leviticus and Exodus.

This means, on the one hand, that you can learn the basic vocabulary of a few hundred words quite easily, and that much of the vocabulary of the OT is not worth memorizing for sake of having memorized it. It also means that few people, even scholars, can pick up the OT, open to a random page in Hebrew, and know every single word on the page.

How can you acquire Hebrew vocabulary and make it stick?

At first, rote memorization. Get a list of the most common words, very basic things, and start memorizing. Prepositions, body parts, verbs of motion, different forms of “and he said.”

Frequency  lists can be generated through any of the Bible programs for the whole Bible or particular passages, and the vocabulary in most introductory Hebrew grammars is drawn from such lists. These flashcards are sorted by frequency, and also have useful information tied to each grammar.

Once you’ve learned some basic vocab (enough that you don’t have to look up every single word),  get a copy of RHB (discussed here and here) and start reading. The best way to internalize vocabulary is the way you do in real life, by encountering it in a native context, instead of spending 15 minutes trying to find it in a lexicon and forgetting, by that time, the context.

As you read, you’ll encounter constructions and syntax and such that you’ve forgotten, or more likely, never internalized. Or perhaps it just wasn’t covered in the grammar you worked through. At this point, you want some reference materials. For myself, the three I consult most often happen to be Joüon-Muraoka’s Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, Gesenius-Kautsch-Cowley Hebrew Grammar (free pdf of older version here), and Waltke-O’Connor’s Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. The first two are reference grammars, as opposed to grammars you’d learn or teach out of. The third is, as it says, a thorough introduction to Biblical Hebrew syntax. These three books are things that Hebrew scholars use regularly, and return to again and again.

You can read these straight through with varying degrees of difficulty based on how much grammar you’ve retained and the style of the book (Gesenius is archaic, Waltke is more conversational), but I don’t recommend it.  What makes them really useful is that each has a scripture and Hebrew word index in the back. Having trouble with Genesis 1:1? Open up the index, and discover that Gesenius discusses the grammar of that passage in eight places, Waltke in five, and Joüon in six. That’s not to say they parse every verb and explain every form in every passage, but when there’s something tricky or unusual, or something that perfectly defines the paradigm, there is likely a reference to it. (For something that parses every verb, you’d want something like this, which lists every form in alphabetical order with its parsing.)

I might note that all three of these references are available in all three big Bible programs. Bibleworks 8 includes all three by default as well as Wallace’s Greek Grammar beyond the Basics, and has the most easily accessible way to see references to a particular verse, IMHO. Though I prefer reading out of a book, the electronic editions provide so much extra functionality that I highly recommend them. Also, given the price, it makes investing in something like Bibleworks a really good deal.

One more installment coming.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Kevin Barney

    I very much appreciate these great posts, Nitsav. Very helpful recommendations.

  • The Yellow Dart

    Thanks for the terrific post Nitsav!

    Best wishes,


  • BrianJ

    Thanks for keeping these coming.

  • Julie M. Smith

    Question: I’d like to be able to print out pages from an interlinear Hebrew text. (I don’t want a print edition–I want four pages I can fold into my pocket and then work on at the park while my kids play.) Are there any (free, of course!) online interlinears besides scripture4all, which works except the print is too small? (And they go left to right, which bothers me.)

  • David Clark

    Here’s a Genesis interlinear of sorts. Interlinear is left -> right with English transliteration (not Hebrew), then a text of the Hebrew right-> left follows. Weird, but I guess it makes a certain amount of sense, they did an interlinear but kept the languages flowing the right direction. Anyway, you are getting everything you paid for it and a little bit more.

    Google Books Link

  • Nitsav

    Julie, I’m not aware of any free ones, I’m afraid. If I come across one, though, I’ll let you know.