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Learning biblical Hebrew & its relationship to modern Hebrew


Rabbi Ari Shvat

Iyyar 7, 5776
Rabbi Ari Shvat. Hi, thank you for the reply. I am not at all familiar with the Hebrew language in any way, English being my only language I read,write and speak in (I live in the U.S.A.). One Rabbi told me what I refer to as terminology may be what scholar Max Kaddushin coined in his term "value concepts" if that helps you better understand what I’m asking. Do you think that one who knows the Hebrew language already knows this stuff and has no need for word studies? Do you think much of the power and nuance of, for example, Hebrew will always be lost in translation, and also do you think there are certain Hebrew words that cannot be translated into English or any other language? A fellow lay researcher who I respect (and have received help from) in scriptural study who also implements the biblical languages in his own studies (just through concordances, lexicons, etc, he has no academic schooling or credentials in that subject) for decades once told me that the trouble with learning ANCIENT Hebrew is that it really isn’t taught (more of a modern Hebrew hybrid), so I’d have to learn it piecemeal, as I go along in my studies. He also stated studying how various words were used in scriptural contexts (and translated by translators) is the best way he knows to learn the ancient languages, and stated that even then, not everything is yet known about every word or its usage, meaning or context (such as idioms that once had meaning, but some of which now no longer seem to make much sense). I was wondering if you agree?
1. As with everything else, there are also many various levels of knowledge of Hebrew, and only those who have learned Hebrew systematically including the Biblical connotations know this material. To this end, I strongly suggest the Malbim’s commentary. 2. There is no doubt that very many words, probably even most, cannot be properly translated with all of the multiple intended connotations, associated root connections with other words, etc. 3. The difference between modern and Biblical Hebrew is true only to a certain extent, but if you learn modern Hebrew, you will begin to understand the vast majority of the Bible, at least at face value (yet not with all of the various connotations), and then continue studying the Malbim and advancing step by step. Modern Hebrew is much closer to its ancient version more than any other language, because for 2,000 years it was used but didn’t evolve or change much for it mainly wasn’t a spoken language (that’s how slang and foreign influences occur) but rather studied traditionally. In addition, whenever Eliezer Ben Yehuda, the "reviver" of modern Hebrew, had to choose between mishnaic Hebrew (from about 1,800 years ago) or Biblical Hebrew (from 3,300- 2,500 years ago), he usually “turned the clock back”, and ideologically gave preference to the more original. 4. I agree strongly with using the Hebrew textual context as an aid, but definitely disagree with learning languages from translations. As I wrote above, modern Hebrew is very "learnable" and is extremely close to Biblical Hebrew. In addition, we have been studying Torah intensively and non-stop for 3,300 years, and there are very clear traditions passed down by every generation. When something was unclear, it was asked and clarified. It’s relatively rare to find a word or idiom on which there is no ancient Jewish tradition, but it takes years of diligent study and many hours every day to learn it all. In addition, to depend on translators is not intellectually honest, nor is it accurate.
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