Back to Hebrew (with an immediate problem)

I’ve purposed to take up learning Hebrew again. I started working with Robert Ray Ellis’ Learning to Read Biblical Hebrew: An Introductory Grammar (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2006). I’m doing the lesson 1 exercises and I have an immediate problem with the first exercise. Ellis tells us to “Repeatedly write and pronounce the Hebrew consonants until their forms and sounds become familiar.” (6) The thing is that he expects us to write them in block script (he has to since he hasn’t shown us cursive!) but it’s quite unusual to hand write block script. Second problem is that he hasn’t shown us how to even hand write block script! Presumably we’re supposed to copy what is printed in the book but there’s a difference between printed Hebrew block script and the kind that one would write by hand (so far as I know — Theophrastus, feel free to correct me if I’m wrong). I’m considering just typing the exercises but I feel like that’s going to hinder my progress. Alright… enough complaining… back to it.


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20 thoughts on “Back to Hebrew (with an immediate problem)

  1. Yes, any printed Hebrew that you encounter is going to be in square script, but any handwritten Hebrew (and even ancient Hebrew inscriptions) are going to be in cursive. It is also worth learning Rashi script if you plan to consult any Jewish sources.

    Here is a website that will teach you to write cursive and here is a convenient table.

    A standard self-teaching introduction for adults to the Hebrew alphabet is ISBN 0939144506; and I think the best self-teaching introduction to Biblical Hebrew is 0939144328 (I know, I know, it is called Prayerbook Hebrew, but that is largely Biblical Hebrew.) If you are considering going to this route, let me know privately by e-mail and I can point you to some useful references. This book is useful because of the huge amount of supplementary materials and the fact that it really is a self-teaching text (with audio recordings, ample exercises, answers to all the exercises, simple dictionary, printed and electronic flashcards, etc.)

    When you finish Prayerbook Hebrew, you’ll be well prepared to tackle a standard first year college text. (Another option is to go on to its EKS sequel The First Hebrew Primer (ISBN 9780939144150), which has a particularly nice interactive adaptation in the Logos computer program.)

    I don’t know the textbook you are using — maybe it is well-suited to beginners who are teaching themselves — but I tutored someone in Hebrew a few years ago and I found these texts to be the best for adult learners.

  2. I learned from Ellis’ book when I was a barista and an Israeli customer found out I was studying Hebrew and freaked out when she saw me writing in block script, she thought it/I was very strange.

  3. You see when I was developing a hand for Hebrew scripts, I learned with a dip pen and calligraphy nib. Because of that, I started with Square script “off the bat.” After that I learned the cursive forms using a bowl point nib. From there, writing them with a pencil or ball-point pen becomes relatively easy. :-)

    However, my “everyday” (predominantly Aramaic) handwriting in my journal or on the blackboard is highly influenced by Herodian and Qumranian forms. Tends to shake things up for people not familiar with them. :-)

    In either case, just pick one system to start (it doesn’t matter which as since you’re working on your own, you’ll be the one reading your own notes anyways) and work with that on your lessons until you’re proficient with it. Then — and only then — move on to other writing styles. I’ve found that this method (i.e. a strong foundation in one script to start) is the easiest way for most people to learn.


  4. Umm, I learned a simplified block script when I took Hebrew. I think that is pretty normal at seminaries. In undergrad, I audited the same class that Geoff is referring to and the professor had handouts that he gave to us to supplement the book. I think it might have come from an associated workbook or something.

  5. You might want to check out Webster’s Cambridge Introduction to Biblical Hebrew ( I had him for Hebrew 1 and 2 while this textbook was still in the publishing process so I have it all in PDFs. The biggest advantage in my opinion is the CD-ROM he made for it with his own flash program for helping you learning parsing and vocab. It beats just about anything out there. I picked the language up quick, but I doubt I would have learned it well without Webster (both in class and vicariously in his text and CD-ROM).

    Oh, and for writing the script, his workbook starts you right off with learning square script if I remember correctly

  6. Theophrastus: Thanks for the recommendations. I’ll keep them in mind. I had planned to pick up Basics of Biblical Hebrew and the accompanying workbook with my next WTS gift certificate because I already have the flash cards and laminated study guide sheet that go with it. Do you have any experience with that particular grammar, and if so, what are your thoughts? I’ll keep your suggestions in mind for my next Amazon gift certificate.

    Geoff: That doesn’t surprise me. I suppose if the only idea is to teach people to read Hebrew than it shouldn’t much matter; but if we’re expected to write anything in Hebrew then we should at least be shown how.

    Steve: Thanks. That sounds like good advice.

    Jeremiah: It’s not the block script that’s the issue so much as it is that in the grammar itself there’s no instruction on how to write it. Handwritten block script doesn’t look like the printed stuff so just copying what’s printed can be a bit difficult. When I first tried learning Hebrew like 8 years ago it was from the website Hebrew for Christians and he gave instruction on how to write in block script and cursive.

    Bob: Thanks. I downloaded this grammar a while back but I haven’t used it at all. The guide they give on page 4 is exactly the type of thing that I think belongs in a grammar that’s exercises expect the student to write in that language.

    Jeff: How do you like it? I actually have the first edition that was published in 1989 but I haven’t found much use for it. It seems more like a textbook that works best with an instructor. And would you believe that I encountered a course similar to this one before I ever knew who Murray was? It wasn’t quite as sleek looking at the time though. I can’t remember who offered it but I think it might have been through Covenant Theological Seminary’s “Worldwide Classroom.”

    Nate: Thanks for the recommendation. I’ll consider it. I can’t seem to find his workbook listed on Amazon. Do you have an ISBN for that?

  7. I can’t say I am familiar with Practico’s grammar — I don’t think it has as large a market share as Mounce’s Greek grammar, though.

    The grammars by Kittel, Hoffer & Wright and Webster are well-respected by friends of mine.

    But I’ll just renew my suggestion that you start with an easy book, and then work up to a college textbook (or alternatively, that you secure a tutor.) Learning a language on your own is tough, and learning it from a college textbook is double tough.

  8. Theophrastus: I hear what you’re saying and I’ll definitely take it into consideration. In a perfect world I’d be able to take a Hebrew course in a college or seminary. Unfortunately the world ain’t perfect.

    Nate: Good to know, thanks.

  9. Learn modern Hebrew script and write in it. I can’t describe the internal shudder that seeing someone writing Hebrew/Aramaic block script engenders, but can say that such a person is immediately considered less of an authority.

  10. There is no problem with writing in a simplified square script. And as someone who was educated by and mixes with good “authorities” in Hebrew studies, there is absolutely no truth to the statement that writing in square script somehow affects the *scholarly* perception of one’s work. I trained with top-notch, rabbinically and university trained Hebraists and they all wrote square script on the blackboard. Cursive is used mostly in Israeli correspondence, not biblical studies. It’s still useful to use because it’s faster and in case the student want to pursue Israeli Hebrew.

    I always begin first-year students with writing square script for the simple pedagogical reason that it reinforces the shapes of letters that they are learning to internalize.

  11. Cursive is not just used for Israeli correspondence; it is the standard way of handwriting Yiddish and it is used almost exclusively by Orthodox Jews in the US. If you pick up any Haredi Jewish text and look at the approbations printed in front, you’ll notice they are handwritten in cursive. I have yet to find an Orthodox rabbi or an Israeli who handwrites in square script (it is far less common than using print letters in English handwriting).

    Square script isn’t even the second most common form of handwriting. After cursive, Solidreo form is the next most common.

  12. Interesting.

    The point, then, is which circles one intends to move in. If one is going learning Hebrew academically, square script is indeed the most common used (I saw it used in BH courses even at Hebrew U); if one is learning it within the context of Orthodox Jewish studies, then cursive is the one to learn.

  13. Robert: I can’t speak to the issue one way or the other since I don’t rub elbows with world class Hebraists. I can say that the majority of Jews I’ve known over the years have been Orthodox Jews, who while possibly considered scholars in the rabbinic community (I couldn’t say for sure since it never came up), wrote in cursive. My plan is to learn all the forms to the best of my ability.

    Theophrastus: The vast majority of Orthodox Jews I’ve known have been Ḥaredi. There is a large population of Ḥaredim in Lakewood, NJ where I attended church for a number of years. I’ve not heard of Solitreo until right now but I see that it’s the cursive form of Ladino. I had a friend from Israel who lived in Spain for a number of years before coming to America and he spoke Ladino.

  14. Nick:
    It’s more about convention that rubbing elbows, of course. If you’re operating in mainstream Hebrew/biblical studies, then square script has pride of place, for better or worse (I make no argument about the quality of script). Indeed, if one goes back far enough in academic publications, it is not hard to find articles in book collections, etc., in which for lack of a decent square script type from the publisher involved, the author would write all the biblical or extra biblical examples into the printed English. And without fail, it is always square script (in *biblical* studies).

    I really am agnostic which script a self-learner choose to learn, or which script an instructor chooses to teach. My hackles were raised by the across-the-board statements about the use of written square script in general, statements that are inaccurate. And to be clear, my own perspective does not include seminaries, since I never went.

  15. Robert: I hear ya. BTW, I started looking at your Baylor handbook on Ruth the other night. Reading through the introduction had me longing to really learn Hebrew all the more.

  16. Nick:

    Thanks! That is the highest form of compliment. Whether or not you agree with anything I wrote, if it inspires you to learn Hebrew better, I’ve succeeded in my goal.

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