Biblical vs. Modern Hebrew: Exploring the Differences

4 min read
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher
Abigail Zamir, Citizen Café Hebrew teacher

When people come to one of our one-on-one introductory sessions with a teacher (to get a sense of the method) one of the most frequently asked questions is “Do you teach Biblical Hebrew?” To be more exact, some are interested in “learning Hebrew” in general, without realizing there are actually two languages: the one of the Old Testament (תנ”ך tah-nahch) and Talmudic texts (referred to as לשון חז”ל, Language of the Sages), and the modern-day Hebrew that is spoken daily in Israel. These languages are obviously intertwined, since modern-day Hebrew evolved from Biblical Hebrew. But it is important to understand that knowing one doesn’t necessarily mean understanding the other.

If you’ve learned Biblical Hebrew in the “Yeshiva” (the traditional jewish educational institution), you might understand some verbs and nouns in modern-day Hebrew, but there are major differences. The grammatical structure of a typical sentence is different, and there’s a whole new vocabulary you simply wouldn’t be familiar with. On the other hand, if you’ve lived in Israel for three years and now suddenly decided to open the Old Testament, you might be able to sound out the different words, but you’d have a hard time comprehending what they mean. Thousands of pages could be written about the intricacies of the Hebrew language, about the way it has changed and evolved over more than 3,000 years of its existence. In this short essay I chose to focus on three key differences, and hopefully it will spark your curiosity to continue researching on your own.

The conversive Vav – ו’ הַהִפּוּךְ      

Biblical Hebrew has some unique features, and one of them is the “conversive letter vav”. In modern Hebrew when the letter “ו” appears before a word, it is the equivalent of “and” in English. For example:

I ate ice cream and cake אכלתי גלידה ועוגה (ah-chahl-tee glee-dah veh-oo-gah)

As you can see, it is always written as part of the word that comes after it. Now let’s take a look at this verse from The Book of Genesis 20:1:

וַיִּסַּע מִשָּׁם אַבְרָהָם אַרְצָה הַנֶּגֶב, וַיֵּשֶׁב בֵּין-קָדֵשׁ וּבֵין שׁוּר; וַיָּגָר, בִּגְרָר.” (בראשית כ’, פסוק א’)

Without getting too much into the rules of Hebrew grammar, what we supposedly see here are three verbs in future tense with the letter “vav” before them: ויסע (and he will go), וישב (and he will sit), and ויגר (and he will live). But surprise! The letter vav here is actually the “conversive vav” (unique only to Biblical Hebrew), which has the superpower to convert a verb from future tense to past tense ?. So the ACTUAL meaning of this verse is that Abraham left a prior location and moved to a village between two cities called גרר (Gerar) in which he settled.

Syntax: The Arrangement of words in a Sentence

In modern Hebrew, like many other modern languages, sentences are written in the form SVO (subject-verb-object). For example:

He went to the beach הוא הלך לים (hoo hah-lahch lah-yahm)

He הוא = the subject
Went הלך = the verb
The beach ים = the object

On the other hand, in Biblical Hebrew – like other Semitic languages – sentences are written in the form VSO (verb-subject-object). For example:

“וַיַּעַשׂ אֱלֹהִים, אֶת-הָרָקִיעַ” (Genesis, 1:7)
And made ויעש = verb
God אלהים = subject
The sky הרקיע = object

Not all sentences in Biblical Hebrew are written this way, but it is the most common way of storytelling in The Bible, like in the example above of Abraham traveling and settling in Gerar.

Vocabulary

As I’ve mentioned before, Biblical and Modern Hebrew share some verbs and nouns, but most of the vocabulary is different. Some words are outdated, other verbs are not used in the same tense as they were used in biblical times. Here are a few examples:

English Biblical Hebrew Modern Hebrew
Fear (noun) מורא (moh-rah)  פחד (pah-chahd)
To save\rescue להושיע (leh-ho-shee-ah) להציל (leh-ha-tseel)
Was (m.s.) ויהי (vah-yeh-hee) היה (hah-yah)
Saw (m.s.) וירא (vah-yahr) ראה (rah-ah)
I (me) אנוכי (ah-noh-chee) אני (ah-nee)

This is merely the tip of the iceberg, but you can see even from these few examples that knowing Biblical Hebrew doesn’t necessarily mean understanding Modern Hebrew, and vice versa. The transition Hebrew has made from its biblical form to its modern form is really quite astonishing. It took a lot of willpower and tenacity, especially of an individual named Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and his family. But that is a story for another day…

At Citizen Café we teach Modern Hebrew, and focus on real-life conversation skills. We want our students to feel confident in their ability to express themselves in Hebrew, whether it’s in a restaurant, at home, at a bar with friends, or even amongst colleagues. Our goal is that students will leave class and immediately hear the same vocabulary out on the street, on the phone with their loved ones, or on TV. If any of this resonates with you, you can schedule a free online session with one of our teachers and learn more about our method!

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