How to Learn to Read the Hebrew Bible in the Original

Happy Fourth of July! Over the course of the past week I wondered to myself, “Lord (no pun intended), what topic would be REALLY good and/or suitable to discuss and post on American Independence Day?”

Yes, I could write about American English but often that may come to be a bit too predictable….

Instead, I have come to write about a topic that many of you have been BEGGING me for—namely, the Hebrew of the Scriptures!

I think that the Bible and the United States go very well tog…never mind that…

Anyhow, time to begin!

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Antwerp, the home of the world’s oldest printing presses

A lot of people have told me throughout the years (people of all religions, mind you) that they would like to learn enough Hebrew in order to read the Bible. Another common question I get is “how similar (or different) are Hebrew as it is spoken in Israel today and Hebrew as it is used in the Scriptures and prayers?”

Excellent question!

  • Modern Hebrew has words from English (thanks to the British Mandate), French (thanks to it having been the international language in the days of Eliezer Ben-Yehuda, the father of Modern Hebrew) and Slavic Languages / Yiddish (given as that was the culture of many of the founding fathers of contemporary Israel). Biblical Hebrew has absolutely none of these.

 

However, one thing that may surprise you is the fact that there are loan words from other languages in Biblical Hebrew, although thanks to a millennia-long gap, post-colonialism and too many other factors to list, it’s not easy to detect all of them.

The culture of the Bible is one in which the Hebrews find themselves interacting with many, MANY other ethnicities. The sheer amount of them is staggering and nowadays I would venture that that sort of diversity of small mini-nations as described in the Bible would be found in places like Northern Australia, Melanesia and areas of Indonesia.

Obviously some of the big “players” would include the quilt of cultures of Mesopotamia, Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Eastern Mediterranean. As time goes on in the Bible, the array of mini-cultures starts to coalesce into global powers like Assyria, Egypt and Old Babylon. During the time of the “United Kingdom of Judah and Israel” (as my professor Wayne Horowitz used to call it), the union (a bit like a Poland-Lithuania or a Denmark-Norway, as it were) became a regional military power (as noted in the book of Samuel). This happened during the reigns of David and Solomon and the kingdoms split after Solomon’s death.

So what does this have to do with loanwords?

Hebrew is fairly purest at times, or so it seems…until you realize that the extent of loans or cognates from languages like Akkadian or Sumerian cannot be fully realized in their entirety.

One such Sumerian loanword in Hebrew is a word used to refer to the Divine Realm, “היכל” (Heykhal).

With knowledge of Akkadian, a lot of the Bible’s “hidden references” come to light, and we may never truly discover the full scope of it. (Jeremiah is said to have been able to read it, and that there are idiomatic and pattern parallels between his book of prophecy and those of prominent Akkadian language poets)

Planet Earth’s first great empire was Sumer, and then (much like Judah and Israel did later on), they coalesced into one kingdom, the Kingdom of Sumer and Akkad. Like the Israelites, the Akkadians were also Semites, while the Sumerians were not. The tension apparently did result in the union’s dissolution later on down the line.

It’s unsurprising, then, that loanwords from these languages ended up in Hebrew.

Later on in the age of the Talmud, the Mishnah (the “alpha” version of the Talmud, with the “beta” version, the Gemara, coming later on) uses loanwords from Greek and even some from Latin (note to those unaware: Greek was the American English of the Eastern Roman Empire). The same way that Dutch youth may use a lot of English, German and French loan words in their speech, the Tanaim of the Mishnah also used loans from other languages that they recognized.

I’ve come a long way since Jewish Day School, haven’t I?

In short: Modern Hebrew -> Contemporary European Influence, Biblical Hebrew -> Influence from the Languages of Antiquity, Talmudic Hebrew -> Influence from OTHER languages of Antiquity (and we still haven’t even touched on the Hebrew as used by Jewish poets throughout the Diaspora for millennia!)

 

  • Verb Structure is different.

 

Like Irish (which shares a LOT of uncanny similarities to Biblical Hebrew in terms of its grammatical setup, causing people to think that the Celts were the Lost Ten Tribes), Biblical Hebrew uses a “Verb-Subject-Object” sentence structure. When God speaks to Moses, the words translate to “he-spoke God to-Moses to-say”

Modern Hebrew resembles something closer to English, Yiddish or Slavic Languages in terms of its sentence structure. Translating word-by-word from Modern Hebrew into English is less of a hassle for this reason.

 

  • Pronunciation CAN be different (in Ashkenazi or Temani Spheres)

 

Jews from Yemen and Jews from Ashkenaz (Central-Eastern Europe), especially deeply religious ones, may use different pronunciation than what Israelis will use in conversation.

But Israelis of all stripes, however, will use the Sephardic pronunciation in using Modern Hebrew.

Here’s why:

Yiddish has Hebrew loan-words in it. These Hebrew words in Yiddish (that can sometimes be significantly detached from their Hebrew-language meanings in the most absurd ways, including being some of the rudest words in the language…) are pronounced using the Ashkenazi pronunciation.

In the early days of Zionism, Yiddish was seen as a Ghetto Language, something to be shed. As a result, the Hebrew pronunciation adopted was that of the Sephardi Jews, so as to become detached from the Old World culture. Oddly enough, Modern Hebrew took a lot of idioms of Ancient Hebrew origin from Yiddish back into its contemporary version (although obviously the meanings shifted yet again in some cases!)

What does this mean for you?

There’s an Orthodox Jewish community right across the street from where I’m writing this. Sometimes they play Hasidic pop songs sung in Ashkenazi-pronounced Hebrew. This means that, unless you’ve had particular training listening to that brand of Hebrew, it may be strange to you (like listening to versions of English that you may have never heard in your life for the first time!)

Some Biblical Hebrew classes will have you use the same Sephardic pronunciation that you use for Modern Hebrew. But in some cases you may need to get used to (or at least recognize) the  Ashkenazi or Temani variant depending on what sphere you’re in.

 

  • Forms of Hebrew used in Antiquity can be wildly inconsistent.

 

The Mishna uses modified plural endings for verbs. Some portions of the Bible show slightly-different grammatical patterns. And then this isn’t even touching on the “kri uktiv”, the idea that some words in the Bible are not pronounced as they are written!

(HOWEVER! Your editor will usually let you know in some way how to pronounce the word in the event of “kri uktiv”, which is just the Hebrew term for “read and written”. Oh, “kri uktiv” is Sephardic, and in Ashkenazi it would be “kri u’ksiv”. Fun).
Imagine having no one tell you this and then be expected to read texts with very little prior knowledge in Hebrew from the Five Books of Moses and the Mishna and the prayers. 10-year-old me was very confused indeed.

And that’s why I became a teacher to prevent other people from being so confused.

 

I want to Read the Bible in Hebrew. Where do I start and where should I put my resources? I’ve never studied a “dead language” before…HELP!

 

Jared Gimbel to the rescue!

You need to recognize a number of things first:

  • The building block of the narrative will be verbs. Verbs, like in Modern Hebrew and in other Semitic Languages, will be made out of “shorashim” (the Hebrew word for “roots”), in which there will be a set of three letters that will indicate a certain meaning. These shorashim are not limited to verbs, but also nouns or adjectives that are connected to that action as well.

Most Shorashim in the Bible will be three letters long, and a lot of them will appear very frequently in the bible, verbs like “to send”, “to call out”, “to say”, “to go”, “to return” will be featured regularly. Learn to recognize verbs like these, and let translations of the Hebrew Bible into the language of your choice guide you.

  • The names of characters will be different! The English names of Biblical Characters are taken from the Septuagint (the Greek Translation of the Hebrew Bible). The same is true with the names of the Biblical characters in European Languages or indigenous languages of places colonized by Europeans (the Americas, Africa, Oceania, among others)

In the case of English, you’ll note that the names changed by virtue of the restrictions that Greek had in regards to adopting sounds from Hebrew. Isaac is a Greek-ified version of the Hebrew “Yitzkhak” (and in Yiddish it came under Polish influence and became “Itsik”), and Jacob is a version of “Yaakov” (which is “Yankev” in Yiddish – again, under Polish influence).

Abraham, Isaac and Jacob become Avraham, Yitzkhak, and Yaakov in Hebrew, and Avrohom, Itzik and Yankev in Yiddish. This is SO MUCH FUN, RIGHT?!!?

Also the Bible features a LOT of place names (and people names) that are mentioned once and sometimes they’re almost never brought up again. One issue I’ve seen with students trying to read the Bible is that they may not be able to recognize when a proper name is, in fact, a proper name.

Again, using translations on the side (as long as you’re paying attention, which I’m sure you are) will help you hone your “sixth sense” as to what is a place-name and what is a person-name. Even more confusing: place-names and personal names can also MEAN THINGS!

(What’s more, some Biblical characters are actually named after incidents, including…you got it…Isaac and Jacob. These word games don’t translate into any other language! Aren’t you excited to learn this stuff?

  • Words will appear over and over again in the Bible. Recite aloud. The more you’ll encounter these words, the more you’ll come to recognize them.

Favorites would include “leemor” – “to say”, which is also used to indicate an indirect statement (in plain English this means the “that” in “I said that this blog is the best in the world”), “hineh” (behold!), any words relating to birth and death at all, as well as prepositional phrases, which provide the learner as much frustration in Hebrew as they do with almost any language I can think of that isn’t a Creole.

  • Context always helps.

The fact that you’ve probably heard most of the stories before will actually help you with any information that you may be blanking on, whether it be verb tenses, prepositional phrases, or even a shoresh!

Think about what the people in the story might be doing or saying, how much info you can piece together given what you have already.

You have an exciting journey ahead of you. You are going to be able to read the most influential piece of literature in human history. And believe me, it is a VERY fulfilling feeling to get to read the Masoretic text in the original. Your friends will be impressed…as will I!

Happy Fourth of July!

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5 Reasons You Should Learn Polish

 

Today is May 3rd, the Day of the Polish Constitution, and the third day in a row I’m writing a Language-specific article.

If you have Polish-speaking friends, there is no doubt that they will bring scientific papers and studies and BuzzFeed articles that prove that Polish is the most difficult language in the world, bar none.

I remember the first time I heard that, and I thought “well, why not Czech or Slovak or the Sorbian Languages?”  (Note to those unaware: these are the closest relatives of Polish, as they are all Western Slavic)

Polish pronunciation is tricky for the uninitiated, probably the biggest hang-up I had as a beginner was the fact that there are “n” sounds that are pronounced but not written, one example most commonly used is “ja pamiętam”, meaning “I remember”. The “ę” is a nasal “e” sound. Polish is the only Slavic language to have retained these nasal vowels in the present time (they are originally from Old Slavonic).

As a result of this combination, it is actually pronounced like “pamięntam”

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Anyhow, you came here for an article and that’s what you’ll get:

  1. The Tongue Twisters are Probably the Most Difficult in Any Language

Polish tongue twisters are among the most “get ready to throw your computer out a window” in the world. For the truly masochistic, I recommend the short verse “W Szczebrzeszynie chrząszcz brzmi w trzcinie” (“A beetle buzzes in the reeds in Szczebrzeszyn”).

The sz is a sh sound, the cz is a ch sound, and you can combine them (other Slavic languages do so as well) to create a “shch” sound.

Rz is pronounced like a combination of a sh sound and a z sound, like a French J.

Ch is the classic guttural sound, like the “ch” in Bach (too many other languages have them, Hebrew and Dutch are probably best known for theirs).

C or s followed by an i is pronounced “chi” and “shi” respectively.

W is a v sound in English.

The letter “ą” is also nasal.

Now you know everything in order to pronounce that sentence.

Good luck.

Impress your friends today!

  1. In Poland, I felt as though Polish-speakers were comfortable using Polish or English to whatever degree I was comfortable with. Other countries where English is commonly spoken (some would classify Poland as such) need to learn to do this, too.

 

In some places, like Sweden, Israel and the Netherlands, I felt considerably afraid about messing up, knowing that if I did I would get answered in English without a second thought (thankfully the better you get and the more natural you sound, the less of this will happen. Fun fact: in the Netherlands I’ve even heard stories of Dutch native speakers being answered in English!)

Poland’s not like that! Especially if your pronunciation is good!

Even as a beginner, you’ll get plenty of encouragement (aside from being told that Polish is absurdly difficult all of the time) and you seldom need to worry about being answered in English. But even if you DO want to speak English, the locals will gladly accommodate that, too!

The more I look back at my time on Poland, I saw that there was a nigh-PERFECT balance between using global languages (like English and German) and using the local language (although Polish is also a global language as well, because…)

  1. Polish People Live Everywhere as Expatriates

 

Maybe it had something to do with lots of people fleeing the country during the tribulations of the 20th century, but you’ll run into Polish-speakers all over the globe. As far as I can tell, Poland is the only country that has Polish as its official language (despite the fact that there are sizeable Polish minorities in all of the surrounding countries and even further afield).

Despite that, the Polish diaspora will ensure that you’ll have plenty of opportunities to practice!

Not only that, but even now there are Polish citizens that are discovering that they have distant family members everywhere, from the United States to the British Commonwealth countries to…well, everywhere else, actually.

People of Polish heritage have brought their culture everywhere. The various histories of the United States and Poland, both countries that had constitutions guaranteeing full religious freedoms, are also intertwined, and they share a lot of the same mindsets and struggles.

Polish culture (as well as the language) also influenced Ashkenazi Judaism and the Yiddish language to no end, and thanks to the fall of communism as well as drastistically improved relations between Polish people and Jews all over the world, the true extent of how much they share is finally being revealed to all.

 

  1. Polish Music had a Fantastic Reputation during the Communist Period

A lot of people are feeling uncertainty with the global politics of the present moment. It wasn’t the only time, and I doubt it will end up being the last time.

 

 

My favorite Polish band is Republika, one that masterfully captures a lot of lyrics that encapsulate rebellion, the tragicomedy that is hoping in despairing times, and fantastic musings that can be applied to personal hardships as well as those on a global scale:

 

Here’s a taste of the lyrics of the above song, “My Lunatycy” (“We, the Lunatics”)

 

My lunatycy  – coraz więcej lunatykó pośród nas

my lunatycy – każdy własny wulkan na Księżycu ma

tabletki na sen to komunia święta dla każdego z nas

my lunatycy – coraz więcej lunatyków pośród nas

 

We, the lunatics – even more lunatics among us

We lunatics – everyone has his/her own volcano on the moon

Dream tablets, this is our worldly communion for every one of us

We, the lunatics, even more lunatics among us

 

Somebody understands politics better than most.

(Sadly, the leader of Republika, Grzegorz Chiechowski, died in his forties as a result of heart disease.)

And a song you are probably guaranteed to hear after an extended stay in the country:

 

It’s a tongue-twister song!

 

On the other side of the quality spectrum, I wrote a piece (for April 1) about Disco Polo here. But maybe there is some of you that actually like that stuff. If I didn’t have a class to teacher right after finishing this, I’d actually, y’know, translate the lyrics in that post.

 

  1. Recognizing and Appreciating the Culture of Poland will instantly earn you friendships!

 

“Everyone thinks my country is backwards”

“Everyone hates my country”

And the quickest berserk button? Blindly associate Poland with anti-Semitism and/or xenophobia.

(Truth: it is no different than the US in this regard. Poland was, up until World War II and then Communism, an astonishingly multicultural society, although not without tensions, it should be mentioned)

The best way to show that you are willing to engage with the culture is to take up the “absolutely impossible world’s most difficult language”. Even if you know a few words, it will help build trust. In a lot of Central-Eastern European countries, there is a culture of a silent distrust sometimes unless you actively choose to build that trust. (Being sandwiched between multiple empires will do that to you!)

A lot of political problems with many countries have to do with a sense of national victim mentality (see the quotes at the beginning of this section). You can help alleviate it, even just a little bit, by choosing to show that you are willing to engage!

I got asked at a dentist office if Poland was still communist (in 2012). I can imagine that Polish nationals throughout the world have probably gotten something similar and sometimes plenty worse.

Learning this language is like a cupid’s arrow, except for friendships instead of infatuation. Trust me on this one!

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“Is Tajikistan a Real Country?” – Introducing the Tajiki Language

Happy Persian New Year!

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The most money I’ve ever spent on a language learning book. Came with a CD. Can’t imagine there are too many books that can say that about themselves in 2017.

 

In Late 2016 and Early 2017 I thought it would be becoming of me to try to learn a language of a Muslim-majority country for the first time. Yes, I did get the Turkish trophy in Duolingo but I don’t count that because the amount of Turkish phrases I can say as of the time of writing can be counted on my fingers.

The same way that the Catholic world is very varied (you have Brazilians and Hungarians and Mexicans and too many nations in Sub-Saharan Africa to list), the Muslim world is just as equally varied with numerous flavors and internal conflicts that Hollywood and American pop culture not only doesn’t show very often but actively tries to hide (or so I feel).

While I am not fluent (nor do I even count myself as proficient) in Tajik, I am grateful for the fact that I can experience tidbits of this culture while being very far away from it, and it seems oddly familiar to me for reasons I can’t quite explain.

What’s more, Tajik is one of three Persian languages (the others being Farsi in Iran and Dari in Afghanistan), and so I can converse with speakers of all three with what little I have. I remember being shocked about how close Swedish, Norwegian and Danish were to each other (to those unaware: even closer than Spanish, Catalan and Italian), and I was even more shocked at how close these were. The three Persian languages are even closer—so close that there are those (both on the Internet and in my friend group) that consider them dialects of a single language (yes, I’ve had the same discussion with the Melanesian Creole languages!)

As a Jewish person myself (and an Ashkenazi Jew at that, for those unaware that means that my Jewish roots are traced to Central-Eastern Europe), I was intrigued by Tajik in particular as the language of the Bukharan Jewish community.

(Note: Bukhara is in contemporary Uzbekistan, and if you see where Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan meet on a map and you have a hunch that imperialist meddling may have been responsible for those borders, then you’re absolutely right!)

What’s more, my father visited Iran and Afghanistan earlier in his life but when he was there the USSR was “still a thing”.

I also had a fascination with Central Asia as a teenager ever since I heard the words “Kazakhstan”, “Uzbekistan”, “Tajikistan”, etc. (despite the fact that I literally knew NOTHING about these places aside from their names, locations on a map, and capitals), and so between Persian languages I knew which one I would try first.

It has been hard, though! With Tajik I’ve noticed that there is a gap in online resources—a lot of stuff for beginners and for native speakers (e.g. online movies) and virtually NOTHING in between (save for the Transparent Language course that I’m working on).

Thankfully knowing that I have surmounted similar obstacles with other languages (e.g. with Solomon Islands Pijin) fills me with determination.

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I’m sorry. No more “Undertale” jokes for a while.

 

Anyhow, what make Tajik unique?

 

  1. Tajik is Sovietized

 

The obvious difference between the other Persian languages and Tajik is the fact that Tajik is written in the Cyrillic alphabet, and much like Hebrew or Finnish, is pronounced the way that it is written with almost mathematical precision (despite some difficult-to-intuit shenanigans with syllable stress).

 

Thanks to not using the Arabic alphabet this obviously does make it a lot easier for speakers who may not be familiar with it.

 

Yes, in a lot of the countries in Central Asia (especially in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan) there are some issues with what alphabet is used (and if you think that this has to do with dictators forcing or adopting certain systems, you’d be right!). Tajik I’ve noted is very consistent in usage of the Cyrillic alphabet, although obviously presences of the other two Persian languages e.g. on comment boards are present almost always whenever Tajik is.

 

But what exactly does “sovietization” entail? Well there are a lot of words that come from Russian in Tajik, and ones that were probably adopted because of administrative purposes. The words for an accident ( “avariya”) and toilet (“unitaz”), for example, are Russian loan words.

 

But unlike the Arabic / Turkic words in Tajik, a lot of these loan words refer specially to objects and things related to administration (the concept of the “Familia” [=family name], for example).

 

And this brings us to…

 

 

  1. There are a lot of Arabic loan words in Tajik.

This is something that is common to many languages spoken by Muslims.  As I noted in my interview with Tomedes, it occurred to me that the usage of Arabic words in a language like Tajik very eerily paralleled the usage of Hebrew words in Yiddish. Yiddish uses a Hebrew greeting frequently (Shulem-Aleikhem! / Aleikhem Shulem!), and Tajik uses its Arabic equivalent (Salom! / Assalomu alejkum! / va alajkum assalom!).

In case you are curious as to why the “o” is used in Tajik in the Arabic-loan phrase above, this has to do with the way that these words mutated when they entered Tajik, the same way that (wait for it!) Hebrew words changed their pronunciation a bit when they entered Yiddish! (Yaakov [Jacob] becoming “Yankev”, for example)

These Arabic loan words found themselves not only in the other Persian languages but also through Central Asia and in the Indo-Aryan languages (spoken in Northern India)!

 

  1. Tajik uses pronouns to indicate possessives

 

Should probably clarify this with an example:

Nomi man Jared (my name is Jared)

Kitobi shumo (Your book)

Zaboni Tojiki (Tajik Language)

 

Man = I

Shumo = you (polite form)

 

This means that forming possessives because easy once you grasp the concept of Izofat.

Cue the Tajiki Language book in the picture above (on page 135, to be precise)

 

“Izofat is used to connect a noun to any word that modifies it except numbers, demonstratives the superlative form of adjectives and a few other words. It consists of “I” following the noun and is always written joined to the noun. It is never stressed, the stress remains on the last syllable of the noun

 

Kitobi nav – a new book”

Madri khub – a good man

Zani zebo – a beautiful woman

Donishjui khasta = a tired student”

 

(And this is the point when it occurs to you that “Tajiki”, the name used of the language by some, uses Izofat. Tajik = person, Tajiki = language or general adjective, although enough people don’t make the distinction to the degree that even Google Translate refers to the language as “Tajik”)

Thanks to Izofat, a lot of the words are not extraordinarily long (much like in English), sparing you the pains of a language like German or Finnish (much less something like Greenlandic) in which a word may require you to dissect it.

 

  1. Hearing Tajik can be an Enchanting Experience for Those Who Know Iranian Persian or Dari

 

Ever heard someone with a stark generational difference to you use a word you can recognize but don’t use? (for me in my 20’s, this means someone using the word “billfolds” to refer to your wallets, “marks” for your grades, etc?)

 

In using my Tajik with speakers of the other two Persian languages, I’ve often heard “that makes sense to me, and its correct, but it has fallen out of usage in my country”, a bit like you might be able to understand idioms of Irish English or English as spoken in many Caribbean island nations, although you might not be able to use them yourself…including some you actually legitimately don’t know!

 

Unlike with, let’s say, speaking Danish to a Swedish person (did that only ONCE!) and not being understood, I haven’t had problems being understood in Tajik, although I usually have to explain why I speak Tajik and not Farsi (answer: curiosity + my father didn’t get to visit there, but maybe I will! + Central Asia and the -stan countries are KEWL

 

I would write more about how to learn it and how to use it, but the truth is that I’m sorta still a novice at Tajik, so maybe now’s not the best time.

But hey! September is Tajikistan’s independence day, so if I progress enough by then you’ll get treated to something!

Soli nav muborak! A Happy New Year!