Bartimaeus Alliance of the Blind, Inc.

Index to Hebrew Study Aids

Introduction to Hebrew I

Before we dig into the exciting world of Biblical Hebrew, there are some things I need to share. This will help set the mood and prepare you for the journey ahead. This section contains, then, the story of my journey into Hebrew and tips for mastering this course.

My Journey with Hebrew

I have always been visually impaired. Since twelve years of age, I have been totally blind. This did not stop my desire to study the Bible.

My personal journey into the realm of Biblical Hebrew began in 1984 when I was nine. I was listening to Amy Grant's El-Shaddai on the radio. My mother told me that Amy Grant was singing Hebrew in the chorus, and while I didn't know exactly what the words meant, they were beautiful to hear.

In college in northern California I chose a theology major which would involve study of Biblical languages. I enjoyed Greek in my sophomore and junior years, but it wasn't until I started taking Hebrew in my senior year that I really felt that deep joy. I liked not only learning to study God's Word in the original language, but I also found beauty in the sound and feel of the language. Unfortunately, I didn't have access then to all the Braille tools available today. I had a tutor read the text book to me, and I took notes. I had a DOS-based bible software system from the American Bible Society that had a transliterated Hebrew Bible, and I used the transliteration code from that to type out Hebrew notes. I would read letter-by-letter with my screen reader, and, as inconvenient as it was, I still enjoyed it.

My Hebrew journey only intensified in seminary at Andrews University, in southwest Michigan. In my Master of Divinity studies I chose a Hebrew Bible emphasis. (We refer to the Old Testament as the Hebrew Bible in this course.) Then I began a PhD in Hebrew Bible. I knew I would need access to the Hebrew accent marks for syntactical work and so I could chant the text for worship and fun. I found that the Center for Computer Analysis of Texts, CCAT, at the University of Pennsylvania, had a digital transliterated Hebrew Bible with accent marks coded, and they sent me a copy for just $10 along with some other Hebrew and Aramaic materials. They were probably surprised that their technical computer texts would make such a difference for me, but I was, then, able to get as much out of the Hebrew text as any sighted person. Then, when the Michigan Commission for the Blind learned I had this set of technical documents, they purchased for me a BrailleNote computer which had a refreshable Braille display. I could read the biblical text in computer Braille mode, with my fingers, and it was better than letter-by-letter reading with a screen reader.

In 2001 I married Sally who also liked Hebrew. She could help read for me for papers and my dissertation. Together, we also began enjoying another aspect of Hebrew as we explored the Jewish roots of our faith. We would visit synagogues and learn the songs and prayers. We found it beautiful and healing making Hebrew such an intimate part of our worship experience.

It wasn't until after I graduated with my PhD in Hebrew Bible in 2010 that my journey into Braille Hebrew really took off. I'd used some volumes of the Braille Hebrew Bible from the Jewish Braille Institute of America during some of my doctoral studies, but I found I really needed the additional accent marks that the CCAT files offered. Since the two systems used different coding schemes, I donated the Braille volumes to an area synagogue. After I graduated I discovered that there were digital coding schemes for Hebrew Braille and that there were some Hebrew Bible files online. These files contained some technical imperfections and also lacked the Hebrew accent marks. So I took some regular Hebrew Bible files and converted them myself into Braille code, developing a system for coding the accents. I also would set up a version without the accents for people who prefer that. I would spend the next year or so converting Greek and Hebrew Biblical language files into Braille code so the blind like me could read them. Among many things, I set up the Hebrew Bible, parsing guides, and Hebrew-English Lexicon files for this course. My love for Hebrew has only grown more since then, and now I have the opportunity to share that with you.

Tips for Mastering This Course

I see it important at this point to share with you some tricks that I found helped me enjoy and succeed in Hebrew. I encourage the successful student to, at least, try them and develop any other tricks that help.

First, it is important to remember why you are doing this. The above section gives many good reasons for studying Hebrew. Knowing Hebrew will help one enjoy and better understand the text of the Hebrew Bible which Jews, Christians, and Moslems all believe is inspired of God. Knowing Hebrew also enables one to enjoy the rich culture of Judaism which is often expressed in Christianity in the Jewish roots movement. Learning Hebrew songs can help make the language more enjoyable. There are many on the internet, and this course can teach you one or two.

The next thing to remember is discipline. As with any skill, it will take regular practice. If one wishes to play a musical instrument, he/she must practice much every day and understand that the playing will not sound very good at first. One must just keep pressing on. It's been said, "if it's worth doing, it's worth doing badly." One will never learn to do something well unless it is accepted that the person will do badly at first. It takes discipline to get to the point of doing something well.

This course is designed for one to commit to about six hours of work per week to finish in fifteen weeks. This means one hour a day for six days. This doesn't all have to be at once. In fact, revisiting Hebrew vocabulary a few times a day is actually better for the mind. If one becomes too busy to do the hour for a day, he/she is advised to, at least, spend five minutes going over recent knowledge and essentials such as the basic personal pronouns. This way the student will not lose ground. Since this course is self-paced, one may wish to spread it out over six months and do only half an hour a day six days a week. However one progresses, it is important to have a commitment that is "doable," and to stick to it no matter what. It will be more than worth it in the end.

The next trick is relaxation. One cannot make oneself fall asleep by force, for example. Many things in life work best when one is relaxed. Trying to force the mind to list and re-list vocabulary words as a slave-driver is not as effective as relaxing with comfortable but good posture, and gently going over the words for a few minutes.

Another technique concerns order. At first, one should review all new vocabulary words and grammatical forms every day. The reviewing will become easier and easier until one can run through a list in a few seconds. One may wish, at that point, to review less often. In that case, the material can be broken into sections where one section is reviewed on these days and another section on those days. The student will find the orderly pattern that works best.

For reviewing, one can make flash cards, which would have the word in question on one side in Braille, and the meaning/parsing on the other side in Braille. Words that one misses would be dropped into a second stack to review later. One may also do this on a computer with a Braille display. Since the fingers only look at one word at a time, one can read down a vocabulary list, trying to define a word on the left margin. One may look to the right for the meaning. If one misses the word, one may put a symbol combination such as == to the left of the word. The == is good because it will not appear anywhere else in the document except by words one misses. At the end, one may return to words that were missed by using "search/find" in the word processor, which is ctrl-f in MS Word and windows and Read-F on the BrailleNote. One may wish to keep difficult words or terms marked this way for quick review on days when one cannot do the full hour of studying. When I was learning Hebrew, at first, I didn't have a Braille display, so I was going letter-by-letter through vocabulary words on my computer marking ones that needed revisiting.

It is also important to make Hebrew practical. Even though you are not officially learning to speak Biblical Hebrew, the brain has, shall we say, software in it specifically for language. If we use that software for learning Hebrew, it will be more automatic to us. It would be good to use every vocabulary word in a sentence, even if the sentence is mostly English words. In college, when learning Greek, I would make up little sentences for my girlfriend at the time in Greek, and we both actually found it romantic.

The final technique for mastering Hebrew is prayer. It is believed by the Abrahamic religions that God inspired the Hebrew Bible. It would stand to reason, then, that God would be more than willing to give us the strength to read and study it. (Psalm 119:34) If one even tries using some Hebrew words in the prayer, it will give the student even more practice.