Learning Hebrew – The Basics

learning hebrewWhy would you want to learn Hebrew? There are a number of reasons why someone who is not of Jewish descent might want to learn Hebrew. For Christians, learning Hebrew offers them the ability to read sections of the Bible in its original language. For Historians, it opens up a world of firsthand access to early Jewish literature. For those of Jewish descent, learning Hebrew is considered their connection to Israel and their key to learning from the primary sources. Anyone who has learned a language can tell you that things can often be lost in translation, and having the opportunity to read through the original text yourself can give you answers you missed when reading the translated text.

If you’re interested in learning Hebrew, here are some basics to keep in mind as you learn. Get started right now with a Hebrew for Beginners course.

How to Read Hebrew

Unlike the English language, which is read from left to right, Hebrew is read from right to left. This is common of many semitic languages. It’s also important to note that while in English consonants and vowels can be arranged in any order, Hebrew words have a specific pattern that they follow. Vowels must follow consonants except the last consonant that does not always need to be followed by a vowel. You can see this in the words “melek,” which means king, and “meleko,” which means his king. The first follows the pattern of consonants being followed by vowels except the last consonant. The second word has every consonant being followed by a vowel, even the last one.

Learning the Hebrew Alephbet

The Hebrew word for the alphabet is “alephbet,” and this word is made up of the first two letters in the Hebrew alphabet – Aleph and Bet. Unlike the English language that has an alphabet made up of both consonants and vowels, the Hebrew alephbet is made up only of twenty-two consonants. The vowels are dots and dashes added above or below the consonants. The sound for each letter in the Hebrew alephbet stays the same as opposed to English where there are different ways letter can be pronounced. Below is a char showing the Hebrew alephbet. Remember that Hebrew is read from right to left. Learn the Hebrew alephbet with an online course. If you learn better with a connection to something you already know, consider the E-Vreet method to learning the Hebrew alephbet.

learning hebrew

The letters in the first line, starting from the top right corner, are as follows: Aleph, Beyt, Gimel, Dalet, and Hey. The letters in the second line, again starting from the right, are Vav, Zayin, Chet, Tet, and Yud. In the third line, starting from the right, are Kaph, Lamed, Mem, Nun, Samech, and Ayin. The last line includes the letters Pey, Tsade, Quph, Resh, Shin, and Tav. Five of the letters are written differently when appearing at the end of the word. These are known as final letters, and those letters are Final Tsade, Final Pey, Final Nun, Final Mem, and Final Kaph. The chart below lists the names of the Hebrew letters and their English transliterations. You can use the image above for the printed letter.

 

Hebrew Letter NameHandwriting NotesPronunciationEnglish Transliteration
Alephnonesilentnone
Bet (Beyt)drawn with a dot in the centerb like in ballb
Vet (Beyt)drawn with no dot in the centerv like in vehiclev
Gimelnoneg like in gog
Daletnoned like in dogd
Heynoneh like in helloh
Vavnonev like in vehiclev
Zayinnonez like in crazyz
Chetnonech like in Bachch
Tetnonet like in talkt
Yudnoney like in easyy
Kaf (Kaph)drawn with a dot in the centerk like in keepk
Khaf (Kaph)draw with no dot in the centerch like in Bachkh
Lamednonel like in lockl
Memnonem like in monkeym
Nunnonen like in nonen
Samechnones like in suns
Ayinnonesilentnone
Peydrawn with a dot in the centerp like in playp
Fey (Pey)drawn with no dot in the centerf like in funph/f
Tsadenonets like in putsts
Quphnoneq like in quickq/k
Reshnoner like in runr
Shindrawn with a dot at the top right of the lettersh like in shipsh
Sin (Shin)drawn with a dot at the top left of the letters like in suns
Tavnonet like in talkt

 

Hebrew vowels are a series of dots and dashes, as stated above. They are called “nikkud” or “nikkudot” for the plural. While used in grammar books, children’s books, and holy texts, nikkudot are rarely seen in novels, newspapers, or even on signs. The nikkudot are listed below.

Borrowed from Ancient Hebrew Research Center

Borrowed from the Ancient Hebrew Research Center

The Qamats, Patach, and Chataph Patach are known as the “a” vowels for Hebrew language. They all have similar sound like the “a” in water. The Tsere, Segol, and Chataph Segol are known as the “e” vowels for the Hebrew language. The Tsere sounds more like the “e” in they, but the Segol and Chateph Segol sound more like the “e” like in them. The Hhireq is considered the “i” of Hebrew vowels and pronounced like the “ea” in team. The Cholam, Cholam Maley, and Chataph Qamats are the “o” vowels of the Hebrew language, and they are all pronounced like the “o” in hole. Qubbuts and Shuruq are considered the “u” vowels of the Hebrew language, and they both are pronounced like the “o” in shoe. Sh’va can be both an “e” sound or make no sound. Their English transliterations are listed in the short chart below.

NameTransliteration
Qamatsa
Patacha
Chataph Patacha
Tsereei/e
Segole
Chataph Segole
Hhireqi
Cholamo
Cholam Maleyo
Chataph Qamatso
Qubbutsu
Shuruqu
Sh’vae/none

Using Audio Recordings for Pronunciation Help

Reading Hebrew and knowing the letters won’t be enough if you plan to have a conversation. Just like with English, proper pronunciation can mean the difference between someone thinking you said one word as opposed to the word you were actually trying to use. There are a great number of ways you can find audio recordings of the Hebrew language. Many classes for taking Hebrew will offer audio with the lessons, like a course on learning conversational Hebrew in thirty days. You could also try a quick Google search to find Hebrew videos that include English subtitles.

Writing Hebrew Letters

If you’re serious about learning Hebrew and continuing with it, you might consider learning how to write the language so you can do more than read and speak it. The Ancient Hebrew Research Center has a page that provides help for those wanting to learn how to write Hebrew letters. As the handwriting helps actually show the letters being written in graph paper cells, you should consider using graph paper while practicing the letters until you have practiced them for a while.

Learning Hebrew Using Holy Texts

Many people learn Hebrew so that they can read holy Jewish texts in their original language. As said before, things can get lost in translation, and the true meaning of a word can only be known when you understand the language. If your true desire to learn Hebrew is so you can read holy texts, try learning Hebrew straight from the Bible. If you are of Jewish descent and don’t want to learn from the Bible, you can also find a copy of Jewish holy texts from Shamash. They provide links to both English translations and full Hebrew text. You might want to at least have some basic knowledge of the Hebrew alephbet before you begin reading in Hebrew, however.

Teaching Yourself with an English to Hebrew Dictionary

You can teach yourself Hebrew using Morfix, a dictionary that will translate English to Hebrew and Hebrew to English. You’re likely going to want basic knowledge about the Hebrew alephbet, however, just like with many of the other techniques. Using this method would be similar to teaching yourself Spanish using Google Translate. While it might work for a time, you are eventually going to miss out on proper grammar, pronunciation, and honestly, no one enjoys reading a dictionary.

Final Notes

Learning a new language can be worthwhile in many ways. It can be a hobby, a way of learning from original texts, or even a requirement for cultural life. Whatever your reason for learning Hebrew may be, it’s important to keep in mind that you’re not going to learn if you don’t practice. With that said, it’s also important that you keep practicing even after you feel you’ve learned all you can. If you don’t use it, you will lose it, and if you want to keep your knowledge of the Hebrew language, you’re going to need to practice it at least a little bit each day.

Go beyond these basics, and increase your vocabulary. Practice writing the letters, and work on your pronunciation with audio recordings. If your love of the Hebrew language continues to grow, consider a certification in the language itself. Do you want to pass on your love of Hebrew to others? You can earn a certificate in teaching Hebrew too. Remember what first drew you to learning Hebrew, and keep that in mind so you can keep practicing.