Biblical Hebrew: Learning a Sacred Language

Course No. 2256
Professor Michael Carasik, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
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What Will You Learn?

  • Learn how to recognize and pronounce letters, numbers, punctuation marks, and accents in Biblical Hebrew.
  • Explore the grammatical rules behind Biblical Hebrew verb forms and verb stem identifications.
  • Get the reading skills that will enable you to appreciate the Hebrew Bible's un-translatable literary artistry.
  • Hone your skills by reading an entire chapter from the Hebrew Bible: Numbers 22.
  • Learn how to choose and use Biblical Hebrew dictionaries and other helpful print and electronic references.

Course Overview

Most of us first encounter the Hebrew Bible (what Christians call the Old Testament) in translation. We, therefore view it through the lens of someone else’s interpretation, however venerable that interpretation may be. But for many centuries, before translations made the text of the Bible accessible to people around the world, it was read and interpreted in its original language, ancient Hebrew. Jews continue to read the Bible in that language today, and so can you.

Biblical Hebrew was the language of ancient Israel. It is an archaic form of the modern Hebrew that is spoken on the streets of present-day Jerusalem; the relationship between the two is akin to that between Shakespearean English and modern English. Biblical Hebrew is no longer used in casual conversation, but it remains at the heart of Jewish worship.

What can be gained by learning to read and understand the the Hebrew Bible in its original language?

According to Professor Michael Carasik of the University of Pennsylvania, who has spent his career studying and translating the Hebrew Bible, it’s about deepening one’s knowledge and appreciation of this profound work. By learning how to read the Bible in Hebrew, you’ll be able to:

  • Reach your own conclusions about what its stories really mean,
  • Enhance your appreciation of its un-translatable literary artistry, and
  • Gain new understanding of ancient history and the roots of the three great Abrahamic religions.

Professor Carasik has designed this 36-lecture course, Biblical Hebrew: Learning a Sacred Language, to be your authoritative primer on everything from the Hebrew alphabet and punctuation marks to essential vocabulary words to advanced grammatical rules. Whether you’re just starting out on a study of Hebrew or you already know the basics, these lectures are a helpful resource that will contextualize the language for you with a line-by-line reading of passages—and ultimately an entire chapter—from the Hebrew Bible. They’re meant not just to teach you Biblical Hebrew, but to equip you to explore one of the world’s greatest books in its original language on your own. And they’re crafted to help you learn in what Professor Carasik calls the va-yomer-elohim way: not through rote memorization, but by hearing this fascinating language and speaking it aloud and reading it and practicing it—the same way we all learned our native language.

Biblical Hebrew—Taught Holistically

“In Hebrew, you don’t want to rely on a single trick for anything,” Professor Carasik notes. “You want to learn holistically. It takes time, but that’s the more natural way to learn a language.”

Using this methodical, holistic approach, the lectures of Biblical Hebrew cover all the fundamentals of the language. The course is a cumulative learning experience that rewards following the lectures in order, so that as you progress, your understanding of Biblical Hebrew not only broadens but also deepens.

Here are just a few of the many building blocks of the language you’ll explore in depth:

  • Alphabet: From the silent letter aleph to the t-sounding tav, you’ll learn the letters of the Hebrew alphabet and how to pronounce them (all with the help of a little song).
  • Numbers: Numbers in Hebrew have a gender, and depending on what you’re counting, the number is either masculine or feminine. You’ll learn how to count to 10,000, how to list things in order, how to refer to a pair of things, and more.
  • Punctuation: One function of punctuation and accent marks in Hebrew is musical. How so? When the Bible is read out loud in a synagogue service, its words are not supposed to be spoken but chanted.
  • Adjectives: In Hebrew, adjectives are regularly used like nouns. Take, for example, shofet: an adjective from the verb meaning “to judge” that can be used to say either “I am judging” or “I am a judge.” The Hebrew name for the book of Judges is Sefer Shoftim, which could more literally be called “the book of Judgers.”
  • Verbs: The Biblical Hebrew verb system consists of five forms: perfect, imperfect, infinitive, imperative, and participle. Along with these, you’ll also learn about Hebrew’s verb roots and master verb stem identifications (known as binyanim), including Qal, Pu’al, Hiphil, Niphal, and Hitpa’el.

As you build on your understanding, you’ll acquire a host of new insights into both Biblical Hebrew and the Hebrew Bible.

  • Toward the end of the 1st millennium CE, Jews began to develop various systems to indicate how vowels should be pronounced—including the Tiberian system that is still used today. This change was probably made in response to what Muslims were doing with the Koran.
  • God’s personal name, according to the Bible, is a four-letter word: yud, hey, vav, and another hey. This name, which Jews don’t pronounce, is called the “Tetragrammaton,” after the Greek for “four-letter word.”
  • The Genesis passage, “…and darkness was over the face of the deep,” actually reads “…and darkness was over the face of Deep.” The word for “Deep” comes from Tiamat, the name of a Mesopotamian goddess, making the reference a hidden polemic against Mesopotamian theology.
  • Of the several Bibles that Professor Carasik recommends for study, the one that scholars use is the Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia. The text of this Bible is based on the famous “Leningrad Codex,” the oldest complete Hebrew Bible manuscript still in one piece.

“Biblical Hebrew Calisthenics”

“To be able to open the Bible and read it in the original language,” Professor Carasik says, “you need to get in shape—and keep yourself in shape.”

Throughout Biblical Hebrew, you’ll exercise your knowledge through what Professor Carasik calls “Biblical Hebrew calisthenics”: close readings of lines, passages, and chapters from the Bible in Hebrew that will help you build your language skills.

Focusing primarily on the prose narratives of Genesis through Kings, you’ll discover new layers of meaning in stories, lines, and words that have resounded throughout the centuries and served as the backbone for some of the world’s greatest faiths. Toward the end of the course, you will have the opportunity to test your knowledge with a multi-lecture reading of an entire chapter from the Hebrew Bible: Numbers 22.

As with any language, ancient or modern, practice makes perfect. To that end, every lecture in Biblical Hebrew concludes with a practice problem or challenge designed to sharpen the skills you’ve learned.

A Companion for Your Explorations

With Biblical Hebrew, you’ll learn from an expert whose teaching and writing (including English translations of biblical commentaries) is built around the proposition that this language can be read by any layperson with an appetite for learning.

The wealth of on-screen graphics featured in these lectures adds a critical visual element that will enable you to master everything from how sentences are organized and written to common Hebrew idioms. There’s also a valuable workbook included that’s packed with vocabulary lists, conjugation tables, exercises, and other helpful resources to use when you’re reading on your own.

And when you reach the end of the course (k’tzeh ha-kurs), you still won’t have reached the end of your learning (k’tzeh limmudekha). “Pause or back up or go back to the beginning of any lecture at any time, as many times as you need to,” Professor Carasik says. “That kind of repetition is all part of learning a language.”

Biblical Hebrew is designed to be a companion wherever your explorations of the language and the Bible take you. Whether your interests are linguistic, literary, religious, or historical, it’s a course you can—and should—return to again and again.

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36 lectures
 |  Average 34 minutes each
  • 1
    Studying Biblical Hebrew
    Use the word “hallelujah” as a gateway to exploring the three different components of the Biblical Hebrew writing system: letters, vowels, and diacriticals. Then, start learning Hebrew the natural way with a look at Genesis 1:3 and the first thing God does in creating heaven and Earth. x
  • 2
    Learning the Aleph Bet
    Get to know the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, and how Biblical Hebrew is pronounced. Surprises include the silent letter aleph (the first letter of “God”), the tricky letter samekh, which resembles an “o” but sounds like an “s,” and nearly identical pairs of letters such as gimel and nun. x
  • 3
    The Tiberian Vowel System
    The Tiberian system of marking vowels in Hebrew has been used exclusively for more than 1,000 years. In this lecture, discover the signs that mark short and long vowels, and learn how vowels can change their spelling (and, slightly, their sound) without changing their meaning. x
  • 4
    Roots of Semitic Verbs
    Every Hebrew verb, and almost every noun and adjective, is based on a root, a group of three (or sometimes two) consonants. Here, Professor Carasik teaches you how to begin recognizing the roots of verbs in Biblical Hebrew—then discusses how God is referred to in the Hebrew Bible. x
  • 5
    Hebrew Verb Forms and the Definite Article
    Get an introduction to the five different Hebrew verb forms: finite, infinitive, adjective, participle, and imperative. Plus, learn three ways of identifying something as definite (rather than indefinite): by using the definite article (ha), by labeling it with a personal pronoun, and by naming it. x
  • 6
    Hebrew's Attached Prepositions
    Explore three Hebrew letters that attach to the beginning of other words to create a new word. Then, armed with this new knowledge, read your first complete paragraph in Biblical Hebrew from start to finish: the story of the first day of creation in Genesis 1:1-5. x
  • 7
    Adjective Forms and Agreement in Hebrew
    Unlike English, Hebrew adjectives have four forms, not one—and they must agree with their nouns based on whether they’re singular or plural, and masculine or feminine. Learn the four forms of adjectives (tov, tovah, tovim, tovot), several adjectives, and two ways to put nouns and adjectives together. x
  • 8
    Irregular Hebrew Nouns and Adjectives
    Sometimes it’s the simpler nouns that are the most likely to surprise you. Examine several of the most common non-obvious nouns (irregular nouns) and adjectives (demonstratives) in Biblical Hebrew. These include family names (daughter, son, brother), as well as “this” (zeh, zot) and “these” (éleh). x
  • 9
    Hebrew Pronouns and Pronominal Suffixes
    Hebrew has a ton of different pronouns. In this lecture, get an introduction to pronouns like “I” (ani, anokhi) and “we” (anaḥnu), as well as three different flavors of pronominal suffixes. Then, practice your new skills with a Bible verse describing the fourth day of creation. x
  • 10
    How Hebrew Letters Behave
    What do different letters do differently? Here, take a comprehensive look at the different ways Hebrew letters behave and start deciphering words in Biblical Hebrew that you don't already recognize. Topics include guttural letters (the orneriest consonants in the Hebrew language) and roots that start with yud. x
  • 11
    Perfect and Imperfect Hebrew Verbs
    Focus on two of the five forms of Biblical Hebrew verbs: the perfect and the imperfect, both of which have person, gender, and number. The perfect, as you'll learn, is always marked by endings. The imperfect, however, is marked by prefix letters as well: aleph, nun, tav, and yud. x
  • 12
    Segholate Nouns and Pausal Forms
    Turn now to segholate nouns—nouns that feature seghols (“-eh” vowels). By looking at segholate nouns in real Hebrew phrases from the Bible, you’ll start to get more comfortable with what Professor Carasik calls the “EH-eh rhythm” and the various grammatical forms that use the pattern. x
  • 13
    The Construct Form: Hebrew's Trailer Hitch
    By allowing you to attach another noun to your first noun, the construct form acts as a sort of trailer hitch in Biblical Hebrew. Once attached, the first noun in construct “belongs” to the second. Here, learn construct forms by revisiting the first and fourth day of creation. x
  • 14
    Forming Hebrew Construct Chains
    Continue your study of construct forms with prepositions in Biblical Hebrew that are combinations of simple prepositions you’ve already learned (example: lifnei, or “before”). Then, look at irregular nouns with unusual construct forms whose frequent occurrence makes them critical to understanding Biblical Hebrew. x
  • 15
    Hebrew Verb Classifications: Binyanim
    In Biblical Hebrew, the binyan acts as a sort of stem or conjugation for verbs. Get a re-introduction to verbs with their binyan identification, learn how the binyanim got their names, and focus on a single root in different binyanim to get a feel for what the binyanim do to a verb's meaning. x
  • 16
    Question Words in Hebrew
    From mi (“Who?”) and lama lo (“Why not?”) to eikh (“How?”) and matai (“When?”), discover how to recognize the words that tell you when a question is coming up in Biblical Hebrew. Why is this so important? Because there’s no such thing as a question mark in Biblical Hebrew. x
  • 17
    Hebrew Participles
    Return to the verbal system with Professor Carasik's helpful explanation of the third of the five Hebrew verb forms: the participle. One of the ways you'll master the verbal adjective in Biblical Hebrew is by working your way through Genesis 22:7. x
  • 18
    Counting in Hebrew
    In this fun lecture, start to count in Hebrew, from one to 10,000. You’ll learn a children’s rhyme for counting from one to four, the construct form of numbers, the ordinal numbers, some helpful shortcuts such as how to refer to a “pair” of something, and more. x
  • 19
    Hebrew Roots with Guttural Letters
    Focus your attention here on categories of verbs from the Qal binyan with roots whose guttural letters (hey, het, and ayin) tend to “misbehave.” Central to this lecture are three rules about how gutturals behave, as well as relevant examples in passages from the Hebrew Bible. x
  • 20
    Hebrew's Lamed-Hey Roots
    Lamed-hey roots are those roots where, in the dictionary, the third radical of a verb (the lamed) is a hey. Here, learn how to work with some of the most common lamed-hey roots, including banah (“build”), ḥayah (“live”), anah (“answer”), panah (“turn”), and kalah (“be over”). x
  • 21
    Hebrew's Roots Beginning with Yud
    Roots that begin with yud are plentiful in Hebrew—and very common. Professor Carasik walks you through a list of some of the most common first-yud verbs, including yada (“know”), yatza (“go out”), yarash (“take possession”), and yashav (“settle”). x
  • 22
    Irregular Hebrew Verbs
    Very few verbs in Hebrew are irregular. Those that are, as you’ll learn here, are not very difficult—but they do work a little differently than what you’re used to seeing. In this lecture, learn how to master irregular Hebrew verbs by focusing on them individually. x
  • 23
    Hebrew's Hollow Verbs
    Welcome to what may be the strangest verb roots of all: those that have only two consonants, not three. Here, explore the general rules about these hollow verbs, and build a list of commonly used hollow verbs you can refer to when reading Biblical Hebrew. x
  • 24
    The Infinitive in Hebrew
    The infinitive verb form is used to describe the action of a verb (as in “There’s a time to rend … and a time to mend.”). Professor Carasik walks you through the different infinitive forms, then guides you through Ecclesiastes 3—what he calls the “mother lode” of the Hebrew infinitive. x
  • 25
    Jussives, Cohortatives, and “Hava Nagila”
    Explore how Biblical Hebrew expresses intention (as in phrases like yehi or, or “Let there be light.”). You’ll encounter jussives, which are only found in lamed-hey, hollow, and Hiphil verbs; and cohortatives, which invite collective action (as in the famous song, “Hava Nagila”). x
  • 26
    The Imperative Form in Hebrew
    Turn now to the imperative form in Hebrew and the simplest way to think of it (in the Qal): by taking off the tav prefix from second-person imperfect verbs. You'll learn imperatives from a variety of weak and strong verbs, and use your skills to work through several biblical verses. x
  • 27
    Verbs of the Hiphil Binyan
    Focus on a new binyan: Hiphil, which can be thought of as the causative binyan. (One example: l’haqtir, or “to burn incense.”) Then, go back to Genesis, collect a list of Hiphil infinitives, and see what the different root categories do when you put them into this Hiphil shape. x
  • 28
    Piel Verbs and Passive Binyanim
    Take a closer look at another major binyan: the Piel. The goal of this lecture is to give you the skills to distinguish this binyan when you need to, so you can learn the verbs as they come along. Then, examine two more binyanim: the passives Pu'al and Hophal. x
  • 29
    Reflexive Binyanim: Niphal and Hitpa'el
    Conclude your survey of the seven different binyanim by taking a closer look at two reflexive patterns: the Niphal and the Hitpa’el. Along the way, Professor Carasik introduces you to an important root that appears only in these two binyanim: nun-bet-aleph, or “to be/act like a prophet.” x
  • 30
    Reading the Bible in Hebrew: Joshua 1
    Now you're ready to start reading longer passages in the Bible in Hebrew. Here, follow Professor Carasik as you read Joshua 1:1-9, which deals with God's charge to Joshua. You'll translate the text, talk about the passage's meaning, and spend time parsing every single verb it contains. x
  • 31
    Geminate Verbs and Reading Numbers 22
    In this lecture, explore geminates: roots where radicals two and three are the same. Along the way, you'll learn how to spot these common two-letter combinations, consider a fascinating example from Ezekiel's vision of the messianic future Temple, and begin reading Numbers 22 from start to finish. x
  • 32
    Hebrew's Object Suffixes
    You've seen object suffixes in previous lectures. Now, focus on them directly. You'll learn some obvious (and not-so-obvious) combinations of verbs and object suffixes, and ponder some questions about phrases and sentences in the Bible that appear more than once, but with slight variations. x
  • 33
    Hebrew Oaths and Other Idioms
    Study idioms that are common in Biblical Hebrew, but sound strange when translated into English. You’ll explore different ways to take an oath in Biblical Hebrew, the customary way to state someone’s age, and the danger of “crossing the mouth” of the Lord. x
  • 34
    Understanding Hebrew Punctuation Marks
    In the Hebrew Bible, every word has a punctuation mark that serves three functions: telling you where the accent falls, indicating how to chant the text musically, and telling you how to group words in a sensible way. Use this knowledge to move forward in your reading of Numbers 22. x
  • 35
    Choosing a Hebrew Bible
    What's the best Bible from which to read Hebrew? Professor Carasik offers insights and recommendations on four printed Bibles as well as several electronic sources, and shows you how to navigate your way to a specific chapter and verse in an all-Hebrew Bible. Close by resuming your reading of Numbers 22. x
  • 36
    Helpful Hebrew Reference Books
    Look at some essential Hebrew reference books out there (besides biblical translations and commentaries), including reference grammars and three major Biblical Hebrew dictionaries. Close out the course by completing your line-by-line reading of Numbers 22. x

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  • 226-page printed course guidebook
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Your professor

Michael Carasik

About Your Professor

Michael Carasik, Ph.D.
University of Pennsylvania
Dr. Michael Carasik has taught Biblical Hebrew since 1991 and is currently adjunct assistant professor of Biblical Hebrew at the University of Pennsylvania, where he has taught since 2000. He earned his PhD in Bible and Ancient Near East from Brandeis University. A member of the University of Pennsylvania’s Faculty Working Group on Recovered Language Pedagogies, Professor Carasik has also taught at Hebrew College,...
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Reviews

Biblical Hebrew: Learning a Sacred Language is rated 4.7 out of 5 by 42.
Rated 5 out of 5 by from The title is appropriately descriptive I am well acquainted with biblical Hebrew and in fact I teach it. I think this is a great course. The teacher is very easy to learn from and has a good deal of humor in his presentation. I also think that this course should be presented as a taste of biblical Hebrew. It’s impossible to learn it adequately in this short a period.
Date published: 2019-02-08
Rated 5 out of 5 by from A simple way to learn Biblical Hebrew. I studied Biblical Hebrew many years ago, so I purchased this class as a refresher. I was really glad that I did because the course is very good, and the Teacher is interesting.
Date published: 2019-02-01
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Just started So far so good. Always wanted to further my biblical studies and learn Hebrew.
Date published: 2019-01-31
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Great lecturer, good visuals, very helpful I took Hebrew in seminary ten years ago, and bought this as a refresher. I have watched all 36 lectures, and enjoyed it immensely. There were lots of gems that I didn't learn the first time studying Hebrew, and the professor helped me understand the more irregular verbs so that they no longer seemed so irregular. I think just about any Hebrew learner will find new things to learn in these videos. Being able to see the Hebrew on the screen as well as the instructor teaching was helpful visually. I recommend this class to anyone learning or reviewing Hebrew. The class does go fast, and Hebrew is not an intuitive language for native English speakers. So if you are a beginner, you should expect that you should do all the exercises, and review lectures until you have a good grasp of the material before moving on. I've taken Hebrew before, and I still had to pause the lectures a lot to grasp the material. The professor is Jewish, and I appreciated his insights from Judaism, and never felt marginalized as a Christian. The professor even used a couple of examples from the New Testament during the course to illustrate some of his points. So I recommend this course to learners from any religious background.
Date published: 2019-01-24
Rated 2 out of 5 by from Caveat Emptor. This may be just the course and approach you're looking for. The prof knows his onion and is engaged in his delivery. It is not the course I expected. I encourage the Teaching Co. to do a course on Beginning Biblical Hebrew which adopts the format of most introductory courses to a language. That means a much less elaborate, less convoluted approach. A language is made up of one sound following another. And with the student learning those sounds through repetition and drills. Drip by drip. This course is moving a mile a minute, sometimes delving into complex and subtle points of grammar before the student has learned the basics. I kept hoping the next lecture would begin to simplify and give me the fundamental grounding which is the sine qua non of a language. Instead the course seemed to grow in complexity. I threw in the towel. In My Digital Library I have several dozen courses over many years. This is the first one I've considered sending back. Not because the prof is not a crackerjack in his subject. But because, in my view, the approach taken here is not a pedagogical sound one.
Date published: 2019-01-17
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Ancient Hebrew Fantastic professor and makes the learning an interesting experience for a very demanding course!
Date published: 2019-01-10
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Opens a new owrld The instructor is low key, speaks at a leisurely peice that makes the difficult material relatively easy to grasp. This course definitely benefits form the written material accompanying it, Wish I had this course years ago.
Date published: 2019-01-09
Rated 5 out of 5 by from Very Helpful I wanted this course to review my Hebrew, which I had let get rusty. The lectures have the right blend of information and encouragement, with an upbeat tone. Wish I had used this instead of the method I used 20 years ago.
Date published: 2019-01-07
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