Should You Learn Modern Hebrew or Biblical Hebrew?

 

Unlike many other languages where once the decision is made to learn that language, you can start learning it, when deciding to learn Hebrew there is the choice between learning Biblical Hebrew or learning Modern Hebrew. Many people are stuck with this question because they may not quite understand what the differences between Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew are in terms of usage. While the two languages are quite similar, there are a number of differences regarding usage which one should be familiar with when deciding whether to learn Modern Hebrew or Biblical Hebrew.

 

Biblical Hebrew generally refers to the Hebrew used in the Hebrew Bible, which includes the Five Books of Moses, the Prophets and the Writings. Although we often think of all of this as one book, it was actually written over the course of a number of centuries and therefore (if things weren’t confusing enough), there are actually different forms of Biblical Hebrew which are stylistically quite different but all referred to as Biblical Hebrew, nonetheless. Although not used in daily life, Biblical Hebrew continued to be used and studied by religious leaders and academics who sought the original meaning of the Bible, and it was even used to write newer material in Jewish liturgy.

 

As its name implies, Modern Hebrew is a modern language spoken by millions of people in Israel and abroad. Modern Hebrew was based on Biblical Hebrew, which was reinvented in the late 1800s as Zionism spread and more Jews from all over the world began to return to the Land of Israel. For non-academic and non-religious purposes, Modern Hebrew is much more useful than Biblical Hebrew. Many compare the connection between the two languages to that between Modern English and Old English in that they are almost completely mutually understandable but very different, nonetheless. You would probably be just as ill-fated trying to speak Biblical Hebrew in Tel Aviv and be understood as trying to study the Hebrew Bible knowing just Modern Hebrew!

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