ESSENTIAL BOOKS FOR LEARNING ANCIENT HEBREW
Ancient Hebrew is chiefly known today as the language of the Hebrew Bible, i.e. the Tanakh (in Christian circles also referred to as the Hebrew Bible or Old Testament). Yet is also was one of the main languages of the Canaan for much of its ancient existence. It was the official language of the kingdoms of Israel and Judah until the Persian period (c. 500 BCE), when it gradually gave way to Aramaic. Yet even then it survived, especially in religious circles, as a literary languages, in which many post-Biblical works were penned (such as the Mishnah or commentaries found in the Dead Sea Scrolls).
As a Semitic language, Hebrew is closely related to Aramaic, Phoenician, Arabic, and, a little more distantly, Akkadian and Ge’ez. All Semitic languages are also part of the Afro-Asiatic language family, of which Egyptian (and thus Coptic) are also a part.
Because of the plethora of Hebrew grammars out there, this page only covers a select few that we can recommend for one reason or another. This means that some popular textbooks, including many of which are used in schools, have been left out. If you think we ought to include something not listed here, feel free to leave a comment below defending your grammar of choice!
PRIMERS & TEXTBOOKS
The Routledge Introductory Course in Biblical Hebrew, by Lily Kahn. Routledge: 2014.
Kahn’s textbook deviates from the typical Routledge grammars in all the right ways. Lessons are structured around short reading passages, which, while not directly taken from the Tanakh, are in part inspired by it, drawing from people and places found within. A connected narrative is superior to the tired plethora of simple example exercises which pervade many textbooks. Putting sentences into a context not only better captures a learner’s interest, but also creates more pathways for remembering the grammar and vocabulary simultaneously. In addition to this, the book comes with a concise reference grammar and multiple pages of paradigms.
As if the textbook itself was not enough, there is also a companion website, which contains audio of the passages, flashcards, and extra exercises. Instructors can also gain access to an exclusive portal, providing them with further resources that students cannot access.
Learning Biblical Hebrew, by Karl V. Kutz & Rebekah L. Josberger. Lexham Press: 2018.
This new entry comes out strong in a sea of contenders. It synthesizes and simplifies all the morphological forms, making it easier for learners to remember, allowing their mental efforts to be shifted to understanding the in-depth explanations. Like with Lambdin’s, some additional learning may be necessary for those who are not familiar with grammatical terms and concepts. But for those who put in that effort, they are rewarded with a quick jump into actual Biblical Hebrew, which students will be reading more quickly than most other textbooks.
One big drawback is that the workbook is absolutely necessary. The workbook is not only where you will find the exercises, but also a graded reader and the vocabulary. Someone who purchases just the textbook alone will not be getting the full experience.
Basics of Biblical Hebrew, by Gary D. Pratico & Miles V. Van Pelt. Third edition. Zondervan: 2019.
Deliberately modeled after Mounce’s Basics of Biblical Greek, Pratico and Van Pelt’s Basics of Biblical Hebrew offers more of an incrementalist approach to learning, which will be useful for beginners who need more reinforcement or who are unfamiliar with technical and grammatical vocabulary. This is not a drawback, however, and its format makes it more approachable, even to those who can handle a more rigorous learning style. It also boasts a very nice layout and far better appendices than Lambdin’s Introduction.
Unfortunately, like Kutz and Josberger’s textbook, you have to buy the accompanying workbook to get the exercises. There are numerous additional resources available, though, including a vocabulary builder, study guides, and conjugation charts. The reliance on additional resources comes at a cost, both figuratively (in that the textbook could use more detail) and literally, but they are all at the very least physically well made and seem like they should last for a while (new editions notwithstanding).
Introduction to Biblical Hebrew, by Thomas O. Lambdin. Prentice-Hall: 1971.
Despite being one of the older textbooks on this list, Lambdin’s Introduction to Biblical Hebrew is still an immensely popular resource for learning Hebrew, and is still taught as the main textbook in many universities and seminaries. It aims to teach all the relevant grammar in just a year, and does not hesitate to get into syntax, something that many older textbooks lacked. However, the descriptions are densely packed, making it great for an accelerated reader who wishes to learn Hebrew thoroughly, though not so much who need a bit of hand-holding. One exception to this is that provides transliteration for pronunciation, which might be useful to those who chiefly want to read, not speak, or those who have yet to master all the diacritics.
Those unfamiliar with grammatical terms might need extra resources to get them up to speed. In fact, due to the paucity of paradigm charts in Lambdin, extra resources are needed anyway.
A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew, by J. Weingreen. Second edition. Clarendon Press: 1959.
Like Lamdin’s above, Weingreen’s A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew is for those students who eschew the more classroom-friendly books in search of something more straightforward. While many might write off Weingreen’s grammar as outdated—and certainly parts are—it does offer exercises consisting of paragraphs, rather than individual sentences, again which helps not only keep interest and focus, but also aids in memory and understanding. For this reason, it might be best used in conjunction with one of the above grammars rather than on its own.
An Introductory Grammar of Rabbinic Hebrew, by Miguel Pérez Fernández. Translated by John F. Elwolde. Brill: 1999.
The above grammars, and in fact all the grammars mentioned here, strictly teach and examine the earliest forms of ancient Hebrew, chiefly Biblical Hebrew. Fernández’ grammar instead examines the period of Hebrew immediately thereafter, that of the Rabbis. This grammar pre-supposes that students will have a relatively advanced knowledge of Biblical Hebrew first. It serves as a pedagogically-oriented update to the now badly outdated Grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew by M. Segal.
An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, by B. K. Waltke & M. O’Connor. Eisenbrauns: 1990.
Waltke & O’Connor’s Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax was written to provide a stepping-stone between the elementary grammars above and the weightier, reference grammars below. It is structured like a traditional reference grammar, and thus included in this section, but it is more useful for intermediate students (or those needing a quick reference), so its treatment of the Hebrew language is not exhaustive.
A Biblical Hebrew Reference Grammar, by Christo H. J. van der Merwe, Jackie A. Naudé, & Jan. H. Kroeze. Second edition. T&T Clark: 2017.
This is another excellent intermediary grammar, and it vastly improves upon and renders its first edition obsolete. It is nearly 100% longer than the first and provides more detail and references. It leans much more into a linguistic approach, although a more traditional, philological approach shines through just fine, thereby never becomes opaque nor getting lost in the weeds. Like Walte and O’Connor, it does not offer an exhaustive treatment, but this second edition in particular is much fuller, and most students and researchers rarely will need to reach for something more complete.
A Guide to Biblical Hebrew Syntax, by Bill T. Arnold & John H. Choi. Cambridge University Press: 2003.
Less comprehensive than the above two, Arnold and Choi instead opt for concision. This is perhaps the best beginner reference grammar, a good supplement for those still getting a handle on the fundamentals.
Gesenius’ Hebrew Grammar, edited by Arthur E. Crowley & Emil Kautzsch. Second edition. Oxford: 1910.
This is the reference grammar to go to when one needs an answer to an oddity. Written in German in 1813 by Wilhelm Gesenius, it underwent revisions by A. E. Crowley and then a translation into English by E. Kautzsch. Although it is somewhat out of date now on a handful of topics, it is still the most detailed reference grammar and an indispensable resource for students and scholars alike. Fortunately, it can be found online for free.
A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew, by Paul Joüon & Takamitsu Muraoka. Second edition. Pontifical Biblical Institute: 2006.
Originally written in French by Paul Joüon, A Grammar of Biblical Hebrew was both translated and enlarged by Muraoka, who attempts to bring it up to par with modern scholarship. Although not quite as detailed as Gesenius’, Joüon and Muraoka offer a much more readable reference grammar, and that it is more current (and draws on a wider variety of sources) means that it the former might serve as the supplement to the latter, rather than the other way around.
A Concise Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament by William L. Holladay. Fifteen corrected printings. Brill: 1971.
Holladay’s dictionary is an abridgement of Koehler-Baumgartner (see below), and thus those who consult it will benefit from its inclusion of modern sources. Unlike Davies-Mitchell (below), the inclusion of Aramaic makes it especially useful as a holistic tool for reading the entire Tanakh.
Student’s Hebrew Lexicon, by Benjamin Davies & rev. by Edward C. Mitchell.
Now long out of print, the Davies-Mitchell lexicon offers an intermediate experience well-rooted in the Gesenius tradition. The original dictionary was revised by Benjamin Davies in the 19th century, and combined both Gesenius’ and Fürst’s dictionaries. Although it was an abridgement of these sources, it was largely recognized as an improvement and a contribution to Hebrew lexicography. It was expanded and revised further by Edward Mitchell. Given this foundation, it is hard to go wrong as one’s chief classroom dictionary, especially since, being out of copyright, it is found free online and cheap in-print. This lexicon used to be paired with a translation and revision of Gesenius’ grammar also by Davies, but that edition is no longer recommended. Still, this is a great classroom dictionary even without it.
Hebrew and English Lexicon of the Old Testament, by Francis Brown, Samuel Rolles Driver, and Charles A. Briggs. Clarendon Press: 1906.
Often hailed as the best lexicographic dictionary, its attention to detail and scholarship was unrivaled for a long time. This dictionary was originally a companion to Gesenius’ Grammar, and through its entries it really shows. For a research dictionary, none beat it, though it has aged. Material on comparative languages, especially Akkadian, is outdated, and it does not include anything on Ugaritic at all, two other Semitic languages that illuminate the finer shades of meaning. Still, it is indispensable and pairs well with researchers who use Gesenius. One important distinguishing feature of the BDB (as it is frequently and affectionately known) is that it organizes words according to their root, no matter which letter comes first. This can be useful for seeing a single root’s flexibility, but can prove challenging to those who have yet to master Hebrew.
The Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament, by L. Koehler, W. Baumgartner, and M. E. J. Richardson. Five volumes. Third edition. Brill: 1994–2001.
Frequently abbreviated HALOT in publications, this dictionary is a translation of the monumental effort of Koehler and Baumgartner to offer an updated lexicon of Biblical Hebrew taking into account not only the numerous advances in Hebrew linguistics, but also the advances of comparative linguistics in cognate languages and the discovery of Ugaritic and the Dead Sea Scrolls (unknown to Gesenius, Brown, Driver, or Briggs!). Unfortunately, it stops at 200 CE, so it still does not include any of the Hebrew of the Talmud.
This massive dictionary is chiefly aimed at researchers, and students might find it not only unwieldy, but also exorbitantly expensive. But for serious researchers, the additional information and citations will be well worth consulting.
[Stay tuned for entries on Readers, Workbooks, and Other Resources!]