My family and I started sheltering in place on the Ides of March, which was the first Sunday of March break in this part of Canada. That gave us one week to figure out how we would start home schooling our three grade-school-aged girls, since it was pretty clear from provincial and regional authorities that we would be completely on our own for a few weeks.

At the same time, I realized that a summer course I was planning to teach, Beginning Biblical Hebrew I, would almost certainly need to be reworked for online delivery. My preferred introductory textbook for a conventional classroom is suboptimal for people learning Hebrew at home, so I began thinking about alternatives. I decided to try out a new grammar and workbook on my older daughters, as my wife and I did what we could to fill the curricular deficit they were facing.

The new textbook set looks like it will serve its purpose in my summer course, and I have adopted it. There are things that I miss about the familiar one (Cook & Holmstedt), starting with its familiarity to me. I know how I like to use it. Still, the new one (Kutz & Josberger) has some advantages where self-directed learners are concerned.1 Whereas the former provides minimal explanation, leaving it to the instructor to fill in gaps as desired, explanations in the latter are prolix. The former makes its answer key available to instructors only. The latter includes answers in the back, much as I remember being amazed to find in some math books. I have not taught a language online before, but full explanations and an answer key will be critical to my strategy for online teaching, which is to maximize asynchronous learning. I need a resource that will help me “create learning experiences for students to work at their own pace and take time to absorb content,” as Alison Yang puts it.

I imagine that you, like me, are keeping close to home. Parents all over the world are undertaking experiments in home schooling, and all who do this, including career educators like me, stand to learn from the experience.

We tend to go with what we know, which is why I started my girls with classical Hebrew. As the pandemic dilates, it might be time to stretch to more of what we do not know. For my family that means more math and science. For you that might mean some Hebrew. I hope it does. Friends often tell me they’d like to learn to read it someday. We all know that someday comes rarely, if ever, but Covidtide, this present Time of the Virus, might be just the right time for you to start such a project. I’m here to tell you that you can start learning Hebrew from home, beginning today if you want. Seriously. If you have a little spare time and energy, the conditions might be close to ideal.

D. R. Driver · SIP 01: Start Learning Hebrew

Are you interested? Here’s how to start.

  1. Learn to recite the alphabet (Hebrew aleph-bet). My daughters agreed to help me teach you the aleph-bet song, and to talk about their early progress (above). Jump to 2:58 if you just want to review the song with us.2

  2. Learn to write the aleph-bet and distinguish between the Hebrew letters. Any number of introductory grammars will show you how to form the letters. Cook & Holmstedt’s word searches are a fun way to train your eye to separate bet from kaf, dalet from resh, vav from final nun, and so on. You can download and print three essential lessons from the publisher’s excerpt.

  3. Learn the vowels and schwas, also called the niqqud. Easier said than done, I know, but you must learn these things well to start well. Again, the Cook & Holmstedt excerpt will get you there soon with just two (greatly simplified) rules for schwa.

  4. Practice sounding out a few biblical verses until you can read them fluently. This is an exercise in pronunciation, not translation. There are plenty of good options here, too.

    • Cook & Holmstedt start with Ezek 17:9, Jer 22:3, and Jer 32:29, which are some of the verses that have all 22 Hebrew letters.
    • Kutz & Josberger use Gen 1:1–5 and Deut 6:4–9, which are utterly classic. These are great unless you already know the Hebrew by heart.
    • Try your hand at the genealogical entry-way to 1 Chronicles. If you’re familiar with the names of Adam and his offspring, you’ll have most of the vocabulary you need for several pages.
    • Progress to a highly structured (repetitive) psalm like Psalm 136 or Psalm 150, or pick a favorite short psalm of your own.

If you have not yet started to think of your home as a classroom, I cannot recommend it enough. The pillars of my quarantine have been daily walks, daily prayer (especially compline), and daily Hebrew lessons. I would be in worse shape without any one of them, but I think the discipline imposed by a school routine has made it uniquely important.

If you have made that home renovation already, perhaps because it was forced upon you as a parent, it might be a good time to push into new challenges, beyond what seems especially convenient or ready to hand. This family may need to attend to the periodic table soon, for example. If you choose to take up biblical Hebrew in the way I outline here, please let me know. If the stars align you may even be able to join my summer course from home. You’d certainly be welcome. To me the camaraderie of a joyful learning community has hardly ever felt so vital.

  1. The publisher promises additional resources for “self-learners,” though the relevant pages are still under development. 

  2. All credit to Debbie Friedman. Note that our version has minor differences in order and pronunciation. We are using modern Hebrew pronunciation in case anybody goes on to study it, but otherwise hewing close to the traditional (Tiberian) Hebrew that is our focus.