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.
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
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.
Are you interested? Here’s how to start.
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.
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.
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.
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