Best Hebrew Grammars (and Why?)

As I anticipate (hopefully!) moving into an academic post in the next year, I have begun to think about questions on textbooks.  One area that I think presents a perpetual problem is finding a Hebrew grammar that is adequate.  That, my friends, is where you come in . . . what grammar(s) do you find best, and why?  What makes them accesible and manageable for beginning students?  And, also important, what makes them manageable as something around which an intro course can be structured?

I learned Hebrew from Pratico & Van Pelt’s grammar (published by Zondervan), which I actually don’t mind too terribly much.  The organization at least makes sense to me, though I know it is not without its problems.  Seow is of course a big name, but I am not a fan of his organization; it doesn’t make much sense to me.  Nancy deClaisse-Walford has written a grammar, but I am not too familiar with it.  Kelly has a grammar out.  And most recently Brian Webster’s volume published by Cambridge has gotten some positive attention, I think namely because of the accompanying interactive cd-rom.

So, what grammar is best, and why?  What will work best in intro courses?  I am interested in the opinions of all . . . students who have used a grammar with much (or little) success, and the same for experienced professors (Heard, Mariottini, Bibb, Williams, etc.).

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23 thoughts on “Best Hebrew Grammars (and Why?)

  1. Roy "Eli" Garton says:

    I broke my teeth in on a pre-published version of DeClaissé-Walford’s volume, but I’ve not looked closely at the final product. I will say, however, the pre-pub version was more than a bit terse on details.

    Perhaps it’s because Nogalski uses it, and because I’ve worked with it in relation to his classes for more than two years now, but I am fond of Kelly’s grammar. It’s just detailed enough, has plenty of exercises (the answer book is separate, however), and has great verb charts for the ten classes of weak verbs. The main complaint I have, however, is Kelly’s choice of vocabulary for the students to learn. At a beginning level, I fail to see why it is important to learn vocabulary that occurs less than 500x. Yet such vocabulary litters the vocab development sections. Once students have learned the high frequency vocab, then have them move onto lower occuring vocab.

    I should mention, as well, that Kelly’s grammar is really only good for a two semester introduction to Biblical Hebrew; it’s simply too long for a single semester treatment. Thus, if you end up at a seminary that mandates its students cover Hebrew in a single semester, then I would probably use a different volume.

  2. Joel H. says:

    I think I’m in the minority here, but I still recommend the “classic” grammars, such as Jacob Weingreen’s A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew.

    I think it’s clear, concise, contains everything you need to know, and starts at the very beginning (“Hebrew is written from right to left”). If you’re motivated, you can work through Weingreen in a semester and you’ll be able to work through most biblical Hebrew texts.

    • casparweinburger says:

      I second Weingreens. Much better than the rest. We can know find an answer key online. No other books gives as much Hebrew to translate.

    • Neal Robinson says:

      I agree with Joel H. I worked through Weingreen in six months or so, nearly 50 years ago. I re-read it once every ten years and always find some minor detail that I grasp properly for the first time.

  3. Adam Couturier says:

    I personally love Bonnie Kittel’s Biblical Hebrew Grammar published by Yale. I have been using it with lay folks, and they seem to really be enjoying it. It is an inductive grammar that gets into verbs during the first lesson. Also her supplemental stuff (audio cd and additional book) is great.

    I cut my teeth on Seow, but it is not my favorite grammar. I recently wrote a review of Garrett’s and DeRouchie’s grammar:

    http://parkersmood.wordpress.com/2009/09/02/book-review-a-modern-grammar-for-biblical-hebrew/

    Adam

  4. robgreid says:

    I would have to argue, hands down, the best approach methodologically is that of Brian Webster’s fresh off the press Cambridge Intro to Biblical Hebrew. Based on my own comparison to the organization of other grammars, I would argue that the movement from “strong” to “weak” Perfective and then Imperfective “strong” and “weak” lessens the blow of holding the more difficult morphological leaps until the end. Furthermore, his “ID tags” approach, in comparing my own Hebrew abilities with others equally trained but with different grammars, is significantly better in terms of my ability to read and recognize the nuances of the language.

  5. JohnDave Medina says:

    The problem I have with Kelley is that he will tell the student a general rule and then provide an exception to the rule in the example or exercises–this happens all over the place. But I learned Hebrew a second time around with it and it wasn’t too bad. My classmates (most first-time being exposed) also picked up on Hebrew decently well through Kelley. I TA now for this class and it seems the students are getting it, but things like the exceptions Kelley throws in require explanation for them to get what’s going on.

    I first learned Hebrew with Pratico and Van Pelt. It seems that their way of presenting Hebrew to a beginning student was quite easy to grasp for me. I also liked the FlashWorks program for learning vocab. I still refer to it often in my own Hebrew studies. While it may not be the best grammar, it did/does the job (at least for me).

  6. mike says:

    as a TA in grad school, i taught a weekly tutorial in biblical hebrew. students of various teachers were either using kelly, ross, or declaisse walford. the students who were doing the best were using declaisse-walford, hands down. kelly is too much too soon, and the exercises aren’t as helpful (such as transliterating hebrew). ross was good, but the verb paradigms are too spread out. something about declaisse-walford just helped things click for the students, though i think ross would be better to have on the shelf AFTER learning hebrew.

    i learned from bob ellis’s first-year grammar and i still like the way he gives you the qal in one chapter and then ALL the other paradigms in the next chapter. sink or swim!

  7. John Anderson says:

    These are helpful responses . . . keep them coming folks!

    Right now, I can safely say I would favor a deductive rather than inductive approach. Webster and Kelly are high on my radar, as is Pratico/Van Pelt simply because that is who I learned Hebrew from originally (the text, not the people).

  8. James says:

    Hey John — we have never met, but I have recently been reading some of your posts, in tandem with my researching possible Ph.D programs.

    I acquiesce to John H.’s suggestion of Weingreen’s grammar. I used this textbook and benefited greatly from the vowel adaptations (from Proto-Semitic) that are employed. It seems that the sooner the student learns how to predict vowel adaptations, the better off the student is to succeed in mastery of syntax. However, Weingreen’s textbook could use an update in light of some the recent advances in BH due in part to linguistics (especially the verb).

    Karl Kutz, my first Hebrew professor, taught R. Holmstedt at Wisconsin. If Holmstedt’s grammar is as perspicacious as Karl’s pedagogy, it may be worth checking it out. You can find Holmstedt’s grammar here:

    http://individual.utoronto.ca/holmstedt/textbook/BHSG2009.pdf

    Have a good SBL.

    • Rebekah Josberger says:

      James, it might interest you to know that Kutz and I (Josberger) are in the process of putting his (Kutz’s) approach into grammar form. In fact, I happened onto this blog while doing research on current grammars (and who publishes them). I currently teach with Kutz, and after learning from the Lambdin grammar, working on the Pratico/VanPelt grammar, editing the Garrett/DeRouchie grammar, and being involved with the Fuller/Choi grammar to a minor extent, was AMAZED at Kutz’s approach–indeed his whole program. We have much of the text written and have taught from it for a few years. We will be looking to talk with publishers this fall. I cannot wait for people to be able to replicate what he does in the classroom! It leads to a whole new level of Hebrew learning!!

    • Stuart rose says:

      I’m impressed by Holmstedt’s book. Each feature and concept of the language he presents is clearly and explained and fleshed out with biblical usages from across Tanakh.

      The book,at least to my eyes, deals with exceptions and grammatical irregularities in a far less daunting and exhausting manner than Seow, for instance, does.

      Is the book going to be more widely available ?

  9. Christopher Heard says:

    If you’re going to teach Hebrew as a set of grammatical and morphological rules, then I’m actually going to agree with Joel here. I learned under the grammatical-translation method using Weingreen, and it took me from knowing nothing at all to reading Jonah with some facility in one academic year. I should add that it was my Hebrew class that led to me focus my studies on the Hebrew Bible!

    I have taught Hebrew only three times. One year I used Seow (1st ed.) and found it to be a little difficult to follow and in need of extra proofreading. The second time around I taught using Pratico and Van Pelt (2nd ed.), and I have very mixed feelings about it as a teaching grammar. The units follow a logical progression, and the 2nd ed. uses color to good effect in the morphological charts. However, I have two major gripes about PVP. First, the sequencing and grouping of vocabulary words makes little semantic or logistical sense to me. I can’t understand, for example, why PVP introduces יום in chapter 3 but saves לילה for chapter 11. That makes no sense. If you’re going to teach using artificial vocabulary lists, at least group the words by semantic domains so that יום and לילה are learned together! Also, after the first few lessons, the vocabulary doesn’t really “feed” the exercises. I found it frustrating to have words that were never used by the students except on vocabulary quizzes—they just didn’t come up in the exercises! Which brings me to my second gripe. At first I liked the idea that all the exercises would be actual biblical verses, but that soon proved a bit tedious. Actually finding a whole Bible verse that a student can translate in week 3 of a course using PVP is quite difficult. Finding eight or ten is impossible. Therefore the PVP workbook is so riddled with footnotes that sometimes students can really only translate from memory one or two words. I’m overstating the case a little, but in some of the early chapters, there are “translation exercises” where literally every word is footnoted, so that “answering” the question is just a matter of copying the footnotes! Take a look for example in the workbook, 2nd ed., Exercise 8, under “Bible Translation,” at exercises ##7, 8, 13, and 14—to my mind, these numbers are practically worthless because they are so heavily footnoted.

    As you probably know, John, I am teaching Hebrew right now using a communicative approach as defined and recommended by ACTFL (the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages) rather than the grammar-translation approach that you usually get when you assign biblical scholars to teach languages. The grammar-translation approach often produces skilled technicians who know a lot about a language but aren’t much good at using the language. Today I told my students שׂיםו את ידיכם על ראשכם and they did. That never would have happened in the grammar-translation style class where I first learned about Hebrew. Unfortunately there aren’t that many resources available right now for teaching Biblical Hebrew using communicative methods. Some teachers like John Dobson’s textbook for this purpose, but I have no experience with it. I’m using a textbook this year that’s still in the development phase—ultimately, I think communicative methods are what I would recommend rather than this or that teaching grammar.

  10. Christopher Heard says:

    I might add that I find it somewhat lamentable that every publishing house and its dog seems to feel the need to publish a textbook for teaching grammar and morphology—and that teaching Biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek has become the province of textual scholars rather than, you know, linguists and language educators. We biblical scholars who teach biblical languages have a lot yet to learn from scholars who specialize in language acquisition.

  11. James says:

    One more thing I should point out, John, about an advantage of Weingreen. Christopher raises an interesting issue regarding language acquisition. I hold an undergraduate degree in Hellenistic Greek, and I did not start to read Greek until I had to write compositions in Greek. In my fourth year, I had to prepare Greek compositions based on classical grammar. Before the composition process, it was exuberantly difficult to read Sophocles, Thucydides, etc. I began to notice exponential differences in my reading abilities after the compositions, however. The same is true for Hebrew. This next semester, while searching for a school to which to transfer, I am working on Advanced Hebrew Morphology and compositions. Now to my point: in Weingreen, there is an exercise section for English to Hebrew. I would require this over against the Hebrew to English. Currently, I am taking a Seminar in Isaiah. My compositional work in Hebrew (of what I have already done) has granted me exegetical skills that I otherwise would not have ascertained. In other words, I am asking cogent questions of syntax and semantics because I am aware of how to say it differently in Hebrew! Inevitably, this leads to a close reading of the poetic diction of Isaiah—which if not noticed in Isaiah, loses the “texture” of the “text” (Fishbane allusion intended).

    שׁלום

  12. brianfulthorp says:

    I learned from Seow but most appreciate Chris Heard’s comments. I think Seow better serves as a reference grammar than a learning grammar per se.

    The only issue I would take with the communicative approach is to be sure you teach some of the technical stuff too (especially for the purpose of exegetical method – some students may want to go on to higher level studies and limiting oneself to a communicative approach could hurt some students in the long run.

    Personally, I think effectivey learning the biblical languages has more to do with the effectveness of the teacher than with the grammar per se. A good teacher could use a a somewhat poor grammar and still have students learn something. So a good teacher and a good grammar would be all the better.

  13. Jared Verwiel says:

    Wanted to throw in a bid for Webster’s grammar. Some of the chapters are pretty intense, but his explanations of the vowel changes are excellent. It is a great step for the student who is interested in taking on Hebrew composition afterward, but no easy task for the student who just needs to “get by.” I went back to it after using Ross, and it was well worth it. If you stay on track with the workbook, there is no way you won’t know the vowel patterns.
    I am a little partial to Webster as a DTS student, so take it for what it is worth. But I haven’t come across any other introductory grammars that distinguish stative and fientive verbs, or get to the reasons behind the Masoretic pointing. Webster also paves the way for understanding translation of verbs in Psalms and Proverbs as compared to narrative texts…a most needed distinction for those wanting to continue Hebrew linguistics.

  14. Andy says:

    I can concur with some of the comments here. I am not a teacher but just someone who learnt Hebrew for pleasure and spiritual profit.I never went to Seminary but I self studied Biblical Hebrew and when I began to learn Biblical Hebrew I started off with RK Harrisons “Teach Yourself Biblical Hebrew”. The orthographic sections put me off for 2 years or more and I laid the project aside. Then I cam across a small beginners book on Modern Hebrew. This gave me handle on what Hebrew sounded like as a living language. Knowing what is sounded like got me past the unclear orthography sections of Harrisons book, and I was able to get my teeth into the Grammar. I took some Modern Hebrew conversation classes some years later, but by then I was already a fluent reader and writer, though not heavy compositions. I can testify to the value of learning Hebrew as a real language. To be able to read the Bible in Hebrew is a great joy and benefit. I would also say that composition is Hebrew is also of great importance. It’s also great fun. Simple things like translating English Bible back into Hebrew and comparing the results with the original afterwards can really boost mastery of the language. Then later one returns back to things of greater complexity, because by then you have developed a natural feel for things which really helps. When you get to the stage where an English Bible does not satisfy you then that is a good place to be, because then it becomes a joy not a grind.

  15. Chip McDaniel says:

    I learned on Landes (from Ross while he was at DTS) and have taught using Seow and Ross. I prefer Ross, especially now that there are online resources my students can access. An answer key is at

    http://biblicallanguages.wordpress.com/language-courses-i-teach/hebrew-grammar-i-first-year-course/answer-keys-to-ross-introducing-biblical-hebrew-ibh/

    and a series of white board lectures (along with other goodies) is provided at

    http://www.animatedhebrew.com/

    I do the first 39 or 40 chapters in the first year. The reading exercises after that provide a good review for the students to do on their own.

  16. Jonathan Whitten says:

    Cook and Holmstead have a new grammar that I believe is set to print in June 2013. This is the second grammar I have used and I found it to be very helpful.

  17. Jonathan Beck says:

    This thread is old, but I’ll add to it. I started taking Hebrew in high school (Mansoor/Weingreen), continued through college (Lambdin), and tutored seminary students in Seow. We switched to a manuscript form of Cook/Hollmstedt’s grammar and continued using it after it published. I was apprehensive at first, but it is now safely my favorite grammar of them all. It includes inductive, deductive, and linguistic approaches, along with writing, speaking, and visual (cartoon-illustrated texts) and is definitely worth a look. It is also very affordable.

  18. Naftali Anderson says:

    Question: Do any of you have an opinion about Hebrew University’s Hineni a recent two volume introduction to Biblical Hebrew?

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