Hebrew is a modern miracle. This language, spoken by the biblical Israelites, lay dormant for thousands of years in diaspora until Zionists of the 19th and 20th centuries revived it. Today, it’s the mother tongue of millions in the State of Israel.
But how close are today’s Hebrew and that spoken by the ancient Israelites? More practically, does learning to speak, read and write Modern Hebrew help someone who hopes to read the Hebrew Bible?
Michael Mistretta of the Fellowship of Israel Related Ministries (FIRM) says, “studying Modern Hebrew has been irreplaceable for understanding Biblical Hebrew. Everyone says it’s so different, but I don’t really find it to be that different. I try to read the Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) every day as a way of practicing my Modern Hebrew. It’s also interesting to me to see how Modern Hebrew evolved from ideas in Hebrew scriptures.”
Biblical and Modern Hebrew are about as similar as Shakespearean and contemporary English. Just like being an English speaker gives a student of Shakespeare a clear advantage in understanding the great poet and playwright, having a working knowledge of Modern Hebrew greatly enhances understanding of the Biblical text.
Michael’s colleague, Estera Wieja, says “I believe that all the details (in the Bible) are significant. Things that are otherwise lost in translation are very clear in Hebrew.” With a background in the spoken language, reading the Hebrew Bible goes from being just an academic exercise to an immersive experience.
The ability to speak today’s Hebrew also makes reading the Hebrew Bible an easier endeavor. Professor Paul Pimsleur, an American linguist who developed the method for learning to speak a foreign language used by the CIA, pointed out a fact of nature: people learn to speak and understand their mother tongue long before they learn to read and write it. This is true from a historical perspective as well: spoken language came before written language. Being able to speak and understand a language endows a text with meaning, promoting much more fluent reading.