A Book Review from Books At a Glance
by Daniel Wogari
Hebrew For Life (2020) is a spin-off of Greek For Life (2017) tailored for current or previous students of Biblical Hebrew. The goal of this book is to encourage current students who might be disheartened by the difficulties of learning Hebrew, give practical advice on ways to maintain Hebrew after graduation, and inspire ex-Hebrew students to relearn the language after years (or decades) of neglect. The book consists of nine chapters addressing different aspects of learning, retaining, and reviving Hebrew, and each chapter ends with a devotional thought from the Hebrew Bible.
Chapter 1 titled “The Goal of the Harvest,” stresses the significance of studying the biblical languages (emphasis on Hebrew) and addresses common misconceptions that commonly deter people from studying them. Although learning a new language like Hebrew can be difficult, the benefits that come from a period of intense study are exponentially beneficial in the long run. Pastors who are properly equipped with a knowledge of Hebrew can be more confident as they share God’s Word and save time in their preparations. Furthermore, an understanding of Hebrew opens the door to engagement rather than reliance on commentaries. If someone claims to hold God’s Word as inerrant and the ultimate source of truth, then laboring for a season to read God’s Word in its original language should be perceived as a blessing. The chapter ends with a discussion pointing out the privilege of studying biblical languages and warns readers from squandering the opportunities that God has given them.
Chapter 2 discusses the psychology behind our habits and provides practical ways we can overcome the challenges we face living in a digitally saturated world. Many of us find ourselves wanting to study biblical Hebrew but seem to always justify that our unpredictable and packed schedules make this goal unattainable. This chapter challenges readers to reassess their “busy” schedules and suggests that if they tracked their time for a given period, they would be alarmed at how much time is spent on things with no long-term value. Our desire to study God’s Word in its original language should drive us to engage in the “technological jujitsu” required to regain our focus from the distractions of technology. Various apps and technologies are suggested that aid in accountability and practical techniques to maximize one’s study of biblical Hebrew are also mentioned.
Chapter 3 provides more practical information and tips for retaining biblical Hebrew in the long-term memory. Scientific studies reveal that shorter study times of 25 minutes throughout one’s day will aid in long-term memory retention. Furthermore, reviewing the information a day later and occasionally every couple of days will eventually lead to mastery. Incorporating various methods such as reading, speaking, writing, hearing, and singing will yield remarkable progress in the long run.
Chapter 4 suggests various strategies one can implement as one memorizes vocab and grammar. This chapter also addresses the misconception that many people have about their inability to memorize terms. Even though the art of memorization has become inessential in our technological society, this does not mean that humans are incapable of training their memories. Whether we realize it or not, everyone has the ability to retain biblical Hebrew in their long-term memory if they incorporate effective techniques, have a passion for learning Hebrew, and give their bodies ample rest and nutrition. The chapter consists of several mnemonic devices to aid in memorization such as: imaginative association, substitute words, acronyms, silly stories, English cognate terms, and two methods of loci (Latin for “places”). Loci is a method where terms are attached to a memory palace and is widely used by top mnemonists. By the end of this chapter not only will you be convinced that the art of memorization is something that can be practiced, but you will also be equipped with various techniques to make this a reality.
Chapter 5 proposes ways students can maintain their Hebrew over academic breaks and once they complete their required Hebrew courses. The chapter is broken down into six different principles: accountability, a plan, realistic goals, enjoyment, competition, and community. The principle of accountability can be broken down into two categories: formal accountability and self-imposed accountability. Formal accountability is typically imposed by professors who can implement various techniques such as online reading groups, pairing up students to read together and rewarding them with extra credit, or warning them that the following semester will begin with a quiz. If students already understand the rich treasures found in their study of biblical Hebrew, they will voluntarily partake in self-imposed accountability by implementing daily reminders, reading plans, creating incentives and disincentives, or making their goals known to close family members. This chapter gives various recommendations on workbooks that can be used fifteen minutes a day, as well as psychologically proven strategies when creating realistic goals. Regardless of how students decide to keep up with their Hebrew during breaks and after graduation, we must discipline ourselves in a way where we find pleasure in studying God’s word.
While the previous chapter insisted that Hebrew students should have reading plans, chapter 6 provides practical advice on how to engage daily with the Hebrew text. To determine which books in the Hebrew Bible a student should start reading, a list compiled by Andrew Yates is included which ranks books into three categories based on the occurrences of vocabulary above five hundred words, the number of unique vocabulary words, and a combination of vocabulary and syntax. Based on the lists, the author recommends that beginner Hebrew students start with books such as Ruth, Jonah, or Deuteronomy. The chapter goes on to suggest various tools students can use as they read the Hebrew Bible. Based on the student’s experience they should read from an interlinear or reverse interlinear Bible, diglot Bible, reader’s Hebrew Bible, reader’s lexicon, dictionary, or a digital text. The author suggests recommendations for each category and provides pictures for the interlinear and reader’s editions. The chapter ends with some interesting advice on how Hebrew can be used to aid students as they memorize verses in English. As discussed in chapter 4, similar to how memory champions use the technique of association to memorize loads of information, Hebrew students can utilize their understanding of the Hebrew text as they memorize their English version. By going back to the Hebrew text and making note of peculiarities and the translation philosophy used by the editors, the student is producing more associations with each word in the verse making memorization easier.
Chapter 7 provides an overview of the various tools available for beginner, intermediate, and advanced Hebrew students. Although modern technology and the never-ending cycle of new publications make acquiring resources easy, the author stresses that ultimately our primary resource in studying Scripture should be the Hebrew Bible itself. We should engage with the plethora of resources we have available while safeguarding against the susceptibility to unwittingly push Scripture aside. The chapter goes on to suggest numerous software and apps for learning and studying Hebrew and tips on using these tools effectively. Furthermore, a list of lexicons, handbooks, and grammar textbooks are suggested based on one’s level of experience. The chapter ends with an extensive list of Hebrew textbooks and a brief description of their purpose and philosophy of teaching.
Chapter 8 describes the similarities between Hebrew and Aramaic with the intention of inspiring readers to complete their study of the Old Testament in its original language and enabling themselves to better understand God’s word. Even though some might propose that learning Aramaic is not worth the time for 269 verses, approximately one percent of the Old Testament, the author makes the case that this endeavor should not be perceived as a burden but should be recognized as an opportunity to know and love God more. The author points out areas of significant overlap, minor differences, and significant differences between Hebrew and Aramaic. Aramaic resources including grammars, lexica, readers, and vocabulary guides are recommended.
Chapter 9 is a call of encouragement to those who have lost their Hebrew skills since their seminary days to regain their understanding of Hebrew for their benefit and the church. The author begins by inviting readers to reexamine their “why” behind relearning biblical Hebrew which will drive students to continue their studies even on difficult days. The author refers to the points made in chapter 1 regarding the significance of studying the biblical languages. Furthermore, honestly self-evaluating your current skills, leveraging small pockets of time, and finding a study partner are just some of the points mentioned. Another roadblock that many people face is the misconception behind failure. As learners, we must be realistic with our goals and view failure as part of the process of learning. Regardless of how quickly it takes to relearn Hebrew, we should be content with slow and steady progress. The chapter consists of various testimonials from ex-seminarians who relearned Hebrew after failing to maintain the language and laying it aside for many years.
Hebrew For Life is a book I would recommend for current and former Hebrew students who desire to use the privilege they have been given to study God’s word in its original language for the edification of themselves and others. The authors convincingly point out the pressing need for students to treat their language classes as an instrument that will enable them to better understand God’s word and faithfully teach it for the duration of their lives. If given the opportunity this includes investing time into studying Biblical Aramaic which sadly gets neglected. I think incoming Hebrew students would benefit from chapters 1-4 and reading chapter 5 before starting their first academic break from Hebrew. Considering that the workload for these students tends to be burdensome, maybe professors can point out some key details from these chapters. While reading this book, I compiled a list of websites, books, and study techniques to maintain my Biblical Hebrew. Not only will Hebrew For Life stir up your desire for (re)learning Hebrew but it will also equip you with abundant resources and proven strategies for success!
Buy the books
HEBREW FOR LIFE: STRATEGIES FOR LEARNING, RETAINING, AND REVIVING BIBLICAL HEBREW, by Adam J. Howell, Benjamin L. Merkle, and Robert L. Plummer