(I am a Hebrew speaker) When reading the Bible, one encounters sometimes words whose meaning in modern Hebrew clearly does not correspond to what was meant in the text (in Kohelet for example, "מסכן" seems to mean poor, and not miserable; for another, perhaps more substantial example, I don't think that "רשע" in the Bible corresponds exactly to its meaning in modern Hebrew). This suggests that before modern Hebrew came into existence, the Bible text sometimes had a different meaning for the Jewish scholars (with Yiddish, or Spanish, or Portuguese, or ... being their mother tongue) than the meaning which it has for native Hebrew speakers nowadays (or "sounded" differently, so to speak).

Could you recommend any studies which try to compare ancient and modern Hebrew? How this divergence in Hebrew is being approached to in religious studies where students have prior knowledge of modern Hebrew? (speaking about myself, I do feel sometimes misled by my knowledge of modern Hebrew when reading the Bible)

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    There's a mishnah (forget where) that says there's one Hebrew of the Torah, one of the Prophets, and one of the Mishnah. Even back then, people recognized that language changes over time. Modern Hebrew is unique only in that it was "artificially created" rather than "naturally evolving". (quotes to imply that those terms are harder to define than you'd want to think). Jan 6, 2015 at 22:01
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    I think the last question you're trying to ask is actually very much on topic, but it's worded a bit off. Maybe something like: "... What is the implication of the divergence in Hebrew on .... (somethign)?" Jan 6, 2015 at 22:04
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    This should never have been closed. It's explicitly asking for something to help modern Hebrew speakers study Tanach.
    – Isaac Moses
    Jan 7, 2015 at 3:06
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    Close-voters, please consult this diagram: chat.stackexchange.com/transcript/468?m=15350088#15350088
    – Isaac Moses
    Jan 8, 2015 at 4:04

2 Answers 2


I don't know if it counts as a study, but how about a relevant textbook?

The book Biblical Hebrew for Students of Modern Israeli Hebrew looks like it will help you. It's used in the rabbinic program at Hebrew Union College and probably other places (though I only have first-hand knowledge of HUC). Several non-yeshiva programs I'm aware of start by teaching (or otherwise ensuring that students know) Modern Hebrew and then teach older forms based on that. I don't know what yeshivot do.

There are, as you observed, key differences between modern and biblical Hebrew (and the idea of one "biblical Hebrew" also doesn't stand up to scrutiny). These differences are in both form/grammar and vocabulary.

From the author's preface:

Yet BH and MIH are two different languages -- or at the very least, two substantially different dialects of the same language. MIH is certainly useful for reading the Bible, but no one can understand the Hebrew Bible knowing only MIH. There are significant differences in vocabulary, spelling, verb formation, use of verbal suffixes, and word order.

Some constructs in BH are unknown in MIH, such as the vav conversive (reversing vav), a particular formation that converts a perfect verb to imperfect or vice-versa. (BH doesn't really have "past" and "future" tenses so much as perfect and imperfect aspects -- another key difference.) Without knowing about this often-used construct one would make significant errors, some but not all of which might raise contextual alarms ("that doesn't make sense").

Some constructs are different. MIH tends strongly to subject-verb-object order and (to my understanding) doesn't use the direct-object marker et. BH, on the other hand, is less consistent; it tends to put the verb first with the subject and object following, but sometimes starts with the object. Since the verb construct tells you the number and gender of the subject, subjects are sometimes dropped as redundant, which can lead to ambiguity.

BH and MIH handle participles differently, and also some verb prefixes and suffixes. The book has extensive discussions of this. Some vocabulary is also different. While MIH vocabulary is derived from BH vocabulary, knowing only MIH doesn't always get you back to the core.

BH itself isn't completely uniform either. From the introduction:

The second problem alluded to in the term biblical Hebrew was that it implies that we have a single, unified language. On the contrary, we actually have several dialects that are merged in the Hebrew Bible. These dialects may be distinguished mainly in terms of chronology, geography, and genre.

He goes on to point out that the language changed over the span of a thousand years, particularly through exile when Aramaic had a stronger influence; that there were differences between the northern and southern kingdoms after the split; and that poetry is rather different from prose.

Throughout the book he offers some translation tips, which I quote from to illustrate the types of problems that can arise. (I'm going to sometimes transliterate for ease of composing this answer.)

Do not assume that a word has the same meaning in BH and MIH. Example: Song of Songs 4:1 שַׂעְרֵךְ כְּעֵדֶר הָעִזִּים, שֶׁגָּלְשׁוּ מֵהַר גִּלְעָד. The word galash in MIH means "ski", but here it means "descend".

(You can see how, given a root for "descend" and a need for the concept of downill skiing, the creators of MH might have applied the former to the latter. This isn't a unique example by any means.)

Vowels matter. In particular, be sure to distinguish between verbs and nouns. Example: Psalm 13:6 אָשִׁירָה לַיהוָה, כִּי גָמַל עָלָי. Gamal with a qametz is the noun "camel", but gamal with a patach as here means "deal fairly" or "reward".

I understand from this book that vowel-driven nuances are way more common in BH than they are in MIH.

He also points out issues with different classes of defective verbs, and with verbs that look the same in different binyanim (so you need to apply context).

For much more discussion, see the book.

The book lists the following source that sounds promising; I haven't seen it but I trust Davïd's recommendation:

  • Saenz-Badillos, Angel, A History of the Hebrew Language, Cambridge University Press, 1993 (preview on Google Books, h/t Davïd)

Further recommendations from Davïd:

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    I once stayed over a Shabbat with a professor of Semitic languages at Hebrew College and, while there, tackled the first chapter or so of a book he was writing on the grammar of the earliest forms of written Hebrew. I didn't understand, let alone retain, very much of it, but there's definitely a scholarly field full of people who are steeped in the differences among the various "versions" of Hebrew -- different biblical periods, mishnaic, rabbinic, and so on, all of which are different from the modern language. A good university library may have useful resources. Jan 8, 2015 at 1:35
  • thank you, what you write is quite informative for me. The verse you brought from Song of Songs is actually perceived, at least by me, as a metaphore - which is wrong because "גלשו" should have meant "descended" literally. Paradoxically perhaps, reading the Bible translated to other languages is sometimes more "loyal to the original" than reading uncritically the original as a MIH speaker. After reflection, as a layman, it seems to me that religious (Jewish) people, who are MIH speakers, have less problems of this kind, since they usually study the text together with rabbinical comments.
    – John Donn
    Jan 8, 2015 at 10:31
  • (It's actually the author of that book who brings the example from Shir Hashirim, not me.) I suspect the biggest challenge of being an MIH reader (who hasn't studied BH) is the assumption that of course you know the language; once you realize there are differences you know to look for them, check commentaries, etc. Best wishes in your studies! And if you look around the site you'll see lots of questions about how particular passages should be understood, so I hope if you have questions you'll ask them. Jan 8, 2015 at 15:00
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    Some quick thoughts on the "further reading": I would forget about Ullendorff (an article collection) and Young (very specific). Sáenz-Badillos is excellent: scholarly, readable, with preview on Google Books. Also worth checking out: massive article on "Hebrew Language" from Encyclopedia Judaica covers all periods; plus a more popular Hebrew language history from Joel Hoffmann; Muraoka's Modern Hebrew for Biblical Scholars goes the "other" direction from Monica's textbook. HTH - FWIW!
    – Dɑvïd
    Jan 17, 2015 at 20:54
  • @Davïd thank you for that very-helpful feedback! I'm going to incorporate your suggestions into the answer (with due credit of course). (And on a personal note, Muraoka's book sounds like something I would find helpful, as I started with Biblical and am (demonstrably) unable to do simple things like ask for directions in Jerusalem (and comprehend the answer). :-) Jan 18, 2015 at 1:40

There are many words in Modern Hebrew which differ vastly to its meaning in Biblical Hebrew. The word חשמל jumps to mind. This word appears 3 times in Sefer Yechezkel and is referring to a highly Kabalistic concept of contact between G'd and His angels. In Modern Hebrew it has of course been "secularised" into meaning "electricity". The word ארוסין has also been translated into something different than its meaning in Talmudic Hebrew. In the latter it means a first stage of marriage, where if it were to be dissolved would need a proper גט and where a child born out-of-wedlock woud be a proper Mamzer. In MH it merely means engagement".

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    -1 I fail to see how this answers the question.
    – Double AA
    Jan 14, 2015 at 0:50
  • In Mishnaic Hebrew ארוסין also meant engagement. We just do engagement differently nowadays. The fact that we still refer to the formal legal concept associated with their engagement by that word doesn't detract from its main meaning.
    – Double AA
    Jan 14, 2015 at 0:51

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