If I spoke another language that was entirely different than Hebrew or English, with a different alphabet, grammar and syntax, and I had to choose to learn one of those two, Hebrew would be easier. Sure, sure, you say. But from scratch, learning Hebrew would be easier than learning English.
In over 10 years of studying and teaching biblical Hebrew, I have been amazed at what an orderly language it is. English is, on the other hand, having been cobbled together from many languages, is a bit of a mess. Pronunciation rules are particularly nutty in English, and just about every rule is to be broken. In comparison, Hebrew is rather straightforward: there are rules for everything, and it almost aways follows the rules.
Modern Hebrew is a little different - okay, pretty different - than biblical Hebrew. If you tried to speak biblical Hebrew in Israel today, you'd sound like Chaucer in Detroit. The ancient language of the Torah doesn't really allow for things like "my airconditioner is broken" or "that's my bicycle." Thus, in the early days of the formation of the modern State of Israel, Eliezer Ben-Yehuda almost single-handedly brought Hebrew into modern use. Words for modern things had to be invented, making a Modern Hebrew dictionary quite a bit heftier than the more limited lexicon of the Torah.
Hebrew is word-poor and meaning-rich. How so? Take a word that most people know: shalom. Peace. Easy enough. That word operates off of a three-letter root (like most Hebrew words, Modern or biblical) that doesn't have anything to do with not fighting. The root has the sense of wholeness. When you are in Israel and wany to pay the restaurant bill, you say, "Efshar l'shaleim?" Same three-letter root as shalom, shin-lamed-mem, but it's not saying peace, or hello or goodbye as you often hear "shalom." It means can we settle up, make this transaction "whole." When you greet a man on the street, you say, "Mah shlomcha?" Roughly, that means "how are you doing?" but literally it means "how is your peace." One little three-letter root can mean so much. Such an endearing language!
So, whether you haven't looked at a page of Hebrew since your bar mitzvah, or you just want to learn one of the most fascinating languages on earth, there is help. I feel a classroom setting the best learning environment, but Hebrew classes aren't always easy to find. Start with the local synagogue, university or Jewish community center (depending whether you want Modern or biblical Hebrew). To supplement those classes, or even to start from scratch, we've compiled a list of Hebrew language resources that can help immensely.
Kim Phillips is a Jewish artist, teacher and pararabbinic who frequently gives workshops and artist-in-residence programs using Jewish papercut art to illuminate sacred Jewish texts. To ask about an event for your synagogue, sisterhood, JCC or religious school, click here. The artwork that accompanies this post was done by a student in a Hebrica Jewish papercutting art workshop.Hebrica Judaic Art