I’ve spent most of my day today studying for Monday’s Hebrew test. As far as first year courses go, Hebrew is quite easily the most challenging. Sure, the others are a lot of work. There’s a lot of reading, writing, and memorizing that goes into courses like Symbolics (the class I’ve got to memorize the catechism for), Philosophy, and New Testament Textual Criticism. Greek is a lot of work, too. But no course so regularly roughs up my ego as does Hebrew.
If you’ve ever seen Hebrew writing, you might think that the alphabet is what makes learning the language difficult. It looks like alien writing, and by alien I do mean extraterrestrial. At first, yes, the alphabet is a real hurdle. But you’d be surprised at how quickly you get the hang of it, at how soon you’re successfully sounding out and recognizing words. It even starts to feel natural reading from right to left. When I took my first year of Hebrew at Trinity, we learned how to translate from Hebrew to English and by the time I left I was feeling pretty confident.
The real challenge, however, is translating English into Hebrew. In one year you can learn Hebrew well enough to look at a sentence like, “Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters,” and take a pretty good stab at what it means, even if you were to miss some of the details. But if you were asked to take that English sentence and translate it into Hebrew, you’d be greatly increasing the difficulty level. And that’s what makes this a Masters program, I guess, because that’s what we have to do. No, not that sentence in particular. I wouldn’t even know where to begin with that sentence. The ones we work on are more along the lines of “There was a famine in the land,” or “The lion wept like a donkey.”
To that end, I spent a good portion of my study time today going through my vocab lists and translating English words into Hebrew. If I got a word wrong, I had an extra sheet on which I wrote the word out five times:
You can see for yourself just how well the day was going. Dr. Smith, at this stage in the course, marks very strictly on the smallest details. He wants us to know the basic rules by which the language operates, and having us write out the words and sentences in perfect Hebrew forces us to learn those rules very well. Later on he won’t be so picky about missing the pointing above your shin, for instance, or about forgetting that two vocal shevas can’t be next to each other and that therefore the first must reduce to a chireq. What I mean is, if you get a dot or two wrong in a word you might not necessarily get the word wrong. But at the moment it has to be perfect, and that perfection is very difficult to come by.
What is not difficult to come by are the beautiful fall colours we get to see in abundance every day: