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I am a native speaker of contemporary Israeli Hebrew. I learned Biblical Hebrew by immersion: my Israeli secular school education exposed me repeatedly to the unmodified Masoretic Text, from the second grade through the twelfth. When I first started teaching Biblical Hebrew to American students, I thus knew the language—but I was not familiar with the methods of teaching it to non-native-speakers.

I found that most textbooks approached the language in what seems to be the traditional academic manner: nouns with their permutations, paradigms of regular verbs in Qatal—first in Qal, followed by the other stems (binyanim), and then the same with the participle. By the middle of the year, one starts covering the Yiqtol form, again with regular roots, in all stems; toward the end of the year, one begins to study the irregular verbs and finally the paradigms of the various weak roots. An unfortunate result of this approach is that students end up least familiar with the weak verbs—yet it is very difficult indeed to find a Biblical Hebrew text in which they do not abound. In fact, weak roots are far more common than the "regular" roots (shlemim), both in frequency and in number. Native speakers have their own internalized and unconscious system for recognizing weak roots and handling them, quite apart from any teaching of grammar at school. But obviously, to do that, you need to know the language in the first place.

Textbooks present paradigms of all the weak root groups. But learning a paradigm by heart is one thing; figuring out which paradigm out of a fairly large selection is relevant in a particular case is quite another. In fact, the weak root paradigms are not arbitrary: they deviate from the regular paradigm in very predictable ways. What if, instead of treating each weak root paradigm as an entity to be memorized, I were to show my students how the nature of a particular weak consonant like Yod, or an assimilating consonant like Nun, interacts with the basic paradigm to create the weak paradigm? In my Beginning Hebrew course, I tried to cover with this approach all the various weak root groups in Qatal before going on to the next grammatical form. I then wanted to reward my students by reading a small segment of biblical text—after all, my students took my classes to be able to read the Bible in Hebrew, not for love of memorizing paradigms. But I then found that it is extremely difficult to find a portion of text with verbs in Qatal only (the only one I found was Jer 14:1-6, with 22 verbs in Qatal, one infinitive, and no other verb forms). Clearly, if I wanted to reward my students by actually reading Biblical texts, I had to go some other way.

The next time I taught Hebrew 101, I switched to the textbook of Kittel, Hoffer, and Wright (Yale University Press). I find that this textbook makes sense of the language as it is used. The book teaches grammatical forms inductively, by learning to recognize them in a text. The first verb encountered is va-yomer, an irregular verb; and weak roots appear within the first week. Each verb encountered is analyzed into root, stem, form, and its other relevant features. Using this textbook, I was able to start reading short, unmodified Biblical stories with my students about six or eight weeks into the first semester. Better yet, the book taught my students what to focus on when they encounter a verb, rather than memorize paradigms and only then find out that many of the variants that occur in those paradigms are unimportant. For correct active knowledge of the language—speaking or writing—one would need the entire paradigm. But for passive knowledge—for reading the Biblical text—many details are unimportant.

Kittel, Hoffer, and Wright have their students translate short verses and part-verses after each lesson. I go one step further: I ask that my students recognize and analyze each verb that they encounter in these translation exercises. I try to create intellectually and consciously the process that every Hebrew speaker carries out instinctively: seeing each verb as a root/stem combination in a particular grammatical form. When the root is a weak one, as is often the case, my students have to supply the missing root letter at the right location, and they have to know how to identify the stem (binyan).

Biblical Hebrew, like any language, is not a set of inflexible rules; it has variants, remnants, duplications, and exceptions. But overall, it is impressively true to its own logic. Words do not as a rule undergo unexplained changes—and verbs even less so. When a root letter is missing, there is only a very limited range of possibilities: initial Yod, initial Nun, middle Yod or Vav, final Heh, or geminates. Each of these possibilities leaves behind its typical telltale marks, which Kittel, Hoffer and Wright teach as rules. There is some overlap, and a very small number of one-of-a-kind exceptions. But overall, I concentrate on memorizing a very small number of indispensable paradigms and on showing students the rules and ranges of possibilities that modify them. People who like learning paradigms by heart can always learn them—in any case, I can't learn the paradigms for them. But people who prefer to go by logic get all the help from me that I can give.

The person/number/gender markings are the same in all stems (binyanim) and all root groups (gzarot). Rather than study each stem and its variants as separate paradigms, I suggest to my students that they should separate the person, number, and gender markings from the markings of the stem. Then I insist that they memorize thoroughly these person, number, and gender markings.

I have found it very useful to employ a computerized quiz that presents my students with person/number/gender markings in random order and can be taken repeatedly. This eliminates another problem I find in textbooks: the order in which to write the paradigm. It is bad enough that persons are identified in English by numbers: the Hebrew system of "speaker," "present," and "absent" at least provides actual information rather than just a label. But to label the persons by number, and then insist on writing the paradigm so that the third person comes first, is very confusing to students—who in any case need to recognize person, gender, and number when they encounter them in a text, not in the context of a written paradigm.

Most markings of stems (binyanim) don't change with different persons, numbers, and genders. If you know how to identify a stem in 3ms, you can also identify it with any other person, number, and gender, especially if you are aware of a couple of simple phonetic rules that come into effect (like the change from Qamatz to Sheva according to the stress pattern). You can see the result in one of my handouts—the verb summary tables (see

Recognizing the regular (shlemim) root is very easy, and recognizing the stem is straightforward. In roots with guttural letters, the root is still easy to recognize, though the vowels undergo predictable modifications and the markers that enable one to identify the stems need to be modified somewhat. But what about the weak root groups—the ones where a root letter disappears?

Kittel, Hoffer, and Wright give rules for finding the missing root letter, but these are scattered throughout the book. I found it helpful to gather them and add my own experience on a one-page "missing letter guide" ( In it I try to offer a step-by-step guideline to figuring out which root letter is missing. This guide should be used together with a lexicon, since the rules are not absolute. My students are used to having me ask them constantly to recognize verbs as such, to identify the root and stem of verbs, and then to tell me how they figure it out. I don't care whether they memorize the guidelines or continue to look at them—either way they internalize the patterns and end up with a good grasp of the language.

This handout helps with the technical part of identifying correctly the root and the stem (binyan) of a verb. But what about understanding the verb? How should we teach our students to understand verbs in Biblical Hebrew?

The real question is, how are we to teach our students to translate Hebrew verb forms? When it comes to Wa-Yiktol (Yiqtol+vav conversive), participles, infinitives, and imperatives, there is no issue. Wa-Yiktol conveys a past event, participles are verbal adjectives (where the only problem is the English confusion of participles and infinitives), and imperatives are instructions or commands. But Yiqtol (Prefix, Imperfect) and Qatal (Affix, Perfect) present a problem.

Clearly, there is no direct correlation between either Qatal or Yiqtol in the Bible and any tense in English, Latin, Greek, or any other European language that I know of. What about verbal aspect? Should we understand the Yiqtol form as encoding incomplete action—"imperfect"—and Qatal as encoding completed action—"perfect"?

Since I learned Biblical Hebrew by immersion, I had not been aware of the "perfect"/"imperfect" distinction in Hebrew. And I must tell you that, to my mind, it does not ring true. Yes, there are examples where the Qatal form is clearly used for an action that is completed, and there are examples of Yiqtol for action that is not completed. There are also clear examples to the contrary for each. And in the vast majority of cases, there is no way to tell. In other words, the connection between form (Qatal or Yiqtol) and perfective or imperfective action is in my opinion random. Certainly, I didn't feel that this supposed distinction helped my students understand the text better.

I would suggest that matters of tense and aspect, which in Indo-European languages are encoded by verbs, are simply not encoded by verbs in Hebrew. How, then, should one teach one's students to translate the Hebrew verb? Which tense should they use in English to translate a particular verb? One should go by context (including, of course, adverbs and other explicit modifiers). If the verb refers to something that happened already, use past tense. If the verb refers to something that hasn't happened yet, use future tense. Usually we can tell with reasonable certainty which of the two is the case. And if we don't know by content or context, or from adverbs and other elements of the sentence other than its verb form, then in most instances we do not have any way of knowing. There is a difference between the Qatal and Yiqtol forms: you cannot substitute one for the other without affecting the meaning of the resulting sentence, which is the reason I insist on reading actual text from the Bible rather than any made-up or modified text. But the difference I refer to is neither a matter of tense nor, in my opinion, of aspect.

I give my students a few very general guidelines and suggest that they go by context. Obviously wa-Yiqtol (Yiqtol+vav conversive) conveys a past event; for Yiqtol without vav conversive, one should first consider modal or future (will, shall, or would); for Qatal plus vav ("vav reversive"), try future tense first. But if any of these doesn't fit the context, follow the context rather than the rule.

Can there be a language where verbs do not encode tense or aspect? Most definitely so. I am told that there are languages where the only distinction is between the real and the unreal. Students who are accustomed to English with its elaborate system of tenses find it unusual not to have tense or aspect or both encoded by verb forms. But there is other crucial information encoded by Hebrew verbs that students miss because the same information is not encoded with any precision by English verbal forms, but rather depends in English on context.

The very distinction between verb and noun is in English a matter of context. Is "break" a noun or a verb? What about "jump"? Or "stand"? I can put a statue on a stand, I can stand a book on a table, or I can stand and do nothing. Each of these would be a different word in Hebrew—from the same root, but with its function instantly recognizable from its morphology. Even when both languages use verbs, it is not enough merely to know the English translation of a Hebrew verb, since the Hebrew one is almost always much more exact in the kind of action it refers to. In English, the same verb is regularly used for either transitive or intransitive action, depending on context. In Hebrew, a root/stem combination conveys nearly always either one or the other—it is hardly ever ambiguous. More than that: while Qal verbs may be either transitive or intransitive (but not both in the same root), Piel and Hifil verbs are almost invariably transitive, Nifal is practically never transitive even when it is active, and Pual and Hofal are strictly passive. Even the (English) terminology I use to describe this more specific verbal action—transitive, intransitive, causative, reflexive—is foreign to my students. I often end up acting my lessons out physically.

The study and teaching of Biblical Hebrew (other than traditional Jewish teaching by immersion) is burdened by a legacy of hundreds of years in which it was practically the only non-Indo-European language regularly studied in most academic institutions. Hebrew grammar is still tagged, even in beginners' textbooks, with Latin terminology such as "genitive," "dative," or "vocative"—cases that do not exist in either Hebrew or English. The inherent regularity of Hebrew verbal forms is not appreciated because the language is studied and taught by persons accustomed to languages in which irregular verbs are typically not so regular. Understandably, teachers and students of Hebrew were and are conditioned by their high-level functioning in their own languages, in which verbal forms code minute details of time, sequence, mode, and completion or lack of it. The lack of these in Biblical Hebrew does not point to any different world view or to a lack of clarity in thinking, any more than English-speakers confuse one who breaks a stick, one who breaks under pressure, and breaks in a fence, just because of the multiple meanings of the English word "break." If we try to accommodate our students' expectations by forming long, complex, and woefully inadequate lists of conditions, trying to force Hebrew into a Procrustean bed of Indo-European tense and aspect, we create unnecessary barriers to understanding the language and the text.

Naama Zahavi-Ely, College of William and Mary

The handouts referred to in this paper are available free of charge on

Citation: Naama Zahavi-Ely, " Teaching the Biblical Hebrew Verb ," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited May 2008]. Online:


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