Learning to Think in Hebrew

Thinking in HebrewI recently told you about some of the interesting Norwegian words I grew up saying, like “uff-da” and “vasakope.”

As my immigrant ancestors were learning English, they hung on to words in their mother tongue that did a better job of expressing what they meant to say.

My relatives weren’t the only ones doing this. English, in fact, loves to borrow words from other languages. How many of these do you know?

Gestalt   Deja Vu    Schadenfreude    Ennui 

English is actually unusual in its voracious appetite for loanwords. As one author put it, “We don’t just borrow words; on occasion, English has pursued other languages down alleyways to beat them unconscious and rifle their pockets for new vocabulary.”

As a result, we English speakers expand our vocabulary every day. If we aren’t learning foreign words, we’re picking up tech terms like “webinar” or “hotspot” or “favicon.” Without batting an eye, we say things like, “Hand me that plate of hors d’oevres, could you? I’m googling who won the Oscars last year.”

Knowing about this habit has inspired me to do something similar when I read my Bible. When I encounter a Hebrew word, I try think with that word. I try to hang onto the word in all its breadth, and incorporate a new biblical idea into my thinking, instead of translating it into English. (You can do this with Greek too, but it’s much closer to English, so less interesting.) You also don’t need to take a whole language class to do it either.

Just learning a new Hebraic word-idea helps often in Bible study. Many Hebrew words encapsulate profound biblical ideas, and express them with overtones that we simply don’t have in English, like deja vu and ennui.

When you know the shades of meaning, you can ruminate over alternative translations to see which one helps you understand the passage best. You can also see why translations differ. Since translators are confined to choosing a single English equivalent for each Hebrew word, they simply can’t capture all the nuances.

Shema-IsraelAs an example, recently I shared about the Hebrew word “shema.” It has a primary meaning of “hear,” but actually also means “pay attention,” “respond,” and even “obey.”

I told the story of a friend of mine who shouted and shouted at her kids to come in from playing outside, but they completely ignored her. Sighing, she said to me, “Oh, Lois, my kids have a hearing problem.” But since she knew a little Hebrew, I responded, “No, they actually have a shema-ing problem.”

Notice what I just said here, about “having a shema-ing problem.” I’m guessing you didn’t need to translate. You simply got my point, and in a sophisticated way — that the kids have a hearing/responding/obedience problem. Believe it or not, you just used the word “shema” to think in Hebrew. You added a new word-concept to your thinking, rather than forcing yourself to replace “shema” with an English equivalent.

Language purists might wince, because I’m not conjugating the verb correctly, and I even added “ing” to the end of it. But my point isn’t to teach you grammar, it’s to help you think with Hebrew word-ideas. So that when you read that Jesus said, “He who has ears, let him shema,” you catch his drift, as his first disciples did.




For more on the meanings of Hebrew words that don’t quite translate into English, see my latest book, 5 Hebrew Words that Every Christian Should Know.


Images from paintings by Tikvah Adler and Sophia Schertzer.


6 Responses to “Learning to Think in Hebrew”

  1. 1
    ruthsojourn|February 18, 2013

    This is so true, and unless you’ve learned another language, you don’t really understand there isn’t always a 1 to 1 comparrison.

    Thanks for a great post.

  2. 2
    Sally|February 26, 2013

    I love this!

  3. 3
    Shauna|March 22, 2013

    This Blog is “right up my alley”. I love doing Hebrew word studies using the KJV of the Old Testament scriptures and use the Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance as the reference guide.

    For example, I am currently doing an ongoing study on the word, “Trust” as it appears in the Old Testament. I look up the scripture passage and then research the Hebrew equivalent of the word in the Concordance. This system of study makes understanding the scripture that much deeper and your richer.

    I have learned “trusting in the LORD” can also mean, to have “expectant hope in,” to “have confidence in,” and to “seek refuge/protection with.”

    A faster way to do this type of study is using online tools/websites such as: http://www.biblegateway.com for the scripture passage and http://www.blueletterbible.org for the Strong’s Concordance word search.


  4. 4
    Otho Jordan|April 6, 2013

    The concept is terrific. Can we apply it to Aramaic which is what Jesus probably was speaking? What was the Aramaic word that may have been translated into Hebrew.and subsequently into Greek? Was the meaning of that word the same?

  5. 5
    Lois Tverberg|April 8, 2013

    The idea that Jesus only spoke Aramaic is out of date. Since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls and other ancient texts, the ideas about the languages in use in the first century have changed. That’s because they’ve found many first-century Jewish documents that were written in Hebrew, which was a living language at the time. Aramaic was a language of trade and widely used the ancient world, but many Jews spoke Hebrew predominantly – not quite the Hebrew of the Old Testament, but the Hebrew of the Mishnah, the collection of rabbinic sayings that date from 200 BC to 200 AD.

    Jesus likely was multilingual, able to speak Hebrew and Aramaic. The two languages are closely related, like Spanish and Portuguese. Even today, Jewish kids spend years learning Hebrew in school, but when they start studying rabbinic texts in Aramaic (as many later texts are) they never bother taking a class to learn the language, they just learn the differences in vocabulary as they study.

  6. 6
    LeQuita|June 2, 2016

    Very interesting! Will try this out.

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