Frequently Asked Questions

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When studied from the Hebrew perspective, words from the Scriptures can provide a wonderful and enhanced understanding that English definitions struggle to express. 

The Old Testament (the Torah, Psalms, and Prophets) was written in Hebrew and so it is called the “Holy Language.” One very important reason to study the language is that it gives insight into the Jewish mindset, which is much different from Western mindset.  To thoroughly understand the message of Scripture it is necessary to understand the people, culture, and time in which the original text was written.

Martin Luther summed it up when he wrote,  “The Hebrew language is the best language of all…if I were younger I would want to learn this language, because no one can really understand the Scriptures without it.  Although the New Testament is written in Greek, it is full of Hebraisms and Hebrew expressions.  It has therefore been aptly said that the Hebrews drink from the spring, the Greeks drink from the stream that flows from it, and the Latins from a downstream pool.”

The Hebrew letter system is named after the first two letters the Aleph and the Bet

This probably cannot be answered with certainty.  One popular theory proposes that early writing was chiseled in stone.  In order to carve letters into stone the writer would most likely use his stronger hand, which was usually the right, to use the hammer that would strike the chisel held in the left hand making the mark.  Practically speaking it would be much easier to move from right to left.  Maybe, maybe not?  Many archaeological finds are inscriptions that were incised into wet clay instead of chiseled in stone.  For instance, ceramic shards or clay tablets.

Ancient Jewish mystics, on the other hand, generally feel that writing from right to left occurred because the right side is given precedence in Judaism.  Why is that?  An ancient teaching assigns the characteristic of words ‘chesed’ (loving kindness) to the right side and ‘gevurah’ (severity) to the left side.  Kindness always comes first and begins on the right.  For this reason a scribe would be prone to start on the right and work towards the left.

As languages and writing instruments evolved technical issues could have changed writing direction.  It is thought that as scribes used pen and parchment it was technically easier for them to write from left to right so that ink did not smudge.  English definitely would have been one of the languages that moved in that direction while Hebrew and other Aramaic languages were already set with right to left movement.

Some would maintain that Abraham, as the Father of the Hebrews, brought the language from the original single language of the Babel story in Genesis 11. However the written form of Hebrew is not archeologically evident until Moses who was credited by New Testament citations and Jesus Himself as the author of the “Law”, being the first five books of the Bible known as the Pentateuch.

Modern archeological finds have revealed the existence of characters of the Hebrew Aleph Bet in Paleo pictorial form as early as the first century of Israel’s sojourn to Egypt.

That depends on your definition of ‘lost or dead.’ While conversational Hebrew gradually died out between 300BC and 400AD, and remained essentially unused as a spoken language for the next 1500 years, it remained continuously used as a liturgical and literary language. Spoken in ancient times, Hebrew, a member of the Canaanite branch of the Semitic language family, was supplanted as the Jewish vernacular by the western dialect of Aramaic beginning in the third century BC, after the Babylonian Captivity. The common Aramaic also died out in 1100AD, replaced by Arabic.

The revival of Hebrew as a spoken language, lead by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in the 19th and 20th centuries, became the foundation of the official language of Israel. Modern Hebrew used Biblical Hebrew roots, Mishnaic (1st century AD spoken) spelling, and Sephardic (15th century AD Jews in Spain and Portugal) pronunciation, and included many sayings and phrase translations inherited from Yiddish (central European mixture).

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, the history of the Hebrew language is usually divided into four major periods:

  1. Biblical (or Classical) Hebrew, until about the 3rd century BC, in which most of the Old Testament is written;
  2. Mishnaic (or Rabbinic) Hebrew, the language of the Mishna (a collection of Jewish traditions), written about 200 AD (this form of Hebrew was never used among the people as a spoken language);
  3. Medieval Hebrew, from about the 6th to the 13th century AD, when many words were borrowed from Greek, Spanish, Arabic, and other languages; and
  4. Modern Hebrew, the language of Israel in modern times.

This view does not account for Hebrew in its Ancient or Paleo form which became effective as a written form circa 1450 BC and was historically used up until the time of the Babylonian Exile circa 600 BC. Upon the return of the Israelites from Babylon the language began to be written in a form of script adapted from the Babylonian experience.

The original forms of the Hebrew language had no designated vowel markings or letters. Of the several types of vowel systems devised for the Hebrew Aleph Bet the one used today was created by the Masoretes sometime after the middle of the first millennium AD.
There are several distinct differences between Hebrew and English:
  1. Modern Hebrew letters developed from the ancient Paleo Hebrew letters and are visually quite different from English letters.
  2. Hebrew letters have no upper and lower case and five of the Hebrew letters have a different form when they appear at the end of a word. On the other hand, each English letter has an upper and lower case form that does not change depending on their placement in a word.
  3. Hebrew uses an abjad writing system which simply means there are only consonant symbols and the reader is left to supply the appropriate vowel sound.
  4. Hebrew is read from right to left while English is left to right.

Whether you learn Modern or Paleo Hebrew depends on your purpose in learning the language. If you want to carry on conversations in Hebrew, the Modern form would be best.  A quick comparison would be to ask yourself which would you rather speak in the US today?  Old English or Modern English?  Same with Hebrew.

But, if your intent is to understand Scripture as the original author intended; learning the Paleo pictographic language will give you a much more functional perspective.  You will need to acquire the mindset of an ancient Bedouin and search out how he would have understood the word from the world around him, his culture.  It will take some work, but definitely worth the effort!

The letters or pictographs used in the Paleo or Ancient Hebrew are much easier to learn and associate with their meaning than Modern Hebrew. For example, the Aleph is a drawing of the head of an ox and means strong, first, or leader. The 22 Paleo letters and their meanings can easily be learned in just an hour or two. This creates a better initial atmosphere for learning how words were used in the Bible.
The terms ‘Ancient’ and ‘Paleo’ Hebrew are used interchangeably.
Although both are abjad scripts (no vowel letters), their appearance became quite different about 800-500 BC. Since the era of the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities, the form of the Hebrew letters has been completely different — changing from Proto Canaanite pictographs to an Aramaic shaped alphabet. Although the Modern letters do retain individual meanings, they are rarely used to define words.
Paleo Hebrew was the earliest form of the Hebrew language with known inscriptions dating 1450BC. In 587 BC, under the rule of King Nebuchadnezzar, the Babylonians captured several thousand of the educated and wealthy in Jerusalem and carried them off to exile. Over the years of captivity many of the Israelites blended in and were assimilated into the society having a profound effect on their way of life and beliefs. Ezra, the scribe, was born in Babylon and one of the first to return to Jerusalem. The lettering he brought back was highly influenced by the Aramaic letters he had learned and began the transformation of the ancient Hebrew Aleph Bet into the modern Hebrew letters.
During and after the Babylonian captivity in the 6th century BC, most of the Hebrew writings started using Aramaic lettering and became, over time, very similar to the Arabic style.

The earliest Paleo Hebrew inscriptions dated about 1450BC. Until recently it was assumed that the Hebrews had acquired the knowledge of an Aleph Bert from Phoenician alphabet carvings. However, modern archeology has provided evidence that the Hebrews in Egypt devised the world’s first Aleph Bet and carried that knowledge to Canaan on their sojourn. Over the next several hundred years, regional characteristics began to separate the script into different national alphabets (all within 100-200 miles), including Israelite, Samaritan, Moabite, Edomite, Phoenician, and Old Aramaic. Even within those smaller regions, the script also changed due to the writing medium changes, i.e. chiseled stone, clay, papyrus, etc.

The explanations and products on our website occasionally use some of the regional variants that help demonstrate the functional meanings of the words depicted.

We think the Paleo is initially much simpler because it is easier to associate the pictorial letters with their meaning. Writing and understanding a few hundred Paleo words is rather intuitive and gives a great foundation for the language. Once you get beyond that initial study, communicating using the Modern is probably necessary.
Only a few original documents from the time period where Paleo Hebrew was prevalent remain or have been discovered:
  1. The Zayit Stone contains the earliest known inscription in the Paleo-Hebrew script and has been dated to the 10th Century BC.  While not technically a document, it is inscribed with a complete abecedary, basically a listing of the letters of the alphabet.
  2. The Siloam Inscription, 8th Century BC, indicates that King Hezekiah closed up the waters of the Gihon Springs and had the water diverted through an underground tunnel to the Pool of Siloam.  The inscription records the construction of the tunnel.
  3. Another find is the Ketef Hinnom scrolls. These two tiny silver scrolls (about 1 inch long) were found in burial caves. It took experts three years to unroll and discover the priestly blessing in Paleo Hebrew. The scrolls are believed to pre-date the Dead Sea scrolls by about four centuries.
  4. The Samaritans of Israel still use a unique form of Paleo Hebrew in their religious and worship practices.

Additionally, scores of archaeological finds in recent times depict Paleo Hebrew inscriptions. These include pottery, jewelry, cave inscriptions, and architectural engravings to name a few.

The explanations and products on our website occasionally use some of the regional variants that help demonstrate the functional meanings of the words depicted.

While the study of Paleo Hebrew is not new, it is enjoying a resurgence of interest with new sources of information available on the internet nearly every day. Frank Seekins’ book Hebrew Word Pictures and Jeff Benner’s book Ancient Hebrew Lexicon of the Bible and his website, www.ancient-hebrew.org are some of the best tools to start a study.  Numerous videos are available on YouTube.  Check out our own Word Study page to see writings and videos by Pastor Jim Woodard.
Just like in English where words can have several meanings, it’s all about context. How is it used, where is it used, who is using it, etc.  The more we study the ways and times of the people who wrote the letters, the better we understand what they were trying to communicate using the letters.

Rather than pursue a different or more accurate definition or a deeper or mystical meaning of a Hebrew word, Paleo / Ancient Hebrew’s greatest asset is to assist the student in more clearly determining the “functional meaning” of the word. The scriptural principle that enhances this process is that, first comes the natural and then comes the spiritual. In other words, once the natural message(s) of the individual pictograph is known then the “functional meaning” of that word picture finds its value. This process is interdependent on the reader knowing the message conveyed by the individual pictographs in their cultural context. In contrast, English as well as most Western language systems are phonetic in design using a memory system of shapes and sounds to form words that are phonetically memorized but have little if any embedded meaning in the individual letters. An excellent example of these differences is found in the word “dog”. In English D – o – g is simply three individual shapes with no inherent meaning. In Ancient / Paleo pictographs, the Hebrew for dog is K – l – b, or Kalev. Its functional meaning is “all heart”. Anyone that has spent time with “man’s best friend” knows that a dog’s nature is “all heart”!

Additionally, it should be noted that the growth of Modern Hebrew, dictated by the need for new words with no Biblical background, has accelerated the pressure to use phonetic practices to create new Hebrew words without the underlying meanings prevalent in Ancient / Paleo Hebrew.

Within some limits, yes, one could twist the meaning of a word to suit their desires, either out of ignorance or to fulfill an agenda. That is why it is so important to attempt to understand the letters and words in the context of the time and people where it was used. It is not a perfect or easy task for a 21th century English speaking person in a modern land of abundance to fully understand the meaning of ancient writings. That is why it is critical that we study the ancient times and understand the Hebraisms that are so very different from our Western thought processes.
Culture is everything to the Paleo Hebrew language. Each pictograph conveys a thought based on the cultural perception of the picture. Modern perceptions would easily distort the readers understanding of a word based on the lack of ancient cultural experience.

A definition is the generally accepted meaning(s) of a word based on the general usage of that word. This can apply to pictorially based words as well as phonetically based words. The functional meaning of a word is that perspective that the word projects based on the combining of the pictographs that comprise the word with the context within which the word is used. Functional meaning is based on the physical message of a person, place, thing, or action each letter projects and can therefore not only speak to a natural meaning but to a spiritual principle or precept as well.

As an example, the English language is learned phonetically. For instance, when we see the word “cat” in English we put together the sounds of each letter for the word that helps us envision a small furry animal that is our pet. The “c” has no meaning by itself, nor does the “a”, or the “t”.

Not so in the Paleo Hebrew pictographic learning. Each picture letter in a word has a meaning that would be easily recognizable by an ancient Bedouin. The sum of the meanings of the letters would reveal the meaning of the word.

Our website has videos and worksheets explaining how to break down and understand different words to assist in understanding the process.

The first concern one should have in understanding a language is the context in which the writer wrote the word and in which the reader or hearer received the word. To assume that the meaning of a word used 2500 years ago, in a cultural setting that was nomadic and agrarian, would have the same meaning as it does today in a modern urban setting would be short sighted at best. It has been said that a text taken out of context is simply a pretext! The same holds true for a text taken in a context that didn’t even exist at its writing.

The first rule of discovery in Ancient /Paleo Hebrew is Context, Context, and Context.

Since Eastern and Western thought processes are different, the meaning of words tends to be different also, making it extremely difficult to create accurate word for word translations. Translators attempt to choose words that are as similar as possible, but they quite often don’t agree on what those words mean. Over time, as languages age, the accepted meaning of many common words changes also. An example would be that 100 years ago was known as the Gay 20’s yet it had nothing to do with sexual orientation of the people involved.
A Strong’s Concordance indexes every word in the King James Bible to a Strong’s number. Then, by looking up that number in the dictionary in the back of the book, you can find the Hebrew word and its English meanings. If your Bible is a different translation, you must be especially careful to ensure that you are referencing the exact English word that was used in the KJ version.
To some extent, yes, but it wouldn’t be very useful. We know that English words can have several meanings or can be used in various ways. Similarly, Hebrew words may also have multiple meanings, and they may not overlap the English meanings at all. In fact, since the whole Hebrew thought process is different, sometimes it might even take several English sentences to explain one Hebrew word. Also, just as the sentence structure is often different in other languages, it could be very difficult to read and understand if English words were directly substituted for Hebrew words in a sentence. So, for all intents and purposes, the practical answer is ‘no.’