How to Learn Hebrew: A Guide for Ba’al Teshuvahs who Can’t get to Yeshivah

By Ari Mendelson

For many a Ba’al Teshuvah, the classic works of Jewish thought are a sealed book. From time immemorial, the international languages of Jewish scholarship have been Hebrew, Aramaic, and a Hebrew/Aramaic blend. However, few Jews who grew up outside of Orthodoxy or outside of Israel have had the opportunity to learn these languages in their youth from a teacher.

Many who come to Judaism later in life, thinking that they are neither young enough nor smart enough, do not even try to learn the language. Others have tried repeatedly, but failed in their quest to learn Hebrew. I finally succeeded in learning Hebrew on my fourth or fifth try (I lost count). And I learned it well enough to read and understand Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah, Mishnayos, and even Gemara with the Rashi and Tosafos! And I did it all on my own without professional instruction in a Yeshivah. And I did it without a genius IQ, just good technique and persistence.

Learning any foreign language is a tall order for any adult, especially one who is not in a place in which he can immerse himself in the language. With proper technique and persistence it is within reach of nearly anybody. With this article, I will instruct the reader in the most efficient techniques to master the language of our sages. All the reader need supply is the persistent effort to make the techniques pay off.

I will begin with the assumption that the reader can recognize nothing more than the various Hebrew letters, and proceed to outline the steps necessary to get from that point to the mastery of enough Hebrew to learn the classic Rabbinic texts without a translation. I will further assume that the reader, for one reason or another, cannot, take the time off to learn Hebrew in an Orthodox Yeshiva, as I myself was, unfortunately, never able to do.

What you will need

# A basic list of Hebrew Vocabulary (one which contains a couple of hundred of the most common Hebrew words).
# A siddur
# The “Learn Hebrew” program from Rabbi Shalom Gold available at
# The Super-Memo computer program available at
# The five volume Ruben Alcaldi Hebrew-English Dictionary.
# Practical Talmudic Dictionary by Yitzhak Frank
# Siyata L’Gemara (Aiding Talmud Study) by Aryeh Carmell
# Ezra Melamed’s dictionary of Talmudic Aramaic.

If you are serious about learning Hebrew, you will need to invest some money as well as your time. The above materials are carefully chosen to give you the most bang for your buck, so to speak.

Stage 1

Learning to read Hebrew well enough to say the prayers in Hebrew even without comprehension

So, you can recognize the Hebrew letters. You know what each letter’s name is, and what sound it makes. You can also recognize all of the vowels. Trouble is, that you can hardly sound out the words. As a result, you say your daily prayers in English. You want to be able to say them in Hebrew. But the thought of spending two hours sounding out the words of one prayer inspires nothing but dread.

The good news is that, with proper technique and persistence, you will be saying all of your prayers in Hebrew within six months. There are four things you must do.

First of all, DO NOT SOUND OUT THE WORDS out loud. Sound out the words in your head. Once you can say the word in its entirety in your head then you should say the entire word out loud
. This will be of great help in remembering the word for the future. After all, which would be easier: to remember four things such as “Miss” and “Siss” and “Sip” and “EE” or to remember one thing “Mississippi.” Same goes for Hebrew words. If you constantly sound out the words, but never actually say the entire word, it will be harder to remember the words you said when you say them again tomorrow.

Second, take the process slowly. Tomorrow morning when you do the Shema or the Amida in Shacharis, say the first line, and only the first line in Hebrew. Do the remainder of the prayer in English. When this becomes easy, then move on to the second line. When this is easy, move on to the third, and so on. The prayers are finite. Eventually you will be able to say the whole thing in Hebrew, and rather easily. I did this myself in my early twenties, and was able to completely say all of the prayers in Hebrew within three months. I also taught several people this technique, and they reported similar results.

The third thing is to do this every day. Remember, only persistence will pay the dividends.

The fourth thing is to listen to others speaking Hebrew. I benefited greatly from listening to the lectures of the late Rabbi Isaac Bernstein. He switches back and forth from English to Hebrew constantly (and doesn’t always translate his Hebrew) but his lectures are very interesting and you will learn a lot while you learn what the Hebrew language sounds like when it is spoken with the Ashkenazic pronunciation. See: If you want to learn to pronounce as the Sephardim do, check out this site:

Stage Two

Building Basic Vocabulary

One major advantage to saying your prayers in Hebrew is that you will constantly see the same words over and over. If you look over to the translation, you will soon be able to recognize a few words and know what they mean. Getting a basic vocabulary list of biblical Hebrew will help you learn even more. If you learn only a few hundred of the most common words, you will soon be able to understand most of the words on any given page of written Hebrew. To learn the REST of the words will take persistence effort and technique.

Step Three

Mastering the Grammar

In the twelve and a half years that I have been interested in learning Hebrew, I have purchased several books that offered to teach Hebrew. None of them helped much at all. The only source I have ever found that teaches Hebrew grammar in a way that I was able to understand it and master it was the video program produced by Pirchei Shoshanim available at It teaches everything from the grammar of the “nekudos” (the Hebrew “vowels”) to the construction of words from three letter roots.

Step Four

Getting the feel for how the language is used

If you want to learn to understand the Hebrew you read, you must read Hebrew. Do so frequently. Of course, you will, at first, need to read only things that have been translated into English. Read the Hebrew. Then read the English. Try to figure out which words in Hebrew are equivalent to the words in the English translation. You will soon get a feel for how the language is used.

Step Five

Mastering Advanced Vocabulary

As I said earlier, I would estimate that only a few hundred words are enough to understand about half of the words on any given page of written Hebrew. The other half of those words on that page come from a much larger pool of vocabulary. You will have to learn a whole lot more words to master those.

The way to find words for your vocabulary lists is to read Hebrew, and look up the words that you don’t understand immediately. Mark those words down. I will tell you what to do with them later. But this is how you will collect all the words you need to truly master Hebrew.

Of course, there is a big problem with trying to look up words that you find in a written text of Hebrew. If you look up the precise sequence of letters that you found in the text, you may not actually be able to find it. You see, the Hebrew language is based on the expansion of three letter roots into various forms. The root functions as a basic kernel of meaning. By expanding the word, one can make that kernel mean a wide variety of things. One can make the word into a verb a noun, or an adjective just by adding prefixes, suffixes and infixes, and by adding vowels in various ways. You must figure out what that three-letter root is. Sometimes, the three letters of the root do not appear in the word you actually see before you. This is because some Hebrew words drop or switch letters from their root. Rabbi Gold’s videos will help you make sense of this.

When you finally figure out the three-letter root, enter that root into your vocabulary lists. You will likely also have to enter several of the nouns, verbs and adjectives that are associated with that root. In Reuben Alkaldi’s dictionary of Hebrew, there are long lists of words that are associated with the root word. You may find some important vocabulary in those lists.

And that’s just the beginning. Hebrew roots may convey a basic kernel of meaning, but that same three-letter sequence may have quite a few different meanings. You must remember them all if you truly want to master Hebrew. With patience and good technique, you will learn them all.

The most powerful tool I have ever used to master large volumes of vocabulary is a program produced in Poland called Super Memo, which is available at I cannot recommend the program highly enough. If there ever was a secret to the success that I have had in learning Hebrew, this program was it. I will teach you to use the program to maximum efficiency.

The way that Super-Memo works is that people forget material in a predictable way. If you review the material too often, you will waste your time. If you don’t review the material often enough, you will forget everything. Super-Memo keeps track of when you reviewed your vocabulary last, and how well you did on each word. It then quizzes you on the right words at the right time to make the most efficient use of your time. For more details see:

Here’s the best way to use Super-Memo to learn Hebrew.

First of all, you should learn how to convert your keyboard to one on which can type in Hebrew. You can do this by making a few changes in Windows (in the “Regional and Language Settings”). Print up a diagram of the Israeli keyboard, and learn to touch-type with it. Don’t hunt and peck, but touch-type. Your investment of effort in learning to touch-type in Hebrew will save you quite a bit of time in entering your vocabulary into Super-Memo. It is a bit of a hassle switching back and forth from Hebrew to English Keyboards, but it’s a small price to pay to learn to read G-d’s Torah. I found that it is easiest to read the display if the font size is enlarged to twenty-point font, but preferences on this are sure to vary.

Second, you put in all of the definitions of a particular root into the program in the “answer” section.

Third, you will need to learn how the different words are used. In both Alcaldi’s dictionary and Rabbi Frank’s dictionary, example sentences from the Tanach or the Talmud are often provided which contain the word you have looked up. I usually enter that sentence into Super-Memo with the translation of that sentence as the answer. By so doing, I get to see the word I’m trying to learn more times as the program quizzes me, and I get to see how the word is used. Both of these factors help to master the vocabulary. Also, if a particular word has many definitions, an example of the word used in each meaning is very helpful in remembering all of those pesky definitions.

I would recommend that anybody interested in learning Talmud or other rabbinic writings enter every vocabulary word presented in Carmell’s “Aiding Talmud Study” and Perlmutter’s “Tools for Tosafos” as well as every abbreviation. Abbreviations are quite important in reading many Rabbinic texts. You will know an abbreviation when you see it. They contain a single quotation mark somewhere within the letters.

I would recommend entering all of this information, but I would recommend that you take your time and absorb what you are trying to learn before putting in the thousands of words and definitions that you will need to truly master the language. Enthusiasm and persistence are important, but patience is as well.

The last tip I have is to enter mnemonics in the answer section. As I previously explained, Hebrew words are based on three letter roots, which are converted into other grammatical forms. Trouble is that many of those three letter roots differ only slightly from other, totally different, meanings. It is helpful to come up with mnemonics to remember which definition is which. And it is best to write those mnemonics in the answer section of the Super-Memo program so that you can use the mnemonic to remind you of how to think if you get the word wrong in your study session.

Now you know exactly how you can go from novice levels to fluency. Let’s just see how far you can push your knowledge and proficiency. I bet it’s farther than you ever dreamed possible.

32 comments on “How to Learn Hebrew: A Guide for Ba’al Teshuvahs who Can’t get to Yeshivah

  1. I have been a BT for almost 7 years and learning Hebrew was very difficult for me.
    Hebrew looked Chinese. There were a few things that really helped me become fluent in Hebrew.

    1) Having a patient teacher who taught me how to read correctly
    2) Having a list of the most popular words in Tanach and memorizing them.
    3) Going through “First Hebrew Primer”
    and doing ALL the homework.
    4) Making and reviewing flashcards of vocabulary
    5) Practicing reading and translating in front of someone who listened attentively and corrected my errors
    6) Practicing reading and translating on my own and making a list of questions I had on what I learned and asking a competent person for the answers

    Not everyone will be able to do the following but if you can it will really help you:
    5) Take a Hebrew course with someone like Rabbi Gogik in Israel (he teaches at Aish, Ohr Somayach Center program and Machon Yaakov)
    6) Get a chavrusa who will only speak to you in Hebrew (this helped me tremendously!). You may have to pay for this but it is worth every penny. You can even find people that will do this with you on skype.

  2. My Hebrew really took off when I took Hebrew I at a community college. The class met two hours a day, four days a week, for six weeks. I was bored for the first few days, but after that, it was a whole new ballgame. Essentially, I attended a mini-ulpan for $400!

    Prior to the course, I could sometimes look at a pasuk (verse), get a general idea of the concept from the shorashim (roots), then go to the English to see what person and tense the verbs were in. With a basic knowledge of grammar (I have continued studying at higher levels)and improved vocabulary, I can now read many pasukim and other short passages without having to use the English translation. Most important, my increased knowledge of Hebrew helps me to feel so much more at home in Eretz Yisrael!

  3. Is this a free advertisement for “learn hebrew in Israel”?
    Or do they sponsor this website, so they are entiteled to a full, seemingly neutral post as an advertisement?

  4. Your method is fascinating and inspiring. How much time do you think you invested each day in your Hebrew studies, including time to type the information into Supermemo?

  5. Thanks so much, Reb Ari, for this terific advice. Thanks, also, to all who have commented on this article and shared their experiences. I’m thrilled at the suggestions made, and plan on implemnting this program to see if works for me.

    As someone who began his journey to Toarh obsevance much older than most of the good folks to be found congregating on this site ( I was already in my late thirties), have found the Interlinear series of great benefit. Once I was able to read and vocalize Hebrew in a fairly smooth and consistant manner, I was then able to take advantage of the interlinear concept in the way that it was intended. It allows the davener to better understand the text word-by-word or phrase-by-phrase, which IMHO is far better than understanding the text in the davening in a broader or conceptualized manner. The translation is there when you want it, and does not interfere with davening in the original. It has developed my Hebrew vocabulary and has provided me with a quality of davening that is worlds away from my early tries at more traditional bilingual page layouts. The series also includes machzorim, chumashim and tehillim. Another series that Messorah has out, Ranban and most recently, Kitzur, are in a phrase-by-phrase layout that is also greatly expanding my familiarity of Hebrew style and vocabulary.

    While I realize this method is likely not the best method to learn, it has for me been a giant leap in the right direction. One last comment…in my shul, one which is mostly made up of FFB, Yeshivishe boys from Brooklyn, there are more than a few who regularly daven from the interlinear siddurim. They’re not just for the uninitiated it seems!

  6. Ron,

    True enough. I would agree that learning the language is necessary but not sufficient to learn the texts. But it is necessary.

    P.S. You have a good blog.

  7. My entire aim in learning the Hebrew language is to be able to learn Shulchan Aruch and Gemara in the original.

    Well, that brings me to my next point. Mastering classical Hebrew makes learning classical sources “inside” a million times easier than not having the language fluency. But, as you know, Ari, mastering a sugya is not merely about language. You can stare at the same gemara for hours or days and know the translation of every word on the blatt and still have trouble following the logic. If it were otherwise, every native-born Hebrew speaker who wanted to would be a talmid chachom!

  8. Ron,

    You make an excellent point. Learning to read without having to sound out is a crucial first step. My entire aim in learning the Hebrew language is to be able to learn Shulchan Aruch and Gemara in the original. And you cannot do that if you’re sounding out the words.

    But the benefits you describe are important too. It all depends on your goals.

    But the availability of the computer program Super-Memo means that you do not have to settle for less in making those goals. If you want to be a person who taught himself how to read the Vilna Page of gemara, you can do it.

    Sky’s the limit.

  9. I want to focus on this point I’ve been discussing with Ari a little. I think he’s really onto something about gaining oral fluency in tefilla as an important step in learning loshon hakodesh. Many BT’s resist this because they want to know the words they’re saying, which is obviously understandable.

    But Chazal promise us full credit for saying these words with the intention of whatever meaning was put in them by the Men of the Great Assembly. We only need to know the meaning of the words to Shema when saying them.

    I think when you try to “break your teeth” on a new language with not only new vocabulary but new phonemes and very different syntax and word order, you’re not likely to get all that down and also learn pronunciation. But if you learn the words well, while doing your best to look on the English side when you can (like during the repetition of the Shemonah Esrei), you will find learning the meaning much easier. The language can begin to sink in before the vocabulary does. The patterns become familiar. You can apply the new concepts and vocabulary to what you already “know.” This leverages the power and pleasure of learning a new word root and seeing how it fleshes out in the different binyanim you realize you’ve been saying all this time.

    And there’s another payoff: Good pronunciation of davening, kiddush, etc. is its own reward, halachically and mystically — and more. Halting Hebrew is one of the number one reasons BT’s feel uncomfortable in shul and other situations where they may have to “perform.” When I see someone at a simcha making kiddush out of an interlinear siddur, much less a transliterated one, I internally wince — here it comes! Learn how to say Hebrew words right and you will feel a lot more at ease in shul, and your kids will be, too…

  10. I guess any way you do it, the key words are effort and time. Unfortunately, many with parnasa,family obligations, dovening obligations, etc. don’t have much of the latter, except maybe on Shabbos (which precludes using computer programs.) I wish I had done this when I was single but at the time it was farthest from my mind.

  11. By the way, it’s only the beginning stage of Hebrew fluency that’s no fun. You’ll be surprised and delighted, as you gain even a little fluency, by how often your Torah studies boost your Hebrew skills as well as vice-versa.

    This happens with regularity, and with increasing frequency as you progress. It’s great–like a lab rat being rewarded with a treat pellet.

    By the way, apropos the title of the post, I have rarely met anyone who actually learned Hebrew well in yeshiva. Along with Navi, it’s not their specialty.

  12. Ron,

    I have never used an interlinear siddur. I became a BT before they were common. I learned to read properly from a siddur in 1996 at age 22. Since that time, I tried repeatedly to learn Hebrew. Nothing worked until I started on Super-Memo.

    From the time I picked up that program, I made rapid progress. The program makes it easy to be diligent, as you just open it up, click a button that says “Learn” and it teaches. Do that every day, and pretty soon, you will be on the road.

    So, my contribution is having read that article in Wired magazine and contemplated the possibilities…

  13. Ari–I’m skeptical because, in the final analysis, most of us are intellectually lazy and the most precious accomplishments in life are invariably the most difficult to achieve. Learning a language is something that requires more persistence and deferral of gratification than most people are willing to undergo.

    If it wasn’t given to you on a silver spoon, you have to put in the time. You have to be obsessive, and you have to be humble about it. Hebrew in particular is a language acquired through self-sacrifice and hard work, something inwoefully short supply in our day. One doesn’t have to be particularly CLEVER to really learn Hebrew, in fact, in my experience, the “clever” students are the most likely to give up.

    Which is a pity, because it really is worth the work.

  14. Ari, you may underestimate your own talent. You seem to have geniuses for problem-solving and for diligence, at the very least! In a way this plan is so comprehensive and, well, exhausting — I mean just reading it! — that I hope it doesn’t discourage anyone!

    Reading between the lines, so to speak, I think your Stage 1 stands for the proposition that linear siddurim are NOT the answer. I am not a fan of the concept, but I know they work for some people. I don’t know if they really make you better comprehend Hebrew in the long run.

  15. Shunamit,

    I’m don’t know why you’re skeptical. My chavrusa is not skeptical. He saw me go from somebody who had to sound out the words of the gemara on the artscroll page, to somebody who could negotiate the classic Vilna page of the talmud in less than a year’s time.

    The reason I was able to do this is not because I’m a genius. It’s not because of a miracle. It’s because of two things– I constantly applied myself, and I used the best techniques available.

    As for applying myself, I cannot supply that effort to anybody else.

    As for using the best techniques available, I would recommend you check out the Wired article about Super-Memo to see how the program works. And indeed it got me the results I was looking for.

    Best to you,


  16. I’m skeptical, but your intentions are good. I made aliyah after my conversion and threw myself into ulpan and Israeli society for several years and it was still a long time before I tasted any real success with Hebrew. I never expected it to be easy to achieve, so I have better Hebrew than most day school graduates I know.

    Hebrew is very, very important; it gets into your brain and (I’m convinced) alters your thought patterns. “Ivri, Dab’ber Ivrit!”. Why waste your life reading poor, inacurate, and dry translations and never achieving intimacy with the Text that is the Word of G-d? Everything else is second best.

  17. JDMDad,

    The approach I have is not strictly sequential. Do what works. I know that’s not much of a guideline, but it’s the best I can do without more information

    If you email me, I can help you personally.

    Email me at:

  18. Thanks for all this advice, I’m looking over all the material now. Question though… is this supposed to be strictly sequential? e.g. don’t start with the “learnhebrewisrael” until after completing the other two?

    Also, how clear is the voice on the videos? Since I’m hard of hearing, clarity is very important.

    I have the Interlinear Art Scroll (with English words right under the Hebrew, so that has been helping a little, but I’ll try looking at it more from your approach to see how that works out).

    I tried taking a class at the JCC, but the pace was much to fast, we went through a chapter a week, and by the 5th week, I was constantly struggling to keep up. I was able to do enough to get the homework (by constantly flipping back in the book) but I never really got it from there into my head.

  19. Any Jew who wants to improve his or
    her practical knowledge of Hebrew
    should purchase and study and use
    these books as often as possible:

    {1} The Metsudah Weekday Siddur
    {2} The Metsudah Shabbat Siddur
    {3} The Metsudah Tehillim
    {4} The Metsudah Chumash (with Rashi)

    REASON: Hebrew on one side,
    linear translation on the other side.
    This means that no more than 4 words
    are translated at one time.
    These have helped me greatly and
    continue to help me greatly.

  20. Rabbi Gold,

    Your words mean so much to me.

    From watching your Learn Hebrew videos, I can sense how much you love to teach our precious heritage and how precious the land of Israel is to you.

    I am greatly in your debt.

  21. I love it! We are building a stairway to Heaven . We are merited to making lushon ha Kodesh accessable to the Jewish masses. G-ds revelation thru his letters vowels crowns the ultimate love letter. thank you for your kind words and recognition . ..A whole lot of gratitude.. Rabbi Shalom Gold Chag Pesach Kosher and SOMa”ach

  22. The single most important reference for learning Hebrew is the small booklet by Prof. Shaul Barclay entitled
    “Luach HaPoalim HaShalem”. It provides the conjugations for all possible variations of shoreshim in Hebrew, in all of the binyanim. It is used in schools in Israel (for native speakers) to learn irregular forms, and I firmly believe it would be impossible to master Hebrew to a level where on can appreciate the nuances of the Rishonim on Chumash without this booklet. It is printed by Reuven Mass Ltd. It is unlike any other verb table, in both ease of use and comprehensiveness.

  23. Jewish community organizations (shuls and day schools included) often provide Ulpan-style classes to teach adults spoken Hebrew.

  24. If anybody who reads this would like to get my rather large database of vocabulary, it is in Super-Memo 2006 format. You will need to buy that program.

    You can contact me to send you the material at arlemagne1 (at) yahoo dot com

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