Introduction to Hebrew
The official language of Israel is Hebrew, although Arabic and English are spoken by vast portions of Israeli society. Hebrew is a very old language, dating back well over 3,000 years. During that time, however, it has undergone considerable evolution. Thus, it is necessary to distinguish between Modern Hebrew and Biblical (or Classical) Hebrew. Although there is substantial similarity between the two, there is, nonetheless, very noticeable difference. Therefore, if you are intending to learn Hebrew, you must decide if you are going to learn Modern Hebrew (that which is spoken today in Israel), or Biblical Hebrew (that with which the Tanak was written).
Biblical Hebrew was originally written without vowels, but during the Middle Ages the Masoretes added an extensive system of vowel pointing to the Text in such a way that the consonantal Text was not modified. This addition of the vowel pointings preserved the ability to read the Hebrew Text for those whose Hebrew skills were in decline. Modern Hebrew is typically written without vowels (eg, in the newspapers). The Hebrew-speaker is able to supply the vowels for pronunciation by recognizing the word from memory and by context. The lack of vowel-writing makes Hebrew a very economical language, and although it sounds difficult to learn, it really becomes quite easy with enough time and practice.
Hebrew, both Modern and Biblical, is composed of 22 characters. It is an alphabetic language (as English, but not Mandarin, eg). Hebrew is written from right to left. Thus, one would open a Hebrew book "backwards" (from an English perspective), and turn the pages from right to left. The characters of the alphabet for the most part look considerablly different from the English alphabet, so the first challenge of the student is to master the alphabet. This is what the Hebrew alphabet looks like:
א ב ג ד ה ו ז ח ט י כ ל מ נ ס ע פ צ ק ר ש ת
If you don't see Hebrew text just above this, then please click here.
The student who wishes to learn Modern or Biblical Hebrew has a large task ahead of himself/herself, but it is certainly possible. You just need the right tools and a hearty amount of determination. And of course it helps to have friends who speak Hebrew also with whom you can practice!