Alexander, Philip S, “How did the Rabbis learn Hebrew?” Pages 71-89 in Hebrew Study from Ezra to Ben-Yehuda. Edited by W. Horbury. Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1999.
Mishnaic Hebrew seems to have been finally supplanted as a spoken language by Aramaic in the 2nd century CE., after which it was maintained as a literary and liturgical language. Thus the mother tongue of a Rabbinic scholar living after this time period would be Aramaic, yet he would be expected to have command of two large and linguistically diverse Hebrew corpora – the biblical text and the collections of Mishnayot. As modern learners we have recourse to dictionaries and grammars as well as theories of second language acquisition, but in this essay Alexander asks, “How did the Rabbis learn Hebrew?”
Rote learning by reading large amounts of text over and over may have played a part, but such students seem to reach a ceiling quite quickly. They may recognize forms easily, but they are unable to move towards active comprehension and use of the second language. The Rabbis most likely did not attain competency through everyday use since their were no ‘native’ speakers left. Further, the level of the literature they were studying is much different than street language. Quite often people who live in foreign countries can master the vernacular through everyday use, but never move into the higher registers of the language.
There is no evidence that the Rabbis ever undertook a systematic study of the grammar of the language. Thus we know of no aids for learning such as grammars, dictionaries, etc. By the 2nd century CE grammatical analysis of Greek was well established, but the Rabbis did not seem interested in such an approach. Rather, their interests seem to have been a somewhat quirky aggadic approach to words, etymologies, and some syntactic structures. They did not classify the parts of speech or attempt to analyze the triliteral root, etc.
The scientific study of Hebrew only begins in the Middle Ages with the Karaites, who applied the sophisticated contemporary theories of Arabic grammar to Hebrew. The medieval Rabbinate scholars on the other hand did not immediately accept such an approach to the ‘holy tongue’, which they felt was unique and incomparable. Even a scholar such as Menahem ben Jacog ibn Saruq, who accepted the principle of linguistic analysis, avoided the comparisons between Hebrew and Arabic other grammarians made.
However, a ubiquitous feature of scholarship in the ancient world was the creation of lists, and we do find linguistic items regularly itemized in early Rabbinic literature such as concordances, statistics of the frequency of words used in the Bible, etc. It should also be noted that the lack of grammatical understanding of the workings of Hebrew in no way hinders the Rabbis competency in the language.
Hebrew was acquired in the Jewish school system, and schools were widespread in Jewish communities of Palestine from late Second Temple times into the Talmudic period. The elementary level was the Bet Sefer (ages 6 – 9) followed by the Bet Talmud (9-13). After this a student could continue to the Bet Midrash if his family could afford it. The sole purpose of the Bet Sefer was to teach the children to read Hebrew, with no ‘practical’ training at all. This includes learning to read the text, learning how to pronounce it properly, and probably learning the targum along with it to aid in understanding. In fact, Alexander suggests that the Bet Sefer may have been the original setting for the targum, and only later was it incorporated into the synagogue. This also fits the nature of the targum as a word for word translation. The student could line up the Aramaic word with its Hebrew counterpart as a learning aid.
This method of using a translation to learn a foreign language seems to have been standard in the Graeco-Roman world during the time of the Rabbis. Their are a number of Latin-Greek papyri from Egypt, for instance of Virgil’s Aeneid, which seem to have been used in teaching Latin. The Greek translation of Aquila may serve the same purpose. The peculiarity of the translation is its hyper-literalness, despite the fact that Aquila seems to have a firm command of the language. This characteristic begins to make sense if it is viewed as a crib for students to learn Hebrew rather than a free-standing translation. Extrapolating from the Rabbinic tradition, Aquila was most likely prepared under Rabbinic guidance in Palestine in the early 2nd century CE.
The Mishna was possibly taught in the Bet Talmud, and definitely in the Bet Midrash. Here Alexander also suspects that some translation in Aramaic must have been used to aid with the massive vocabulary. Of course, in the later Amoraic schools Aramaic was most certainly the language of instruction.