[K:JNWTS 27/2 (September 2012): 57-60]

Book Review

Russell T. Fuller and Kyoungwon Choi, Invitation To Biblical Hebrew: A Beginning Grammar. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publishers, 2006. 364 pp. Hardcover. ISBN: 0-8254-2650-2. $49.99. Russell T. Fuller and Kyoungwon Choi, Invitation To Biblical Hebrew: A Beginning GrammarWorkbook. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publishers, 2006. 335 pp. Paperback. ISBN: 0-8254-2652-9. $29.99. Russell T. Fuller and Kyoungwon Choi, Invitation To Biblical Hebrew: A Beginning Grammar— 6-Volume Set. Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel Publishers, 2006. 6 DVDs. ISBN: 0-8254-2651-0. $49.99.

Invitation To Biblical Hebrew, with all its accompanying materials, is a very helpful way to master the Hebrew vowel pointing system. As a complete introduction to first year Hebrew, it is especially suited to students with an analytical bent. Others will find it helpful as a complementary grammar to accompany a more inductive introductory text. Those who have already studied first year Hebrew will especially find it useful as it provides a method for mastering the Hebrew vowel pointing system not found in most other grammars.

The first six chapters of the grammar deal with phonological principles. The rest of the grammar deals with morphological principles divided into several sections: the first dealing with particles, the next with nouns and adjectives, followed by the verbs. The verbs are divided into strong and weak verbs. To help students master the vowel pointing system, Fuller and Choi give students a set of principles to rework the vowel points of Hebrew words, bringing them back to their proto-Hebrew form. Then, they provide another set of principles (some differing with respect to nouns and verbs) in order to bring the proto-Hebrew form of the words back to the Hebrew form. This system especially helps students understand how the vowel pointing changes as prefixes and suffixes are added onto the words.

The first six chapters dealing with phonological principles lead the student up to chapter six, dealing with the rules of proto-Hebrew. This is the pinnacle of the first part of the grammar, if not the grammar as a whole. Chapters one through five lead the student through a very clear explanation of how to divide syllables and how letters, vowels and certain points (such as the shewa, the dagesh, the qames, qames-hatuf and gutturals) are to be properly assessed. That is, the student first learns how to divide syllables and from this knowledge learns to distinguish silent from vocal shewa, dagesh lene from dagesh forte, qames from qames-hatuf, etc.

As an introductory grammar, this book provides a detailed explanation of particles. However, the next section on nouns and adjectives is especially helpful in the way it applies this method of going back to proto-Hebrew and going ahead to biblical Hebrew with respect to the vowel points. By means of this system, students learn how to add endings on masculine and feminine nouns and how those endings change the vowel pointing system. Using a special set of rules provided for going back to proto-Hebrew, students then see how to go forward to biblical Hebrew when adding suffixes and how this changes the vowel pointing system. They learn from this that the system of vowel pointing and the way it changes with endings is usually quite regular. The same applies to adjectives as to nouns, as well as to construct states.

Fuller and Choi’s explanation of segolate nouns is especially detailed and helpful among beginning grammars. Here they also use a system for bringing the segolate nouns back to their proto-Hebrew form and then bringing them forward once again to biblical Hebrew. Segolate nouns are then divided into a dabar pattern and a segolate pattern without the dagesh lene in the third radical. This division among segolate noun endings helps the student in understanding patterns for their endings, patterns by which proto-Hebrew vowel pointing changes to biblical Hebrew vowel pointing. This includes a good discussion of how these changes occur in segolate nouns with gutturals.

Fuller and Choi’s analysis of the strong verb breaks it down into elemental parts and then gives the student a set of rules for constructing the various forms. Its mastery sets up the student for an understanding of the weak verb, which can be constructed with similar principles based on an understanding of the movement from proto-Hebrew to biblical Hebrew vowel pointing. As for the strong verb, Fuller and Choi have the student memorize the qal perfect and imperfect forms, as is normal in most Hebrew grammars. However, their analysis of the qal and the way they break it down helps the student to produce the pi‘el, pu‘al, hithpa‘el, hiph‘il, hoph‘al and niph‘al without memorizing their entire paradigms. As for the qal, Fuller and Choi have the student memorize a set of thematic vowels for the perfect and the imperfect. Then students are asked to memorize a basic set of boxes for the pi‘el, pu‘al, hithpa‘el, hiph‘il, hoph‘al and niph‘al. A set of three boxes is memorized for each of these in terms of the perfect, imperfect, imperative, infinitive and participle. These boxes essentially correspond to the three root consonants of the verb, the first box being the first root consonant. Memorized with the boxes are preformative letters and vowel points. Under the boxes are the first essential vowels and in the boxes are any necessary dageshes. In addition to memorizing the boxes, students are asked to memorize separately a set of thematic vowels for the perfect and imperfect. Thus for example, the hiph‘il has two thematic vowels in the perfect and two possible thematic vowels in the imperfect. The hoph‘al has a thematic vowel for both the perfect and the imperfect. With the knowledge of the various boxes, together with a knowledge of the thematic vowels and the mastery of the qal perfect and imperfect forms, a student is able to construct the rest of the verbs in pi‘el, pu‘al, hithpa‘el, hiph‘il, hoph‘al and niph‘al without memorizing these forms. This is true also for the construction of the infinitive absolute, infinitive construct, participle and imperatives. Several additional rules help the students in constructing these forms. In this way, the student is able to dissect the strong verb and to reproduce it without having to memorize every single form in the language.

The discussion of the weak verbs is built on that of the strong verb as in other grammars. However, since Fuller and Choi provide us with a way of analyzing the strong verb by dissecting it into its various components, we are now equipped to understand the weak verb in a similar fashion. In each category of the weak verb, they then introduce us to the weaknesses or “infirmities” of a particular weak verb, then to its strong areas. This is followed by a remedy for the infirmity or weakness of the verb. Necessary special cases are also handled. In each case, knowledge derived from the strong verb—its boxes, thematic vowels and the form of the qal—help the student in constructing the weak verb. In addition, the knowledge of how vowel pointing changed from proto-Hebrew to biblical Hebrew is also incorporated and helps the student to understand more clearly the vowel pointing system of the Hebrew Bible.

It is to be admitted that this system of understanding Hebrew is highly analytic and deductive rather than essentially inductive. This will pose a challenge to certain students, many of whom may wish to either begin by studying a more inductive approach or simultaneously work together with another introductory grammar. Another difficulty for some beginners is the amount of information to which they are introduced all at one point. For instance, when introduced to the pronouns, the student is introduced to all of them at once. Of course, this element is no less a problem in other introductory grammars such as those by Jacob Weingreen and Thomas O. Lambdin. This is where a grammar such as that by Moshe Greenburg, which introduces pronouns gradually, has its advantages. Fuller and Choi’s text also uses some idiosyncratic pedagogical aides. For instance, it categorizes a-class thematic vowels as red. Then it uses the term red or “communist” thematic vowels when describing these a-class vowels and their other characteristics without reminding us that red symbolizes a-class vowels. This requires the student to keep in mind two sets of signs—a-class vowels and the fact that red symbolizes a-class vowels. It would have been far easier for the student if the text had simply referred to these as a-class vowels throughout. As another reviewer has pointed out[1], there are also some areas of grammar on which the text could be more precise and expansive—for instance, in describing the various uses and meanings of verbal forms. Nonetheless, the overall approach in Fuller and Choi is very helpful in guiding the student to master the components of biblical Hebrew and its vowel pointing system with minimal memorization.

The workbook for An Invitation To Biblical Hebrew provides exercises for the chapters in the book. These exercises help reinforce the mastery of the grammar and vowel pointing system of the Hebrew language. They are oriented in this direction rather than providing additional reading exercises in Hebrew. This is one of the weaknesses of this grammar and its workbook, i.e., the student does not have his or her mastery of the grammar reinforced by more readings in Hebrew or in the Hebrew Bible. (The grammar book provides readings in Hebrew, but they are more limited than in other Hebrew grammars.) However, the drills in the workbook should enable the student to more thoroughly master the grammatical material found in the grammar text.

The set of six DVDs produced for An Invitation To Biblical Hebrew comprise a set of thirty-eight lectures oriented toward the thirty-eight chapters in the book. Dr. Fuller gives the lectures in an informal setting in which he is seated with a dry-erase board on his desk and notes from his grammar. Each lecture is essentially a summary of each chapter in the grammar book, with only occasional additional insights added. However, Dr. Fuller does write on the dry-erase board, which is especially helpful in showing the students how to form the letters of the Hebrew alphabet, though he has his own unique way of writing the letters in cursive. While the lectures do not provide much in the way of additional information to the grammar, for many students this visual medium (in which some exercises are written on a board) can be a help in reinforcing the lessons. Some may even wish to view the lessons a first time on the DVD prior to going to the grammar. However, it is unlikely that students will be able to grasp the lecture material and make good use of it without using the grammar and mastering the principles found in it.

In addition, it should be observed that it may be difficult for many university and seminary based courses in first year Hebrew to complete all thirty-eight chapters of this grammar with the dense analytical material found in them. Still, this is not impossible with dedicated students.

Fuller and Choi have done us all a great service with their many hours of labor in constructing these course materials in biblical Hebrew. If one masters the principles found in this book and supplements that with readings in the Hebrew Bible or through a supplementary grammar, one should be able to better understand the Hebrew vowel pointing system and how the various grammatical points of Hebrew are dissected and reproduced than is found in many other Hebrew grammars. One of my students, who had taken some first year Hebrew previously, told me that in terms of helping him dissect the grammar and vowel pointing system, he thought this grammar was the Mounce of biblical Hebrew. That is quite a compliment!

—Scott Sanborn

[1] Robert C. Stallman, JETS 51/1 (March 2008) 102.