At first glance the ulpan at Kibbutz Tzova, about 20 minutes west of Jerusalem, may seem no different than any other. But within a couple of minutes of listening to the exchange between students and teachers, it becomes clear that there is something fishy about the Hebrew spoken here.
Welcome to the Biblical Ulpan, a framework that allows students to study biblical Hebrew in its original context. In place of the conventional grammar-driven approach to Hebrew study that often includes memorizing elusive rules and arcane verb charts, biblical Hebrew is the medium through which the language is taught here to Christian and Jewish students.
"Studying a text needs the 'code' [the language] and the culture, history and geography in order to be most fully understood," explains Randall Buth, who founded the ulpan 10 years ago.
"Students may be throwing a plastic sheep in the class after hearing a command like 'hashlech et hakeves el hatalmid sham' [Throw the sheep to the student over there], without realizing that the verb is part of the hif'il pattern [causative grammatical form]," he says. "When they finally know a few verbs or forms from these categories they will receive a presentation that organizes the forms into a system. The binyan system that is dreaded by many a beginning student is cut down to size and more easily understood."
Buth, who holds a doctorate in Semitic languages from UCLA, has also studied theoretical linguistics. He worked for the United Bible Societies in Africa for 20 years supervising Bible translation projects into local languages.
Students must "first hear language being used in a context where it is understood" and teachers should "demonstrate the meaning when new material is introduced," he says.
Students at the Biblical Ulpan - which offers courses of three and six months - might present a skit about Jonah and the whale in biblical Hebrew, or watch Buth read and act out the story of the battle of Afek (1 Sam. 4) from a hill overlooking the ancient Israelite and Philistine camps.
Buth says some of the students try to speak biblical Hebrew in the street or in restaurants, evoking a smile or puzzled look from Israelis, though they are usually understood.
Often, he reports, Israelis affirm the effort. "At archeological sites it frequently happens that Israelis will walk by, hearing us read a biblical passage, explaining the passage and the geography in simple biblical Hebrew. Sometimes they are curious enough to stop and ask the teacher what they have just heard. They have never heard anything like it and are impressed to see foreigners take the time and discipline to delve into the ancient texts like this."
"Suddenly things are clear," says Oklahoma native Aubrey Alexander, who has also studied Hebrew in a traditional setting. "[Previously there were] many ideas and terms and grammar [sentence] objects that were just floating in the air. This method provided a framework on which to hang all these things. Suddenly, all these disparate things were forming a clear picture. Things were comprehensible."
Her husband Vernon agrees: "Having the living structure of biblical Hebrew internalized [means that] many of the grammatical structures I was taught earlier, now suddenly have a structure on which to hang. Things that were foggy or confusing have come into crystal clarity."
Also offered at the Biblical Ulpan, Buth notes, is Koine Greek, the original language of the New Testament.