(IMPORTANT: if you are not yet familiar with how we transcribe Hebrew sounds and words, you can download (or read online) the reference guide.)
A noun in both English and Hebrew will be either definite or indefinite. A definite noun is a specific instance of the noun suc as “that horse“, “Jim’s horse“, “the horse“). An indefinite noun, by contrast is a non-specific instance (“a horse“). Definite and indefinite nouns in Biblical Hebrew are expressed slightly differently relative to English. In Hebrew there is no indefinite article. In other words, biblical Hebrew does not have a counterpart to the English indefinite article, ‘a’ or ‘an’.
The Hebrew definite article (/ha/) marks a noun as definite and it is pronounced immediately before the noun. So, if a noun, say xyz, is definite you would hear,
/ha/ + /ex·why·zee/
The /ha/ precedes the noun. This is exactly like English
the + xyz
Click the ‘play’ symbol below and listen carefully. Its pronunciation is repeated 3 times:
- (repeated 3 times)
In the next recording, how many instances of /ha/, the Hebrew definite article, do you hear?There are 3 definite articles in this verse
Let’s listen to how a couple of very common Hebrew nouns are pronounced both with and without the definite articleYou’ll learn these nouns in Lesson 3.. First here are the two nouns pronounced without the definite article:
Now, here are those same nouns pronounced with the definite article:
Now, listen to these next two recordings over and over until you can clearly hear the definite articles:
Let’s continue listening for, and counting, the instances of the Hebrew definite article. How many do you hear in this verse?
Like before, listen to this next recording (it’s a long one) and count the number of definite articles you hear. HINT: The definite article is vocalized exactly 9 times. If you don’t recognize exactly 9 definite articles, then keep repeating the recording until you are able to do so.
Alas, grammar is never as simple as instructors would have you believe. There are some additional complexities that are not important at this stage in your learning. We’ll get to most of them much later in the course. For now, just know that what you’ve learned to this point covers the vast majority of the cases you’ll encounter in reading the Bible. We’ll address these more complex exceptions later in the course.
In this section, you will learn only the Hebrew consonants and vowels necessary to read and recognize the definite article. Let’s get that out of the way right now.
In Hebrew, the definite article is spelled using the Hebrew letter, ה (Hei)pronounced /hay/, which is used to make the /H/ sound in English.
The Hebrew alphabet does not have vowels represented as letters as does English. In English we have the vowels a (/ay/), e (/ee/), i (/aye/), o (/oh/), and u (/you/). Since Hebrew does not use letters to represent vowels, how are vowels written?
The answer is pretty simple. Hebrew, vowels are represented by vowel points (also called Nikkud). For example, the definite article typically appears with one of two vowel pointings.
- הָ This vowel pointing (the symbol underneath the Hei) is called a Qamets and is pronounced /a/ as in yacht or saw. It always appears directly under the consonant and tells us that the Hei is to be pronounced /ha/.
- הַ This vowel is called a Patach. It is identical in sound to the Qamets. Like the Qamets, it always appears under a consonant. In this case, when under the Hei, the syllable is pronounced, /ha/.
Pronounce the following Hei + Vowel syllables:
הַ הָ הָהַ הַהַהָהָ
Now is a good time to learn two other consonants that are unlike English consonants. These consonants have no sound! They are silent. Their principle use is to permit the vocalization of vowels without an associated consonant. Let’s see how this works.
The unvocalized consonants are the א (Aleph) and the ע (Ayin). So for example, suppose we wanted to write a word beginning with a vowel – in this case ‘ah‘ as in “ah, too bad. You missed.” In English it’s easy. Because English has vowel letters, we can write ‘ah’. In Hebrew we do not have vowel letters and must use a place holder, in this case a [silent] consonant Aleph and Ayin, as show below.
NOTE: From this point forward, we will use א to illustrate the pronunciation of vowels when they are first introduced. But, let’s have some fun with this. Pronounce the following Hebrew syllables:
אַהָ הָאַ הַאָאַ עַאָהַ הָעַ
Answers/a·ha/, /ha·a/, /ha·a·a/, /a·a·ha/, /ha·a/
Read and Translate
Ok, now that you are able to recognize the spelling of the Hebrew definite article Hei + either a chamats or a patach, let’s learn how to read them in some actual verses from the Hebrew Bible.
But first, there is one more aspect to the definite article you must learn that is quite different from its English counterpart, ‘the’. The definite article (Hei + vowel) is always prefixed to the definite noun. Unlike the English definite article, ‘the’, the Hebrew definite article does not stand alone. Never. Below, for example, is an English sentence using definite articles the way Hebrew does:
Theboy ran all theway to thestore and back again.
Here’s what this would look like in two verses taken from the Hebrew Bible. The definite articles have been bolded and colored red. All other other instances of Hei are not definite articles.
וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָאוֹר כִּי־טוֹב וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱלֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ ♦וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם וְלַחֹשֶׁךְ קָרָא לָיְלָה וַיְהִי־עֶרֶב וַיְהִי־בֹקֶר יוֹם אֶחָד
How many definite nouns are there in the previous Hebrew text?3
In this exercise, you are to identify all occurrences of the definite article, all occurrences of ה (including Hei consonants in the middle and end of words), all instances of א and ע. And finally all occurrences of the Chamats and Patach vowel pointings.
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ ♦ וְהָאָרֶץ הָיְתָה תֹהוּ וָבֹהוּ וְחֹשֶׁךְ עַל־פְּנֵי תְהוֹם וְרוּחַ אֱלֹהִים מְרַחֶפֶת עַל־פְּנֵי הַמָּיִם ♦ וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים יְהִי אוֹר וַיְהִי־אוֹר ♦ וַיַּרְא אֱלֹהִים אֶת־הָאוֹר כִּי־טוֹב וַיַּבְדֵּל אֱלֹהִים בֵּין הָאוֹר וּבֵין הַחֹשֶׁךְ ♦ וַיִּקְרָא אֱלֹהִים לָאוֹר יוֹם וְלַחֹשֶׁךְ קָרָא לָיְלָה וַיְהִי־עֶרֶב וַיְהִי־בֹקֶר יוֹם אֶחָד
Here are the results for the first verse (ending with the diamond ‘♦’ symbol):
- Definite Articles: 2
- Hei consonants: 3 (including both definite articles)
- 6 Alephs
- 0 Ayins
- Chamats: 5
- Patach: 2