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Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations (NELC)

Hebrew Literature and Jewish Tradition
Program Requirements


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NELC’s graduate program in Hebrew Literature and Jewish Tradition is composed of three tracks:

  • Biblical Studies
  • Post-Biblical Jewish History and Culture
  • Modern Hebrew Literature
  • In general, the student is to follow the MA general procedures or the PhD general procedures of the department, but the following statements outline the regulations specific to the graduate program in HLJT.







    At the heart of NELC’s Hebrew Bible/Old Testament track are texts composed over a period extending from the early Iron Age to the Hellenistic-Roman period. The goal of this track is to prepare students to research and teach these texts, in both the historical contexts in which they were originally composed, and as they have been understood in later historical periods. Drawing on faculty in NELC, the Jewish Studies Program, and other departments, the Biblical Studies program takes an interdisciplinary approach to biblical literature that involves the study of language, literature, history, archaeology, and other fields. This program can be tailored for individual students with different interests.

    All students in the biblical studies program must acquire proficiency in the following areas:
    Textual Mastery. All students are expected to develop the ability to produce original research about biblical texts in their original languages, which entails an ability to sight-read biblical Hebrew, explain its grammar, and interpret biblical Aramaic and the Greek of the Septuagint.

    Method. All students are expected to become conversant in the various methods and approaches used to understand biblical literature, and to be able to apply such methods in their own research.

    Context. All students are expected to develop an understanding of the larger social and cultural context in which biblical literature developed. This includes an understanding of ancient Israelite society; the broader history and literature of the Ancient Near East; and Judean/Jewish culture in the Persian, Hellenistic and Roman periods.

    Interpretive History. All students are expected to gain some familiarity with the history of biblical interpretation—Jewish, Christian, Islamic or secular.

    Secondary Field. All students are also expected to develop proficiency in one of the following two secondary fields:
    a) Ancient Near East. This track deepens the student’s understanding of the Hebrew Bible in its Near Eastern context by requiring the study of Assyriology, Egyptology or Near Eastern archaeology
    b) The Cultural/Religious Afterlife of the Bible. This track involves more advanced study of the history of biblical interpretation and may involve the study of Second Temple period and classical rabbinic literature; medieval and modern Jewish biblical exegesis; the role of the Bible in Islamic exegesis, etc.


    Students must acquire proficiency in the following areas:

    I. Primary Field
    A) Hebrew and Aramaic of the Biblical period, including the language of extra-Biblical texts; knowledge of historical grammar and ability to sight-translate Biblical prose and interpret Biblical poetry.
    B) Biblical literature: ability to identify passages and details from the Hebrew or Aramaic text, and to discuss textual, literary-critical, and methodological issues. Exams on assigned texts and secondary literature are given at the start of each academic year.
    C) History, geography, and archaeology of Israel in the Biblical period in their ancient Near Eastern context.
    D) Culture: social and political institutions and history of Israelite religion within their ancient Near Eastern context.
    E) Ancillary fields:
    1) A secondary field in either Cuneiform Studies (Akkadian) or Egyptology, and comparative studies relating the secondary field to Biblical Israel; or a secondary field in Biblical Archaeology.
    2) Hebrew epigraphy, Northwest Semitic languages, elementary Arabic, and comparative Semitics; Greek adequate for use of the Septuagint; post-Biblical literature and exegesis.

    II. Secondary Field
    A) Hebrew: 4 graduate-level courses in Biblical Hebrew texts; ability to sight-translate uncomplicated texts.
    B) Biblical literature: familiarity with the content of the Bible, distinctive features of its main genres, and important literary-critical issues.
    C) History and culture of ancient Israel.
    D) Comparative studies relating Biblical Israel to the student's Primary Field.



    Qualifying Exams
    Qualifying Exams in Biblical Studies are normally comprised of (1) a competency examination in Biblical Hebrew (3–5 hours in length) taken in the department and (2) the submission of two syllabi for proposed courses. The topics of the two proposed courses will be determined by the student’s supervisor and given to the student three months before the timing of the competency examination.

    Candidacy Exams
    Candidacy Exams in Biblical Studies are normally comprised of four exams, take over one week. The student will be tested in four areas; three will be Biblical Hebrew, Biblical criticism, and the history of the Ancient Near East or Late Antiquity. The fourth area will be connected to the student’s specific research interest (e.g., the history of Jewish interpretation or archaeology). The first three exams will be written in the department, and the fourth will be an open book take-home exam.



    Penn’s PhD Program in Post Biblical Jewish History and Culture is designed to train students to engage in teaching and in original research that pertains to the cultural developments and products of Jewish life from the seventh through the sixteenth centuries, in communities of Mesopotamia, Christian Europe and the Islamicate world. The program of study will be tailored to the needs and interests of each student, and will engage a range of NELC and Penn faculty members. All programs of study will involve the exploration of Jewish historical and cultural phenomena within the diachronic context of the Jewish past, and the synchronic context of the broader regional culture. Students will be expected to acquire proficiency in this historically and geographically broad field, for the purposes of undergraduate instruction, and scholarly expertise in the narrower research field that is chosen.

    Language Preparation and Language Study:
    Incoming students must be able to read and comprehend unvocalized Hebrew in Rashi script. Incoming students must be able to read modern Hebrew in order to engage secondary literature. Over the course of study (if not before), students will be expected to acquire a reading knowledge of both French and of German. As a rule, students will develop competence in either Latin or Arabic, , though there may be exceptions, depending on the chosen field of research.



    PRIMARY Proficiencies for All Students:
    Philological competence: Fluency in reading and comprehending a broad array of post-biblical Hebrew genres. Ability to recognize references or allusions to scriptural and rabbinic writings. Familiarity with the study aids that may assist in mining earlier sources.
    The Jewish Bookshelf: Knowledge of the written works produced by Jews from the geonic period through the sixteenth century, and understanding of the representative characteristics of their respective genres, This includes works scriptural commentary; talmudic commentary; rabbinic codes of law; responsa; grammatical works; medieval anthologies of midrash, sermons, piyyut, poetry; belletristic writings; pietistic writings; philosophical writings; kabbalistic writings.
    Historical and Contextual Competence: Knowledge of the course of Jewish history from the seventh to the sixteenth centuries, in the lands of Christendom and Islam. Ability to situate discrete cultural developments in relation to Jewish predecessors, and to synchronic developments in their regions of occurrence.
    Methodological Tool Kit & State of the Field: Through the study of secondary works, students will become familiar with the range of approaches that supplement the philological, historical and codicological analyses of texts in shedding light on developments and products of post-biblical Jewish culture. Students will also become conversant with earlier schools of scholarship and with topics of scholarly controversy that continue to be instructive.

    ANCILLARY Proficiencies for All Students:
    Familiarity with the foundational corpora of rabbinic Judaism, ability to read with comprehension, and to locate passages in:

    • Hebrew Bible
    • Babylonian and Palestinian Talmud
    • Midrashic literature of the classical period
    • Jewish Liturgy


    ANCILLARY Proficiencies geared to research field:
    Depending on a student’s specialized field of interest, course of study will include intensive study in fields outside of Jewish Studies, per se. Whether researching phenomena of Jewish culture that emerged within the Islamicate world, or within the lands of Christendom, students will develop proficiency in the cultural history of the broader society. Studies may include (but are not limited to): the majority culture’s foundational sources and their interpretations; their legal systems; theological, philosophical and scientific beliefs; devotional, pedagogic, artistic and material practices, and their social, economic and political networks.



    Qualifying Exams

    Students in Post Biblical Jewish History and Culture will complete a written test (of several hours) that will examine their basic competency in the above-mentioned areas of Jewish Studies. Students will also design the syllabi for two courses that might be offered at a university like Penn. One syllabus should be designed for any Penn undergraduate, and the other, for graduate students.

    Candidacy Exams

    Each student in Post Biblical Jewish History and Culture will be examined in three fields. These written exams will take place over the course of one, or at most, two weeks. In conversation with their advisors, students should identify the faculty members to administer exams in the fields in question. One field must be with the advisor. At least six months prior to the exam, students must establish, with the examiner, the reading list to be covered on the exam.



    The program of study in Modern Hebrew Literature encompasses texts composed from the end of the 18th century to the present day, from wherever they have been written, e.g. Israel, the broader Middle East, Europe, and North America. It is designed to allow students to pursue study, research, and eventually teaching by means of an approach to the field that is textually and linguistically rigorous, consciously interdisciplinary, and responsive to the individual interests of students. Although grounded in Near Eastern and Jewish Studies, our program also engages in dialogue with World Literature, Comparative Literature, History, Slavic and Germanic Studies, Religious Studies, and more.

    Linguistic and Textual Mastery. As students must work closely with literary and scholarly texts in the original Hebrew, they must demonstrate an advanced level of Hebrew before admission to the program, and commit to ongoing reading of primary texts. They must also acquire reading competence in two languages of modern scholarship (usually French and German), as well as pursue study of a second ‘Jewish language.’ This language will be chosen in consultation with the Adviser and will depend on the student’s field of study. These may include Yiddish, Ladino/Judeo-Spanish and Judeo-Arabic, but may also be other languages spoken by large Jewish communities like Arabic or Russian.

    Method. All students are expected to become knowledgeable about methods and approaches used by the interdisciplinary fields with which their individual research intersects, with a program-wide emphasis on the fields of Literary Theory and Literary Translation. They must be able to apply such methods in their own research.

    Context. All students are expected to develop an understanding of the larger social and cultural context in which Modern Hebrew Literature developed and continues to develop. This includes the intellectual and cultural history of Zionism, modern Middle Eastern and European history, and the central canonical texts of the Bible and the so-called “pre-Modern Jewish bookshelf.”

    Secondary Field. All students are expected to develop proficiency in one of the following four secondary fields:
    a) Continuity of Hebrew Literature: a comprehensive overview of the progression of Hebrew Literature from the Bible to the present.
    b) Bible: Hebrew Bible and the history of its interpretation.
    c) Rabbinics: canonical texts of Rabbinic Literature (Mishah, Talmud, Midrashim, etc.) and their contexts.
    d) Liturgy and Medieval Literature: including but not limited to studies of the Sidur, liturgical poetry (piyyut), folk literature, and the poetry and prose of medieval Spain.



    Qualifying Exams
    Qualifying Exams in Modern Hebrew Literature are based on about 25 books, approximately 10 of which are in Modern Hebrew. There will normally be two exams, each 3–5 hours in length. One exam will be designed to show the student’s competence in the modern Hebrew language and be set by the student’s faculty advisor.

    Candidacy Exams
    Candidacy Exams in Modern Hebrew Literature are based on about 60 books, about half of which are in Modern Hebrew; the list will be agreed upon by the advisor and by the other examiners in auxiliary fields. There will be at least one 8-hour written exam in Hebrew in the department given by the student’s advisor and normally one take-home exam also given by the advisor. There will be two additional exams given by the auxiliary field examiners; the length and format of those exams to be determined by the examiners. The total take-home period will not exceed one week, but may be shorter if one or both of the exams in the auxiliary fields are written in the department (i.e., are not take-home exams).