Common Sense and the Torah Revolution: The Study of Hebrew Language and Grammar
By Yisrael Kashkin
Of all the religions, Torah observant Judaism is the most rooted in a language. One doesn't need Latin to be Catholic nor Arabic to be Muslim anymore. While somewhere in those faiths there exist texts in those tongues, scholarship is not fundamental to the daily practice of the average person. A Christian may read the Bible a little, but rarely will he study it, analyze it, parse it, or question it. Nor will he study it for hours a day. Same with Muslims and the Koran. Thus, translations will do just fine.
Not so Hebrew and Judaism. Jewish law requires us to read the Torah parsha (a Hebrew word) twice a week in Hebrew and once a week in an Aramaic translation. This can take hours for non-Hebrew speakers. In most of the Orthodox world today, observance for men has become nearly synonymous with Gemara study. This study occurs in Hebrew and Aramaic. I have never seen a Daf Yomi class given with an English text
So too, prayer. While one can use an English or French siddur, the minyan itself is conducted in Hebrew. Minyan is a Hebrew word. There's no repetition of the Amidah (another Hebrew word) in Russian or Spanish. Kaddish is in Aramaic. The tzibur (that's Hebrew for congregation) sings in Hebrew. There are no hymns in English as you'll find in a church. Hallel is said aloud in Hebrew. The word hallel is Hebrew. Even the songs we sing on Simchas Torah are in Hebrew. The same goes for Shabbos z'miros (two more Hebrew words).
Jewish men pray close to two hours every weekday, more on Shabbos, Yom Tov, and Rosh Chodesh. Good Christians go to church once a week for half an hour or maybe a whole hour. Muslim men pray 5x a day but they are quick prayers – about 7 minutes each, nothing like Jewish prayer with its thick prayer book, much of which is said as a group in Hebrew.
And since half of the Jewish people and at least half of the religiously observant ones now live in the State of Israel, Hebrew has come to comprise what seems the majority of new books, articles, and parsha sheets, not to mention posters, tzedukah appeals, book approbations, and wedding and bar mitzvah invitations. Many if not most of the books are written not in abbreviated rabbinic Hebrew but in flowing modern Hebrew prose.
Even classes in English are only partially given in English. I'm not even talking about the texts that most maggid shiurim (lecturers) race through – those nearly always are in Hebrew or Aramaic – but even the explanations in English are laced with Hebrew expressions. Attending a shiur in English today gives a person the chance to experience the creation of a new language. Call it Yinglish. One gets a glimpse into history. How did Yiddish or Ladino develop? Seems to be that one started with the local tongue – German or Spanish – and added Hebrew words, Talmudic phrases, and Jewish sensibilities. New languages emerged, ones that universities teach as independent subjects. We have gotten to a point that a person needs a substantial Hebrew vocabulary to follow shiurim in English in most communities.
I'm not complaining about all the Hebrew. What I want to do is to ask emphatically why we don't teach Hebrew sufficiently in our schools?
When I refer to schools, I refer mostly to Anglo yeshivos and seminaries. I know America best. I can't speak for England even though it seems that the situation isn't any different in any Anglo country. South America seems to have a better track record in teaching Hebrew. And the situation is not as bad in Modern Orthodox schools where the teaching of Hebrew as a language is at least officially part of the curriculum in many places. However, it is serious in only a few such as the Yeshiva of Flatbush where they do something called ivrit b'ivrit, which means teaching Torah subjects entirely in Hebrew. This is a good way to learn Hebrew but is not so commonly employed these days.
Don't teach Hebrew you say? What about those Chumash booklets with the translation? That's called teitch a Yiddish word for translate. It's a word for word or sentence to sentence translation. It's better than nothing but it's not language study. You know how many words a person has to remember if he doesn't know basic grammar? The answer is far too many. This is particularly the case with Hebrew which attaches prepositions and definite articles to nouns as prefixes and possessive pronouns as suffixes.
Consider the following words: מגדל, במגדל, המגדל. To an English-speaking child that looks like three words each beginning with different letters. If one were so daring as to look them up in a dictionary, he'd thumb through words beginning with those three different letters – mem, beit, and hey. Only in the first case would he find anything. But those with some background in Hebrew grammar recognize a single noun – מגדל which means tower. It comes from a single root גדל which means grow. The three words are translated as tower, in a tower, and the tower. Actually, the middle word can also mean in the tower depending what vowel you stick under the beit.
I won't go through all the rules here involving how to add definite articles and prepositions. Those who know them, should understand what I'm getting at. As for those who don't, hopefully they get the point.
I could add more letters to the root גדל of these words. I can add letters to the end that indicate possession. מגדלו means his tower. I can also use the root in many forms of verbs. To grow up, to raise, and to enlarge are three different meanings of the verb depending on letter and vowel combinations. Those letter and vowel combinations can be applied to hundreds of other roots. The knowledgeable person does not have to memorize thousands of conjugated verbs. Rather, he learns a hundred or so roots, applies to them dozens of rules, and conjugates the verbs. For example, the letters תי at the end of the root is first person past tense: I grew up or גדלתי . If I append those letters to the root כתב I get כתבתי or I wrote. This is obvious material to those who take it for granted. Those people might be shocked to learn just how many of their brethren are ignorant of these rules.
Reading Hebrew without knowledge of these rules is like doing math without multiplication. Let's say I work in a warehouse and receive 100 boxes that contain 50 books each. Using multiplication, I multiply 100 by 50 and get 5,000. Without multiplication, I must open every box, pull out every book, and count until I get to 5,000. Then I must replace the books and seal the boxes.
How would you feel if your child went through school without learning multiplication? He would unfit for working on a loading dock in a warehouse.
It's the same with trying to study Torah in Hebrew without knowledge of Hebrew grammar. And how many yeshivos teach Hebrew grammar? Not many. Some teach a bit along the way but not as a formal subject. They might tell you once or twice that a hey in front of a noun means "the". You might remember the rule. You might not. Mostly, they just translate and translate some more as part of the class in Chumash.
This continues through adulthood. I hesitate to tell you how many adults of my acquaintance cannot read Hebrew more than minimally. And when I say read, I don't mean sounding out letters. The Orthodox Jewish world is the only society I know of that defines reading as sounding letters without understanding. I remember the time I first took my child for an interview for kindergarten. I was asked, can he read? I was thinking, you think that a four-year-old can read? Then I found out that by read the principal meant sounding out letters. This is not reading. If I went to Poland and said that I can read Polish they'd assume I meant read and understand. Read. Like read a book.
I have a friend who ran an experiment. He went to the local mesivta in America with a simple text and asked the boys if they could translate it. All failed to translate more than fragments of it. These are frum-from-birth boys who had been in Charedi schools since the age of 4. A decade later they could not read (and understand).
Many of my chavrusos have been the same way. I'm talking about chavrusos from the kollels that were assigned to learn with me. I thought that with a kollel guy I could bring some of those more difficult Hebrew texts that I have been unable to read, and we can go through them together.
Nope. One after the next could not understand the words. We had to stick with what they learned in kollel that day.
How important is being able to translate a text? I give you the words of Yeshivat Neir Yisroel Rosh Yeshiva HaGoan R' Yaakov Weinberg zt'l:
Question: Should yeshivos have a curriculum to teach lashon hakodesh in an organized manner or is it enough to depend on teitch, reading and translating? And should dikduk [grammar] be taught?
Rav Weinberg: One time everyone knew that you had to learn dikduk. But I'm not sure that today it would be a good idea because you need an extraordinarily good teacher to teach a proper and helpful dikduk. The dikduk taught today may not be all that helpful.
But there is one thing everyone should know. The most important thing that any school that hopes their children will go on to learn in a high school must give them -- more important than Chumash, halachah, Gemara, and hashkafah -- is to be able to read and translate. If they are able to read and translate they will have a future in which they can, for example, learn the Mesilas Yesharim quickly. You know that to learn Mesilas Yesharim properly you have to run through it a few times to know its totality before you can learn it slowly. But a bachur today cannot learn it that way because he is struggling with each sentence to figure out what the words mean. Therefore there is no such thing as learning through the Mesilas Yesharim or the Sha'arei Teshuvah. Baruch Hashem, today we have Artscroll and other translations. Now he can forget about reading the Sha'arei Teshuvah and learn the English, The Gates of Repentance. Beautiful! But would it not have been nice if he could learn it inside?
What will this bachur read? If he knows how to read Hebrew, there are midrashim, sefarim, and histories. If he cannot read Hebrew, he has to read English. So what is he going to read -- a Western, a mystery? You are closing doors on him. The most important thing that any school can do for its children is to enable them to read lashon hakodesh. Then, when they are in the ninth grade, they will go through the Chumash and read Mishnah and be able to make a leining on Gemara, and their whole future and existence will be different.
So instead you are going to learn another parashah of Chumash and take away their whole future? Think -- make a cheshbon. There is no more important thing that a school can give the children than the ability to read lashon hakodesh because it opens a whole world to him. But if he cannot read Hebrew, it is closed! Baruch Hashem, ArtScroll makes a lot more things accessible than they used to be, but, gevalt, is that the answer? (Rav Weinberg talks about chinuch, 36a, Targum Press)
More important than Chumash, halachah, Gemara, and hashkafah. Baruch Hashem that R' Weinberg was brave enough to say it. And yet we put so little organized effort into Hebrew. Our children must be not just familiar with our language but comfortable with it. Dare I say they must be at home with it.
Who else offers a similar message? Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch
The indispensable basis of all is knowledge of the language, the mother tongue and the tongue of the Torah. From an early age every child in Israel should become familiar concurrently with the language of his country and with that of the writings which are to guide his life, -- namely, Hebrew. In and from these writings he should derive his understanding of things and their relations, from them his ideas should be illustrated and clarified, from an early age his spiritual life should be developed by them. Anyone who realizes how a man's whole way of thinking takes its stamp and colouring from the language in which he speaks and thinks will agree with our Sages in regarding it as a matter of some consequence that the child should learn the holy language of the Scripture at an early age. With it you place in his hands the key to realizing that the Scriptures ought to be the basis and source of his life, and also to making them actually his constant companions in life. Begin, therefore, with the language, and let him first read the Torah more with a view to enriching his knowledge of the language. (R' Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb, 551)
Rav Hirsch who is the inspiration and whose students were the architects for the Bais Yaakov movement that saved Klal Yisroel tells us that our first study of Chumash should be more for the study of the language than for the content. This is the same message as that of Rav Weinberg.
And we are failing. The kids today can't translate. And what about the current method of teitching, ie translating for the student. This is the prevailing method in Charedi schools and shiurim. Rav Weinberg responds:
Question: But is teitching enough for that?
Rav Weinberg: What can I tell you? I don't know. You must understand that I have no experience in the classroom. I can tell you my best understanding of what the halachos of chinuch say -- halachos that I learned and struggled over, that I take out of the Gemara, Rambam, and Shulchan Aruch -- but you have to tell me what happens in a classroom. I do not know which is the most effective way to teach the Hebrew. For that I have to listen and learn from you. (Rav Yaakov Weinberg talks about chinuch, 36b, Targum Press)
R' Weinberg in his humility defers to us for an answer. What I'm telling you is that teitching doesn't cut it. I have known many baal habatim over the years. Teitching isn't cutting it. As I said, it's like math without multiplication.
R' Hirsch in his educational program as outlined in Horeb lists Hebrew language instruction first topics:
We may therefore tabulate the general subjects of instruction for Jewish youth as follows:
(I) Hebrew language.
(3) Torah, Nevi'im and Kethuvim.....(Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, Horeb 552)
Hebrew language is first, before Torah! And regarding Hebrew and the local tongue (items 1 and 2) he adds the following note:
Concurrently and as living languages at an early age along with general knowledge and development of the mind.
As living languages. That means speaking, conversation, and composition. Simple line by line translation of a text is not living a language.
While most people would agree on the importance of Hebrew, they deem the solution as using only Hebrew texts as if that alone will enable comfort with Hebrew. We blame Artscroll as if the existence of English translations is the source of the problem and the solution is to allow only Hebrew texts. “Break your teeth on it” is the brutish advice we give. Sometimes I think we glamorize pain as if every good thing in life only comes not with pain but only because of pain. This is very primitive thinking.
The break-your-teeth-on-it method produces bored students. One little boy told me once how he hates davening since he can't understand anything. Somehow years of davening only in Hebrew didn't produce understanding. Why should it? Would sounding out letters in Russian teach you Russian? 100 years of that wouldn't teach you Russian.
Who else advocated the study of grammar? The Maharal:
One of the first things the Maharal did upon returning from Posen to Prague was to help Rabbi Yosef Heilperin of Posen publish Eim Hayeled, a Hebrew grammar for seven year-old children. In his preface, Rabbi Heilperin wrote that the Maharal had urged him to produce this work, and the Maharal himself added a line that one is obligated to teach one's children the Holy Tongue in a clear manner, just as was done in previous generations. (Yaacov Dovid Shulman, The Maharal of Prague, CIS Publishers, p. 211)
This is not grammar for scholars. It's not even for the average adult or yeshivah gadolah student. It's for seven-year-olds. Furthermore, it was not an innovation of the Maharal. It is a continuation of what was done in previous generations.
Who else advocates the study of grammar? The Pri Megaden:
The science of grammar is a cornerstone of Torah and when studying a lesson in Gemara, one should also have grammar books in front of him.... (Pri Megaden, Introduction, 16 in Yitzchok Frank, Grammar for Gemara, X )
As Rabbi Frank tells us further, referring to the Rambam on Avos II:1, “The Rambam considered the study of Hebrew a mitzvah in its own right." (See also Hilchos Talmud Torah 3:3 and Tosfos Yom Tov on Avos 3:8, d'h: takufos.)
Who else? The Vilna Goan. A biographer of the Vilna Gaon writes, “For all his vast knowledge of secular wisdom, the Gaon constantly emphasized to his students, that with the exception of Hebrew grammar, they should confine their studies to Torah.” (Betzalel Landau, The Vilna Gaon, Brooklyn, NY: Artscroll, 1995, pp. 156.7)
And who else viewed the study of grammar as Limud Torah? Rav Yaakov Kamenetsky. In the words of his son R' Nosson Kamenetsky:
With regard to grammar, I note that my revered father זצ'ל held that its study is included in the מצוה of תלמוד תורה because its knowledge is crucial for reaching correct Halakhic conclusions. He cited a grammatical error which led a well intentioned author to propose building a מקוה in any Jewish home. Ignorance of the gender of the noun אצבע in רמב'ם הלכות ספר תורה פ'ה ה'ט had led that individual to advocate מקוואות in that were undersized and invalid; their use would have resulted in massive איסורי כרת. Knowledge of grammar is thus not פרפראות לחכמה, which the תוספות יו'ט defines as "studies undertaken to enhance knowledge" also not to be denigrated -- but גופי תורה , 'studies that affect Halakha.' (R' Nathan Kamenetsky, Approbation for Grammar for Gemara, Yitzchak Frank)
I'm not an expert on the worldwide Anglo yeshivah system, but I cannot name a single Anglo Charedi yeshiva that offers an ongoing class in Hebrew grammar or conversation -- the kind of class that is necessary to turn Hebrew into a living language. There could be one or two, but I haven't heard about them despite a fair amount of research.
How did we get here? One can theorize. Despite the historic teaching of grammar as noted by the Maharal and R' Weinberg, there was some resistance to Hebrew classes a few generations ago because it meant a switch from Yiddish to Hebrew, and this tied into a resistance to secular Zionism. (See Reuven Klein, Lashon Kodesh, pp. 140-1) We are long past those issues as our children no longer speak Yiddish and the battle with secular Zionism has moved to different fronts. Today, we need to strive to move from English to Hebrew and this can only be an improvement.
Now when I call for the study of grammar I'm not talking about esoteric grammar, the kind one might use to be an expert in Tanach or to determine the precise infections to apply with words that contain an ayin or aleph. I'm talking about basic grammar: how to conjugate a common verb, how to say "the", ie. placing a definite article before a noun, how to indicate possession. Israelis may know all this naturally through natural language acquisition, but the typical Anglo, French, or Latin Jew is not going to get it unless he studies it. Of course, there will be highly brilliant people, geniuses, who can become adept at Torah and Tefillah without formal study of grammar, but they are a percentage point or two of the population.
For baalei teshuvah and converts, the need to study Hebrew formally is particularly crucial for they may have not had any exposure to the language at all. Consider these passionate words from an interview with one such person:
...I am very grateful for having had the opportunity to learn Hebrew in a professional manner. The first time I picked up a siddur to daven, I understood what I was saying. I can pick up a Hebrew sefer, read it and understand it better than many students who have spent years learning full-time.
I think it’s absolutely crazy that baalei teshuvah should skip over acquiring this basic skill. I am convinced that by investing time in learning the language properly, the dividends will be well worth it, and everything else would become much easier.
Q: This obviously bothers you very much.
A: Yes, it bothers me a great deal. When I was living near Ohr Somayach, I spoke with many baalei teshuvah, and you have no idea of the feelings of inferiority and frustration engendered because of the deficiency in basic Hebrew reading skills. If a Jew can’t pick up a sefer and understand it, he will never feel truly at home in the Orthodox world.
I think that people tend to forget that most baalei teshuvah will not remain in yeshiva for years and years. If they are not given the basic tools – such as Hebrew and a solid foundation in Chumash – they will lack the skills necessary to become committed baalei batim later in life, and will never reach their true potential. (Ben Ami as interviewed by Sara Soester. A Jew Returns Home, pp. 75-6.)
We ask ALL our children to make Torah study their lives. We push away the diversions of the world: sports, entertainment, technology, travelling, even careers, and tell our children to do Torah and Torah only. And yet we don't teach them the language that Torah is written in. Is this an act of insanity? In the words of Professor Adam Ferziger:
In Israel, the language of the Siddur, the language of the Chumash, the language of the Tanach is the lingua franca and the most secular Israeli can read Chumash with a little bit of work better than a kid who has gone to day school here [in Canada] for whatever years. A little bit of work just to get the syntax, etc. But Hebrew is – I believe this strongly – Hebrew is the key to almost everything in Judaism from a skill set perspective. If you have Hebrew – many of us grew up in an Ivrit b'Ivrit generation and that is not the case now, there's a sense of oh if I teach in Hebrew I won't be able to teach as much Gemara, I won't be able to teach the Ramban and the Rashi the same way. To me it seems like once a person has the real skills in Hebrew they'll get the other thing. It was a wrong educational turn [moving away from instruction in Hebrew], but there are reasons for that.” (Professor Adam Ferziger, “Between East and West Israeli Religious Zionism and American Modern Orthodoxy,” 9:06, Audio lecture at Torah In Motion.)
At present, one must sit in a mixed gender class in order to learn grammar. For people who are religiously opposed to mixed gender classes – and there are many – we have quite a predicament. But it's a predicament with an easy solution and that is classes in Hebrew grammar and conversation. Let us follow the counsel of the Rambam, Pri Megaden, Maharal, R' Hirsch, Vilna Gaon, and R' Kamenetsky and get reacquainted with Hebrew grammar. Let us heed R' Weinberg's words that being able to translate Hebrew must precede all other study. Let us give our children the tools for success and not just inspirational talks.
For an updated version see here.