Volume 6 Number 88

Subjects Discussed In This Issue: 

Hebrew v. Vernacular
         [Michael Shimshoni]
Reading (learning/knowing/living) Hebrew
         [Justin M. Hornstein]
Reading Hebrew (2)
         [Aryeh Frimer, Frank Silbermann]


From: Michael Shimshoni <MASH@...>
Date: Sun, 04 Apr 93 16:52:26 +0300
Subject: Re: Hebrew v. Vernacular

I  just wish  to make  a few  comments and  ask a  question about  the
article of  <israel@...> (Aaron  Israel) on:  Thu, 1  Apr 93
11:25:41 EST.

I shall  quote only some  relevant parts, essential  for understanding
what I wish to say.

>In v.6#74 Aryeh Frimer comments on the lack of desire to study Hebrew. I
>don't quite believe that scholars throughout the ages "lived" Hebrew as
>Aryeh suggests.  IMHO it seems that throughout most of the galut (diaspora),
>Hebrew existed primarily as a written language, used by scholars when
>discussing Torah and its application to our lives. Often, however, when a
>work was written for use by the masses, it was written in the author's
>vernacular to allow greater dissemination and understanding of the
>information (e.g. the Talmud in Aramaic, RaMBaM's works in Arabic, Me'am Loez
>in Ladino, T'zenah U'renah in Yiddish, R. Hirsch's commentary in German) which
>the author felt that Hebrew just wouldn't do.

Of that list may  I point out that the opus of  RAMBAM *not* meant for
the masses  (More Nevukhim)  was indeed written  in Arabic,  while his
Mishne  Torah was  written in  Hebrew,  and is  the book  meant to  be
studied  by  more  people.   I also  consider  Aaron's  list  somewhat
selective, as  other works were indeed  written in Hebrew.  I  am most
surprised  at  him  including  the  Aramaic Talmud  in  his  list,  if
afterwards he says:

>As for Aryeh's comment on being unable to learn Shas without a translation /
>teacher, this was part of the intent of the authors of Shas. The Aramaic used
>in Shas was not the normal everyday Aramaic that people spoke but was
>specifically intended not to be understandable without a teacher. This was
>done because of the "oral" nature or Torah Shebal Peh (the Oral Law) which
>was only committed to writing under the dictum of Eis La'Asos (if we don't
>act now, the Torah will - G-d forbid - be forgotten).

I think that Aaron should decide  if the Talmud was written in Aramaic
"for use by  the masses, it was written in  the author's vernacular to
allow greater  dissemination and understanding", or  "the Aramaic used
in Shas  was not the normal everyday Aramaic that people spoke but was
specifically intended not to be understandable without a teacher."

In addition I would  like to know what the source  of Aaron's claim is
that the Aramaic of the Talmud was so different from the one spoken by
the masses.   I had  always thought  that the  considerable difference
between the Aramaic of the Babilonian and Jerusalem Talmuds was caused
by the difference in the Aramaic  used respectively in Babel and Eretz

Mo'adim LeSimha,

Michael Shimshoni


From: Justin M. Hornstein <jmh@...>
Date: Mon, 5 Apr 1993 13:24:42 -0500 (EDT)
Subject: Reading (learning/knowing/living) Hebrew

Ben Svetitsky notes (mj v6 #74) the reliance of so many people on
pre-learned, translated texts, and indicates his displeasure at this
being a normative approach, supplanting learning of Hebrew and
studying texts in the origninal. It caused me to think a bit about
learning and studying translated publications.

I recently purchased an all-Hebrew, (not Hebrew-English!) volume from
Artscroll, a compendium of the responsa and writings of R. Shimshon
Rafael Hirsch, A"H. The volume is inspiring; you feel in
reading it that R. Hirsch is sitting next to you discussing the issues at

One of the letters deals with his assailing Wissenschaft Des Judentums;
the German scholarly movement intended to research/translate a wide swath
of Jewish learning. I recall that the movement desired to "Give Judaism a
decent burial" as a catch phrase for an intent to diminish/contain Jewish
specialness via their work. Most of the effort was lost in the Holocaust.

The basis of the work of the Wissenschaft was translating text into
German.  I have heard a general Halchic/historical view that the
longevity of a text for the Jewish people is predicated on its being
written in Hebrew (I'll put Hebrew-Aramaic in the same slot). I note
that in our day, R. Soloveichik has written in Hebrew or mandated a
Hebrew translation for his works.

I don't think that anyone feels the proliferation of
writings/translations in English (perhaps French as well) is negative.
The works are L'Shem Shamayim (for Heaven's sake) and intended to
properly convey Jewish learning and tradition. This immediately sets
it apart from scholarship that has a malevolent intent.  Anglo-Saxon
countries, despite their historical failings and disgraces, have
offered a progressive linguistic, and intellectual milieu for Jewish
life. This too elevates translations to higher and more stable level.

I sometimes buy both the original Hebrew and English versions of
various works.  If I devote myself I can usually understand the
Hebrew, but I find the English rendering often worthwhile in itself,
both for the exposition and the turn of phrase. Some works that pop
into mind that I have found both the Hebrew and English very
satisfying (everyone will surely have their own list):

	R. Steinsaltz's intro. to Talmud (Random House) and the original
	"Madrich L'Talmud" (Keter)

	"Moadim B'Halachah" and "Festivals in Halachah" by R. Shlomo Zevin,

	R. Charles Chavel's Ramban Torah Commentary, both the Hebrew and
	English by him (Mossad HaRav Kuk, Ktav; anything by R. Chavel
	is worthwhile.)

I was introduced to learning using normative Hebrew words instead of
jargon (Bidiavad instead of the jargonish Bidieved (after the fact),
or Meichamat (on account of...) for Machmas, etc.)  and feel
sometimes that there is a denial of a normative Hebrew construction in
learning.  In Israel, no real problem exists because a resident can
live side by side with the normative language and jargon used in
different types of learning.  In the tefutsot (diaspora), the
divergance seems to create two different streams of language.  Most
Bnei Torah who have learned know Hebrew inside-out, but its
intermittent use for full-fledged expression and use of jargon keep it
contained and to some extent mysterious, even for some very learned

There is another, painful conception that underlies the attitude to
Hebrew.  In America, the hashkafah (outlook) and observances of Bnei
Torah are often felt to be compromised by an Ivrit-Ivrit environment.
Those schools which emphasize the "technical" over the emotional, if
indeed such a dichotomy exists, are seen to engender a lack of
comittment to observance. Presumably, once the attitude is developed,
language skills are imparted at some point.  Studying in pure English
speaking Yeshivot in Israel fulfills Rabbinic mandates about learning
in Israel, while preparing students for life and learning the way it's
done in the Diaspora; this may compromise the facility of dealing with
learning without translation.

I find little or no interest in advancing spoken/read/written Hebrew
skills even in many "modern" Jewish communities. In many Hebrew
classes that I have attended, I am often the only observant person;
most participants have little idea of what Hebrew for learning is all
about; I won't contend that learning some modern Hebrew is a be all
and end all. The idea of intermediate/advanced Hebrew study as
being part of Talmud Torah is foreign to many Bnei Torah and is seen
by Rabbis as a precursor to Aliyah, but less important in the smaller,
everyday sense as a bolster to learning and being comfortable with
texts in the original.  For some in America, the two worlds in which we
live are not the secular and Jewish, but the Anglicized observant Jew
and the Hebraicized observant Jew.

In Pirkei Avot (Mishna Tractate Avot 1:15), Shammai states: Asei Toraticha
Keva, make your learning a fixed thing. This has been interpreted as not
referring to time-devotion as much as schedule and perspective devotion.
To my mind this strongly points the way to gearing our thoughts and learning
to use Hebrew; make the Torah a fixed thing, in its language. 

In my first steps toward observance and learning, I consulted a Gadol
about steps to learning. He was disparaging of the idea spending an
inordinate amount of time/energy formally studing Hebrew, albeit his
very contemporary outlook and pro-Israel leanings. The intent was to
maximize time absorbing Halachah and Gemara. I countered that if at
the start of learning some more time would be spent on skill
development, while in done in tandem with traditional learning, the
ultimate goal of unified learning and skills would be met.  Part of
his displeasure was that Hebrew learning was conducted in a secular
environment, although ultimately many of my teachers were observant or
favorably oriented to Jewish life.

We must strive to learn more Hebrew, understand vocabulary, syntax, grammar,
expressions and nuances. This must be considered not merely a 
preparation for Talmud Torah, but rather Talmud Torah itself. We must
learn in Hebrew, bring ourselves and children into environments where
it is the language of learning. It is not only for Israelis, people
bent on Aliyah, or the gifted. Study in Hebrew should be geared towards
understanding, with concern for the full spectrum of Jewish learning.

I feel that the great Rabbis and perhaps the not-so-great had a
sensibility for Hebrew that had it at the forefront of their thought.
The Rambam explains his writing of the Mishneh Torah in Mishnaic-style
Hebrew as the long-term best language for communicating Halachah in
enduring terms that all the Jewish people would understand.

I must disagree with Aaron (Alter Shaul) Israel (v6 #82); viewing
Ivrit as a "foreign language" seems to be doubly inimical to learning
and Jewish life. As "Anglophones" we often discard any notion of
language fluency other than English; putting Hebrew in the bin with
"foreign languages" consigns it to a pile of learning that people shun
as being arcane or impossible. The Torah enjoins us not to think this

From: Aryeh Frimer <F66235@...>
Date: Sun, 4 Apr 93 18:32:45 -0400
Subject: Re: Reading Hebrew

    Aaron Israel's suggestion that teaching Ivrit be'Ivrit is only for
the gifted seems a bit exaggerated. I and my peers who went to grade
school in the 50's all learned in Hebrew. And my parents who were raised
in Lita also learned Ivrit be'Ivrit. The Old Telzers still speak a
polished Hebrew.  And to this day Many Chassidishe Chadorim teach Ivrit
    The real problem is that there are few teachers who can TEACH in
Hebrew anymore unless they come from Israel. All my Teachers came from
Europe.  Unfortunately, that well educated group is gone - and nitkatnu
Hadorot. To say the problem doesn't exist and getting worse is sticking
your head in the sand. To say your children can't cope with a second
language is pampering them unnecesarily. I'm always astounded how
European children  manage to get along in 3 or 4 languages.  But not to
know hebrew well enough to understand the written word - when Torah and
Tefilla are so central to our identity as Jews.
    Several people have commented to me privately regarding the Talmud
which is written in a Broken Aramaic. Sure, Aramaic is not Hebrew but it
is certainly as close as one can get in a sister language. Besides, the
Talmud is mostly in Hebrew anyway or aramacized Hebrew. Nevertheless,
the  Tanaim and Amoraim of the Talmud could deffinitely read Hebrew and
if they didn't understand a word it BOTHERED them enough to go to Rabbi
Yehuda Hanassis Ozeret to find out what it did mean.
    I have nothing against translations like artscroll (which I've used
for Eruvin and which is excellent) or any other learning aid. My tirade
was against a generation raised with growing Hebrew iliteracy. The
children can cope just fine - provided the teachers can teach and the
parents care. Ah, there lies the rub! Hebrew for some reason is no
longer a priority. And if it is - you are hounded with being a Ziyoni.
        How ironic when we recall that our forefathers in Egypt were
redeemed because they didn't change their names, dress or language.
     Hag Kasher ve-sameach.       Aryeh

From: Frank Silbermann <fs@...>
Date: Fri, 2 Apr 93 16:12:31 -0500
Subject: Re: Reading Hebrew

Reb Aryeh Frimmer complained that so many study in English.  Jonathan B.
Horen noted that in Yeshivat Aish HaTorah many chozrim be-t'shuva didn't
feel that they could afford to devote the time to learn Hebrew.  Before
long this blocked their progress.  He asked whether "this is a
predominantly American phenomenon, this wanting to get to the upper
slopes of mountains without first traversing the lower levels."

I don't know about other countries, but in the typical American "Talmud
Torah" (later-afternoon Hebrew school) the problem is even worse than
you describe.  Let me describe my own experience.  My family was not
religious, but at age 8 I attended a Bar Mitzvah and was told that I
also would be expected to go through this.  I was terrified -- I
correctly estimated that learning a new language would require mastery
of thousands of new words, not to mention grammar and spelling, and that
for any hope of success by age 13 this would have to dominate my life
(and I didn't like studying).  Yet, little pressure was placed on me to
make serious progress -- by age 12 I was still wasting time trying to
build speed in letter recognition and pronunciation!  I only had a bit
of tutoring twice a month -- we lived an hour's drive from the nearest

I eventually realized that I would be allowed to fake my Bar Mitsvah.  I
memorized the sounds of my Hebrew portion and only pretended to read,
using the text only to cue my memory.  This was both a relief and a
secret shame -- I had no idea the other Bar Mitzvah boys also did this!
When I discovered the truth, I was disillusioned about Judaism.  Not
being a boy-mystic, I saw no value in mere phonetic pronunciation.  I
decided that if this were the essence of Jewish education, then Judaism
wasn't worth much.  I avoided synogogue unless forced (usually no more
than once or twice a year) since this kind of "reading" was not only
unrewarding, but irritatingly tedious.  Reform services were no better,
being filled with empty cliche', blatant flattery of G-d, and all in a
ridiculous archaic English (as if any of our ancestors spoke English in
King James' day).

In my late twenties (through a roundabout process beginning with the TV
show "Kung Fu"), I became interested in religious ideas (though I still
had little patience for religious services).  During my wife's
conversion studies I was told that not only would I have to keep Kosher
and Sabbath, but I would be expected to attended daily minyan and
eventually learn to lead them!  I reluctantly agreed, and immediately
bought a Mitzudah Siddur (a linear translation), and inserted tabs so I
could find my place.  Every minyan I had fun trying to figure out which
word meant what, and when I got behind I would skim the English to catch
up.  This was considered weird behavior, and I was given only reluctant
approval.  My rabbi felt that the Metzudah Siddur was best used for
study _after_ davening, and said that if I insisted on learning the
language before learning to daven properly I'd never make any progress.
I replied that even if I _had_ additional time for siddur study, I would
_still_ follow this approach so as to learn Hebrew even faster.  Three
years later, I understand most of the Hebrew in the siddur and am making
very rapid progress in my ability to daven.  It no doubt helped that I
first had some experience learning other foreign languages -- first
German, then Yiddish and Dutch.  (Whatever success I've had in my
religious studies, I credit to being able to build on the firm
foundation of a good, solid secular education!  :-)

If functional illiteracy in Hebrew handicaps our learning, how much
worse does it do to our communal praying!  There, we don't even have the
_option_ of using English.  If I were in charge of Jewish education, I
would adapt Hebrew phonetics for writing the English language (as had
been done with German and Spanish --> Yiddish and Ladino) and teach it
to children as a fun "secret code."  Phonetic practice would then be
somewhat rewarding, so they'd learn it more eagerly and get it out of
the way.  Then they could move on to more important things, like Jewish
ideas, Halacha, and the Hebrew language.

Frank Silbermann	<fs@...> 
Tulane University	New Orleans, Louisiana USA


End of Volume 6 Issue 88