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Must I Learn Hebrew?

Must I Learn Hebrew?

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Question:

Thank you for your kind invitation to join one of your Torah classes. I have a strong desire to broaden my knowledge of my heritage, but I currently feel inadequate about pursuing these studies. Although I know how to read Hebrew, I do not understand a word of it. Should learning the language of the Torah not be my first priority?

Answer

Many people mistakenly think it necessary to first learn the language of the Torah and only then to consider studying our beautiful heritage. Although Hebrew comprehension is very desirable, learning a new language demands a considerable investment of time and energy and is not very inspiring, and your initial enthusiasm may fade. It is for this reason that all of my Torah classes are taught in English.

There is a prevalent misconception that throughout our history, Hebrew was the spoken language of our ancestors. In truth, this language was commonly used only during the first millennium of our nation’s existence. After the destruction of the First Holy Temple (422 BCE), the Jews were exiled from Israel. As a result of the great dispersion, the language of the masses became mixed with other dialects, not unlike Spanglish.

In fact, this was the catalyst for the standardized prayer liturgy that we have today. Maimonides writes that when the Jews returned to Israel to build the Second Holy Temple, the leaders realized that the common folk were not fluent, and could not express themselves eloquently, in Hebrew. Consequently, the people were unable to communicate with G‑d through prayer in pure Hebrew. The rabbis therefore established a fixed text for daily prayer.

The spoken languages during the Second Temple and Talmudic eras (352 BCE–500 CE) were various dialects of Aramaic. Although the scholars would learn in Hebrew, their discussions were redacted in the Talmud and Zohar in Aramaic. In subsequent generations, even Torah scholarship was discussed and debated in other languages. Many of Maimonides’s great works were written in Arabic, and the chassidic masters would communicate the lofty secrets of the Torah in Yiddish (a Jewish-German dialect spoken in Europe for generations).

Understanding the language of our tradition has always been a challenge, but never a barrier, to Torah study. Obviously, to render a halachic ruling or to develop an authoritative interpretation in Torah, one must be sufficiently fluent in the original. However, there is plenty of Torah to be learned in a plethora of languages. I encourage you to embark on the journey of Torah discovery and allow Hebrew to come with time.

Please click here for a discussion on the pros and cons of praying in Hebrew vs. the vernacular.

Rabbi Levi Greenberg is the director of programming at Chabad Lubavitch of El Paso, Texas.
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scotty Rapid.C. SD November 10, 2017

Shalom.. Studying Hebrew, has made me aware of my minute spot in Hashem creation.. What I have done is nothing compared to what I should have done. Torah, Zorah, Mishnah, Chumash. Kosher study. has been a stepping stone. to a unknown future. in Life but a hope for the World to come.
By birth I would never have been permitted to study the above. By spirt an hunger for something beyond my understanding. I have been drawn like a moth to a flame.. Unless I am from a missing tribe. I am Cherokee, Irish, Scottish .
Waiting to see what the Lord presents next. Reply

Anonymous San Diego November 9, 2017

Reading Hebrew vs English Transliteration Once learning the alef-bet and the vowels and how to read and chant the prayers, it it much easier to read Hebrew than the English transliterations.

I can read Hebrew but cannot speak it - and that's the case with the Hebrew teacher.

Definitely worth the small effort in order to reap the rewards. Reply

John California November 9, 2017

Hashem understands every word of every language Reply

Anonymous Sierra Nevada Mountains Northern California USA November 29, 2016

How can I learn Hebrew? I never knew my ancestry. I took the DNA testing with 23andMe and with Ancestry.com. I found out I'm Ashkenazi Jewish. My family never discussed our background nor was our family religious. I was not raised as anything. I've always felt a close connection to G-d and studied many faiths on my own. After much reading I found I'm the most interested in the Jewish faith. I felt this way many years before finding out I'm an Ashkenazi Jew. Anywho...I'd like to learn Hebrew so that I can convert to Judaism. Learning languages is not easy for me. Does anyone have any tips or know how I can learn Hebrew? Thank you for your time. Reply

Tarfon Ben Avraham Texas May 19, 2015

Learn Hebrew in the IDF Every Jew must feel incumbent upon his/her self to serve in the IDF. Learning Hebrew will be just icing on the cake. Reply

Meira Shana San Diego May 18, 2015

My Bat Mitzvah 16May2015 At my age becoming a Bat Mitzvah has been quite the journey! Raised orthodox there would have been no way for me to become a Bat Mitzvah or to be called up to Torah to read.

What I remembered from early childhood chadar was the alef-bet and how to say in Hebrew 'girl' and 'boy' ... then as an adult kept reading the Hebrew instead of the transliterations.

Asking someone "How do I get to Carnegie Hall?" -- and hearing "Practice, practice, practice" is why I could achieve being able to learn trope and to read from Torah at the Bema, alongside the Rabbi, Hebrew teacher, Gabi, and in front of the congregation and friends!!

I feel blessed beyond all I could ever imagine - and overwhelmed to know that G-d was kvelling, as were my loved ones, alive and dead.

Thanks to Chabad around the world for love they show all peoples. You lead the way!

I can say that it is MUCH easier to read the actual Hebrew than to read the transliterations, which give no real clues of pronunciation. Reply

Marlene Kenya January 25, 2015

Must i learn Hebrew For me it has been a struggle to learn Hebrew, bit i have decided to learn a little every day as say the prayers throughout the day. I am looking forward to understand the sticks...i share the sentiments in the article. It is encouraging because at least am not alone as i learn Hebrew Reply

e USA January 23, 2015

Hebrew Further, I have found something that stirs in me by just looking at the letters of Hebrew...and listening to the individual letter's sound...thank you. Reply

cobena January 23, 2015

must I learn Hebrew.. A comment from a person Peleg
Far Rockaway, NY
said " in my case, I have some sort of disability when it comes to learning languages" .... I have a single sheet of lesson that could help them. FROM: this looks like chicken scratches, to this makes since. .. Or any one who wants to learn the Hebrew alphabet .. I would love to E-Mail or Snail Mail it to them (free)(((((((( or does chabad offer lessons) Reply

Anonymous January 23, 2015

Excellent response! Thanks for posting this! Reply

Rob Kunkel St. Thomas, Virgin Islands January 23, 2015

As a Buddhist, I find that many thoughts from Buddha are best conveyed in Pali, his comon language or Sanskrit, the higher language at that time. Lovingkindness, Compassion, Suffering Equaminity, have certain meanings in English that fail to reach the person who really seeks to understand our Eightfold Path.

Sorry about interjecting but ... have compassion. We are all in this together. Reply

JosephD Connecticut January 22, 2015

Nicely written Rabbi ! Reply

meira Netherlands January 22, 2015

It is an absolute blessing to be able to read Hebrew and understand what is written. Makes a lot of things so much easier. Difficult grammar and also very difficult fo read without nikudot, even for experienced readers. I once stayed in a milon instead of a malon. But that was a long time ago. Reply

Anonymous January 22, 2015

must I learn Hebrew what if one feels like a wilting plant when not trying to read hebrew ?
My reading level is low but it is something I need to do, I have a strong attachment to it . But it is good that people don't have-to learn hebrew if they are not inclined that way , and if they're still accepted. If Maths was mandatory instead, I would have no hope. Reply

E. Cohen St.-Petersburg January 22, 2015

Exploring Hebrew In this forum, we all like strangers who pass in the street and have different thoughts and opinions. My personal experiences with Hebrew brought me to final realization of the idea of its divine origin the idea that I heard many years ago in Israel. Anybody who begins to study and explore Hebrew in a more profound way inevitably discovers its perfection, and understand that humans could not invent this language. Wishing all of you to dare and explore it more by yourselves. Reply

Anonymous Brooklyn January 22, 2015

don't forget, ladino, a beautiful language my family has spoken for hundreds of years...like the Sephardi version of Yiddish. Reply

e USA January 21, 2015

I found this lesson to be interesting and important as a Christian having been led to Hebrew. I wanted to grasp a deeper level of understanding of teachings from the Torah as Hebrew. I have learned what I felt was a gift from Ruach Hokedesh according to my level of understanding and expansion of what was being revealed to me. What a beautiful language and so complex to learn. So, what little I have come to learn, I am very grateful. Reply

Tarfon Ben Avraham Texas January 21, 2015

@Cohen, Hebrew is the holy tounge, but Latin is by far the most logical language. Reply

Schvach January 21, 2015

Only if you want to convert Reply

NORMAN HAUPTMAN JERUSALEM January 21, 2015

"Obviously, to render a halachic ruling or to develop an authoritative interpretation in Torah, one must be sufficiently fluent in the original" This is accurate. However, the highest interpretation is to receive the answer directly and accurately thru meditation prophetic dream, or waking intutition.

This is what our ancestors were trained to do, and it is not beyond "common man" to inspire/generate these methods. Reply

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