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?


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.