By Ari Mendelson
For many a Ba’al Teshuvah, the classic works of Jewish thought are a sealed book. From time immemorial, the international languages of Jewish scholarship have been Hebrew, Aramaic, and a Hebrew/Aramaic blend. However, few Jews who grew up outside of Orthodoxy or outside of Israel have had the opportunity to learn these languages in their youth from a teacher.
Many who come to Judaism later in life, thinking that they are neither young enough nor smart enough, do not even try to learn the language. Others have tried repeatedly, but failed in their quest to learn Hebrew. I finally succeeded in learning Hebrew on my fourth or fifth try (I lost count). And I learned it well enough to read and understand Shulchan Aruch, Mishnah Berurah, Mishnayos, and even Gemara with the Rashi and Tosafos! And I did it all on my own without professional instruction in a Yeshivah. And I did it without a genius IQ, just good technique and persistence.
Learning any foreign language is a tall order for any adult, especially one who is not in a place in which he can immerse himself in the language. With proper technique and persistence it is within reach of nearly anybody. With this article, I will instruct the reader in the most efficient techniques to master the language of our sages. All the reader need supply is the persistent effort to make the techniques pay off.
I will begin with the assumption that the reader can recognize nothing more than the various Hebrew letters, and proceed to outline the steps necessary to get from that point to the mastery of enough Hebrew to learn the classic Rabbinic texts without a translation. I will further assume that the reader, for one reason or another, cannot, take the time off to learn Hebrew in an Orthodox Yeshiva, as I myself was, unfortunately, never able to do.
What you will need
# A basic list of Hebrew Vocabulary (one which contains a couple of hundred of the most common Hebrew words).
# A siddur
# The “Learn Hebrew” program from Rabbi Shalom Gold available at www.learnhebrewisrael.com.
# The Super-Memo computer program available at www.supermemo.com
# The five volume Ruben Alcaldi Hebrew-English Dictionary.
# Practical Talmudic Dictionary by Yitzhak Frank
# Siyata L’Gemara (Aiding Talmud Study) by Aryeh Carmell
# Ezra Melamed’s dictionary of Talmudic Aramaic.
If you are serious about learning Hebrew, you will need to invest some money as well as your time. The above materials are carefully chosen to give you the most bang for your buck, so to speak.
Learning to read Hebrew well enough to say the prayers in Hebrew even without comprehension
So, you can recognize the Hebrew letters. You know what each letter’s name is, and what sound it makes. You can also recognize all of the vowels. Trouble is, that you can hardly sound out the words. As a result, you say your daily prayers in English. You want to be able to say them in Hebrew. But the thought of spending two hours sounding out the words of one prayer inspires nothing but dread.
The good news is that, with proper technique and persistence, you will be saying all of your prayers in Hebrew within six months. There are four things you must do.
First of all, DO NOT SOUND OUT THE WORDS out loud. Sound out the words in your head. Once you can say the word in its entirety in your head then you should say the entire word out loud
. This will be of great help in remembering the word for the future. After all, which would be easier: to remember four things such as “Miss” and “Siss” and “Sip” and “EE” or to remember one thing “Mississippi.” Same goes for Hebrew words. If you constantly sound out the words, but never actually say the entire word, it will be harder to remember the words you said when you say them again tomorrow.
Second, take the process slowly. Tomorrow morning when you do the Shema or the Amida in Shacharis, say the first line, and only the first line in Hebrew. Do the remainder of the prayer in English. When this becomes easy, then move on to the second line. When this is easy, move on to the third, and so on. The prayers are finite. Eventually you will be able to say the whole thing in Hebrew, and rather easily. I did this myself in my early twenties, and was able to completely say all of the prayers in Hebrew within three months. I also taught several people this technique, and they reported similar results.
The third thing is to do this every day. Remember, only persistence will pay the dividends.
The fourth thing is to listen to others speaking Hebrew. I benefited greatly from listening to the lectures of the late Rabbi Isaac Bernstein. He switches back and forth from English to Hebrew constantly (and doesn’t always translate his Hebrew) but his lectures are very interesting and you will learn a lot while you learn what the Hebrew language sounds like when it is spoken with the Ashkenazic pronunciation. See: http://613.org/Bernstein/bernstein.html. If you want to learn to pronounce as the Sephardim do, check out this site: http://www.mishnaberura.com/.
Building Basic Vocabulary
One major advantage to saying your prayers in Hebrew is that you will constantly see the same words over and over. If you look over to the translation, you will soon be able to recognize a few words and know what they mean. Getting a basic vocabulary list of biblical Hebrew will help you learn even more. If you learn only a few hundred of the most common words, you will soon be able to understand most of the words on any given page of written Hebrew. To learn the REST of the words will take persistence effort and technique.
Mastering the Grammar
In the twelve and a half years that I have been interested in learning Hebrew, I have purchased several books that offered to teach Hebrew. None of them helped much at all. The only source I have ever found that teaches Hebrew grammar in a way that I was able to understand it and master it was the video program produced by Pirchei Shoshanim available at www.learnhebrewisrael.com. It teaches everything from the grammar of the “nekudos” (the Hebrew “vowels”) to the construction of words from three letter roots.
Getting the feel for how the language is used
If you want to learn to understand the Hebrew you read, you must read Hebrew. Do so frequently. Of course, you will, at first, need to read only things that have been translated into English. Read the Hebrew. Then read the English. Try to figure out which words in Hebrew are equivalent to the words in the English translation. You will soon get a feel for how the language is used.
Mastering Advanced Vocabulary
As I said earlier, I would estimate that only a few hundred words are enough to understand about half of the words on any given page of written Hebrew. The other half of those words on that page come from a much larger pool of vocabulary. You will have to learn a whole lot more words to master those.
The way to find words for your vocabulary lists is to read Hebrew, and look up the words that you don’t understand immediately. Mark those words down. I will tell you what to do with them later. But this is how you will collect all the words you need to truly master Hebrew.
Of course, there is a big problem with trying to look up words that you find in a written text of Hebrew. If you look up the precise sequence of letters that you found in the text, you may not actually be able to find it. You see, the Hebrew language is based on the expansion of three letter roots into various forms. The root functions as a basic kernel of meaning. By expanding the word, one can make that kernel mean a wide variety of things. One can make the word into a verb a noun, or an adjective just by adding prefixes, suffixes and infixes, and by adding vowels in various ways. You must figure out what that three-letter root is. Sometimes, the three letters of the root do not appear in the word you actually see before you. This is because some Hebrew words drop or switch letters from their root. Rabbi Gold’s videos will help you make sense of this.
When you finally figure out the three-letter root, enter that root into your vocabulary lists. You will likely also have to enter several of the nouns, verbs and adjectives that are associated with that root. In Reuben Alkaldi’s dictionary of Hebrew, there are long lists of words that are associated with the root word. You may find some important vocabulary in those lists.
And that’s just the beginning. Hebrew roots may convey a basic kernel of meaning, but that same three-letter sequence may have quite a few different meanings. You must remember them all if you truly want to master Hebrew. With patience and good technique, you will learn them all.
The most powerful tool I have ever used to master large volumes of vocabulary is a program produced in Poland called Super Memo, which is available at www.super-memo.com. I cannot recommend the program highly enough. If there ever was a secret to the success that I have had in learning Hebrew, this program was it. I will teach you to use the program to maximum efficiency.
The way that Super-Memo works is that people forget material in a predictable way. If you review the material too often, you will waste your time. If you don’t review the material often enough, you will forget everything. Super-Memo keeps track of when you reviewed your vocabulary last, and how well you did on each word. It then quizzes you on the right words at the right time to make the most efficient use of your time. For more details see: http://www.wired.com/medtech/health/magazine/16-05/ff_wozniak?currentPage=all
Here’s the best way to use Super-Memo to learn Hebrew.
First of all, you should learn how to convert your keyboard to one on which can type in Hebrew. You can do this by making a few changes in Windows (in the “Regional and Language Settings”). Print up a diagram of the Israeli keyboard, and learn to touch-type with it. Don’t hunt and peck, but touch-type. Your investment of effort in learning to touch-type in Hebrew will save you quite a bit of time in entering your vocabulary into Super-Memo. It is a bit of a hassle switching back and forth from Hebrew to English Keyboards, but it’s a small price to pay to learn to read G-d’s Torah. I found that it is easiest to read the display if the font size is enlarged to twenty-point font, but preferences on this are sure to vary.
Second, you put in all of the definitions of a particular root into the program in the “answer” section.
Third, you will need to learn how the different words are used. In both Alcaldi’s dictionary and Rabbi Frank’s dictionary, example sentences from the Tanach or the Talmud are often provided which contain the word you have looked up. I usually enter that sentence into Super-Memo with the translation of that sentence as the answer. By so doing, I get to see the word I’m trying to learn more times as the program quizzes me, and I get to see how the word is used. Both of these factors help to master the vocabulary. Also, if a particular word has many definitions, an example of the word used in each meaning is very helpful in remembering all of those pesky definitions.
I would recommend that anybody interested in learning Talmud or other rabbinic writings enter every vocabulary word presented in Carmell’s “Aiding Talmud Study” and Perlmutter’s “Tools for Tosafos” as well as every abbreviation. Abbreviations are quite important in reading many Rabbinic texts. You will know an abbreviation when you see it. They contain a single quotation mark somewhere within the letters.
I would recommend entering all of this information, but I would recommend that you take your time and absorb what you are trying to learn before putting in the thousands of words and definitions that you will need to truly master the language. Enthusiasm and persistence are important, but patience is as well.
The last tip I have is to enter mnemonics in the answer section. As I previously explained, Hebrew words are based on three letter roots, which are converted into other grammatical forms. Trouble is that many of those three letter roots differ only slightly from other, totally different, meanings. It is helpful to come up with mnemonics to remember which definition is which. And it is best to write those mnemonics in the answer section of the Super-Memo program so that you can use the mnemonic to remind you of how to think if you get the word wrong in your study session.
Now you know exactly how you can go from novice levels to fluency. Let’s just see how far you can push your knowledge and proficiency. I bet it’s farther than you ever dreamed possible.