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Thursday, August 25, 2016

Is Fluency in Hebrew an Impediment to Learning the Torah?

Check out what Rabbi Dovid Abenson has to say (also published here):
Shloime, an Israeli bochur who is fluent in Ivrit, struggles to keep up with shiur and does not enjoy learning. His mother is perplexed. Since Ivrit or Modern Hebrew, as it is also known as, is his mother tongue, his mother wonders why he has a difficulty understanding the Gemara or Chumash text.

To understand this conundrum, let’s take a look at the following:

A) Grammatical differences between Modern and Classical Hebrew.

There are numerous grammatical differences between Modern and Classical Hebrew. One of the most radical and striking examples is that Modern Hebrew has eliminated the grammatical rules of “Vav HaHepuch”(Vav conversive) used extensively throughout Tanach. The founder of modern Hebrew Eliezer Ben­Yehuda supplanted the true sacred language of the Jewish people by cannibalizing and distorting it to create a “new” language so to speak ­ preventing them from being able to truly understand our holy Torah for the past 100 years. It has gone so far that most recently Avraham Ahuvia, a 90­ year-old retired kibbutznik Bible teacher completed a new modern Hebrew “translation” of the Bible. What he did, according to publisher Rafi Mozes of Reches Educational Projects, was “mediate between the Biblical language and the Hebrew spoken today.” Drora Halevy, national supervisor of Bible studies at the Ministry of Education, claims: “This translation cuts out the heart of the Bible. It reduces the Bible to just another book. In the Bible, form and content are bound together. The translation kills it.”

There is only one language in Hebrew which is called “Lashon HaKodesh”. It is the first language which Hashem created and was spoken by the first man Odom HaRishon. On the other hand, modern Hebrew, as Gil’ad Zuckermann, a professor of linguistics, maintains, is a hybrid of ancient Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, Polish, Romanian to name a few. Basically, now we have two Hebrew languages, Lashon HaKodesh which is termed “Biblical” or “Classical Hebrew”, and a second language called חדשה עברית” ­ Modern Hebrew”.

B) Change in meaning and distortion of words.

Modern Hebrew has misconstrued Biblical words. The word “Chashmal”, which translates into Ivrit as electricity, has no original bearing to electricity at all. It has been taken from Yecheskel 6:4, “K’ain chashmal mitoch aish,” translated as “and from the midst comes a semblance of Chashmal from the midst of the fire”. The Gemara in Chagiga, 13A, relates a story wherein a talmid once speculated upon the identity of Chashmal ­ “so a fire came forth and consumed him.” We see from this story that Chashmal is a mystical concept relating to the “Ma’aseh Merkovah” and the Gemara gives certain indications of the meaning of the word, but nevertheless, it is a difficult word to understand. Since the word attributes to fire, it has been misconstrued and downplayed into a physical component, demoting the spiritual essence of the word.

To quote again from Gil’ad Zuckermann, “egla meshulleshet”[Genesis 15:9] is not a triangular cow, as most Israelis translate it, but rather ‘a heifer’ ­ nor ”yeled sha’ashuim [Jeremiah 31:19] a ‘playboy’, but a ‘delightful child!! I would like to add yet another popular word ‘glida’ which means ‘ice cream’ to every Israeli. This word is actually not Hebrew but rather an Aramaic word for frost. (Genesis 31:40)

C) Care when teaching Torah in Ivrit.

Therefore, when a magid shiur’s ‘mameh loshon’ is “Modern Hebrew”, it is vital, that when teaching, he make a very clear distinction between it and ‘Lashon HaKodesh’. His student will thereby avoid the frustration of confusing similarities and fully obtain the clarity of understanding which ensures true enjoyment and success in Torah study.

D) Sometimes it’s easier when the differences are obvious.

In conclusion, as was suggested at the beginning of this article, contrary to popular assumption, fluency in “Ivrit” does not necessarily guarantee an advantage in the vast unending arena of Torah learning. On the contrary, it may sometimes be a pitfall rather than a plus. Far better when someone knows he does not know ­ than when he doesn’t and thinks he does!

After requesting the good Rabbi's forgiveness, I would like to point out the following:

1) It is much more likely that Shloime is not learning well because of bad chemistry with the teacher than it is because he cannot make the switch between Modern Hebrew and Biblical Hebrew. I state this as a father of five native Hebrew speakers who all learned Torah in the original.

2) Much of the Gemara is in Aramaic, which has many words that are similar to Hebrew but which is in any case a different language. A native Hebrew speaker who follows Jewish Law and learns "shanayim mikrah ve'echad targum" can navigate the Gemara pretty well with the help of Rashi and a good Rebbe.

3) “Vav HaHepuch” disappeared from most Hebrew literature long before Ben Yehuda. (If you don't believe me, take a look at Maimonides Mishnah Torah, Laws of Idol Worship 1:1)

4) One has to wonder if Rabbi Abenson would consider the Mishnah to be written in "Loshon HaKodesh". After all it was written without “Vav HaHepuch”. Not only that, but "Lashon Torah Lechud, Lashon Chachamim Lechud". Are Chazal guilty of "cannibalizing and distorting" Hebrew by using roots that do not appear in the Torah (see Rambam's commentary on the Mishnah, Terumah 1:1)?

5) The Rabbi is certainly correct that some words in Modern Hebrew have a different meaning than they have in the Torah. "Lashon Torah Lechud, Lashon Chachamim Lechud, Lashon Medinat Yisrael 5776 Lechud". However, there is not doubt in my mind that native Hebrew speakers have a tremendous advantage when it comes to learning the Torah than native Enlish speakers.

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