Hebrew in the Jewish Community

By: Joshua Feigin  |  October 31, 2022

By Joshua Feigin

As Jews, we all have some exposure to the Hebrew language, whether through prayer, learning Torah, traveling to Israel, slang, or the like. One would, therefore, assume that young adults who have spent most of their lives immersed in this “Hebrew culture” would have a strong command of the language. This is often not the case. 

In the traditional American Orthodox system, preschool children start off singing the alef-bet and as they mature through later grades, they progress to more textual study, such as learning how to pray in Hebrew, understand Chumash, and, eventually, Navi, and Mishnah. Within the typical dual curriculum framework, approximately half of school hours are devoted to Judaic studies. Despite this focus on Judaic studies, many students lack textual and spoken Hebrew language proficiency.  This is a great loss as there are clear benefits to Hebrew language proficiency that must be recognized.

Although Biblical Hebrew is different from the modern Hebrew language, the two are analogous. Consider the works of Shakespeare. While some of the grammar and vocabulary may seem archaic or unfamiliar, a solid command of modern-day English enables one to tap into the meaning of these works. However, it is obvious that attempting to study Shakespeare by translating and explaining its meaning into another tongue, such as French, would significantly burden that process. Similarly, Modern Hebrew acts as a bridge to Biblical Hebrew. While being fluent in Modern Hebrew does not guarantee that one can instantly read any Jewish text, the jump between the two is much smaller than that of a translation. Many educated Jews struggle with even basic textual understanding and reading without vowels. This could be mitigated with proper knowledge of even Modern Hebrew. 

Additionally, many aspects of practicing Judaism, such as prayer, involve the Hebrew language. Shouldn’t people be able to understand what they recite up to three times a day? Furthermore, throughout Jewish history, the great thought, halachic, and literary works have primarily been produced in Hebrew. Enabling students to read the aforementioned works, which constitute the bulk of our tradition, and maybe even write their own sfarim should be seen as an important educational value. 

Finally, as a Zionist community, we seek to support Israel and the development of the Jewish state. We do so politically, financially, and, often, by sending our youth to study there for a gap year. Why not take it one step further? If we believe in the return to Israel, we should practically be taking steps to facilitate that. When making aliyah, one of the great barriers immigrants face is linguistics. There must be some way to combat that preemptively within our school system. 

Despite the benefits of learning Hebrew, many of us unfondly recall the ubiquitous Hebrew class experience – a minimally trained Israeli barking in Hebrew about some random story. The teacher and the students do not understand each other and everyone is frustrated. It is clear that Hebrew language curriculums need to be carefully cultivated and its educators specifically prepared, with continuity and progression between grades assured. However, we are doing too little, too late. Compelling high schoolers to memorize giant word lists or pour over alien grammar tables does not result in successful retention or long-term mastery. And the demotion of the YU Hebrew department to what is essentially an online portal certainly does not help either. Rather, foreign language instruction needs to start at a young age and be continuously immersive for the highest rates of success. With all those hours dedicated to Judaic studies and perhaps even a gap year spent in Israel, teaching just a few subjects in Hebrew would make a big difference. 

For some reason, Americans, in general, have not yet managed to successfully develop foreign language pedagogy. Students can study languages for years and walk out not being able to do much more than utter a few words and maybe write a sentence. However, Europe provides a stark contrast in that multilingualism is the norm, not the exception. To provide an extreme case, the school system in Luxembourg is designed such that pupils matriculate after having studied compulsory subjects that are taught in various levels in all three languages of Luxembourgish, German, and French. Similarly in Israel, children of olim often speak two languages fluently. The concept of multilingual education, as well as the status of multilingualism, is very attainable. Hebrew and Judaism are so intertwined. We need to take steps towards realizing the benefits of implementing such a system by developing educational tools for facilitating it.

Given the fact that our education system will likely not see massive reforms any time soon, we must, on our own, realize the centrality of the Hebrew language to our Jewish identities; just think about how we use Hebrew in our lives as Jewish people. Additionally, we can take opportunities to learn more and support others (and future children) in doing the same. Taking initiative to develop my Hebrew skills has been a transformative personal experience and has enabled me to connect with Jewish religion and thought on a much deeper level. Growing up and hearing a rabbi translate texts verse by verse did not imbue me with the skills to pick up a sefer and learn on my own. Yet, learning Hebrew completely opened up a new world of possibilities for me. It can do the same for you.