Crisis in the 21st century: It’s As Simple as Kometz Aleph “Oh” – by Rabbi Dovid Abenson

rabbi dovid abensonThe word “crisis” has, unfortunately, insinuated itself into the common Jewish lexicon. We now refer to crisis regarding shidduchim, divorce, internet and kids-at-risk, and many believe that these situations are the self-made results of secular infiltration. As an educator, I am afraid that I must add another one to the list – the “alef beis crisis.”

A parent recently shared with me in frustration that his 5 year old son had come home from school with a fat binder full of alef beis sheets. Homework aka chazorah, was given on a regular basis. My first reaction was to wonder that such a young child was given so much work. After reviewing the sheets, I observed that the secular approach of teaching the English language had been incorporated into teaching the alef beis. It is a phenomena that I have noticed becoming more prevalent in mosdos throughout the Jewish world. Why is this a concern, when we are living in an ever moving technological world which has many benefits? Our Mesorah teaches us specifically that teaching alef beis should be done in a very elementary way. There is a quote by the Chinese philosopher Confucius which seems appropriate here: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” This applies even to teaching alef beis. What was once “kometz alef Oh” and “kometz beis Boh” has now evolved into “velvety veis, dolly daled, velcro vov, zig zag zayin…….” to name a few. Then, we get to “tickle the tes, and color them!”

I am a big advocate of visual aids in the classroom, but not when it comes to teaching the foundation of Torah which is Kriah. Using phonics to teach alef beis is not our mesorah.

Talmidim who come to me struggling with Kriah, very often show the pattern of interchanging letters that use the same sounds, for example vov/veis, samech/sof etc This is caused by having been taught Kriah phonically. When this happens, talmidim subsequently will mix up translations and find Rashi to be like double dutch. Of course, this leads down a slippery slope when inevitably the talmid loses focus in class, becomes a disruption or falls asleep. Medication is just a stone’s throw away. Have we created a self imposed alef beis crisis? By making alef beis complicated using phonics and other eye catching material, we have made what was once simple, into a confused burden for the child. Much unnecessary brain power needs to be accessed at an early age to compute the confusing foreign ideas and information in recognizing letters and vowels. Undoubtably, this leads to a regular occurrence of children losing the inspiration to learn, which has stemmed from the lack of foundation in learning Kriah!

Arguably, using new methodology to teach the alef beis is not a new phenomena. Already in the 1930’s, such practices were abscond. Below is a free translation of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe’s opinion that was given in the year 1930. Taken from ספר השיחות page 127-128. “Those Jews that want their children to be Jews, need to teach their children using the old method of Kometz Alef Oh without any (new) methods, these take away the entire holiness from the letters of the Torah. One does not need to be concerned that there are many using (new) methods. The honest Jew will in the end realize the tremendous problem they endured. The education of a child must be in the way it was, and one needs to learn Gemara.”

There is a reference (free translation) on the bottom of page 127 to page 44 where the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the mystical importance and significance of teaching Alef Beis using Chazal and not deviating from the traditional way.

“The learning must be in the format of Kometz Alef Oh, Kometz Beis Boh etc.

One example is Boh, (as in Kometz Beis), is translated as: came, referring to the revelation of the Shechina (that came by saying Kometz Beis Boh), for the letters are vessels for the revelation of the light of the Torah, which is Hashem’s Chochma.

When is this (the revelation) of the Shechina? Specifically when one says Kometz Alef Oh, Kometz Beis Boh etc. When this is not said, the results Chas V’shalom are that the child will become a non believer in Hashem. By teaching him Kometz Alef Oh, Kometz Beis Boh, he will remain a believer with complete faith, no matter what his external appearances are, meaning, that even if externally he will not be as he should, nevertheless he will remain a believer.”

The above free translation, whilst it is very esoteric, provides us with an insight into the kedusha of the alef bais which serves as a channel to connect a person with Hashem. When one changes the method, one is missing this integral pillar of Yiddishkeit.

As we scratch our heads and try to resolve the off-the-derech crisis of our generation, perhaps this is an important factor to bear in mind. Bringing back the traditional teaching of the alef beis will help diminish drastically the number of children going off the derech. And, hopefully, it will overflow into helping the other crisis situations we have found ourselves in.

Rabbi Dovid Abenson is the founder and director, author and lecturer at Shaar HaTalmud, a unique yeshiva based online program, featuring evaluations and remediation, working with students to upgrade skills in Hebrew reading, chumash/rashi and gemara studies, consulting school principals world – wide to improve their ability to help students who possess under-developed skills. Also available for in house training for schools and yeshivos. He can be reached at [email protected] or 1-877-HATALMUD (428 2568)

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  1. I agree with Rabbi Abenson about phonics. If you’re teaching Hebrew, using English phonics just creates confusion and a false foundation for one’s understanding of the Hebrew language. A ‘veis’ is not a ‘v’. It’s a ‘veis’. So it should be ‘alef’ as in ‘abba’ not ‘alef’ as in ‘apple’.

    However blaming the off the derech “crisis” on English phonics is completely misguided. Young people and others have been opting out of observant Judaism long before the English phonics method of learning how to read Hebrew. I was taught the traditional way (which I do agree is better) and today I am totally non-observant. One has nothing to do with the other.

  2. 1. What happened to chanoch le-na’ar al pi darko, If our rabbis (Tosfos) tell us that nature has changed, it is likely that includes the way the brain processes information. If that’s the case case, teaching methods must adapt.
    2. The gemarah itself mentions that some rabbeim were better than others. If there is only one way to teach, how could there be any difference between teachers?
    3. Isn’t using chalkboards already a change from the way the alephbais was taught?

  3. What a great point Rav Abenson makes? Thanks. Some times innovation in education goes too far. Who suffers with this experimentation? Only children. What about the proven methods? Are educators thoroughly trained in the best and proven methods? Rav Abenson is right.

  4. Very well said, thank you rabbi Abenson for bringing to light this crisis. Indeed there is a need to teach our children ‘Al Pi Darko’ but Torah is not just another Chochma, it is Hashem’s Chochma and needs to be kept and taught from that perspective that what ever Toras Emes says is 100% accurate and true! The Zohar speaks about the holiness of every letter and Nekuda, how can we ignore such an important message.

  5. I am happy Leeba is still calling herself Leeba. She is right that reading badly is not the only reason kids go OTD but it is a big contributing factor.
    Vaiss and vov are phonically identical, but they make different words. Similarly regarding all the other sets of letters which are phonically identical. The brain processes sound much faster than vision, so the phonics short-circuits the vision, so even though he sees the letter, its shape doesn’t register. Therefore he cannot build-up a reliable bank of words and can’t understand what he is reading.

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