Teaching Torah in Ivrit/Modern Hebrew – By Rabbi Dovid Abenson

rabbi dovid abensonShloime, 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 90­year-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!

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 worldwide to improve their ability to help students who possess under­developed skills. Also available for in house training for schools and yeshivos. He can be reached at [email protected] or 1­877­HATALMUD (428 2568)

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  1. Despite all your postulations, the Israeli baal teahuva is just so much better equipped to read and understand Seforim. It’s true that Chashmal was a misuse of a very lofty concept, most words created to convey modern day inventions and innovations are truly bases on original Biblical and Misha or Gemora roots.

  2. After reading the article on The Lakewood Scoop about teaching B’Ivrit, I was reminded about the video that circulated a number of years ago when Daf Yomi was learning Yevamos. The Bais Din in Bnei Braq videoed a chalitza. The dayan asked the woman if she spoke Ivrit or Lashon HaKodesh and also to the man. It made a difference in how they pronounced, or were allowed to pronounce, the words of the pasuk they had to say.

    A friend who went to Israel and was proud to show off his mastery of the Hebrew language was put in his place when one Israeli said that “you speak Hebrew like Shakespear spoke English”!

    Great Article

  3. Clarity in readin and translation so vital for a child and a adult for that matter to be able to translate accuratly and be able to transpose his knowledge anywhere in the Torah and nor just parrot fashion. It good to know it’s not just the parents and teachers fault the lack of trie knowledge.

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