(Even though I can zoom through English!)
Many people reading Hebrew feel frustrated. They can zoom
through English, yet when they try to read Hebrew, they feel
clumsy and handicapped. Not only people new to Torah, but
also many who have been through cheder and gone on to
yeshiva feel that their performance when reading Hebrew is
very inferior to their English reading.
This feeling is mirrored by many specialists in Reading
Remediation who meet with frustration when trying to apply
their expertise to the remediation of reading Hebrew.
There are many aspects to this problem and, as we work
through them, we will see how problems with each aspect can
interact with the other aspects to increase the level of
frustration in reading Hebrew comfortably.
1. Simple words and complex words
A simple word can be identified instantaneously by sight-
recognition of the word as a single unit.
A complex word comprises a core, root-part and additional
letters which modify the meaning of the core. Reading a
complex word therefore comprises
a. analyzing the word to isolate the root
b. understanding the root
c. identifying the ancillary letters
d. identifying the way which the ancillary words modify a
e. applying the effect of the ancillary words to the root
The meaning of a simple word can be recognized at sight. The
amount of time and brain power required to extract the
meaning from a complex word depends on the complexity of the
word and the sophistication of the power of the ancillary
letters to modify the meaning of the root.
Most words of the English language are simple words.
Ancillary letters -- prefixes and suffixes -- nearly always
only modify the meanings of the roots in a simplistic
Most words of the Hebrew language are complex words.
Ancillary letters -- prefixes, suffixes and letters inside
the root -- modify the meaning according to complex
schedules to form many permutations of meaning.
All words of Classical Hebrew are derived from several
hundred three-letter roots. Words are developed from the
roots by a rigid system of word-structures
(binyonim). Within the parameters of the system, the
relationships between the binyonim is completely
logical and differences are effected by permutations of
limited schedules of prefixes, suffixes and root-parts.
Furthermore, in certain word forms, one or two of the three
root letters might be missing.
Therefore, efficient understanding of Hebrew words requires
not only accurate identification of the letters but also:
a) knowledge of the various root words
b) knowledge of how the root letters change according to the
various word forms
c) thorough knowledge of the effect of the ancillary
d) knowledge of how the ancillary letters interact with the
Therefore, in order to enable understanding of each word,
the reader of Hebrew needs to have far more brainpower
available after letter and vowel identification than is
required for understanding English words.
2. The "Information Content" of each word.
Because each word of Hebrew usually contains more
information than words of English, one, two or three words
of Hebrew can be the equivalent of a whole sentence of
English, and a sentence of Hebrew can be the equivalent of a
whole paragraph of English. Therefore, if a proficient
reader of English tries to read a whole sentence of Hebrew
in "one breath" as he does when reading English, he will
often find that he has become overloaded with information
and is unable to think it through efficiently. Actually, the
reader of Hebrew needs to read one, two or three words at
one go and then stop to think.
3. Verb, Subject, Object Relationships
In the English language, the subject of a verb precedes the
verb and is either a noun or a pronoun. The direct or
indirect object of the verb follows the verb.
Example: He said, "Go to the store." / Jack said that he has
In contrast, every verb of Hebrew contains a built-in
pronoun subject. If the sentence identifies the subject,
then the pronoun is ignored. A noun following the verb might
be the subject of the verb, or it might be the object,
depending on the context.
Vayomer -- And He said
Vayomer Moshe -- And He said, "Moshe!"
Vayomer Moshe el Bnei Yisroel -- And He said "Moshe!"
to the Children of Israel... Or:
-- And He said
-- And Moshe said,
-- And Moshe said to the Children of Israel
Therefore, when reading every verb, the reader of Hebrew
needs to look ahead to the next few words and then back to
the verb to enable him to see how to understand that
4. Words are usually written without vowels. Therfore
`reading' involves automatically adding suitable voweling
which itself requires the reader to have a full word-bank of
5. Often, one set of consonants can "carry" several
different sets of voweling to form different words. The
exact choice depends on the content. Therefore, often, the
reader needs to read ahead to see what the context is before
he can decide with any certainty what the word really is.
Sometimes, several alternative words might be suitable
candidates and there might even be a dispute among the
[Ed. The following example is based on a true story of the
Ibn Ezra visiting the Rambam incognito. As his ill luck
would have it, he was accused of stealing a garment from the
vestibule and forced to pay its value. In protest, he
grafittied the following words on the Rambam's house:]
[ED. typesetter in hebrew - shin lamed mem hey five
which can be read as:
Shelomo shilmo Shlomo salmo shleima?
6. Texts are often written without punctuation. The
reader needs to sense what the effective punctuation is.
This might only come through familiarity with the style of
the text and awareness of the role of different "operator
words" within the text. Consequently, the reader cannot
"read" the text like the text of a work written in English.
Instead, he must read through a block of text several times,
building up the meaning as he becomes more familiar with the
text. This means that a proficient reader of English will be
dismayed by not being able to read through a text with the
same facility as he reads an English text.
To be continued...