April 23, 2024
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April 23, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A recent Letter to the Editor concerning the poor reading ability of students at a particular day school generated quite an online kerfuffle. Let me state that I know the writer quite well and my only disagreement with him is that he pinpointed only one school.

To be sure, every day school graduate can read Hebrew. The question is how well? In my experience they do not, and in most cases cannot, distinguish first syllables (mi’leyl) and last syllables (mi’lrah), nor are they aware that most Hebrew words are accented on the last syllable. First syllable emphasis is a Yiddish word structure. This is most apparent when a young man is called upon to lead the service. Unfortunately this grammatical error has crept into most synagogue tunes as well.

Were this the sole issue, it would be akin to trying to correct Chasidic and Galicianer Hebrew pronunciation. There are certain facts of life that, however annoying, inaccurate and erroneous they may be, are impossible to rectify. If proper pronunciation and inflection were to be more emphasized, learning to read to Torah and Haftorah would be much easier.

I cannot speak for the girls in our day schools other than my daughters and granddaughters. However, on many occasions I have listened to many young men lead the service on a Shabbat or Yom Tov, weekday minyanim, Chol Hamoed, and at a shiva house. First of all, I don’t understand why they feel the need to speed through the davening. As a result, they either butcher the pronunciation, skip or swallow words or otherwise mangle the text. I am confident that this is not how they are taught nor how they daven at school. At least I hope not.

More endemic is the fact that they have no idea what they are saying. If the meaning of these words is unknown then the entire enterprise of reading and praying is for naught. Day school students may be taught how to read Hebrew, but they have no clue what the words mean. By the way, neither do their parents. Several generations of day school graduates are still unable to translate the siddur. How can one pray with any feeling if the words are meaningless? Am I sounding too harsh, angry or hyper-critical? Pick a prayer at random and ask a day school student to translate it. English translations abound, but as Ahad Ha’Am quipped, “Reading in translation is like kissing a girl through a veil. It’s nice, but not the same.”

We are not creating literate Jews if they cannot access that text which is most familiar to Jews—the siddur. They are tourists in their own culture, relying on someone else’s translation. Every day school can create grade-appropriate materials from 1-12 to study the history, form, structure, themes and meaning of our prayers. It is an essential component of our Judaism and as such should be reflected in our curricula.

Even before Rav Amram Gaon’s first siddur from which all siddurim have come, there are extensive Talmudic discussions about our prayers. One example will suffice. At the conclusion of Shabbat we insert a havdalah paragraph in the Amidah. Where should this be inserted? At the end of Shma Koleinu? At the end of Modim? Rabbi Akiba suggests in Atah Honen, since it is the first weekday supplication, and such is our practice. The Jerusalem Talmud concurs, but with a magnificent twist. Atah Honen is a prayer for intelligence and knowledge. “Im eyn da’at, havdalah menayin?” Without discernment we cannot differentiate.

Great scholars in every generation have either compiled siddurim with a commentary or written extensively about the prayers. Among them are Maimonides, Rav Saadya Gaon, the ARI, R. Yakov Emden, Rav S.R. Hirsch, R. Shimon Schwab, Rav Joseph Hertz, Rav Kook, the Chofetz Chayyim, Rav Wohlgemuth, Rav Yissachar Jacobson and the Torah Temimah. There are also many kabbalistic works with specific kavvanot for each word. Many, many contemporary writers have written on the siddur and there are ample materials available. Rav J.B. Soloveitchik, z”l, often delved into the deeper meanings of prayers in his voluminous writings and discourses. Analysis of the Yamim Noraim liturgy was a special focus of his summer shiurim at Onset in Cape Cod.

Our children learn how to daven, but do they really understand what they are saying? How is mumbling something incoherently in an alien, unintelligible language a worthy pursuit? Does it make sense? Schools are already struggling with how to make prayer a “meaningful” experience. Let’s start with simply knowing what the words mean.

By Wallace Greene

 Rabbi Dr. Wallace Greene is an accomplished ba’al tefila who tries to pronounce words correctly.

 

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