Why Learn Hebrew?

Why should people learn to read Hebrew? And why do we insist that children learn it before bat/bat mitzvah?

There are lots of good answers, I think, but unfortunately some bad answers get in the way. In fact, one of the most widespread answers is outdated, and another is simply wrong.

The outdated answer is that learning Hebrew is learning to be literate. That used to be true, but it isn’t any more. As we Jews traveled around the world over the course of 3,000 years, we often used the Hebrew alphabet to read and write: first in Hebrew, then Aramaic, Arabic for a while in Spain, our dialect of German (“Yiddish”), and so on. But now, if a child has to learn only one alphabet, the Latin alphabet is almost certainly a better way to go.

The wrong answer is, sadly, also the most common answer across the American landscape: children have to learn Hebrew to participate in worship. But it’s not true. (Never mind the fact that even if it were, many children would see a win-win here, and opt neither to learn Hebrew nor to go to services.)

The cat’s out of the bag regarding transliteration. People know it’s there. They know that the words of our sacred liturgy can be written in Hebrew letters or in English ones.

A more important though less widely recognized reason to reject this common second answer is that most people learn the prayers by praying, not by reading the prayers in a classroom. (This is why we have expanded worship in our religious school.)

So if Hebrew is no longer the best path to literacy, and if it’s not the only route to the narrow reward of worship, why should children learn Hebrew?

Here are my top five reasons:

  1. Hebrew is part of our heritage, and learning it helps the next generation connect to its past.
  2. Hebrew is part of the eternality of the Jewish people, and this generation has an obligation not to break the chain. A time will come when English will go the way of Greek and Latin. (Not many people know that it was the Muslims and the Jews who brought the classics to a European audience that could no longer read Aristotle or Plato.) But Hebrew is still around.
  3. Hebrew forms a connection with Israel, and can be a stepping stone to a greater sense of belonging to the Jewish people.
  4. Hebrew is fun, particularly for children. Children like puzzles, and decoding Hebrew is a wonderful puzzle. (If learning Hebrew isn’t fun, something has gone terribly wrong.)
  5. Study for its own sake is part of our heritage. Even if Hebrew had no other purpose at all, it would be valuable because we believe in learning.

I’m thrilled that starting this fall we’ll be bringing all of this excitement, joy, and tradition to Wednesday afternoons at Vassar Temple.

Dr. Joel M. Hoffman served on the faculty of the School of Education at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City for ten years, and in 2008 he chaired the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education, the largest gathering of Jewish educators in the world. He currently directs the education program at Vassar Temple, which attracts Jews from throughout Dutchess County, New York.

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