Learning Hebrew, In the Beginning

Image: “Shabbat” in Hebrew. Read right to left, shin, bet, taf.

Fall is always exciting, with new classes beginning. Both the Oakland and the online Intro to the Jewish Experience classes have begun. Today I started something entirely new: I began study with a gentleman who wants to prepare for an adult bar mitzvah.

I thought that some of you might like to find out what happens in a first Hebrew class.

He’s already taken the whole Intro series, so the main issue is going to be learning some Hebrew. We’re going to start with the book, Aleph isn’t Tough by Linda Mozkin. It’s a fairly new book, and a big improvement on the collection of paper handouts from which I learned my aleph-bet.

You read that correctly: ALEPH – BET, not alphabet. This is Hebrew, and the first two letters are aleph and bet.

We don’t learn the letters in order. For one thing, aleph is a tricky and mysterious letter. It makes no sound. Some say that it makes the sound of a person just about to speak. It’s also one of the harder ones to write.

No, we’ll begin with a word: Shabbat. The letters are ShinBetTaf. Three important sounds that we use a lot, and one of the most important words in the entire Hebrew language. If you want to see the letters, they spell “Shabbat” in the image at the top of this post.

Every Hebrew letter is part of a door. Every Hebrew word is a door that opens into a house full of rooms. We will learn Shin – Bet – Taf today, and Shabbat. That door opens into a house with rooms:

  • Shabbat – Sabbath
  • Shabbaton – A complete day of Sabbath rest
  • Shvitah – A strike, as with a union. “Down tools!”  (Modern Hebrew)
  • Shabbat. – He rested.
  • and many more, all somehow connected to the concept of “rest.”

Semitic languages like Arabic, Hebrew, and Aramaic build words this way, with “root”  [shoresh] forms of three or four consonants from which a family of words can be built.

Today was a beginning. Another Jew began to claim his heritage, the lashon kodesh, the holy language.



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Rabbi Ruth Adar is a teaching rabbi in San Leandro, CA. She has many hats: rabbi, granny, and ham radio operator K6RAV. She blogs at http://coffeeshoprabbi.com/ and teaches at Jewish Gateways in Albany, CA.

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