The Secret to Learning Hebrew

Image: Exodus 31: 16-17 in Hebrew. (from If you look carefully, you can see the word “Shabbat.”

Yesterday’s post about a first Hebrew lesson got such a warm response that I thought I’d follow up with the secret for learning Hebrew as an adult. People often say to me, “I don’t know, Rabbi, I am not good with languages.”

Here’s the secret I learned the hard way: persistence counts. When I was learning Hebrew, there are two and only two things that may be happening:  I was improving, or or I was falling back. There is no standing still with Hebrew.

I needed to practice every single day because either my Hebrew was getting better or it was getting worse. 5 minutes moved me forward. On days I skipped, I lost ground.

I began my Hebrew studies in my 40’s. I still read some Hebrew every day (easy for me now, since it is also my work.) I get out the book, I look at the words, and I read them. It is still true, twenty years later, that I am either moving forward or backward in my skills.

The good news is that persistence will work, even if you believe you are no good at languages. Persistence is everything. 



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.



Yiddish Words I Don’t Use

Image: Wooden letters spelling “WORD.” Art by exopixel/shutterstock.

There are some words in Hebrew or Yiddish that I don’t use ever.

I’ve written about one of them in Who are You Calling Shiksa? – it’s a nasty, unfriendly word, and no amount of “reclaiming” will fix it.

Another such word is shaygitz. It means “varmint,” or “rascal” and it is distinctly unfriendly.

Like shiksa, shaygitz has its roots in the Hebrew word sheketz, meaning “abominable,” “filth,” or “blemish.”

My colleague Rabbi Rebecca Einstein Schorr pointed out to me today that the word goy needs to join the list. Its original meaning in Biblical Hebrew was innocent, meaning “nation,” or “people,” – there are places in the Torah where it actually refers to the Jews! But it has come to take on a pejorative meaning in Yiddish and even worse, it has been co-opted by white supremacists as a badge of honor for anti-semitic chants, etc. I don’t use the word, and now I will gently correct people who use it to me, even when it’s supposed to be a joke.

Some words can be salvaged. “Queer” is one such word. It had a neutral meaning until someone chose to use it hatefully to taunt LGBTQ folk. We took the word as our own, and defanged it. Shiksa and shaygitz are hateful in their core meaning; they can’t be repurposed without dragging along the stigma.

Goy is a little different. It hasn’t always been used to disparage. I look forward to a day, someday, when we can use the word as Isaiah did:

Lo yisa goy el goy cherev
V’lo Yil’m’du od milchamah!

Nation shall not lift up its sword against nation
Neither shall they learn war anymore” – Isaiah 2:4

But for now, not in my vocabulary.

What Does “Shabbat Shalom” Mean?

Image: A family celebrating Shabbat. (GoldenPixelsLLC/Shutterstock)

Someone recently found this site by searching the string: “Meaning of ‘Shabbat Shalom.'”

“Shabbat shalom” is a Hebrew greeting for the Jewish Sabbath. Its literal meaning is “Sabbath of Peace.” 

Shabbat [the Sabbath] officially begins at sundown Friday and continues to sundown Saturday. You will usually hear the greeting or read it online from Friday morning onwards through sundown Saturday.

Informally, the phrase means, “I wish you a nice Sabbath.” For more about the deeper meanings of “shalom,” see What is Shalom? on this blog.

“Shabbat Shalom” is pronounced shah-BAHT shah-LOAM.

You may also hear “Gut Shabbes,” which is the same wish in Yiddish. It is pronounced GOOT SHAH-bes.

The proper reply is to repeat the phrase in Hebrew or Yiddish. If you are not comfortable with that, a good second choice is “Thanks, you too!”


Holy Earworm, Batman!

Image: Actors Adam West and Burt Ward as Batman and Robin (Photo from the Independent, 8/24/16)

An earworm is a tune that gets stuck in your head.

Recently a student asked me why, every time she goes to services, she comes home with one of the tunes playing over and over in her head.

According to psychologists, over 90% of people experience earworms. There’s something in the wiring of our brain that “catches” certain songs and plays them on repeat. A new study in the Journal of Psychology of Aesthetics, Creativity and the Arts offers insights on why this happens. According to music psychologist Kelly Jakubowski, her team identified three main reasons why they occur: pace, the shape of the melody and a few unique intervals that make a song stand out.

  • Pace: Earworm tunes tend to be upbeat, and to encourage movement.
  • Musical shape: The tunes tend to be simple and somewhat repetitive.
  • Unique intervals: While the tunes are simple, they have something that makes the tune unusual, often an interval (distance between notes) that is unexpected and catchy.

It’s a very effortless form of memory, so we’re not even trying, and this music comes into our head and repeats. And it’s very often very veridical, meaning it’s a very good representation of the original tune that we’re remembering.

So my big hope is that that can tell us something about the automaticity of musical memory and its power as a tool for learning. So imagine if we could recall facts that we wanted as easily as we can bring new ones to mind without even trying. – Kelly Jakbowski interview reported on CNN, 5/8/17

Not all Jewish service music sticks in our heads, but the tunes that do can serve a wonderful purpose: they are a memory aid to learning the words of prayers. For example, if I said to a non-Hebrew speaking person who is regular at services, “Recite for me the first lines of the Song of the Sea in Hebrew,” they’d probably panic and protest that they don’t speak Hebrew. But if I were to say, “Do you know the first few lines of Mi Chamocha?” they would be able to sing it, likely with correct pronunciation of the Hebrew, which is fairly tricky!

This is why I tell beginning adult students of Hebrew that regular attendance at services will help their studies immensely. Tunes and fragments of tunes will stick in their heads, anchoring bits of Hebrew grammar in a completely painless process. Even if you are not consciously trying to learn Hebrew, you’ll be surprised how much prayer book Hebrew you will learn by letting the earworms play in your head!

This phenomenon is not limited to pop or “camp” tunes. One of the most powerful service earworms for me is Helfman’s Shma Koleinu [Hear Us,] a very dignified High Holy Day setting for the prayer. I cannot read the words to that section of the daily Amidah without triggering Helfman’s beautiful tune in my head.

I no longer need help learning the Hebrew words of prayers, but earworms still have a function for me. Now, when I get a service tune and its words stuck in my head, I use it as a meditation on that prayer. I assume that there’s something I need in that prayer, and I let it play over and over in the background of my mind.

When it gets tiresome, I go for one of two common earworm cures: I play the tune all the way to the end (YouTube is good for this) or I sing a verse of “America the Beautiful” very slowly and loudly. That generally does the trick!


Hidden Treasures in the Torah – Preparing a Text for Services

Image: Numbers 27:1- 5 in one of the sifrei Torah at Temple Sinai, Oakland, CA. Photo by Rabbi Adar.

I read Torah at Temple Sinai this morning. While I was preparing the portion, I was reminded again just how happy I am that I learned how to read Hebrew. I learned late in life, and I still struggle with it, but it is absolutely worth the trouble. Here’s why:

Last week’s Torah portion was Pinchas. (The sun has set, it’s a new week. This morning was last week in Jewish terms.) Pinchas contains the first part of the story of the Daughters of Tzelophehad, a story I’ve written about in O Daughters, My Mothers! 

I’ve studied these verses many times, but with Torah there is always more to learn. This time, preparing to read from the Torah scroll (see the photo above) the study carried me deep into the grammar of the text. (I know, sounds boring, but trust me here.)

The scroll is a close copy of the scroll from which Ezra read in Nehemiah 8. The scroll does not have nekudot – the little marks invented by the Masoretes centuries later to tell us about vowels, pronunciation, and punctuation. For those marks, I have to go to a tikkun or to a copy of the verses in Torah as in

If I’m going to read the text correctly, I have to learn which vowels to put in which places – that means I have to understand every single word of that text. (Granted, it is possible simply to memorize the sound of the words, which is what I did as a beginner, but as I age I find that it is better just to do it the hard way and actually learn each word because memory can fail me.)

These particular verses (beginning at Numbers 27:1) are tricky because the Torah is telling us a story about women. That’s fairly unusual, and the verb forms for women are less familiar because we don’t use them as much in Biblical Hebrew. It’s a nice grammatical workout.

Sure enough, the first word is וַתִּקְרַ֜בְנָה – vah-tee-KRAV-nah. It means “And they (f) drew close.” Then it hit me: this is a special word! The root of the word is kuf-resh-bet, which is the root having to do with sacrifices.The translations say something like “they came forward” but it there is much more meaning in that word. Yes, it means “come close” but it is a special sort of drawing close. The text could have had other verbs, but the fact that it uses this particular verb signals us that something special and holy is coming, something that will bring the Israelites closer to God.  I have circled the word in red at the top of the image below – on the image, not on the sefer Torah!


Another example of something really special in this portion is in the other word I have circled, a tiny little word of two letters. Here is the text and translation from

כֵּ֗ן בְּנ֣וֹת צְלָפְחָד֮ דֹּבְרֹת֒ נָתֹ֨ן תִּתֵּ֤ן לָהֶם֙ אֲחֻזַּ֣ת נַחֲלָ֔ה בְּת֖וֹךְ אֲחֵ֣י אֲבִיהֶ֑ם וְהַֽעֲבַרְתָּ֛ אֶת־נַחֲלַ֥ת אֲבִיהֶ֖ן לָהֶֽן׃

“The plea of Tzelophehad’s daughters is just: you should give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen; transfer their father’s share to them.” – Numbers 27:7

It’s the standard JPS translation, but it waters down the meaning of the text. The little circled word, pronounced “Ken” means “Yes.” Here’s my alternate translation of the line:

“Yes! The daughters of Tzelophehad said it!* You must give them a hereditary holding among their father’s kinsmen. Transfer their father’s share to them.”

*In this case, “dov-roht” is a feminine participle from the root dalet-bet-resh. There’s no good way to get it into English without turning it back into a verb.

The whole point of the story is that God says “Yes!” when five women who are suffering from an injustice approach with a well-reasoned case. Had I been working merely from a translation the readings would be much more dignified but the passion in that “Yes!” would be missing. God rewards the women for standing up for themselves, and approves of their competence in doing so.

Feminist commentators have had much to say about this story, justly so, but in that “Yes!” I read broader meaning. When disenfranchised people bring a well-reasoned case before the legal authority, this story sets the precedent for hearing them out and finding a way to make things more fair.

In this story, God doesn’t quibble, or get defensive, or suggest that if they all got husbands it would be OK. God just says “Yes.” God then corrects the injustice by changing the rules of inheritance.

I finished my preparation of this story feeling inspired.

And yes, this is why I love studying Torah in Hebrew.

If you are older, if you are “bad at languages,” if you have perceptual quirks (aka learning disabilities) don’t let it stop you. I’m all those things, and I’m so glad I learned.

Do Jews Believe in the Evil Eye?

Image: Cartoon of a blue eye. (Art by meri_asaro/pixabay)

If you spend much time around Ashkenazi Jews, sooner or later you will hear someone say, “Kenahora, pu pu pu.” If you play close attention to the context, you’ll notice that they said it after an optimist predicted something good or commented on something good: a new baby, a beautiful child, a future happy occasion. Ashkenazi Jews use the phrase much the same way others might say “Knock on wood.” It’s a way of warding off misfortune, aka “the Evil Eye.”

Kenahora is a combination of the Yiddish words kein [no,] and the Hebrew ayin [eye] and hara [evil.] Pu pu pu is a stand-in for spitting three times, one traditional way to avert misfortune. Together, they are the Yiddish equivalent of knocking on wood, throwing salt over one’s shoulder, and other superstitions.

The Sephardic equivalent is to say Mashallah, an Arabic greeting [May God preserve you from the evil eye] or El dyo que mous vouadre de aynara i de ojo malo [God save us from misfortune and the evil eye.]

Another tactic for warding misfortune away from children is to immediately follow a compliment with a qualifier, for example, “She’s very pretty but she is fussy” or to smear a little dirt on the child’s face. In some communities, there is a belief that the color red can ward off evil.

Folklore studies reveal that every culture has something of this sort, often centering on a belief that one can put a curse on someone by staring at them.

While the “evil eye” is indeed mentioned in the Mishnah, our teachers have usually warned us against trying to control the world via hexes and spells. A Jew is supposed to reply on God and on the good sense God gives us, not on superstitious remedies. Even some of the mentions in the Mishnah and the Talmud may suggest a certain ambivalence about the folk belief, for instance:

Rabbi Yehoshua says: An evil eye, the evil inclination, and hatred of others remove a person from the world.” Pirkei Avot 2:11

Maimonides interpreted this to mean that greed and jealousy will cause a person to isolate themselves – he was extremely opposed to superstition of any kind. A 15th century Italian rabbi known as Bartenura agreed with Maimonides and then added that some people in their greed may look with an evil eye on the children or belongings of others. Rabbi Yonah Gerondi, a 13th century Spanish rabbi, wrote that:

[The evil eye] is one who is not happy with his lot and places his eye on his fellow who is wealthier than he, [thinking] when will I be as wealthy as the great wealth of this man? And this causes evil to himself and to his fellow. – Rabbi Yonah, Commentary on Pirkei Avot 2:11

We can see that while it is possible to deal with “the evil eye” only as folklore or superstition, in the wiser parts of Jewish tradition we also take a practical lesson from it, that envy and jealousy can poison people and communities. Bragging can attract it by encouraging envy in others (what other purpose is there to bragging, other than to stir up envy in others?)

So while we may adopt the custom of saying “Kenahora, pu pu pu” the wise Jew will say it not to ward off evil spirits, but as a self-reminder that bragging is unkind and may backfire, and envy hurts the envious more than anyone else!



Chanukah Greetings!

Image: A chanukiah with five candles lit. Photo: Public Domain, altered by Ruth Adar.

You have a Jewish friend, and you want to say something nice. You want it to be right. But what do you say?

Happy Chanukah in Hebrew: Chanukah Sameach!  (kha-noo-kah sah-MAY-akh)

Happy Chanukah in Yiddish: A Fraylichen Chanukah! (ah FRAY-leekh-en KHA-noo-kah)

And if someone says one of those to you? Say it right back!


Image: A row of candles, aflame. Photo by Gil-Dekel/Pixabay.

What’s with all the crazy spelling?

Why isn’t there one right way to spell the name of that holiday that usually falls in December?

Here’s the problem: the right way to spell it is


That’s right. It’s a Hebrew word.

All the spellings you see are attempts to make the word easier for English speakers, and some of those sounds are tricky. The first letter (on the far right) makes a sound a bit like a cat spitting. I like to transliterate it as “Kh” because no one is tempted to pronounce that like the CH in “choo-choo.” However, I’ve never seen the holiday spelled Khanukah, so I don’t spell it that way either.

The rest of it is pretty straightforward, except that the one that looks like a backwards “C” has a hard K sound. For a Hebrew grammarian, that means the letter is invisibly doubled. That’s why some transliterations have one K, and some have KK.

The bottom line is that none of the English transliterations are really correct, nor can they be, because Hebrew and English are quite different. So we are stuck with approximations like Chanukah and Hanukkah.

The real answer, of course, is to learn a little Hebrew.  Then you can skip the transliterations and go straight to the source!