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.



The B’not Mitzvah of Vegas

B'not Mitzvah
B’not Mitzvah Class with Cantor Jessica Nicole Hutchings and Rabbi Sanford Akselrad (photo courtesy of Julie Barto Fisher)

Wanted to have a bat mitzvah but the family said no? Were you a Catholic when you were 13? Or was your bar mitzvah traumatic and you wish you could have a do-over?

Or would you just like to expand your Jewish horizons and capabilities?

This past Shabbat I had the pleasure of attending an Adult B’not Mitzvah (that’s Daughters of the Commandment, plural) at Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV, next door to Las Vegas. I was the Visiting Assistant Rabbi there from 2008-2011, and it will always be close to my heart. Word arrived that a class of seven women would celebrate the keystone of their Adult Bat Mitzvah studies on December 12. I immediately wrote to Rabbi Sanford Akselrad asking if I could attend (professional courtesy) and he wrote back inviting me to be the guest preacher for services the evening before. I had a lovely, lovely Shabbat, touching base with old friends.

I’ve written before that it’s not too late to experience most aspects of Jewish growing-up. Many adults didn’t have a formal bar or bat mitzvah for various reasons. In truth, anyone officially Jewish and over the age of 13 is a bar or bat mitzvah. Long ago, this rite of passage from childhood to responsibility for the commandments began to be marked, for boys, by a reading from the Torah or Haftarah and a service, followed by a celebration. In March 1922, Judith Kaplan led the first American Bat Mitzvah service. However, even as late as the 1960’s they were fairly unusual, so many adult Jewish women haven’t had that opportunity. And of course, anyone who was Catholic or Buddhist at age 13 didn’t celebrate a Jewish milestone at that age.

An “Adult Bar/Bat Mitzvah” is not a party, nor is it a service. It’s really a process of study, learning some Hebrew, learning about Judaism, and becoming more knowledgeable and capable as a Jewish adult, culminating in a synagogue service. For adults who go through the process, it generally takes two years of work. I knew several of the women who celebrated this past weekend, and I was impressed at how much they have grown in their Jewish capabilities over this process. They inspire me to keep on with my studies, to continue to grow as a Jew, because we are never done learning.

If you have a hankering to read from the Torah, to lead a service, or just to learn a lot of great Jewish learning, talk with your rabbi about an adult bar or bat mitzvah. As Hillel asked us so long ago, If not now, when? (Avot 1.14)

Julie Arnold chants the final verses of Genesis 40.
Julie Arnold chants the final verses of Genesis 40.

A grammatical note: Bar Mitzvah is “son of the commandment.” Bat Mitzvah is “daughter of…” B’nei Mitzvah are “sons of…” or “children of…” and B’not Mitvah is “daughters of …” Learning a little Hebrew is always a good thing.