Saturday, January 27, 2007

Time for Tanach

Four months ago I chose to spend my mornings in yeshivah instead of ulpan (intensive Hebrew.) I may have chosen to focus on Torah over modern Hebrew knowledge for the time being, but I decided to try to at least improve my language skills while I’m at it. The Hebrew one encounters in religious texts is quite different from that found in, say, the Israeli National Geographic. For millennia Hebrew was much like Latin, a dead language, used only for religious texts. When Theodore Herzl first dreamed of a Jewish country in his essay, “Der Judenstaadt,” the State of Jews, he envisioned the colloquial language being the language of true culture and civilization, his own native German. Meanwhile, Eliezer Ben Yehudah, a yeshivah-raised youth, and later a European intellectual infected with Zionism, made it his task in life to revive the Hebrew language as a modern, spoken tongue. Moving from Paris to Jerusalem, he upgraded verb forms, tenses, and conjegations from the Hebrew found in Tanach, the Hebrew bible including the prophets and writings chronicling Jewish history through ancient times. Later, he founded the Hebrew Language Institute to continue his work, and raised his son, Ben Tzion (son of Zion), exclusively and completely in Hebrew, producing the first native Hebrew speaker. It’s been said that, “Before Ben-Yehuda... Jews could speak Hebrew; after him they did.”

I’ve spent an hour or two before classes sitting with the yeshiva’s weekly newsletter, written in Modern Hebrew, pocket dictionary in hand, painstakingly translating articles one at a time. The first problem is that, when I struggle with a particularly long sentence, by the time I get to the end of the sentence I’ve already forgotten what the subject was. Also, a lot of the people writing these articles aren’t native Hebrew speakers, so the writing comes out a bit warped. It’s hard work.
I went up French Hill to pay cousins Amnon and Leah, a visit, and, while they corrected my halting Hebrew, I explained my problems to them.
“I just sit there, and I don’t feel like I’m learning much any more. I’m getting frustrated.””Well, what are you learning? Gemarrah? Mishnah?” Amnon asks me (Gemarrah and Mishnah are the basis of the Talmud).
“No, that’s way over my head. I don’t even have Hebrew down. Mostly just reading articles in the newsletter. I make lists of the words I didn’t know and then try to memorize them. It’s great for learning sentence forms and encountering new vocabulary, but the material is getting pretty boring.
“Your Hebrew is really improving.””I’m not so sure.”
“Then you should start out with the Tanach.”
That wasn’t what I was expecting.
“But I thought that Tanach was old Hebrew, and Modern Hebrew was completely different.”
“No, no, no. The Tanach is the basis of modern Hebrew. All of the prepositions [that come after verbs] of modern Hebrew were based on the Tanach. All of the three-letter roots that make up modern Hebrew are Tanachic.”

It’s starting to sound less and less archaic. I open a copy of the Tanach, and I can almost read it through, except for getting snagged on a few words. Then I remember that Shmuel and Zehava, friends who live across the street from Amnon and Leah, gave me a set of Tanach with a glossary at the bottom of each page providing modern Hebrew translations of confusing the archaic Hebrew words. And I start to understand what’s happening:

Sisera (the defeated Philistine general) fled (the battle) on foot toward the tent of Jael, wife of Heber the Kenite, for King Jabin had a peace treaty with the house of Heber the Kenite.
Jael came out to meet Sisera and said, "Come, my lord, and rest here. Do not be afraid."
He said to her, "Please give me some water to drink." And Jael gave him some milk.
Sisera said, 'Stand at the tent door. If anyone comes and asks you, "Is there a man here?", say "No."'
Yael, wife of Chever took a tent peg, placed a hammer in her hand, came to him stealthily, and drove the peg into his temple, and it went through into the ground, while he was sleeping deeply and exhausted, and he died.
Barak (the Jewish general) was pursuing Sisera, and Yael went out toward him and told him, “Come and I will show you the man whom you seek!”
He came to her and behold, Sisera was dead, with the peg in his temple.”

Hey, this is great stuff! Or course, without the commentary, there is no way to truly understand the significance of this paragraph, but I can at least absorb the pshat, the simple understanding.

I remember when I first started becoming religiously involved, I was constantly hearing lessons and derivations of Halachah (Jewish religious law) which drew on the Chumash (the five books of Moses.) I would hear something about Joseph in prison, or Jacob working for Laban, but I didn’t know enough to connect the dots. So I read the Chumash straight through, with no commentaries or explanations, just to get the pshat and connect the dots. Later, I began learning in more depth, which I continue to do to this day.

And now I’ll do the same with the Tanach. I often hear of King David, or the battle of Ai, or Ezekiel the prophet, but I don’t know how they fit together, or anything about who they really were, their families, or the world they lived in. So I’m going through he pshat, first in English on the bus ride downtown, then in Hebrew at the comfort of my table at the Yeshivah, to try to put the pieces together. Given that all of the places these events occurred are within a one hour drive from where I’m sitting, it’s as good a time as any to get started.

1 comment:

Yaakov Ellis said...

If you are interested in learning some Tanach, join us at Tanach Yomi (new site that we just launched to help and encourage Tanach learning via summaries, divrei torah and more)