Learning to read the Siddur in Hebrew

Learning to read the Siddur in Hebrew

A few important things to know first:

  1. Biblical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew are not the same. Often the Biblical Hebrew uses future tense while modern Hebrew uses past tense. The Hebrew letters are not pronounced different between the two though. Modern Hebrew is a mish mash of additional words from all over the world, which Biblical Hebrew does not have. So to be clear, when reading the Siddur, all sounds are pronounced the way they are in modern Hebrew.
  2. Practice, practice, practice. If you want to be able to read Hebrew faster and better, you must practice often. It is best to practice every day. Try to stay with one “prayer” like the very short Modah Ani until you can recite it without stumbling. Once you can do this, move to the next one like the blessing of washing the hands. And so on. Soak yourself in the language, it is how you will learn and remember it. The key word here being soak, not drown.
  3. All kinds of different dialects and pronunciation exists within Hebrew. Some of these are: Yemenite, Samaritan, Sephardi, Ashkenazi and others. There are also different pronunciations within each of these communities. English is kind of a lazy language and we often carry this over when learning a foreign language. The result is the Hebrew becomes an Americanized version rather than a more natural native sound. For someone who wants to be able to read and understand the Siddur in Hebrew, this might not matter much. You can decide for yourself if this is important to you. But just to show the difference: Here is a series of great videos for learning how to pronounce certain Israeli Hebrew letters/sounds that are often challenging for native English speakers. This is meant for conversation Hebrew, not Hebrew reading from a Siddur. But, if you can master these sounds, it will help your Hebrew sound more natural rather than forced.
  4. Do not rely on transliteration to help you practice Hebrew, even in the beginning. If you want to be able to read Hebrew, practice it with the Hebrew letters, not the transliteration. It is very easy to get stuck on transliteration and then not be able to read Hebrew without it.
  5. Once you can do fairly well with reading Hebrew, you can use an Interlinear translation to help you remember the meaning of the words and expand your vocabulary. But it can become overwhelming if you try to do all of this in the beginning. So learn to read first, then expand your vocabulary little by little as you go along.
  6. As you become more fluently with reading Hebrew, begin moving away from those Siddurim (prayer books) which contain an English translation on the opposite facing page. For example, you might begin with an English/Hebrew Siddur, then move to an Interlinear one so you can expand your vocabulary, then finally move to a Hebrew only Siddur.
  7. If you want to become good at reading Hebrew, at some point, you are going to have to spend some money. Whether it is buying CD’s, guidebooks, or getting a personal teacher. It is a very slow process using only “free” methods. You can learn a lot by all that free material on the internet and it can really take you a long way but at some point, you are going to need a teacher to further help you. Your determination and level of active involvement will not only determine your seriousness about learning the language but it will also determine how long you will need to pay for a teacher. For those like me who live outside the camp without a Jewish community, you can find a teacher through onlinejewishlearning.com. These teachers are not only for learning Hebrew but also for preparing for bar/bar mitzvah (even for adults). The lessons are through Skype and I recommend them to anyone who wants to become more fluent in Hebrew or anything else you want to learn regarding Judaism. The great thing about learning with them (or having a personal tutor in general) is that they can meet you where you are on your current level and move forward from there.
  8. Once you learn to read and understand the Siddur, reading Tanach will be much easier since much of the Siddur is taken straight from the Tanach. Beyond this, many of the same words are repeated over and over in different ways so you will see the same words in both the Siddur and Tanach.

Some things I learned from personal experience, while learning to read Hebrew as an adult:

  1. The Hebrew aleph bet: I associated specific letters with specific things I understood. For example, the letter “tet” reminded me of a temple door, one “tet” had a door knob while the other “tet” did not. Gimel looks like a camel. “Dalet”: if the top left and bottom right are connected, then extend a line up from the top right, it makes a “d”. “Someck” reminded me of the sun. “Hey” can become an “h” just by adding one line from the top left, straight up. I continued on and on with all the aleph bet. You can use your own association to each letter but the point is to associate them with things that are familiar to you. By doing this, you will not only learn them quickly but you are more likely to remember them. I did not make any associations with the “vowels” but it didn’t take me long to memorize the sounds.
  2. Practice sound combinations before learning whole words. For a time, I used kid Hebrew practice books by sounding out letter and vowel combinations: “bah, beh, beet, bay, bah-bah, bah-beh”, etc. Some of this material is free on various websites as well. This helped me in the very beginning and I quickly moved from them to pronouncing words.
  3. Practice saying words. I sounded out one word at a time over and over in my head until I thought I had it right and THEN said the word out loud. In the very beginning though, I took a different and unsuccessful approach. I tried to practice saying the word out loud without saying it in my head first and this actually held me at a stage of con-tin-u-ous-ly speak-ing eve-ry sin-gle He-brew syl-la-ble sep-er-ate-ly. You should try to avoid this pitfall as much as possible.
  4. Know your learning style. Many tests abound online for free and most of them can at least, point you in the right direction. Once I discovered I am an auditory learner (with visual coming in a close second), I used this to my advantage by listening to prayers/blessings from the Siddur at every opportunity, even if I couldn’t follow along by having the text in front of me, e.g. while driving.
  5. Try not to switch between different styles of Hebrew text. The block letters can be different depending on which program is used to make the letters. I did not use the on-screen text that often accompanies the audio Hebrew for practicing the prayers/blessings or the transliteration for Hebrew songs on You Tube.
  6. Use the same siddur. I use an actual paper siddur. Find a siddurim you like and stick with that one. Do not use different ones as different siddur have different texts depending on community. For example, a siddur from a Reform community is VERY different from an Orthodox (Artscroll) community. Find a REAL paper one you like and become familiar with it. Once you do, it will become meaningful to you and a part of you.
  7. Know what prayers/blessings to say according to gender. Regardless of your opinion concerning equality for women, the fact still remains that men and women are not the same…not biologically, not psychologically, and not when it comes to halacha (Jewish law). As a woman, I say “baruch Hashem” that not only am I different from a man but I do not have the same requirements as them. So if you are female and worried you might accidently say a “male blessing” in Hebrew, get the women’s siddur from Artscroll. As a woman I should not say “Blessed are you Hashem…for not making me a woman” (which is omitted from the women’s siddur) but rather “Blessed are you Hashem…for making me according to Your will” (which is included in the women’s siddur). Also, as a woman I believe I am exempt (possibly even forbidden) from wearing tallit and tefillin…although some women believe they have the right to do so…you will not find these blessings in a women’s siddur. So, if you happen to be a woman who likes to wear these things, pick a different siddur.
  8. Know that women are not obligated to pray in the same way or as often as men. Women may have other, more important obligations like taking care of her home, tending to children, etc. The Artscroll Women’s Siddur gives some very important guidelines specifically for women at the front of the book regarding prayer. You will be doing yourself a favor by learning those guidelines.
  9. If you already recite sections from the Siddur in English and want to learn to recite it in Hebrew use this example: If you currently recite the Amidah in English every day but want to learn to recite it in Hebrew, recite the first few words or one sentence in Hebrew, then recite the rest of the Amidah in English. Do this every day, adding more Hebrew words at a time until you can recite the entire Amidah fluently in Hebrew. DO NOT try to recite the entire Amidah in Hebrew in the beginning. If you do, you might be standing in one place for a couple of hours or longer and you are more likely to become frustrated with recitation. Not to mention, before you reach the end, you will be so thirsty that you won’t be able to even focus on what you are doing.
  10. Use audio so you can listen to how the words are supposed to be pronounced. I purchased Tefilla Trax from toolsfortorah.com which contains, among other things, the entire Amidah on the CD. Tefilla Trax is also free on Chabad’s website. Tools for Torah also publishes a book to go along with it titled “My Siddur”. This is a wonderful guide as it gives indications as to which prayers or blessings you should recite while standing and which one you can recite while sitting. At the bottom of the pages, it also has the meaning of a few Hebrew words within that text.
  11. There is also an abundance of Hebrew blessings in audio on YouTube that will help you to pronounce the Hebrew correctly. This also helped me to know when to pause and what words to say together so that my reading did not sound like I was reading a vocabulary list of random words. So listening to Hebrew songs, chants, etc. for the siddur or tehillim over and over will help a great deal with knowing how to actually combine words and will sound more like you are reading a sentence rather than reciting a list of words.
  12. Reciting Tehillim. The Siddur contains a lot of Tehillim (Psalms) and most siddurim contain all of Tehillim in the back. So I use Artscroll’s pocket size Schottenstein Interlinear translation all the time. The Hebrew letters are bigger so I can easily read it in Hebrew and it is the perfect size for me to carry around with me to read at any available opportunity. As I mentioned before, Artscroll’s books are well made, so even the paperback version has the pages sewn together unlike many paperback books on the market today. Plus, I like paperback because they are more flexible and since it is from Artscroll, I don’t have to worry about the pages falling out. Erez Yehiel has several audio Tehillim put to music. You can find those on You Tube. I like this version of Tehillim 121 as well as this version. And yet another by Ben Snof.
  13. Other ways to expand vocabulary. I learned to expand my Hebrew vocabulary by listening to the weekly Torah study videos and/or audios (in English) from Chabad. Even though these lessons are in English, they constantly use Hebrew terms in their studies, followed by the English equivalent.

So once you have put all this together, there is one other thing that many Jews, especially those who convert to Reform don’t know anything about…unless Chabad.org has been their lifeline, in which the behavior is can be seen throughout many of their video lessons…even while the teacher or Rabbi in the video is sitting.

  1. To shuckle or not to shuckle. Shuckling comes from the Yiddish word meaning “to shake”. It is a form of ritual swaying that is sometimes used during prayers. Those from Chabad seem to do it at other times too.  Shuckling is believed to help increase concentration. (For anyone who’s  ever been around autistic children with this repetitive behavior can see that they too rock when they are concentrating or as a form of self stimulation.) My own personal experience with this is that it does help me to concentrate better because concentration is extremely difficult for me.   Without it, I can hear all external stimuli. You can decide for yourself if you find it necessary or useful. However, I must tell you to be careful reading from a Siddur and shuckling (while standing) at the same time, especially if you are swaying from side to side, rotating your body only above the hips while keeping your feet still. If you have not done it before, it can cause you be feel a bit light-headed at first until you get used to it.

One final thing: it is worth searching for the magnificent Cantor Yossi Azulai (sometimes spelled Azulay) on You Tube.  In particular, look for his full albums T’filot Prayers I & II.  Also, remember that the Psalms (tehillim), as well as other sections of the Siddur and Tanach are arranged according to the first word or two of that section.  So, for example Psalms/Tehillim 121 is called Shir La ma’alot (please forgive my transliteration), Deuteronomy 6:5-9 is called V’ahavta (the first word of that section meaning “and you [shall] love”) in the Siddur, and so on.

Well, this is all I have for this time.  Until the next one shavua tov…have a good week.

Michaela

Resources

This is a list of resources which I find useful.

Websites for learning: From an observant perspective 

Chabad              Aish

Naaleh            Web Yeshiva

www.torah.org

Live Shabbat services and some services through the week.  Use of the internet is forbidden on Shabbat within the more observant communities so their Shabbat services are not streamed live.

Reform Shabbat services

Probably my favorite Reform service comes from Central Synagogue in NY.  I love their music.

Conservative shul live streaming

The humanistic Jewish communities that stream live Shabbat services.   The Society of Humanistic Judaism also has a large collection of learning videos from their perspective.  Videos of SHJ

Kabbalah

www.inner.org A Chasidic website.  It gives wonderful insight into the weekly Torah parashas.

Chabad and Aish have a Kabbalah section on their websites.

Supplies

www.artscroll.com                                    www.theshabbatcollection.com

Kosher foods

www.grillerspride.com  They will ship food to you, even meats…all for a price of course.

Learning Hebrew Prayers

www.toolsfortorah.com I use the Tefila Trax audio and “My Siddur” book to practice Hebrew prayers.  This and other liturgy practice tools are available for free on the Chabad website here

www.learnhebrewpod.com  It costs money but you can also download the app to your phone and listen to it in the vehicle.  It has a section for “Jewish prayers” as well as Modern Hebrew.

http://www.sidduraudio.com/index.html

Siddur audio is for following along in the Conservative Siddur Sim Shalom.

I will add more as I think of them or if others recommend them.

L’shalom,

Michaela

Bereishis-in the beginning

I grew up in a non religious home in a small, rural southern town in Alabama…population 2,000.  I became interested in religion while in high school when I was taking a comparative religion class. I studied what I could at the local public and university libraries.  At some point I became interested in Christianity and Paganism but never really made either of them a personal path.

As time went by, (primarily in the 1990’s) I became deeply interested in biblical customs and culture and I studied as much as I could about it.  I would often visit various churches but as mentioned before, I was always somewhat detached from religion in general.  I loved to hear about others beliefs but I didn’t really know what I believed. And to be completely honest, I’m pretty sure I never really searched for my own belief system.

Then in 2001, I moved to Illinois and it was there that I became interested in Judaism.  It was not the same interest I had for Christianity or Paganism.  This was different somehow, although it is unclear, to me at least, what provoked the interest.  I remember learning about Judaism on a website and something just clicked in me.  The next thing I know, I had this strange desire to go and speak to a Rabbi.  I cannot even describe the desire.  It was kind of like when one becomes so thirsty that all they can do or think of is getting that drink of water.  I felt so compelled to talk to a Rabbi that I could not focus on anything else.

When I was finally able to meet with him, I remember only two things he told me: First, he told me about an account in the Talmud (although I had no idea what that was at the time) when a non Jew wanted to convert to Judaism but only if the Rabbi would teach him the entire Torah while the perspective convert stood on one foot.  The other thing was he gave me a book about Shabbat, the High Holy Days, and other basic information and told me to attend services for a year. After which, if I was still attending services, we could discuss possible conversion at that time.

Soon after this though, I had to return to Alabama to help care for my dying grandfather.  I began attending services at a synagogue about 30 minutes away and after several visits, I began asking some members about talking to a Rabbi about possible conversion.  One lady, who was a convert herself, pointed me into the direction of a Reform Rabbi two hours away…or she said you could speak to a Rabbi from Chabad.  You would LOVE Chabad but don’t let their beards scare you.  Oh! And if you choose Chabad, you will have to move there.  Good luck!

I did not want to move for a few reasons…the main one being because of financial reasons. So I chose the Reform Rabbi, although he strongly insisted many times that I move to a Jewish community, he did not require it for conversion.  I was eventually able to take some Judaism 101 classes over the next several months and met with two separated Rabbis and a Cantor on several different occasions.  The whole process took about a year, in which I also had a personal tutor to help me read Hebrew…and I also had to attend services at a synagogue for a year, but I was already in the process of doing that.

Just before my conversion ceremony, I was required to go into the mikveh…I think I had to dip under three different times…well, actually four, because one time, I still had my hand out of the water, holding onto the side when I dipped under…

But anyway, I was nervous and excited all at once up until the ceremony was over and then it hit me…I felt as though I was at a funeral. Grieving the loss of a life that I could never get back.  I didn’t really know how to respond to it so I called a Jewish friend who was kind of like a mentor through the whole process.  She said: You should mourn because you just traded 10 commandments for 613.

Once the mourning period was over for me and I was getting used to it all, I suddenly realized what the Rabbi meant when he told me I should move to a Jewish community.  It was like I was wandering around with no sense of direction.  I had no clue as to what I was supposed to be doing or even how I was supposed to be.  I was clueless about kosher labels on food, how to kosher a kitchen, davening, etc.  Lucky for me, an observant lady who was raised Orthodox became my mentor and guide for several months until her and her husband moved to south Alabama.  I continued to attended Shabbos services at the synagogue 30 minutes away as often as the doors were open but I could not rely on them for any information or guidance as they were pretty much non observant.

Chabad became my lifeline.  Everything I learned about Judaism beyond my 101 class came from the Chabad website.  They have a complete storehouse of guides, how-tos, and classes on any subject imaginable.  Since that is where I received much of my information, especially in the early years when I was still a newbie, it shaped my thinking tremendously.  And its philosophy became my foundational belief system.

Unfortunately, the small synagogue of 30 people that was 30 minutes away from me, closed its doors for the final time in 2010.  I did attend another synagogue in another county about the same distance away but it seems to be heading toward a similar fate as the former one.  Then now open their doors about 10 times a year and fewer than 20 people attend.

So I stopped going and relied on live streaming Shabbos services from the temple where I converted.  Which sometimes causes an internal conflict…should I use or not use a computer on Shabbos for the sole purpose of participating in Shabbos services?  It is forbidden on Shabbos but at the same time, this is being used to celebrate Shabbos…that is a dilemma for another post…

…and so that it how it all began for me.  But the journey after all this?  That was an entirely different story and I would never be the same again…