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.