Learning Hebrew helps some deepen their faith

COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — Learning a new language is rarely easy for adults, but this class is going to be a doozy.

Class participants aren’t there to just pick up a few key phrases to ask where the bathroom is or order food in a foreign country. They have to start at the beginning, with a new alphabet written in strange characters. They have to learn to make sounds that don’t come naturally to English speakers.

But the 28 people enrolled in a seven-week beginners’ Hebrew class are motivated to learn an ancient language that continues to have relevance in modern times.

Some of the class members — including several Christians — are taking the class to deepen their faith as they learn the language of the Torah, the holy scroll of the Jewish faith that’s made up of the first five books of the Old Testament.

Some have enrolled so they can more fully experience Jewish Sabbath services, which are partly conducted in Hebrew.

“It makes me feel connected to the Jewish people,” Miriam Gray, a 30-year-old member of Temple Shalom in Colorado Springs, Colo., said during a class break.

A Semitic language, Hebrew is believed to have developed about 3,500 years ago.

It differs from the Germanic languages, which include English, in that it is read right to left, originally had no vowels (although they were added about 1,500 years ago), and uses 22 letters. Hebrew also has a shorter, simpler sentence structure.

As with all languages, Hebrew and English have evolved over time. This presents a challenge to new Hebrew readers.

“Just like how the English of Shakespeare is not the English of Hemingway, the Hebrew of Genesis is considerably different from the Hebrew of Deuteronomy,” said Rabbi Don Levy of Temple Beit Torah, who is teaching the class.

Students will discover subtle differences between English translations of the Old Testament and the original Hebrew.

“Look, it is not going to lead anybody terribly astray, but it is not an accurate translation,” Levy said. “But there are differences. When you translate, you by necessity interpret.”

While it’s the rare Christian who can read the New Testament in its original Greek, of the 18 million Jews worldwide, most can read some Hebrew, Levy said.

“In Jewish life, we have always prized our ability to read our literature in its source language,” he said.

Levy’s goals for the course are modest. Students will learn some of the Hebrew alphabet, and be able to sound out and start recognizing words and know what they mean.

But they won’t be able to read the Torah with any comprehension or engage in a conversation in Hebrew, which is why Levy plans an intermediate Hebrew class series in spring.

One the most challenging aspects of Hebrew is learning to sound out the guttural letters not part of the English aural experience, like a hard “ch” sound, which mimics someone clearing his throat.

“Is the English mouth not made to make those sounds? Could be,” said Thero, who plans to take the intermediate Hebrew class.

When novices struggle over the letters, or any other in a foreign tongue, it is sometimes called “breaking a tooth.”

Levy said the expression took on literal meaning when he was teaching a Hebrew class a few years ago at Temple Shalom.

A middle-aged man was putting great effort into sounding out letters when suddenly his face froze and he grabbed his cheeks.

“He was trying so hard to make the sound that he actually broke a tooth,” said Levy, laughing.