Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Ivrit b'Ivrit (Hebrew immersion) for teaching Talmud

From time to time, I hear parents and teachers debating the value of teaching elementary school and high school students their Judaic studies in an Ivrit b'Ivrit program - meaning, Hebrew immersion.

The argument I generally hear in favor is that language immersion is a great way to learn the language, and the material being taught is meant to be learned in Hebrew.

The argument I generally hear against is that language acquisition skills vary from child to child, and that a normal-sized class cannot be kept to a pace that will work well for all of them. This results, potentially, in poor learning of both the language and the Judaic studies material.

I am not a classroom educator, and so I have no opinion on the general subject. However, the other day I was asked to comment on teaching Talmud with Hebrew immersion, and I must admit that I'm not sure why this is even a question. Gemara is hard, and certainly for elementary and high school students. Why make things still harder, by using it as an opportunity to teach Hebrew as well? Won't they just learn both subjects poorly?

Or, as I once heard a school president ask, "Would you teach kids Calculus in Greek?"

Of course, the answer is to make aliyah, so that Hebrew won't be foreign, and then Ivrit b'Ivrit will be just fine for our kids...


  1. You mentioned Aliya as a solution, well you should be pleased to note that kids from Toronto families who make Aliya after at least a few years in the Ivrit B'Ivrit program in Netivot (until grade 4 or 5) are among the few kids that can integrate straight into an Israeli classroom without that going to Ulpan.

  2. I know Gemara is hard and takes complete immersion. I understand that the only reason I got anywhere in it was that for a period of some years, Gemara is all I did. Yet recently I started noticed things about grammar. In a lot of books from the past there are a lot of mistakes with grammar. Now I am not referring to cases when Tosphot and the Rambam use Mishnaic Hebrew. That is OK. What is bothering me is actually straight forward mistakes not based on Mishna or Tenach but simply wrong. Chasidic books are filled with this from almost the first word until the last. But they are not the only ones.

    So I would say some type of basic Hebrew classes would be in order

    1. You may notice that on a large scale, Sefardi hachamim write in better Ivrit than Ashkenazi hachamim do. It is my impression that Sefardi and Mizrahi hachamim through the generations promoted Hebrew language qua language (grammer, poetry, rhetoric) much more than Ashkenazi sages did.

  3. Shalom RosenfeldMay 29, 2013 at 7:36 AM

    ולילפיה בלישנא דארמאה ?!

  4. One of the reasons learning doesn't create a moral change in diaspora people today is because it's taught as a foreign subject. I know folks who have done the whole Daf Yomi over more than once and barely know basic Hebrew and Aramaic phrases. Did they learn the Gemara? Sure. Did they learn THE Gemara? Did they understand its subtle nuances, its choice of synonyms, its poetic nature? No.
    When I learned through the Kehati mishnayos I started in the English because I figured that it would be easier to get a comprehensive understanding of the Mishnah. About 1/3 of the way through I switched to the Hebrew out of a sense that something was missing. Yes, it was slow at first considering how often I had to flip through my dictionary but eventually it began to flow and I wouldn't trade that for anything.

  5. R' Michael-

    Hebrew classes are certainly a must and a mitzvah. But attempting to teach both Hebrew and Gemara at the same instant, to students who know neither, seems counterproductive.

    See my note to Adam.

    All true - but that's not what immersion does. Immersion doesn't teach the Hebrew and Aramaic of the gemara any better, it only means that when the teacher says something about the gemara, the teacher uses Hebrew words to say it. And the student, instead of saying "I don't understand," says אני לא מבין.

  6. I meant Hebrew classes are for high school. Once a person has gotten to the beit midrash I agree that four year of Gemara alone are a must for everyone.

  7. Rabbi -- with respect -- this is a very superficial discussion.

    1. For students who can cope with it -- and after years in a good day school system (but not in a bad day school system) -- learning Jewish Studies in Ivrit is an incomparable advantage in quality and quantity. This is a no-brainer, IMHO. A student who speaks and has a command of Ivrit will read any text with a far, far greater understanding of linguistic nuance than someone who relies on constant translation (and what is the level of understanding of the translator???).

    2. No school should be 'teaching Ivrit' through teaching Gemara. You teach Gemara in Ivrit. Period. In the best schools (a Toronto example comes to mind), it is a no-brainer. One of the best shlichim we had in Toronto told a visiting Ram from a Yeshivat Hesder that he taught in exactly the same way in Grade 11/12 in Toronto as he did in his classes in Israel.

    3. If the kids (or any student) cannot understand the Ivrit - they should be in another class.

    4. There are definitely some classes - philosophy, history - where the vocabulary and concepts, not rooted in Hebrew, are usually way beyond the student Ivrit vocabulary to permit free discussion, and these are not normally taught in Ivrit.

    5. The analogy (Calculus/Greek) is silly. If I was teaching Shakespeare in an Athens High school, I would think that the students' comprehension and appreciation would be infinitely better if the entire class was in English -- even if the students asked the ocasional question in Greek.

    6. Mastery of Ivrit is also an irreplaceable key to a whole world of Jewish scholarship. As one of the commentators pointed out, there are many who study Daf Yomi (I saw it in the B***) who never even look at the Aramaic side of the Artscroll Talmud.

    1. Paul-
      1. You make my point, with your 3rd item. I am talking about doing this as the whole-class system, irrespective of the students' different levels.

      2. Re: Your #5 - But you are assuming that the students' level is that of Hebrew speakers, and that is precisely the problem, for I have observed that it is not.

    2. #1 Clearly
      #2 Well, it varies from school to school. A student who has had teaching in Ivrit for several years should have an ability to understand Ivrit at an advanced level by the time the student is 15-16. (Their speaking ability will be below that level; but they can easily understand quite advanced Ivrit conversation). We may be talking about two different schools.......

  8. As a follow-up: in some Orthodox schools there is a bias against teaching Hebrew grammar, which is regarded as tainted with Zionism or Haskalah. (I am being serious). I have frequently interviewed 15-16 year olds from Charedi schools who have no idea whatever of masculine/feminine, singular/plural, or how to identify a shoresh in Hebrew - let alone anything else! And, btw - many of them could not read Hebrew properly, either. So how can they understand ANY Hebrew text?

    1. But common. The level of simple Hebrew reading among baale battim is also shockingly low.

  9. As a product of some very different schools, I thought about the differences between how gemara was taught in Europe, how the typical yevishish day school attempts to reproduce it, and how the typical Mod-O school teaches gemara. And I think there is something to be said for the old way of doing things. And perhaps there is value to the rote repetition of gemara that we tend to consider an antiquated and less efficient way to learn.

    As we work our way through childhood, our ability at logical reasoning improves. However, our skills at picking up language decline. Maybe it makes sense to start with just trying to get used to the language, the feel of its phrasing, the meaning of its words, when beginning. Leave worrying about following the more complex arguments for later in the students' development.

    Maybe spending time in Jr High years preparing flowcharts and tables to help the talmidim comprehend is a waste of time better spent teaching language while those skills are still stronger than they will be.

    And maybe not. I'm neither an educator nor a developmental psychologist. I'm just throwing out a speculation.

  10. I hope our schools are not sending out graduates fluent in no language that they use.

  11. Why not? Canada had a prime minister in the 90's who wasn't fluent in either language we use and he was pretty successful.

  12. Garnel,

    So he worked around his problem area. Should we set out to create problem areas from the start?

  13. Micha-
    All possible - all worthy of consideration by those who are the specialists. I know I have heard specialists make those arguments.

  14. Mixed feelings here about Gemara. On one hand, every step away from the Hebrew is a step where biases in translation cannot help BUT find their way in. On the other, trying to learn Gemara AND Hebrew at the same time seems a fool's errand. On one hand, Knowing Hebrew opens so many doors in Jewish study, on the other........I'm pretty sure HaShem is fluent in English.

    Garnel - good to see you here (rebitzman).

  15. I think what we're missing is that any language is a living entity, one that interacts with its speakers and evolves through their using it. Mishnaic Hebrew is very different in some ways from Biblical Hebrew and Modern Hebrew from Mishnaic Hebrew. Proper immersion is not about knowing the language but getting to know the language. Once this is accomplished there is an appreciate for the text you can't get from simply reading it and translating it in your head.

  16. And Aramaic isn't Hebrew!

  17. For a lot of kids, especially nowadays, having to read a Hebrew word, breaking down the shoresh (that you have to memorize the translations), then figuring out the prefix and the suffix, then putting it all together using rules you need to memorize, then holding it in your head whilst doing the next word, and the next, and the next, until you have a whole sentence and then putting it all together in your head to know what it is taking about IS HARD.

    Whereas, if it made sense, if the language flowed, does it not seem natural that kids would enjoy it more, be able to read it better, debate it better, etc..

    Why can't we stop trying to "teach" Hebrew and instead, we "speak" it.

    For a huge majority of children, language makes sense "in context", trying to teach a child a foreign language by giving them the "rules" and making them memorize translations, is really hard.

    Granted, trying to start speaking to them Hebrew on their first day of gemara class is not a good idea, but do you not see the potential gains of kids coming out of 1st or 2nd grade and not having to think about what they are reading, rather what they are learning?

  18. Anonymous 10:38 PM-
    It's a good question, but I should note that this is the format for the popular forms of "ivrit b'ivrit" education already, and its success varies widely.

  19. As a Rebbe who taught, or was supposed to teach, Gemara in Ivrit b'Ivrit, I strongly agree with the idea that learning Gemara is difficult enough and the Ivrit just makes more difficult. This was true even for my students who were advanced in Ivrit and were able to do all their other Judaic studies in Ivrit easily. The need to expand their cognitive abilities, be able to think critically and understand the Aramic expressions of the Gemara was diminished when the language spoken was exclusively Ivrit. Once I changed and began to incorporate more English and everyday expressions, my students were able to grasp the concepts and ideas presented more quickly and focus their energy on truly learning the Gemara, rather than understanding the language and then the Gemara.