Home > education > The Role of Transliteration in the Synagogue

The Role of Transliteration in the Synagogue

Hebrew TransliterationCongregations across America are struggling with the issue of transliterated prayerbooks, and of transliteration in general.

On one hand, many people feel that if transliteration is available, worshipers will have little or even no incentive to learn Hebrew.

On the other hand, if transliteration is not available, there’s a concern that people may (rightly) feel left out of worship and other activities.

“If it seems that transliteration makes people not want to learn Hebrew, the transliteration is exposing a flaw, not creating one.”

The dilemma is highlighted in services designed for children, because frequently those services are part of a Hebrew instruction program. If the transliteration is available — some think — it will undermine the Hebrew school.

In response, even congregations that use a prayerbook with transliteration often produce a special non-transliterated one for use in the school.

But I don’t think that hiding the transliteration is the solution.

Once people know that transliteration is available — anywhere, whether in their prayerbook, another prayerbook, or at another congregation — the cat is out of the bag. They know that you don’t need to learn the Hebrew alphabet in order to pray.

And I would go one step further: even if you do know the Hebrew alphabet, it’s all but impossible to know it well enough to keep up with prayers unless you’ve practiced them; and once you have practiced them enough, again you don’t need to know the alphabet.

So even without transliteration, it’s hard to make the claim that Hebrew is required for praying.

Furthermore, not all that many people love services enough that the goal of full participation will be enough to prod them to learn Hebrew. Faced with the option of learning Hebrew and praying versus not learning Hebrew and not praying, many people will choose what they see as the win-win solution of not studying and not going to services.

I think that similar concerns apply to bar/bat-mitzvah training. Children all know that they can (and often do) learn their Torah and Haftarah portions from a recording, so they know that they don’t need to learn that alphabet to become bar/bat mitzvah. They also know that even if they learn the alphbet, they still have to memorize their Torah portion, because there are no vowels in the Torah.

It seems to me that all of these observations point in the same direction: the purpose of learning Hebrew has to be more than the facilitation of certain activities. If the only reason to learn Hebrew is to pray, or to have a bar/bat mitzvah, or to chant Torah, I think that most people will either (a) find an easier way to achieve those goals; or (b) give up on them.

In short, if it seems that transliteration makes people not want to learn Hebrew, the transliteration is exposing a flaw, not creating one.

Why, then, should people learn Hebrew? And why do we insist that children learn it before bar/bat mitzvah?

The answer used to easy, because learning Hebrew was the same as becoming literate. Now, literacy in connected to (in North America) English; and purely in terms of practical literacy, I would put Spanish, Chinese, and Arabic ahead of Hebrew.

Though answers are harder to come by now, they are, if anything, more important. It seems to me that every educator, teacher, and lay-leader should have a clear answer to why Hebrew is important.

Here are some reasons I can think of:

  • Hebrew is part of our heritage, and learning it helps this generation form a connection to its past.

  • Hebrew is part of the eternality of the Jewish people, and this generation has an obligation not to break the chain. A time will come when the world will no longer speak English as a lingua franca, just as Greek and Latin have all but disappeared from daily life, and German and French are waning. But Hebrew, which predated those languages, is still around, and learning it is part of long-term literacy.

  • Hebrew forms a connection with Israel, and can be a stepping stone to a greater sense of belonging to the Jewish people.

  • Hebrew is fun, particularly for children. Children like puzzles, and decoding Hebrew is a marvelous puzzle. (If Hebrew isn’t fun in your school — if the joy of decoding a puzzle and learning something new have been masked — I think that problem needs addressing right away.)

  • Study for its own sake is part of our heritage. Even if Hebrew had no other purpose at all, it would still be valuable simply because learning is valuable.

So I’m all for transliteration. It has an important role to play in creating inclusive environments.

And I’m also all for teaching more Hebrew, because it’s part of who we are.

Categories: education
  1. jkgayle
    December 9, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    amen, אָמֵן

  2. rabbiadar
    December 10, 2009 at 9:21 am

    I’d go one step further: for some adults, transliteration can be a bridge to real Hebrew study. For those who didn’t get any Hebrew instruction as children, the aleph-bet can be a tremendous hurdle. Depending on the individual, it may sometimes help to learn the prayer THEN learn to follow it in Hebrew. I can hear the chorus of “Heresy!” but for some adults, transliteration provides the courage to keep working at the real thing.

    As you rightly point out, sooner or later people figure out that you don’t need to be able to decode the Hebrew to learn prayers or even a Torah portion: just get a recording and memorize. But if you follow those folks for a few years, many of them discover in Torah study that decoding is only that: decoding. It isn’t “real Hebrew” either. Being able to pronounce the words is a nice beginning, but it won’t enrich Torah study by much. However, learning what a shoresh is and how it works can open up an old familiar portion in a whole new way.

    Last night, as part of a discussion of the verb l’hiyot I explained to my adult students why it is that “Eternal” is my preferred way to translate the name of God. We talked about the verb “to be” and how that fits the Name, then suddenly one student sat bolt upright, and almost shouted, “OH!” then in a softer voice, “THIS is why I want to learn Hebrew. I want to UNDERSTAND.”

  3. Jay R
    October 2, 2011 at 1:59 pm

    I am a recent convert to Judaism, which makes the topic of translitteration very close to home to me. I have learned enough modern Hebrew to be able to carry on a limited conversation (on a good day!), and am able to read all the prayers in my siddur — no problem — but not anywhere as fast as the other congregants with more experience. I am not able to keep up with the others on a Saturday morning.

    What works best for me has been to create and use inserts with the translitterated texts (and also recordings of various prayers) so that I have almost memorized many prayers, and with time I am able to throw away the inserts. My goal is to be able to use the siddur in hebrew without a crutch, and I am making decent progress so far. So much for the keva.

    Helping a lot with both the Hebrew and with kavanah has been a website called http://www.kakatuv.com. There the author offers interlinear texts Hebrew/translitteration/literal English translations of each word. I can use both the literal translations (with grammar and usage notes) and the translations in my siddur in my quest to understand the big picture.

    Have also just discovered buildaprayer.org, where you can make and print your own siddur with or without translitteration.

    Keep up the good work, Dr. Hoffman. I have started to follow your CSS feed, and to watch your youtube stuff. Very interesting stuff. I come from a languages/linguistics background myself, but not Semitic languages.

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