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    Prayers & good grammar – Ekev

    The Chafetz Chayyim

    Educational talk usually centres on curriculum development. In Jewish schools two types of curriculum are necessary – for Jewish studies and for so-called secular subjects.

    Concerning the Jewish studies, there is a curriculum principle already formulated in the Torah (Deut. 11:19) – “Teach your children to speak them (the words of God)”. Not just to speak about them, but to articulate the actual words. This means knowledge of Hebrew and knowledge of the texts. Without these, a Jewish educational experience becomes rather bland and parevdik.

    A supporter of the Haskalah (“Enlightenment”) movement is said to have had a discussion with the Chafetz Chayyim about the methods of the traditional Cheder in relation to the teaching of the texts.

    “The Cheder teaches plenty of Torah,” the Chafetz Chayyim was told, “but the Hebrew is taught ungrammatically and the students don’t learn to read the text correctly.” The challenger even quoted a Talmudic passage in praise of the person who “reads the Shema and is particular about the Hebrew pronunciation” (Ber. 15a).

    The Chafetz Chayyim replied, “In fact the law is that if you say the Shema without pronouncing the words grammatically you have still carried out your obligation, but if all you have is grammar without prayer, you have achieved nothing.”

    The Chafetz Chayyim’s answer was fine at that period of time, but in fact the best thing is still to ensure that people both pray and use correct grammar.

    It is said that some of Bialik’s Hebrew poetry can only be read successfully if pronounced in the somewhat ungrammatical fashion of his eastern European Cheder, but that does not mean that Bialik was right.

    Nor is it necessarily the best option to have a chazan who distorts the Hebrew words for the sake of the music – a pertinent point for congregations concerned for the quality of their High Holyday services.

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