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I didn't have the opportunity growing up to learn Hebrew. My goal is to be able to sight-read the Hebrew in Torah. I have taken several classes in grammer and syntax, and my vocab is moderate. What is the best way to take what I've learned and actually learn to sight-read? Any approach will involve much practice and devotion, obviously. That said, what is the best approach?

I'm also interested to know how many out there can actually do this. Setting aside the learning one does specific to their bar mitzvah portion, how does one become a successful today reader?

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Welcome to Mi Yodeya. When you say "sight-read", do you mean reading the unpointed text with comprehension, or something else? (And are you including trope as part of this? That is, when you say "read torah" do you mean leining, or do you mean sitting down with the text and understanding it but not doing a public reading?) – Monica Cellio Jan 19 '14 at 2:54
By sight-read I mean reading the Torah in personal reading with pointed text and being able to understand. Not for congregational canting. – noobie1 Jan 19 '14 at 3:23

4 Answers 4

Reading Hebrew isn't any different than reading English. It's just a different language. If you have taken classes in grammar and you have a moderate vocabulary, you should already be able to start. Obviously you will have to add to your vocabulary over time, but you can ask someone or use a dictionary when you come to a word you don't know.

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Reading Hebrew is slightly different than reading English. The "science" of grammar has a way of measuring the depth of languages. See here (as much as this article groups English and Hebrew together in terms of their depth, when I was a master's student we were taught that Hebrew is deeper). This doesn't affect the answer, but is important to know so you don't get discouraged! – yEz Jan 19 '14 at 0:59
I disagree entirely Daniel. If it were that easy I'd already be doing it after 2 years of grammar courses. – noobie1 Jan 19 '14 at 3:31
@noobie1 Perhaps I don't understand what you are asking. If you know grammar and you know vocabulary, then you can read. The more you practice, the more your vocabulary will grow. But as far as reading goes, there isn't anything to learn besides grammar and vocabulary. If you have indeed taken two years of grammar classes and your vocabulary is moderate, that should be enough to start reading. Perhaps you could clarify what exactly you are having difficulty with? Is it figuring out what tense a word is in? What the shoresh of a word means? Something else? – Daniel Jan 21 '14 at 20:37
@YEZ I am sure that without vowels Hebrew is indeed deeper than English, but with a pointed text, the pronunciation is more easily derived from the spelling in Hebrew than in English. – Daniel Jan 21 '14 at 20:47
@Daniel Orthographic depth is affected by more than how hard it is to pronounce the letters. Grammar rules (and exceptions) play a big part. Sight-reading means recognizing the words by seeing them, which can be difficult in a language with words with so many syllables and words that "look" different depending on the tense, gender, and pronouns associated with them, which are incorporated into the word itself (hence the orthographic depth). – yEz Jan 21 '14 at 20:52

There is a mitzvah to review the parsha that will be read on the following Shabbos twice in Hebrew and once in “Targum”. See this OU article for more information.

Could you consider starting this with a few pesukim and slowly building up to the whole parsha?

There is an OU shiur on this which (if you can get along with the pronunciation of the Hebrew) could be a useful resource.

This should develop your ability to sight-read the Torah in Hebrew.

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This is helpful. The OU shiur may help me along. My practice up to this point has been to take short sections (maybe 10-15 pesukim) and read through several times with audio assistance from machon mamre if necessary. Then I go back and start to dissect meaning. – noobie1 Jan 19 '14 at 3:30
I have heard mixed opinions on relying on interlinear layouts too much vs parsing verbs effectively, etc. Some opinions seems to put MUCH emphasis on needing to know and and be able to work with the complex mechanics of grammer before reading. The other side says you can learn to read without being a master at grammar (which makes sense to me since I naturally acquired my first language this way and after taking several grammar classes my reading had not progressed greatly). My goal is simple. Read Torah, understand Torah, with progressively less need for english translations. – noobie1 Jan 19 '14 at 3:30

As a Torah reader for about 25 years, my advice may sound somewhat unconventional, so accept this as my own method that worked for me. It may or may not work for you.

First, learning Hebrew vocabulary and grammar is certainly a good and important start. But, you should also learn Biblical Hebrew, as its grammar is markedly different from "Modern" Hebrew. Most notably, the Torah uses "Vav Hahipuch" which is a method of adding a vav to the beginning of a verb that "flips" a future verb to past and past tense to future. This is one of a few examples where Biblical grammar may be different from modern Hebrew.

It is not necessary to know the meanings of every word in the Torah, but a fairly strong command of grammatical rules will help tremendously in Torah reading. It's not necessary, but it is a big help. It's not 100% required as you could read a Torah portion without knowing the meaning of any words - just by memorizing what to read. But, if you know the meaning, it will help with the verse's grammar. The trope (notes) is primarily for grammatical purposes - not just to sing them.

(When I read, I'm sometimes unsure of the trope. But, since I understand, mostly, what I'm reading, I can tell that if I group certain words with the wrong trope, the sentence meaning may change, or it won't make sense at all. Certain notes have pauses, similar to a comma in a sentence. If you pause (comma) in the wrong place, you change the sentence's meaning or it doesn't make sense.)

It is essential that you practice recognizing Torah script - the shape of the letters in the Torah is significantly different from standard Hebrew font. This may sound trivial, but in my shul, I have a majority of people that have no problem at all reading from a siddur or Chumash, but only about 5 people can read Torah lettering. Along with that, it also helps to have a good vocabulary of most common Hebrew words and know how to read them without vowels. This second skill is not 100% necessary for Torah reading, but it will ease the challenge.

Next, is trope. I've seen almost every Bar Mitzvah teacher teach the names of the trope and how they sound, prior to combining the trope with the actual Torah words. Unless the Bar Mitzvah boy will become a continuous Torah reader, this is a waste of time, IMO. In your case, however, this skill is valuable, but also not 100% necessary.

OK, HOW do you learn trope?

I learned in a pre-computer era. I sat in shul and listened carefully to the Torah reader and followed the notes in the Chumash with listening carefully to the reader. I would focus on a few notes each week until I felt comfortable, then I would focus on another group of notes.

Eventually, when I got all the notes and sounds down, I used a Tikkun - which is a book used for studying the Torah reading. Each page has 2 columns - the right side having the font and verses as they appear in the Chumash (in "regular" Hebrew) and the left column with how it looks in the Torah scroll. From there, it's memorizing. Do a few verses at a time - start with the normal type column and "test" yourself reading from the Torah column. Of course, the more often you practice, the easier it becomes. Keep in mind, that after all these years, I have pretty much memorized the entire Torah.

There are, now, several good computer Torah reading programs available. One of the best ones is called Trope Trainer. I use it, mainly, to print the weekly parsha sheets and I study the parsha during my daily commute. However, I think it is a great disk for a new learner. You can adjust the speed and pitch "level" (tenor / baritone / bass, etc.) to your liking. There are even several "accent" options (Israeli , various Hassidic styles, etc.) I also like that it has an option that lets you click just one word at a time so you can hear it sung with the note, or go a whole verse or an entire section at a time. This is excellent for reviewing. The disc also has separate tutorials that practice just notes and note "groups" (certain notes commonly appear together).

Supp: See @Shokhet's comment, below this answer. I should have researched this linked answer, myself (too much pre-Shabbat soup made me lazy :-) There's much good practical advice there!

I know I gave a lengthy answer, and, again, my method has several ideas that, hopefully, will work for you. If you can find a Torah reader or some other similar mentor to help you, that would be wonderful. And, remember that the mentor can be online as well. Skype works quite well!

I commend your efforts and wish you success. The population of good precise professional Torah readers, I think, is diminishing these days.

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Related: – Shokhet Dec 26 '14 at 18:30
how do you know that only 5 people can read torah lettering? have you stood with them in front of a torah scroll and seen them scratching their head trying to figure out whether what they are looking at is an aleph? Can they read the lettering of a tikkun which I think uses the same lettering as a torah scroll). A Torah scroll looks like very clear block script to me I'd be surprised if somebody saw a block Aleph in a siddur and couldn't see that the block aleph in the torah scroll or tikkun was the same letter. – barlop Sep 2 at 15:03

First, understand how Jews that had a barmitzva learn it.

Well, Jews learn how to do this and the way they learn is first they learn the aleph bet in primary school, that's the hebrew alphabet. Then they know how to sound out the letters even without knowing what the words mean.

Then they have the Siddur, the prayer book, which is full of prayers that they race through every morning. Many still don't know what the words mean.

Some Jews don't go to any hebrew classes or jewish school and still end up not knowing how to read Hebrew. They may not even know the aleph bet.

Then comes barmitzva time. Or 18 or so months before.

The ones that know the aleph bet, are in a stronger position than ones that don't.

They hire a teacher for their child , he knows all the cantillation. He knows how to lein.

The youngster will read from a Chumash, that's a tenach which has all the vowels in, all the cantillation too. There are various publishers.. In Britain they often use a Hertz or a Soncino. In America maybe the artscroll chumash.

The youngster/learner reads, and the other person also has a chumash in front of them and pokes out the errors. There comes a time when the learner basically knows it but is making errors from not spotting things, and the other person can spot it because it's having another person to check.

Then once the learner becomes fluent, and has done it a number of times, to the point that they almsot know it off by heart, then comes the next milestone. He tries doing it without the vowels, and without the cantillation marks.

This is done with a tikkun. So the learner has the tikkun, but the person testing the learner, will use a chumash. And will pick out the learner's errors. And in an ideal world, as the learner does it again and again, the errors go down until it's perfect excepting for perhaps one or two errors from being human. Or from an error in the chumash they learnt from. Like the Hertz I learnt from in the parasha of Behalotecha, had a Bet where it should have had a Vet. If you are pretty good at biblical hebrew grammar you might be able to over-rule a chumash and spot a printing error like that but you don't need to be at that level.

So, as for, what you should do.. Well, if you can afford it, you could hire a teacher that teaches barmitzva boys, it shouldn't be moere expensive than a child's Math tutor.

If you can do what a barmitzva boy does, then you've done it. And there are many that teach that. Without a teacher, well, you could get tapes of the aleph bet, tapes of hebrew reading exercises, then you'll have reached the milestone of sounding out the words. You never really have to necessarily know what they mean. Just the vowels and the letters. Then hey presto you're reading. Something many barmitzva boys can't do before they get a teacher, since many didn't go to jewish schools or learn hebrew before that. Then you focus on a particular portion like a barmitzva boy does. Maybe there are tapes to learn it. My teacher would record himself doing it and me doing it and i'd study from the tapes. And if I ever had to lein, (which would be a bit of a big ask now), but if I had to, i'd play the tapes to revise it.

The program of study that a barmitzva boy would do, is what you should do, in order to "sight read". You don't necessarily need to go as far as reading from a Tikkun which is hebrew without vowels without cantillation marks, like a torah scroll. But if you can read from a chumash, even without singing, it sounds liek it'd be one milestone for you, then you can decide whether you want to go the next milestone, The "singing" isn't just singing, it is very systematic cantillation, it punctuates the text.

Beyond that, if you want to understand the hebrew, well, there are loads of resources for that but it's a big study. You'd need to be memorizing vocabulary, and verb patterns. It's well beyond reading. Learning biblical hebrew is a whole subject. Though the first chapter or two of those books covers reading.

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With all do respect to this system, most bar mitzva boys actually end up spending their first Shabbat obligated in Mitzvot causing the Tzibbur to not fulfill their obligation, by making mistakes while reading. It's high time this Minhag Shtus of making every 13 year old boy lein is abolished. – Double AA Sep 1 at 1:02
@DoubleAA not sure what you mean.. The shliach tzibbur's obligation is I guess to daven shacharit and/or mussaf, So what does a person e.g. barmitzva boy, messing up his leining have to do with the shliach tzibbur? Are you talking about a case where the shliach tzibbur taught the barmitzva boy and so his attention is diverted throughout the service even while he leads the service? The barmitzva boy shouldn't be near him during shacharit and mussaf while he leads the service – barlop Sep 1 at 3:59
I never said "shliach tzibbur", though perhaps you could argue that the Baal Kriya has that title as well. When the Baal Kriya messes up the leining, everyone there now hasn't fulfilled their obligation regarding leining. Pretty straightforward. – Double AA Sep 1 at 4:28
@DoubleAA So where there is doubt, the Baal Kriya should be tested by the Rav beforehand. They should probably do that with adults too though adults run the show and might not like that done to them. I would never have learnt to lein were it not for my parents wanting me to perform on my barmitzva and getting me a teacher for 18 months or so.And I wouldn't have minded being tested to prove that I could lein('cos I could).In fact, if I recall,I saw the rabbi in his house and he asked me to lein so maybe that was a test.That maybe isn't the norm,but barmitzva boys that learn to lein gain a lot – barlop Sep 1 at 4:46
Of course they should test everyone. They also need to be willing to tell a 13-year old who practiced for a year and a half that he's not good enough and can't do it. Since they won't do that and hurt the kid, it's better to just not pressure kids who can't do it into trying and failing. – Double AA Sep 1 at 12:41

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