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A member of our minyan has a degenerative vision problem and has, for a time, been using a home-made very-large-print siddur. After an absence, she returned this Shabbat with a guide dog and said she can no longer use the siddur. She said the stuff she has memorized and listened to the rest. I've started to work with her to help her learn/memorize more (and we'll get recordings), which helps some, but that's not an ideal solution. I mean, being able to do the Shabbat t'filah from memory is helpful, but it doesn't help with seasonal changes, and memorizing the whole service is a big task. What she really needs, I suspect, is a Braille siddur.

But does her knowledge of standard Braille help with Hebrew? I know that it's possible to have a Braille siddur, because I once saw somebody using one, but I didn't ask him about it at the time. Do they transliterate the Hebrew, so you use the Braille alphabet you already know? Or is there a scheme of writing Hebrew in Braille that requires the reader to learn a new Braille alphabet? I got the sense in talking with her that she's probably not ready to learn a second Braille system yet (she's still learning the first).

I'd like to help her get the best tools to be able to participate in the minyan. But before I approach the siddur publisher to ask about a Braille edition, I want to know if that would actually be helpful to somebody who only knows "regular" Braille for the English language. And that leads me to the question: how do Hebrew texts get set in Braille, linguistically speaking?

(This question arises out of a Jewish situation, but I recognize that it might be borderline here as it's about language (in a way) and publishing. If people think it's off-topic, please speak up.)

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Being blind myself, I can more specifically address Hebrew Braille and how siddurim work. As the first answer says, a person who knows English Grade 2 braille does not need to start from scratch, because there are many similarities. However, it is not transliteration; the Hebrew letters are represented character for character, with the vowels, when used, following the consonants, nut under them. Hebrew, as any other script, and even music notation, is written from left to right in braille. Most of the consonants correspond to their English equivalents, with some exceptions. For example, the Vav is represented by the symbol that is the W in english (the symbol for English V is used for Vet), the Chet is X, the Tav is an inverted T (which in English Grade 2 is the contraction for OU. Most of the vowels are similar to english vowels, but some are different.

As far as the siddurim themselves are concerned, they are usually in many volumes, and the ones produced by the Jewish Braille Institute typically have the Hebrew text on the right side of the binding, and the English on the left The specially made Sidurim from CSB Care, and the ones that come from Mesillah in Israel do not have English, and the instructions are usually in unvoweled Hebrew. In my opinion, the representation of the entire Sidur page for page is not always ideal. The Birnbaum Siddur and Machzor provided with JBI often, especially on holidays, require you to have several volumes in front of you, In one point, on Yom Kippur, it is necessary to switch from one volume to another in the middle of the silent Amidah. The Artscroll Siddur, also provided by JBI, tries to set up each volume to have all that is needed. It does not always succeed, as Shacharis has many parts to it, and with English translation included, it cannot fit into one volume. My first preference is those provided by CSB Care or by Mesillah, which have no English, and can fit even an entire Morning Service in one volume. But I only state this as my opinion, as English is sometimes a necessity for others. In addition, braille Siddurim are in general bulky, and sometimes slow the user down, especially in a fast-paced Minyan. I have resorted to memorizing as much as possible.

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    Thank you very much for sharing your experience with this area! – Monica Cellio Sep 8 '14 at 17:16
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I have a friend who is blind. Hebrew braille does not have its own alphabet, but rather uses the same symbols that English braille does. Also, text runs in the same direction as English letters (see the first paragraph of the aforementioned Wikipedia article) -- which I can imagine might be confusing to someone who used to read Hebrew in the original right-to-left direction.
This also means that a new braille system needs to be learned (though not necessarily a new alphabet, which could be good and bad....), in the case of your friend. Sorry :(

(I suppose the reasoning may be that since Hebrew or English text is not immediately recognizable to the blind as it is to sighted people, all text is read in the same direction and understood to be Hebrew or English based on context and / or page titles.)

My friend gets his siddurim and chumashim from CSB CARE, although he also has a computer with a wider library of sefarim on it, equipped with a refreshable braille display.
Also, while I haven't heard about them from my friend, the Jewish Braille Institute looks like a good resource. (Kudos to sabbahillel for pointing them out)

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    Thanks for this information! I would think that a new alphabet would be the better long-term answer, just as it's way better to learn to read Hebrew than rely on transliteration (even if your siddur provides full translit so you could, which is rare but not unheard-of). So my friend will have a steeper learning curve initially, but get to a better place in the end. – Monica Cellio Sep 7 '14 at 22:04
  • @MonicaCellio Some false assumptions in the earlier version of my answer....I don't think it changes anything on the practical level, but just for the sake of understanding how it works. – MTL Sep 8 '14 at 3:23

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