Hebrew and Torah Reading
by Rivka C. Berman
Although a good part of the training for a bat
mitzvah is absorbed by Hebrew reading and chanting lessons, many religious
school programs will include topics like Jewish history, Israeli politics, and
ethics. As bar and bat mitzvah kids pass this milestone they cross the line to
Jewish adulthood, so mature topics are appropriate. For many this is the end of
their formal Jewish education. Topics might be chosen to explain the Jewish
approach to lifelong issues and decisions.
Learning Hebrew and the Torah Reading
Hebrew is decidedly easier to read than English – once you know it. In English
“the” looks like it should sound like “ta-ha-eh,” and “enough” would logically
be sounded out like “ee-ne-oo-ga-ha,” all the strange exceptions in English turn
it into a confusing language. Hebrew is completely phonetic. Combine the letter
and its vowel sound together, and you’ve got it. Not so many crazy-sounding
blends to remember.
Complicating things is the different place vowels are given. In English, vowels
are included in the word itself, like “bat mitzvah” has the “a,” “i,” and “a”
inside the word. Using the Hebrew vowel structure, the word would like more like
this “BaT MITZVaH.” Vowels are dots and dashes written underneath and above the
letters. No vowels appear in the Torah. It’s a little hard, but definitely
A special book, called a Tikkun, is printed with the verses as they appear in
the Torah and the same words in regular Hebrew type with vowels – side by side.
Practicing in a Tikkun helps the reader get ready for the vowel-free Torah.
A few weeks before the big day, schedule a viewing of the portion in the actual
scroll to get even more comfortable with how the words look and their layout.
The Trop – Torah Tune
You’ll notice that the Torah is not just read, it’s chanted. The tune is ancient
and is indicated by dots, dashes, jagged zigzags, horseshoe shapes, and v-marks
above and below the words. These don’t appear in the Torah scroll itself, but
they are in the Tikkun and the Chumash, where the Torah text is printed in book
Bnei mitzvah parties, where more time was spent contemplating the invitation
envelope than the day’s meaning, have lead synagogues to require lengthy bar
mitzvah preparations before the ceremony. Attending religious school all the way
through seventh grade is one synagogue’s rules. Another requires students to
stay on for post-bat mitzvah Hebrew High School classes.
Mitzvah quotas have become popular. A certain number of mitzvot must be
performed by the bat mitzvah girl. Some programs break up these requirements
into three categories: Torah, Avodah and Gemilut Chasadim. Torah stands for
Torah study and different forms of Jewish intellectual inquiry. Avodah literally
means service and can be interpreted as prayer or community service. Gemilut
chasadim are acts of kindness performed for others: charity, volunteering at
hospitals, visiting senior citizens and sick friends, helping moms bring in the
At many synagogues, bnei mitzvah must attend anywhere from a handful of services
to as many as every Shabbat morning services a year before the ceremony. Going
to services is a good thing unto itself, attending several services will help
the family get more familiar with the synagogue’s layout, customs, songs, cantor
To learn all that Hebrew, the prayers and the trop, it is sometimes necessary to study one to one with a tutor. Pick a good one. A good tutor can add depth and enthusiasm to the whole preparation process. One essential difference between a good and a bad tutor is patience. Learning the trop can be frustrating. Select a tutor who can offer corrections without criticism.
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