Faith & Spirituality

February 21, 2014

Hebrew 101

PLATTSBURGH — Learning Hebrew helps members of Temple Beth Israel to understand Judaism on a different level.

Rabbi Kari Tuling teaches a series of Hebrew classes to members and nonmembers at the Plattsburgh synagogue. Last year, she taught an introduction to Judaism class.

“It’s for the people who don’t know how to read Hebrew, so they can read along in the prayer book,” Tuling said. “This is a first step.”

There are 22 letters in contemporary, cursive Hebrew script, which is alphabetic, very phonetic and read right to left.

“The vowels are underneath the letters or above them,” Tuling said. “They’re not usually part of the word itself. In fact, modern Hebrew and the Torah text are written without vowels. The prayer book has the vowels. That’s a different thing.”


The Prophets is the oldest part of the Torah in terms of when it was written down.

“The Song of the Sea is part of the Exodus narrative,” Tuling said. “That’s the song the Israelis sang after they get to the other side of the Red Sea when they got through and escaped Egypt. The letters we use now are called Assyrians. These are block letters taken from the Assyrians. They are not the original letters that the Jews used. In the Dead Sea Scrolls, the name of God is written in the old Hebrew script but the rest of the text is written in Assyrian letters.”

Contemporary Hebrew script is very square.

“The old Hebrew was not,” Tuling said. “It looks more like a free flowing kind of thing. The old Hebrew looks more like Arabic but more angular.”

Tuling’s alma mater, Hebrew Union College, offered a program in the old language, Ugaritic.

“It’s one of the ancient languages around the time these documents were written,” she said. “Akkadian is another one and Sumerian. In ancient times, there were scribes. The Akkadian is very elaborate and very detailed kind of script that takes years and years to learn. Hebrew is unusual. It’s alphabetic and phonetic; it’s not pictorial. It’s easier to learn than Akkadian. We don’t know how far back this extends. In the last two millenniums, Jews have been fairly literate. Literacy rates have been high.”

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