If I had to pick my least favorite subject in rabbinic school, it would be Hebrew grammar. I was required to master not only the rules for Biblical grammar but also for Modern Hebrew.
I recall hours and hours of poring over grammar books, trying to memorize arcane rules and sweating over whether I would get a passing grade on my exams.
I also remember thinking to myself: as a future rabbi, why do I need to know this stuff? Sure there is satisfaction in learning how to parse a Biblical text in order to understand its construction. There also is a sense of accomplishment in being able to compose in Hebrew.
But I was pretty darn certain that learning Hebrew grammar would have no practical application in being a congregational rabbi. However, this week I am delighted to say I was proven wrong.
For months now, Michelle Eisenbruck has been doing a marvelous job teaching Hebrew to nine adult congregants. This past Tuesday night, I dropped-in to visit the class.
It was wonderful to see students engaged in learning this challenging language. Clearly everyone was having a great time studying and pulling for one another to succeed.
I was impressed by what I saw and I told them so. Then, someone asked me a question: “Rabbi, why is there a dot in the letter Dalet in the word ‘Havdalah?’”
This was followed by another query: “Why is there a dot in the letter Yud in the word ‘Zion?’”
I was momentarily stunned. Oh my gosh, I knew the answers! I went to the whiteboard and began outlining the different ways that dots (called dagesh or mappiq) function in Hebrew grammar.
Forty years since my first class in Hebrew grammar and it all kicked back in!
Tuesday night was a moment of great satisfaction.
I hope it’s not another forty years until I am asked a Hebrew grammar question. And if I am really stumped, I know I can ask a rabbinic colleague to whom I am married who is far more adept at Hebrew grammar than I.