Opinion: The Alef-Bais Crisis

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By Rabbi Dovid Abenson

The word “crisis” has, unfortunately, insinuated itself into the common Jewish
lexicon. We now refer to crisis regarding shidduchim, divorce, internet and
kids-at-risk, and many believe that these situations are the self-made results
of secular infiltration. As an educator, I am afraid that I must add another one
to the list – the “alef beis crisis.”

A parent recently shared with me in frustration that his 5 year old son had come home from school with a fat binder full of alef beis sheets. Homework aka chazorah, was given on a regular basis. My first reaction was to wonder that such a young child was given so much work. After reviewing the sheets, I observed that the secular approach of teaching the English language had been incorporated into teaching the alef beis. It is a phenomena that I have noticed becoming more prevalent in mosdos throughout the Jewish world.

Why is this a concern, when we are living in an ever moving technological world which has many benefits? Our Mesorah teaches us specifically that teaching alef beis should be done in a very elementary way. There is a quote by the Chinese philosopher Confucius which seems appropriate here: “Life is really simple, but we insist on making it complicated.” This applies even to teaching alef beis. What was once “kometz alef Oh” and “kometz beis Boh” has now evolved into “velvety veis, dolly daled, velcro vov, zig zag zayin…….” to name a few. Then, we get to “tickle the tes, and color them!”

I am a big advocate of visual aids in the classroom, but not when it comes to teaching the foundation of Torah which is Kriah. Using phonics to teach alef beis is not our mesorah.

Talmidim who come to me struggling with Kriah, very often show the pattern of interchanging letters that use the same sounds, for example vov/veis, samech/sof etc This is caused by having been taught Kriah phonically. When this happens, talmidim subsequently will mix up translations and find Rashi to be like double dutch. Of course, this leads down a slippery slope when inevitably the talmid loses focus in class, becomes a disruption or falls asleep.

Medication is just a stone’s throw away.

Have we created a self imposed alef beis crisis?

By making alef beis complicated using phonics and other eye catching material, we have made what was once simple, into a confused burden for the child. Much unnecessary brain power needs to be accessed at an early age to compute the confusing foreign ideas and information in recognizing letters and vowels. Undoubtably, this leads to a regular occurrence of children losing the inspiration to learn, which has stemmed from the lack of foundation in learning Kriah!

Arguably, using new methodology to teach the alef beis is not a new phenomena. Already in the 1930’s, such practices were abscond. Below is a free translation of the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe’s opinion that was given in the year 1930. Taken from ספר השיחות page 127-128.

“Those Jews that want their children to be Jews, need to teach their
children using the old method of Kometz Alef Oh without any (new) methods,
these take away the entire holiness from the letters of the Torah.

One does not need to be concerned that there are many using (new) methods. The honest Jew will in the end realize the tremendous problem they endured. The education of a child must be in the way it was, and one needs to learn Gemara.”

There is a reference (free translation) on the bottom of page 127 to page 44 where the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe explains the mystical importance and significance of teaching Alef Beis using Chazal and not deviating from the traditional way.

“The learning must be in the format of Kometz Alef Oh, Kometz Beis Boh etc.
One example is Boh, (as in Kometz Beis), is translated as: came, referring to the revelation of the Shechina (that came by saying Kometz Beis Boh), for the letters are vessels for the revelation of the light of the Torah, which is Hashem’s Chochma.

When is this (the revelation) of the Shechina? Specifically when one says Kometz Alef Oh, Kometz Beis Boh etc. When this is not said, the results Chas V’shalom are that the child will become a non believer in Hashem. By teaching him Kometz Alef Oh, Kometz Beis Boh, he will remain a believer with complete faith, no matter what his external appearances are, meaning, that even if externally he will not be as he should, nevertheless he will remain a believer.”

The above free translation, whilst it is very esoteric, provides us with an insight into the kedusha of the alef bais which serves as a channel to connect a person with Hashem. When one changes the method, one is missing this integral pillar of Yiddishkeit.

As we scratch our heads and try to resolve the off-the-derech crisis of our generation, perhaps this is an important factor to bear in mind. Bringing back the traditional teaching of the alef beis will help diminish drastically the number of children going off the derech. And, hopefully, it will overflow into helping the other crisis situations we have found ourselves in.

Rabbi Dovid Abenson is the founder and director, author and lecturer at Shaar HaTalmud, a unique yeshiva based online program, featuring evaluations and remediation, working with students to upgrade skills in Hebrew reading, chumash/rashi and gemara studies, consulting school principals world – wide to improve their ability to help students who possess under-developed skills. Also available for in house training for schools and yeshivos. He can be reached at abenson.kriah@gmail.com or 1-877-HATALMUD (428 2568)

{Matzav.com}

13 COMMENTS

  1. Unfortunately we live in a time of ‘keeping up with the goyim’ .
    gevald we are creating a illiterate generation.

  2. To add a thought,In sefer “Leket Reshimos” torah from Rav Nosson Vachtfogel ZT”L he says that as a child he struggled terribly with kriah,nothing seemed to be working,if not for his father he would’ve grown up not knowing how to read.His father wasn’t impressed that nothing was working,he kept on trying again and again,seemingly without any progress.The attitude was,there’s no way my nosson is growing up not knowing kriah.It happened suddenly that things started clicking in his mind until he caught up to par.An old fashioned “method”,working hard,sweating,davening and a strong attitude that “there’s no way my kid will grow up not knowing how to read”.

  3. You want to go back to no beis yakovs and no seculer education in Yeshivas? Just as the mama loshan has regretable fallen by the wayside. Doesnt mean its all for naught! Will you abandon your heiliga internet?? This is nothing but a polemic against saying don’t do what i dont feel comfortable with because i said so! under the hidden guise of a educational deficient rubric.

    • “You want to go back to no beis yakovs and no seculer education in Yeshivas?”
      You obviously did not comprehend the point.
      Kriah in itself is the very foundation of Mesorah and is thus essential not to adopt changes, unless there is an absolute reason..

  4. Elu v’elu. I have taught keriah both ways. It’s hard for some children to remember the names of the vowels. A pasach is the “ah” sound like a tongue depressor _ (which every kid knows from going to the doctor). Granted, the kids must learn the names of the letters together with the sound they make, but some kids do better when they learn the vowels phonetically.

  5. Abscond means to escape or run away. Not understanding what you meant by ” such practices were abscond.”
    Also curious to know if this is the mesorah sephardim.

  6. It is hard to believe that someone in the field of special education would write such an article regarding such a well founded technique, irrespective of its source. Multi-sensory education is at the very foundation of today’s educational system across the board. Phonetic awareness is at the core of this phenomenon. Children who lack phonetic awareness will not recognize the letters properly no matter how many times you say Kometz Beis Buh.

    Baruch Hashem for the wonderful pre-school teachers who creatively integrate these techniques into a kriah system. By allowing children to hear the letters in a variety of ways and in many cases touch the letters in special projects, students who might lack phonetic awareness have different ways of learning the letters.

    I have personally seen struggling kriah students who could barely recognize the letters do wonderfully in special schools that focus on modern day modes. I guarantee you they’re not relying on traditional methods. Every student is different. Chanoch Na’ar L’phi Darko, it is our responsibility to find each students individual needs even if new methods are required.

  7. I agree with you that the initial teaching must be based on the mesorah as you describe. As a tutor I have heard this from many pre1a / first grade rebbeim. However I disagree that if a child is struggling with his kriah or any subject, that a tutor or rebbi must stick with the mesorah approach. Do you think that Rav Praida learned with his Talmud 400 times the exact same way each time. As a matter of fact the gmara right before the story of Rav Praida (Eruvin 54b) states that Moshe Rabainu taught the Torah 4 times. The meforshim explain why couldn’t he teach them altogether. The answer given is That Aharon and the Yidden learned on different levels. I can also agree that many of the techniques teachers use don’t really work. However many techniques such as multi sensory do work. Hatzlacha Rabba

  8. Rav mattisyahu soloman writes in his chinuch book that a regular classroom shouldnt deviate from the mesorah. But there are individual circumstances where a child requires a different method and that is permitted and necessary

  9. “Using phonics to teach alef beis is not our mesorah.”

    But for languages in which the writing system closely resembles the speech, phonics-based instruction generally produces better educational outcomes. The refusal of many educators in the US to appreciate this led to a generation of poor readers in English. And our day schools today do such a poor job at teaching Ivrit that most students, even after 12 years of day school, cannot takes classes in Israel that are taught in Ivrit. Forcing young people to struggle with texts that are written in languages that they do not understand is a good way to create OTD young people.

    • Charlie Hall-
      Go ahead blame that too on OTD!
      IF its Ivrit you teaching then… yes!

      Kriah in itself (for observant Jews!), is an essential part integrated within the very fabric of our Mesorah.
      Of course, if there any kids with Kriah issues, no doubt other methods are to be used.
      But to officially switch a mesorah that has been established by people who were pretty much successful does not make sense (in the long run).

      Don’t forget – while the typical non-Jew was practically illiterate for past thousand years, with the exception of a few monks and upper-class individuals, Jews were always literate and, are thus way ahead of the game compared to the secular world, who are relatively new to very concept of teaching reading to the masses.
      Bottom line – It has been tested for hundreds of years and has mainly worked.

  10. Hebrew is a purely phonetic language. Every letter and nekuda sounds exactly as it is written. Unlike English where, for example ‘ea’ can have three different sounds, Hebrew is perfectly consistent. Therefore, from the outset our entire mesora IS to emphasize phonetics. Thus, if a student is having trouble with it, then it is only logical to bring in extra phonetic techniques to emphasize our original traditions.

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