Our Bochurim Must Read So They Will Learn

Rabbi Chaim Chazan, head of the Lubavitch Yeshiva in Ukraine, makes the case that reading light Hebrew publications for enjoyment must be part of every American bochur’s education.

By Rabbi Chaim Chazan – Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivas Chabad; Dnieper, Ukraine

If you would have asked me two decades ago to describe my most embarrassing moment, I would have thought back to an incident that happened when I was a 16-year old bochur learning at the Lubavitch Yeshiva of Manchester. 

The new Kfar Chabad magazine had arrived during lunch break, and my curiosity got the better of me.  So when my chavrusa for seder girsa didn’t show up, I put it on top of my open gemara – “just to take a peak” – and became completely engrossed in the article I was reading. 

After a few minutes, I felt someone watching me. I looked up and was mortified to see my father standing nearby, looking on with disappointment in his eyes. He had stopped by to pick up a sefer, and instead of enjoying the nachas of seeing his bochur learning, he had caught me reading a magazine. I was so ashamed.  

Years later, I thought back to that incident and laughed at how serious it had seemed to me. It dawned on me that my embarrassment stemmed from naivete. It would have been nice for my father to catch me learning with relish, but what was my terrible aveira? A young English speaking bochur was reading a Chassidishe magazine in Hebrew for enjoyment. But in those days, I took the importance of reading Hebrew as a leisure activity for granted. 

One of the objectives of yeshiva education is to teach talmidim to be independent learners for the rest of their lives. This requires a combination of skills, values and motivation. Some of those skills include analytical and comprehension skills, but a working knowledge of and ability to read and understand Hebrew is important, too. 

Plenty of bochurim graduate yeshiva having acquired those skills and lasting motivation, and indeed remain involved in learning for the rest of their lives. Unfortunately, many of the English-speaking ones aren’t fluent enough to read Hebrew for pleasure. They can decipher a text when they are interested, but it takes too much time and effort to be enjoyable.

I have taught yeshiva bochurim in Yiddish and English in the US, and in Hebrew here in Ukraine, and I am even more convinced of the advantage of bochurim being fluent in Hebrew. It enables bochurim to shift their focus to comprehending the text they are learning instead of merely decoding.  

There is another advantage, one that applies to raising bochurim b’darkei hachassidus. When the Hebrew bookshelf becomes accessible, a new world is available to explore. There is a wealth of frum and Chassidishe publications that are only available in Hebrew. These books and magazines allow one to be fully steeped in the ‘arum’ of Yiddishkeit and Chassidus.

It takes effort to acquire this easy grasp of the language. But at the end of the day, the reward is worth the sweat.

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  1. Great distinction should be made between acquiring Hebrew and acquiring lashon kodesh. While it may be challenging to find casual books in lashon kodesh, it it’s a bit different to say that we should encourage Americans to read Hebrew publications.

    The point being made here can perhaps be applied on a lower scale, namely that reading of (approved) Hebrew reading material shouldn’t be discouraged (in regards to younger Bochrim).

  2. Hebrew, as language of masses, would not seem to be worse, and has seemingly better effects (as explained in the article) than reading primarily in English (and not being able to read in Hebrew)

    As an aside: to point out that most Chabad (or Chareidi) Hebrew publications (which are those mentioned in the article), are more Loshon Hakodesh than Hebrew — and that the Rebbe certainly encouraged these publications

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