A recent wave has entered the community to change from the traditional way our children learn Alef Beis and Kriah. However, new research has uncovered that this “new” method is really centuries old.
By Rabbi Avrohom Schtroks – Kriah Rebbi and expert on the Mesorah Method
Kriah. The cornerstone of our children’s success in school and Yiddishe life. And that’s why it’s critical we do it right.
Recently, a new wave has entered the community to change from the traditional way our children learn Alef Beis and Kriah, which traces itself back to Har Sinai and implants in children Emunah in Hashem.
Seeing how some children in older grades struggle at reading, several well-meaning educators sought a solution to help these struggling children. In their search, they came across a special method that is taught by a Kriah tutor in Boro Park who offers high promises of helping all children know how to read fluently.
This “Phonetics Method” as it is known, was introduced to our community a number of years back for children with severe reading issues. After using this to teach children with reading difficulties with some success, some tutors came up with the idea to use this method for children who aren’t challenged.
While this method was thought to be a recent innovation by Kriah professionals, below we will demonstrate that it is nothing new. In fact, the method was developed by the Maskilim of old, and it was this method that was rejected by our Rebbeim. Besides, as many experienced and successful Kriah teachers can testify, their claim of success is dubious, and it is redundant and unhelpful.
As we all know, the traditional method (Mesorah) is to teach Kriah has been to say the name of the nekudah, followed by the name of the letter, and then the sound that it makes (e.g., “Komatz-Alef-Ah”). In the “Phonetics Method,” they say the sound of the letter, the sound of the nekudah, and then the sound that it makes (e.g., “B Ah Ba”).
Although it can sometimes look like this method is more effective, the Rebbe explained (Simchas Torah night 5729) that in the long term the Mesorah Method will bring better results than the Phonetics Method, even if the new methods might seem faster here and now. The Rebbe noted that even reading professionals at the time came to realize this. Of course, one must know how to teach and use the Mesorah method properly.
In this discussion, I will not discuss the effectiveness of the method. Instead, I will focus on the history of the method and what our Rebbeim said about it. For Chassidim, the Rebbeim’s words should suffice.
The New Methods
In 5561 (1806), Yehuda Leib Ben-Zev, a maskil and heretic, published a book “Mesilas Halimud,” where a change in teaching Kriah was introduced for the first time. The Maskilic method would be developed over the following century by other Maskilim until it would have the form that it has today.
Ben-Zev’s change was limited to the way of teaching Nekudos, teaching them by their potential sounds as opposed to teaching their names (i.e. Komatz, Patach, etc.). Instead of reciting “Komatz Beis – buh,” they would say, “Beis uh – buh.”
Around 40 years later, the maskil Isidor Busch discarded the reciting of the names of the letters, and instead recommended teaching their phonetic sounds (“Bh uh – buh”). This can be seen in his book “Limudei Hakriah” which is based on the “Mesilas Halimud,” and was reprinted in a second edition in 5615-1855.
In 5657 (1896), Magnus Krinsky, also a maskil and heretic, publishes the book “Reishis Da’as” (picture 6). This new child-friendly book, taught Kriah used the above method with some small additions (such as the silent Alef). This book became extremely popular with 150 editions being printed.
Due to its widespread popularity, the Frierdiker Rebbe addressed the Reishis Da’as by name and said that it is impure and should not be used (Sefer HaSichos 5704 p 156). “We must learn with a child ‘Komatz Alef Oh,’ ‘Patach Beis bah’; not like the Reishis Da’as, which in truth is lacking Da’as and coming from the lightheaded.”
This exact “Phonetics Method” that is being introduced to our community is the very same method preached in the Reishis Da’as centuries ago. This method was introduced by the maskilim starting from the Alter Rebbe’s times, and it was this method that the Rebbeim fought against and would not bend in even the slightest degree (see Admur Tzemach Tzeddek V’Tenuas HaHaskalah).
What Our Rebbeim Said About It
The Rebbeim voiced many times the necessity to stick to the traditional method and not to use any innovations in this area. For the sake of brevity, we will suffice with two quotes from the Rebbe Rashab.
In one letter (#234), the Rebbe Rashab writes, “By teaching the letter and words with holiness, this implants in a child the light of holiness, and one can hope the child will go in the way of Torah and Mitzvos… [but] by learning the letters and words in a method arranged by those who are far from Torah … this ingrains in a child the energy of the method’s innovator and it brings the child to its innovative ways R”L…
“When in the beginning of his learning he gets implanted with a “poison weed” R”L, what can one hope for the child? The child’s father will have to give judgment for this R”L…”
And in another letter (#545), he writes, “The method must be according to the old method without even the slightest change… Any change or addition causes a problem that people cannot imagine. In this method, there are details that people think as unimportant, when in fact ‘great mountains’ depend on them…”
For a full resource of what the Rebbeim said and wrote regarding teaching Kriah, click here.
Understanding the Rebbe’s Directives
The well-meaning educators who are trying to bring this method into our community have tried to justify the change. They claim that the Rebbe agreed to compromise for those who would otherwise learn the letters and Nekudos in the Maskilic method.
Aside from the fact that no source has been found for this in the Rebbe’s writings or Sichos, more importantly, a compromise made to save certain Yiddishe children from an improper method is not a directive to use that method for our pure children.
There is more to be said about this topic, and it will be discussed in a forthcoming publication Bez”H.
It is my fervent hope that this will help educate the public on this important matter and all our children merit a pure education according to the teachings of our Rebbeim.
Special thanks to fellow Kriah Rebbis for their input and to the staff at the Aguch Library for access to the various sources.
Rabbi Avrohom Schtroks is a Kriah teacher with extensive knowledge of the Mesorah Method and years of successful classroom experience. He is available for mentoring and school presentations. He can be reached at [email protected].