Monday, September 16, 2019

Talmud Tip For Daily Living

Many students who attend the Hamilton Beit Midrash want to continue studying -- usually as much as humanly possible, which is an excellent sign of future progress. However, learning outside of a beit midrash context, especially with a fellow beginner, can be uniquely frustrating and even somewhat perilous. I thought about habits that can bring clarity and forward motion to unsupervised learning, and wrote this:
Dear friends,

This is an email long overdue. It is a tip to assist you when you are struggling through the task of learning on your own or in unsupervised havrutha. Too often we can sort of string definitions together in a sentence, and the definitions will be basically true ones, but the meaning will still be completely off-base, because we have not taken grammar into account.

So this is the tip: PARSE, and then translate.

My major in university was Classics (Greek and Latin) and this is what we were taught to do with any Greek and Latin text. It may have special use as a skill when it comes to textual rather than conversational languages.

To parse a text, look at it, and before you even so much as glance at a Jastrow or Frank, wring whatever grammar you can muster out of it. What's singular, what's plural, what's masculine, what's feminine, what's a verb, what's a particle showing an indirect object, etc? This will right away tell you a little something about what words can go with what other words (e.g. adjectives with nouns, subjects with verbs), and that gives you a lovely head start. In an ideal world, or in a non-ideal world where one is completing an assignment for a Latin professor, every single word is accounted for with multiple notations.

BUT. Don't know much grammar? It's OK. I encourage you to go for the easy kills here and just pick out whatever is clear and what you already know. It IS possible to get false IDs when parsing and you just have to keep that in mind when pursuing a translation afterwards ("Maybe it was one of those masculine nouns that has a feminine plural ending, like avoth..."). You are still doing something very worthwhile, namely, clearing your own path ahead and greatly reducing your chance of fanciful translations.

After you've parsed as much as you can, break out the dictionaries and translate.

I hope this tip will encourage you to keep learning in havrutha even outside of a program. It provides a way for you to assess your own correctness before you resort to checking against a prefab translation.

I'll also use this opportunity to remind people in the Hamilton area that our yearly beit midrash continues Sunday nights from 6-8 pm at Beth Jacob Synagogue, 375 Aberdeen Avenue.

R. Yonah

gender and number? (number should be easy: if it has no plural markers, it's singular)
part of speech? (particle, noun, verb, etc)
if verb, what binyan (find the shoresh as the first step)? or if that is difficult, are there binyanim we can exclude with confidence?
what else in the sentence, if nything, does this "accord" with? A word accords with another if it is similar in gender AND number. In this way you can assign an adjective to a noun or a verb to a subject.

Wednesday, September 4, 2019

Wednesday, August 28, 2019

I found these beautiful, sturdy wild turkey feathers in the woods near Schomberg, Ontario. Looking forward to writing with them on special occasions -- I paid for them with my blood via approximately 2000 mosquitoes.

Thursday, August 1, 2019

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

A Fine Example Of Bad Writing


Hi Yonah, 

I don’t think we’ve met. I got your name from R_____ who I know from sharing community in L_____. I’m a rabbi serving a congregation in N_____.

A member of our shul asked me about klaf that we sell in our synagogue gift shop. It looked funky to me, but I don’t have expertise in this area so I reached out to one of your colleagues. She told me that it’s not kosher. I’m attaching a picture of the klaf in case you can shed any light on where these come from.

In any event, nice to connect with you and thanks for your help.


Good evening -- in these very fortuitous moments of searching for distraction at the last moments of a tsom!

It's a very good thing you noticed something strange about this mezuzah. You were of course right. This mezuzah is ludicrous. In fact it makes me curious about who could have possibly written it. If it is true that handwriting contains hints as to the soul of the writer, I would venture to guess that this was written by a murderous clown in a sewer.

Bad style is one thing. But here the letters are so deformed as to actually be other letters (e.g. vavs to yods) or just as often nonsense markings which are not letters at all. Don't take my word for it. Looking at it again, you will see a regular substitution of "x" for alef and "n" for reish, not to mention a backwards "c" for one particular mem sofith which... I'm searching for words and can only say this: it will not do.

And what is that final letter?

The person who wrote this did so on what appears to be qelaf cut specially for a mezuzah, which only raises further chilling questions of access. Whatever information you can hunt down about who sold this to your community, when, and how, will be worth gathering.

Wishing you well,

Bad mezuzot are out there! Trust your instincts and ask about anything that looks funny to you. Ask someone who's not currently selling you something! It does not matter how traditional or observant the scribe appears to be, or for that matter may genuinely be in the ritual aspects of their lives. Fraud and predatory practices abound in every profession where the service provider has a skill set they know their client is not able to evaluate. This is true for car mechanics and soferei STA"M alike.