The Kriah Brain

The importance of teaching kriah is well-known. Reading skills are what every child needs
throughout all their years in yeshiva or school and beyond. Kriah is also a basis in Yiddishkeit – we
need it for our davening and our limmud haTorah.

Being that common knowledge is that kriah should “mastered” in Pre-1-A, all effort is placed at
that age to ensure that every child “masters” kriah; once a child enters first grade the child’s skills
in kriah are traced back to Pre-1-A.

Yet, we see that there are children who struggle in kriah after completing Pre-1-A, and this
occurrence is accompanied by many different arguments as to the reason why. Some will claim
the method that the kriah was taught was faulty, others will claim it’s the summer vacation, while
others will say that the child is reading fine just don’t know how to evaluate.

In this essay, we will investigate the underlying elements of kriah, what our goal is in teaching
kriah, and what our expectations from children are in kriah

A child may have other issues that may be disturbing him or her from reading which are not
discussed here, for example, vision or speech difficulties which one would need a professional
evaluation in those fields. Additionally, there are other aspects to a language which may help a
child build their kriah which are beyond the scope of this essay.

What follows is what I have learned from senior kriah rebbis, as well as my personal understanding
and experience in teaching kriah. I look forward to your comments, corrections, and continued
conversation.

The Composition of a Word

To understand how reading works in Loshon HaKodesh, we first must understand how a word is built in Loshon HaKodesh.

In Ashkenazic reading, there are 32 letters (including the variations), through which 27 different potential sounds can be made. Then nine different kinds of basic nekudos can give the 32 letters nine different kinds of movement.

When the letters are alone and don’t possess a nekudah they are silent. Once the letter possesses a nekudah, the letter will come to life and will have a sound; how one pronounces the sound is based on what nekudah the letter possesses.

For example: the letter א alone with no nekudah will be silent and make no sound – simply called Alef. Once there is a komatz there will be life and make the sound ָ א.

Once a letter has a nekudah it becomes a syllable, and longer words will have multiple syllables.

The nekudos make up the basics of the word as iterated above, then there are the aspects that fine tunes the word, making the singsong of the word correct: the messeg, the dogesh and the trop.

All of these facets make up a correct word in Loshon HaKodesh.

The Unique Word in Loshon HaKodesh

Before we move on to understand how reading in Loshon HaKodesh works, we need to first understand two unique parts in Loshon Hakodesh that differ from English.

1 - In Loshon HaKodesh, the nekudos are the vowels, and unlike English that the vowels will be their neighboring letters, here in Loshon Hakodesh the nekudah will be either under the letter, on top of the letter, or beside the letter. At times, the nekudah can even be on top of a different letter.

2 - In Loshon HaKodesh, many  words have the same letters; however, they have different nekudos which change the pronunciation of the word. The difference can be as minute as a tiny dot.

Decoding vs. Sight-Reading New Words

With the knowledge of word composition and unique vowel properties in Loshon HaKodesh, we can move on to understand how one reads the word in Loshon HaKodesh.

Someone reading a new, unfamiliar word aloud, with an interest in reading correctly, would not be able to read the word as a word, but rather as a combination of syllables. Meaning, one will read one syllable at a time, ensuring each syllable is read correctly until the complete word is read.

In Loshon HaKodesh, it is not possible to merely look at a new word as a whole and pronounce it correctly as one can do in other languages. In the continental languages, there is a concept of sight-reading, meaning once someone has read a word many times the brain gets trained to recognize the word as a picture, and just by looking at the word, without needing to decipher it syllable-by-syllable, they can read what it says.

However, because of the subtleties of the nekudos in Loshon HaKodesh that may not be possible. Rather one must narrow his focus on each specific syllable of a new word to ensure he reads it in its correct manner. Only after that can one refocus on the word as a whole.

This process is called "decoding."

As the student grows and gets better at decoding in Loshon HaKodesh, the easier it will be to see the word as a whole and get to the meaning of it.

(For students advanced in their reading, the process can be very swift, however this is the breakdown of how it’s done.)

Students that have a difficult time decoding and have to exert much effort to pronounce the syllables correctly will quite possibly need to decode again or a few times, because by the time they’re done decoding the word they don’t remember the beginning of the word. This experience can be very frustrating.

Exercise

To further explain how to teach children how to read unfamiliar text:

This kind of reading is considered an exercise, similar to any other physical exercise that one does. Most
notably:

  1. Decoding is something where each child will reach each milestone at a different pace, similar to the physical development of a child, where each child reaches every milestone at their own pace.
  2. Decoding has to be developed slowly in phases without overwhelming the child with too much
    work.
  3. Decoding is similar to walking, just as someone who R”L hasn’t walked for a while will have a hard
    time walking again, so too decoding in kriah has to be constantly worked on to build the muscles
    and to keep them in shape so that they don’t get lazy.

Teaching the Basic Kriah

With the understanding of decoding in basic kriah and how this kind of reading is an exercise, let's move on to our goal of teaching kriah in Pre-1-A.

The goal of teaching kriah in Pre-1-A is that the child should be as comfortable in decoding as possible, with as little strain on the brain. The child’s reading muscles should be strong enough so that when the child finishes decoding a word the child will be able to return to the word and pronounce it in one breath; therefore, he will be able to move on to the meaning of the word without needing to decode again.

The way to get a student comfortable with decoding is:

The teacher should educate the children on on how to focus on the specific syllables of the word, recognizing the nekudah of the syllable followed by the letter and what movement it gives the letter has.

This is accomplished by first training the children to familiarize themselves with the names of the letters and their shapes and names of the nekudos and their shapes, and how they make certain sounds when combined.

At every stage of learning kriah the children are encouraged to build their decoding muscles to be as strong as they can, and many systems are created with different gimmicks to get the children to review
each stage in reading as much as possible.

Keeping it Simple

We should ensure that the process is as simple as possible without confusing the child with unnecessary information and codes that take much concentration and background information to decode. These extras cause overexertion to decode the word, perhaps becoming overwhelming for the child and making it more difficult to get to the word as a whole and ultimately to the meaning of the word.

The Kriah Goals

One may ask, How can this be? How can it be that we are not teaching kriah in its entirety, leaving parts out so effectively the children won’t know how to read Loshon HaKodesh in its complete form?

The answer to this question is: In Pre-1-A we are not looking to teach them how to read Loshon HaKodesh in its entirety. As we explained earlier, the goal of teaching kriah at that age is just the basic kriah so that the child can learn Chumash (as we will soon discuss) by being able to decode in an age-appropriate manner.

When it comes to learning how to read Loshon HaKodesh there are four different basic goals in reading.

To reach each one of these goals a different training regimen is necessary and can only be reached at different ages.

The four goals are:

  1. To be able to learn Chumash.
  2. To read without nekudos.
  3. To be able to daven, especially as a chazzan.
  4. To read from the Torah.

The First Grade Kriah

The goal of teaching kriah in Pre-1-A is to reach goal number one: to be able to learn Chumash, by learning the basic kriah.

Let us take a look at how Chumash is taught in first grade.

The teacher has all the children pointing to the correct place, then he starts saying the word with its translation and the children repeat after the teacher.

This process is repeated many times over and in many different forms, then they move on to the next word with the same system until they’re done with the passuk.

Afterwards the teacher goes around the class having children read the same passuk in review, and they review the same thing at home.

This is the general formula of how children do their reading in first grade.

This is what we'll call classroom reading.

Based on this we can understand that most of the decoding here is being done by the teacher and not the children, as they merely repeat what they have been hearing from the teacher so many times.

With this being the case, we can understand some points regarding their kriah at this age:

1) Even without the strongest decoding muscles a child can still learn Chumash, as most of the decoding is not dependent on the child’s muscles, but rather on the child’s memory from what is heard from the teacher.

This is not to say that the decoding muscles don’t play a role here, as the stronger the decoding muscles are the easier it will be for the child to decode the word later.

Rather, we’re saying that even when one’s muscles are still weak, he can learn Chumash.

2) This kind of reading is not building their decoding muscles, as most of their reading is based on memory from the teacher.

3) The children don’t need to know all the codes in kriah, as long as they have the basic decoding skills. The fine-tuned codes will be pronounced correctly based on the way the teacher reads them.

Reading Without Nekudos

Let us now move on to the second goal we have in teaching children kriah: reading without nekudos.

In this part of kriah, the ultimate goal in the classroom is for the child to be able to read Rashi and Gemora properly without any nekudos.

For a child to do so, the child will have to be familiar with the word in a way he would be able to pronounce it by merely seeing it, seeing the word as a picture.

The child would also have to know in what context the word is written, as in Loshon HaKodesh many words have the same letters but have a different meaning.

How this is accomplished is beyond to the scope of this article.

(For many people who already know how to read Rashi and Gemora without nekudos, having nekudos in them will be annoying and a hindrance to their reading, as the nekudos are disturbing the picture.)

Davening

Goal three of kriah is for children to know how to daven, especially being comfortable with being chazzan.

It’s not uncommon to see someone reading Chazzoras Hashatz very well, however, he will have a hard time saying “Aneinu” or “V’Al Hanisim.”

The reason is:

When a chazzan is reading Chazzoras Hashatz at a proper speed, he is mostly saying the words out of habit, as davening is recited every day, with the same words, (with obviously different feelings), and therefore after a while, those words become second nature.

On the other hand, for the parts of davening one is not familiar with, like “V’Al Haninsim,” one is dependent on his decoding skills, which are commonly not too strong.

Interestingly, at times someone can correct us in our davening even though we are always looking in our siddur, the reason for this is from the start of our davening we trained ourselves to see the words the incorrect way.

Our goal in teaching the reading of davening is that by the time the child becomes bar mitzvah, the words will be coming out correctly in a manner of second nature.

The best way to accomplish this is by starting as early as possible. Davening should be said aloud and correctly, with individual attention, with a focus on Shmona Esrey, which is the most sensitive part of being a chazzan.

Still, due to time constraints, there are many parts of davening that we don’t have the time to teach them and ensure they are reading correctly.

For these parts of davening the child will need his decoding muscles to be strong so he will be able to read smoothly.

Krias Hatorah

Goal number four: teaching children or young adults how to read from the Torah.

The takana of Krias Hatorah is to read it, meaning the mitzvah of Krias HaTorah is to read it entirely correctly with all of its details.

An interesting difference we find between Krias HaTorah and davening is that the Rabbeim were particular that Krias HaTorah should be read properly with all of its dikduk, and this is the way chassidim conduct themselves. However, we find that chassidim were not as particular regarding dikduk in davening.

Why is that? Shouldn’t it be if we care about dikduk it should be across the board?

The ba’al koreh, besides preparing the basic kriah, will have the intricate task of preparing the shva, differentiating between a shva na and a shva nach, to know the proper place of the messeg in the word,
whether or not there is a dogesh and which syllable it is in, and to top it all off what is the trop of the word and where is its place.

All the above is very complex, therefore, while laining the Torah the ba’al koreh can’t focus on the meaning of the words, rather he can only focus on the pronunciation and singsong of the words. Later he can review what they read and know what the parsha is saying.

This is why it is called kriah, meaning the mitzvah in Krias HaTorah is not learning it, but rather reading it.

Now let’s apply this scenario to davening, where one is particular in its kriah with all of its dikduk: such a davening will sound beautiful and perfect, however, it would be void of meaning.

During such a davening one is focused on the singing aspect of it and won’t have the brain capacity to concentrate on the meaning of the words and in front of Whom he is standing.

Therefore, when it comes to davening, about which Chazal says, “Tefillah Rachmonah liba ba'i” – the main aspect of davening is the heart. Davening should be with feeling of a slave to his master or of a son to his father.

This may be the reason why chassidim chose to focus on the meaning of davening rather than filling up their brain space on its pronunciation.

[This is probably the meaning of what is brought in the Reshimos of the Frierdiker Rebbe (Sefer Hasichos 5696, p52, fn12)

That “the Rebbe Maharash wondered about the knowledge of the Rebbe the Tzemach
Tzeddek in dikduk and asked, ‘Isn’t it that chassidim are not particular in dikduk?’ On this his father the Rebbe the Tzemach Tzeddek answered, ‘Davening is its own matter and reading from the Torah is its own
matter. The main concept of davening is the kavonah… and dikduk is not important besides Shma. However, reading from the Torah needs to be with its proper dikduk.’”]

The Age of Teaching Trop

We can therefore understand why trop and other fine parts of kriah should be taught specifically to older children, as the full proper reading is mainly a necessity only for those that are going to lain the Torah.

We should not burden young children with the complexity of proper kriah that is not useful for their goal of getting to the meaning of the word by using up their brain capacity and disrupting their flow.

This kind of kriah is largely only suitable for developed children with knowledge of shorashim. Only mature children
can have a proper understanding of the rules and the ability to review it and make it a part of them.

This would also apply to teaching Chumash with trop: based on what we explained, this sort of reading would disrupt the child’s ability to focus on the meaning of the word and would instead focus on its singsong.

[This also answers the following question: It is written in Shulchan Aruch (A”C 687 2) regarding reading the Megilah that the mitzvah of reading the Megilah has precedence over the mitzvah of limmud haTorah, and one has to stop their learning to read or hear it.

The question is, why isn’t reading the Megilah considered to be learning Torah? Isn’t the Megilah also a part of Torah?

The answer is that when we read the Megilah we are focused on the singsong of the Megilah and ensuring that we read correctly, not missing a single syllable. We don’t have the brain space to focus on the
meaning.

Even a seasoned Megilah reader who can focus somewhat on the basic meaning cannot plumb its depth, resulting in a qualitative bitul Torah.]

Summary

Reading in Loshon HaKodesh has several dimensions to it.

1) Basic Reading with Nekudos

The basic reading with nekudos is a decoding exercise, which is started in Pre-1-A and needs to be strengthened constantly even after Pre-1-A.

This exercise needs to be broken into simple steps with consideration of the child’s development. Also, this sort of reading should be kept simple so as not to confuse the children when they come to
learn Chumash.

2) Reading Without Nekudos

In reading without nekudos, it may be possible to reach the level of sight-reading.

3) Davening

As davening is the language of the heart, our focus is not the fine-tuned nuances of the kriah, rather we stick to the basic kriah and our focus kriah is that the correct basic pronunciation should become second nature.

4) Krias HaTorah

The takana of Krias HaTorah is that it should be read, therefore it is in this type of reading that all the klolei hadikduk apply. Being that one can lain only when he becomes bar mitzvah, it is when he comes closer to this age that it may be necessary to learn all the klolei hadikduk.