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Yeshivish, the Language

I wonder how many people are able to understand the language spoken by some of the Magidei Shiur.

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Photo Credit: Yaakov Naumi/Flash90

One of my personal pleasures these days is listening to an Iyun Kal (“lightly in depth”) Shiur on Shas Illuminated. This is a website designed for people who learn Daf Yomi and want t go into a bit more depth on the subject matter discussed in that day’s Gemarah. I have promoted this website a couple of times since my own son is one of the Magidei Shiur (lecturers). He did the first Perek (chapter) in Shabbos and is due to do the 12th Perek. Having it ‘spoon fed’ to me daily is quite a treat.

I love listening what various Rishonim, Achronim, and modern day Poskim have say on the those Sugyos (topics). I get quite a bit out of someone else’s hard work researching those sources.

But I wonder how many people are able to understand the language spoken by some of the Magidei Shiur. One might ask, “Don’t they give those Shiurim in English?” The answer is, sort of. The language they use is something called Yeshivish. That is a combination of English, Hebrew, Yiddish, and Aramaic.

For most people who have attended a Yeshiva through high school and beyond – this is not a problem. This is the way most of us have learned Torah. We use this “Language of Learning”. It is in our blood. Using words like “Mutar and “Assur” are far more natural for us than using their English translations of “permitted” and “forbidden”. It is far more comfortable for us to use the language of the Talmud itself in certain words and expressions.

In fact this is one of the problems I have with ArtScroll English Shas. They translate too much. But I am not criticizing them for that. I actually applaud them for it. They should use as pristine a version of the English language as possible so that everyone can study the Talmud despite their backgrounds.

So what’s my problem? It is the following. If one becomes accustomed to using Yeshivish instead of English one may actually come to forget how to speak the language. Not everyone will be able to understand them. In some cases the Yeshivish becomes so ingrained and so extreme that they become completely incomprehensible to the untrained ear. They may not even realize that normal English speaking non Yeshivishe people have no clue what they are saying.

I will never forget a Sheva Brachos I attended one time. The Chasan’s older brother who was born and raised in America but had been learning in a Yeshiva for over a decade after he was married was asked to speak. He realized that not everyone in the room understood Yeshivish and said so.

He therefore said that he was going to say his D’var Torah in English. And he proceeded to speak incomprehensible Yeshivish anyway. Makes me wonder what his actual Yeshivish sounded like. The point is, however, that he actually thought he was speaking English!

This is a tremendous failing in the right wing Yeshiva world. Secular studies are denigrated so much that the ability to communicate with the non Yeshiva world is completely hampered. These students are either never taught or they completely ignore English grammar and never try to increase their vocabulary.

I don’t think I am alone in noting that this is a problem. I believe that many even right wing Roshei Yeshiva believe it is a problem. I recall reading that Rav Avreimal Ausband, the Rosh HaYeshiva of Telshe Yeshiva of Riverdale saying he felt this way. And yet I don’t believe that any Roshei Yeshiva are doing anything about it.

If the right wing wants to communicate their ideas to an educated Orthodox public, speaking or writing in Yeshivish will not do the trick. They should be able to put together complete sentences that do not contain Yeshivishe words.

Nor will they be able to even teach Torah to anyone who has not gone through the Yeshiva system. Which brings me back to The Magedei Shiur at Shas Illuminated. They are all Tamidei Chachmim, Talmudic scholars. But not all of them speak English – even though they think they are.

My son does. In his Shiurim on that website, he utilizes the vocabulary and English grammar he learned in high school and college. Although he also uses some Yeshivishe words, they are only the ones that are most commonly used. His Shiurim are therefore more broadly understood. But some of the other Magidei Shiur use a Yeshivishe jargon that only those with a serious Yeshivishe background will understand.

If the right wing wants to more fully participate in the English speaking Jewish world beyond the four walls of the Beis HaMedrash by being on the internet, I think the Roshei Yeshiva ought to require the serious study of the English language. If they don’t do that, they will further isolate themselves into becoming a sect with a language of their own which will be incomprehensible to anyone but themselves.

Of course in the ideal, they should be taking all secular subjects seriously. But I suppose that would be asking too much in a climate of preferred isolation from the rest of the world. But at the very least they should be able to communicate without sounding illiterate. Although there are quite a few right wing writers who can communicate very well (such as Yale educated Jonathan Rosenblum, Yeshiva University educated Rabbi Chaim D. Keller, and Ner Israel educated Rabbi Avi Shafran to name a few) I’m not sure what the future holds. Will the Yeshiva world of the right be able to communicate with the rest of Orthodoxy? Only time will tell.

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About the Author: Harry Maryles runs the blog "Emes Ve-Emunah" which focuses on current events and issues that effect the Jewish world in general and Orthodoxy in particular. It discuses Hashkafa and news events of the day - from a Centrist perspctive and a philosphy of Torah U'Mada. He can be reached at hmaryles@yahoo.com.


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