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Grammar Made Un-Dull

When you eat of the bread of the land, lift up an offering to G-d. The first of your grain-cradle you shall uplift as a challah-offering (15:19-20)

The best years of your life, the prime hours of your day, the freshest of your energies, the choicest of your talents and abilities - what is first and uppermost in you, devote to G-dly pursuits…

- Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe

Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok of Lubavitch related:

Winter 1891. It is my third term of study with my teacher, Reb Nissan the melamed. My father also hired Reb Yitzchok Gershon (who leads the prayers and reads from the Torah at the synagogue) to teach me. For one hour each day, we study Nach (bible),1 the meaning of the prayers, hebrew grammar, and the musical notes for the Torah reading.

I greatly enjoyed the Nach; I would review my lessons repeatedly - in the time that I was free from cheder, of course. In fact, my devotion to Nachinfringed upon my study of mishnayos, of which I was obliged to review several chapters a day by heart; I would take from the time allotted for the mishnayosto study Nach.

Also my study of the prayers went well - in two weeks I had mastered the meaning of the words. But the technicalities of grammar and the notes were a burden to me. In these studies I showed little progress - by morning the previous evening's lesson had evaporated as if it never was. I had special difficulty with the upper and lower accents and the stressed and light pronunciations. [In Hebrew Grammar a mil'ill, or 'upper accent', means that the first or middle syllable of a word is stressed; if the accent is on the final syllable, the word is a milrah, or 'lower accent'. The dogush('stressed'), and rofeh('light') pronunciations designate a hard or soft consonant respectively. A rule of thumb is that a mil'illis always dogush, and a milrahalways rofeh.]

Once, after such a grammar lesson, I poured out my heart to my father. Reb Yitzchok Gershon had tested me and was satisfied by the results, but I knew better: the lesson was merely hovering about my brain. In tears, I confessed my lack of interest in grammar to father, and was prepared to hear words of rebuke. But father took a different approach: he proceeded to explain to me the inner significance of the technicalities of grammar.

"The upper and lower accents are heaven and earth" he said. "'Upper' is the Torah and its precepts; the 'lower' represents the material needs and pursuits of man. The 'upper' must always be 'stressed' - strong and intense. But the 'lower' is to be taken lightly. True, we are speaking of permissible things, but these need not be regarded as 'musts' and should be pursued in a negligible and feeble manner - no more than is absolutely necessary."


1. The Prophets (Nevi'im) and the Writings (Ketuvim), the second and third sections of the Bible.



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