Excluding inclusion

Linguistic lightbulbs

On my way home from chorus rehearsal tonight, I was thinking about the last thing my choir director said to us as we were leaving: to wit, that next week we'll be working on the Salamone Rossi pieces that are on the slate, Elohim Hashivenu and Eftach Na Sefatai. And I was thinking about how it's a bummer that I didn't manage to study any Hebrew today, because my workday went straight through chorus.

Last week I ignored grammar in favor of learning my Torah portion; last night I picked up my First Hebrew Primer again, and had to try to relearn the conjugation of the imperfect tense, which I had forgotten in the interim.  Though in my high school French classes the term "imperfect" denoted past action curtailed ("I was slicing pears when the cat mewed to be let in," e.g.), in Biblical Hebrew "imperfect" describes all actions which are not completed: I will, I would, I might, I usually... Anyway, I've been copying conjugations into my notebook in hopes that writing the forms repeatedly will engrain them in my brain. And In the car, on the way home tonight, I was considering copying out some conjugations while watching the Packers game. As if to get in the spirit of things in advance, as I drove my brain started trying to conjugate one of the sample verbs my textbook provides: פתח, "to open."

And I realized that the first person singular, imperfect tense, is אפתח: eftach. As in, the first word in the title of the Rossi piece I'll be practicing this week.

Learning Hebrew is unlike learning other languages, at least in my experience, because there's so much Hebrew with which I'm familiar in a liturgical context. As I work my way through this grammar, I keep running into words I know: ימלך/yimloch (which I know from phrases like "Adonai yimloch le'olam va'ed, God will reign forever and ever") or תפתח/tiftach (see "Adonai, sefatai tiftach, O God, open my lips"). I knew the words from prayers, but I didn't know how they fit into the larger puzzle of syntax. And suddenly, ding! a little light goes on in my head and I understand a phrase I already knew (like a familiar bit of a prayer, or the title of this choral piece) more fully.

When these little linguistic lightbulbs go off, I can begin to imagine what it will be like -- years from now, I'm sure -- when I know Hebrew well enough that these resonances are clear to me automatically...