The final project for "Breaking the Sefer Barrier," the class I'm taking with Reb Daniel Siegel on decoding rabbinic texts, has three parts: 1) work with a passage from our source text (expand all of the abbreviations and references, and translate the text into readable English), 2) point the text (e.g. add vowels and punctuation, and expand abbreviations into the appropriate phrases), and 3) write a short paper about what intrigues me in my passage, and how I would go about learning more if I wanted to research the subject in question.
Our source text for the semester was Sefer Ta'amei Haminhagim, which means "The Book of the Reasons
for the Practices." It's a halakhic text, but not one of the
the Sefer Barrier" is meant as a prerequisite to Aleph's classes
in the progression of classic codes, Rambam
and the Tur and the
Shulkhan Arukh and so forth, so the idea was to work with a text that offers the challenges of a halakhic sefer (lots of
acronyms and abbreviations, inconsistent forms of citation and
reference, etc) but isn't one of the major codes we'll be studying later.
At the start of the semester, just cracking the book was daunting. And the midterm kind of kicked my ass. So when I settled in to begin my final assignment, I was prepared for a tough afternoon. I spent a few hours with my Otzar Rashei Teivot (compendium of acronyms) and my Jastrow dictionary, and -- get this -- it paid off! I haven't yet begun the second task in the assignment, scanning the text and then adding nekudot (vowel markings -- definitely not my strong suit) or, for that matter, the third task (short paper.) But I have a rough translation of my passage, and I've identified the parts that are quotations and references. I've more-or-less completed step one.
Looked at one way, it's such a puny accomplishment. I translated a single paragraph of a halakhic sefer; big whoop! By the time I was done my head was spinning and my neck was stiff and I felt like I'd run an intellectual marathon.
But looked at another way, it's kind of awesome. It's easy to feel like I'm not progressing in my language skills, but I'm pretty sure I couldn't have done this three months ago. Slowly but surely, I'm learning how to draw sustenance from this well.