Learning Biblical Hebrew in Braille Without the Daghesh

About Sarah Blake LaRose

Sarah Blake LaRose is a freelance writer and a professor of Biblical Hebrew at Anderson University School of Theology in Anderson, Indiana. She is one of three blind academic scholars who received the Jacob Bolotin Award from the National Federation of the Blind in 2016 in recognition of innovative work in the field of access to biblical language texts and tools for people who are blind.

“Oh! Oh, oh, oh!” I exclaimed. “I have seen one! I have to find it!” I began frantically turning pages in a book which was sitting near my Hebrew textbook. Locating what I was looking for, I began to shout and pound on the book. “There it is! There it is, there it is, there it is! Woo hoo! This is fun, fun, fun!”

“Would you like to translate that?” asked Melanie, a fellow student who was sitting in on my Hebrew lessons. Her contagious laugh rang out over the room.

“I found it!” I shouted again.

“I’m glad,” exclaimed Lew, my professor; “but what is it?”

I studied the page carefully so that I would not give the wrong information. Slowly I verbalized my finding. “A braille dot 5 is a daghesh! It’s not used in my textbook, but it is in the Bible!”

This interaction was only the beginning… I discovered that Hebrew is one of the quirkiest things I’ve ever read in braille–perhaps the only thing that is more quirky is braille music. Part of the quirkiness has nothing to do with Hebrew itself but with the decisions that transcribers make about what to do and what not to do. My professor and I knew none of this at the time, and we struggled alone and did the best we could with the resources we had:

  • a hardcopy version of the braille Hebrew Bible from the Jewish Braille Institute which was painstakingly transcribed and proofread for faithfulness to the text and included a detailed preface explaining precisely what choices had been made about symbol usage and omission.
  • a “manual of Hebrew braille,” also from JBI, and which I hoped might assist in further bolstering my understanding of Hebrew symbols. I think now that it would neither help nor hurt.
  • a hardcopy of Thomas Lambdin’s Hebrew grammar in braille , provided by JBI, which had many transcription weaknesses similar to the lack of daghesh.

Most people would find it abhorrent that I would be learning Biblical Hebrew from a textbook that omitted symbols so crucial as the daghesh and the sheva, let alone other things. In fact, as I worked with the digitization of Weingreen’s A Practical Grammar for Classical Hebrew in braille format, I have sat with the Unicode text and edited for many, many hours to correct these very problems. Scholars who are blind should have an accurate rendering of the text.

So was there any benefit to me? And how did I learn Hebrew in that environment?

First, it took me longer to work through that text than my cohorts did to work through Funk. I was in “first year” for three semesters, though my skills were scattered. While I was on one hand still studying Hiphils and Hophals and doing the Lambdin exercises, I also translated Jonah from the hardcopy JBI text.

That leads me to the answer to how I learned in that environment. Since there were numerous conflicts between what I read in the descriptions and what I saw in the examples (no sheva, no dagesh so no proper paradigms), we supplemented every grammar lesson with much reading from the Bible. The only way I could see correct text was to read it. So by the time I was finished with summer, I had seen Hiphils and Hophals even though I had never done the paradigms.

The advantage to me is that I learned to be very flexible in my thinking, to understand Hebrew rules even when what I saw did not match what I should see. This helped me to transition to the world of Hebrew on the computer, where presentation is not always the same. Because screen readers and software have not managed to play nicely together in all circumstances, I might see dagheshes before letters, dagheshes behind letters, correct symbols for bet plus daghesh or not, or Hebrew may be presented right to left or left to right (as it normally is in braille documents). In Microsoft Word, the orientation could change in the middle of the line if I was reading on a braille display. These problems have since been corrected, and today’s blind scholars have much more reliable access to Biblical Hebrew using the JAWS screen reader.

In case this all makes Hebrew braille seem amazing and hard and makes me sound just too awesome and inspirational, please don’t get too much of that kind of thought into your head. Hebrew students at AUSOT began by thinking it was so very hard to read from right to left. I think that is pretty amazing myself. For a person who wants to do something strongly enough, amazing things are possible. My cohorts learned to read from right to left, and I learned to do all this stuff. Humans are capable of many things, especially when God is empowering them to do something in His service. I am grateful that the tools exist to enable me to read Hebrew at all. There was a time when I thought that I never would be able to do so. Thankfully, I too now take advantage of the same improved screen reader tools that other blind scholars have. I am working with other scholars who learned during the time of hardship to continue to improve the state of access in the future.

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