Learning Traditional Hebrew and Chinese

The Shma and the San Zi Jing

This is the final part of the Beginner's section. Here we present the two most well-known and widely learned traditional texts of Hebrew and Chinese - the Shma, and the first section of the San Zi Jing. These two texts, traditionally the first texts learned by Jewish and Chinese children, should be studied and memorized before continuing on to the Intermediate section.

In the first section of the San Zi Jing, there are a number of characters which are simply one of the 214 Chinese basic radicals - these are in bold. The diligent students referred to, Meng Zi ("Meng"), Dou Yan Shan, Xiang, and Rong, are in red. In the Shma, some of the key concepts and personalities (such as Elohim, Moshe (Moses), Israel, Mitzvah, Tsitsit, and Mezuzah), are in red. The three cases where the vowel kamatz (the "T" shaped vowel) is pronounced "o" instead of "a", are in bold. (This is in addition to the word "kol" ("all"), which appears numerous times, where the kamatz is always pronounced "o").

Some characteristic of the texts: the Chinese San Zi Jing was written after the Chinese people were already well established; the Shma was written over 1500 years earlier, when the Jewish people were entering Israel and were beginning to consolidate as a people. The San Zi Jing is trying to outline to the young Chinese child the basic steps of learning Chinese letters, culture, and history; the Shma is trying to teach the Jewish child some of the central features which make the Jewish people unique. Both texts seem to be imply that the knowlege of truth comes through studying these very texts, and especially, that parents must ensure that their children study these texts.

Traditional Hebrew

PDF of the Shema (In this text, accents which fall on the second-to-last syllable are marked with a line over the Hebrew letter.)

Audio (mp3) of the beginning of the Shema
Continuation of the Shema
Audio (wma) of the Shema

Traditional Chinese

PDF file for learning the San Zi Jing
MS Word file for learning the San Zi Jing

Audio (mp3) of the San Zi Jing
Audio (wma) of the San Zi Jing

Radicals and proper names in the first section of the San Zi Jing, and some main words and concepts in the Shma:


Traditional Hebrew and Chinese Services
From now on, the learner should begin to become familiar with traditional Hebrew and Chinese as found in the standard traditional Hebrew Sefardic prayerbook (primarily the Shma, and the Amidah - introduced later), and as found in traditional Chinese children's texts (primarily the San Zi Jing). A quick method for learning is to participate in Jewish services at a synagogue (the more Hebrew the better, hopefully with an Israeli pronunciation), and at any traditional Chinese service where traditional Chinese prayers or texts are recited. It is surprising how quickly Hebrew or Chinese phrases can be memorized when they are sung or chanted to a tune together with others. For example, the Shma introduced on this page, may seem foreign to the beginner, but after attending a few services (even at different synagogues), the learner will see how well-known and widespread the recitation of the Shma is. With Chinese services, simply find the easiest standard texts, and begin to follow along with them together with the others at the service.

Characteristics of Traditional Hebrew and Chinese
Traditional Hebrew (including Biblical Hebrew), is fairly similar to modern Israeli Hebrew, and can be read by an Israeli with a little effort. For example, a Hebrew Bible printed in Israel only requires some limited notes in modern Hebrew underneath the main Hebrew text, in order to explain some words which may be unfamiliar to the modern Hebrew speaker. A key feature of the traditional Hebrew found in the prayer book, is that it clearly portrays the rules for modern literary Hebrew, both in pronunciation and grammar. A person learning modern Hebrew, who has also mastered reading the prayerbook, will have little trouble reading and pronouncing correctly modern literary Hebrew (which otherwise is fairly difficult to learn correctly).
Traditional Chinese, however, is a little more different than modern Chinese. When traditional Chinese texts are presented to the modern Chinese reader, they are presented with a parallel text in modern Chinese. The clearest difference is that in traditional Chinese, words are almost always represented by a single Chinese character, while in modern Chinese, words are often represented by two characters. Still, most of the characters in the traditional text will also appear in the modern version.

Note on the Tropes of the Shema
We will not deal with the Torah tropes (cantillation, or singing marks) on this site. However, the melody for the Shema is according to these singing signs, which are also used to chant or sing the verses of the Tanakh (Hebrew bible). Since the Shema is commonly sung, it is easy to eventually learn and remember the melody - which is actually the same melody that the verses are sung with in the Tanach. Once this melody is learned, it is an easy step, for those interested, to go on to learning the Torah tropes themselves (the extra singing marks that appear in the Tanakh, including the Shema).

For those interested, here is a PDF with the Shema with tropes, and then the individual names of the tropes spelled out beneath. One would use the melody one learned from the Shema, to learn to sing the corresponding trope names. Once this is accomplished, a person would be able to chant the tropes of the Tanach. The best way to practice and become proficient is, first, to learn to sing correctly the individual trope names (easiest done after learning to sing the Shema, as mentioned). Then, practice singing the trope names as they appear in the Hebrew verses - that is, read through the verses, but instead of singing the Hebrew of the verses, sing the trope names themselves. This enables a person to learn to immediately remember the trope melody (and name) as soon as they see a particular trope.

PDF of the Shema with tropes: an aid for learning the tropes.