Hebrew Mnemonics

@thinkaboutthebible well, you’ve motivated me to write down my associations, I just never thought I’d have someone else interested in them, so I didn’t (yet). The E-Word dictionary from edenics.org has thousands of cognates (it’s $15 when I last bought it and a huge bargain). Don’t be distracted by the author’s religious speculations: the book is the best source I know for discovering cognates. As with all memory aids, “deeper meaning” isn’t relevant; we’re looking for easy associations and tricks.

I taught myself Hebrew in 75 weeks from Ha Yesod (search Amazon). I’m good enough to get by in Israel and certainly good enough to read and appreciate the aspects of the Bible that just cannot be translated. The word play and constant punning are irresistible, not to mention Gematria (more associations!).

The Old Bible is punchy, earthy, funny, and not in the least flowery or pretentious or willfully anachronistic in spirit like all translations I have ever read. It’s meant to be enjoyed and remembered by everyone regardless of religion. Start with the book of Jonah. It has a small vocabulary. Hebrew grammar is super logical and easy for anyone with a mathematical bent, like all us memory aficionados.

I really like the psalms as sung by the Yemenite Jews. It sounds like Arabic (which I also know) because they pronounce all the gutturals in a way that might be like Hebrew in the time of Moses. It’s chilling to listen to 3,500-year-old tunes of David (the original rock star!) kept alive and reverantly so. The modern pronunciation is ok for speaking, but I don’t like it for singing. Mechon Mamre has mp4s for the entire Hebrew Bible spoken by a wonderful reader in a strong Sephardi pronunciation that I like very much.


@rebcabin, thank you SO much for all your acquired wisdom and references. They will be put to use for sure! Stay in touch.

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I started learning Hebrew because of its obvious connections to the Major Memory System (3-way correspondences between consonant sounds, mental images, and numbers). Hebrew doesn’t bother with vowels (neither does Major) and Hebrew variants of Major have been taught since the days of Yavneh (around 70 AD) after the Romans destroyed the ancient State of Israel and banished the Bible-memorizers (rabbis and Yeshiva boys) to the boonies.

See books by mnemotechnologist Eran Katz (his best one is Hebrew-only, called סוד המוח היהודי (Sod HaMoahh HaYahudi, “Secret of the Jewish Brain”, but it’s easy Hebrew; you should be able to read it [with a dictionary at hand] after you’ve completed Ha Yesod [“the foundation,” and notice “sod,” secret, embedded in the word “yesod,” foundation, one instance of constant punning and cross-linked words in Hebrew), but Eran Katz has many books in English.

Eran Katz is very popular in Korea! Imagine that, an Israeli guy teaching Koreans memory techniques from the ancient Bible memorizers! According to some sources I can’t cite (due to forgetfulness OY-VEY :)), Catholic monastic Bible-memorizers picked up the Major System from rabbis in Europe (specifically Rabbi Aryeh of Modena 1500-ish I think), and Major made its way into Polish and French and eventually to English.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that the Old Bible is easier to read than the daily newspaper, and that it’s actually fun (unlike the terrifying boredom one encounters in translations). The account of Abraham’s haggling with God to spare Sodom and Gamorrah in Genesis 18 is pure Mel Brooks (now we know where old Mel got some of his sense of humor). The account of Judah and Tamar reads like a tabloid.

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Such good info! I read Eran Katz’s Where Did Noah Park the Ark? Ancient Memory Techniques for Remembering Practically Anything a few years ago.

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I worked out a shape mnemonic system for the block and cursive Hebrew alphabet last year. (Tet reminds me of an ancient boat with King Tut aboard.) Do you know of any similar system?

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I used English Major and Hebrew picture words

  1. Tea. Aleph = Aryeh = Lion = #1 of animal kingdom. Aleph looks like X or |< in cursive, picture a Lion with two horns stuffed into a Disneyland teacup
  2. Noah. Bet = house = “Booth” looks like the booth on top of Noah’s ark blown sideways in the wind. has 2 branches pointing leftward
  3. May. Gimel = Camel looks like the head and front paws of a camel facing leftward. picture camels bouncing on maypole ribbons.
  4. Ray. Dalet = “Door” looks like a car’s door handle kinda. picture shining my laser pointer on the handle of my old car in the dark.
  5. Law. Heh = Har = mountain. looks like a mountain with a hole on the left, a cave opening. Picture being caught by the cops after stealing dead-sea scrolls from the cave.
  6. Jaw. Vav = Vered = pink rose. looks like a rose stem with the flowers cut off by Morticia Addams. picture “Lurch” from the Addams family with his lantern jaw and a rose stem clenched in his teeth
  7. Key. Zayin = looks like a key pointing leftward (notice I only worry about pointing things to the left, to fight dyslexia) = Zeev = Wolf. picture a wolf running off with my car keys in its mouth
  8. Fee. Hhet = Hhamor = Donkey. looks like a saddle bag turned upside down. picture a stupid mule spilling the fee i stored in its saddle bags all over the ground (frustrating emotion easy to remember)
    [. breaking this up 'cause it’s getting long .]

It seems Rabbi Leone da Modena thinks that no other Jew had written about mnemnotechnics before he wrote his Leb haAryeh published in 1612. (Leone da Modena and England by Cecil Roth, a paper from 1926). I looked for that document and couldn’t find it. But I did find that

Leon translated the perennial favorite Fiori di Virtu from Italian into Hebrew and adapted the popular mnemonic methods of the time for his Jewish readers in his Leb HaAryeh

and that

He maintained that the Jews were the first to develop the art of mnemonics, that they were the founders of musical techniques, and that they had given to mankind all its wisdom.

both quoted from Leon da Modena and the "Kol Sakhal": III. Leon da Modena (Continued) on JSTOR.

Seth Long in Excavating the Memory Palace seems to originate the Major system in print with Pierre Hérigone in the 1630’s and ties that to the Hindi system of memory used since the 7th century.

I think the system was in common use and no one bothered to write it down because it was a system of sounds and easier to teach that way.

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  1. Pea. Tet = Tayyas = pilot. looks like a radio dial, pointer on the left. picture a pilot sitting in a cockpit full of pea soup trying to tune in the radio
  2. Toes. Yad = Hand looks like a toenail. picture a pretty girl painting her toenails with a brush in her hand
  3. Tot. Caf = Ciseh = Throne. looks like one of those Danish ball chairs pointing left. picture Alice from Wonderland seated in the throne of the Red Queen after vanquishing her
  4. Tan. Lamed = Lehhem = Bread. looks like a left-handed dough-hook. Picture a girl tanning herself in the sun with a reflective tray that’s baking bread in the heat of the sun
  5. Tam. Mim = Mayim = Water. looks like a teakettle pointing left. Picture dolphins in Miami flipping a Tam-o-Shanter around in the water
  6. Tar. Nun = Nahhash = snake. Picture a snake crawling across a freshly tarred bit of highway in the desert burning his little feet off … oh, wait a minute … he doesn’t have feet < i branch out into other memory tricks here, like cuff = 78 and tights = 110 ASCII codes for N, for his non-existent limbs >
  7. Tail. Samekh = Sefer = book. Looks round, but books are rectangular (remember by opposing). Picture a tiger with his striped tail chewing the corners off a book.
  8. Tissue Ayin = Ayin = eye. looks like an eye-cup for washing eyes. Picture wiping tears from your eyes. Too easy
    [. continued .]
  1. Tack. Peh = mouth. looks like someone biting lower lip (upper lip in cursive). Biting lip to removed pesky thumbtacks OUCH (remember the pain)
  2. Taffy. Tsadeh = Tzippor = Sparrow (cognate) = bird. looks like a bird with big flat foot. easy one
  3. Tap, Quf = Monkey. looks like a beer tap with a huge handle. picture the monkey tapping beer.
  4. Nose. Resh = Ro’sh = Head. looks like English uncial R pointed leftward, Picture David with Golyath’s head and its HUGE nose (famous painting … Goya?)
  5. Net. Shin = Sheled = skeleton looks like a rib cage kinda, picture skeleton chasing butterflies with a net
  6. Nun. Tav = Tanin = alligator or croc. looks like a gator with too-long legs pointing leftward, Picture a nun in full habit walking her pet gator on a leash by the Nile (I can’t remember whether the Nile has gators or crocs, but it sure has Tanin-im.

I wouldn’t be surprised to find that the Ancient Egyptians had a variant of Major. After 400 years of slavery with them, the Hebrews must have picked up something from them. I heard from a certain rabbi that Rabbi L. of Modena didn’t give proper credit to his predecessors and that Major was in constant use at Yavneh and was known to the ultra-famous R. Akiva. But you’ve already surpassed me in scholarship on the question :slight_smile: I invoked only random, unresearched hearsay :slight_smile:

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The Rashi alphabet is more difficult to picturize / majorize. It’s essential for reading commentary on the Torah in printed “Miqraot Gdolot” (Grand Readers). I just force-learned it and practice it occasionally with a nice fountain pen.

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on 18, i forgot to say “bird with flat feet stuck in sticky taffy candy.”

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I’m impressed that my memory tricks worked so well. I have not thought about this since 2005 and only forgot one thing on 18.

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I made a story out of the letters for my system without pegs to make it easier to remember. Was there an important reason why you chose number pegs? But very impressive system and obviously a good one in that it stuck with you for 16 years! Thanks for posting all your images.

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I used pegs instead of story for two reasons

  1. I am so accustomed to pegs that they’re like breathing to me (constant use since age 5 or so)
  2. recall letters out of order. Quick, what’s the 15th Hebrew letter. Quick! :slight_smile:

no deeper reason

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Rabbi “Leone,” lion. Lev Aryeh. Heart of a lion. hmmm :slight_smile:

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well, I guess one more reason:
3. I got 22 vocabulary words out of the exercise

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Thank you for giving me the opportunity to enjoy sharing!

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This is exactly why I came to this forum, to find conversations like this one! Thank you!

Same guy Leone or Lev, I just used his Italian name. Very colorful figure, tragic life, gambling addict, great intellect.
4. Impress people by reciting the alephbet backwards. I can’t even do that with the ABCs.

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Here’s a new cognate set for you:
Lev = Heart
Cal = All (direct English cognate)
Calev = dog = “All Love” = faithful companion of Joshua
A dog will love you pretty much no matter what
English name “Caleb” is cognate or even exactly the same.

Melech = King
M = Moahh = Brain
L = Lev = Heart
Ch = Cheved = Liver (weight, “gravitas”)

A King uses his head first, his heart (emotion, kindness, compassion) second, and his weight third.

Lemech = Biblical bad guys, several named this
Heart first (no control over emotions)
Head second

Lavan = white. Another biblical bad guy (tricked Jacob into marrying Leah). Hebrew VERY OFTEN uses irony: a word paradoxically means its opposite. Many, many examples: e.g.

Rom = high, exalted (like "Rome! ")
Ramah = deceitful, betrayer

go figure! but it’s part of the unique and extreme charm of the language!

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