The Education Ministry is to ban Bible aid booklets that help elementary and junior high school students by "translating" the text into simple Hebrew. Private publishers defend the booklets by arguing that biblical Hebrew is a foreign tongue to young Israelis.

Teaching experts lambast the booklets, warning that children will skip reading the Bible and opt for the simplified version. This will not only deteriorate Bible studies but also impact the Hebrew language, which is based on the Bible, they say.

The idea of translating the Bible into simple contemporary language is "scandalous," Drora Halevy, the ministry's National Supervisor for Bible Studies, told Haaretz. The booklets present the text in "skimpy slang" that cheapens the Bible, she added.

"It's a purely marketing initiative intended for the below-average; it's a disaster," says Professor Yaira Amit, a Bible instruction expert.

Booklet publishers Rafi Moses and Reches Publications say the Bible is a foreign language to Israeli children, who need to read it in simple language to understand it.

Halevy and other Bible and Hebrew language experts fear that children will simply not bother to read the Bible, but use the simple language version instead.

"The Bible is the Hebrew language's dictionary. It's the foundation of everything," says linguist Zvia Valdan. "If you read it without the original expressions and rhythms, it will lose its impact and power."

It is no secret that parents and children are confused when it comes to studying the Bible. Parents have difficulty explaining biblical texts to their children and might be tempted to buy the simply-worded, NIS 20 booklets. They are easy to read, with the original text on one side of the page and the simplified version opposite it.

But beyond that, the furor over the Bible Lite text highlights the fact that Israeli schoolchildren cannot cope with biblical Hebrew. "This is a colossal failure of our education system that defies description," says Professor Amit. "How come children used to be able to read the Bible? How come they used to be able to learn sections by heart? It was hard for them then too, but they dealt with it because they were told it was important. Religious schools wouldn't dream of simplifying the Bible," she says, adding that if you cannot handle the Bible's language, you will not be able to understand Bialik and Tchernechovsky's poetry.

Amit, who admits to feeling like the last guardian of the seal, is outraged that shallow instant culture has now dared to "simplify" the Bible. "We give precedence to shallowness and shortcuts in many areas of modern life. It's OK in e-mails in which the message is the main thing. But where is the boundary? You cannot do away with cultural values."

She believes that students should study the Bible for more hours and be required to quote from memory.

Reading the Bible Lite version shows that while it may not be slang, it is problematic. There is something discordant in the simplified version of the familiar, seminal Genesis text. "In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth" is translated to "in the beginning God created the world."

"Why change the expression 'the heaven and the earth?'" asks Amit.

The expression "chaos" has been replaced by "the earth was empty and deserted."

Surprisingly, the man behind the Bible Lite version is a former Bible teacher and headmaster. "When they first suggested [making the booklets] I was astonished. Why should we rewrite the Bible in a simple tongue?" says Avraham Ahuvia, 87, of kibbutz Netzer Sereni. "But on second thought I was convinced that we teachers already translate the Bible orally in class for students who don't understand its sublime language."

He accepts that children may read only the simplified version, "but if there were no simple version, would they like the Bible better?"

Halevy is convinced that using the simple-language Bible will lead to the loss of Biblical expressions and idioms that are used in contemporary Hebrew. She asserts that the booklet's meager language drives children away from the Bible, rather than bring them closer.

Moses says "this is an important project that fulfills a real need. The booklet's language is first-rate. Our children deserve to understand the Bible, love it and savor its language without suffering."