Incorrect Hebrew Pronunciation
by Dr. David Berger
The issue of incorrect pronunciation is, I think, even more challenging nowadays than what Gil presented in his extremely useful piece on the subject, and we probably have little choice but to be lenient in most cases. I just heard an otherwise excellent layning in pure Ashkenazis except that tav without a dagesh was pronounced “t” rather than “s.”. Thus, to take one of a myriad examples, “Untonom Hashem Elokekho lefonekho ,” which is, from the perspective of the standard pronunciations, internally inconsistent. Conversely, I have heard—in the same shul—many laynings in otherwise pure Ashkenazis (including the “s” sound for the tav without a dagesh), in which every kamatz (or, if you wish, kametz) gadol was pronounced “a” as in Sefaradit rather than the Ashkenazic “o.” Sometimes this was done even for a kamatz katan, as in “shisha chadashim ba-besamim” in Esther (2:12). In this case, a correction may well be necessary since the erroneous pronunciation produces a different meaning. (“Six months with perfumes ” is turned into “six new things with perfumes.”)
In addition, the introduction of elements of Sefaradit produces inconsistencies because the reader’s childhood instincts cannot be consistently overcome. Thus, sometimes the kamatz is pronounced as (short) “o” and sometimes as “a.” Do you correct the “a” to “o” when dealing with a present tense verb that becomes past tense if pronounced with an “a” (as in nikhtav substituted for nikhtov) when this layner pronounces the kamatz as “a” thirty or forty percent of the time? (In practice, you don’t.)
What about people who pronounce the guttural ayin and the dagesh chazak (gemination, or doubling of a consonant) even though they were not brought up to do that? In the large majority of cases, they cannot do this consistently, so that the ayin and the dagesh will go unpronounced ten to twenty percent of the time. Thus, in the same layning with which I began, the reader pronounced the ayin about eighty percent of the time, but—to take one example—he did not do so in the word arba’im, which appears several times in that parshah. Precisely because he is usually careful to pronounce it, this raises the question of whether the failure to do so constitutes the substitution of an aleph for an ayin. (What if the word were “attah” with an ayin, where the same word with an aleph has a different meaning?) Of course we do not correct this, but why we do not is not so clear in technical terms. I once heard a person brought up in the Litvish pronunciation of the cholam (“ay”) who had later moved to standard American Ashkenazi pronunciation (“o”) revert to his childhood practice when layning the word “levonatah.” He read “levaynosoh,” which is, of course, a different word. Do you have to correct this or do you just accept the fact that this is his original reading tradition? No one in the shul, myself included, corrected him.
An error that I am convinced must be corrected—at least at this stage of development—is the pronunciation of the ayin before the patach at the end of a word where there is a patach genuvah. This is especially serious in “ve-yagea‘” in Parshat Zakhor, but it is serious in any context. (It is the equivalent of saying “Nocha” instead of “Noach.”) This is a very common error among people who have decided to pronounce the ayin when they come from a community that does not do this. It is a hiddur ha-mevi li-(ye)dei pesul (roughly an intrinsically preferable practice that leads to a disqualifying consequence). It is also virtually impossible to correct since no one—or almost no one—will have the faintest idea of what you are talking about.
Prof. Richard Steiner, one of the greatest Hebrew linguists in the world, said to me in discussing these matters, “In my field, every mistake is called a reading tradition.” We were, I think, discussing the pronunciation that drops the yod sound in the final diphthong of words like ‘goy” and the shem adnut (the divine name usually translated “Lord”). (I once heard a Jew from such an area say, “Az m’gayt in college iz men shon a go.”) I don’t believe that the newly created abolition of the patach genuvah under an ayin yet qualifies as a reading tradition, but the basic point is true, important, and probably determinative in most halakhic contexts. Nowadays, when far-flung Jewish communities have been brought together, every genuine reading tradition should probably be respected almost everywhere, though this is not the case is some Sephardi– especially Edot Ha-Mizrach—settings, and in some strongly Zionist Israeli shuls. (R. Meir Mazuz, the distinguished Sephardi rosh yeshiva in Israel, once remarked that Ashkenazim are blasphemers because they say “lesakken olam” with the kingdom of God, which in Ashkenazic pronunciation means to repair the world but in Sephardic to endanger the world. I was there, and he was absolutely serious.)
My favorite example of the need for mutual respect came when I heard a rabbi with a Galitizianer reading tradition layn the phrase “asher hukkah et ha-midyanit” (Num. 25:14). He read “asher hikku.” Had I read it that way, I would have invalidated the reading twice over—no small feat in a two-syllable word–by turning a passive into an active and a singular into a plural. In his case, he had read it absolutely correctly. I ask myself if it would have been necessary to correct him had he read “hukkah” or “hukkoh,” and I am strongly inclined to think that the answer is yes.
Poskim should probably take a serious look at these phenomena, but in most instances, the problem is likely to be intractable, and with a few exceptions tolerance must prevail.
Addendum: It is extremely common in yeshivish circles to pronounce the shem adnut with a chirik in the second syllable (A-dee-noy). I’ve elicited two speculations from scholars as to how this may have happened, but the phenomenon is real and very widespread. Someone asked me how you are yotze when you pronounce the word with a chirik instead of a cholam when you don’t do this in any other word. I suppose one can say that a reading tradition has developed for this one word, but this doesn’t make me particularly comfortable. At the very least, people who do this—and many may not even be aware that they are doing it—should consult their rabbinic authorities to determine if they need to mend their ways.
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