Hebrew Pronunciation

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I. Different Pronunciations

There are certain mitzvos that must be done in Hebrew, such as the reading of Parashas Zachor, and others that are preferable to be done in Hebrew. The question, then, is what pronunciation(s) can be legitimately considered Hebrew. Generally, there are two types of pronunciations today: Ashkenazic and Sephardic. However, within both types there are wide variations. Polish pronunciation is different from Russian, which is different from Litvish and German pronunciations. I know less about Sephardic pronunciations, but from what I understand, aside from the “standard” Sephardic pronunciation there are also Persian and Yemenite variations.

Some of the main differences: Ashkenazim tend not to differentiate between many of their consonants. Thus, the soft tav has an “s” sound, like a samech and sin. The ches has the same sound as a soft khaf and the ayin the same as the alef. Sephardim tend to differentiate between consonants but their vowels are similar. The segol has an “eh” sound, as does the tzeireh. The kamatz and the pasach both have an “ah” sound. (On different variations of Sephardic pronunciation, see this comment by R. Joshua Maroof.)

Click here to read moreAmong Ashkenazim, the Litvish pronounce the cholam like a tzeireh (“ay”). The Polish pronounce the kamatz like a cholam (“oh”), the cholam like it has a yud after it (“oy”), the shuruk like a chirik (“ee”). See all this in R. Yosef Eliyahu Henkin’s Eidus Le-Yisrael (p. 181), regarding writing names in a get.

Modern Hebrew has the “merit” of combining some of the weakest parts of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic pronunciations. Thus, there is no distinction between consonants, like Ashkenazim, and no distinction between vowels, like Sephardim.

II. Which Pronunciation is Correct?

So which pronunciation is correct? R. Henkin (Eidus Le-Yisrael, pp. 156-157) recommends learning from Sephardim how to distinguish between consonants because Ashkenazim do not do so (although he does not seem to advocate dropping the soft tav‘s “s” sound). Regarding vowels, however, he says that there is no reason to believe that Sephardim are correct.

Rabbenu Bachya, in his commentary on Gen. 18:3, has a long discussion of vowels and notes how when the “nai” in God’s name has a kamatz it is God’s name but when it has a pasach it just means “my masters”. Each vowel, Rabbenu Bachya emphasizes, is pronounced differently. Thus, many argue, the Sephardim who pronounce the kamatz like a pasach are turning God’s name into a plural reference, an unintentional heresy! (See R. Ya’akov Emden, Siddur Ya’avetz; R. Yitzchak Ya’akov Weiss, Minchas Yitzchak 3:9:2; R. Moshe Shternbuch, Ta’am Va-Da’as, Gen. 18:3, Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos, vol. 1 no. 128; R. Meshullam Rothe, Kol Mevaser 2:12; and others)

R. Ovadiah Yosef (Yabi’a Omer, vol. 6 Orach Chaim 11:4) responds that Sephardic grammarians do, in fact, distinguish between the pasach and kamatz. However, the difference between the two vowels is subtle which, he claims, argues for the authenticity of the Sephardic pronunciation.

R. Shlomo Goren (Toras Ha-Medinah, pp. 151-153) points out that regardless of whether the “nai” is pronounced with a kamatz or a pasach, it is always plural. Even when referring to God, it is plural. He cites the Rambam (Moreh Nevukhim 1:61) as explicitly stating that this name of God is intentionally in the plural. Thus, even those who fail to distinguish between the pasach and kamatz are not committing some unintentional act of heresy. He also points out that if Sephardic sages have been pronouncing it that way for centuries, it is hard to condemn it as heretical because they certainly understood the implications of that pronunciation. R. Yitzchak Herzog (Heikhal Yitzchak, Orach Chaim no. 1) also raises both of these points. (Although, according to R. Yosef, the great Torah scholars made sure to distinguish between the pronunciation of those vowels. Perhaps not all of the scholars, though.) R. Tzvi Pesach Frank (Har Tzvi, Orach Chaim 4) also points out that both pronunciations of “nai” refer to a plural.

R. Moshe Shternbuch (Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos 1:128) is aware of this objection raised by R. Goren and R. Frank, and quotes R. Chaim Kanievsky as saying that even though “nai” with both a kamatz and pasach imply plurality, since the Torah was careful that God’s name always be with a kamatz, pronouncing it with a kamatz does not imply God’s plurality but pronouncing it with a pasach does. I fail to understand this response.

III. May One Change One’s Pronunciation?

The idea of changing one’s pronunciation is generally compared with changing the text of one’s prayer, as discussed in the 19th century regarding those changing from the traditional Ashkenazic text to the chassidic “Nusach Sephard“. There were those who forbade changing one’s text outright, such as the Maharshdam in his Responsa, Orach Chaim no. 154 (even before the advent of the chassidim), those who only allowed individuals to change their private texts but not communities, and those who allowed even communities to change to the more preferable (or so they claimed) “Nusach Sephard“.

R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook, in his approbation to Responsa Mishpetei Uzi’el, rules that since there is no way to conclusively determine which pronunciation is better, one may not change his ancestral custom in how to pronounce Hebrew in prayer, etc. R. Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg (Seridei Esh 2:5) seems to say that an individual may change his pronunciation but not a community. R. Tzvi Pesach Frank (cited above) writes that the “spirit of the sages” is not pleased with the changing of pronunciation.

Those who object to the Sephardic pronunciation of God’s name (e.g. R. Yitzchak Ya’akov Weiss and R. Moshe Shternbuch, cited above) certainly oppose changing one’s pronunciation of Hebrew from Ashkenazic to Sephardic. However, they would presumably encourage Sephardim to change their pronunciations to Ashkenazic in order to avoid this perceived problem.

As noted above, R. Henkin allows the changing of pronunciation of consonants from Ashkenazic to Sephardic, but not vowels. He later (Eidus Le-Yisrael, p. 162) explains that one may only change pronunciation when the principles of grammar make it clear that one’s current pronunciation is incorrect.

Unsurprisingly, R. Ovadiah Yosef (cited above, par. 5) allows and even encourages Ashkenazim to change their communal and personal pronunciations from Ashkenazic to Sephardic. He makes much of the famous example of R. Nosson Adler, the mentor of the Chasam Sofer, who changed his personal pronunciation from Ashkenazic to Sephardic in the early 1800s.

Interestingly, inconsistent pronunciation is not necessarily problematic. I once asked R. Hershel Schachter what to do if I was called to the Torah in a Syrian congregation, and he said that while it is highly unlikely that I would be given such an honor, if it happens I should recite the blessings in Sephardic pronunciation except for names (including God’s name), which I should recite in Ashkenazic pronunciation (I’m pretty sure I later saw this in one of R. Schachter’s books but I can’t find it right now; cf. R. Henkin, Eidus Le-Yisrael, p. 157). Similarly, and R. Schachter actually quoted t
his to me, R. Moshe Shternbuch (Ta’am Va-Da’as, Gen. 18:3; Teshuvos Ve-Hanhagos 1:154) quotes the Chazon Ish as telling Ashkenazim who have adopted Sephardic pronuncation to still pronounce God’s name with an Ashkenazic pronunciation. However, R. Shlomo Goren (Toras Ha-Medinah, pp. 146-155) objects to this practice and, while discouraging the changing of pronunciation (p. 148), encourages consistency within one pronunciation. R. Henkin also writes that one should not pray with more than one pronunciation.

There is another reason that some raise to prohibit changing one’s pronunciation, and that is that this can be considered confirming the heterodox or anti-religious in their practices. R. Yitzchak Ya’akov Weiss (cited above, par. 3) raised this issue, and R. Yitzchak Herzog (Heikhal Yitzchak, Orach Chaim no. 3) also raised it regarding the community in Johannesburg. Where and when it applies is a matter of halakhic judgment.

About Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student is the Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of TorahMusings.com, a leading website on Orthodox Jewish scholarly subjects, and the Book Editor of the Orthodox Union’s Jewish Action magazine. He writes a popular column on issues of Jewish law and thought featured in newspapers and magazines, including The Jewish Link, The Jewish Echo and The Vues. In the past, he has served as the President of the small Jewish publisher Yashar Books and as the Managing Editor of OU Press. Rabbi Student serves on the Executive Committee of the Rabbinical Council of America and as Director of the Halacha Commission of the Rabbinical Alliance of America. He also serves on the Editorial Boards of Jewish Action magazine, the Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society and the Achieve Journal of Behavioral Health, Religion & Community, as well as the Board of OU Press. He has published five English books, the most recent titled Search Engine volume 2: Finding Meaning in Jewish Texts -- Jewish Leadership, and served as the American editor for Morasha Kehillat Yaakov: Essays in Honour of Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks.

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