Hebrew Accents

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by R. Gidon Rothstein

14 Shevat: R. Kook on Hebrew Accents

The 1930s saw a rise in Jews coming to Israel (from 1931 to 1948, Wikipedia tells me, the Jewish population grew from 175,000 to 630,000). That brought with it certain tensions, one of which R. Kook addressed in a letter to R. Uzziel from 14 Shevat 5695 (1935), published in Shu”t Orach Mishpat Orach Chayyim 18. R. Uzziel (then the Chief Rabbi of Tel Aviv/Yaffo, not yet of all of Palestine) had shared some of the first volume of Mishpetei Uzziel with R. Kook, and R. Kook replied with some comments (in Torah scholar circles, that’s a sign of respect for the other, engaging with him on his ideas and writings).

Conflicting Customs

R. Uzziel had argued, in the first responsum in the book, that changing the pronunciation of Hebrew from how one learned it at home (to what was prevalent in society) did not violate the injunction of Mishlei 1;8, ve-al titosh Torat imecha, do not abandon the Torah of your mother. If it didn’t, then Jews should change their pronunciation to accord with the standards where they were living, because of another halachic principle, al yeshaneh adam mi-penei hamachloket, that when Jews act differently from those around them—with the implication that that’s because they think everyone else is doing it wrong—it can lead to machloket, disputes or even just division.

R. Kook had a different view. When he had been asked that same question by a Yemenite rabbi (whose community was feeling some pressure to adopt the more common Israeli pronunciation), he had held that this was an issue of ve-al titosh, not abandoning our mother’s Torah. R. Kook is now writing to clarify the matter.

The Torah of Your Mother

He starts by noting that the Gemara points to al titosh as the source for the obligation to keep customs, but al yeshaneh, don’t act differently than those around you, can apply to various customs, including those that touch on real prohibitions (such as when there are two views of an halachic issue, and one’s custom is to follow one of those views), a practice that some have and some don’t, or even a middat chasidut, a practice some take on as an extra stringency.

Ran had said that customs that touch on prohibited/allowed—e.g., whether an eruv could be built in a certain type of neighborhood—become the custom of the city, and all the citizens of that city must follow it. Maharashdam (a 16th century posek) had inferred from Ran that any custom that did not have an element of strict halachah, of whether something is permitted or allowed, also did not have the element of al titosh.

That was only in terms of whether that person must keep the custom even once s/he has left the original place of residence, says R. Kook. (In other words, if a resident of one place moved, and wants to know if s/he is required to continue keeping his/her customs, R. Kook reads Ran and Maharashdam to say that the answer is yes only regarding those customs that are a matter ofissur ve-heter—whether one may carry with a certain eruv, what kind of meat is kosher, whether to use toothpaste on Shabbat are examples that spring to mind).

That doesn’t touch on what happens when following one’s personal custom will make that person different than everyone else, in public. There, R. Kook thinks all personal customs must be foregone for the communal one. To him, the essential rule of ve-al titosh is that communities must adhere to their custom (so an Ashkenazic Jew in a Sephardic city, who chooses to lead the first part of prayers, pesukei de-zimra, in accordance with the Ashkenazic custom, would be violating al titosh, since that community has an established custom.)

The Importance of Peace

Nor should we be surprised that customs are about keeping the peace, since Chazal instituted many more serious practices as matters of darkei shalom, ways to ensure communal peace. Gittin 59b notes that the practice to always call a kohen to the Torah first was only to create peace. When the Gemara objected that there is a Biblical obligation to treat priests with respect, R. Yosef explains to Abbaye that that Biblical rule was for that purpose, to foster peaceful relations [ meaning, it seems, that the Torah didn’t want the kohanim to feel they were putting their whole lives into the Jewish people’s service and getting no respect for it, so the Torah told us to treat them in special ways, in recognition and appreciation of their service ].

Abbaye there responds that all of Torah is about creating peace [there’s much to be said about that: Abbaye cannot mean all of Torah is about avoiding conflict, since many halachot require us to stand up to various forms of wrongdoing, even in non-peaceful ways; that’s not the topic here, so we’ll leave it]. However we take that, says R. Kook, personal custom must yield to communal one wherever they’re in conflict, because al titosh means that we should refrain from acting on that custom in front of others—R. Kook thinks it’s even where it’s a question of one’s practice regarding psak halachah [I think he means if this issue comes up in a public forum, so that others will know that this person is following a different, more stringent, view; this is even though Maharashdam thought that that might be different, based on Ran’s idea that that kind of custom was subject to al titosh even on a personal level], or it’s a more ordinary custom, a practice instituted because it achieves some value.

Prayer Practices

In Maharashdam’s case, the city in question already followed the Sephardic rite. Ashkenazic Jews came to town and wanted to continue praying the way they always had. The established community objected, since they were used to what they were used to, and didn’t want it changed (it would make it hard for them to follow the prayers, among other issues, as it probably did for the Ashkenazic Jews).

In that case, though, there was an existing community with a common custom, newcomers seeking permission to act differently. These newcomers are creating machloket. [Usually, we translate that word as disagreement or strife, but here it can equally mean they were trying to divide the people—whereas before, all the Jews in town prayed a certain way, they now wanted the right to pray a different way.] Maharashdam said that the Ashkenazim don’t have a real claim; since it wasn’t a matter of issur ve-heter, of prohibited or permitted, Ran’s idea doesn’t apply, so that there’s no reason the Ashkenazic Jews have to retain their custom. In his view, they could and should adopt the reigning local custom.

[ R. Kook does not elaborate on the underlying issues here, the balance between communal unity, commanded by the Torah in phrases such as lo titgodedu and al titosh, and people’s interest in continuing “their” customs. There is, it seems to me, a stronghalachic preference for unity, for people coming under the community’s umbrella, for Torah being practiced in only one way in any one place.

In Maharashdam’s time, that started to break apart, as Jews from different places ended up living in the same place—so that even though Amsterdam, let’s say, had always been a Sephardic city, Ashkenazic Jews who came there insisted on setting up their own community rather. This is a continuing issue, related to the al titosh aspect R. Kook is highlighting here ].


R. Kook was responding to a different kind of case, however, in that an established Yemenite community was being pressured to change how it pronounced Hebrew. [R. Kook sort of glides over the fact that this is only true because they have decided not to fold themselves into the mainstream community; theoretically, he should have said that al titosh means they shouldn’t make themselves into a separate community in this new place; he seems to feel that since they came as a group, they have the right to retain that group status].

Groups don’t need to change their ways because there are other groups out there. More, pronunciation has some halachic ramifications, such as for whether one has fulfilled the obligation to read Shema or Torah. While most authorities held that mispronunciations don’t invalidate these ceremonies—although it is clearly preferable to pronounce the words well–Sefer HaChinuch seemed to think that it was invalid even after the fact [so that if I say Shema with the “wrong” accent, or mixing accents such that my pronunciation doesn’t fit any tradition, it’s halachically questionable as to whether I’ve fulfilled my obligation].

At the same time, R. Kook recognizes that over time, the children of these communities will learn Hebrew as it is spoken in school and on the street, and he seems comfortable with that. But any time an official question is asked, and the answer to change will lead to strife, we say that we don’t change ancestral custom.

Care in Changing Customs

Maharashdam’s urging the Ashkenazim to adopt the Sephardic rite, says R. Kook, was also motivated by his negative feelings about reciting piyyutim, liturgical poems, during prayers (said by Ashkenazim but not Sephardim). His distaste for these poems [I think mostly their obscure language and their being a lengthy digression from prayer] played a role in his comfort with calling for a change of custom.

Absent some push, R. Kook says, we hold on to our customs. In the case of accents, we have no evidence which version of Hebrew is the most accurate or proper, so how can we change tradition, especially when most people see any such call as an insult to their ancestors?

There are exceptions, cases when we are forced to change a custom out of some great need, or decide that a practice isn’t a custom that was instituted by qualified authorities. That’s not the case with pronunciation (or even, notes R. Kook, the tunes of prayer, pointing us to Rema Orach Chayyim 619;1).

Once we’ve seen the complications in deciding how and when customs change—is it a conflict between individuals and communities or two existing communities, is it a tradition of how to rule on an halachic issue or a practice that developed, etc.—we understand why R. Kook says that any changes must happen with rabbinic guidance. Rambam, who held that all Rabbinic laws also come under the rubric of lo tasur, the Torah’s command that we follow Rabbinic guidance, extends that to customs the Rabbis institute, not just practices they decree.

Hebrew, an Evolving Language

For all those reasons, even as common street language is moving away from certain accents, that’s not enough reason to encourage or pressure communities to forego their traditional way of speaking Hebrew. At least until the Divine spirit comes down, with the arrival of Mashiach, to reinstitute an overall unity of the Jewish people, including in how they speak Hebrew.

In arguing for the right of the Yemenite community to retain its way of pronouncing Hebrew, R. Kook has shown us the values of retaining family practices (which is why we don’t change customs casually or easily), avoiding strife or even division (which is why we don’t allow individuals to practice their alternative customs in front of others), and the role of time and the eventual Messianic future in bringing Jews closer together in the practices that shape their lives.

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