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Israel - Halacha: Can Sephardi Students Adopt the Ashkenazi Hebrew Pronunciation For Prayer

Published on: January 1, 2010 10:54 AM
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Israel - Q: The High Court recently censured a Beit Ya’acov girls’ school for forcing its Sephardi students to adopt the Ashkenazi Hebrew pronunciation for prayer. Can you explain the halachic background to this controversy?

A: The recent controversy in Emmanuel, deemed a case of social bias not mandated by religious law, highlights the modern debate over proper Hebrew pronunciation. With the ingathering of Jews into Israel, many questions emerged regarding the propriety of changing one’s pronunciation or attempting to create a unified system. Proper pronunciation has further implications for synagogue rituals, including the recitation of the Shema (OC 61:15-22) and the Priestly Blessing (OC 128:33).

As a general rule of phonetics, one might intuitively expect distinct sounds for every consonant and vowel. Nonetheless, partially because of the influence of vernacular languages and political exiles, Hebrew speakers, at least in recent eras, did not uphold this pristine standard, with the Yemenite tradition probably coming closest. Great variety existed, with many Sephardi Jews distinguishing between the letters ayin and alef, but not between the letter tav with a dagesh (/t/) and without (/s/). Ashkenazi Jews, in turn, distinguished between the vowels of patah and kamatz, but not between the letters of tav and samech or shin and sin.


The Talmudic sages recognized the phenomenon of mistaken pronunciation, struggling with service leaders that could not distinguish a heh from a het (Megila 24b). While classic codes subsequently codified that that one who cannot distinguish guttural letters (including alef and ayin) should not serve as hazan, later authorities have noted that this is not a problem if the local dialect has evolved not to make such distinctions (MB 53:37).

For various reason of aesthetics and national interests, the famed Hebrew lexicographer Eliezer Ben-Yehuda and the 1913 Hebrew Language Council tended to side with the contemporary Sephardi pronunciation, ultimately resulting in the minimization of the number of consonant and vowel sounds in modern Hebrew. This change followed earlier Haskala reforms that attempted to create a new “high language” for theater and literature, even as they continued to speak in the local vernacular language.

As Prof. Isaac Gottlieb has recently documented (AJS Review 32:3), rabbis faced the dilemma of multiple groups with different prayer enunciations converging in an area where contemporary Hebrew, reborn as a vernacular language, has a different system.

Rabbi Yitzhak Weiss, eventual head of Jerusalem’s Eda Haredit, contended that one cannot cavalierly abandon his heritage regarding pronunciation, just as one should not abandon his community’s customs or liturgy (Minhat Yitzhak 3:9). He further cited the 18th century Dutch scholar, Rabbi Ya’acov Emden, who complained that the local Sephardim failed to properly pronounce God’s name (Adonoy) because they do not distinguish between a kamatz and a patah. Weiss insisted that synagogues maintain their heritages, and lambasted those who altered their pronunciation for Zionistic motivations. He nonetheless acknowledged, with other authorities affirming, that if a hazan uses a different pronunciation, the communal prayer remains valid.

Despite their more positive inclination to the renaissance of the Hebrew language, many Zionist Ashkenazi authorities, including Rabbis Abraham I. Kook (Orah Mishpat 16-17) and Meshulam Roth (Kol Mevaser 2:12), also ruled that individuals should not change their family custom, although the former would not censure a congregation for adopting a different pronunciation.

Not surprisingly, Sephardi decisors like Rabbi Ovadia Yosef fiercely defended the accuracy of Sephardi pronunciation. They further contended that many Ashkenazi scholars acknowledge the superiority of the Sephardi pronunciation, with one distinguished 18th-century scholar Rabbi Nathan Adler, even known to have changed his personal pronunciation (Yabia Omer OC 6:11).

While Israel’s first Sephardi chief rabbi, Benzion Uziel, called for a national rabbinic convention to adopt a unified system (Mishpetei Uziel 1:1), his Ashkenazi counterpart, Rabbi Isaac Herzog, justified switching to the Sephardi pronunciation, citing 19th-century hassidic changes to the prayer book as legitimate precedents for liturgical change. Nonetheless, he hesitated to enact this position, fearing that emendations would cause slurring and become confused with non-Orthodox reforms (Heichal Yitzhak OC 3).

As generations of Hebrew speakers have been raised on contemporary Israeli pronunciations, many otherwise conservative decisors have issued dispensations toward specific cases. Recognizing the educational value of bar mitzvas, Rabbis Moshe Feinstein (Igrot Moshe OC 3:65) and Yehiel Weinberg (Seridei Esh 1:6) both allowed celebrants to read the Torah using Sephardi pronunciations, while Rabbi Shlomo Auerbach more recently contended that observant Russian olim, struggling to learn the language, should not be taught variant pronunciations (Halichot Shlomo Tefilla, Ch. 5).

Most religious Zionist congregations today follow the opinions of former Ashkenazi chief rabbis Isser Yehuda Unterman (Shevet Meyehuda 2:10) and Shlomo Goren (Torat Hamedina, ch. 15) that contemporary Israeli congregations, without impunity, will subtly but inevitably adopt the local dialect, thereby completing a new stage in the storied history of the Hebrew language.

The writer, on-line editor of Tradition and its blog Text & Texture (text.rcarabbis.org), teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel.
Submit questions to: JPostRabbi@yahoo.com.

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Read Comments (15)  —  Post Yours »


 Jan 01, 2010 at 11:01 AM gaveaget Says:

The Bais Yakov decision had nothing to do with Halacha or Mesorah. There is a racist streak among the Ashkenazi Yidden that makes me sad. I cannot believe what they do to the poor Sefardi children in E.Y., my chassidus included.


 Jan 01, 2010 at 11:12 AM Anonymous Says:

before jumping, lets keep this civil. Its not the pronuciation thats important, its remembering that we are brothers that would sacrifice our lives for one another, sefardi or ashkenaz havara


 Jan 01, 2010 at 11:38 AM Anonymous Says:

I once heard that when asked which dialect was given at Sinai, R' Moshe Feinstein Zatzal replied, "They were all given". In other words, the RBSHO knew what would become of Lashon Koidesh, and thus accepted all dialects. I don't know if the source I heard from was reliable, but I think the concept is clear. After all, would you say that Ashkezazis were never yotzeh krias HaTorah? Shomer P'soim Hashem. Also, the halacha clearly states that one is yotzeh even without being m'dakdek the pronunciation of certain letters. Nonetheless, a Rav told me that one should never deviate from what his parents minhag was... If one does, then his childrens' minhag will also be to deviate from their parents. How we all see this to be true!!


 Jan 01, 2010 at 12:06 PM shimon Says:

Traditionaly (before the war), there was no such as an "ashkenazi" pronunciation. There were many diffenences between Yekkim, Oberlanders, Galitzianers, Litvaks and other groups.

Needles to say, a "sepharadi" pronunciation is even a bigger mistake. Morocco isn't Iraq, Greece isn't Bukhara...


 Jan 01, 2010 at 01:30 PM Anonymous Says:

I know someone in Israel who was forced to change his surname from sephardic to Ashkenazi in order for the local ashkenazic yeshiva to accept his kids.


 Jan 01, 2010 at 01:42 PM Anonymous Says:

As a recent Oleh, I must say that this Bnei Brak issue, along with the crude segregation attempt in Emmanuel between Sephardic kids and Ashkenazic kids, and a similar incident just a week or so ago in Bet Shemesh is a profound racist streak that plagues Israel and is really, really ugly in the Charedi sector. There is no halachic excuse, rationale or justification for what blantantly occurs in Charedi institutions that supposedly hold themselves to a higher moral standing. A Chasiddishe yungerman recently at a kiddush in Ramat Bet Shemesh matter-of-factly stated a slew of slurs against Sephardim that I would have expected from a member of the KKK.
Do not try to sugarcoat a deeply rooted evil problem with halachic mumbo-jumbo.
To paraphrase... It's racism, stupid.


 Jan 01, 2010 at 02:04 PM Anonymous Says:

When I was given an aliyah at a chassidish shul at a recent simcha in Brooklyn, I felt ostraciczed because I made the barachos in modern contemporary hebrew which I guess are closer in pronunciation to Sehpardic than the ashkenaz or yiddish-tinged nusach which was used by others. To me, it was like listening to chalk scratching on a blackboard hearing these younger bochurim so badly distorting the hebrew pronunciation in an attempt to sound like their parents. why can't the heimish schools in the U.S. teach correct hebrew and allow older generation to cling to their minhagim. Hopefully, within a few generation, all will be reading hebrew properly.


 Jan 01, 2010 at 06:26 PM Anonymous Says:

what that school did was bad, but i, who became religous while i was surrounded by people who werent, am always harrassed, by unreligous ashkenazim, and religous sphardim. this is one sided, this iss happening both ways


 Jan 02, 2010 at 06:16 PM Anonymous Says:

Rabbi Moshe Feinstein is the subject of a story regarding dikduk.
A wealthy contributor of his yeshiva decided to make an unscheduled visit to classes being held in the elementary school. He was appalled by the lack of dikdulk he heard taught. The contributor confronted Reb Moshe with his complaint about the errors in DIKduk pronunciation. Reb Moshe's reply was "do you mean dikDUK!


 Jan 02, 2010 at 07:38 PM professor Says:

there is a strong cultural divide between Ashk and Seph. Ashk is trying diff plans to push sephardim out of their schools.


 Jan 04, 2010 at 11:58 AM Anonymous Says:

In actuality, the Sephardic pronunciation is more correct. Depending from where in Europe, the Ashkenazi pronunciation can sometimes not even be recognized, as it is so far removed from its actual spelling. The only real CORRECT pronunciation of Hebrew is that of the Yemenite Jews. Eventually, we will all be united in speech, Torah and just plain achdus.


 Jan 04, 2010 at 11:12 PM chardal Says:

I was told by my childrens principal, here in NY, that I am not Yotze in any of my davening because I daven in an "israeli" accent - not an ashkenazic one.


 Jan 05, 2010 at 09:34 PM Anonymous Says:

#12 -Never heard of such inanities as those where a school principal will actually dictate in what accent someone davens. In other words, if it's a galitzyaner davening in his accent, a Hungarian in his accent and a Litvishe person in his accent, a Sephardi in his accent, etc., so only the one that the principal believes to be right is the one that HaShem is listening to. There are people who actually believe this? The Jewish people have reached such a low point that is unbelievable. There are people who are returning to tshuva who can't even read Hebrew and daven in their native language with great kavanah - so their prayers mean nothing? Hard to believe mishagasin like this! May HaShem have mercy on His people! We need it more than we think.


 May 04, 2010 at 10:19 AM menachem Says:

Very interesting post. Eliezer Ben Yehuda picked and chose between sounds from various dialects (Ashkenazic ones and Sephardic ones...). But the accent the teachers agreed on was one that was even more of a hodge-podge, though in the end nobody spoke that. I learned this from a very interesting new book on this topic, called _a new sound in hebrew poetry: accent poetics and politics_.


 Aug 10, 2012 at 10:18 PM hmdavid Says:

Hebrew is that language we as Jews speak. it is kadosh by merit of the fact that HaShem, G-d Almighty Himself, spoke the world into creation with the same form of creative transmission. it is holy because the Torah was to given to Moshe Rabbeinu on Har Sinai in that same manner of speech - Davar - Daled-baith-reish. It is a language since we have tongues to speak, lingua from Latin. The Good Lord G-d is beyond the aspect of a tongue, therefore it is truly a "davar" the vivifying Word. Moses transmits to the people through the faculty of speech the Word of Truth, "zeh haDavar HaShem"


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