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A Response to ‘The Ashke-Sefard Dilemma’

In a recent article in The Jewish Link by Dr. Wallace Greene titled “The Ashke-Sefard Dilemma,” (November 27, 2019), the writer writes about the “Sephardic Hebrew” adopted by Modern Orthodox Jews. The truth is that what’s being taught today in most MO schools is hardly Sephardic Hebrew, but rather Modern Israeli Hebrew. Other than some cosmetic similarities (such as pronouncing the patach and kamatz the same way as well as conflating the tet with the tav), it is not classical Sephardic Hebrew. As Rav Yitzchak Yaakov Weiss notes in his Minchat Yitzchak, Modern Israeli Hebrew has preserved the corruptions of both the Sephardic and Ashkenazic dialect when it did away with the ayin/alef differential as well as the chet/chaf one. These are arguably the most important vowels in liturgical Hebrew, as the Mishna already repudiates those who don’t pronounce them properly (people from Haifa, Beit Shean and Tivon) and bans them from leading the congregation in prayer:

אין מעבירין לפני התיבה לא חיפנין ולא בישנין ולא טבענין מפני שהם עושין חיתין היהין ואלפין עיינין

“We do not allow those from Haifa, Bet Shean and Tivon to lead the congregation in prayers, because they pronounce the chet as a chaf and the alef as an ayin.”

Lest one think that Ashkenazi Hebrew is a monolith, it is important to note that even within German Jewry there were differences in pronunciation. For instance, in Frankfurt the community is said to have retained the Tiberian vocalization of Hebrew including the alef/ayin differential. There was a major controversy regarding how to pronounce the letter chet. Many “Frankfurters” pronounced their “chet” as a “heh” (like the Bet Sheanites and Haifans of old). This didn’t go over well with everyone, and eventually two opposing groups emerged: one calling themselves “Bnei Heh” and the other “Bnei Chet.”

בני חית is a very clever name:) See Miriam Elior’s article, “The Nathan Adler Controversy” (heb.). In Frankfurt we have the famous Rabbi Natan Alder who championed the superiority of the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew. Parenthetically, there are also differences among Yemenites; for instance, in South Yemen the cholam was pronounced “aye” as in tayrah, much like some Russian and Litvak Jews still pronounce it. In most of Germany the cholam was pronounced “oh” as in mole.

I think everyone can agree that classical Ashkenazi Hebrew is not any one of the various dialects that developed in Eastern Europe. In other words, Polish, Galician and Hungarian dialects of Hebrew are not it. Lithuanian and Russian Jews, however, did preserve in large part their original German Ashkenazic pronunciation. By the way, in Ukrainian Volhynia (Wolyn), the Jews preserved the proper intonation of the tzere (ay as in say) and segol (cat rather than Kate; listen to any of the rebbes of the Ruzhin or Twersky dynasties).

By the way, the term “chasidic pronunciation” is a huge misnomer.

If you line up a Sadigerer chasid, a Gerrer chasid (not the same) and a Slonimer, and throw in a Munkatcher for good measure, they all sound decidedly dissimilar.


The author runs Channeling Jewish History and can be reached at [email protected]. 

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