This piece will focus on how and why some Ashkenazic Jews—both religious and (later) secular—adopted the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew because they deemed it superior to the Ashkenazi one.
Adopting Hebrew As the Official Language
After much discussion and debate, a meeting of the Hebrew Teachers Association in 1895 adopted Hebrew as the language of instruction, with Sephardic pronunciation to be used (but Ashkenazic pronunciation was allowed in the first year in Ashkenazic schools, and for prayer and ritual). The next meeting of the association was not until 1903, at the close of a major convention of Jews of the Yishuv called in Zikhron Yaakov by Ussishkin, the Russian Zionist leader. The 59 members present accepted Hebrew as the medium of instruction…and there was general agreement also on the use of Ashkenazi script and Sephardic pronunciation.
It should be pointed out that although modern Hebrew is similar to the Sephardic pronunciation, it isn’t exactly alike. For instance, Sephardic Hebrew, as mentioned before, differentiates between an ayin and an alef, as well as between a chet and a chaf, while modern Hebrew does not do so in both cases.
While most Zionists were enthusiastic about reviving Hebrew as a spoken language, not all of them were as enthused by the adoption of the Sephardic pronunciation and insisted on using their “native” dialect in conversation.
The Lithuanian Yiddish poet and writer Yehoash mentioned how strange Sephardic Hebrew sounded to him when he emigrated from the U.S. to the new colony of Rechovot shortly before World War I.
In stark contrast to the story cited in Schorsch (see above) with Mr. Bellerman and the students of the Berlin Gymnasium, Yehoash (and others) took issue (though ambivalently) with the young Hebrew students at the Herzliyah High School reciting Hebrew poems in the Sephardic pronunciation:
An excellent poem by Frischmann was read, but in the Sephardic Hebrew pronunciation the lines lost their original rhythm. The problem of retaining in the Sephardic accent the rhythm of the Hebrew songs composed originally in the Ashkenazic pronunciation will be very hard for the devotees of the ha-Havarah haSefardit to solve. Yet practically all residents of Eretz Yisroel use exclusively this latter. The most sonorous strophes of Bialik and Shneor must naturally lose the greater part of their melody when uttered in the Sephardic pronunciation. No wonder then that many Hebrew authors in foreign countries look askance at the Havarah Hasefaradit. One of them—a well-known mystic and philosopher, who never in his life cracked a joke—perpetrated his first and only pun at the expense of the selfsame dialect, calling it ha-havarah ha-sefardde’it, the language of the frogs.
Yet Yehoash concedes:
And yet after residing in Eretz Yisroel for an appreciable length of time, one begins to feel that the Sephardic accent is the proper one, despite all the historico-philological considerations.
On the question of why Ben-Yehuda and the Language Council decided to adopt the Sephardic pronunciation, Jack Follman quotes the noted linguist Dr. Haim Blanc: “for various reasons, they decided to adopt the pronunciation in vogue among Mediterranean and Middle Eastern (Sephardic) communities, but which one of the several Sephardic varieties was actually used as a model is obscure…”
Blanc offered the following reasons among others for this change:
1. The Sephardic variety was already in use as the pronunciation of the Market Hebrew lingua franca of Palestine, and was used even by the Ashkenazim in their face-to-face dealings with the Sephardim for almost four centuries prior to Ben-Yehuda.
2. The Sephardic variety was considered the more ancient of the two, as testified in particular by various transliterations and translations of Hebrew into Latin and Greek, and therefore was considered closer to the original ancient biblical Hebrew of the homeland. A further point was the fact that the Sephardi variant was considered closer to the historical dialect of Judah, the home of Judaism, whereas the Ashkenazic form was thought to be similar to that of secessionist Samaria.
3. The Ashkenazic variety of Hebrew reminded the council too much of Yiddish, the despised language of the exile in the opinion of most of the council’s members, which, in particular contained the same set of vowel phonemes. Conversely, the Sephardic form resembled the sound pattern of Arabic more closely, and Arabic was the sister language in the Semitic family, which already existed in the locale.
4. The Sephardic variant reproduced the consonantal text of Hebrew more accurately than did the Ashkenazic, as it included at least four more graphemic-phonemic renditions, as mentioned above. Therefore it was considered the more correct of the two by the council, who still conceived of Hebrew more in its written image than in its spoken form.
5. It was the council’s opinion that children who knew the Sephardic system would be equipped to read and write Hebrew texts with greater facility since the Sephardic system resembled the consonantal text more closely. Since children were to be the chief carriers of the language revival, this was an important factor. (However, as Hebrew is generally written only in its consonantal shape, the fact the Ashkenazic and not the Sephardic system was closer in vocalization to the vocalized Hebrew text was never given serious attention, although Yellin did mention it at least once in his work, at his lecture on the subject to the Secondary and Grammar School Teachers Union Conference in Gedera in 1904. This step was later to lead to serious problems in the teaching of Hebrew vocalization.)
6. The Sephardic system is closer to the internal grammatical structure (morphophonemics) of Hebrew than the Ashkenazic system, and had been the system already in use among the European Hebraists as well as in Hebrew grammars. In this sense, it may be said that the Sephardic variety had more codification and thus more prestige than the Ashkenazi variety.
The author is an independent scholar of history and translator of hebrew text. Please contact [email protected] Check out Channeling Jewish History on Facebook for daily updates in your inbox.