Sunday, September 23, 2007


What better way to catch everyone off guard than starting with something not on the list in the last post? Hebrew is one of my passions, so I thought I would discuss the dualities in Hebrew. The difference between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Hebrew (and by that I mean the way it was pronounced before the modern era, when the communities were still relatively insulated) is enough to confuse someone not used to the variety. The Hebrew language has the following characteristics:

  • There are 22 letters, of which 6 (or 7 according to Sefer Yetzirah) have secondary sounds. Only two letters should have duplicate sounds (Sin and Samech), giving us a total of 27 or 28 unique sounds.
  • There are 8 basic vowel sounds (not including kamatz and shva and chaser variations)

When an Ashkenazi Jew hears Sephardi Hebrew, he notices all the new sounds of the consonants. The chet and the ayin are usually the most striking. Depending on the community, the sounds of quf, tsadee, and tet, as well as beged-kefet letters without a dagesh, will also stick out.

When a Sephardi Jew hears Ashkenazi Hebrew, he notices the greater variety in vowel sounds than his own Hebrew.

But who is right and who is wrong? Our sources surely show that there are more consonental sounds than is present in Ashkenazi Hebrew (take beged-kefet letters as the obvious case, and the statement in the Gemara to lengthen the daled at the end of Shma Yisrael). The necessity for differences in the vowels is also self-evident. Kamatz is from the language of k'mitzat ha'peh, closing the mouth in an aw or oh sound. Patach is from p'tichat ha'peh, meaning to open the mouth wider, which is an accurate description of most Ashkenazic pronunciations of these vowels.

The answer is that neither is 100% right, but each has an essential aspect of Truth within it.

In closing, I will translate a Baraita from the Yerushalmi from Brachot 2:2:

תני אין מעבירין לפני התיבה לא חיפנין ולא בישנין ולא טיבעונין מפני שהן עושין היהין חיתין ועיינין אאין אם היה לשונו ערוך מותר

It is taught: (We) do not appoint as Shliach Tzibur not people from Haifa, nor people from Bishah (I'll admit I have no idea how that city name is pronounced), nor people from Givon, because they pronounce their Heh's like Chet's and their Ayin's like Alephs, but if their language is proper, it is allowed.

This is of course an issue that touches on halachah and one should look in to the subject seriously in the halachot of Kriat Shma and Shliach Tzibur in the Rambam, Shulchan Aruch, etc, but we should notice that the implication here is that those that formed this Baraita did not say that because it was their minhag, it was acceptable behavior. They said it was wrong and therefore we shouldn't let such a person be the shliach tzibur.

Postscript: Yes, I ignored Yemenite Hebrew in this analysis. From my own humble analysis it is indeed very close to proper Hebrew, but I do have some logic issues with it that are off topic.


  1. What are your problems with the Yemenite Hebrew? Is it only the Jimmal or something else?

  2. Jimmel is the main problem as you surmise, but I have not done an in depth analysis. From what I have heard from Teimanim, there are multiple dialects, where a Quf turns to a Guf, vowels are slightly different, etc.

    Those are of course beautiful dialects that maintain much that has been otherwise lost.