Ask the Rabbi: Tomato/tomahto?

Ask the Rabbi Tomato/to

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 (, teaches at Yeshivat Hakotel. Submit questions to: