This week we read parashat Noach, where we are introduced to the seventy root nations, languages, and regions of the world. One of these is Ashkenaz, later associated with roughly what is today Germany, and giving rise to the term “Ashkenazi Jew”. One of the more salient features of Ashkenazi Judaism is the way that Hebrew letters are traditionally pronounced. This is all the more amplified today when we are used to hearing Modern Hebrew, which was based primarily on Sephardic pronunciation (even though it was devised by Ashkenazis).
The question is: who actually pronounces more correctly? Is the Sephardic pronunciation indeed better, like those Ashkenazi Zionists believed when they set the rules of Modern Hebrew? Or maybe the Ashkenazi way is the authentic pronunciation, like many in the Orthodox world maintain? The short answer is that both are incorrect. For the long answer, read on.
Doubled Letters and Pronouncing “S”
We will avoid discussion of Hebrew vowels here, for this is a more difficult issue. On the consonants, however, we can come to some clear conclusions. The main issue centres around the seven letters of Hebrew that are called kefulot, “doubled”, those that have two distinct sounds. Sefer Yetzirah, one of the most ancient mystical texts and traditionally attributed to Abraham himself, is perhaps the oldest primer on the Hebrew letters. As we’ve explained in the past, it divides the letters up into three categories: the “three mothers” (Aleph-Mem-Shin), the “seven doubles” (Beit-Gimel-Dalet-Kaf-Pei-Reish-Tav), and the remaining “twelve elementals”.
We will start with the last of the doubles first, as the biggest feature of Ashkenazi pronunciation is certainly the pronunciation of the letter Tav (ת), when without a dagesh, as a “Sav”. Therefore, words like Shabbat (שבת) become Shabbos. While everyone agrees that a tav with a dagesh (תּ) should have a hard “T” sound, what should a tav without a dagesh sound like? To pronounce it as an “S” is highly problematic, for certain words would then have a confused meaning. For example, parashat Mattot (מטות) would become “mattos”, which has a very different meaning for a modern speaker, while the name “Anat” (ענת) would have a very unfortunate meaning even for a traditional Torah scholar.
What is that tav supposed to sound like, and why did Ashkenazis develop an “S” sound? The answer is actually quite simple: The proper pronunciation of a tav without a dagesh is a “Th” sound, like in the word thermometer. This is why words with a tav are (rightly) transliterated into English with a “th”, such as Sabbath. Because Eastern Europeans are unable to pronounce the “Th” sound, which doesn’t exist in their languages (we’ve probably all heard a Russian person say the word “three” as sree), Ashkenazis naturally pronounced the thav as a sav. Most Sephardis lost the thav, too, and pronounced it simply as a hard tav, making no distinguish between a tav with a dagesh or without. Yemenite Jews are among the few communities which have maintained the proper pronunciation, and do indeed say “Th” where necessary.
While Ashkenazis started to say “s” in place of “th”, Sephardis may have their own “s” problem. Many Sephardis (including in my own Bukharian community) pronounce the letter Tzadi or Tsade (צ), not as a “Ts” sound, but as an “S” sound (a Sa’ade). Therefore, words like tzitzit (ציצית) are pronounced as “sisit”, and mitzvah (מצוה) is “misvah”. Sephardis maintain that this is the correct pronunciation, arguing that Hebrew never had a “Ts” sound. They have support for what they say, because the same argument was made by Sa’adia Gaon (c. 882-942) long ago in his commentary to Sefer Yetzirah. He said that because Hebrew is a pure language, its alphabet has only pure consonants, meaning no letters should have a combination of sounds (like “Ts”, which is a combo of “T” and “S”).
Having said that, Sa’adia Gaon grew up in an Arabic environment, and Arabic does not have a “Ts” sound, much like Eastern Europeans do not have the “Th” sound. We may be led to believe that Sephardis began to say “s” in place of “ts” due to the surrounding Arabic influence. On the other hand, there is a stronger argument that Ashkenazis developed a “Ts” sound for tsade because of the influence of German, where the letter Z is pronounced “Ts”. This is the view of Rabbi David Bar-Hayim, who is an especially excellent source since he is Ashkenazi in heritage but speaks in beautiful ancient Hebrew (or, as close as we know how to get to ancient Hebrew).
Rabbi Bar-Hayim notes that when the Ashkenazi Zionist “Council of the Hebrew Language” (or Hebrew Language Committee, originally founded by Eliezer Ben-Yehuda in 1890) convened in 1913 to establish the rules of Modern Hebrew, they deliberately set tsade to sound like “Ts” to mirror German “Z” which they were used to and needed. They were well aware that tsade should sound like sa’ade, which is the authentic ancient pronunciation.
We have further proof from the Phoenician alphabet, an equally-ancient alphabet that is nearly identical to Hebrew. (Secular scholars debate whether Hebrew came from Phoenician, or Phoenician came from Hebrew. The two cultures were deeply intertwined and, as we read in the Tanakh, the Phoenicians were great friends of Kings David and Solomon, and helped us build the First Temple.) In the Phoenician alphabet, the letter is sa’ade. Moreover, the ancient Greek alphabet was derived from Phoenician, too, and the corresponding letter was the letter san, pronounced as “S”. (Modern Greek no longer has the letter san, which has been combined with the letter sigma, also an “S”.) It appears abundantly clear that the Hebrew tsade should very much be a sa’ade.
Having said that, I brought up the issue of tsade with a Yemenite colleague who told me that older Yemenites actually distinguish between a tsade with a dagesh and a tsade without. The former does indeed sound something like a soft “Ts” sound. So, it is possible that tsade once had two slightly distinct sounds, and perhaps Ashkenazis retained one version, with a little modification influenced by their surroundings.
Whatever the case, even among many Sephardis I no longer hear much of a distinction between a regular “S” sound and the traditional Sa’ade, which is deeper and requires putting the tongue up against the roof of the mouth. The result is that we have another (incorrect) “S” hardly distinguishable (if at all) from the Samekh (ס) and a Sin (שׂ)! On that note, why do we have both a samekh and a sin anyway?
Shibbolet or Sibbolet?
If we go back to the ancient Sefer Yetzirah, we find that the letter Shin is not listed among the “double” letters. Apparently, it should not have two distinct sounds! In fact, we see much evidence that shin was once strictly a “Sh” sound, as illustrated in the Tanakh (Judges 12:5-6):
And the Gileadites took the fords of the Jordan against the Ephraimites; and it was so, that when any of the fugitives of Ephraim said: “Let me pass,” the men of Gilead said to him: “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he said: “No”, then they said they to him: “Say ‘Shibbolet’ and he said ‘Sibboleth’, for he could not pronounce it right. Then they laid hold on him, and slew him at the fords of the Jordan; and there fell at that time of Ephraim forty-two thousand.
In the times of the Judge Yiftach of Gilead, Israel was tragically mired in a civil war. The Gileadites crushed the Ephraimite forces, and then went after their fugitives. They found an easy way to determine who was an Ephraimite: just ask him to say the word “Shibbolet” (שִׁבֹּלֶת). The Ephraimites were unable to pronounce the letter shin, and instead pronounced it with an “s”, sibbolet.
Later in history, the Ephraimites became the dominant tribe in Israel. They were the most numerous, and held onto the monarchy in the Northern Kingdom when the nation split after King Solomon’s reign. In fact, the word “Ephraim” became synonymous with “Israel”. Throughout the Tanakh, the prophets refer to the Kingdom of Israel as “Ephraim”. When the Ephraimite Kingdom was destroyed by the Assyrians, many fled south to the surviving Kingdom of Judah, and had a huge influence on the development of Judah, as numerous scholars have shown. It isn’t hard to conclude that during this time it became common to pronounce the letter as both shin and sin. Over time, it seems certain words with shin were pronounced with “sh”, and others with “s”.
If we look at the Torah, we actually find far fewer words where shin is pronounced as sin. In the first chapter of the Torah, for example, there are 17 root words with the letter pronounced as “Sh”, and only three pronounced as “S”. Take Biblical names as another example: Shet, Enosh, Metushelach, Ishmael, Shimon, Asher, Nachshon, Shlomo, Ishayah, Hoshea, Yehoshua, Yishai, Avshalom, Yoshiyahu, Shamgar, Bat-Sheva, Elisheva, Shifrah, Shlomit. It is hard to find a name in Hebrew with an “S” sound, among the few being Sarah (which makes just as much sense if it were Sharah), perhaps Issachar (the pronunciation of which is debated), and Israel.
On that last one, all the evidence suggests that originally it was Ishrael. The Sages say that Israel is an anagram of Yashar-El (“Straight to God”) or Shir-El (“God’s Song”). Also, Israel is called “Yeshurun” in the Tanakh multiple times, which the Sages say is really the same name as “Israel”. So, it seems we really should be Ishrael. But, because it was the Ephraimites who ruled the Kingdom of Israel, it is obvious that they would have called their own kingdom “Israel”, and the name stuck!
(It is interesting to note that the Greeks do not naturally have a “Sh” sound in their alphabet. They adapted the Pheonician shin into the letter sigma and, like the Ephraimites, pronounced the shin as an “S”. In later Greek, the sigma was fused with the letter san, the Greek version of sa’ade, as noted above, because having two of the same “S” sounds was superfluous.)
B and V, G and J, D and Dh
The first of the doubled letters is Beit (בּ), which can also be Veit (ב). If we have a “V” sound there, why have another “V” in the form of the letter Vav (ו)? In reality, the vav was a Waw in ancient times. This is the reason the Tetragrammaton is transliterated into English as YHWH, and not YHVH. Interestingly, the “W” sound inherently contains a “U” sound within it, as it is pronounced wua. This is why the vav in Hebrew is also a “UU” or “OO” sound, as in shana tova u’metuka (שנה טובה ומתוקה). It is therefore quite fitting that a W in English is called a “double-U”, hinting to its ancient origins as a UU or OO sound. Once more, the Yemenite Jews still got it right (as do some other Mizrachi Jewish communities), for they recite a vav as a waw.
The next letter over is Gimel (ג). Although Sefer Yetzirah tells us it is a doubled letter, today we generally pronounce all gimels with a hard “G” sound. Yemenites, however, pronounce a gimel with a dagesh (גּ) as a “J”, like in Arabic. So, a camel would be jamal (Hebrew: gamal), and it is the reason Muslims call their pilgrimage holiday a hajj (Hebrew: hag). Sa’adia Gaon, for the same reason that he said a Tsade cannot be a “Ts” sound, said that a gimel cannot be a “J” sound, as it is a “combined” sound and not a pure consonant. [The “J” is a fusion of “D” and “Zh”. This is illustrated well in Russian, where making a “J” requires a “D” (Д) and “Zh” (ж), so the common name “Julia” is spelled “Dzhulia” (Джулия).]
If we look at the ancient Phoenician and Greek alphabets for some evidence, we find that they also pronounced the gimel (or gamma) with a hard “G”, like in “egg”. So, gimel with a dagesh should certainly be a hard “G” sound, and this is one letter that the Yemenites have wrong. Unlike other Jewish communities, the Yemenites do still distinguish between dagesh gimel and the non-dagesh gimel. The latter they pronounce like a rolling “R”, similar to a Modern Hebrew Reish. (When Yemenites say it, it sounds like Rimel, not Gimel!) Some, like Rabbi David Bar-Hayim, believe this is the correct pronunciation for the non-dagesh gimel. I have not found any evidence of yet to support this. It appears to be influenced by Arabic as well. (For example, when Arabs say “Gaza” it sounds like “Raza”.)
Another possibility for the non-dagesh gimel is closely related to the Yemenite rimel. It is hard to describe, and sounds like an airy “G” sound from the throat, which can easily be confused with a rolling “R” sound (but there is no R there at all!) This is a sound used by Bukharian Jews often, such as in the common name “Og’ul” or “Oghul” (which was my grandmother’s name, and sounds more like Ohul).
Next there’s Dalet (דּ), another doubled letter which is today always pronounced with a hard “D”. The soft variant (ד) is a “Dh” like in the word “that”. It is important to note the difference between a Thav and a Dhalet: the thav is pronounced like “three”, while the dhalet like “that”. Can you hear the difference? This particular sound is of utmost halachic significance: The Sages instruct us that when a person recites the Shema, they must extend or prolong the final dalet in the word echad. With a hard “D”, this is impossible! With a soft “Dh”, on the other hand, one can easily stretch the sound.
Chanukah or Khanukah?
The fourth of the doubled letters is Kaf (כּ) or Khaf (כ). This one is properly preserved today, for the most part. The only issue is the confusion with the similar-sounding letter Chet (ח). The difference is that khaf has that slight, soft “K” sound which Judaism is stereotypically famous for. Chet, meanwhile, is more like an Arabic-sounding “Ch” that comes from the throat, as Sefer Yetzirah explains that Chet is a guttural sound, together with Aleph, Hei and ‘Ayin. So, the way that people today typically say “Chanukah” or “challah or “Chaim” is totally wrong—they are saying “Khanukah”, “khallah”, and “Khaim”! These words should start with a throaty chet, not a rough khaf.
On that throaty note, the same is true for the letter ‘Ayin (ע). People tend to pronounce the ‘ayin like an Aleph, where there should be a clear difference. The ‘ayin comes from the throat and is almost like a longer “A” sound with a swallowed pause in the middle. For example, Jacob should be transliterated as Ya’akov, not Yakov. Because of its throatiness, the letter ‘ayin is often transliterated into English with a G, as in “Gomorrah” (עמרה). Meanwhile, the Yiddish pet name “Yankel” (for Ya’akov) has an “N” to simulate that ‘ayin. Many Sephardic and Mizrachi communities retain this sound.
The letter Tet (ט) is another difficult one. It is thought to be like a throaty thav, sounding almost like thoith. In Greek, the letter tet is theta, with the “th” sound like Hebrew thav. The Greek version of tav is tau, with a hard “T” sound. So, in Greek it makes sense to have both a theta and a tau, but in Hebrew having a thoith would be redundant since there already is a thav. It could be a throatier version of the hard “T”, much like sa’ade would be a throatier version of samech. I don’t think anyone is quite sure exactly how a tet should be pronounced.
Pei (פּ) and Phei (פ) are simple enough that it seems we still got them right. The Kuf or Qoph (ק) is trickier. It is again deeper than the kaf, and almost sounds like a fusion of kaf and khaf with a brief pause in the middle. Ashkenazis pronounce it no different than a kaf, which is incorrect. Many Sephardis (including Bukharians) maintain the proper qoph sound.
Finally, there’s Reish (ר). Sephardis generally pronounced it like a hard “R” sound, while Ashkenazis with a softer “R” like in Modern Hebrew. (It is quite ironic that some old school Ashkenazi Russian Jews have a clearly-accented “R” when speaking Russian, even though Russians themselves pronounce the “R” hard like Sephardis!) It is possible that the two ancient reish sounds were these two variants. Perhaps Ashkenazis preserved one, while Sephardis preserved the other. (There are other “R” possibilities, such as the English “R”, which is entirely different. Try saying Rimon in Ashkenazi/Modern Hebrew, English, and Sephardi, and notice how they get progressively harder.) Rabbi David Bar-Hayim has a different explanation for the two “R”s, pointing out how rare the reish with a dagesh (רּ) is. By some estimates, it appears fewer than 20 times in all of Scripture.
So, who pronounces more correctly? No one has it totally right, but the traditional Yemenites are the closest (see chart for scores). Halachically, each Jew should strive to read the Torah with the best pronunciation possible. The Talmud (Megillah 24b) states that there was a time when Jews from the towns of Haifa, Bet She’an, and Tibonim were forbidden to be called up to recite the Priestly Blessing or “pass before the Ark” because they confused the letters aleph and ‘ayin (like many do today). Based on this, the Halacha as codified in multiple places (such as the Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Tefilah 8:12, which specifically mentions the important of distinguishing between aleph and ‘ayin) is that a person selected to be the chazzan or ba’al koreh should have impeccable pronunciation. This may be reason enough for everyone to slowly adopt the more correct and more ancient Hebrew, as much as we know how (as Rabbi David Bar-Hayim has done).
On the other hand, there are those authorities who maintain that a person should not deviate from the long-standing customs of their communities. And there is a certain beauty in having different styles of speech and different styles of prayer—as long as we can all understand each other and be unified as the one nation we are meant to be.
Finally, it is important to keep in mind that languages always evolve. A language is a living thing, and Hebrew especially is a holy, living language. It evolves for a reason, just like Judaism is constantly evolving. The way we practice Judaism today is necessarily different than the way it was practiced two thousand years ago—and the language reflects that. “More ancient” does not always mean better. The way Hebrew is commonly pronounced today is a wonderful tapestry of our long and diverse history. There is something beautiful and unique about how Modern Hebrew fused together elements of traditional Ashkenazi and Sephardi pronunciation, making a flexible tongue that can speak to every Jew.