Tag Archives: Ancient Hebrew

Shabbat or Shabbos: Who Pronounces Correctly?

The “Table of Nations”. One version of a map based on Genesis 10 and the seventy root nations. Originally, the seventy nations were based in the Middle East surrounding the Holy Land, as depicted here. After the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), they were dispersed all over the world.

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).

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda (1858-1922) had a huge impact on the development of the Modern Hebrew language.

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. 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 similar to 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!

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, for they are among the few which 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 gimel with a dagesh should be a hard “G” sound, like in “egg”. This is one that the Yemenites probably have wrong. The Yemenites do seem to have the non-dagesh variant of the gimel correct, pronouncing it like a rolling ghr, similar to a Modern Hebrew Reish. (When Yemenites say it, it sounds like Rimel, not Gimel!)

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) and “Gaza” (עזה). Many Sephardic and Mizrachi communities retain this sound. They don’t retain the Tet (ט), which is thought to be like a throaty thav, sounding almost like thoith. 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.

The Verdict

Half marks represent some communities retaining the sound and some not.

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 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 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.

Secrets of the Star of David

Star of David on the 1000-year old Leningrad Codex (1008 CE).

This week’s double parasha is Vayak’hel-Pekudei, which speaks of the Sabbath, the construction of the Tabernacle, and the formal establishment of the priesthood. One of the things described is the creation of the Menorah. This seven-branched candelabrum is perhaps the oldest symbol of Judaism. We discussed in the past how King David had the Menorah emblazoned on his shield (with the words of Psalm 67), and this was the famous magen David, “shield of David”. Yet, strangely, the term magen David today is associated not with the Menorah symbol but with the so-called “star of David”. Stranger still, this hexagram was historically known not as the “star of David” but rather as the “seal of Solomon”! Where did this symbol come from, what is its significance, and how did it become associated with the Jewish people?

Alchemy and Mysticism

Star of David in the Capernaum synagogue

The hexagram is a relatively simple shape and is found in art and architecture across Europe and Asia. While few ancient synagogues bear the star, many churches do. The most famous synagogue to have the star is the one discovered in 1866 in Capernaum (Kfar Nachum), a village on the Galilee initially founded by the Hashmoneans following their Chanukah victories. This synagogue is actually more popular among Christians, since the gospels of Luke and Mark describe how Jesus preached there. Archaeologists have also found the symbol on the seal of one Yehoshuah ben Asayahu in the remains of the ancient city of Sidon. The seal is dated all the way back to the seventh century BCE.

The great scholar Gershom Scholem (see his Kabbalah, pgs. 362-368) pointed out that the hexagram was used by alchemists to represent the fusion of fire (the up-triangle) and water (the down-triangle). This may have a connection to a Jewish teaching on the meaning of the term oseh shalom bimromav, which describes God as making peace in the Heavenly realms. One explanation is that here in the lower world, water and fire are unable to co-exist, while up in the Heavens God is able to unify these opposing forces. This divine power was demonstrated with the seventh plague in Egypt, which was “hail with fire” intertwined (Exodus 9:24). The fact that it was the seventh plague in particular may be noteworthy, since the Star of David has seven parts: the six points of the star and the inner hexagon.

The three axes (x, y, z) of our three-dimensional reality, and the six faces (or six directions) that they produce.

That seven-based arrangement has a great deal of significance in Judaism. It represents Creation, with the six days of the week and the special Sabbath. This itself is a reflection of the fact that all physical things in this universe exist in three dimensions, ie. within a “cube” of six faces, while the seventh represents the inner, spiritual dimension. The same arrangement is found in the mystical Tree of Life, where the lower sefirot are arranged as six “male” qualities and the seventh, “female” quality (Malkhut). Because of this, the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, 1534-1572) arranged his Passover seder plate in a hexagonal style, with each of the components corresponding to one of the lower sefirot, while the three matzahs correspond to the higher sefirot (Chokhmah, Binah, Da’at), and the plate itself (or the cup of wine) paralleling the seventh and final Malkhut. 

The Pesach Seder Plate. There is a debate whether the Arizal intended the items to be placed in a star shape, or with two triangles one atop the other. The latter is likely as it more closely resembles the Tree of Life diagram.

This arrangement of seven (or more specifically, of three-three-one) is found within the Menorah, too, that most ancient of Jewish symbols. For this reason, some argue that the opinion of the Shield of David having the Menorah and the opinion of it having the hexagram are really one and the same. They both reflect a divine geometry of 3-3-1. The sefirot are arranged in the same 3-3-1 manner, and corresponding to them are the seven shepherds of Israel: Chessed, Gevurah, and Tiferet parallel the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; Netzach, Hod, Yesod parallel the next three great leaders of Moses, Aaron, and Joseph; and Malkhut (“Kingdom”) naturally stands for David. David is at the centre of the star, so it is fitting that the star is named after him.

The first row of three (called by the acronym CHaGa”T), is followed by the second row of three (called NeHe”Y), and then the singular, “feminine” Malkhut (or Nukva), which receives from all the others.

Yet, it isn’t clear when and why the symbol became known as the “Star of David”. Rabbi Yirmiyahu Ullman points out that it may come from the fact that in Ancient Hebrew script the letter dalet has a triangular shape (much like the Greek delta), thus making “David” (דוד) appear as two triangles. Whatever the case, the symbol is already described as magen David, the “Shield of David”, in 14th century Kabbalistic texts, as Scholem points out. However, in those days it more commonly went by another name: the Seal of Solomon.

Ancient Hebrew Script. The letter dalet is a triangle.

The Seal of Solomon

In medieval texts, the hexagram is most commonly referred to as the “seal of Solomon”. The earliest texts that mention it are actually Islamic texts, not Jewish ones. They speak of a special ring that King Solomon had which allowed him to interact with jinn spirits (the root of “genie”) both good and bad. Although the texts are Arabic, they are clearly based on more ancient Jewish teachings. In fact, the earliest reference to a special ring possessed by Solomon which allowed him to defend from evil spirits is in the Talmud.

In what is likely the longest story related in the Talmud (Gittin 68a-b), we are told of how Solomon sought to find the special shamir “worm” which would allow him to cut the stones for the Temple without using iron tools. He found the shamir’s whereabouts from the prince of demons, Ashmedai, whom he was able to subdue thanks to his special ring. In an incredible twist, Ashmedai gets a hold of Solomon’s ring and banishes the king from his own kingdom, turning him into a pauper, while Ashmedai himself took the throne impersonating Solomon! Thankfully, this “new” Solomon’s strange behaviour was soon noticed, and the real Solomon eventually made his way back to the palace to reclaim his throne, and his ring.

The Talmud does not state that the ring had a hexagram on it, but rather that it had God’s Name engraved upon it. It is Arabic texts that first connect the ring to the hexagram. Some attempt to distinguish between the “Star of David” and the “Seal of Solomon” by suggesting that the hexagram of the former is made up of overlapping triangles while the hexagram of the latter is intertwined:

This argument seems to be without any foundation; the two symbols are one and the same, with the Star of David often depicted intertwined and the Seal of Solomon depicted overlapping (sometimes within a circle).

“Seal of Solomon” on a 19th-century Moroccan coin.

A Symbol for Israel

Hexagram on ‘Seder Tefillot’, the first siddur printed in Central Europe. (From Scholem’s ‘Kabbalah’, pg. 365)

Gershom Scholem argues that Jews in the 18th and 19th centuries were looking for a unifying symbol to represent themselves, something like the cross of the Christians or the crescent moon of the Muslims. In the city of Prague, the hexagram had been associated with Jews since the 14th century. It was back in 1354 that King Charles IV of Bohemia granted the Jewish community its own flag, with the hexagram upon a red banner. It soon started to appear on the synagogues of Prague. In 1512, the first modern siddur was printed in Prague and, not surprisingly, had the hexagram on its cover. After the Jews’ vital assistance to the city’s defences in 1648, the community was granted another royal flag, now with a yellow star on a red banner. This flag has been used by the community ever since.

The timing couldn’t be better (or worse). Just a few years later, the Shabbatean heresy would begin, and Prague was soon one of the movement’s strongholds. It appears that the Shabbateans adopted the symbol and used it in secret to identify each other. Scholem points out that use of the star was one of the reasons Rabbi Yakov Emden accused Rabbi Yonatan Eybeschutz of being a closet Shabbatean (a controversy we have discussed previously).

Star from 5th century CE Byzantine Church uncovered at Khirbet Sufa in the Negev

Interestingly, among the Shabbateans the symbol was known as Magen ben David, the Shield of the Son of David, ie. the Shield of the Messiah. This makes sense considering they believed that Shabbatai Tzvi was Mashiach. This isn’t too different from that star-bearing Capernaum synagogue where Jesus supposedly preached. Not too far away from Capernaum in Israel, a 5th century Byzantine church was uncovered, also with the hexagram symbol. Another ancient church in Tiberias displays the star. Perhaps early Christians believed the hexagram was a symbol of their purported Ben David, too! Indeed, to this day one of the Pope’s mitres (the ceremonial hat) has the hexagram prominently displayed upon it.

Pope Benedict XVI with a star of David mitre

Scholem suggests that the symbol is referred to as Magen ben David in older Kabbalistic texts that predate the Shabbateans (which is where they would have gotten it). Since Kabbalistic teachings date back to at least the Second Temple period, it is possible that even in the time of Jesus there was a tradition of the hexagram being a messianic symbol. In truth, calling it the Shield of David is problematic, since the accepted tradition is that David’s shield had the Menorah upon it. It was Solomon that apparently used the hexagram to shield from demons. And Solomon is literally a ben David, the son of King David, the very first potential Mashiach ben David in history.

Mashiach’s role is to reunite all of the Jews in Israel, and to restore the original Twelve Tribes. The twelve vertices of the hexagram are said to refer to the Twelve Tribes of Israel, all reunited as one. Meanwhile, the land of Israel itself is often described in sevens: the seven Canaanite nations, and the seven shepherds to whom it was promised; the “seven species” through which the land is praised, and the seventy names that the land is known by (see Midrash HaGadol on Genesis 46:8). It is therefore most appropriate that the Zionist movement which sought to restore the Jews to their ancestral land chose the hexagram as its symbol.

While the secular Theodor Herzl drew up a flag that had seven golden stars on a white banner, it was the Orthodox-born and raised David Wolffsohn that came up with the modern flag of Israel, basing the design on the tallit. Wolffsohn responded to Herzl’s call to create a flag for the Jews by stating: “We have a flag—and it is blue and white. The tallit with which we wrap ourselves when we pray: that is our symbol. Let us take this tallit from its bag and unroll it before the eyes of Israel and the eyes of all nations.”

By this point in history, the Star of David was used by Jewish communities and synagogues across Europe and beyond, so it was natural for it to be emblazoned upon the blue and white tallit-flag. Around the same time, the Orthodox Jewish scholar Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) wrote The Star of Redemption, where he used the hexagram to explain the relationship between God and man. Previously, Rosenzweig had resolved to convert to Christianity, then decided to spend one more day as a Jew on Yom Kippur. That day, in a small Orthodox shul in Berlin, Rosenzweig experienced a mystical revelation and an awakening. He became a pious baal teshuva, and a passionate champion for traditional Judaism. His popular “star of redemption” added further meaning to Israel’s new flag.

Rosenzweig’s ‘Star of Redemption’

There is one last irony in all of this: the same hexagram was used by the Nazis to degrade the Jews in their attempt to eradicate the nation (likely based on the use of a yellow badge forced upon Jews in some medieval-era towns centuries earlier). To proudly fly the Star of David today is to demonstrate that we are still here, stronger than ever, and we are not going anywhere. We took those stars off of our beaten and bloodied robes and put them on our tanks and jets. And now we await Mashiach ben David, Magen ben David, to come and take command of them. It is, after all, his symbol.