Letters Summer 2014

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Hebrew: The Great Debate

In Rabbi Seth Mandel’s “The Real Story of Hebrew Pronunciation” (spring 2014), he writes, “As with other languages, Hebrew changed over time.” I disagree. While other languages experienced natural evolution (for example, the evolution of Latin to French), Hebrew was a language in exile for thousands of years, in which it experienced unnatural changes. In exile, which our Sages teach was a punishment for our sins, Jews would drop Hebrew sounds not used in the local vernaculars or they would assimilate Hebrew sounds to local sounds. That is how Ashkenazim lost the ayin, the kof, the thav, et cetera. As a result, the Hebrew spoken in Israel today is bereft of ten of its original twenty-eight consonants.

As Rabbi Mandel notes, if one can differentiate between, for example, an ayin and an aleph, one must. Yet, many Jews can now differentiate between such letters. Today there are sound files on numerous web sites that demonstrate the lost sounds. English speakers would have an advantage in picking up several of them, for they can easily distinguish between tav and thav (tav without a dagesh), between a daleth with and without a dagesh (the latter pronounced as the “th” in “them”), between a veth and vav. Israelis, who are accustomed to hearing Arabic, can pick up the other sounds, such as cheth, ayin, teth and kof.

Finally, the article contains a few inaccuracies. Not all Sepharadim pronounce the tav without a dagesh as a “t”; Baghdadi Jews pronounce it as “thav,” like the Yemenites and the Greek Sepharadim. There are Sepharadim who distinguish between beth and veth. Rabbi Mandel argues that it is impossible from written records alone to exactly reproduce the Hebrew pronunciation from 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. One can, however, come much closer than we do today, and not by relying on written records alone. We have much evidence from the living examples of the Hebrew spoken by Jews in communities around the world (not just the Yemenite and Baghdadi pronunciations), each of which retained certain authentic aspects of our Holy Tongue.

We also have evidence from written records and oral evidence from related languages, all distilled by the work of linguists. Even if we cannot be perfect, we can do much better. It is time to heal our Holy Tongue.

Arthur G. Sapper
Silver Spring, Maryland

The articles by Rabbis Mandel (“The Real Story of Hebrew Pronunciation”) and Jack Abramowitz (“Fighting the Taf Guys”) were very informative and enlightening.

I would like to add to Rabbi Abramowitz’s concerns over the Sepharadic/Ashkenazic confusion. It is my experience that those Ashkenazic day schools that have chosen to teach their young students tefillah and Chumash in the so-called Sepharadic pronunciation have produced students who do not know either pronunciation system. I have heard countless adults daven for the amud and inadvertently switch from one pronunciation to the other. It is not uncommon to hear them pronounce the word “sosuru” (double saf) in Keriyat Shema as “tasuru.” And forget about Kaddish—that is a total mess.

I agree fully with Rabbi Abramowitz. Let Ashkenazim be Ashkenazim and Sepharadim be Sepharadim.

Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld
Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills
Flushing, New York

Rabbi Mandel is correct in pointing out that there is a variety of Hebrew that may be called Yeshivish Hebrew, which developed in the Lithuanian yeshivos.

In the late nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, many bachurim from Poland and Ukraine came to Mir and Volozhin (including Chaim Nachman Bialik). It is unlikely that they were influenced by the dictates of secular Yiddishist prescriptions. It is much more likely that their dialects simply mixed with those of their Lithuanian rashei yeshivos, producing a new variety of Hebrew. This type of mix is known in linguistics as a koine. This word is derived from the name given to the meld of Greek dialects spoken in Eretz Yisrael in ancient times.

My memories of teachers who came from the Mir in Shanghai to Australia during and after the Second World War support the notion above that this variety developed well before the Holocaust.

Meshullam Klarberg
PhD in Linguistics
Modi’in Illit, Israel

Rabbi Seth Mandel Responds

I thank all the letter writers for their thoughtful comments. Due to space constraints, I did not mention the distinctions between Sepharadic pronunciations or other pronunciation systems such as German and Eastern European. Those interested in an exhaustive treatment of the subject should look up “Pronunciations of Hebrew” in the Encyclopaedia Judaica.

I also deliberately avoided any prescriptive comments, such as “people should pronounce the soft tav as ‘th.’” (I can just imagine all the enraged townsfolk coming after me with pitchforks for suggesting their pronunciations are not correct!) The point that Hebrew evolved cannot solely be attributed to the fact that it was a language in exile. The Gemara tells us that the residents of Beit She’an did not pronounce the ayin. Similarly, the Samaritans, who never left Israel, don’t distinguish between a heh and an aleph.

Rabbi Schonfeld brings up an important linguistic point. Mixing Ashkenazic and Sepharadic pronunciations is comparable to mixing elements from French, Spanish and Romanian, essentially creating a new language. Saying “tasuru” instead of “sosuru” or “taturu” is linguistically inconsistent, loses distinctions important to either tradition and changes the meaning of the word.

Finally, as Dr. Klarberg concedes, there exists a new variety of Hebrew pronunciation known as “Yeshivish” that no one used in Europe. Although the adoption of Standard Yiddish pronunciation was documented by YIVO, the Yeshivish pronunciation has never been investigated.

The arguments for the source being the Yiddish standard pronunciation are twofold:

Firstly, not a single rosh yeshivah from Europe whom I have heard speak used Yeshivish Hebrew; they all used the Lithuanian or Polish pronunciation of Hebrew. If Yeshivish Hebrew were the result of the influence of Polish or Galitzianer bachurim in Lithuanian yeshivos, one would expect some of the European rashei yeshivos to have used Yeshivish Hebrew as well.

Secondly, Yeshivish pronunciation is exactly the same as the Standard Yiddish pronunciation, which would be very strange assuming, as our letter writer does, that they each developed at different times by different groups.

NCSY at Sixty

I greatly enjoyed the trip down memory lane with NCSY (“NCSY Turns Sixty,” by Bayla Sheva Brenner, spring 2014) but was disappointed that among those mentioned who were so instrumental in NCSY’s success in its early days, the name of my father, Rabbi Nachman Bulman, a”h, was not included.

My father was very involved in the founding of NCSY when he was a rabbi in South Fallsburg, New York, in the fifties and also when he served as rabbi in Danville and later Newport News, both cities in Virginia, in the fifties and sixties. In the past several years, both the Danville and Newport News communities have held fifty-year reunions that were attended by hundreds of former Virginians, many of whom were active as teenagers in the Virginia region of NCSY—which I remember as the best region there ever was! Most of those former teenagers are now grandparents and even great-grandparents. The shuls in those cities are but memories, and the former NCSY members are scattered in all directions, but they boast literally thousands of Torah-observant descendants living all over America and Israel.

I have in my possession a letter dated October 9, 2002, that Rabbi Pinchas Stolper, the founding director of NCSY, wrote to my mother, a”h, after my father’s passing:

Rabbi Bulman was a major factor in the success of NCSY, especially in the early days when the doubters outweighed the supporters. He influenced thousands of young American kids to turn to the Torah. Rav Bulman was one of the very few and first of American rabbonim who, when exposed to the NCSY phenomenon, believed in it, participated in it, understood its power, and was fully committed to do all he could to insure its success.

Rav Bulman’s sessions at conventions, especially at national conventions, which both of you attended many times, were spiritually magical. He had the genius to be intellectual, scholarly, mystical, enthusiastic, warm and demanding; all at the very same time.

He knew how to talk to American kids who were without [a religious] background, and to reach them. His stirring and emotional voice, filled with intellect and brilliance, reached deeply into their souls. There was always a certain magic about him.

He lives in my mind, in my consciousness, and in the minds and consciousness of the untold tens of thousands on whom he left an indelible and eternal mark.

When the former teenagers of NCSY tell their grandchildren about the old days, I hope my father’s name will always be remembered.

Toby Katz
North Miami Beach, Florida

This article was featured in Jewish Action Summer 2014.

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