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What Are the Halachot of Switching One’s Pronunciation of Hebrew?

November 25, 2009 by  
Filed under Halakha, Prayer

More on שאל אביך and a First Example of אל תטוש:

What Are the Halachot of Switching One’s Pronunciation of Hebrew?

by Gidon Rothstein

In my most recent post in this venue, I noted the Rov, z”l’s, recollection of the interaction between the Beit haLevi and the Radzhyner Rebber.  While others record the incident differently, the Rov understood his great-grandfather to have argued that certain aspects of Judaism must be built from a living tradition,[1] citing the verse from Haazinu,שאל אביך ויגדך.  I suggested that the traditional uses of this verse might make interesting study, and we spent last time seeing its relevance to the question of why we follow Rabbinic ordinances.

 Pronunciation Is a Matter of Custom, and Must Be Maintained That Way

Another use of this verse (although an ancillary one) takes us to a topic that arose repeatedly throughout the 20th century, as the Land of Israel was repopulated, the State born, and a civil society that spoke Hebrew constructed in Israel.  Already in 1933, R. Kook published an article in קול תורה, a Torah journal,[2]  dealing with the propriety of switching one’s pronunciation of Hebrew from one accent to another.

There would seem to be an “ordinary” halachic part to this question, since switching pronunciations renders a person inarticulate in the earlier tradition.  To an Ashkenazi, a Sefardi Jew is saying the same words, but pronouncing them wrong (and vice verse).  Since, however, we rule that a person who pronounces the words indistinctly does fulfill his or her obligation, at least after the fact, that would only discourage such a switch, not prohibit it. 

That already predisposes R. Kook to discourage such switching, but a further concern is the issue of אל תטוש תורת אמך, do not leave the Torah of your mother,[3] the source of our commitment to continuing the practices of our forefathers.[4]  For R. Kook, the force of custom argues in favor of each community maintaining its own pronunciation.  In an interesting sidelight, he does not say this out of preference for any particular pronunciation.  While R. Ben-Zion Hai Uzziel, a younger colleague of R. Kook who later served as Sephardic Chief Rabbi, speaks of those who assert confidently that Ashkenazic pronunciation is clearly the only correct one, R. Kook assumes that the Yemenite accent is the closest to authentic still extant.

A Custom and Its Complications

We will see others who disagreed with R. Kook’s assumptions, but before we get to them, it is worth noting that even those who might accept his ideas allow for exceptions in practice.  In one case, R. Waldenberg, z”l, author of Tsits Eliezer, was asked whether a young man from an Ashkenazic background could make Kiddush for hospital residents using the Sefardic pronunciation.  Among other issues he raises to permit this, he notes that this is not actually a switch of pronunciation, since the man will usually pray in his own tradition.  Only when he goes to his job in the hospital or nursing home will he speak in the fashion to which they are accustomed.

More relevant to the difficulty of continuing to enact R. Kook’s view in practice, the Seridei Esh[5] was asked about allowing Bar Mitsvah boys to read the Torah and/or serve as hazzan, using the accent they learned in school (Sefaradit, usually), when the shul itself traditionally prays in an Ashkenazic accent.

He notes that he has not seen R. Kook’s article (although he has heard its central claims), and then makes three arguments in favor of allowing it. First, as an educational matter, it will go more smoothly for the Benei Mitsvah if they can learn in the accent they have always been taught.  Second, since this is only a temporary change for the community, it is less problematic than a complete switch (similar to R. Waldenberg’s responsum, except that here, the community will switch each time there is a Bar-Mitsvah).

Finally (and, to me, most tellingly), he notes that many synagogues now have members from various traditions, and each uses his own when praying, whether privately or as hazzan or baal keriyah.  If so, it seems difficult to insist that the Bar Mitsvah boys follow the theoretical accent-tradition of the congregation.  The mixing of communities the Seridei Esh noted becomes even more significant in Israel, where the language of the street was almost uniformly Sefaradit. 

This supports R. Ovadya Yosef, שיבדל לחיים טובים וארוכים, who rules that an Ashkenazi Jew who attended Sefaradit schools can continue to pray that way.[6]  Interestingly, he cites R. Unterman, z”l, an Ashkenazic Chief Rabbi, who takes for granted that the Sefaradit pronunciation will one day be universal.  Further, he notes that allowing such a switch would instantly render synagogue services more accessible to the ordinary nonobservant Israeli, heightening the opportunities for, and likelihood of, bringing closer those who are distant from observance. 

What About Willful Switching?

All of these perspectives confront circumstances where the push to change pronunciation was external, such as the schools that children are attending training them in a different accent from that of their homes and/or communities.[7]  In 1946, though, R. Herzog, z”l, was asked by a community in Johannesburg as to whether the entire synagogue could change its pronunciation.[8]

He discouraged it, but for reasons other than those offered by R. Kook.  First, he worried that this would serve as precedent and evidence that custom can be changed easily.  Second, he argued that the members of the congregation would factually fail to adopt the new pronunciation clearly and articulately, which everyone agrees is a problem.

That comment deserves a momentary digression, since it was the halachic foundation of R. Kook’s idea as well.  Regardless of pronunciation tradition, it was undisputed among these rabbis that prayer, personal as well as communal, and Torah reading, are supposed to be recited clearly and articulately.  Blurring, slurring, or swallowing words are a problem in the prayer itself.

In presenting these views, I have left the one I found most interesting for last.  R. Uzziel, a younger contemporary of R. Kook’s, disagreed with his view along several lines.[9]  First, he noted (as did several of the other responsa we have mentioned), that already in the 1500s, Maharashdam ruled that only customs connected to matters of prohibition fall under the rubric of customs that obligate future generations  (this is a topic to take up in the discussion of אל תטוש).  Second, R. Uzziel noted that the Hatam Sofer’s teachers, R. Nosson Adler and the author of Haflaah, switched their version of prayer to Sefardic.  If so, change is apparently permissible when warranted.

An Opportunity for Unification 

R. Uzziel’s conclusion is the same as R. Kook’s, that people should not switch, but for a reason that highlights a continuing failure of contemporary Jewry.  Since R. Uzziel assumes that the issue of custom is not relevant,[10] and that we have no living tradition for which version of pronunciation is more correct, he argues in favor of a gathering of the rabbis of Israel to rule on the matter, to establish a joint and agreed-upon version of pronunciation for all the Jews of Israel.

This is an idea I find personally appealing, not least for the fact that the Torah seems to have expected it on at least some issues.[11]  While it did not happen in terms of pronunciation, R. Uzziel was a signatory, with R. Herzog, to a series of rulings meant to advance exactly this goal, to unify the customs of the Jews living in Israel.  Unfortunately, as R. Binyamin Lau notes in a fascinating book, the decisions tilted strongly in the direction of the Ashkenazic practice.  This offended many, including a then-relatively young R. Ovadya Yosef, who rejected the rulings and refused to follow them in his position on the Petah Tiqva court.[12]  It is possible, as well, that this early experience strengthened his sense that Ashkenazim should follow their own customs, and Sefardim theirs, rather than bringing the Jewish people the greater unity of practice for which we might have hoped.

The question of how we pronounce Hebrew thus puts us in touch with several central issues within Jewish observance: the scope of custom and its force; when and how halachah responds to changed facts in assessing customs; and, perhaps most challengingly, the ways in which we might move towards reunifying Jewish practice, the sacrifices by communities necessary to do so, and the question of equality and fairness in trying to construct such a reunified set of customs and practices.

[1] A prime candidate for such an aspect would be basic faith, where the Torah seems to  emphasize the family tradition aspect of the Exodus from Egypt and the Giving of the Torah, as I hope to discuss in the course of my Mission of Orthodoxy project, at

[2] Reprinted in his responsa אורח משפט, סימן י”ז.

[3] משלי א:ח and ו:כ, Proverbs 1;8 and 6;20.

[4] This is an important topic of its own, which I hope to take up a bit in future discussions.

[5] 1;6.

[6] יביע אומר ו:י”א, Yabia Omer 6;11.

[7] I found it interesting that in none of the responsa I saw did the respondents complain about this aspect of children’s schooling; they took it as a fact, and examined its ramifications.

[8] היכל יצחק או”ח י”א, Heichal Yitschak, Orah Hayyim, 11.  As background to the responsum, we should remember the time when Zionism included, among other ways of connecting to Israeli society, mastering the Hebrew language.

[9] משפטי עוזיאל א, או”ח א’,, Mishpetei Uzziel 1, Orah Hayyim 1.

[10] Following that statement of Maharashdam, that custom only becomes an issue in cases where the custom has some connection to a prohibition.

[11]Hazal do assume that לא תתגודדו, at some level, seeks to avoid differences among Jews.

[12] B. Lau, ממרן עד מרן: משנתו ההלכתית של מרן הרב עובדיה יוסף, From ‘Maran’ to ‘Maran’: The Halachic Philosophy of R. Ovadya Yosef (Miskal, 2005), p. 50-51.

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