Lashon HaQodesh (Loshon HaKodesh)
by Rabbi Dawidh Bar-Hayim
Rosh Machon Shilo
If the truth be told, I welcomed the letter received by a local Jerusalem newspaper with regard to the transliteration of Hebrew words as they appear in my articles. It affords me the opportunity to broach the issue of the pronunciation of the Holy Tongue. I say 'the Holy Tongue' - because that is what it is. (Hazal almost always refer to our language as 'Leshon Haqodesh' - 'the Tongue of Holiness'). Our language is unlike any other - it comes direct from the Creator Himself. "'This one shall be called 'isha' (woman(, having been taken from 'ish' (man)' (Bereshith 2:24) - from this [the fact that these words for 'man' and 'woman' are, till the present day, the terms for these concepts in Hebrew] we know that the world was created in Leshon Haqodesh" (Bereshith Raba 18:4 - Rashi ad loc.). We should therefore take the matter very seriously indeed.
So let us discuss pronunciation. Can we assume that the way in which Hebrew is commonly pronounced today is correct?
Unfortunately not. First of all, Jews in every part of the world (during the Galuth) pronounced, and continue to pronounce, our language differently from one another. They cannot all be right. Secondly, there cannot be any doubt that the long and bitter Galuth had a very negative effect on our command and pronunciation of our ancestral language. Take the letter 'ayin for example. As is well known, the Ashkenazim have not been able to differentiate between it and an aleph for centuries. The Sepharadim and Taymanim, on the other hand, have never experienced such trouble. We can attempt to explain this phenomenon in one of three ways:
1)It is simply a matter of luck that those communities of Jews preserved the original pronunciation.
2) The Ashkenazim lost (as a rule) the ability to pronounce the 'ayin due to the fact that in Europe, the vernacular that they spoke (whether it was German, French, Russian, or Yiddish) lacked such a consonant. (Not one of the native languages of Europe possesses such a sound). Seeing that Hebrew ceased (until recently) to be a spoken and living language at least 2000 years ago, the Ashkenazim simply never heard such a sound, and could not, therefore, pronounce it.
3) The Sepharadim and Taymanim are in fact wrong: the 'ayin and the aleph are supposed to be identical, and thus indistinguishable, and were designed to lead to confusion. I'll leave it to you, the reader, to draw your own conclusions. The same applies to several other Hebrew consonants (according to standard pronunciation). Teth (tet) and Tauw (Tav) are mysteriously and confusingly identical, as are Waw (Vav) and Veth (Vet), Kaf and Qof, and Khaf and Heth (Het). We therefore have five sets of letters, 10 letters in all, that for some reason are precise copies of their 'twin' letter! Does this make any sense? Does this sound like a tongue the Creator Himself would have dreamed up?
Sefer Yesira (a very ancient text that discusses, among other things, the aleph beth - see 1:1, 2:2 and 3:3) lists the 22 letters of our aleph beth, and points out that 7 of their number are 'double', i.e. have two alternate pronunciations, depending upon whether they have a dot or not: BeGeD KaPoReT, i.e. Beth, Gimmel, Daleth, Kaf, Pe, Resh, Tauw. All of us know about three of these: Beth/Veth, Kaf/Khaf, Pe/Fe (and according to present-day Ashkenazi tradition the fourth is Tav/Sav, which we shall presently discuss). But what of Gimmel, Daleth and Resh?
While not attempting to deal with every aspect of this subject in the current article, I feel that one clear indication from the Talmud that the standard pronunciation of today is woefully lacking is in place. "Sumkhos stated: 'He who lengthens [his pronunciation of the word] Ehad will have his days lengthened [by Hashem]'. R. Aha Bar Ya'aqov added: 'On the daleth'" (Talmud Bavli Berakhoth 13b). This is a standard Halakha (see Rambam Qeriyath Shema 2:9, Shulkhan 'Arukh Orah Hayim 61:6). The trouble is that as anyone who has ever tried to lengthen the daleth knows, this can simply not be done - the letter d is a plosive consonant (i.e. it is formed by the expulsion of air from the mouth in one, explosive burst, and by definition cannot be extended). What usually results, therefore, is Ehannnnnnnd. (Try it and you'll see what I mean). If, however, one knows that the undotted daleth of Ehad is to be pronounced as the th in the definite article the, the matter becomes simple - the way to extend the daleth is to say Ehathhhh (which can be said, try it and you'll see). To perform this requirement is, then, very simple, if one knows that the undotted daleth is to be pronounced like the word the; it is impossible, however, if one pronounces it as a d.
Rav Sa'adya Gaon (flourished roughly 1100 years ago, universally accepted as one of the greatest sages, in all areas of Tora, of all time) in his commentary to Sefer Yesira (p. 74 onwards) states the following facts:
1) There are 29 consonantal sounds in our language (22+7). No two letters are identical, with the exception of 'sin' and 'samekh'.
2) The letters of our aleph beth are identical to those of (classical) Arabic, unless otherwise stated.
3) We possess four sounds that Arabic does not: Veth, Gimmel, Pe and the strong (or second) pronuncition of Resh.
4) The Arabs have three that we lack: Jin (as the 'j' in jaywalk), a second, deeper version of our dotted Daleth, and a second, deeper version of our undotted Daleth. The very same information is imparted to us by R. Dunash Ben Tamim (shortly after R. Sa'adya) in his commentary to Sefer Yesira (p. 21). Add to this the statement of the Rambam (letter to Shemuel Ibn Tibon, printed in Responsa Pe'er HaDor no. 143,. p.275) that Arabic is simply Hebrew 'gone somewhat awry' (sic), and the words of R. Avraham Ibn 'Ezra (in his commentary to Shir HaShirim 8:11) "that Arabic is very close to the Holy Tongue...over half the roots are common to both (Shalom-Salaam, Shemesh-Shams = sun etc.)", and the picture is more or less complete: the alphabets of these two related languages are very similar. (In the area of vowels, the difference is greater: Hebrew is much richer in its range of vowels. In addition, despite the similarity, our Holy Tongue is much gentler). The fact that all Medieval Jewish scholars (e.g. R. Sa'adya, Rambam, Ibn 'Ezra) who authored books in Arabic did so utilizing Hebrew characters speaks for itself.
Despite the fact that all of the disparate communities of the Jewish Diaspora were adversely affected (linguistically) by the Galuth, the Teymani (Yemenite) community preserved the authentic tradition more than any other. The same is true, albeit less so, for some of the Sepharadi communities. In this matter of linguistics and received pronunciation, the Ashkenazim, living in an environment entirely inimical to a Semitic language such as Hebrew, suffered the most. (If anyone doubts the truth of such a claim, witness the substantial and obvious differences in pronunciation between the average Ashkenazi, Haredi-style Jew, living today in New York, and his Israeli counterpart. One will say 'borukh' (blessed) with a plainly north-American 'r' sound, the other with a distinctly different east-European guttural 'r'. The American Jew will say 'godowl' (big) with the second vowel being identical with the common English-American vowel-sound 'o' as in 'old' but if you step into any schul of Israeli Haredim, you will hear 'godoyl'. This despite the fact that both these Jews stem from the same European communities, and theoretically are recipients of the same tradition. And all this in the space of two, or at the most three, generations of American Judaism. As opposed to this example, we are discussing aberrations that evolved over 2000 years!.
Many authorities have openly recognized the lackings of present-day Ashkenazi and Sepharadi pronunciations. The renowned Ashkenazi rabbi R. Ya'aqov Emden (Ya'abes) writes in his introduction to his famous Siddur Beth Ya'aqov: "Pronunciation must be complete and correct...particularly one must not confuse alephs with 'ayins and hehs...not to mention confusing totally dissimilar letters ...not as we the Ashkenazim pronounce the undotted tauw (tav) as a samekh, to our shame. In the matter of vowels, however, we are much better off, not like the Sepharadim who do not distinguish between a qames (kamatz) and a patah..." (new Eshkol edition p. 10).
R. Avraham Yishaq Hakohen Kook, (the leading Ashkenazi Rabbi in this country 70 years ago), states that "the essential aspect of any pronunciation is the distinction it provides between letters and vowels, and in this respect the Sepharadi pronunciation cannot equal the Ashkenazi, and even more so the Yemenite pronunciation which is superior to both, in that it differentiates more than the other two..." (Orah Mishpat p. 20).
In conclusion, I wish to quote the words of R. Ya'aqov Kaminetzky (in a letter of approbation to the book Safa Berura on the subject of the pronunciation of Hebrew, reprinted in the excellent book Qosht Imre Emeth, on the same subject, p.14): "It is very important to clarify the truth...I know that many will say 'Who is this person who wishes to introduce new things [pronunciations] such as these? As a certain person once said to me after I pointed out to him that our pronounciation of the undotted daleth is plainly incorrect [as explained above]: 'Do you imagine that the Hidushe HaRim [a great Tora sage of the last century] did not read Shema properly?' I replied that he certainly performed his obligation b'diavad. It is also possible that he himself read it entirely correctly, but could not influence the conduct of the entire community...But if only a few will pay heed [to what you have written], it will have been worthwhile".
Rav Bar-Hayim may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.