Friday, January 08, 2010

Ashkenazim and the Sephardic Pronunciation of Hebrew

This post will continue on the theme of a previous post where I discussed how Chassidim switched from the Ashkenazic rite to a modified Sephardic one. Here I will focus more in depth on how and why some Ashkenazic Jews –both religious and (later) secular- adopted the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew because they deemed it superior to the Ashkenazi one.

Sepharad in Ashkenaz

In the last 2 decades of the 18th century, concurrent with the rise of the Chassidic movement [1]Germany. It was led by Rabbi Nathan Adler of Frankfurt. Rabbi Nathan’s followers regarded him as a man of God and a miracle worker. Under his influence they studied kabbalah, demanded extreme standards of abstinence and self purification and conducted separate prayer service according to a special rite based on the prayer book of Rabbi Yitzchak Luria. in Eastern Europe, a pietist group was emerging in of

R' Adler was a very controversial figure in the Frankfurt Jewish community and was eventually excommunicated in 1779 and again in 1789. A booklet entitled Maaseh Tatuim was published anonymously in 1790 (a copy of which I have in my collection) which attacked the actions of Adler and his followers. Some of the chief accusations against Adler included the complaint that they introduced substantial changes in both the text and the conduct of prayers; praying in the Sephardic rite known as siddur haari and (unlike the Chassidim) also of using the Sephardic pronunciation in prayer [2] [3].

The Jewish Enlightenment looks to Sepharad as a Positive Model

The literature abounds on the subject of the Reform movement in Germany using Sephardic Jewry as a positive model of what progressive Jewry ought to look like. Interest in all things Sephardic was all the rage among the wissenschaft crowd in Western and Central Europe.

Todd Endelman writes:

From the late 18th century, Sephardim throughout Western Europe, as well as Ashkenazim, deployed the myth to promote their own cultural, political and social agendas...the pioneers of Wissenschaft des Judentums and the leaders of the Reform movement constructed an image of Sephardi Judaism that stressed its cultural openness, philosophical rationalism, and aesthetic sensibilities in order to criticize what they disliked in their own traditions, i.e. its backwardness, insularity, aversion to secular studies. In France, Austria, Germany, Hungary and the United States, communal and congregational boards erected imposing synagogues of so called Moorish design, assertive symbols of their break with the “unenlightened” Ashkenazi past.

Before the end of the century, the myth of sephardi superiority was widely disseminated and available for appropriation by Jews and their enemies alike…in their battle against racial myths about Jewish deformities, Jewish anthropologists drew on the Sephardi mystique to create a counter myth of their own- that of the well-bred, aesthetically attractive, physically graceful Sephardi, a model of racial nobility and virtue. In their work John Efron notes, “the Sephardi served as the equivalent of the Jewish ‘Aryan’…the physical counterpart to the ignoble Jew of Central and Eastern Europe [4].

This Ashkenazic sense of inferiority was obviously something new. As Ismar Schorch put it: "there is little doubt that beyond the worldwide influence of Lurianic Kabbalah(of which Adler's group and the Chassidim of eastern Europe are one example--J.D.), the religious culture of Spanish Jewry held but slight allurement for a self-sufficient and self-confident Ashkenazi Judaism in its age of spiritual ascendancy" [5].

In fact until the 16th century Ashkenazi culture enjoyed higher status than the Sephardi one, (perhaps since Ashkenazi Jews had not converted to any other religion i.e. had not become Marranos). Around 1500 when the first scholarly Hebrew grammar books were published in Europe, the authors naturally took the language of Jews living in France and Germany, that is Ashkenazi Hebrew , as the basis of their work, and sephardi was regarded as a curiosity. In the epoch making grammar book (De rudimentis Hebraicis, 1506) of Johannes Reuchlin (1455-1522), Ashkenazi Hebrew was the living language. It was only in the 17th century that European Hebraic scholars- the so called “Christian Hebraists”, decided in favor of Sephardi reading. It was accepted by the great grammar (1817) of William Gesenius (1786-1842) as well, which formed the basis of modern Hebrew linguistics. Since the 17th century everyone considered the Sephardi usage to be the scholarly standard and used it exclusively. Jewish scholarship (wissenschaft) was now committed to Sephardi, and it became the ideal for the initiatives of the Reform movements[6].

Schorsch writes:

With the advent of emancipation in central Europe, German speaking Jews gradually unhinged itself from the house of Ashkenazic Judaism. Inclusion in the body politic sundered a religious union born of common patrimony. Historians have tended to focus on the institutional expression of this rupture-the repudiation of the educational system, the mode of worship, and the Rabbinic leadership intrinsic to Ashkenazic Judaism- with special emphasis on the western tastes and values with propelled the transformation of all areas of Jewish life…with surprising speed German Jews came to cultivate a lively bias for the religious legacy of Sephardic Jewry forged centuries before on the Iberian Peninsula without which they would have cut loose from Judaism itself…..enabled them to redefine their identity in a Jewish mode [7].

The Sephardic Pronunciation of Hebrew vs. the Ashkenazic

The Maskil Nafatali Herz Wessely, whose admiration for the Sephardim of Amsterdam was born of personal experience, had contended in the fourth and final letter of his Words of Peace and Truth that the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew was grammatically preferable to the manner in which the Ashkenazim rendered it. A generation later, the teachers and preachers who pioneered the development of a German rite adopted the Sephardic pronunciation for their “German synagogue”. Not a point of Halachic contention, the switch could be defended by Eliezer Liebermann in terms of grammatical propriety or by Moses Kunitz of Ofen (Modern day Budapest) in terms of demography- more than seven eighths of the Jewish world offers its prayers in the Hebrew of the Sephardim but the ultimate motivation of this unnatural and self conscious appropriation of Sephardic Hebrew was the desire to extinguish the sound of the sacred tongue from that of Yiddish, which these alienated Ashkenazic intellectuals regarded as a non-language that epitomized the abysmal state of Jewish culture [8].

Another proponent of "Sephardicism" was Mayer Kayserling (1829-1905) PICTURED TOP who was born in Hanover in 1829, an eventually became the liberal rabbi of Budapest and his generation’s leading scholar on of Sephardic Jewry. In his work entitled Sephardim: Romanische Poesien der Juden in Spanien, he betrays an unmistakable pro-Sephardi bias, contrasting the “lowly” language and manner of the Ashkenazic Jew with the “nobility of character” and “purity of the language” of the Sephardic Jew. He extols the virtue of the Sephardim and maintained that: "persecution had not destroyed the aristocratic bearing, the cultural loyalty, the linguistic purity, and the alliance of religion with secular learning that had distinguished Sephardic Jewry". He also naturally felt that the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew was the correct one. [9].

It should be noted that the close resemblance in pronunciation between the biblical Hebrew taught at German universities of the time and the Hebrew of the Sephardim no doubt bestowed a verisimilitude of correctness of the latter.

Schorch also quotes an interesting letter dated 4th October 1827 by J.J. Bellerman, a well known theologian, scholar and director of the prestigious Berlin Gymnasium. He advised Zunz to teach the youngsters in the Jewish communal school over which Zunz presided the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew from the very beginning. Bellerman had been invited to observe a public examination of the children. While expressing his pleasure at the event, he did see fit to challenge the retention of the “Polish pronunciation of Hebrew,” because it managed to offend both the vowels and accents of the language. And in conjunction with the vowels, he pointed out the historical superiority of Sephardic Hebrew.

Bellerman writes in the letter:

As you well know the writings of learned Alexandrian Jews—in the Septuagint, Josephus, Philo and Aquila- show that the Polish pronunciation is incorrect…the learned Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian Jews have the correct one. Why shouldn’t the Jews of Berlin and in fact of Germany choose the better (of the two)? Especially Berlin Jewry which has already adopted so much that is correct? It would indisputably accrue to their honor, if they would offer other communities in this matter an example [10].

Stripping the Sephardic Pronunciation of Legitimacy

Obviously not all Ashkenazim were thrilled with the radical changes now gaining popularity. They were particular disturbed by the change in pronunciation.

As early as 1502 the Jewish false Messiah Asher Lämmlein, a German Jew who appeared in Italy and succeeded in attracting a large following of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews mocked the Sephardic émigrés in his city . In his writings Lammlein barely hides his contempt for the peculiar Sephardic accent. He publicly excoriated the Spanish Jews (who had recently fled to Italy after being expelled from their home country) for their “corrupt ways” and demanded that they “correct” their prayer liturgy. In his writings he also heaped scorn upon the writings of Maimonides, particularly the latter’s injunction that it is important to distinguish between an ayin and an aleph and between a heh and a chet. He called themעילג לשון literally “Stutterers. Lemlein wrote: “they (the Sephardim) do not distinguish between a samech and a tzadi…and the kamatz and patach is the same to them as is the tzere and the segol…” [11].

Some Ashkenazi Rabbis were of the opinion that an Ashkenazi praying in the Sephardic rite and or using the Sephardic pronunciation rendered the prayer null and void. Some Rabbis took issue with the way Sephardim pronounce Gods name and maintained that one should be careful to say adoinoi [as in oy] rather than the Sephardic adonay [as in aye] (which could be mistaken as a declaration of polytheism) see here.

To be sure, this attitude of contempt is not restricted to the Ashkenazi side, see this piece of recent news.

Controversy in Hungary

Hungary never had a strong tradition of pronouncing the prayers in the Sephardi pronunciation. The aforementioned Hartwig (Naphtali Hirtz) Wessely (1725-1805). PICTURED SECOND FROM TOP who initiated the reform of Hebrew pronunciation, referred precisely to the fact that the Sephardi people read out every phonetic symbol, even semitones of traditional texts, clearly, and claimed that their language sounded nicer than the Ashkenazi reading. In Hungary, Joszef Rajnis (1741-1812), a Jesuit teacher and poet, made a similar statement with an offensive anti-Semitic overtone. In his opinion the accent ("barking" as he called it) of rabbis differed significantly from the original sounds of the ancient Jewish language.

In Hungary there was an attempt to introduce Sephardi pronunciation already in the 19th(Ben Yohai, 1815), and even a drama in Hebrew verse (Beit Rabbi, 1805), who in 1818 published a Rabbinic decision (pesak) which announced that the Sephardi pronunciation should be used in the synagogue instead of the Ashkenazi one. His main argument (as mentioned before) was that seven eighths of the world’s Jews prayed using the Sephardi pronunciation (this figure was obviously exaggerated). Kunitzer was in favor of reforms in general; he even supported the efforts of the radical reformer Aron Chorin. He studied in Prague and was held in high esteem. century. Following German examples, it was Moses ben Menachem Kunitz (1774-1837) of Obuda, the Rabbi of the Buda community from 1828 until his death, author of some valuable Talmudic works, a Zohar analysis,

The activity of Kunitzer had no real result, but in spite of its failure, it indicates that representatives of the haskalah were unanimously convinced that the Sephardi pronunciation preserved by certain isolated Jewish groups throughout centuries, was closer to the original sound of the Hebrew language than the Ashkenazi one, the common language of European Jews altered under German influence [12].

In the 1950s, the leadership of the Hungarian Jewish community strictly forbade the Sephardi pronunciation which sounded similar to Modern Hebrew. It was even forbidden at the Rabbinical Seminary, lest they be accused of Zionism and thus invite political or police intervention (Hungary was a Communist dictatorship at the time). Those who study Hebrew these days may learn both pronunciations, yet the attraction and impact of the Israeli intonation is powerful. In Synagogues, the Ashkenazi pronunciation is still in use, but younger people, including students of the Rabbinical Seminary, switch to the Sephardi-Israeli reading they became accustomed to during their stay in Israel [13].

Zionism and the Rebirth of Hebrew

Eliezer ben Yehuda PICTURED BOTTOM is considered the father of “Modern Hebrew”.

Ben Yehuda left his native Lithuania and sailed to Palestine in 1881 where he settled in the Jewish quarter of old Jerusalem. In 1890 he helped create the Hebrew Language Council (Va'ad Ha Leshon Ha Ivrit) whose stated purpose was to disseminate works in Hebrew and establish Hebrew as the official language of the Yishuv.

Although Ben-Yehuda was not a religious Jew, he dressed as a traditional Sephardic Jew, sported a long untrimmed beard and regularly attended the local synagogue [14]. It wasn’t long however until he managed to arouse the ire of the Jerusalem Sephardic Rabbinate who responded with 3 separate bans against his and his newspaper “Hatzvi”.

Ben-Yehuda particularly disliked the Sephardic Chief Rabbi Yaakov Shaul Elyashar and considered him be from the old generation of Jews who were hopelessly stuck in the “galut [exile] mentality”. He did however form close ties with Elyashar’s successor, Rabbi Yaakov Meir who was highly sympathetic to Ben-Yehuda’s ambitions and the former was instrumental in introducing the modern Hebrew language into the schools of the Sephardic community in Jerusalem[15].

Ben-Yehuda Chooses the Sephardic Pronunciation

Ben-Yehuda, although displaying an attitude of contempt for the older generation of traditional Sephardic Rabbis, harbored a strong admiration for the traditions of Sephardic Jewry; the “golden age in Spain”, was especially cherished by Ben-Yehuda who called it “this most fruitful period” [16].

As Jack Fellman put it:

..the Sephardim as a whole were less inclined to religious fanaticism and more receptive to new ideas from the outside world. This fact can be attributed to various sources. First, unlike the Ashkenazim, the Sephardim had never been directly exposed to the new climate of thought as expressed in the ideas of the enlightenment which were sweeping across Europe during the 19th century and therefore did not recognize as deeply the possible anti-traditional, anti-religious consequences of these beliefs [17].
It is known from historical records and had also been clear to Ben Yehuda before his arrival in Palestine that the various Jewish groups in the city, while speaking their own languages among themselves, used Hebrew as a lingua franca when it became necessary to meet together, for example in the market place, or to work together, as in the collection of taxes for the government authorities. This situation was particularly applicable to the 2 major sections of the community- Ashkenazim and Sephardim- when they met together, but was also the case when groups consisting only of Sephardic Jews gathered, as these people had no other common means of communication but Hebrew, since Ladino was restricted in use and Arabic was splintered into several dialects. As Ben-Yehuda observed: “When for example a Sephardi from Aleppo would meet a Sephardi from Salonika or a Sephardi from Morocco would come into the company of a Jew from Bukhara, they were obliged to speak in the holy tongue… of all the centers of Jewish population in the world only Jerusalem could boast a spoken Hebrew tradition which had been preserved until Ben Yehuda’s time. As Ben-Yehuda noted: “for me the matter was a little easier, because the Sephardim who knew I was not a Sephardi were already used to the fact that with an Ashkenazi they must speak in Hebrew. As for the Ashkenazim, some of them did not know who I was, and the question whether I might not be a Sephardi made it acceptable to them to speak with me in Hebrew.

This Hebrew was not, of course, the Ashkenazic (European) Hebrew that Ben Yehuda had learned in his youth. In the first place, it was a Hebrew spoken with the Sephardic accent, inasmuch as the Sephardim were numerically and culturally superior to the other groups in Jerusalem and had enjoyed this status for over 300 years and therefore their accent too had become dominant….It should also be borne in mind as a factor initially aiding Ben Yehuda and his ideal that certain groups of Jews in Palestine already spoke only Hebrew, in particular Kabbalists and Hassidim especially in Safed, at least on Sabbaths, but also, it would seem, on weekdays [18].

Adopting Hebrew as the Official Language

After much discussion and debate, a meeting of the Hebrew Teachers Association in 1895 adopted Hebrew as the language of instruction, with Sephardic pronunciation to be used (but Ashkenazic pronunciation was allowed in the first year in Ashkenazic schools, and for prayer and ritual). The next meeting of the association was not until 1903, at the close of a major convention of Jews of the Yishuv called in Zikhron Yaakov by Ussishkin, the Russian Zionist leader. The 59 members present accepted Hebrew as the medium of instruction…and there was general agreement also on the use of Ashkenazi script and Sephardic pronunciation [19].

It should be pointed out that although modern Hebrew is similar to the Sephardic pronunciation, it isn’t exactly alike. For instance, Sephardic Hebrew, as mentioned before, differentiates between an ayin and an alef, as well as between a chet and a khaf while modern Hebrew does not do so in both cases.

While most Zionists were enthusiastic about reviving Hebrew as a spoken language, not all of them were as enthused by the adoption of the Sephardic pronunciation and insisted on using their “native” dialect in conversation.

The Lithuanian Yiddish poet and writer Yehoash mentioned how strange Sephardic Hebrew sounded to him when he emigrated from the US to the new colony of Rechovot shortly before World War I

In stark contrast to the story cited in Schorsch (see above) with Mr. Bellerman and the students of the Berlin Gymnasium, Yehoash (and others) took issue (though ambivalently)with the young Hebrew students at the Herzliyah High School reciting Hebrew poems in the Sephardic pronunciation:

An excellent poem by Frischmann was read, but in the Sephardic Hebrew pronunciation the lines lost their original rhythm. The problem of retaining in the Sephardic accent the rhythm of the Hebrew songs composed originally in the Ashkenazic pronunciation will be very hard for the devotees of the ha-Havarah haSefardit to solve. Yet practically all residents of Eretz Yisroel use exclusively this latter. The most sonorous strophes of Bialik and Shneor must naturally lose the greater part of their melody when uttered in the Sephardic pronunciation. No wonder then that many Hebrew authors in foreign countries look askance at the Havarah Hasefaradit, One of them- a well-known mystic and philosopher, who never in his life cracked a joke-perpetrated his first and only pun at the expense of the selfsame dialect calling it ha-havarah ha-sefardde’it, the language of the frogs.

Yet Yehoash concedes:

And yet after residing in Eretz Yisroel for an appreciable length of time, one begins to feel that the Sephardic accent is the proper one, despite all the historico-philological considerations [20].

On the question of why Ben-Yehuda and the Language Council decided to adopt the Sephardic pronunciation, Jack Follman quotes the noted linguist Dr. Haim Blanc: “for various reasons, they decided to adopt the pronunciation in vogue among Mediterranean and Middle Eastern (Sephardic) communities, but which one of the several Sephardic varieties was actually used as a model is obscure…”

Blanc offered the following reasons among others for this change:

1. The Sephardic variety was already in use as the pronunciation of the Market Hebrew lingua franca of Palestine, and was used even by the Ashkenazim in their face to face dealings with the Sephardim for almost 4 centuries prior to Ben-Yehuda.

2. The Sephardic variety was considered the more ancient of the two, as testified in particular by various transliterations and translations of Hebrew into Latin and Greek, and therefore was considered closer to the original ancient biblical Hebrew of the homeland. A further point was the fact that the Sephardi variant was considered closer to the historical dialect of Judah, the home of Judaism, whereas the Ashkenazic form was thought to be similar to that of secessionist Samaria.

3. The Ashkenazic variety of Hebrew reminded the council too much of Yiddish, the despised language of the exile in the opinion of most of the council’s members, which, in particular contained the same set of vowel phonemes. Conversely, the Sephardic form resembled the sound pattern of Arabic more closely and Arabic was the sister language in the Semitic family which already existed in the locale.

4. The Sephardic variant reproduced the consonantal text of Hebrew more accurate that did the Ashkenazic, as it included at least four more graphemic-phonemic renditions, as mentioned above. Therefore it was considered the more correct of the two by the council, who still conceived of Hebrew more in its written image than in its spoken form.

5. It was the council’s opinion that children who knew the Sephardic system would be equipped to read and write Hebrew texts with greater facility since the Sephardic system resembled the consonantal text more closely. Since children were to be the chief carriers of the language revival, this was an important factor. (However as Hebrew is generally written only in its consonantal shape, the fact the Ashkenazic and not the Sephardic system was closer in vocalization to the vocalized Hebrew text was never given serious attention, although Yellin did mention it at least once in his work, at his lecture on the subject to the Secondary and Grammar School Teachers Union Conference in Gedera in 1904. This step was later to lead to serious problems in the teaching of Hebrew vocalization.)

6. The Sephardic system is closer to the internal grammatical structure (morpho phonemics) of Hebrew than the Ashkenazic system, and had been the system already in use among the European Hebraists as well as in Hebrew grammars. In this sense, it may be said that the Sephardic variety had more codification and thus more prestige than the Ashkenazi variety [21].


[1]. the historian Simon Dubnow doubted the existence of a direct link between the formation of Adler’s circle and the emergence of Hasidism, and most other scholars who have considered the question agree. Some reconsideration of this position is now required, as the scholarly world has recently revised its view of the spiritual nature of early Hassidism and embarked on a new assessment of its religious and social features. The new approach studies the beginning of Hassidism in the context of the religious awakening then taking place in the world of kabbalistically oriented pietistic groups active in 18th century Europe. We are therefore justified in attempting a reassessment of the link between the different manifestations of religious pietism appearing at the same time in eastern and central Europe. The Frankfurt pietist circle and the Hasidic groups in eastern Europe were established at approximately the same time-the early 1770s; both trends looked to the same sources for inspiration and sought to create a new ritual expression for new spiritual currents; both used the Hebrew term Hasidim; they recognized the power of charismatic leaders and their authority to innovate new practices and there was a striking similarity between the two in prayer rites and other customs as well as in the nature of their deviations from accepted norms in their respective communities.
Elior, Rachel "Rabbi Nathan Adler and the Frankfurt Pietists: Pietist Groups in Eastern and Central Europe during the Eighteenth Century," in Karl Erich Grozinger, ed., Judische Kultur in Frankfurt am Main, von den Anfangen bis zur Gegenwart (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz Verlag, 1997), 135-177, available here.

[2]. Ibid, p.9 (in PDF)

[3]. the historian H.Z. Zimmels hypothesized that the Chassidim did not switch to the Sephardic pronunciation because it would have been too difficult for them to do so. Adler reportedly had a Sephardic scholar living in his house for over a year in order to teach him the "proper" pronunciations of Hebrew see here. Cf., Chatam Sofer, Responsa, Orah hayyim, para. 15: “therefore my master, the wise, pious, and priestly Nathan Adler, of blessed memory, he would himself lead the services and pray in Sephardic pronunciation from R’ Yitzchak Luria’s prayer book.” Cf. Abraham Lowenstein of Emden, Responsa Zeror Ha-hayim, Amsterdam 1820, sec,. “U-neginotay yenaggen”: “As to what has been testified of the unique sage…R’ Nathan Adler in Frankfurt, that he too used to pray in the Sephardic pronunciation , I too know this….And heard him pray in the Sephardic pronunciation and apart from that…R’ Nathan was at that time quite alone in his usage, counter to all the great authorities of that time in Frankfurt a.M., and no one ruled like the aforementioned R’ Nathan but prayed in the Ashkenazic accent as we do.” According to Adler’s biographers, he had learned the Sephardic accent in his youth from a Jerusalemite visitor to his home. Derekh Hanesher p. 22

Quoted in Elior p. 31 (in PDF)

[4]. See "Benjamin Disraeli and the myth of Sephardi superiority" Todd M. Endelman, Jewish History Volume 10, Number 2 / September, 1996) pp. 31-32

[5]. See "The Myth of Sephardi Supremacy," Ismar Schorsch, reproduced in his From Text to Context: The Turn to History in Modern Judaism (Hanover, N.H., 1994), p. 72

[6]. Jewish Budapest: monuments, rites, history by Kinga Frojimovics, Géza Komoróczy pp. 459-460

[7]. Schorsch, 71

[8]. Schorsch, 77

[9]. Ibid, 85. Cf. “Scientific Racism and the Mystique of Sephardic Racial Superiority”, John Efron pp. 86-87

[10]. Schorsch, pp. 89-90

[11]. Hamburger, Benyamin. Meshichei Hasheker Umitnagdayam pp. 242-243

[12]. Jewish Budapest pp. 457-458

[13]. Jewish Budapest, 461

[14]. Ben-Yehuda, Eliezer. Hahalom Veshivro, p. 107

[15]. Ben-Yehuda, Devorah. Hayav Umifalo pp. 47-48

[16]. Fellman, Jack. The revival of a classical tongue: Eliezer Ben Yehuda and the Modern Hebrew language p. 77

[17]. Fellman, 29

[18]. Fellman, 30-31

[19]. Wright, Sue. Language and the state: revitalization and revival in Israel and Eire p. 14

[20]. Yehoash, The Feet of the Messenger pp. 34-35

[21]. Fellman, 84-85

Labels: , , , , , , ,

free counters