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Sunday, December 08, 2019

Our children live in a bifurcated world. For the most part (except for the Israelis among us) we come from Ashkenazic backgrounds, yet our children are taught Hebrew with the Sefardic pronunciation. Most of them therefore read that way. The primary difference being no distinction between a kamatz and a patach, and always pronouncing the letter tav as a T.

However, at home, the Ashkenazic pronunciation is dominant and children can get confused. This audible schizophrenia and disparity becomes most apparent when the bar mitzvah teacher, whose pronunciation is Ashkenazic, teaches a boy whose classroom teachers have instructed him to read in the Sefardic manner. It is also apparent at home when the father recites Kiddush and conducts the Seder, and in shul. It is likewise evident with grandparents who may spend time studying with grandchildren.

There is nothing wrong with the Sefardic pronunciation. However, it is more than merely eliminating the kamatz and S sound of the letter tav. If taught properly, one must understand the difference between a shva na and a shva nach, dagesh kal and dagesh chazak, tzeirei and segol, emphasizing the last syllable, etc. Unfortunately, grammar is not an Israeli strong suit. Generally speaking, most Israelis are notoriously poor spellers and they speak Hebrew the way most Americans speak English. Add to this that not every native Hebrew speaker is trained to teach Hebrew as a second language, and there you have the Ashke-Sefard dilemma.

As we have noted in previous articles, Hebrew is important and should be taught properly by trained teachers. If done correctly, every graduate of a day school should be fluent in the language. The fact that they are not indicates that there is something wrong with the way Hebrew is being taught. Either it is not being consistently taught throughout the grades or it is left to those who may not have been trained to teach it even though they are fluent. Hebrew is emphasized in some schools more than in others, but overall the day schools have failed. Look at the parents in northern New Jersey who are graduates of day schools. How many are fluent in Hebrew as a result of their 12 years in a day school? Israel consciousness has elevated Hebrew to a position of prominence, more in theory than in practice.

It is interesting historically to trace the antiquity of the various Hebrew pronunciations. Many theories abound in scholarly circles as well as on the internet. However, even though every pronunciation has validity, the Ashkenazic enunciation seems to be the most ancient. When the First Temple was destroyed, many Jews were exiled to Babylonia and remained there for several centuries. From there they spread to Spain and the Mediterranean area. Spain is Sefarad, and the Mediterranean developed into Edot HaMizrach. It is well known among linguists that a foreign language adapts aspects of the host country, hence Hebrew took on certain accents and intonations of Aramaic and Spanish.

When the Second Temple was destroyed, many Jews were exiled to Rome. Eventually Jews made their way from Italy to Germany and thence to Eastern and Central Europe, taking with them the Hebrew pronunciation from Jerusalem. This is how the two major pronunciations developed. After 1492, many Jews came to Israel from Spain, and after 1497 from Portugal, and brought with them their Sefardic articulation of Hebrew. In the following centuries, immigration was mostly from the Mediterranean area until the 19th century. By then the Sefardic pronunciation was established.

Other linguistic borrowing can be seen in the way Hebrew is read by Litvaks, Galicianers, Germans, Yemenites, Hungarians, etc. It’s not right or wrong, it just is. Nevertheless, our schools should teach it correctly. How we deal with the home/school disparity where it exists is still a dilemma.


Dr. Wallace Greene has had a distinguished career as a Jewish educator and pioneered the Hebrew in America curriculum that was used in our day schools.