Brachot 13b – You Say Gemara, I say Jemara!

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Yemini Jew

There is a fascinating insight mentioned in today’s amud that is easily skipped over.

It is a topic that often comes up in the context of being a baal teshuva, whether in discussions with parents, leyning or leading a service. More often than not, it can create quite a stir and people seem to get very heated about it. The topic being Hebrew pronunciation. In the following passage is a halacha that ashkenazim are unable to fulfil:

“It has been taught: Sumchus says: Whoever prolongs the word ehad [one] has his days and years prolonged. Rabbi Aha ben Yaakov said: [He must prolong] on the dalet.  Rav Ashi said: Provided he does not slur over the het.  Rebbe Yirmiyah was once sitting before Rav Hiyya bar Abba, and the latter saw that he was prolonging [the word ehad] very much. He said to him: Once you have declared Him King over [all that is] above and below and over the four quarters of the heaven, no more is required!”

How does one prolong the ehad? The dalet letter is a closed sound, there is no way of extending this once said. Try it, let me know how you get on. You may have noticed in old English translations of the Chumash that dalet is spelt daleth. This correctly incorporates the sephardi (I think yeminite) pronunciation of the letter, thus allowing one to extend the word ehad for as long as his wants!

Now before you all switch to sephardi pronunciation, wait just a moment, its not so simple. Arguments over pronunciation have been going on for thousands of years, language/pronunciation is something that by definition changes/develops with time. The vowelisation of the Torah was only finalised (written down) in Geonic times (roughly 10th century) and even then there were at least three traditions! This makes me wonder, if it ever was intended that there should be one way of saying the Shema (or other tefilot)?

R. Avraham Yitzchak Kook, in his approbation to Responsa Mishpetei Uzi’el, rules that since there is no way to conclusively determine which pronunciation is better, one may not change his ancestral custom in how to pronounce Hebrew in prayer. R. Yechiel Ya’akov Weinberg (Seridei Esh 2:5) seems to say that an individual may change his pronunciation but not a commuinity.

Interestingly R. Ovadiah Yosef allows and even encourages Ashkenazim to change their communal and personal pronunciations from Ashkenazic to Sephardic. He makes much of the famous example of R. Nosson Adler, the mentor of the Chasam Sofer, who changed his personal pronunciation from Ashkenazic to Sephardic in the early 1800s.

[As for my Israeli friends (and family) it seems that they got the worst of both worlds! Modern Hebrew combines some of the weakest parts of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic pronunciations. Thus, there is no distinction between consonants, like Ashkenazim, and no distinction between vowels, like Sephardim.]

(Material in this post was taken from article on Hirhurim here)

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