Ashkenazim and the Sephardic Pronunciation of Hebrew, Part II – Jewish Link of New Jersey

Posted By on February 28, 2020

By Joel Davidi Weisberger | February 27, 2020

This piece will focus on how and why some Ashkenazic Jewsboth religious and (later) secularadopted the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew because they deemed it superior to the Ashkenazi one.

The Maskil Nafatali Herz Wessely, whose admiration for the Sephardim of Amsterdam was borne 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), who was born in Hanover in 1829 and eventually became the liberal rabbi of Budapest and his generations leading scholar on Sephardic Jewry. In his work titled 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.

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 over 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 Jewsin the Septuagint, Josephus, Philo and Aquilashow that the Polish pronunciation is incorrectthe learned Portuguese, Spanish, French and Italian Jews have the correct one. Why shouldnt 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.

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

As early as 1502, the Jewish false Messiah Asher Lmmlein, a German Jew who appeared in Italy and succeeded in attracting a large following of both Sephardic and Ashkenazic Jews, mocked the Sephardic migrs 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 latters injunction that it is important to distinguish between an ayin and an aleph and between a heh and a chet. He called them , literally stutterers. Lemlein wrote: They [the Sephardim] do not distinguish between a samech and a tzadiand the kamatz and patach is the same to them as is the tzere and the segol

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 Adoin-oi [as in oy] rather than the Sephardic Adon-ay [as in aye] (which could be mistaken as a declaration of polytheism). See Hamburger, Benyamin. Meshichei Hasheker Umitnagdayam pp. 242-243

The historian H.Z. Zimmels hypothesized that the chasidim 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. Cf., Chatam Sofer, Responsa, Orach Chayim, 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 Lurias prayer book. Cf. Abraham Lowenstein of Emden, Responsa Zeror HaChayim, Amsterdam 1820, sec,. U-neginotay yenaggen: As to what has been testified of the unique sageR Nathan Adler in Frankfurt, that he too used to pray in the Sephardic pronunciation, I too know thisAnd heard him pray in the Sephardic pronunciation and apart from thatR 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 Adlers biographers, he had learned the Sephardic accent in his youth from a Jerusalemite visitor to his home. (Derech HaNesher p. 22 [quoted in Elior].)

The author is an independent scholar of history and translator of hebrew text. Please contact [emailprotected] Check out Channeling Jewish History on Facebook for daily updates in your inbox.

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Ashkenazim and the Sephardic Pronunciation of Hebrew, Part II - Jewish Link of New Jersey

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