The perils of Ashkenazi pronunciation

Hebrew pronunciation among Diaspora communities is broadly divided between the Ashkenazis (communities originally from Central and Eastern Europe) and everyone else – i.e., Sephardis, the Mesopotamian communities (Iraq, Iran), Yemenites, etc.

The difference lies mainly in the pronunciation of the Hebrew letter tav, and a vowel known as kamatz: in Ashkenazi pronunciation, the tav is pronounced like an /s/, and the kamatz is pronounced /ô/. In other communities, the tav is pronounced /t/† and the kamatz is /ah/, respectively.

When Hebrew became the accepted lingua franca of the Zionist community in Palestine in the first decade of the twentieth century,  Vaad Halashon (“the Language Committee”—predecessor of today’s Academy of the Hebrew Language) decided to adopt an amalgam of the Sephardi and Ashkenazi pronunciation, in which the vowels were treated the Sephardi way.

I had a hunch that the Ashkenazi pronunciation of the kamatz as /ô/ rather than /ah/ would eventually lead some innocent folk to believe that the word haftorah was a derivation of Torah. It was just a matter of time before someone would take the next logical step of splitting it into two words to demonstrate as much (which is doubly ironic, in this case, since the haftarahby definition,  is a passage NOT from the Torah, but from one of the books of the prophets). Sure enough, one day, this statement showed up:

After the bar or bat mitzvah reads the haft torah and gives a speech members of the congregation throw candies for a sweet life ahead.


This example appears in a chapter for a book that I am currently editing to mark an important anniversary of a certain Jewish congregation. But beyond the risks of misguided etymology, the Ashkenazi pronunciation is symptomatic of a blithe assumption by many North American Jews that East European Jewish terminology and customs are synonymous with Jewishness. Nowhere is this more unwittingly revealed than in the following excerpt, in a previous chapter:

Over the years, members of the congregation have composed melodies that others might not be familiar with. We have also incorporated Sephardic tunes and customs. In other respects, however, our services would be familiar to any knowledgeable Jewish person. [My italics – JO-S]

Clearly, the Sephardic tunes and customs are beyond what a “knowledgeable Jewish person” should be familiar with…

I have no doubt that this bias is entirely unconscious. Which is why I must use the greatest possible tact in conveying to its author and his or her ilk that theirs is not the only crayon in the box.

My Israeli wife, daughter of Turkish Sephardis who still speak Ladino—mediaeval Jewish Spanish—to each other, over five hundred years after explusion from Spain, visibly stiffens whenever people at the synagogue bid her Gut Shabbes at the Shabbat service (“Shabbat Shalom!” she pointedly replies, looking them straight in the eye—much to their bemusement). Like most Israelis, she had no idea when we arrived here that the synagogue is called shul, that a sevivon is called a draidel, or that oznei-haman are hamantaschenand she is seriously miffed that her favourite foods such as hummustehina and eggplant, bourekas and shakshuka  are considered any less “Jewish” than gefilte fish and blintzes.

So I feel it essential to add an Editor’s Preface to the book, in which I explain—with the greatest possible tact—that apart from the fact thatover half the Jewish population Israel is of Middle Eastern (Iraqi, Iranian, or Yemenite) or Sephardi origin, most non-Orthodox Ashkenazi Israelis, and people such as my mother’s paternal family—Latvian Jews who spoke strictly High German and actually banned Yiddish in the household—are unfamiliar with many of these terms.

The book should appear in the summer. With any luck, I won’t be offending anyone, and better still, opening some people’s eyes.

† In Yemenite Hebrew, the unstressed tav was sometimes pronounced like the English /th/—and some scholars believe that this was the case in biblical times, as well.

3 thoughts on “The perils of Ashkenazi pronunciation

  1. With any luck, I won’t be offending anyone, and better still, {will be} opening some people’s eyes. (?)
    A giant ‘b’hatz’lechah’ on your project! One victory at a time. My proudly-Yemenite wife also has ‘mixed feelings’ about the galut perversion of a language her parents needlessly schlepped through the desert sands in the late 40s to deliver unto Am-israel. Our two boys retain only a trace of the ‘ayin’ and ‘tet’ distinctions which define the 1st-generation relatives ‘accent’. Meanwhile I have enough yiddish-inflected friends for whom ‘a gute shabbos’ rings their bells.
    Vastly enjoying reading your posts here… in any language/ JS

    Liked by 1 person

    • Oh, and do ask the Esteemed Ones whether, having mastered ‘the whole Torah on one leg’, I should then go for the extra point by reciting the Half-Torah ‘on tip-toes’ …or on my back heels? Wouldn’t want to, ‘has ve’hallil’ waste my remaining hours on this still-habitable planet barking up the wrong Tree of Knowledge!
      Humbly/ JS


  2. Pingback: Please: no more parshot | Notes by Autumn Light

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