My Sepharadi friends celebrate Shabbat, and my Ashkenazi friends call it Shabbos. The Sepharadim call a groom a chatan, and the Ashkenazim refer to him as a chosson. To bolster their claim, the Sepharadim evoke modern Hebrew pronunciation, which follows their tradition. What’s the right way to speak Hebrew?

Response

Language and the way we speak is constantly evolving. For example, it has only been several hundred years since the British began colonizing, and Americans, South Africans and Australians all have distinct ways of speaking English. Likewise, Hebrew evolved differently in various Jewish communities. When you consider that Jews have been on the go for two millennia, it is a miracle that we have managed to keep our Hebrew as consistent as we have—especially since Hebrew has primarily been a second language since the Babylonian exile.

So while it’s tempting to make sweeping generalizations and just split the different pronunciations into Sepharadic and Ashkenazic, in truth, there are many variants in Ashkenaz and Sepharad themselves. Let’s explore the origins of the divide, the major differences and the practical implications.

Origins of Sepharad and Ashkenaz

In the literal sense, Sepharad refers to the Iberian peninsula (Spain, Portugal, etc.), and Ashkenaz refers to Germany and the “Holy Roman Empire.” However, when referring to “Sepharadi Jews,” the term has grown to encompass Jews from the Mediterranean regions, including Spain, Greece and North Africa (and many times the Middle East as well). And “Ashkenazi” has come to include Jews hailing from places such as Eastern and Central Europe, including countries such as Hungary, Lithuania, Poland and Russia.

Over time, Ashkenaz and Sepharad developed distinct pronunciations for Hebrew. However, there is much debate over the origins of these dialects. Some say the split occurred in Medieval Europe.1 Others say that the split can be traced back to the Geonic period (7th–11th centuries), with the Ashkenazic dialect developing in Israel (Palestine) and the Sepharadic in Babylonia.2 Yet others say the divide can be traced still further, to Mishnaic times (1st−2nd centuries)—the Sepharadic pronunciation was derived from the Judean dialect of Hebrew and the Ashkenazic from the Galilean.3

Regardless of which theory one subscribes to, it’s clear that the distinct pronunciations go back quite a bit. In fact, there were always various ways of pronouncing Hebrew words. In biblical times, the tribe of Ephraim was unable to pronounce the word shibolet (or shiboles for the Ashkenazim among us) the same as their compatriots from the other 12 tribes.4 And in Talmudic times, some towns didn’t differentiate between the letters alef and ayin (which Ashkenazim today commonly don’t do either).5

The Basic Differences Between the Two

On a very basic level, Ashkenazic pronunciation tends to differentiate between more of the vowels. Kamatz and patach are pronounced “oh” and “ah,” respectively, and tzayray and segol are differentiated as “ay” and “eh.” On the other hand, Sepharadim pronounce both kamatz and patach as “ah,” while tzaray and segol are both pronounced as “eh.”

Ashkenazim don’t differentiate between the chet and chof; Sepharadim do. Ashkenazim pronounce the non-accented tav similar to the samech, while most Sepharadim pronounce it like the tet.

(There are some differences that have evolved but are not “official” distinctions. For example, certain Yiddish-influenced Ashkenazim say “oy” (or “ay” or “ow”) where Sepharadim say “oh.”)

Of course, this is a gross oversimplification, and there are many variants within Ashkenazic and Sepharadic pronunciations. It should be noted that in ancient Hebrew, all letters and vowels had distinct sounds, and both Ashkenaz and Sepharad have lost some of those distinctions. (The Yemenite pronunciation is perhaps the most correct, but that deserves an article of its own.)

Pronunciation Differences Ashkenazic Sepharadic
Kamatz oh ah
Tzayray ay eh
Cholam oy / ay / ow oh
Differentiation between Chet and Chof No Yes
Differentiation between Aleph and Ayin No Yes
Non-accented Tav pronunciation S T

If You Speak Modern Hebrew

Modern Hebrew is a simplified hybrid in which the nuances of both traditions are lost. Thus, while Ashkenazim may view it as Sepharadic, it has the weaknesses of both Sepharad and Ashkenaz. It also maintains the (probably incorrect) uvular trill for resh, which was probably introduced via the French and German origins of Ashkenaz.

Although today many Jews (both Ashkenazim and Sepharadim) learn to read and pronounce Hebrew in accordance with the modern (“Sepharadic”) pronunciation, there is lively debate whether an Ashkenazi may pray in that dialect.

Some Ashkenazim claim that even if you generally use this pronunciation, when you say G‑d’s Name (A-do-nai) you should follow the Ashkenazic pronunciation of A-do-noy. They explain that adonai simply means “my masters,” and the word is only sacred when pronounced A-do-noy, a nuance that does not exist in the Sepharadic tradition.6 They go so far as to say that Sepharadim are not pronouncing G‑d’s Name properly.7

Others counter that a) regardless of whether G‑d’s Name is pronounced “-nai” or “-noy,” it is always plural (as Maimonides explains, this name of G‑d is intentionally plural8 ); and b) there are many Sepharadic grammarians who do in fact distinguish, albeit very subtly, between the two versions of the word.9

In practice, all dialects of Hebrew are acceptable.10

The Lubavitcher Rebbe addresses the differences in pronunciation by referring to the Arizal’s explanation regarding the differences in Sepharadic and Ashkenazic customs.11 While all Jews are equally bound by the basic Torah laws, there are many customs that have evolved differently in various communities. These customs correspond to spiritual gates through which one connects to G‑d. Thus, one should follow the customs of his forebears.12

Therefore, the Rebbe writes that he sees no reason why one should change from the pronunciation that he is used to. However, if one does have reason to change his pronunciation, he should make sure to be consistent and pray the entire prayer (including G‑d’s Name13) with the same pronunciation, be it Sepharad, Ashkenaz or Modern Hebrew.14

Although the pronunciation of our prayers, as well as some of the wording, may vary from community to community, we are all united in praying for one thing: the end of pain and suffering in this bitter exile and the coming of Moshiach, may it be speedily in our days!