Hebrew Pronunciation

Yom 2, 24-11-65 —24 Sh’vatt 5773

Does the Rav feel that supporters of your Torah should try to revive Middle English or Old English? I have sometimes wondered whether this would not be the proper direction to take in the name of returning to a less corrupted form of English. Also, does the Rav think that it is a worthwhile endeavour to attempt to discover the proper way of pronouncing the letter “k” and “q” as opposed to the hard “c”? Shouldn’t our desire for accuracy extend to languages other than Hebrew?
If you don’t see a need for language purity in general and if all languages do develop and change then why not accept that Hebrew has simply changed just as all other languages have? And if purity is indeed important then why not apply this to other languages?
I also sense a contradiction between your purist and innovative inclinations. If innovation is something that frequently must happen in halakha then why do you not see the changes in Hebrew pronunciation as an innovation of sorts? Why do you choose purism over innovation in this case? Could you not argue that just as a Sanhedrin can re-darshen a passuq, so too can the Hebrew language be pronounced differently in accordance with innovations or changes in approach? Can’t a dynamic Torah Shebeal Peh approach the alphabet differently in a different age just as it can approach the Torah Shebichtav differently in a different age? Could you not make the argument that in our present age a return to an older pronunciation than the modern Israeli one, would not cause us to sound disturbingly overly similar to Arabs?

Shalom Rav
The study of language is important. A language reveals much about the nation and culture that produced and speaks it. Delving into the origins of Modern English is both interesting and illuminating. This applies to Questions of pronunciation as well. I do not, however, consider the pronunciation of Old or Middle English to be a matter of great import; English is not Lashon HaQodhesh. It is also relevant to point out that the relationship between Modern English and Old or Middle English is much more tenuous than the relationship between Modern Hebrew and Ancient Hebrew.
You wrote: “If you don’t see a need for language purity in general and if all languages do develop and change then why not accept that Hebrew has simply changed just as all other languages have? And if purity is indeed important then why not apply this to other languages?” You seem to be arguing that Modern Hebrew pronunciation should be considered legitimate because “all languages develop and change”. I am reminded of a conversation I had about 25 years ago with a friend who had studied Biblical Hebrew in university and was thus familiar with the authentic pronunciation of the language. I began telling him about what I had learned some short time before regarding Hebrew pronunciation. To my surprise, he was not surprised. “Yes, I know. I learned about all that – that a vav is really a waw and so on.” I was impressed, and immediately asked him “And do you put this knowledge into practice, such as for davening or learning Tora?” He responded that “Hebrew has changed and that’s not how we pronounce Hebrew nowadays.” I was unconvinced and dismayed by his attitude, and remain so to this day.
It is a fact that all languages evolve over time. It must be recognized, however, that what happened to Hebrew during two thousand years of Galuth is unique. No other people has gone into Exile, carrying its ancient, ancestral language with it, spread to all corners of the globe, including areas where the local vernacular is completely dissimilar to its own, and yet retain the ability to read and write in its original tongue two thousand years later. This historical-anthropological reality, nothing short of miraculous, came, inevitably, at a price. Hebrew fell into disuse as a spoken language, and its pronunciation became corrupted. This was not a normal evolutionary process; it was a national calamity of historical proportions. Consider the fact that 10 out of the 28 distinct consonants of Lashon HaQodhesh have simply ceased to exist in today’s spoken Hebrew. I challenge you to point to another language that has suffered a similar catastrophe. Our mother tongue, our birthright, was snatched away from us by the vicissitudes of history. The Galuth was a punishment. To turn a punishment and its woeful consequences into an ideal, or at the very least an acceptable norm for all future generations, is to turn Tora, and reason, on their heads.
Our policy vis-à-vis the study and pronunciation of Lashon HaQodhesh, at the very least when it comes to T’phila and Talmudh Tora, must be “Hadesh Yamenu k’Qedhem” to the best of our abilities. HASHEM scattered us in such a way that all Jewish communities and traditions retained certain authentic aspects of our Holy Tongue intact. This perception served as the basis for the ground breaking work S’phath Emeth written by Rabbi Ben-Ssiyon Kohen z’l. I met Rav Kohen “by chance” about 25 years ago. I stepped into a stiebel to daven Minha and somehow we got talking. Two weeks later I was pronouncing Hebrew during davening according to what he taught me and that which appears in his book. HaRav Kohen was born in Djerba, the island off the coast of Tunisia, which was renowned for its ancient Jewish community stretching back 2000 years and possibly more. HaRav Kohen did not attemept to justify the S’pharadi pronunciation of his childhood or that which is common among S’pharadim in Y’rushalayim where he lived most of his life. He told me that the Temanim, while not perfect, were the closest to the truth, a fact he demonstrates at tremendous length in his book (which he later condensed into a shorter work Qosht Imre Emeth).
Due to the miraculous return of Jews from all over the world to our Land, the scattered branches of the Jewish people are being reunited. We can rediscover the beauty, depth and authentic sound and rhythm of our unique language, the Holy Tongue. Young children can pick it up in weeks. It is only a Question of will.
Kol Tuv
Rabbi David Bar-Hayim