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ZIONISM-----and the sfardi accent

Posted - 28 March 2001 15:43


What’s the right way to pronounce Hebrew - the litvish, chassidish, sfardi, or young israel way?


According to Rav Moshe Feinstein ZTL, any way that Jews speak is considered Loshon HaKodesh and it doesn't matter what the accent is.

However, all though all these Minhagim are proper, as is the case in all Minhagim, you should follow your own Minhagim and not someone else's. Meaning, if you are of Ashkenaz descent you should speak Ashkenaz, and not like an Israeli or Sefardi.

Unfortunately, the original Zionists, who were non-religious and atheists to boot, decided that Jews should become a plain middle-eastern people with a middle eastern language, and so they changed their own accents from Hungarian and German to Middle Eastern-Sefardic, which is the way Israelis speak today.

They did this in order to break our Eastern European traditions and transform us into a Middle Eastern culture. Following them in this is wrong. If you are of Ashkenaz descent you should speak Ashkenaz and vice versa.

I remember once, in the Shul I am rabbi in, Rabbi Dovid Lifshitz Z"L, who was a Rebbi in YU, davened there, and the Baal Tefilah prayed with a Sefardic accent.

After the Davening, Rabbi Lifshitz came over to me asking me why I allow Ashkenazim to pray in a Sefardic accent (like they do in Israel), since it is against their Minhag. I answered that the Baal Tefilah was a real Sefardi, he just happens to pray in my Shul. He said it bothers him in YU where he sees Ashkenaz boys of European descent speaking with a Sefardi/Israeli accent.

Although I am of Ashkenaz descent, I have been brought up speaking in a Sefardic accent (Shabbat instead of Shabbos, for example). From experience, in dealing with a lot of secular Jews, it is highly helpful in terms of outreach to just say Shabbat or the like, as many of them look upon those who say "Shabbos" and "kashrus" as being somehow holier-than-thou, which is very effective in driving away potential baalei teshuva.

You may think I am exaggerating, but nothing turns people off to Judaism more than a perception that they (or even their Hebrew accents) are being looked down upon by other Jews.

For that reason, my Rebbi who is Litvish and who teaches a Gemara class with many non-religious kids, does pronounce words in Sefardic Hebrew--sometimes he accidentally slips and pronounces in the Ashkenazing minhag, but corrects himself.

And I have seen this foster a greater and more comfortable learning atmosphere, in which you have secular kids actually learning and understanding Gemara. Would you agree that under such circumstances it would be at least permissible to speak in the Sefardi dialect?


I daven in an ashkenazi accent and when I am speaking conversationally, I have an Israeli-like accent. It's my way of compromising. I grew up learning hebrew with mostly Israeli teachers, and when I got to high school or went to shul, I heard mostly ashkenazi accents -- so I've found a midpoint for myself.

Honestly, it’s hard in conversation Hebrew NOT to speak with an Israeli accent, since everyone speaks that way and using an Ashkenaz accent would sound very out of place.

But I do know that Rav Yeruchem Gorelick ZTL, in YU would give Shiur in Hebrew with an Ashkenazi accent, since he didn’t know English that well and the students didn’t know Yiddish.

It worked for him in the classroom, but in the Tachanah Merkazit it probably wouldn’t go over that well. The main thing is your davening and Torah learning should follow your Minhagim.

A lot of people tell me that I'm a traitor in a sense . . . that I should go one way or the other. I think that my compromise is quite okay and, as you said, as long as I follow minhagim, there shouldn't be a problem with what I am doing.

But the reason to keep your accent is because it’s your Minhag. The original Zionists, who were Ashkenazic atheists from places like Germany and Hungary, decided that the Jewish people must change and become a renewed, middle-eastern people and so they adopted the middle-eastern (sefardic) accent, and taught their own ashkenaz children to speak that way.

Of course, the whole idea that the Jews are a cultural people as opposed to religious is heresy, and when heresy was the origins of a behavior we are not supposed to emulate that behavior even if we do not do it for heretical reasons.

The reason teaching Baalei Teshuva is OK, is because the entire Minhag only applies to your davening etc. If you’re not using it for YOUR speech but rather to make someone else understand you better - and the non-frum Jew doesn’t really have a minhag - it really wouldn’t be a problem, if its only done in that context.

I take issue with your comment about the original Zionists and the claim that Israeli Hebrew pronunciation is rooted in heresy.

First of all, let's agree that Am Yisrael is a nation, and though we are not "like all other nations", we are still a nation. After all, this is a basic assumption in Kiruv - we love Jews no matter what they were brought up doing, even though we wish to share Torah with them.

Regardless of the reasons for the decision to pronounce Israeli Hebrew this way, it seems this would no longer be an issue, since learning a first language is a natural process (as opposed to a conscience decision), and this is the first language of millions of Israelis.

Thus, we have a new starting point, which may have Halachic significance. After all, European accents were simply the most convenient pronunciation for speakers of German, Yiddish, Russian, and Polish. Any comments are appreciated.

Yeah, except the "starting point" is not a Halachicly valid one. People are supposed to follow their Mihagim, not the national trend. The fact that Israelis pronounce Hebrew a certain way does not qualify as a legitimate Minhag, since it originated for the wrong reasons. In order to qualify as a Minhag, a behavior has to have had a legitimate Torah-reason to have begun. If not, it doesn’t count.

On the contrary, a Minhag that was started by Reshayim or for the wrong reasons - which this one did - may not be followed even if it helps Judaism (Teshuvos Ohel Yaakov, quoted in Gilyon Maharsha Hilchos Talmud Torah).

So it would be Halachicly Assur for anyone to change their family Minhagim in favor of the Israeli pronunciation.

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