Thursday, January 07, 2010

The great Hebrew grammar scandal of 1827.

In light of recent scandalous events (one friend described 2009 as an annus horribilis) for Orthodox Judaism, I thought I'd discuss something really scandalous which occurred in 1827.

The issue concerned the pronunciation of the non-vowel vowel, the sheva. The Haham of the Spanish-Portuguese community in London, the Rev. Raphael Meldola (pictured below) had stormy relations with some of his congregants. As a surrogate, the Hazan of the synagogue, David Aaron de Sola, who happened to be married to the rabbi's daughter, was attacked for pronouncing words incorrectly. It was furthermore asserted that his pronunciation ran counter to the practice of the Talmud Torah of Amsterdam, which would have been deemed authoritative in those circles (hence it being cited as the authority being flouted).

Meldola wrote a letter of inquiry to the roshe yeshiva of the Talmud Torah of Amsterdam, and they replied in a Hebrew and Spanish letter informing Meldola that he is absolutely correct, and furthermore "Mr. David de Sola, public reader (your son-in-law) who was my pupil in my Medrash, knows very well the constant practice of our Congregation, who read our holy law and repeat out prayers according to the principles and rules of Grammar with the utmost exactness." Below is its English translation, published at that time:

Meldola (1754-1828) of Leghorn, Italy was a student of the Chida, who apparently did not recoil in horror at Jews with wigs and without beards.

(Portrait painted by F. B. Barlin in 1806.)

He, incidentally, seems to have been granted yadin yadin semicha in 1803, which I suppose can be seen as unusual given his age? In biographical sketches it is said that he was permitted at age 15 to "take his seat in the first Rabbinical university." These biographies follow the obituary written by his son and successor David, and was originally printed in the Gentleman's Magazine upon his death in 1828. I honestly was not sure what to make of this obscure phrase, and would have guessed that it meant that he achieved the haver or maskil degree at that age, but Barnett (JHSE 21) interprets "by this impressive phrase was apparently mean Livorno’s Yeshiba called Reshit Hochmah," which is a lot like saying nothing. In any case, the obituary refers to his "successive ecclesiastical promotions" which "gave proofs of his early piety and learning," the crest of which was being appointed dayan in 1803.

Below is his own reference (from the pamphlet below) to his having received semicha from the Chida, which apparently occurred in 1796:

Here is some of what he himself had to say about it in 1823:

You can download this pamphlet here.


  1. Interesting as always, Fred.

    Lately, I've been sort of teaching myself the rules of shevaim and kamatzim and trying to apply them, and I've also been fretting over my pronunciation of long and short vowels. For example, my shuruk sounds like my kubbutz, and it bothers me. But then I see this in the letter from Amsterdam (near the beginning of the final long paragraph): "the Sheva must be syllabical...if it were not so, what difference would there have been between the long vowel point and the short one[?]" Can we take this to mean that the short and long vowels are in fact pronounced the same, and we tell which is which by other means, such as the status of the sheva that follows? If so, does that mean that according the Amsterdam T"T, we don't need to worry about distinguishing between the pronunciations of the shuruk and the kubbutz as long as we get the sheva'im right?

  2. A shuruk and a kubutz are both pronounced [u]. If long vowels existed in Hebrew, David without a yod would be [david] and with a yod would be [davi:d].

  3. It all depends which phase of Hebrew you're talking about. While you may be presenting a good proof that [in at least one phase of] Biblical Hebrew there were not long vowels, you haven't shown that the Masoretes didn't distinguish between long and short vowels. There are also proofs that in Biblical Hebrew there were no hard and soft consonants, but I don't suppose you're prepared to disavow the distinction between dagesh and rafeh.



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