Thursday, December 08, 2011

How is Sforno's name really pronounced?

So how is "Sforno" - ספורנו as in רבי עובדיה ספורנו - actually pronounced? In 2008 Dikdukian noted that he "must have heard five different pronunciations of that name over the years: Siforno, Siporno, Sipurno, Sforno, etc."

I don't have a definitive answer, and my research is tentative. But here are some points to consider. First, it seems to me that the confusion stems from the fact that on the one hand this obviously is not Hebrew, but on the other, we only see his name spelled in Hebrew (except not really, as we shall see). In Hebrew a word cannot begin with a consonant cluster - that is, a word like "stop" can't really exist; it would have to be pronounced "s'top" or something like that. Thus if you would treat ספורנו as a Hebrew word it could neither be "Sporno" or "Sforno." It would have to be "S'porno" or "S'forno" (I would generally prefer to spell that with an "e", like "Seforno"). Secondly, this first consonant, a mobile sheva also will change the hard /p/ to a soft /ph/ or /f/. Thus, once again, treating the name as Hebrew it could really only be "Seforno." But again, it is not Hebrew.

Although it seems that the origin of the name must be some Italian town or city, I have been unable to locate this place. But we can see that it is a place by the title page of a book written by him and published in 1537, while he was still very much alive. His name is given (incorrectly) as עובדיה מספורנו, Ovadyah of ספורנו. Thus it is clear that it is a place, for a contemporary of his (perhaps his publisher) assumed that this was the proper form of his surname. In the text itself, the book begins נאם הצעיר עובדיה בכמה"ר יעקב ספורנו ז"להה מתושבי בולוני"יא. And no, I did not copy it exactly correctly. I was not able to read the letters he gives after his own name. Feel free to have a look and interpret them. See it here or here and let me know.

So what can we do besides this? We can look if or how his name is written in the Latin alphabet. In Christian sources his name is often given as "Abdias Sporno," but also "Sphorno" and "Sporno." And others besides (Siporno, etc.). So this is not incredibly helpful, especially as they are later (at least the ones I've seen).

However, there are at least two highly significant sources. The first is the actual Latin text of his medical diploma, which was published in the journal Rassegna Mensile di Israel in 1962. However, I only saw it cited, but I didn't see it.

The second may be even more significant, because it likely reflects the actual pronunciation used by the man himself. Johann Reuchlin - who was taught Hebrew by R. Ovadya Sforno - writes the following "Abdia filio Jacobi Sphurno" (Johann Reuchlins Briefwechsel p. 92). This letter is dated 1506, when the man in question was still only 30 or 31 years old, very much alive, with nearly 45 years left to go. Reuchlin knew him personally. So perhaps we should say that Sfurno (to use a more modern English spelling) wins. Not S'furno, not Sporno, and not even Sforno. Of course we also note that Reuchlin also Latinized Ovadiah as well as Jacob in this letter, so perhaps he somehow did the same to the surname as well. Furthermore, we also have to be sure how this deceptive word is pronounced. We must bear in mind that the pronunciation of Latin vowels by a German man in 1506 may not match our idea of how these vowels should sound.

Another line of evidence should be considered, which is that the Sforno family was very real and persisted for many generations, perhaps into recent times or even today, hopefully. So it is possible that there is a living tradition within this family of how to pronounce the name, and maybe it is "Sporno." That said, consider the Abarbanels, who have people who pronounce it Abarbanel and Abravanel (and other pronunciations besides). So family traditions aren't necessarily so strong or authoritative I know, for example, that some last names were pronounced one way in the old country, but Americanized (or Anglicized, or Israelized or Canadized, etc.) . There are countless examples. Shterns became Stern, Shapiras became ShapirO, and many more like it. If any particular person is unaware of how their own name's pronunciation was changed, than what good would their conviction about how it is pronounced be? Not very. Similarly, if there is a living tradition from descendents of this family of how Sforno was pronounced, then that should be noted, but not necessarily regarded as authoritative.

As for the origin itself, surely that will shed light. Maybe an intrepid Google Mapper can enlighten us. In the meantime, in light of Reuchlin, I would put my money with Sforno over Sporno or Seforno, but perhaps even Sphurno is really best of all.

45 comments:

  1. Another theory: Perhaps his name was Obadiah di Salerno? This is a known place in Italy:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salerno

    Just imagine that the peh could have been a lammed if embellished: ta'ut sofrim?

    It even has a Jewish history: www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/judaica/ejud_0002_0017_0_17325.html

    Note that it even mentions the 'Sforno' frequented the medical school there!

    He even lived there:
    In 1485, Rabbi Obadiah ben Abraham lived in Salerno and studied at the medical school.

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  2. Maybe this?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sperone

    Perhaps a contemporary?

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sperone_Speroni

    And anything helpful here?

    http://books.google.co.il/books?id=FUIoEvBcNx8C&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false

    http://www.elmorahillsminyan.org/Home/gedolim/sefardi-gedolim/rav-ovadiah-sforno-zt%E2%80%9Dl

    http://books.google.co.il/books?id=t0_gAAAAMAAJ&q=Sforni+name&dq=Sforni+name&hl=en&ei=UAniTvisONPo8QO9jomIBA&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&redir_esc=y

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  3. This problem is knottier than I had thought. Like you, S., I've been unable to find Sforno as an Italian place name, but there is an Italian verb "sfornare," which means to take out of the oven, and there is a high-end pizza place in Rome called "Sforno." (Its website makes reference to the verb, but not to R. Ovadiah). On the other hand, I can find no Italian connection for "Sporno," and the Google search is thrown off course by the fact that this word is currently slang for suggestive pictures of sports figures.

    The fact that R. Ovadiah was once billed as מספורנו proves nothing about a place name. Many Italian Jewish surnames are in fact place names, but it is a mistake to assume that any particular bearer of that name came from that place. (Example: Leone Modena is sometimes referred to, erroneously, as Leone di Modena, but he himself was not from Modena but from Venice.) In Sforno's case, it might well be that someone made two wrong assumptions: that Sforno was a place, and that R. Ovadiah came from there.

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  4. Cheski, it's difficult to see how a ta'ut sofrim could enter the surname of an Italian? But it's an interesting suggestion.

    Balashon (I don't know if you're comfortable with my using your name here!), that is a definite possibility.

    Dan, I found that pizza web site. I think you missed my point about misforno. I was never suggesting that R. Ovadiah came from Sforno or something like that. Indeed, I go on to state that he wrote his own name differently, and states that he is from Bologna (or at least lives there). My point was that a contemporary of his, indeed, his publisher/ editor (or someone like it) mistakenly understood his surname to be a place name. So even though R. Leon Modena did *not* sign his name to indicate that he was from Modena (he was from Venice) there is no doubt that Modena is a place! Similarly, it seems somewhat significant that another Italian thought that you might prefix Sforno with a mem.

    That said, of course it is entirely possible for another Italian to be mistaken about it being a place. Your point about sforno relating to ovens is interesting.

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  5. I have heard it pronounced (by an adult) as see-poo-ray-nu.

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  6. That's quite odd. Had he never heard anyone else pronounce it in some way?

    My all time favorite similar story is when someone quote the commentator "the Beno Yaakov," which was actually Reform Rabbi Benno Jacob, who is quoted by Nehama Liebowitz many times. As reported by ADDeRabbi/ Rabbi Elli Fischer.

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  7. "The first is the actual Latin text of his medical diploma, which was published in the journal Rassegna Mensile di Israel in 1962. However, I only saw it cited, but I didn't see it."

    This would be great for show and tell

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  8. " In Hebrew a word cannot begin with a consonant cluster"

    in biblical hebrew it can't (yes, there is somewhat of a machlokes wrt to shetei/shtei). in modern hebrew it happens all the time. i don't know anything about medieval italian rabbinic hebrew.

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  9. Abba, while this is true, I was really trying to explain why there is so much confusion. Most people seem to treat it as if it's biblical Hebrew (and in fact many treat rabbinic Hebrew as if it's biblical Hebrew) and that's why you'll get a sheva inserted and then a peh rafeh. I'm not saying that this isn't even somewhat correct or plausible. By bringing Reuchlin I showed that he wrote it with the fricative p (or however you'd say that).

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  10. Rabbosai, there isn't really much validity to most suggested pronounciations mentioned here. The correct one (I am almost sure - but then of course you don't have to bet your life on some guy's "sureness" posted on a blog) is Sforno. I am also almost possible there is a place called Sforno (spelled this way too) on the world atlas. The others are just nit phonlogicaly Italian with regards to pronouncing the name. And re. the 'f' vs. 'ph', well this orthographic style is more eastern European, not Italian. So folks, Sforno with an 'f' I'd say it is, IMHO.

    (I can't check at the moment, but if somebody cares enough I'd suggest looking at the intro. of the one who published 'Kisvei R' Ovadiah (Sforno)' by Mosad Rav Kook. There's also a good sefer to check called 'Chachmei Italia', though I don't know if it's on Hebrewbooks.)

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  11. Huh? There's no f vs ph issue. That's simply a question of modern English orthography, which generally favors f.

    I don't see why there'd be not much validity to Reuchlin's spelling, at least.

    Thanks for the suggested places to look to see what anyone said.

    And, if there is a Sforno in Italy in an old atlas (or a new one) I'd love to see it. That's kind of the point; attempts to locate such a place have failed on the part of those who have looked. I did, however, acknowledge that this wasn't a very well researched post. If it was then I'd have at least have gone to a library to read the article which printed the text of his diploma.

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  12. abba's rantings2:18 PM, December 09, 2011

    Fred:

    aside from the quality of the p, do we know how reuchlin would have pronoucned the "u"

    i have a mosad harav kook bio of sforno that i've never opened. maybe i'll see if i can find it over shabbat (books still in boxes) unless you've check it

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  13. S., I didn't mean to suggest that you were suggesting that R. Ovadiah came from Sforno. I was just responding to the possibly mistaken assumption that there is or was a place called Sforno. If there was, it's entirely possible that R. Ovadiah's ancestors lived there. But if there were never any such place, it still might have been a reasonable mistake to make, even in his time, to assume that he was named for an ancestral town, as so many other Italian Jews were.

    My Googling pointed to a possibly informative Italian-language article about the Sforno family in the 1999 issue of Zakhor, an Italian Jewish periodical, but I was unable to access the article online. If you, S., or anyone else can perform this magic, please let me know.

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  14. The letters after his name are יצ"ו (Yud-Tzadi-Vov).

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  15. " In Hebrew a word cannot begin with a consonant cluster"

    in biblical hebrew it can't (yes, there is somewhat of a machlokes wrt to shetei/shtei). in modern hebrew it happens all the time. i don't know anything about medieval italian rabbinic hebrew.

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  16. abba's rantings3:04 PM, December 09, 2011

    ignore that

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  17. First of all, feel free to call me Dave.

    Second, I saw the intro to the Mossad Harav Kook Sforno on the Chumash in shul, and in the footnote I think they said that his name is also given as something similar to the place I mentioned (sorry I don't recall the exact spelling.)

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  18. Even if we can establish without a doubt that the correct reading is Sporno, don't expect Artscroll to print any name that includes the word 'porno'.

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  19. Ok, I looked in shul this morning, and I didn't have time to scan, but I noted that in the Mossad Harav Kook intro it says that (Paul) Rieger suggests "Speroni". That would seem to match well with Sperone.

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  20. here is what it says in the Mossad Harav Kook intro: in his Latin translation Bologna 1548 Sefer Or ʻamim he wrote "sphurnus".

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  21. Google: "R. Obadja Sforno als Exeget", and look in the first page in the footnote.

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  22. In Chassidish circles they call him Sfornee. If that's an indicative. seems to match somewhat "Sperone".

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  23. In case it's not clear from the comments about sfornare above, in Italian, forno means oven (furnace is an English cognate), and s- is used as a negative prefix like the English un-. So sfornare means "to un-oven," to take out of the oven.

    Artscroll's chumash with Sforno's commentary has biographical information in its introduction. It says that he is from Cesena (which is not far from Bologna). There are biographies on the web that note this, like at Jewish Virtual Library.

    For what it's worth, the spelling Sforno is about 30x more common on the web than the spelling Sporno (when googled coupled with the word torah)

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  24. Thanks for all the suggestions and references. I don't really have time to respond to them today, but I did want to say that I appreciate them.

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  25. Sparrano is a common Italian name.
    avakesh.com

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  26. abba's rantings2:26 PM, December 11, 2011

    "i have a mosad harav kook bio of sforno that i've never opened. maybe i'll see if i can find it over shabbat (books still in boxes) unless you've check it"

    forget it. i found the book but its a bio of the bartenura. nu, back into the boxes.

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  27. Just realized that the Chassidish pronounciation is a simple mistake. They (mis)pronounce a mlupm vov as ee. But if it's any indication, they mistook Sfornee for Sfornu and not Sforno.

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  28. "abba's rantings said...

    "i have a mosad harav kook bio of sforno that i've never opened. maybe i'll see if i can find it over shabbat (books still in boxes) unless you've check it"

    forget it. i found the book but its a bio of the bartenura. nu, back into the boxes."

    dear aba look at Anonymous 5:06 am.

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  29. The Medical Degree was (re)published in Vittorio Colorni's Judaica Minora and asan appendix to R.Bonfil, HaRabbanut be-Italia.

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  30. Earlier I commented: "I am also almost possible* there is a place called Sforno (spelled this way too) on the world atlas." (*positive)

    I was mistaken. The city I was thinking of was Sforza(costa), Italy. I assume the famous Sforza - which some later called Sforzo - family originated from there.

    @ balshan & anonymous, re: the Mosad Harav Kook sefer, I noticed you are talking about their chumash with the Sforno's perush. To reiterate, the sefer from Mosad HK I mentioned earlier was not the chumash, rather the 'Kol Kisvei' of R. Ovadiah. Perhaps there the publisher sheds some light on this.

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  31. When my Rosh Yeshiva, R' Goldvicht ז’ל used to pronounce it Sfoorno, it grated on me as being "incorrect". Then again, I remember reading in Shiur for the first time and saying "Maysvay" instead of "Maysivei" .... I was the only one who pronounced it that way, and everyone else in the shiur chuckled because they thought I couldn't read :-)

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  32. Dikdukian here.

    First, in discussing the Hebrew possibilities, you declare that a mobile sheva would snatch the dagesh out of the peh. This is true. But it doesn't have to be a sheva that separates the two consonants. A chirik would do. And if I'm not mistaken, the chirik would not drop the dagesh, opening the door for Siporno / Sipurno.

    Also, please see the comments on Dikdukian for a suggestion by a reader that his name refers to a town in Italy called Forno.

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  33. @ Ovadya and to all, to reiterate for the third time, here is what it says in the Mossad Harav Kook on the chumash intro: "in his Latin translation Bologna 1548 Sefer Or ʻamim he wrote "sphurnus"."
    in the 'Kol Kisvei' of R. Ovadiah he writes that the intro on the chumash is for the 'Kol Kisvei' also.
    but why isn't this enough proof for you, if he himself translated it "sphurnus"?

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  34. Oh, I wasn't aware that the two seforim have the same intro. As I first commented, I wasn't able to read it just yet. But if you say so, then I'll go with it for now. But still, I'm a stickler for "seeing it inside" - I'm always doubtful if "lost in translation" played a role.

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  35. It seems to me that "Sphurnus" is merely an artificial, scholarly, Latinized version of "Sforno," on the model of "Copernicus" for "Kupernik," or "Confucius" for "K'ung-fu-tzu." I doubt that this Latinized form was his "real" name or indicates the real pronunciation. However, it does explain Reuchlin's "Abdia filio Jacobi Sphurno". "Sphurno" would be a Latin grammatical form of "Sphurnus," not a guide to the actual pronunciation of R. Ovadiah's name -- which more clearly than ever seems to have been "Sforno."

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  36. "Thus, once again, treating the name as Hebrew it could really only be "Seforno." But again, it is *not* Hebrew."

    I see that this bothers you, but Tanach is liberally littered with proper nouns that get this treatment.

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  37. S., the בנו יעקב is referenced occasionally in the בינה במקרא of ר' ישכר יעקבסן who indeed does cite many sources via the parsha sheets of גב' ליבוביץ

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  38. If you Google "הבנו יעקב" you can see a couple of citations which apparently take it to mean a sefer.

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  39. It seems to me (for what it matters)that he belonged to the famous Italian Jewish family "Sforni", documented well before his times.

    As for the origin of his name, Balashon above presents a pretty good candidate. Maybe.

    http://books.google.com/books?id=eQEVAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA77

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  40. Shimon S, I agree that these are probably the same family. Luzzatto and Luzzatti switch as well.

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  41. Hey, that's a win for the Chassidish pronounciation of Sfornee! Sometimes, mistakes aren't mistakes at all...

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  42. There's a logic to it. Lvov, Lviv. Tomato, tomati.

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