Sunday, January 08, 2012

On the Hebrew pronunciation controversy in England of 1952.

In mid-1952 a controversy concerning Hebrew pronunciation erupted in England (reference should be made to the Hebrew pronunciation controversy in Amsterdam circa 1808, but a fuller treatment will be in a future post). The question was, was it appropriate for Chazzanim or Torah readers in Ashkenazi synagogues to change their pronunciation to "sefaradit"? Undoubtedly the desire to do so was precipitated by the rise of modern Israeli Hebrew and, indeed, Israel itself. According to the first notice from the Jewish Chronicle (Jul. 11, 1952) the background is that three years earlier a particular prominent synagogue had resolved that the Torah reading would be read according to the Sefaradi pronunciation. In 1952 one member set a motion to rescind that resolution; the Chairman then ruled that both the original resolution and the motion to rescind were improper. He seems to have based himself on a ruling by the Chief Rabbi (Israel Brodie) the year before, in which he states that "the Ashkenazi pronunciation will be retained throughout the entire service."

The report continues, that the Torah reader in the Hampstead Synagogue continues to read it in sefaradit. The editorial line here is that while the nusach ha-tefilla surely comes under the purview of the Chief Rabbi, and therefore a change in nussach from the "Polish or German ritual" would be properly forbidden or confirmed by him, that pronunciation should be different, for different pronunciations of the same language aren't really meaningful.

The writer acknowledges that this argument can be used *against* switching to sefaradit, which "in some quarters has been turned into a fetish." However, "on the whole . . . conformity to Israeli practice would outweigh all the disadvantages." Adopting the Israeli pronunciation is good, because Israel leads the world's Jews in the development of Hebrew, and this is a good way for Jews to maintain good contact with Israel.

On Aug. 8, the Jewish Chronicle printed a report concerning the Chief Rabbi's ruling on Hebrew, which he confirmed. The only exception which Brodie made was for classes conducted in synagogues for teaching Hebrew as a modern language. In all other synagogue contexts, including outside prayer services, the Ashkenazic pronunciation must be retained.

Since the Chief Rabbi referred to a 1949 letter by Rabbi Dr. Alexander Altmann, the JC summarizes its contents. Altmann had asked Rabbi Brodie whether he would agree that the Prayer for the Welfare of Israel be read in the Israeli/ sefaradic pronunciation "so as to identify ourselves, by this symbolic gesture, with the spiritual revival of our people in Israel." The reply was that he had no objection, provided the person who read it used the pronunciation properly. Brodie further quoted M.H. Segal, the famed Hebrew linguist (among his accomplishments was proving decisively that Mishnaic Hebrew [leshon hakhamim] was a real language, rather than an artificial scholar's construction), on Hebrew pronunciation. Segal had written that in his view the Israeli pronunciation should be used in synagogues in Israel so long as the majority of worshippers use that pronunciation in their speech. In synaogues of new immigrants, their pronunciation should be retained, until the majority used Hebrew as their vernacular. The idea was that pronunciation should not seem strange or interfere with the prayer of worshippers. Brodie pointed out that in England, while modern Hebrew use and knowledge was expanding, the Israeli pronunciation was still limited, and therefore his ruling stands.

On Oct. 31, a JC reporter noted that the London Board of Jewish Religious Education decided to comply with the Chief Rabbi's ruling in their Hebrew classes.

On Nov. 11, the JC printed a lengthy letter from Rabbi Dr. Louis Rabinowitz, Chief Rabbi of Johannesburg, South Africa,taking issue with Brodie's ruling. Rabinowitz was "sorry" to read it, so he decided to inform the Jewish Chronicle readers what had occurred in South Africa on the question. When he came to the country he noticed that in the various Zionist groups the modern pronunciation was being used, while in the synagogue the Ashkenazic was used. He decided that a uniform pronunciation was "essential" and that it ought to be the Israeli one. Rabinowitz writes that he competely agrees with Brodie, that the same pronunciation must be used in school and in synagogue. So it was that after a delay of one year he introduced the Israeli pronunciation simultaneously. That had occurred four years earlier (1948).

Rabinowitz explained how he dealt with the point raised by M. H. Segal, quoted with approval by Brodie, that the pronunciation used in the synagogue should not appear strange to worshippers. Rabinowitz said that he agreed, but realized that those fears were without foundation. His point was not that he expected individual worshippers to change their own pronunciation, but that frankly "I do not think that worshipper[s] will be unable to understand the reader when he says 'Baruch Atta' instead of 'Boruch Atto' to which he has hitherto been accustomed."

He says that the change would inevitably come, and once it was introduced into the schools it would simply be a matter of time until that was the normal pronunciation of most worshippers. Meanwhile, the change was accomplished without incident. He even relates an anecdote about how, after the pronunciation was changed, the hazzan read 'Simon Shalom' instead of 'Sim Sholowm.' At that, a 5-year old boy excitedly extended his hand to his father, and said 'Shalom, Abba!' It was the first time that he realized and recognized the word from the tefilla, as a word he knew from home!

Rabinowitz acknowledges that there was a greater Israeli influence in the South Africa than in England, with a greatger percentage of Hebrew speakers,but he still feels that the same arguments which made it work in South Africa apply to England. He notes that on the same page as the Chief Rabbi's ruling was an advertisement for a Hebrew Seminar at Carmel College. If Brodie's ruling were adhered to then what would happen, in effect, was Shacharis in Ashkenazis, breakfast with Birchas Hamazon in Ashkenazis, followed by the Seminar in Sefaradit, lunch with Birchas Hamazon in Ashkenazis, Seminar in Sefaradit, Mincha in Ashkenazis, etc. The point? Absurd.

He also points out that in the synagogue advertisements in the Jewish Chronicle one advertises for a Baal Tekiah (S) and another for a Baal Shachris (A). There is a Board of Shechita (S) not Shechitoh (A) and Chazanim (S) are not called Chazonim (A). He gives several more examples along these lines. In any event, he asks, "Has not the time arrived to remove all this confusion which sets up a barrier between the Hebrew of Israel, of the street and of literature, and that of synagogue and school? Nothing but good can emerge from the change."

On Nov. 14, we see a letter from Dr. Sidney S. Woolf concerning Hebrew transliteration. Wishing to "ventilate the topic" of the Jewish Chronicle's own use of Sefardic Hebrew in its transliteration, which is the 'organ of "British Jewry"', Woolf writes that as the Sefardim do not outnumber Ashkenazim, then the Ashkenazic pronunciation should be favored. Words like "Shabbat" and "Simchat Torah" are "cold and forbidding renderings" of words like "Shobbos" and "Simchas Toura" which evoke warm and fuzzy feelings. "Berishis" is more pleasant to the English Jewish ear than "Bereshit." To be fair to Woolf, he does suggest as a possibility printing Hebrew words in Hebrew letters.

Then a Dr. S. Fundaminsky points out what must have been his pet peeve, that the zayin in "Ashkenazi" has a dagesh, and therefore nothing by Ashkenazzi could be correct.

On Nov. 21 the JC received a couple of letters concerning Woolf's letter on the transliteration of Hebrew. One writer fondly recalls his mother admonishing him "Nochum Itshe, nem dem shiddur und stell sech davenen," in her "Litwachke" prounciation. "Gut sabbes!" But his point is that nostalgia for our upbringing is not a very powerful argument in the face of the modern revival of the nation and language.

The next writer thinks it absurd that the Jewish Chronicle has a role as "the organ of British Jewry," and therefore has a duty to print Hebrew words transliterated in Ashkenazis. He says that if that logic were taken to its logical conclusion, then the JC would no longer be entitled to an editorial point of view of its own. Furthermore, it must also always reflect the majority view, always ignore the minority. So Dr. Woolf has to make a choice: deal with it, and continue to read the JC on Shabbat or celebrate his Shobbos sans Jewish Chronicle!

Finally, from the same issue (Nov. 21) the Jewish Chronicle itself replies to a speech by Brodie in which he deplored that the JC had a "distinct tendency to denigrate authority" - his authority, and that of the Chief Rabbi's Beth Din. The paper believes that the basis of the accusation was its publication of some letters critical of their decisions.

The JC maintains that it has supported the authority of the Chief Rabbinate ("strenuously and assidously") and offered it the support and publicity which is its due. Same goes for the Beth Din. However, that is not the only duty of the newspaper. It's obligation also extends to the whole community, and that means that it has to act as a forum for a wide variety of views, including criticisms and dissent. The paper thinks that Rabbi Brodie was referring, among other things to letters challenging his ruling on retaining Ashkenazic pronunciation as arbitrary. Et cetera.

Note: this is not exhaustive. Clearly there is other material on a controversy which references rulings made a couple of years earlier. I have not looked into those. A full accounting and treatment of this would no doubt be interesting. One point to note is that a reference to the Aug. 8, 1952 piece mentioned in this post was included in H.J. Zimmel's Ashkenazim and Sefardim in his appendix on pronunciation in the responsa. He noted that Chief Rabbi Brodie's ruling (which he takes to agree entirely with M.H. Segal, although I have my doubts) agreed with Rav Kook. For an overview of some of the halachic positions on this issue, see E. Turkel "Variations in Sephardi and Ashkenazi Liturgy, Pronunciation and Custom," Journal of Halacha and Contemporary Society, Volume 18, 5-34, 1989.


  1. Interestingly, R. Yitzchak Herzog wrote a teshuvah to R. Rabinowitz on this subject -- Heichal Yitzchak, OC 3 --

  2. That's fantastic. It's quite striking how much has changed in 60 years; where rabbis feel compelled to practically keep it a secret that they actually did halachic research or asked a query on a matter such as this.

  3. S.,

    The teshuva is very interesting. I note that it's dated תש"ו - would the result have been any different a couple years later after establishment of the State of Israel?
    Also, why wouldn't Rav Hertzog's ruling have been brought down in the debate - as Prof. Rabbi Segal's was?

  4. That's exactly what I meant by my comment just above yours. I have a feeling that both the Chief Rabbi and Rabbi Rabinowitz were deliberately downplaying the halachic angle of it in their popular statements for the press. My guess is that 60 years ago modern Orthodox rabbis didn't really know how to keep Orthodoxy looking modern by either discussing halachic issues in a mass medium, or resorting to "Rabbi X says this and Rabbi Y says that."

    Note that Zimmels (writing only a few years later, but in a book *about* history and positions derives from the evidence of responsa) noted that the position Rabbi Brodie ascribed to M.H. Segal was also Rav Kook's.

    As for the question of whether R. Herzog's position would have changed in only two years, I'm not sure. Maybe I'm not up on my history of Israel, but at the end of 1946, even prior to Partition, was not the eventual establishment of a state inevitable? I mean, what was supposed to happen to the 600,000 Jews living in Paletine, many of whom spoke Hebrew? It seems like that was already a very significant fact.

    On the other hand, it seems that the issue took on new force not only because of the fact of many Hebrew speakers in Palestine, but also because of the establishment of the State (not to mention the great increase in immigration). At least this is how the pro-sefaradit faction saw it. So perhaps even that change would have been significant enough that R. Herzog may have needed to take it into account. After all, world Jewish solidarity with Medinat Yisrael is still something different from solidarity with the Zionist movement attempting to establish a state in Palestine.

  5. can you do a post -- or at least provide references -- about how israel adopted sefardic pronunciation rather than ashkenazic?

  6. Hampstead Synagogue went back and forth on the issue of pronunciation. The Hazzan at the time was the Rev. Charles Lowy z'l. There is a beautiful recording of him singing the sheva berakhot at the wedding of Dudley Cohen (his choirmaster) and using Ashkenazzi (thank you Dr Fundaminsky) pronunciation in the 1950s. There is a later recording, from around 1972, in which he uses Israeli pronunciation, which he did faultlessly.

    The Minister in the 1950s was the Rev Dr Isaac Levy, a passionate Zionist who later became Director of the JNF in London.

    The compromise, that Israeli pronunciation could be used in education but Ashkenazzi in tefilla has been a disaster. It raised two or three generations of British Jews who struggle to maintain any sort of consistency in pronunciation. CR Brodie should either have turned the entire United Synagogue over to Israeli pronunciation, or stuck to his guns and retained Ashkenazzi without exception.

  7. 1) what people today refer to as havara sefaradit is not really sefaradit. modern israeli hebrew is really a syncretic pronounciation that retains both sephardi and ashkenazi elements (and some have argued is in fact more ashkenazi that sefardi)
    2) do sephardim have the same angst as ashkenazim that their own pronunciations have been usurped by modern israeli hebrew?
    3) the truth is pronunciations do change over time within any given community. so le-maaseh, does it really matter if this occurs organically and slowly or overnight by fiat?
    4) what does one do when the ashkenazi pronounciation that everyone tries to guard actually violates what is codified by modern ashkenazi gedolim? (you might be surprised at what i am referring to)

  8. I was about to comment that an "o" for Ashkenazzi ("Fundaminsky" sounds like a fake name, by the way) kamatz is a lot less correct than "a," but then remembered this is England. "Shabbos" indeed. I think Americans blended some Sephardic in naturally, until the yeshiva velt began with the "oys" recently.

    The line about "Bereishit" was funny.

  9. The name Fundaminsky also struck me as a little too precious, especially in the context of the minutia he addresses.

    Rabbi Louis Rabinowitz was a wonderful writer.

    I see also that the complaints against the conflation of askenazis and sefardit concern both consonanats and vowels. Did no one ever hit upon Artscroll's solution, of sefardi vowels and ashkenazi consonants? I grew up before Artscroll hit it stride, and we never said things like shobbos or gemoro, but rather shabbas and gemara.

  10. DF, as I wrote, "a" is Ashkenazic too.

  11. My British step-grandfather, a Hampstead parishioner, used the Israeli pronunciation when davening and told me about the official changeover to "Sefaradit," though leaving out the details of the controversy.

    I can't remember which pronunciation was used in the only English shul I ever attended, a small place on or near Finchley Road in 1972, but the quality of the long "o" was very British.

    I have yet to see any scholarly treatment of a phenomenon I've noticed in Israel that I call "retro-Ashkenazis." This is the practice among some Hebrew-speaking Haredim of consciously reverting to a form of Ashkenazic pronunciation for davening and limmudei kodesh, but the sound of it is artificial and obviously Israeli-influenced. Interested, S.?

  12. This post is a veritable cholent for Anglo-Jewryphiles! Some notes written from jetalagged Jerusalem at 0530AM. All from memory.

    1. Dr Shlomo Fundaminsky z"l was very real! He worked for years at the London Board for Jewish Religious Education, and wrote the standard Hebrew grammar book used in the UK Jewish education system in the years when grammar was actually taught. He also wrote various Modern Hebrew instructional materials. He was an old-school religious maskil, and, from my very faint memories of him, a nice, gentle, learned old man.

    2. An aspect of the Sefardic/Ashkenazic debate not touched on in the posts so far was the extreme political sensitivity in the UK, and in the UNited Synagogue altogether, to all matters Israeli at that time. It has to be remembered that in the aftermath of the Mandate - especially the events leading up to 1948 - the Jewish community - very much including the grandees who still ran the United Synagogue -was terrrified of being identified with political Zionism. (Remember the A-J opposition to the BAlfour Declaration). Brodie was a passionate 'MIzrachi' Zionist. But at his Induction Address - delivered only SIX WEEKS after the Decl of Independence - there is NO MENTION of the State of Israel! (From memory -- there is one oblique reference in a pasuk quoted which contained the word 'Yisrael'.) Add to that the fact that the controversy emanated from the Hampstead Synagogue, traditionally the home of all radical tendencies.... Brodie himself was chosen as C R mainly because he spoke Oxford English and had been a Chaplain to the British Armed Forces in WW2, thereby sending a message about the patriotism and Englishness of the community.

    And could this be a reason that Brodie did not quote Herzog or Kook? Unwillingness in 1952 to suggest that the UK Jewish 'church' was under the direction of ISraeli authorities???

    3.Discussions about the framing of the debate (halachic - non-halachic) in the UK at the time are meaningless. Noone in the Uited Synagogue would have understood any reference to Halacha,'Responsa' or the like. Interesting is that a Chief Rabbi would have quoted Prof Segal and Rabbi Dr Altmann as major input to his decision. Believe me, it would not have happened today.

    4. The synagogue "off or near" Finchley Road could have been either the Hampstead Adath (in a hut behind Finchley Road tube/subway station), or the old SHomrei Hadath (later in a church further along the road; now in a new building). Both had impeccable yekkish roots, and guaranteed no Sefardic pronouciation in either. Incidentally, the old Anglo-Jewish Hebrew pronounciation, probably until after WW2, was peculiar, and deserves a post by itself. The Rev Isaac Livingstone (Golders Green shul) would 'brachah, hatzlachah' as "brocho, hatzlocho" etc., with the German cholem - 'Raush Chaudesh".

    Will now try and get back to sleep....

  13. What does Bevis Marks use? It is the oldest congregation in the UK.

  14. Bevis Marks is Sephardi, Charlie. But you knew that...

  15. Born in Nazi Germany in 1934, immigrated with my parents to USA in December 1938, I was very happy to switch to Sefardic pronunciation, in solidarity with Israel, the year after my Bar Mitzva. Have no problem with hearing Ashkenazic pronunciation of consonants and vowels, but think that all synagogue Hebrew should adhere to the rules of schwa na/schwa nach, and the correct syllabic stress of mille'ra/mille'el as marked by typography in the Siddur.

  16. Bevis Marks uses real English Sefardi pronounciation: they pronounce their 'Ngayins', etc. Not the psuedo-Israeli stuff that the English Ashkenazim go on about.

  17. A belated response to this post (having discovered it only 11 months late...)

    See the text of a lecture about Chief Rabbi Brodie, by Rabbi Raymond Apple (who served as minister of Hampstead Synagogue in the late 1960s and early 1970s and authored the Synagogue's published history), in which he discusses the issue of the Sephardit pronunciation in detail:

    (I tried posting the relevant section of the lecture here, but I exceeded the allowable word limit. Visit the page referenced above and search for "pronunciation".



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