Tuesday, May 16, 2006

Rabbi versus Ribbi

There are two dominant traditional pronunciations for "רבי" the rabbinic Hebrew word and title, as found in vocalized manuscripts of the mishnah and perpetuated in siddurim: ribbi (ribee) and rabbi (rahbee). Roughly speaking, Jews of eastern descent have ribbi and those of western, rabbi. This point was briefly touched upon in this English Hebraica post.

How did this happen? Which is original, in the sense of what the tannaic rabbis were actually called?

To illustrate this, its worth listening to some audio examples:

Here is an Iraqi version of the Lag B-Omer song ואמרתם כה לחי רבי שמעון בר יוחאי (as sung by Eliyahu Barazani) and a Iranian version (by Yonah Dardashty--although this version has musical accompaniment, as does this Moroccan version. The Moroccan one is especially interesting because (to these ears) the singer's pronunciation doesn't sound quite like a hirik (ribbi) and it doesn't sound quite like a seghol (rebbe). It's some vowel that somehow seems to be a combination of the two.

Which is it, rabbi or ribbi? More to come in another post, with sources, examples, some early witnesses, philology and speculation.

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