Sunday, February 23, 2014

"Adam and Abraham, not "Odam and Afroom" - on an 18th century attempt to prove the correct Hebrew pronunciation tradition

This is really cool. This is a leaf from a manuscript called Sukkat David. It's a notebook of David Franco Mendes, 18th century Hebrew writer and poet of Amsterdam. He is best known (to me, anyway) for being a close friend and disciple of Rabbi Moshe Haim Luzzatto when the latter lived in Amsterdam, and also for being one of the original Meassefim, a contributor to the first periodical of the Berlin Haskalah, where he contributed poems and biographical articles about gedolei yisrael.

This excerpt is from an essay where he is trying to prove that the correct pronunciation of the קמץ is that of the Sephardim (A) and not the Ashkenazim. He offers several proofs, one of which is the way names like Adam and Abraham are transliterated in Greek letters in Josephus, which he points out, is from the last days of the Temple. Being this old, this is a proof that the A pronunciation is correct, while the pronunciation of the Ashkenazim as - wait for it - Odam and Afroom is not.

Check out the other proofs. It's on page 29.

I learned of this page in Berger, Shlomo. "Remus, Romulus and Sephardic Jews in Amsterdam." Studia Rosenthaliana (1992): 38-45, but finally the manuscript has actually been digitized by the amazing Ets Haim Library. Much valuable material can be gleaned from this manuscript and the wealth of others on this site.


  1. Many years ago I heard Dr. Leiman comment that one of the ways we know how things were pronounced in earlier times was through transliterated siddurim (like the way Birnbaum and Artscroll transliterate the kaddish.)
    By the way - what's going on with you and this blog?

  2. That handwriting is gorgeous. But as to substance--I am going to ask some experts about Greek, but the kamats pronunciation is also shared by the temanim. And does it really make sense we'd have two vowels that are pronounced the same (except when the kamats is short and then it's like a kholam)? I don't know how Hebrew was proniounced through the ages, and maybe there was some kind of universal pronunciation at some point, but the bavli already points out many differences in pronunciation (shunra/shinra), and then earlier than that we have all the biblical differences (bin/ben, shibolet/sibolet) and midrashim that say that each shevet had their own. So substance may not be so good. But that handwriting! Oy!

  3. William Yehudha De Oliveira4:39 AM, February 28, 2014

    The answer is simple: Long vs short vowels. Sepharaddim still use them. (Which means that we do **not** pronounce pattah and qames the same.)

  4. Same Here, we were taught in school the difference between long and short vowels, and so are my boys now learning it in preschool. There are many differences in grammar as well, that evolve from the difference of long and short vowels.
    My friend Prof. R. Tomback, who authored a Phoenician Lexicon tells me how Phoenician, as opposed to Hebrew, has the vowels as letters, as in the English language, and there are numerous parallels in words between Hebrew and Phoenician. The pronounciation in Phoenician corresponds to the Sephardic as well indicating how Israelites pronounced these words thousands of years ago.
    For those of you for whom the Zohar will provide an early proof, the Zohar in Ha'azinu describes how each of the letters are pronounced and groups them in a way corresponding to Sephardic pronunciation as well.
    If my memory doesn't fail me, Yabia Omer vol 6, Siman 10 & 11 of H. Ovadia Yosef discusses this issue as well, and brings down multitudes of Rabbinic sources affirming his belief that the Sephardic pronunciation of both the letters and vowels as correct.

  5. William Yehudha De Oliveira3:10 AM, March 03, 2014

    Indeed, we distinguish between pattaḥ and qameṣ in the same way we distinguish between ṣere and seggol, ḥireq male and ḥireq ḥaser, etc. The two "i"s in "ribbi" do not sound the same. ("ribbee")

    They play an important role in Hebrew phonology, together with desheshim and shewa'im.

    (BTW, even though Sephardic vowels are indeed "correct", I wouldn't say "THE correct". Variations in pronunciation exist in every language.)

  6. After further thought, what this shows is only one Palestinian dialect. The vowels weren't developed of course until several centuries later and there were different vowel-systems reflecting different pronunciation schemes. That does not mean, of course, that all legitimate pronunciation schemes were represented. At any rate. this fits in generally with the accepted theory that s'faradim got their pronunciation and minhagim from Palestine and ashk'nazim from bavel.



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