Monday 6 June 2016



Ask someone how to correctly pronounce the eighteenth letter of the Hebrew alphabet and you may get a variety of answers.
Let’s take a look at some of our early sources and see how they dealt with the issue.


According to the gemorra in Yoma, dealing with the placement of the letter on the urim vetumim (breastplate of the Cohen Gadol) the eighteenth letter is spelt and pronounced Tzadi.[1]
Another similar gemorra in Shabbat, actually spells out the eighteenth letter as tzadi: tzadi daled apostrophe yud.[2] To reinforce this, the gemorra also refers to the plural of tzadi as tzadin (and not tzadikim).

In the Talmud Yerushalmi as well, it is called tzadi and is grouped with other letters which change their form when they occur at the end of a word.


The great grammarian Yona Ibn Yanach (990-1050), who passed away when Rashi was ten years old, refers to tzadi in his Sefer HaShorashim.

Ibn Yanach is little known, but he was a physician who authored a medical text, wrote a Book of Refutation which is no longer fully extant, and his work on the Hebrew language is said to be of fundamental importance. He is also considered to have been one of the pioneers of what has today become the standard of modern biblical interpretation.[3] 

His early work, al Mustala, was both a critique and elaboration of the writings of Yehuda ben David Hayyuj, the Morrocan Hebrew linguist who founded the systematic school of Hebrew grammar.

(Hayyuj had thoroughly mastered Arabic and that allowed him to apply some rules of Arabic grammar to Hebrew. He developed and perfected the well known concept of Hebrew words having three letter ‘roots’ or shorashim).


All the sources we have brought clearly show that the correct pronunciation is tzadi. So where is the source for using the pronunciation tzadik?


It seems as if the earliest reference to tzadik can be found in the Sifrei (a Midrashic work on Bamidbar and Devarim). The Sifei points out that the scribe, when copying a text, has to be careful not to confuse the letter gimmel with tzadik: “If a scribe writes a gimmel as a tzadik or visa versa ...the scroll needs to be hidden away.”[4]

The Sifrei was written around the fifth century which makes this a very early source supporting the (contrary) pronunciation of ‘tzadik’.

However, it is at this point that a very interesting development takes place:  The word tzadik only occurs in the printed edition of Sifrei from Venice in 1545. The earlier manuscripts all use the word tzadi, which makes it highly likely that ‘tzadik’ may have been a printing mistake!

If this is the case, we have solved the mystery of the sudden transformation from tzadi to tzadik!


There is, however, one more curiosity that needs to be dealt with.

The Zohar, in its introduction, refers to the Tzadi as follows: “(G-d is quoted as saying to the tzadi;) O tzadi, you are both tzadi and tzadik...”[5]
This could be taken to mean that both pronunciations can be used interchangeably. If this is the case we have a very early reference to both pronunciations.

There is, however, some debate as to who wrote the Zohar, and when it was written. The traditional view, of course, is that it was written by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai in the second century. If this is the case then we have a very early support for both pronunciations.

However, there is another view that it may have been written by Moshe de León in the 1200’s, and if that is the case, then our earlier sources unanimously seem to point to the pronunciation of tzadi, and tzadik may have been a later adaption.


Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivitofsky writes that there could be a number of other reasons why tzadi transformed into tzadik:[6]

When reciting the Hebrew alphabet, the letter kuf follows directly after tzadi. This means that while saying ‘tzadi...kuf’ the tzadi could be corrupted to sound like tzadik.

Another possibility is the common acrostic ‘zatzal’ (May the memory of a righteous person be for a blessing) - referring to one who has passed on. ‘Zatzal’ comprises three letters zayin, tzadi and lamed. The tzadi, however, while it does stand for tzadik (righteous person), may - in common usage - have been mistakenly pronounced tzadik.

Also, in sister-languages to Hebrew, there is no ‘k’ sound to the letter corresponding to the Hebrew tzadi.[7]


Rabbi Zivitofsky further points out that in more modern times the usage of the term tzadik has become more common, and the terms are used interchangeably. In Mishna Berurah (written by Rabbi Yisrael Meir Kagan of Chafetz Chaim 1838-1933) for example, which was first published in 1906, the letter tzadi/k is referred to thirty times - three times as tzadik and twenty seven times as tzadi.


The late Lubavitcher Rebbe was in favour of referring to the letter as tzadik. A Chabad colleague of mine explained that the Rebbe was always in favour of using as many positive references as possible.


Rabbi Zivitofsky cites Rabbi Shlomo Korach (a Yemenite authority) who refers to the tzadi as ‘tsad’.

The Ashkenazim refer to the final form of the letters as sofit and the form as they occur in the middle of a word as rishonit. Thus we have tzadi sofit and tzadi rishonit

The Yemenites instead of using sofit and rishonit, use the Talmudic terms kefufah (bent) and peshutah (straight) respectively. Thus they have tsad kefufah and tsad peshutah.


Today one can comfortably get away with using tzadi or tzadik, although it does seem that the more technically accurate pronunciation would be tzadi.

Unless you’re a Yemenite, in which case you can rely on your very precise tradition and refer to the eighteenth letter as tsad.

[1] Yoma 73b
[2] Shabbat 104a
[3] See Nahum M. Glatzer (1964), “The Beginings of Modern Jewish studies”.
[4] Sifrei to Devarim 6:9 This is on the verse in the Shema, ‘Uchetavtam’ (And you shall write them).
[5] Zohar 2b
[6] See Tzarich Iyun: Tzadi by Rabbi Dr. Ari Zivitofsky, where much of the material for this article was scourced.
[7] Arabic sad, Syriac sade and Ethiopic sadsi  ( ibid.).


  1. Thank you Rabbi for this informative article.
    My question is on the pronunciation and transliteration of the first consonant. It is often transliterated 'tz' but is it not commonly pronounced 'ts'? the difference being whether the consonant is 'voiced' or not. Like a 'zayin' is voiced as opposed to a 'samech' or 'sin'. Place your hand over your throat to feel the difference as a voiced consonant vibrates - one reason why I understand to audibly pronounce 'zayin' in shma since if whispered it might not vibrate. So why has 'tz' become the norm vs 'ts'?

  2. Thank you Unknown. I have no idea and your question is very interesting.

    I speak under correction, but I do recall something about a conference on modern Hebrew during the early 1900's where, possibly due to some German influence, the Germanic 'tz' may have become more dominant. Again, I say this with no authority.