Sunday 12 November 2017



The ‘correct’ way to pronounce Hebrew words and letters is a fascinating study. Some believe that it is the modern Israelis who speak a proper Hebrew, while others maintain that the Ashkenazic pronunciation is more ‘religiously’ accurate. In truth, the consensus appears to be that the Yemenite pronunciation is probably as close to the original as we are going to get. 


It is my intention to simply share these ideas with those interested in a purely academic understanding of how Hebrew may have been spoken. 
Pronunciation of Hebrew, especially as it pertains to davening is a very emotional and extremely subjective issue. I am not suggesting that anyone deviate from their current practices of Hebrew pronunciation.


Surprisingly, it seems that there may never have been only one way to pronounce the Hebrew alphabet. Already during the time of the Judges (1244 BCE to 879 BCE), the different tribes spoke distinct dialects of Hebrew.[1]

Even later, during Talmudic times (0-500CE) the rabbis spoke of the mistaken pronunciation of Hebrew words. They ruled that the residents of Bet Shean and Haifa, who did not pronounce the alef and ayin correctly, should not recite the priestly blessing nor should they lead the services.[2]

Hebrew, like all Semitic languages, only committed to writing the consonants (or letters) without any vowels (the dots and dashes under, in the middle and on top of the letters) - so it is impossible to know exactly what the words sounded like.

It was only much later, around the 700’s CE that grammarians, or ba’alei haMesora as they were known, started developing a vowel system for Hebrew. Similar attempts at creating vowel systems for the other Semitic languages took place during this same time-period as well.

To complicate matters, three different schools of Hebrew vowel vocalization were working more or less concurrently on the same issues. These schools were situated in Babylonia, Palestine and Tiberius. The Babylonian school developed six vowels, the Palestinian school developed five and the Tiberian school had seven.

Of these three academies, the Tiberius school run by the Ben Asher family (who may have been Karaite Jews) became the most widely accepted for their version of the nekudot, or vowels and vocalization. This is the system we use today.


Although, as mentioned, the Yemenite pronunciation is probably the most accurate –it is not perfect.
If you’ve ever heard Yemenites say the blessing over wine, you would have noticed that they do not say gafen but jafen.

Notice that the gimmel has a dot in its centre. This is usually pronounced a ‘g’ as in egg. But the Yemenites only pronounce a gimmel without a dot as a ’g’ – while a gimmel with a dot becomes a ‘j’.
This is why they say: borei pri haJafen.
Although this is a common Yemenite practice, it’s interesting to see that Rav Saadiah Gaon (882-942) writes that Hebrew does not have the letter ‘jin’ or the ‘j’ sound.
The Jews are not the only people grabbling with g’s and j’s because in Egyptian Arabic the word for an army is Algesh, whereas in all the other Arabic speaking countries the word is Aljesh.
And because all Semitic languages are similar, it’s interesting to note that R. Saadia Gaon, Ibn Ezra and Yona Ibn Janach (sometimes called Ibn Ganach)[3] all write that the Hebrew pronunciation of the letters is usually very similar to the Arabic pronunciation with few exceptions.


R. David bar Hayim makes the point that most Jews today cannot pronounce 10 of the 28 (or 29)[4] consonants which is more than a third of the language. How many other nations have lost their ability to pronounce more than a third of their consonants?
He quotes R. Yaakov Emden in his Siddur (entitled Beit Yaakov) who places the blame for this deteriorating of the language on the harsh conditions of the Exile.
Others would counter that all languages evolve and change over time and that this is a natural progression (or regression).


Ibn Ezra (1089-1167) writes that already in his day most Jews could not pronounce the Kametz sound. He mentioned that the only ones who could, were from either Israel or North Africa.  Apparently, the correct pronunciation is like the ‘ah’ at the end of Afghanistan (as pronounced by the locals).


Tzeirei is usually pronounced like the ‘ei’ in main – but it should be pronounced as the ‘eh’ in egg.
Segol, on the other hand, is usually pronounced as the ‘eh’ in egg – but it used to be pronounced as the ‘a’ in apple.
- So the ‘ei’ was an ‘eh’ and the ‘eh’ was an ‘a’!


The letter ‘vav’ is usually pronounced as the ‘v’ in vinegar – but it is correctly pronounced as a ‘wow’!
This means that the common word ‘Vayomer’ (And he said) should be ‘Wayomare’ (Remember the ‘vav’ is a ‘wow’ and the ‘eh’ is an ‘a’ from apple.)
It makes sense that the ‘wow’ is not pronounced as a ‘v’ because we already have a ‘vet’ (a ‘bet’ without a dot in it, which is pronounced ‘v’). And we are not supposed to have two letters of the alphabet with the same sound.


A ‘gimmel’ with a dot is a ‘g‘ (except, as mentioned, the Yemenites say ’j’ although R. Saadiah Gaon says there is no ‘jin’ in Hebrew).
A ‘gimmel’ without a dot is a ‘rimmel’!
A ‘rimmel’ is not pronounced with a hard ‘rrr’ as in railway but rather like the French (and similar to the modern Israeli) ‘chgrr’.
The Arabs pronounce Gaza as Razah.


The letter ‘resh’, on the other hand, is not pronounced as the ‘chgrr’ in Modern Israeli Hebrew, but simply a ‘rrr’ with the tongue behind the teeth as in railway.
If you listen to some of the older Chabad Chassidim, they speak of the Rebbe with an Ashkenazified ‘chgrr’ similar to Modern Hebrew.
It’s interesting to note, however, that the ‘chgrr’ was used for the ‘rimmel’ and never for the ‘resh’.


The ‘dalet’ with a dot is a ‘d’ as in Disney.
The ‘dalet’ without a dot is a ‘thalth’ as in the word the (as opposed to Thesaurus).
This is a fascinating observation because our rabbis tell us to lengthen the letter ‘dalet’ at the end of the word echad of the Shema Yisrael.
Today we try all sorts of techniques to ‘lengthen the echad’ but in reality, we can’t because it’s impossible to lengthen the short ‘d’ sound. But if the ‘dalet’ becomes a ‘thaleth’ we can say echathhhhhhh for as long as we wish.


The letter ‘chet’ can’t be a ‘ch’ sound as in Challah because we already have the letter ‘chaf’. So it becomes a ‘heth’. The name Chaim, therefore, used to be Hayim and Chodesh was Hodesh.


The letter ‘tet’ can’t be a ‘t’ sound because we already have the letter ‘taf’.  Instead, it becomes a ‘toith’ as in the combination of the words ‘toy’ and ‘th’.


The letter ‘ayin’ is very difficult for English speaking people to pronounce as there is no equivalent in the European languages. The ‘ayin’ sound emanates deep within the throat and has a distinctive Arabic resonance.
The Ashkenazim in Europe tried to imitate this sound and actually came rather close to its proper pronunciation as can be seen by the name Yaakov which they became “Yaankev” or “Yaankel”.


The letter ‘tzadi’ is, according to many, the most mispronounced of all the letters. This is because the ‘tz’ sound is not supposed to exist in Hebrew.
This is born out, again by R. Saadia Gaon, who writes that Hebrew has no combinations of consonant sounds such as ‘t’ combined with a ‘z’ to make a ‘tz
Instead, what we call the ‘tzadi’ was always a ‘sodi’ (as in sword or Saudi) and produces a deep ‘s’ sound.
As for the objection that we already have a ‘sin’ there is the view that the ‘sin’ may not have always existed. This is why some refer to the name Yisrael as Yishrael or Shrul as many European Jews were called.
It also seems that the ‘samech’ may have been a softer ‘s’ than the ‘sodi’.


The final letter of the Hebrew alphabet is the letter ‘tav’.
The ‘tav’ with a dot is known as a ‘taw’.

A ‘tav’ without a dot is a ‘thaw’ as in Thesaurus.
This means that Shabbat or Shabbos becomes Shabbath. Amazingly this is not far off from the English word Sabbath. Natan becomes Nathan in proper Hebrew as it is Nathan in English.


According to the Shulchan Aruch[5] (by R. Yosef Karo 1488-1575), one must pronounce the Hebrew words as accurately as possible particularly during the Shema. Yet it rules that de facto, if one did not pronounce the words accurately, one nevertheless has fulfilled the obligation to say the Shema.

On this, the Mishna Berura (by R. Yisrael Meir Kagan 1835-1933) explains that that Shulchan Aruch is clearly not referring to someone who, say, leaves out a letter – as that would obviously not be the fulfilment of the obligation to say the Shema. Rather it refers to one who enunciates incorrectly or pronounces the words incorrectly.

What emerges, therefore, is that mispronunciation of a word which is read correctly- although clearly not to be encouraged - is nevertheless still acceptable.


Generally, today there are three main dialects of Hebrew. They are Sefardic, Ashkenazic and Teimani or Yemenite. There is, however a new rising dialect known as Yeshivish.

According to Rabbi Dr Seth Mandel who holds a PhD in Semitic languages from Harvard University:

“Mention must also be made of another new dialect that came about in the twentieth century: Chareidi Yeshivish Hebrew. This dialect, which evolved after the Holocaust, both in Israel and America, is a blend of the Lithuanian and Polish pronunciations, which ironically enough originated with the Yiddishists.
In the early part of the twentieth century, the Yiddishists set out to standardize Yiddish pronunciation by combining elements of Lithuanian and Polish pronunciation of Yiddish. This pronunciation was subsequently adopted by the Yeshivish community. Of course, no one from Slabodka, Radin, Mir, Lublin, Pressburg or Satmar ever used this dialect in Europe.”[6]


As a youngster, I went to a shul called the Addath Israel. I always used to ridicule the way ‘Adas’ was misspelt and mispronounced ‘Addath’ by the 'ignorant' lay leadership. Now I realize that someone knew more about original Hebrew pronunciation than those of us who thought we knew the obvious.
This also means that the common pronunciation of the word mitzvot or mitzvos are both inaccurate as they were annunciated as miswoth.
It also seems that our Ashkenazi ancestors also knew some of these secrets of Hebrew pronunciation. They knew a ‘tav’ without a dot was a ‘thaw’ – so they created the infamous ‘s’ sound for a ‘t’ because no self-respecting Ashkenazi could pronounce a ‘th’.

The Real Story of Hebrew Pronunciation, by R. Seth Mandel.

Lectures by R. David Bar-Hayim based on his teacher R. Bension haCohen.
Sefath Emeth and Kosht Imrei Emeth by R. Bension haCohen.

[1] Shoftim 12:5.
[2] Megilah 24b. See also Shulchan Aruch O.C. 53:12 and 126:33.
[3] He was a student of Ibn Geikatila, whom Rambam referred to as the most intelligent of the Commentators. See KOTZK BLOG 146.
[4] Rav Saadia Gaon, in his commentary on Sefer Yetzirah writes that there are 22 Hebrew letters and 7 double letters (known as beged kaporet; b g d c p r t which have double readings). This brings the number to 29.
[5] Siman 62.
[6] See: The Real Story of Hebrew Pronunciation, by Seth Mandel.


  1. so according to Teimani pronunciation, their is no "g" sound in Hebrew?

  2. I do know that they say'j' for a gimmel with a dagesh (although Rav Saadia Gaon says there is no 'jin'in Hebrew). I also know that there are different Yemenite dialects, so perhaps not all of them do. But, sorry (although I had a Yemenite aunty) I do not know how they pronounce the gimmel without a dagesh. Can someone help?

  3. I have so many questions, here are a few:
    How was the cholam pronounced? o,oy...
    And the shuruk? ooo, eee
    Did the kamatz katan really exist?
    Are there really long and short vowels?
    I read there was an early dispute about tzereh and segol (eh), and our modern pronunciation (Palestinian version) won.
    How about the qof?

  4. Yes, so do I.

    Regarding the number (never mind the pronounciation) of the 'seven vowels' - when I counted them there were twelve?

  5. "Some" Yemenites pronounce a gimmel with a dagesh as J (as in Jim), others do not. It's a long-standing bone of contention.