Ashkenazi Hebrew (Hebrew: הגייה אשכנזית Hagiyya
Ashkenazit, Yiddish: אַשכּנזישע הבֿרה Ashkenazishe
Havara), is the pronunciation system for Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew
favored for liturgical use and study by
Ashkenazi Jewish practice. It
survives today as a separate religious dialect within some parts of
Haredi community, even alongside
Modern Hebrew in Israel, although
its use amongst non-Israeli
Ashkenazi Jews has greatly diminished.
4 Influence on modern Hebrew
6 See also
As it is used parallel with Modern Hebrew, its phonological
differences are clearly recognized:
א ʾālep̄ and ע ʿáyin are completely silent at all times in most
Ashkenazi Hebrew, where they are frequently both pronounced
as a glottal stop in modern Hebrew. (Compare Yisroeil (Lithuanian)
or Yisruayl (Polish-Galician) vs. Yisra'el (Modern).) A special case
is Dutch (and historically also Frankfurt am Main) Hebrew, where
‘ayin is traditionally pronounced as a velar nasal ([ŋ]), probably
under the influence of the local Spanish and Portuguese Jews.
ת ṯāw is pronounced [s] in
Ashkenazi Hebrew, unless there is a
Dagesh in the ת, where it would be pronounced [t]. It is always
pronounced [t] in Modern Hebrew. (Compare Shabbos vs. Shabbat, or Es
אֵ ṣērê /e/ is pronounced [ej] (or [aj]) in
where it would be pronounced [e] in Sephardi Hebrew; Modern Hebrew
varies between the two pronunciations. (Compare Omein (Lithuanian) or
Umayn (Polish-Galician) vs. Amen (Modern Hebrew).)
אָ qāmeṣ gāḏôl /a/ is pronounced [ɔ] (it is always [u] in
the Southern Dialects) in
Ashkenazi Hebrew (Lithuanian pronunciation
also tends to turn Qames gadol into the sound "uh" when it is
stressed), where it is [a] in Modern Hebrew. (Compare Dovid
(Lithuanian) or Duvid (Polish-Galician) vs. David [david].)
אֹ ḥôlam /o/ is, depending on the subdialect, pronounced [au],
[ou], [øi], [oi], or [ei] in
Ashkenazi Hebrew, where it is [o] (Some
Lithuanians and many non-Hassidic Ashkenazim in America also pronounce
it as the latter) in Modern Hebrew. (Compare Moishe vs. Moshe.)
Unstressed אֻ qubbuṣ or וּ shuruq /u/ occasionally becomes [i]
Ashkenazi Hebrew (This is more prevalent in the South-Eastern
dialects as the North-Eastern dialects did not make reforms to this
vowel), when in all other forms they are pronounced [u] (Kíddish vs.
kiddúsh.) In the Hungarian and Oberlander dialects, the pronunciation
is invariably [y].
There is some confusion (in both directions) between final אֵ tzere
/e/ and אִ hiriq /i/ (Tishrei vs. Tishri; Sifri vs. Sifre.)
There are considerable differences between the Lithuanian, Polish
(also known as Galician), Hungarian, and German pronunciations.
These are most obvious in the treatment of ḥôlam: the German
pronunciation is [au], the Galician/Polish pronunciation is [oi], the
Hungarian is [øi], and the Lithuanian pronunciation is [ei]. Other
variants exist: for example in the United Kingdom, the original
tradition was to use the German pronunciation, but over the years the
sound of ḥolam has tended to merge with the local pronunciation of
long "o" as in "toe", and some communities have abandoned Ashkenazi
Hebrew altogether in favour of the Israeli-Sephardi pronunciation.
Haredi communities in England usually use the Galician/Polish [oi].)
Tzere is pronounced [ej] in the majority of Ashkenazic traditions. In
Polish usage, however, it was not infrequently [aj].
Another feature that distinguishes the Lithuanian pronunciation,
traditionally used in an area encompassing modern day's Baltic States,
Belarus and parts of Ukraine and Russia, is its merger of sin and
shin, both of which are pronounced as [s]. This is similar to the
pronunciation of the Ephraimites recorded in Judges 12, which is the
source of the term Shibboleth.
The pronunciation of resh varies between an alveolar flap or trill (as
in Spanish) and a voiced uvular fricative or trill (as in French, see
Guttural R), depending on variations in the local dialects of German
In addition to geographical differences, there are differences in
register between the "natural" pronunciation in general use and the
more prescriptive rules advocated by some rabbis and grammarians,
particularly for use in reading the Torah. For example:
In earlier centuries the stress in
Ashkenazi Hebrew usually fell on
the penultimate, instead of the last syllable as in most other
dialects. In the 17th and 18th centuries there was a campaign by
Ashkenazi rabbis such as
Jacob Emden and the
Vilna Gaon to encourage
final stress in accordance with the stress marks printed in the Bible.
This was successful as concerned liturgical use such as reading from
the Torah. However, the older stress pattern persists in the
pronunciation of Hebrew words in
Yiddish and in early modern poetry by
Hayim Nahman Bialik
Hayim Nahman Bialik and Shaul Tchernichovsky.
The merger of ח to כ and ע to א in speech occurred at some point
between the 11th century and the 18th century, but many later
Ashkenazi authorities (such as the
Mishnah Berurah and Magen Avraham)
advocate using the pharyngeal articulation of ח and ע when
representing the community in religious service such as prayer and
Torah reading though this is seldom observed in practice.
Similarly, strict usage requires the articulation of initial א as a
In general use, the mobile sheva is often omitted (for example the
word for "time" is pronounced zman rather than zĕman). However, in
liturgical use strict conformity to the grammatical rules is
There have been several theories on the origins of the different
Hebrew reading traditions. The basic cleavage is between those who
believe that the differences arose in medieval Europe and those who
believe that they reflect older differences between the pronunciations
of Hebrew and Aramaic current in different parts of the Fertile
Crescent, that is to say Judaea, Galilee, Syria, northern Mesopotamia
and Babylonia proper. Within the first group of theories, Zimmels
believed that the
Ashkenazi pronunciation arose in late medieval
Europe and that the pronunciation prevailing in France and Germany in
the time of the Tosafists was similar to the Sephardic. His evidence
for this was the fact that Asher ben Jehiel, a German who became chief
rabbi of Toledo, never refers to any difference of pronunciation,
though he is normally very sensitive to differences between the two
The difficulty with the second group of theories is that we do not
know for certain what the pronunciations of these countries actually
were and how far they differed. Since the expulsion of the Jews from
Spain in 1492, if not before, the Sephardic pronunciation of the
vowels became standard in all these countries, ironing out any
differences that previously existed. This makes it harder to
adjudicate between the different theories on the relationship between
today's pronunciation systems and those of ancient times.
Leopold Zunz believed that the
Ashkenazi pronunciation was derived
from that of Palestine in Geonic times (7th–11th centuries CE),
while the Sephardi pronunciation was derived from that of Babylonia.
This theory was supported by the fact that, in some respects,
Ashkenazi Hebrew resembles the western dialect of Syriac while
Sephardi Hebrew resembles the eastern, e.g. Eastern Syriac
against Western Syriac Peshito.
Ashkenazi Hebrew in its written form
also resembles Palestinian Hebrew in its tendency to male spellings
(see Mater lectionis).
Others, including Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, believed that the distinction
is more ancient, and represents the distinction between the Judaean
and Galilean dialects of Hebrew in Mishnaic times (1st−2nd centuries
CE), with the Sephardi pronunciation being derived from Judaean and
Ashkenazi from Galilean. This theory is supported by the fact that
Ashkenazi Hebrew, like Samaritan Hebrew, has lost the distinct sounds
of many of the guttural letters, while there are references in the
Talmud to this as a feature of Galilean speech. Idelsohn ascribes the
Ashkenazi (and, on his theory, Galilean) pronunciation of kamatz gadol
as [o] to the influence of Phoenician: see Canaanite shift.
In the time of the
Masoretes (8th−10th centuries CE) there were
three distinct notations for denoting vowels and other details of
pronunciation in Biblical and liturgical texts. One was the
Babylonian; another was the Palestinian; the third was the Tiberian,
which eventually superseded the other two and is still in use today.
In certain respects the
Ashkenazi pronunciation provides a better fit
to the Tiberian notation than do the other reading traditions: for
example, it distinguishes between pataḥ and qamaṣ gadol, and
between segol and șere, and does not make the qamaṣ symbol do duty
for two different sounds. A distinctive variant of the Tiberian
notation was in fact used by Ashkenazim, before being superseded by
the standard version. On the other hand, it is unlikely that in the
Tiberian system ṣere and ḥolam were diphthongs as they are in
Ashkenazi Hebrew: they are more likely to have been closed vowels. (On
the other hand, these vowels sometimes correspond to diphthongs in
Arabic.) For more details of the reconstructed pronunciation
underlying the Tiberian notation, see Tiberian vocalization.
In other respects
Ashkenazi Hebrew resembles Yemenite Hebrew, which
appears to be related to the Babylonian notation. Shared features
include the pronunciation of qamaṣ gadol as [o] and, in the case of
Lithuanian Jews and some but not all Yemenites, of ḥolam as [eː].
These features are not found in the Hebrew pronunciation of today's
Iraqi Jews, which as explained has been overlaid by Sephardi Hebrew,
but are found in some of the
Judeo-Aramaic languages of northern Iraq
and in some dialects of Syriac.
Another possibility is that these features were found within an
isogloss that included Syria, northern Palestine and northern
Mesopotamia but not Judaea or Babylonia proper, and did not coincide
exactly with the use of any one notation (and the ḥolam = [eː]
shift may have applied to a more restricted area than the qamaṣ
gadol = [o] shift). The Yemenite pronunciation would, on this
hypothesis, be derived from that of northern Mesopotamia and the
Ashkenazi pronunciation from that of northern Palestine. The Sephardic
pronunciation appears to be derived from that of Judaea, as evidenced
by its fit to the Palestinian notation.
According to the Maharal of Prague and many other scholars,
including Rabbi Yaakov Emden, one of the leading Hebrew grammarians of
Ashkenazi Hebrew is the most accurate pronunciation of
Hebrew preserved. The reason given is that it preserves distinctions,
such as between pataḥ and qamaṣ, which are not reflected in the
Sephardic and other dialects. Only in the
Ashkenazi pronunciation are
all seven "nequdot" (the Hebrew vowels of the ancient Tiberian
tradition) distinguished: Yemenite, which comes close, does not
distinguish pataḥ from segol.
On the other hand, this view does not appear to be supported by any
Ashkenazi scholars. Some scholars argue in favour of the greater
authenticity of the Yemenite pronunciation on the ground that it is
the only Hebrew pronunciation to distinguish all the consonants.
Influence on modern Hebrew
Modern Hebrew was intended to be based on Mishnaic spelling
Sephardi Hebrew pronunciation, the language as spoken in Israel
has adapted to the popular (as opposed to the strict liturgical)
Ashkenazi Hebrew phonology in the following respects:
the elimination of pharyngeal articulation in the letters Ḥeth and
the conversion of resh from an alveolar flap to a voiced uvular
fricative or trill (though this is by no means universal in Ashkenazi
the pronunciation of tzere as [eɪ] in some contexts (sifrey and
teysha instead of Sephardic sifré and tésha' )
the elimination of vocal sheva (zman instead of Sephardic zĕman)
some of the letter names (yud and kuf instead of Sephardic yod and
in popular speech, penultimate stress in proper names (Dvóra instead
of Dĕvorá; Yehúda instead of Yehudá)
similarly, penultimate stress in nouns or verbs with a second or third
person plural suffix (katávtem [you wrote] instead of kĕtavtém;
shalom aléykhem [greeting] instead of shalom alekhém).
^ The practice of omitting the guttural letters "ayin" and "chet" is
very ancient and goes back to Talmudic times (see Sefer He'aruch entry
"shudah" as well as encyclopedia Otzar Yisrael entry "mivtah"), when
it appears to have been a feature of Galilean pronunciation.
Mishnah Berurah Chapter 53 quoting the Magen Avraham.
^ To a lesser extent the same is true for the consonants, though the
Jews of Iraq retain /w/ for vav and /θ/ for tav raphe, and the Jews
Arabic countries generally retain emphatic and guttural consonant
sounds: see Mizrahi Hebrew.
^ Tiferet Yisrael, article 66.
^ Listed in the encyclopedia Otsar Yisrael under the entry "mivtah".
^ Mor Uqṣi'ah, chap. 53.
^ These pronunciations may have originated in learners' mistakes
formed on the analogy of other suffixed forms (katávta, alénu),
rather than being examples of residual
Phonology of modern Hebrew
Ilan Eldar, Masoret ha-qeri'ah ha-kedem-Ashkenazit (The Hebrew
Language Tradition in Medieval Ashkenaz), Edah ve-Lashon series vols.
4 and 5, Jerusalem (Hebrew)
A. Z. Idelsohn, Die gegenwärtige Aussprache des Hebräischen bei
Juden und Samaritanern, in: Monatsschrift für Geschichte und
Wissenschaft des Judentums 57 (N.F.: 21), 1913, p. 527–645 and
Dovid Katz, The
Phonology of Ashkenazic, in: Lewis Glinert (ed.),
Hebrew in Ashkenaz. A Language in Exile, Oxford-New York 1993,
p. 46–87. ISBN 0-19-506222-1.
S. Morag, Pronunciations of Hebrew, Encyclopaedia Judaica XIII,
Sáenz-Badillos, Angel (1996). A History of the Hebrew Language.
trans. John Elwolde. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press.
Werner Weinberg, Lexikon zum religiösen Wortschatz und Brauchtum der
deutschen Juden, ed. by Walter Röll, Stuttgart–Bad Cannstatt 1994.
Zimmels, Ashkenazim and Sephardim: their Relations, Differences, and
Problems As Reflected in the Rabbinical Responsa : London 1958
(since reprinted). ISBN 0-88125-491-6.
Transliteration to English / from English
Biblical (northern dialect)
Kubutz and Shuruk
Niqqud / missing / full
Law of attenuation
Hebrew / ancient / modern Israeli literature
Unicode and HTML
Hebrew and Aramaic Lexicon of the Old Testament
Betanure Jewish Neo-Aramaic
Kayla / Qwara (Cushitic)
Dialects / Argots
Yiddish sign language
Krymchak / Karaim (Turkic)