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If one does not pronounce the Shema correctly, one has not fulfilled their obligation (שולחן ערוך או"ח סימן סב). If so, then how could different pronunciations of the Hebrew words arise? Shouldn't at least the majority have heard it from their father, and on back, with exactly precision? Even if you would say that casual speech is affected by local languages, liturgical Hebrew is not casual speech.

Given this obligation to precision in pronunciation, how could variants in pronunciation have arisen, at least for fulfilling this mitzvah?

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Related –  yoel Feb 27 '13 at 23:28
    
judaism.stackexchange.com/a/14086/759 I think you just aren't appreciating the power of subtle change over time. –  Double AA Feb 28 '13 at 0:09
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...which would be largely ignored. –  Seth J Feb 28 '13 at 0:32
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en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Chinese_whispers –  jake Feb 28 '13 at 0:53
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It's an old tradition to have more different pronunciations based on region/ethnicity. See shibboleth. :) –  Charles Koppelman Feb 28 '13 at 5:45
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1 Answer

This is a thorny issue, and lots of poskim have dealt with the issue of havarot (pronunciation systems for Hebrew) -- you can see a nice summary here. I think the most lucid summary of the situation is given by Rav Moshe Feinstein in Igros Moshe OC 3:5. He explains that it's true that Hebrew had an original havara (pronunciation) that all the modern havarot evolved from, but any havara which is used by a community is called "leshon hakodesh" for halachic purposes. His proof is from the fact that Ashkenazim hold by Halitzot performed by Sefardim and vice versa, despite the fact that the halacha requires the one performing Halitzah to be able to say the associated text in leshon hakodesh. He doesn't deal with the Shema explicitly, but it's implied that if a person pronounces it correctly according to his own havara, then for him that would be called pronouncing the Shema correctly. (There are other responsa that deal with the Shema explicitly, e.g. Rav Bentzion Uziel in Shu"t Mishpetei Uziel OC 1.) I believe that this resolves the OP's question of how it was permissible for havarot to change over the generations.

As for how the different havarot arose historically, Rav Moshe says that indeed, they were influenced by the surrounding languages. I can also add from my own studies in linguistics that there is very good evidence for this in many cases, e.g. the vowel shifts in different varieties of Ashkenazi Hebrew are mirrored in the vowel shifts in the varieties of Yiddish spoken by the same Jews.

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Technically, a chalitza needs to be able to be performed in leshon hakodesh. It doesn't actually need to be performed that way. RMF proves from the fact that we don't insist the women know how to pronounce the text all the different ways. –  Double AA Dec 9 '13 at 23:22
    
What is your source for that? R' Moshe states "דקריאת חליצה הא נקרא בלה"ק דווקא", which I understood to mean that it is actually read in leshon hakodesh. –  Malper Dec 10 '13 at 2:45
    
Mishna Yevamot 12:3. Bedieved if she didn't read anything the Chalitza is Kosher, so long as she was able to read it. –  Double AA Dec 10 '13 at 3:00
    
Right, of course. Thanks. –  Malper Dec 10 '13 at 3:04
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