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Thomas O. Lambdin calls out the words שְנַיִם and שְתַּיִם as exceptions to "shewa as the initial vowel in a word is always vocalized," i.e. it is "shtayim" and "shnayim". That's a secular expert's view.

I recently moved, and the Rabbi at my new shul says "shi-tayim" and "shi-nayim." I asked him about it, citing in particular that in שְתַּיִם the tav would not have a dagesh if the shewa were vocalized. He said he has a source, but I haven't seen it.

What is the halachically correct pronunciation: "shtayim" or "shitayim"?

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The words שְׁתֵּי, שְׁתַּיִם etc. had two pronunciations during the masoretic period. The first pronunciation was with an epenthetic aleph, as אֶשְׁתַּיִם, etc. The second was simply to omit the sheva at the beginning: shtayim.

The accent yetiv only appears on the first vowel of a word. If there is a vowel before the stress syllable---including a sheva---the yetiv is replaced by a pashta. In many good manuscripts, such as the Aleppo Codex and Leningrad Codex, שְׁתַּיִם receives a yetiv. In these cases, it appears that the pronunciation of shtayim was followed. Some manuscripts have a pashta in these positions, implying that the prosthetic vowel was used by their authors.

Both pronunciations are described in many masoretic treatises (see here). For instance, Hidayat Al-Qaari (Sefer HaHilufim) (I.L.2.12.5) describes the pronunciation with the added aleph in the kere (קרי):

A mobile shewa is not followed by a letter with dagesh [...] This is not contradicted by שְׁתַּיִם and שְׁתֵּי. For if there is an added ʾalef and you say [ʔɛʃˈtʰaːjim] (i.e. eshtayim) and [ʔɛʃˈtʰeː] (i.e. eshte), the shewa becomes quiescent. I shall discuss this at greater length in the section concerning yetiv with the help of G-d and His good will.

Note Judges 16:28, with a dagesh hazak in the shin, and a rafe on the tav: נְקַם־אַחַ֛ת מִשְּׁתֵ֥י עֵינַ֖י. But on the other hand, we find in Jonah 4:11 no dagesh hazak, and a ga`ya lengthening the hiriq: הַרְבֵּה֩ מִֽשְׁתֵּים־עֶשְׂרֵ֨ה רִבֹּ֜ו

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  • Fascinating. What is your educational background? (Basically, are you in masoretic studies for a profession?) – A Blue Thread Oct 20 '20 at 5:19
  • Note the lack of dechik in Zekharia 4:12 – Double AA Oct 20 '20 at 13:07
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    @ABlueThread I wish! All my knowledge is from books. – Argon Oct 21 '20 at 22:24
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Ibn Janah and other early Jewish grammarians in the centuries immediately after the Masoretic Era state that the shewa is nah (quiescent) and the daghesh is qal (soft). Ibn Ezra was surprised to discover many many communities in North Africa that retained the pronunciation eshtayim which was not the case in his native Spain. Despite comments you might see to the contrary, eshtayim was not pronounced with a real aleph. It was described that way because the grammarians could not imagine a vowel that did not follow a consonant -- hence they described pathah genuba (furtive pathah) as having a "hidden" aleph before it. The epenthetic (helper) vowel was a hateph-segol. The key question for your Rabbi is whether he is simply following the arbitrary rule that shewa on the first letter of a word is na` (mobile). If so, he is in error. If, however, he is following a specific shita of a recognized authority or of an authentic reading tradition, then he should do so. You will need to determine in this whether you determine your tradition as the Rabbi does. The rule of shewa on first letter of a word being na` is misstated. The rule actually is that a shewa on the first letter of a syllable is na`. This is the only case where the first letter of the word does not start a syllable. By the way, none of this applies to shenayim, where the shewa is na`.

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  • Hayyim, welcome! I posted a similar answer (with one horribly embarrassing mistake, so I've since deleted it). But I have some differences in mine. Do you have some source for your final statement regarding Shenayim? – Seth J Oct 10 '13 at 20:38
  • Seth, no source at the moment; just the argument of thunderous silence. Let me know if you find one. – Hayyim Obadyah Oct 15 '13 at 18:51
  • Hayyim Obadyah, welcome to Mi Yodeya, and thanks for your great answers. Note that backticks (`) set off monospace font in the formatting system here; to use a backtick to transliterate an ayin (in a question or answer), you'll need to use \` (backslash backtick). (This will only be necessary if you include two backticks in one post, since that's how the software will 'know' you mean them as setting off text.) See also judaism.stackexchange.com/posts/31573/revisions. – msh210 Oct 16 '13 at 4:42
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Your Rav is correct that most of the time (in fact, nearly all the time), a Shəvah under the first letter of a syllable should be Na', but he is not correct about the Dagesh.

Shtayim is the correct pronunciation, and is even evidenced by the fact that the Dagesh wouldn't be in the Tav if the Shəvah weren't Naḥ.

See, for example, Arabic, which, as a way of compensating for the same phenomenon, has an introductory vowel, an Alif, before the Shin (well, really, its cognate; the Arabic/Hebrew relationship is funny).

Another example to compare with Arabic is Ibn. In Hebrew it's Ben. Why the difference? Because both languages are compensating for the fact that it's really Bn. One (Arabic) compensates with an introductory vowel, while the other (Hebrew) compensates with a change in the first vowel. Yehoshua' Bin Nun can be seen as an example where the original pronunciation was somewhat preserved (this question asks why his name is Bin Nun instead of Ben Nun, and the answers tend to assume a more Midrashic reason, although this one delves a bit into the grammar).

Other examples abound in Arabic, and many Arabic-speakers have a distinct accent when speaking English or other languages with double consonants at the beginning of words, such as "eblease" (please; there's also no 'p' in Arabic), and my favorite example, Eskander, the Arabic name for Alexander ('Al' being treated as the direct object and therefore dropped, leaving a name starting with 'X', which is transposed to 'Sk', which is a double-consonant, which gets the helper-vowel 'ə' appended to it).

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Based on the majority of Dikduk experts, the words: שְׁתֵּי, שְׁתֵּים, שְׁתַּיִם, the Sh’va under the שׁ is pronounced. The Dagesh (dot) inside the תּ, violates the usual rules of grammar which state that the letters of: בּ גּ דּ - כּ פּ תּ following a “Going Sh’va” should not have a Dagesh - yet in these words it does! Also see Sefer Michlol (page 140 or 191) from Rabbi Dovid Kimchi - Radak [1160–1235], where he writes that the original form of these words starts with an Alef as in אֶשְׁתַּיִם, אֶשְׁתֵּי (this is considered as another example of a “Stolen Alef”). At one time, Jewish communities (Anshei Mizrach) in the Middle East and North Africa had custom to pronounce it this way. However, it is now customary to more accurately pronounce it as a “Going Sh’va” - i.e., vocal. For more details, see Dikdukei Shai - S. Mandelbaum (1999) - סימן ה pg. 149-152. It should be noted that in modern Hebrew, most Sh’vas are silent.

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  • What does "Based on the majority of Dikduk experts" mean? I assume you didn't ask all of them and tally the responses – Double AA Oct 19 '20 at 21:24
  • Sheva na is rather called moving in English – Kazi bácsi Oct 20 '20 at 7:09

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