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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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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.

  • 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
  • @Malper This still doesn't explain how the Rabbis allowed the change in the first place. I would assume that if someone came to Beyth K'nesseth one morning and whilst davening at the ʕomudh started pronouncing ghimel and gimel the same, he would have been told not to do that by the Rav. ? – Joshua Pearl Dec 29 '16 at 11:15
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The question is truly something to think about, and I wondered about it many times, as similar to the astounding fact that there can exist a difference in p'sak between the greatest of the Rishonim, the great Rashi and his "great" grandson Rabbeinu Tam about the correct order of the 4 paragraphs that we have written in our holy tefillin. But we actually find that already in the period of the "Shoftim" there were differences within klal yisroel in regard to their ability of pronunciation. -see Shoftim 12-6. how the men of Gil'ud were able to detect their belonging to Shevet Efraim from their disability of pronouncing the letter "shin". ו וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ אֱמָר-נָא שִׁבֹּלֶת וַיֹּאמֶר סִבֹּלֶת, וְלֹא יָכִין לְדַבֵּר כֵּן, וַיֹּאחֲזוּ אוֹתוֹ, וַיִּשְׁחָטוּהוּ אֶל-מַעְבְּרוֹת הַיַּרְדֵּן; וַיִּפֹּל בָּעֵת הַהִיא, מֵאֶפְרַיִם, אַרְבָּעִים וּשְׁנַיִם, אָלֶף. May we always merit achdus(to end on a positive note).

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The premise of this question is flawed. You state:

If one does not pronounce the Shema correctly, one has not fulfilled their obligation (שולחן ערוך או"ח סימן סב).

However, if one actually looks at Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim siman 62, we see that Rav Yosef Karo states the opposite:

אף על פי שמצוה לדקדק באותיותיה קראה ולא דקדק בהן יצא:

"Though it is a mitzvah to precise with (pronouncing) its letters, if he read and was not precise with them, he has fulfilled his obligation."

Looking at the Tur on that siman to see an expansion of the idea, the Tur writes the same:

אף על פי שצריך לדקדק באותיותיה, קרא ולא דקדק באותיותיה יצא.

And in the Bet Yosef commentary on Tur on the same page, Rav Yosef Karo explains:

אף על פי שצריך לדקדק באותיותיה קראה ולא דקדק באותיותיה יצא — בפרק היה קורא (דף טו.) פלוגתא דרבי יהודה ורבי יוסי, ואיפסיקא הילכתא בגמרא כמאן דמיקל:

"In perek Haya Korei (Berachot 15a) it is a dispute between Rabbi Yehuda and Rabbi Yossi, and the halacha is ruled in the gemara in accordance with the one who is lenient.

In that gemara, we see the following:

The Mishna: קרא ולא דקדק באותיותיה ר' יוסי אומר יצא רבי יהודה אומר לא יצא

And the gemara on the next amud (15b) we read:

קרא ולא דקדק באותיותיה: א"ר טבי א"ר יאשיה הלכה כדברי שניהם להקל:

"R' Tavi cited Rabbi Yoshia: The halacha in both matters (audibility and pronouncing correctly) is like the one who is lenient."

Admittedly, it is still a requirement lechatchila to do this, and there are other good answers presented to your follow-up.

However, insofar as the question is predicated on the premise that one does not fulfill, by demonstrating that the quoted source shows you do fulfill, the question is answered.

  • I'm not so sure... meta.judaism.stackexchange.com/a/2182/759 – Double AA Jan 12 '17 at 4:15
  • A does affect B, I think. If one absolutely didn't fulfill, then the Rabbis, faced with people not fulfilling a Biblical requirement, would certainly step in (according to the questioner), and teach how to be precise. If they were still fulfilling, the rabbis might well let this natural development slide. So IMHO the "insofar" does work. – josh waxman Jan 12 '17 at 4:19
  • Also, the questioner said that each person would have heard with exact precision from his father. This isn't so much so if people were fulfilling bedieved. It might have been quite common that people were lax, if they were still fulfilling. (Separately, I would say that national shifts in letter pronunciation is not the dikdek be'otiyoteha that even Rabbi Yehuda was speaking about. And he would not say that Shemaya, Avtalyon, and perhaps even Hillel did not fulfill Shema.) – josh waxman Jan 12 '17 at 4:22

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