Why does the Conservative Movement pronounce Hebrew in a quasi-Sephardic pronunciation, even though their engagement in Wissenschaft Des Judentums would have led them to embrace the Yemenite pronunciation?

  • 4
    By the way, Matthew, I have to question your premise. Were the Wissenschaft folks even aware of the Yemenite pronunciation? I thought they considered the Sephardic one the "purest" form of Hebrew.
    – Alex
    Nov 24, 2010 at 0:57
  • Is this question on topic? Is the Conservative Movement considered a religion other than Judaism? Humanistic Judaism, for example, is clearly a religion other than Judaism. Where is the line of demarcation between Judaism and other religions?
    – user17319
    Dec 24, 2020 at 16:13

7 Answers 7


The "quasi-Sephardic pronunciation" you refer to is actually Israeli Hebrew which the Conservative movement (and Modern Orthodox movement and Reform movement) have lately been teaching.

The traditional Conservative movement was built off of the Reform movement which was built off of German minhag - thus a boy wears a tallis when he turns 13, regardless of marital status, and people spoke in the Hebrew of their parents. Even my parents, growing up in Conservative shuls in Brooklyn (1950s-60s), pronounce G-d's name with an "oy" not an "ai" and learned to soften their savs.

Here's an interesting piece on the rise to prominence of Israeli Hebrew in America - not limited to the Conservative movement. (Though it's simplified a bit for the audience, the links therein are good sources.) The main point apropos your question is that in America, it was easier to find Israeli Hebrew teachers, the movement is Zionist, and that this pronunciation was more desirable due to its perceived modernity.

  • This is a great answer, but it makes it sound like the Modern Orthodox movement is related to Conservative and Reform groups, which is not the case. You may want to edit to make it clearer.
    – user17319
    Dec 24, 2020 at 20:30
  • @Tesvov I understand the question draws special attention to the Conservative movement because of its historical philosophical associations. I want to be explicit that the phenomenon of Israelification of ritual Hebrew is not specific to any movement. In this aspect, the three movements are related, I suppose. Dec 25, 2020 at 1:04
  • my point is that Modern Orthodoxy is part of mainstream Orthodox Judaism, whereas Conservative and Reform are groups that split away from Orthodox Judaism altogether. This is a question on Conservative splinter religion - how does the inclusion of Modern Orthodoxy help the answer?
    – user17319
    Dec 25, 2020 at 19:57
  • @Tesvov It's the same sociological trend. Dec 26, 2020 at 22:56

Very simple. Due to the influence of Zionism and the state of Israel, where such pronunciation was adopted, the conservatives copied it at some point.

  • Makes sense, especially since the Conservative movement and the revival of Hebrew both started within a few years of each other (in the 1880s).
    – Alex
    Nov 26, 2010 at 1:43
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    The Conservative movement's philosophy doesn't draw from one single source. They take elements from a lot of different (possibly incompatible and conflicting) places. Wissenschaft Des Judentums is one of them, but secular Zionism is another.
    – Chanoch
    Dec 21, 2010 at 17:09
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    This is true in a broad sense in that after the rise of the State of Israel, there were many people who were raised with Ashkenazic pronunciation that made a conscious choice to teach their childern a Sephardic pronunciation, but the Ashkenazic substrate is still noticeable in American Conservative synagogues. For example, in America the vowel tzere is usually pronounced "ay" whereas in Israel, that vowel is shortened to "eh".
    – Mike
    Dec 6, 2013 at 3:31


Were the Wissenschaft folks even aware of the Yemenite pronunciation?

Not until Even Sapir by Rabbi Yaakov Sapir was published in the 1860s.

As far as whether they considered Sefaradit most pure, it's not monolithic. Shadal, for example, believed that the Ashkenazic qomatz followed the Tiberian masorah. He also pointed out that in Syriac there are two pronunciations, one which has a qomatz pronounced like the Ashkenazim, /o/, and the other which pronounces those vowels as /ah/ which is similar to the Sephardim. Thus, to the extent that we are obliged to follow the Tiberian masorah, the Ashkenazim were correct here. But to the extent that language develops naturally, both are correct and have an internal logic.

To a certain degree the issue was not which was more correct, but which was more aesthetically pleasing. It was more immediately obvious that the European pronunciations were European and thus, in their view, corrupted. It was difficult for a Galician maskil, for example, to see his native pronunciation as equally correct and equally pleasant as Sefaradit. Furthermore, the Sefaradit was accepted academic convention, so it made sense to conform with it, at least in writings which were meant to be academic.


Maybe just because a true Yemenite pronunciation would be pretty difficult for most Ashkenazic Jews? It uses several phonemes that are common in Arabic, but rare in the European languages. (I seem to remember a similar reason for why Israeli Hebrew, while officially Sephardic in pronunciation, in practice uses the least common denominator among the Ashkenazic and Sephardic consonantal values.)

  • Thanks. Could anyone find anything on the web or in books about the Conservative or perhaps the Reform movements decision to switch their pronunciation Nov 24, 2010 at 1:23
  • Indeed this is interesting, because there was clearly a switchover at some point. Was there a decision from a central body at some definite point in time, or was it more organic?
    – Yosef
    Nov 24, 2010 at 2:06
  • What do you mean by "switch"? Did they start with Ashkenazic pronunciation?
    – Isaac Moses
    Nov 24, 2010 at 2:27
  • They were from Ashkenaz families (for the most part)...they must have. Nov 24, 2010 at 2:32
  • 2
    I have a friend who grew up in the Reform movement in the 60s and he lived through an explicit switch in the schools -- they'd been teaching Ashkenazi and then it switched to Israeli. I assume this was a change in the common curriculum that rolled out to the congregations, not necessarily all at exactly the same time. May 15, 2012 at 22:31

This is not consistent. A couple weeks ago I went to a Conservative congregation for kabbalat shabbat and it was Ashkenazi all the way. On the other hand, another Conservative shul I'm familiar with is mostly led in Israeli pronunciation. On the third hand, many individuals in that congregation, when called for aliyot, use Ashkenazi.

I think this answer is correct with respect to what's being taught in the schools. In terms of what you hear in shul otherwise, it's a mix and will presumably be so until most attendees are products of the current curriculum (or imports from other Israeli-Hebrew traditions).


Why should Wissenschaft lead them to the Yemenite pronunciaton?

Isn't Wissenschaft about finding the "most authentic" ancient pronunciation. Wouldn't the presence of the Jimmel (an affricate) make that claim to authenticity suspect when a Ghimmel (a fricative) seems to better fit a consistent pattern for בגד כפת, namely that these letters should all be fricatives when the dagesh is absent, and stops when the dagesh is present?

  • OK, but they could attribute that one to local Arabic influence (since indeed, in most dialects of Arabic, original /g/ became /j/). They'd still have figured that it's better than most other Hebrew pronunciations, which don't make any distinction between the two pronunciations of gimmel (offhand, the only other one I know of that does is the Egyptian).
    – Alex
    Dec 21, 2010 at 18:56
  • 2
    Adeni (southern Yemenite) Jews use gimel and quf. It's only due to the popularity of the northern Yemenite (Sana`i) pronunciation that "jimel" and "guf" became associated with Yemenite Jewry in general.
    – B.BarNavi
    Aug 10, 2011 at 2:24
  • @Alex In much of North Africans they used g/gh, but it's been dying out since they mostly moved to Israel.
    – Double AA
    Nov 28, 2016 at 19:50

First I take “wissenschafft” to mean logic, rationality, or science. The foregoing would seem to point to the pronunciation that is most authentic in light of the original pronunciation, to the extent that it can be inferred from Linguistics and giving some regard to the Masoretic vowel system, even though they were writing about 600 years after the cessation of Hebrew as a vernacular. The Conservative movement simply followed Israel’s lead where the decision of the Hebrew Language Committee (Va'ad Halashon)was to adopt Sephardic but against which European “ ‘olim” balked when it came to consonants which they had difficulty pronouncing, such as the gutturals and the fricative alternates of gimel, tav, and dalet. Thus we ended up with what we have today: a purely Semitic grammar coupled with a Europeanized consonant system.

  • Welcome to Mi Yodeya Morry! This answer would be improved with sources that indicate that the Conservative movement followed Israel's lead. Indicating when this shift occurred would also improve the post.
    – mevaqesh
    Oct 14, 2017 at 23:47

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