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I have been made aware of the proper (original?) pronunciation of some of the Hebrew letters from an old Sephardic Jew. For example the ashkenazic "suf" should be pronounced with a "th" as in the word "thick". Would there be problem with changing the pronunciations I use during davening? Does it matter if I switch back and forth - at least until I get used to it?

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    The general rule is: correcting definite mistakes is good and being inconsistent is bad. (Also, losing focus on your prayer is bad.) You should speak with a rabbi trained and capable of making the former judgement. Most rabbis are not (just as most rabbis don't know how to write a Torah or Shecht a cow).
    – Double AA
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 13:34
  • related judaism.stackexchange.com/questions/60139/…
    – Double AA
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 13:38
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    Would there be problem with changing the pronunciations Conversely, would maintaining an incorrect pronunciation be a problem.
    – mevaqesh
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 15:31
  • I don't see a problem doing this when praying individually. However, as Shaliach Tzibbur, isn't there a rule that one should follow the minhag of the congregation? I know that's rarely done in most places I've attended, as almost everyone has a different accent / pronunciation that's "native" to them. But, I have heard of a few shuls that are American Ashkenaz that refuse to allow an Israeli, among others, to be Shat"z because of their pronunciation.
    – DanF
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 15:44
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    @WAF As a general rule, Poskim who write that anyone can join their side and their side need not change anything should probably be ignored. (Either let everyone be or advocate fixing, but to claim your side, unlike anyone else, perfectly transmitted all the sounds is inane.)
    – Double AA
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 22:42

3 Answers 3

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There is no such a thing as proper pronunciation. Ashkenazim view their pronunciation as proper, Sepharadim think theirs are proper, Yemenites think their own is the best.

It turns out that all modern (non-Samaritan) pronunciation traditions stem from three main historical pronunciations.

The Gaonic Babylonian pronunciation is preserved quite well by the Yemenite Jews. This system has 6 distinct vowels.

"Sephardi" pronunciation is the term for the group of pronunciations used by Jews outside of Europe and Yemen. This is far from a homogeneous system but they all have 5 vowels. This system came from the so-called "Palestinian" system.

The Tiberian system, which was the other main medieval pronunciation system had 7 distinct vowels. It is this system that was authoritative during the medieval period. As such, Tiberian niqqud was preferred over Babylonian and Palestinian systems and is used until this day.

The Ashkenazim used to speak in a variant of the Palestinian system until almost a thousand years ago. At that point, something happened and they transitioned to a Tiberian-influenced system.

The antiquity of the Tiberian system has been established by modern scholarship. Still, it has some features which are relatively late (e.g. short a in a closed syllable -> short i; this is seen in words like Miriam which was originally Mariam).

But to seek an original pronunciation is fruitless. It is clear that many systems of pronunciation existed even in the First Temple period (cf. Shibboleth incident). Hebrew pronunciation is also always changing.

If you consider Tiberian to be authoritative, then Tiberian is the way to go. Few people know it or learn it nowadays because it is a very difficult system to learn.

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    "Ashkenazim view their pronunciation as proper, Sephardim think theirs are proper, Yemenites think their own is the best." That's not true (and a commonly spread falsehood at that). Many of them have openly mourned the loss of various phonemes in their systems due to exile.
    – Double AA
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 13:46
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    @DoubleAA Then why not restore them? I have very seldom seen such sentiment outside of scholarship.
    – Argon
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 13:50
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    Because they were unable to. I have tried many times and I still can't roll my r's. You may be a trained linguist, but 99.9% of the population has a hard time with new sounds. If someone 300 years ago says they don't know how to differentiate ט and ת, they weren't joking.
    – Double AA
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 13:51
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    Emden said that about Kamatz. He also elsewhere mourned how ת sounds like ס and he was too set in his ways to change. There have always been people who try to restore. In the last 100 years they've been quieter because of the Charedi-anti-Hebrew-reaction-to-Zionism situation so it's not popular. That doesn't change anything fundamentally.
    – Double AA
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 13:56
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    Emden on ת in ashkenaz: לא כמו שאנו האשכנזים עושים בקריאת תי״ו רפויה כסמ״ך לבשתינו "to our embarrassment" hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=22431&st=&pgnum=10
    – Double AA
    Commented Aug 30, 2016 at 13:57
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Summary of Yalkut Yosef 685.20 Footnote 17:

Harav Yaakov David ben Ze'ev in Bet Ridbaz #27, Harav Baruch Epstein in Mekor Barukh v2, pg397b, and in responsa Divre Yosef Schwartz p167a wrote that the sefardic pronunciation of hebrew is more authenticate than the ashkenazic variant. There has been some recent pushback with regards to the pronunciation of certain vowels as being more authentically pronounced by the Ashkenazic Jews. But even this has been refuted, see Yabia Omer V10 OH#10.

Harav Natan Adler, hired someone to teach him the proper sefardic pronunciation, after which he switched and maintained the sefardic pronunciation for all his prayers. This has been testified by sefer Tzeror Hahayim and Derekh Hanesher p45a. But Harav Natan Adler did not suggest others emulate him.

Harav Mazuz added the following: Ashkezanic Jews should be concerned with their mispronouncing the letters "het" and "ayin" improperly. One can be saying "you shall destroy Gd" instead of "you shall serve Gd" or "Gd was taken captive" instead of "Gd swore" and see many such examples in sefer Sefat Emet pg162 by Harav ben Tziyon Cohen.

From this you can learn the following:

Would there be problem with changing the pronunciations I use during davening? It would seem from the above, that no its not a problem since if Rav Natan Adler did it, you can surely do the same as long as your intention is correct. The Magen Avraham objected to make these changes because of Minhag Avotenu. In this case, however it might not apply.

Does it matter if I switch back and forth - at least until I get used to it?

Yes it could be a problem. Of course this does not mean that while you are learning and making mistakes. Since that is part of the process of learning. The Torah was not given to angels nor does Hashem expect perfection only to put all your effort into it.

Switching back and forth is however a problem, if your intent is one time to say the prayer in ashkenaz and then another in sefardi. Because whichever pronunciation you are using, as long as your custom follows this you are at protected, since you are following the tradition of your fathers. But when switching back like that what are you relying on? You are deliberately putting yourself in a position of mispronouncing as above by Rav Mazuz. If now you accepted that the sefardi is the correct pronunciation, why are you switching back? If you reject the above Rabbeim saying that the sefardi pronunciation is not the correct one, then why are you forsaking the tradition of you fathers?

See the following series by Rabbi Daniel Glatstein for further information on this subject "Ashkenazic Vs. Sefardic Pronunciation - Which One is More Correct?":

series 1/3

series 2/3

series 3/3

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  • Of course, there are many variants within Ashkenazim and Sefardim. There isn't just one "Ashkenazi" and one "Sefardi" Hebrew.
    – Double AA
    Commented Sep 1, 2016 at 21:07
  • Yes, that is very true. I myself come from a group that follows sefardic halakhot and customs, yet our qamtz are pronounced as "o."
    – AZav_nov
    Commented Sep 6, 2016 at 16:41
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I have an answer over here: Is one permitted to change one’s minhagim from Sefardi to Ashkenazi? that I think answers your question quite nicely, with multiple sources.

To summarize the relevant parts, you should absolutely differentiate between all the letters and vowels, at least to the best of your ability. That's the basic obligation. If that means you will be changing your Minhag, so be it.
If that’s the case, you might as well adopt the pronunciations that we know for sure to be original, which I will list below:

Alef: a short closing of the throat, like between the syllables of the phrase "uh-oh".
Soft Bet: Like V, but with two lips instead of your upper teeth.
Soft Gimmel: Make a G sound, but leave a little opening so that instead of a single hard sound, it's a soft long sound.
Soft Daled: Voiced TH, like in "the" or "bathe". (If you don't want to adopt this one, at least use it in the "echad" of Shema, so you can elongate the daled as per the Gemara's ruling).
Vav: like W.
Zayin: Z, but a bit further forward, on the border of the teeth and the roof of the mouth.
Chet: This is more difficult. It's a voiceless smooth sound in your throat. Kind of between modern Hebrew "Chet" and English "H".
Tet: Alos difficult. Like T, but release the sound while slightly squeezing your throat in the Chet-area.
Soft Chaf: Same as soft Gimmel, but without your voice.
Ayin: Like Chet, but with your voice. (If you can't pronounce that, use another pronunciation, like "ng". At least pronounce it at all).
Soft Pei: Like soft Bet, but without your voice.
Tzadi: S and Chet at the same time.
Kuf: Like K, but further back in the throat, the same lace as modern Hebrew Chet and Resh.
Soft Tav: Like the TH in "thumb", as you said in your question.

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    With respect I don't think this is answering the question. The OP is not asking how to pronounce the letters but whether he should change his havarah.
    – Dov
    Commented Mar 27 at 8:20
  • The answer was in the first part. The list is just a minor addition, not an answer, despite its relative length. Commented Mar 27 at 18:52

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