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When Halacha says that a Kohen should distinguish between all the Hebrew letters in Siman 128 Seif 33 from where it says "similar examples":

מי שאינו יודע לחתוך האותיות כגון שאומר לאלפי"ן עייני"ן ולעייני"ן אלפי"ן וכיוצא בזה לא ישא את כפיו:

One who does not know how to enunciate letters, for example one who pronounces Alephs as Ayins or Ayins as Alephs, or similar examples, should not perform the priestly blessing.

What pronunciation should the Kohen give to each letter, if he wants to be strict in Halacha?

Would historical accuracy matter even though it is not mentioned in the text. However it is impossible to even know what was the historical pronunciation and so he should just stay with his traditions' way of pronouncing?

Or would textualism matter and thus as long as the Kohen distinguishes between the letters even though historical accuracy is disregarded because either way it is impossible to be 100% sure what was the historical pronunciation? If so would would be the most appropriate way for the Kohen to distinguish if there is such thing for being appropriate? Would it be by adopting the Yemenite or Baghdad system or some other way?

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R. Moshe Feinstein has a responsum about switching one's method of pronunciation. He notes, particularly, that Birkat Kohanim and chalitzah must be done in lashon hakodesh. He therefore argues that it must be that any pronunciation that is accepted by a significant group of Jews is considered a valid form of lashon hakodesh even though it is not historically accurate. He says that we don't know which pronunciation is the historically accurate pronunciation, and therefore one should not switch from the pronunciation he was raised with.

Igrot Moshe O.C. 3:5

ומה שנחשב שתי ההברות כל אחת מהן לשון הקדש אף שרק אחת מהן היא אמיתית הוא מטעם שאם יש קהל גדול שקורין אותן האותיות והתיבות בנקודות שבלשה"ק בהברה קבועה נחשב זה ג"כ לה"ק אף שהוא שינוי מהברה שהן דברו ושניתנה התורה

R. Joseph Ber Soloveitchik is also quoted by R. Hershel Schachter as making the argument that all pronunciations of a significant group of Israel are valid, for otherwise Birkat Kohanim would be very problematic.

Nefesh Harav p. 119

וכן הזכיר פעם בשיעוריו שבמוריה שהלא ברכת כהנים צריכה שתאמר בדוקא בלשון הקודש ובשאר לשונות הרי אין יוצאין וא"כ היאך הכהן הגליצאי או זה שיש לו הברה מאונגארען מברך קודם ב"כ ויוצא י"ח אולי אין זו ההברה הנכונה ונמצא שלא בירך בלשה"ק אלא ודאי מן ההכרח לתפוס כהנחה שכל מבטא והברה המקובלים אצל עדה גדולה מכלל ישראל דינה כלשה"ק

Thus, according to both R. Feinstein and R. Soloveitchik, a kohen need only conform to any of the accepted pronunciations, even if it is not the technically correct pronunciation.

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  • The question wasn't about acceptable minima. R Soloveitchik himself was known to be careful to distinguish Alef and Ayin for Parshat Zakhor (or so I've heard he instructed some of his readers). It's still valid without that, but one should be careful to pronounce things as best he can. (It so happens that R Feinstein makes some demonstrably mistaken assumptions in that responsum, but that's not your fault obviously.)
    – Double AA
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 0:42
  • @DoubleAA The context of the R. Soloveitchik quote is that he said that his grandfather (R. Chaim) would recite Shema twice – once with Ashkenazic pronunciation and once with Sefardic pronunciation, so as to say the words in the most correct way, even though bediavad you're yotzei אפילו לאדקדק באותיותיה. R. Soloveitchik was objecting to that. The first reason he gave was "ein l'davar sof", and then he mentioned this point – that any accepted pronunciation is considered lashon hakodesh anyway. R. Feinstein in the rest of the responsum says that (because we don't know) which cont.
    – Alex
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 2:49
  • cont. pronunciation is historically correct it is forbidden to change. Whether they are correct or incorrect (halachically and/or historically) it sounds like they would both tell the kohen to pronounce it with his regular mode of pronunciation.
    – Alex
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 2:49
  • That's not a good summary of r Feinsteins position, nor is that a reasonable conclusion from r Soloveitchiks story. Rjbs would tell you to only say it once, not that that one time to not be careful. Rmf is based on the claim that every tradition believe they are accurate, but that's not actually the case which negates much of his logical reasoning. He's afaik the first person in history to claim that. Dozens of acharonim in fact bemoan that their pronunciation is imperfect.
    – Double AA
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 2:56
  • @DoubleAA To be careful within your own mode of pronunciation. Not to try to use other modes of pronunciation which you think might are more correct.
    – Alex
    Commented Sep 27, 2018 at 2:58
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While the other answers deal with the halachic question, I want to list the original pronunciations of some letters in Birkat Kohanim for reference:

כ was in the same part of the mouth as כּ, with a narrow space between the tongue and the roof.
ר was probably a trill like in Italian.
ד without dagesh was a voiced TH, like in the words "the" or "although".
ו was like W.
Be careful to pronounce א, not to skip it.
ח was made by squeezing the throat until the airway becomes narrow and then exhaling. It's a soft sound, not a rough sound.
(שׂ was originally pronounced by letting air around the sides of the tongue, not just over the tip. However, this pronunciation was lost so long ago that you can probably ignore it).

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    How do you know that about ש, and how is it said exactly?
    – MichoelR
    Commented Apr 26 at 18:56
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    "personal research" Thank you, but... Could you give a link to that information or even a quote, instead of a claim from authority? It would be more helpful.
    – MichoelR
    Commented May 1 at 19:52
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    Other Semitic languages, e.g. Aramaic, old (and modern) south Arabian dialects of Arabic, Canaanite, etc., had/have that sound for their version of the letter. Additionally, old Greek loanwords from Hebrew transliterate שׂ as λσ, or "LS", which makes sense if שׂ had the position of L and the sound of S. A proof that Sin was both clearly distinct from Samekh and also somewhat difficult to initially learn to pronounce, is in Shoftim י"ו passuk ו. Commented May 1 at 21:18
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    Excellent, thank you. What is the proof from that verse in Shoftim?
    – MichoelR
    Commented May 1 at 21:34
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    Actually, now that I see it again, that last argument doesn't make sense: even if, by that point, they were pronounced the same, it would have made perfect sense for those who wrote the Neviim to use ס to represent שׂ. Oops! Still, the other arguments hold. Commented May 1 at 21:45
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One may switch to a different Hebrew pronunciation whether they are Ashkenazi or Sepharadi as long as the pronunciation they are changing to is consistent. Yaskil Avdi, part 2 Orach Chaim 3; Yabia Omer, part 6, Orach Chaim 11; and Responsa Mishpitei Uziel (Orach Chaim:1).

However none of these responsa allow for one to create a new amalgamated Hebrew pronunciation that takes from different traditions. Therefore if one is concerned about making sure one pronounces in a way that follows all the rules brought down in the halakhot he should choose a pronunciation that follows all those rules. For example one is required if possible to distinguish between Alef and Ayin, Chet and Khaf, and Qof and Kaf. The distinguishing of the consonants is very important to the earliest sources on this issue. Of secondary importance is vowels, and the soft letters of of the BeGeD KeFet letters.

Every pronunciation of the Yemenite community satisfies the halakhic requirements, but there are differences in pronunciation especially when it comes to ג and ק.

The Iraqi tradition also satisfies this if one can learn from someone who has not lost the proper way of speaking.

Some Kurdish/Assyrian pronunciations also satisfy the halakhic requirements, and I learned this method.

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    "all the rules brought down in the halakhot" which rules are these?
    – Double AA
    Commented Sep 30, 2018 at 19:04
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This is an example of a chumra leading to a kula.

As the question asks,

What pronunciation should the Kohen give to each letter, if he wants to be strict in Halacha?

If you look in Shulchan Aruch Harav there, there are two positions about pronunciation. The "lenient" one is that if almost everyone in his place pronounces the letter in that "incorrect" manner, there is no cause for concern. The "stringent" one is that it matters regardless. The difference between the positions are whether the reason for concern is (for the "lenient") the distraction of the community that he pronounces the words in this manner, or (for the "stringent") the change in the implication of the words he is saying.

(Edit: Looking at Shulchan Aruch proper, we can tie the former reasoning to the Ta"z who speaks about it in the place where most can make the distinction, and the latter reasoning to the Magen Avraham who speaks about the change in meaning.)

If, as it being suggested, one adopts all sorts of historically accurate and precise pronunciations, which are weird and surprising to the community, then this would be a great cause for concern according to the reason for the "lenient" position. People would stare and point. The chumra here turns to a kula.

Therefore, I would say that one should not go overboard in looking for alternate pronunciations. The examples given were ayin and aleph, which are somewhat standard differences, and shin vs. sin. We need not, and should not, look to distinguish bet from bhet, or daled from dhaled. At most, maybe het from chaf. Nothing that would strike listeners as overly weird.

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  • Wrong "Shulchan Arukh"... Also he clearly says וכן כל כיוצא בהם and he clearly rules like the first side. In any event Daleth vs Dhaleth is way more subtle on the English speaking ear than Alef v Ayin. That's why the lentition happens after all.
    – Double AA
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 21:12
  • right, but what is keyotzei bahen. shin vs. samech is a good example, from the perspective of one who distinguishes between aleph and ayin. Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 21:23
  • and chet vs. heh, rather than chet vs. chaf. Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 21:24
  • As far as I can tell you're just calling some distinctions good and some bad with no apparent rhyme or reason.
    – Double AA
    Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 21:29
  • but good point about "wrong shulchan aruch". It seems arbitrary because we are coming from different places, I think. Historically, within the standard Ashkenazic inventory, across multiple countries, certain rather standard pronunciations have ruled. Meanwhile, sin vs shin or chet vs. heh seems either like an individual issue of pronunciation (often from lack of Jewish background) or a pronunciation localized to one particular country. Commented Oct 30, 2018 at 21:32

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