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Let's say that someone finds some historical evidence that a particular system of pronunciations, whether it be currently extant or not, is the one which Klal Yisrael used at the time of Kabalas HaTorah. Let's further assume that this evidence is absolutely indisputable and everyone from all sects of Judaism are able to agree on its accuracy.1

Would we all have to change our pronunciations accordingly? For instance, if the evidence supports, say, the Yemenite tradition, will we all have to begin saying Berachos and leining and whatnot with that tradition? Or does the minhag that has been accepted by the various communities override any evidence to the contrary? Would it depend on the halacha it's being applied to (ex. Torah requirements like saying Shema would have to change, but you can say Rabbinic berachos however you want)?

1What would such evidence be? I don't know. You should be able to tell it's a theoretical question just from the fact that everyone is able to agree on its accuracy.

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כִּי-אָז אֶהְפֹּךְ אֶל-עַמִּים, שָׂפָה בְרוּרָה, לִקְרֹא כֻלָּם בְּשֵׁם יְהוָה, לְעָבְדוֹ שְׁכֶם אֶחָד. (צפניה ג:ט)‏
For then will I turn to the peoples a pure language, that they may all call upon the name of the LORD, to serve Him with one consent. (Zefania 3:9)

Yes, everyone should change.

See R' Yosef Eliyahu Henkin (Edut LeYisrael 60), Igrot Moshe 3:5, Yaskil Avdi OC 2:3, BeMareh HaBazaq 3:1 citing R' SZ Aurebach, Sefat Kohein by R' Ben Tzion HaKohen, Benei Vanim 2:1, R' Meir Mazuz and R' Yitzchak Barda in Yitzchak Yeranen 2:9, Mishpetei Uzziel 1:1, Arukh haShulchan OC 61:8, approbations by R' Seraya Diblitzky to aforementioned Sefat Kohein and Yitzchak Yeranen, R' Yosef Kappach (Sinai 70), R' Dov Lior 1 2. None of these sources address your exact formulation, but the implication from all of them is that were that pronunciation actually known, it would be objectively best and conclude any inter-communal debate and that there is value to working to fix mistakes that crept into different communities. Since the evidence you propose seemingly doesn't actually exist, these sources generally limit themselves to various specific cases, generally consonants, where they feel there is sufficient evidence already, if any, and recommend following your custom for all debatable cases. CYLOGrammarian.

Two caveats:

1) Unless the evidence also provides a magic way for everyone to change, it's just not going to happen. Changing completely takes years and years of hard monotonous work and requires significant mental acuity. Thus I say "should" because for most adults it won't be practical or worth the effort (like R' Yaakov Emden wrote "one should be careful to pronounce the letters distinctly, not like us Ashkenazim who pronounce ת like ס to our embarrassment; but one who didn't grow up with the distinctions from his youth it is impossible to bother him with the great burden to change, and his loss will be greater than his gain"). You shouldn't be surprised that you don't see everyone changing things now even with various pretty conclusive mistakes known. This is an old problem. The more realistic thing is to do is to properly train the schoolchildren (like R' YE Henkin writes that Ashkenazim in America should hire Sefardi school teachers to teach their young children the various guttural consonant sounds).

2) The target goal here need not be how Moshe spoke but may be how Hebrew was spoken with the codification of Tanakh (if those are different). Just as we follow the Halakha of the Sanhedrin/Talmud Bavli against Moshe, for Tanakh we follow the [western "Ben Asher"] Masorah (even against the Talmud), and the system of vowel marks we have is clearly reflective of an underlying system of consonant sounds (through phenomena like furtive patach, dagesh lene, or composite shva). If you throw out the Tiberian pronunciation, you throw out any tradition of how to read anything.


BeMareh HaBazaq 3:1

רוב רובם של פוסקי זמננו הסכימו שלכתחילה עדיף, שכל מתפלל יחזיק במנהג אבותיו...‏

יוצאים מכלל זה אותן האותיות שברור הוא, שהגייתו אותן משובשת (למשל חי"ת ועי"ן שהאשכנזים מבטאים אותן בדרך כלל ככ"ף ואל"ף)‏ שבהן עדיף לאמץ את ההגיה, שברור כי היא נכונה ‏ 4.‏
אמנם, לרוב בני-אדם מאד קשה להחליף באחרת את הגיית התפילה שבה הם רגילים להתפלל. ועל כן, אם נסיון החזרה להגיית אבותיו יגרום לו לתערובת הגיות ולתפילה מבולבלת, באמת עדיף להמשיך להתפלל בהגיה שאליה הוא רגיל, למרות שאינה הגיית אבותיו.‏

4 הגרי"א הענקין (שם) שו"ת ישכיל עבדי" (שם ובח"ד או"ח סי ג) וכן הורה הגרש"ז אויערבאך, אבל הדגיש שאין צריך להתאמץ בעניין. ועיי"ש בשו"ת ישכיל עבדי (ח"ב אות ז) שכתב "שאין בזה משום מוציא לעז על הראשונים ח"ו דהראשונים לא נהגו בזה מרצונם... שאם היתה להם היכולת בזמניהם לעמוד על אמיתות תורת הלשון בנימוקו וטעמו, ודאי שהיו שמחים כמוצא שלל רב לתקן מבטאם ולשונם...".‏
אבל יש לנקוט זהירות יתירה כאשר קובעים, שפרט מסוים בטעות יסודו, כי בהרבה פרטים ה"ידועים" כטעויות יש באמת חילוקי-דעות בין גדולי המדקדקים, ורק במקום שכולם מסכימים בוודאות, שפרט מסוים אינו מקורי, נראה שיש לסמוך עליהם; ושלא כמשמעות ה"אורח משפט" (שם עמ' ה,כג) "משפטי עוזיאל" (סוף התשובה שם ה) "אגרות משה" (או"ח ח"ג סי ה') ומנחת יצחק (ח"ד סי' מז). אבל על כל פנים ברור הוא שיש להתייעץ עם מדקדקים ובלשנים מקצועיים, שיראתם לשמים קודמת לחכמתם.‏

The vast majority of the Poskim of this generation agreed that ideally one who prays should stick to the pronunciation of his ancestors... The exception to this is those letters where it is clear that their pronunciation is faulty (such as ח and ע that Ashkenazim generally pronounce like כ and א) that for them it is best to strengthen the pronunciation that it is clear is correct.
However for most people it is very difficult to change their manner of pronunciation for another. Therefore, if attempting to change will lead to inconsistent and confused prayers, in truth it is preferable to continue to pray in the manner he is accustomed to, even if it isn't his ancestors'.
But one must be exceptionally careful when deciding what is a mistake, for many things "known" as mistakes are actually subject to disagreement among grammarians, and only in a place where everyone agrees it is a mistake can one rely on them. And it is clear that one should consult expert grammarians and linguists whose fear of Heaven precedes their knowledge.

  • There's plenty of stories of various rabbis changing various pronunciations, especially Ayin/Chet, but without their written reasoning it's hard to tell conclusively what they held. eg. first Lubvatcher Rebbe reading Torah with a guttural Ayin, RJBSoloveitchik having Zakhor read with guttural Ayin, R Tzvi Yehuda Kook (Techumin 3), and of course R Nathan Adler. – Double AA Jan 10 at 16:03
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I don't know if we "should" change, but we don't. The Talmud says that anyone who cannot sound the difference between an alef and an ayin may not lead services. [Meg. 24b] Rashi gives an example (ya-er in birkat kohanim) that would change the blessing into a curse if wrongly pronounced.

Sephardim can sound that difference, Ashkenazim can't. So Ashkenazim added to the Talmud teaching: "unless no one in the congregation can sound that difference".

Yet it would be easy enough to hire Sephardim to teach the kids how to sound that difference. Kids learn new sounds quite easily. But it's not being done.

  • Um...sources? Or your own thoughts? – DonielF Jan 13 at 21:23
  • "sources" for what? – Maurice Mizrahi Jan 13 at 21:26
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    Actually, I take that back. This doesn't answer the question at all. You're assuming that the Sefardi pronunciation is more accurate than the Ashkenazi one solely because they differentiate between Aleph and Ayin. That doesn't mean anything - maybe there's a different distinction that satisfies the Gemara that's different than the Sefardim that's the "correct" one. My question presupposed that we knew for certain which one is correct - and, as we don't, you can't bring a proof that we don't change from the fact that we haven't in practice. – DonielF Jan 13 at 21:28
  • It's also factually not correct that "it's not being done" and "it would be easy enough". In reality it's happening a bit and it's not easy. – Double AA Jan 13 at 21:30
  • Mizrahi Jews have a continuous presence in the Middle East since time immemorial. It makes sense that they would have preserved the correct pronunciation. – Maurice Mizrahi Jan 13 at 21:30

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