Ashkenazi Hebrew

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Ashkenazi Hebrew (Hebrew: הגייה אשכנזית‎) (Yiddish: אַשכּנזישע הבֿרה‎), is the pronunciation system for Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew favored for liturgical use by Ashkenazi Jewish practice. It survives today as a separate religious dialect within some parts of the Haredi community, even alongside Modern Hebrew in Israel, although its use amongst non-Israeli Ashkenazi Jews has greatly diminished.


As it is used parallel with Modern Hebrew, its phonological differences are clearly recognized:

  • א ʾālep̄ and ע ʿáyin are completely silent at all times in most forms of Ashkenazi Hebrew, where they are frequently both pronounced as a glottal stop in modern Hebrew.[1] (Compare Yisroeil (Lithuanian) or Yisruayl (Polish-Galician) vs. Yisra'el (Modern).) A special case is Dutch (and historically also Frankfurt am Main) Hebrew, where ‘ayin is traditionally pronounced as a velar nasal ([ŋ]), probably under the influence of the local Spanish and Portuguese Jews.
  • ת ṯāw is pronounced [s] in Ashkenazi Hebrew, unless there is a Dagesh in the ת, where it would be pronounced [t]. It is always pronounced [t] in Modern Hebrew. (Compare Shabbos vs. Shabbat, or Es vs. Et.)
  • אֵ ṣērê /e/ is pronounced [ej] (or [aj]) in Ashkenazi Hebrew, where it would be pronounced [e] in Sephardi Hebrew; Modern Hebrew varies between the two pronunciations. (Compare Omein (Lithuanian) or Umayn (Polish-Galician) vs. Amen (Modern Hebrew).)
  • אָ qāmeṣ gāḏôl /a/ is pronounced [ɔ] (occasionally [u]) in Ashkenazi Hebrew, where it is [a] in Modern Hebrew. (Compare Dovid (Lithuanian) or Duvid (Polish-Galician) vs. David[DAH-VEED].)
  • אֹ ḥôlam /o/ is, depending on the subdialect, pronounced [au], [ou], [øi], [oi], or [ei] in Ashkenazi Hebrew, where it is [o] in Modern Hebrew. (Compare Moishe vs. Moshe.)
  • Unstressed אֻ qubbuṣ or וּ shuruq /u/ occasionally becomes [i] in Ashkenazi Hebrew, when in all other forms they are pronounced [u] (Kíddish vs. kiddúsh.) In the Hungarian and Oberlander dialects, the pronunciation is invariably [y].
  • There is some confusion (in both directions) between final אֵ tzere /e/ and אִ hiriq /i/ (Tishrei vs. Tishri; Sifri vs. Sifre.)
  • In earlier centuries the stress in Ashkenazi Hebrew usually fell on the penultimate, instead of the last syllable as in most other dialects. In the 17th and 18th centuries there was a campaign by Ashkenazi rabbis such as Jacob Emden and the Vilna Gaon to encourage final stress in accordance with the stress marks printed in the Bible. This was successful as concerned liturgical use such as reading from the Torah. However, the older stress pattern persists in the pronunciation of Hebrew words in Yiddish and in early modern poetry by Hayim Nahman Bialik and Shaul Tchernichovsky.


There are considerable differences between the Lithuanian, Polish (also known as Galician), Hungarian, and German pronunciations. These are most obvious in the treatment of ḥôlam: the German pronunciation is [au], the Galician/Polish pronunciation is [oi], the Hungarian is [øi], and the Lithuanian pronunciation is [ei]. Other variants exist: for example in the United Kingdom, the original tradition was to use the German pronunciation, but over the years the sound of ḥolam has tended to merge with the local pronunciation of long "o" as in "toe", and some communities have abandoned Ashkenazi Hebrew altogether in favour of the Israeli-Sephardi pronunciation. (Haredi communities in England usually use the Galician/Polish [oi]).

Another feature that distinguishes the Lithuanian pronunciation, traditionally used in an area encompassing modern day's Baltic States, Belarus and parts of Ukraine and Russia, is its merger of sin and shin, both of which are pronounced as [s]. This is similar to the pronunciation of the Ephraimites recorded in Judges 12, which is the source of the term Shibboleth.


There have been several theories on the origins of the different Hebrew reading traditions. The basic cleavage is between those who believe that the differences arose in medieval Europe and those who believe that they reflect older differences between the pronunciations of Hebrew and Aramaic current in different parts of the Fertile Crescent, that is to say Judaea, Galilee, Syria, northern Mesopotamia and Babylonia proper.

Within the first group of theories, Zimmels believed that the Ashkenazi pronunciation arose in late medieval Europe and that the pronunciation prevailing in France and Germany in the time of the Tosafists was similar to the Sephardic. His evidence for this was the fact that Asher ben Jehiel, a German who became chief rabbi of Toledo, never refers to any difference of pronunciation, though he is normally very sensitive to differences between the two communities.[citation needed]

The difficulty with the second group of theories is that we do not know for certain what the pronunciations of these countries actually were and how far they differed. Since the expulsion of the Jews from Spain in 1492, if not before, the Sephardic pronunciation of the vowels became standard in all these countries, ironing out any differences that previously existed.[2] This makes it harder to adjudicate between the different theories on the relationship between today's pronunciation systems and those of ancient times.

Leopold Zunz believed that the Ashkenazi pronunciation was derived from that of Palestine in Geonic times (7th–11th centuries CE), while the Sephardi pronunciation was derived from that of Babylonia. This theory was supported by the fact that, in some respects, Ashkenazi Hebrew resembles the western dialect of Syriac while Sephardi Hebrew resembles the eastern, e.g. Eastern Syriac Peshitta as against Western Syriac Peshito. Ashkenazi Hebrew in its written form also resembles Palestinian Hebrew in its tendency to male spellings (see Mater lectionis).

Others, including Abraham Zevi Idelsohn, believed that the distinction is more ancient, and represents the distinction between the Judaean and Galilean dialects of Hebrew in Mishnaic times (1st−2nd centuries CE), with the Sephardi pronunciation being derived from Judaean and the Ashkenazi from Galilean. This theory is supported by the fact that Ashkenazi Hebrew, like Samaritan Hebrew, has lost the distinct sounds of many of the guttural letters, while there are references in the Talmud to this as a feature of Galilean speech. Idelsohn ascribes the Ashkenazi (and, on his theory, Galilean) pronunciation of kamatz gadol as [o] to the influence of Phoenician: see Canaanite shift.

In the time of the Masoretes (8th−10th centuries CE) there were three distinct notations for denoting vowels and other details of pronunciation in Biblical and liturgical texts. One was the Babylonian; another was the Palestinian; the third was the Tiberian, which eventually superseded the other two and is still in use today.

In certain respects the Ashkenazi pronunciation provides a better fit to the Tiberian notation than do the other reading traditions: for example, it distinguishes between pataḥ and qamaṣ gadol, and between segol and șere, and does not make the qamaṣ symbol do duty for two different sounds. A distinctive variant of the Tiberian notation was in fact used by Ashkenazim, before being superseded by the standard version. On the other hand it is unlikely that in the Tiberian system ṣere and olam were diphthongs as they are in Ashkenazi Hebrew: they are more likely to have been closed vowels. (On the other hand, these vowels sometimes correspond to diphthongs in Arabic.) For more details of the reconstructed pronunciation underlying the Tiberian notation, see Tiberian vocalization.

In other respects Ashkenazi Hebrew resembles Yemenite Hebrew, which appears to be related to the Babylonian notation. Shared features include the pronunciation of qamaṣ gadol as [o] and, in the case of Lithuanian Jews and some but not all Yemenites, of ḥolam as [eː]. These features are not found in the Hebrew pronunciation of today's Iraqi Jews, which as explained has been overlaid by Sephardi Hebrew, but are found in some of the Judeo-Aramaic languages of northern Iraq and in the Syriac language.

Another possibility is that these features were found within an isogloss that included Syria, northern Palestine and northern Mesopotamia but not Judaea or Babylonia proper, and did not coincide exactly with the use of any one notation (and the ḥolam = [eː] shift may have applied to a more restricted area than the qamaṣ gadol = [o] shift). The Yemenite pronunciation would, on this hypothesis, be derived from that of northern Mesopotamia and the Ashkenazi pronunciation from that of northern Palestine. The Sephardic pronunciation appears to be derived from that of Judaea, as evidenced by its fit to the Palestinian notation.

According to the Maharal of Prague[3] and many other scholars,[4] including Rabbi Yaakov Emden, one of the leading Hebrew grammarians of all time,[5] Ashkenazi Hebrew is the most accurate pronunciation of Hebrew preserved. The reason given is that it preserves distinctions, such as between pataḥ and qamaṣ, which are not reflected in the Sephardic and other dialects. Only in the Ashkenazi pronunciation are all seven "nequdot" (the Hebrew vowels of the ancient Tiberian tradition) distinguished: Yemenite, which comes close, does not distinguish pataḥ from segol.

On the other hand, this view does not appear to be supported by any non-Ashkenazi scholars. Some scholars argue in favour of the greater authenticity of the Yemenite pronunciation on the ground that it is the only Hebrew pronunciation to distinguish all the consonants.

Influence on modern Hebrew

Although Modern Hebrew was intended to be based on Mishnaic spelling and Sephardi Hebrew pronunciation, the language as spoken in Israel has adapted to Ashkenazi Hebrew phonology in the following respects:

  • the elimination of pharyngeal articulation in the letters Ḥeth and ʿAyin
  • the conversion of resh from an alveolar flap to a voiced uvular fricative or trill (see Guttural R)
  • the pronunciation of tzere as [eɪ] in some contexts (sifrey and teysha instead of Sephardic sifré and tésha' )
  • the elimination of vocal sheva (zman instead of Sephardic zĕman)
  • some of the letter names (yud and kuf instead of Sephardic yod and qof)
  • in popular speech, penultimate stress in proper names (Dvóra instead of Dĕvorá; Yehúda instead of Yehudá)
  • similarly, penultimate stress in nouns or verbs with a second or third person plural suffix (katávtem [you wrote] instead of kĕtavtém; shalom aléykhem [greeting] instead of shalom alekhém).[6]


  1. The practice of omitting the guttural letters "ayin" and "chet" is very ancient and goes back to Talmudic times (see Sefer He'aruch entry "shudah" as well as encyclopedia Otzar Yisrael entry "mivtah"), when it appears to have been a feature of Galilean pronunciation.
  2. To a lesser extent the same is true for the consonants, though the Jews of Iraq retain /w/ for vav and /θ/ for tav raphe, and the Jews of Arabic countries generally retain emphatic and guttural consonant sounds: see Mizrahi Hebrew.
  3. Tiferet Yisrael, article 66.
  4. Listed in the encyclopedia Otsar Yisrael under the entry "mivtah".
  5. Mor Uqṣi'ah, chap. 53.
  6. These pronunciations may have originated in learners' mistakes formed on the analogy of other suffixed forms (katávta, alénu), rather than being examples of residual Ashkenazi influence.

See also


  • Ilan Eldar, Masoret ha-qeri'ah ha-kedem-Ashkenazit (The Hebrew Language Tradition in Medieval Ashkenaz), Edah ve-Lashon series vols. 4 and 5, Jerusalem (Hebrew)
  • A. Z. Idelsohn, Die gegenwärtige Aussprache des Hebräischen bei Juden und Samaritanern, in: Monatsschrift für Geschichte und Wissenschaft des Judentums 57 (N.F.: 21), 1913, p. 527–645 and 698–721.
  • Dovid Katz, The Phonology of Ashkenazic, in: Lewis Glinert (ed.), Hebrew in Ashkenaz. A Language in Exile, Oxford-New York 1993, p. 46–87. ISBN 0-19-506222-1.
  • S. Morag, Pronunciations of Hebrew, Encyclopaedia Judaica XIII, p. 1120–1145.
  • Sáenz-Badillos, Angel (1996). A History of the Hebrew Language. trans. John Elwolde. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-55634-1.<templatestyles src="Module:Citation/CS1/styles.css"></templatestyles>
  • Werner Weinberg, Lexikon zum religiösen Wortschatz und Brauchtum der deutschen Juden, ed. by Walter Röll, Stuttgart–Bad Cannstatt 1994. ISBN 3-7728-1621-5.
  • Zimmels, Ashkenazim and Sephardim: their Relations, Differences, and Problems As Reflected in the Rabbinical Responsa : London 1958 (since reprinted). ISBN 0-88125-491-6.