A Super Complex & Confusing Issue

The debate about how to pronounce biblical Hebrew can be very confusing. Some people have strong opinions about this, but most have no idea how complex the issue is. We’ve both studied a lot of linguistics and Hebrew (Beth did a masters degree in linguistics, and is currently working on a PhD in Hebrew linguistics), so we’ll do our best to help you understand why historical Hebrew pronunciation is not so simple, and why we pronounce Hebrew like we do in our videos.

Massive Changes

In order to understand where we’re going with all this, let’s look at some examples from English.  In Old English, if you wanted to say How are you?, you’d say: Hú meaht þú? As you can see, this “English” looks like nothing we have today, is not pronounced even close to what we say now, and uses some different letters. That’s how much things have changed in only a thousand years. Even later English, which we call Middle English, would be impossible for you to understand and difficult to pronounce. Our point is that English has gone through massive changes over the last thousand years in script, grammar, pronunciation, and the meaning of words (you can read about a lot of those changes here). So imagine how much a language like Hebrew has changed over the course of 3-4 thousand years!  Yeah, more than we can imagine.

No Audio Recordings

It goes without saying that we have no audio recordings of how Abraham or Moses spoke. It’s simply not true that we can accurately reconstruct how they spoke thousands of years ago! We. Just. Don’t. Know. Sure, scholars and linguists can make educated guesses, but at the end of the day they are just that: guesses. We have more information about Hebrew pronunciation in later eras, such as when the Masoretic scribes invented the vowel pointing systems around 600-900 A.D., but the further back we go into the times of the Bible’s composition, the less we know. So, while we can only make educated guesses about what Old English sounded like 1,000 years ago, we actually know even less about what Hebrew sounded like when David read the Torah. We can only come up with theories because there are no recordings.

Change in Script

Hebrew, like English, had changes in script over the years. The Hebrew alphabet we see today looks nothing like it was originally written (see lots of charts and examples here). The alphabet with which Moses wrote Genesis is completely different from the alphabet Daniel would have used to write. So the Hebrew alphabet that we teach and that you see in printed Hebrew Bibles is not the most ancient form of the Hebrew alphabet. Rather, the Hebrew Bible was updated over the centuries to use the new alphabet, words, and pronunciations that were in constant flux.

Pronunciation and Grammar Changes

Going back to English, only four hundred years ago people were using “thee” and “thou,” which we don’t use at all today. Their accent would be extremely different from ours too!  Even just eighty years ago in old black-and-white movies we can hear an accent different from our own. In Australia, Great Britain, and Canada there are different accents and grammar than the American English that we speak. So which English is more “accurate” or “original” or “authentic”?  You might be tempted to say that the English of England is the most authentic, of course! Well, you’d be right… and wrong (read more here). And at the end of the day, there’s a lot of guesswork involved anyway.  Are you starting to see how complicated the question of “the most authentic” can be? Especially when we have no recordings of the original English?

MY Accent is the Right One!

We haven’t even talked about the complexity of accents in different regions yet! Just like there is a difference in accent between Texas and California, the ancient speakers of Hebrew had their own accents that could be different enough to get them killed!  Remember the story in Judges 12? The Israelite tribes of Ephraim and Gilead were fighting against each other, and apparently they had a major difference in the pronunciation of a certain letter:

The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, “Let me cross over,” the men of Gilead asked him, “Are you an Ephraimite?” If he replied, “No,” they said, “All right, say ‘Shibboleth.’” If he said, “Sibboleth,” because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.  

Now keep in mind that this wasn’t that long after the Exodus, and there were already big differences in pronunciation developing amongst the same tribes who weren’t even that far apart! Imagine how many changes Hebrew has undergone after thousands of years, two exiles in nations of other languages, and then the Diaspora all across Europe? Starting to get the point? No one can say that they know for sure what the “original” Hebrew sounded like. And then, even if we did somehow know what Abraham sounded like, should we follow his pronunciation or Moses’? Keep in mind that Moses came more than four hundred years after Abraham, and he grew up in an Egyptian household, which would have had a big impact on his pronunciation (similar to how Hispanic kids who grow up in the U.S. can have different accents from Mexican kids). 

No Vowels?

Hebrew was originally written with no vowels, which also complicates our reconstruction of how it would’ve originally sounded. Our most ancient Hebrew texts like the Dead Sea Scrolls do not include vowels. Vowel systems weren’t developed for Hebrew until about three thousand years after Abraham, between 600 and 900 A.D. We’ve got evidence from three different systems: “Babylonian,” “Palestinian,” and “Tiberian.” The Tiberian system (which later became the standard) has seven different vowel symbols—the ones we use today. The Babylonian system has six vowels and the Palestinian has five. If you’re interested in reading more about the Tiberian system of the Masoretes, there are two free volumes by world-class hebraist Geoffrey Khan: Volume 1, Volume 2.

Pronunciation Chaos

When the people of Israel were exiled to Babylon, where Aramaic and Akkadian were dominant, you can imagine how much of an impact that had on their language. This is why there was a strong presence of Aramaic in Judea centuries later in the time of Jesus (along with Hebrew and Greek; read more about all this here). Many people also ended up in Egypt after the exile, where they spoke a lot of Greek at the time. So there was a lot of cross-linguistic influence going on in the centuries leading up to Jesus.
After the Romans destroyed the second temple in 70 A.D. the Jews were spread throughout the world even more than before. That made the pronunciation of Hebrew go crazy all over the place. Suddenly you had the influence of many different languages causing Hebrew to morph (read all about the diaspora here). After many centuries, today three main traditional pronunciation systems of Hebrew have survived and are used in synagogues around the world: Ashkenazic, Sephardic, and Teimani. (The Samaritan community also preserves its own Hebrew pronunciation, which is very different from the Jewish traditions.) 

So which one of these three pronunciation systems is more “correct”? Once again, we have no recordings of what exactly they sounded like originally. Linguistically, there is absolutely no way of deciding which is best, but historical linguistics tells us that in all probability each has some elements of ancient Hebrew as well as some changes. So the question, “which one is more correct?” isn’t really a helpful or answerable question.

Modern Hebrew

The father of Modern Hebrew, Eliezer ben Yehudah adopted the Sephardic pronunciation of the vowels (interesting article about that here). But since European Jews had difficulty pronouncing the Hebrew consonants of the Sepharadim (the ע and ח in particular), they used the majority of Ashkenazic pronunciation of consonants instead, but kept the Sephardic vowels. So Modern Hebrew is a mix of traditions that are a mix of traditions that are a mix of other traditions that have evolved over millennia. Yikes. See how difficult it is to define “ancient Hebrew pronunciation”?

Below you can watch a video that illustrates just how complex this issue is even in modern traditions!

Teaching Biblical Hebrew Today

So when Hebrew scholars decide to teach biblical Hebrew today they don’t have a standardized pronunciation they can pick. This leads to three main options: 1) use Modern Hebrew pronunciation, 2) use one of the three traditions mentioned above, 3) or make up your own hybrid pronunciation. Let’s break down the pros and cons of each.

1. Use Modern Hebrew Pronunciation

This option is attractive because it’s used by millions of people today, and it keeps things simple: one pronunciation for both modern and ancient. But the disadvantage is that you might get criticized for not teaching biblical Hebrew because it sounds the same as modern. Also, modern pronunciation fails to distinguish between letters like ע and א or ח and כ, which can be confusing to the beginning student, especially if they are trying to learn vocabulary by listening. 

2. Use One of the Three Traditions

One advantage of these traditions is that it’s possible to find recordings of the Hebrew Bible using their pronunciation, since it has traditionally been the way Jews pronounce when reading the Bible, even if they normally speak Modern Hebrew (sort of like how some people prefer to read the KJV with “thee” and “thou” even though they would never talk like that in everyday life). So there’s also the advantage that they are historically accepted by many Jews to be “official” ways to pronounce the biblical text. Finally, you don’t have the disadvantages of Modern Hebrew mentioned above. But a drawback is that these traditions are still not exactly what people guess ancient Hebrew sounded like, they might have some sounds that are harder to pronounce for people from other countries, and they’re not consistent in their pronunciation of certain letter distinctions (Modern Hebrew is worse). For example, Sephardic pronunciation doesn’t distinguish between ד and דּ or ת and תּ, while it still distinguishes between ב and בּ etc. There is also a lack of certain vowel distinctions, which you can read about here.

3. Make up Your Own Hybrid Pronunciation

The advantage of this method is that you can adapt Hebrew to your own pronunciation limitations. For example, if you like to pronounce ר like the ‘r’ [ɹ] in American English, you can do that, and avoid reprogramming your mouth to reproduce a sound that’s foreign to you. A lot of professors in the U.S. do that. Another advantage is that you can mix in pronunciations that you are convinced are more historic and important. For example, many people choose to pronounce ו as a ‘w’ [w] instead of the ‘v’ [v] of modern and Sephardic Hebrew. (While we don’t know how Moses pronounced this letter, we have good evidence from the Septuagint that it was pronounced as [w] around the 3rd century B.C.)  So you might have several professors in the same seminary who teach radically different pronunciations, depending on what they’ve opted for! But so far in our experience we have never seen a professor of Hebrew who uses a hybrid pronunciation that is entirely consistent. For example, one professor we know and love uses [w] for ו, but usually pronounces ע and א the same. While he distinguishes between ת and תּ (which modern and sephardic don’t), he chooses not to distinguish between כּ and כ. Professors like him who make up their own pronunciation systems argue that, since biblical Hebrew is technically a dead language and impossible to reconstruct with pinpoint accuracy, there’s no point in insisting on one pronunciation system over another. That leaves them free to teach in a way they feel most comfortable and convenient.  For them the important thing is to learn how to read and study it silently, not read aloud and speak it, since there are no native speakers of biblical Hebrew anymore. Obviously, the disadvantage is that people can accuse this option of being inconsistent and without representation in any of the major traditions. Also, learning with a hybrid system may do an inferior job preparing someone to learn Modern Hebrew.

What We Chose and Why

For Aleph with Beth we chose to use Sephardic pronunciation for five main reasons. 
  1. It’s an excellent pedagogical pronunciation that distinguishes certain letters more than Modern Hebrew.
  2. It has a strong, long-standing tradition as an official way to read the Hebrew Bible, and was the preferred pronunciation of Ben Yehudah, the reviver of the Hebrew language. And to us it sounds more classical/ancient.
  3. It’s not so far removed from Modern Hebrew pronunciation that people will be totally lost when they encounter Modern Hebrew.
  4. It doesn’t have too many difficult sounds. It strikes a nice middle ground in terms of foreignness and approachableness.
  5. One of the most important reasons is that there is a free, clear, useful, public domain recording of the entire Hebrew Bible in Sephardic pronunciation by Abraham Shmuelof, which is also available as an awesome, free app. Since we are passionate about getting Hebrew to people for free, we want to make it compatible with other free resources, so that students are not confused by different accents and pronunciation when they begin consuming more content. 
If we chose to reconstruct a totally consistent, speculative pronunciation from some point in the ancient past, we would run up against several disadvantages:
  1. Our students would be the vast minority in the Hebrew community. So they’d have more trouble talking about the language in academic circles.
  2. Our students might be more overwhelmed by the quantity of difficult sounds they would have to master. This has not been necessary to teach and speak Hebrew for centuries, and we don’t see it as a necessary burden to add to students now.
  3. There would be no other resources available for the students besides our own in our reconstructed pronunciation.
  4. Although we might be able to boast that we have a more “historically accurate” system, we would have to admit like everyone else that we really only have educated guesses. So we would end up going through a lot of trouble for something that is far from certain.

What about the Divine Name?

While we strive to be fully consistent with the Sephardic pronunciation system, we fully recognize that we are inconsistent in our pronunciation of the divine name יהוה. We do this for two main reasons:

  1. The pronunciation that has gained widest acceptance in the scholarly community is “Yahweh.” So we want students to be used to hearing the name as they will be reading it in commentaries, etc.
  2. The divine name is special, so we feel justified in giving it a special pronunciation that uses the historic [w] sound for the vav.

For those who are wondering why we pronounce Yahweh instead of saying adonai, you can read our exhaustive treatment of the subject. Andrew has also done an 11 part podcast series that discusses this very issue. You can listen to the first episode here. He’s also written a more abbreviated series of articles on the topic here. Many people unfortunately are misinformed about what Jews think about pronouncing and using God’s name. The common misconception is that all Jews are deeply offended when someone pronounces God’s name. This is false. Many Jews simply don’t care, while many actively pronounce God’s name (see an example here).  It’s also important to recognize that an ancient contingent of Karaite Jews condemned the man-made traditions of avoiding the pronunciation of God’s name, saying that those who do so should be considered unbelievers.

In conclusion, we hope that all this has helped you see that we’ve thought through the matter carefully, and we take it seriously. We also hope that anyone who reads this, and has strong opinions that our pronunciation is unhelpful or unrealistic, will respect our decision and be willing to admit that all opinions about Hebrew pronunciation are based on a lot of speculation. This is a topic where we all must be humble, respectful, and charitable towards one another. Shalom!