About the ancient pronunciation of tzere.

By Chaim Sunitsky.

It is well known that there is a great difference in pronunciation of tzere between different communities. Sephardi and eastern Jews generally pronounce this vowel as e sound in the word pet. Lithuanian and German Jews pronounce it as ei and Hungarian[1] and Romanian Jews pronounce it as i in the word like. Interestingly, when a letter yod follows a consonant with tzere the pronunciation does not change, and Sephardim still pronounce it as e without pronouncing yod[2]. In this article I will argue that in times of Hazal tzere was pronounced as Sephardim do.

The Talmud enumerates the cases in Shma where the last letter of one word is the same as the first letter of the next word, and one needs to make a small pause so as not to pronounce them as one letter. There are altogether 8 such cases all enumerated in the Talmud (Berachot 15b):

However there is one more case Bney Yisrael in the third paragraph that is not mentioned in the Gemora. Indeed in many Ashkenazi siddurim this case is also marked by a vertical bar to show that one needs to make a small pause in-between. It seems unlikely that the Talmud would mention eight out of nine cases and skip just one. However according to Sephardi pronunciation there is no need for this as the word is read as Bne without the yod sound at the end[3].

It seems that in the times of the Talmud the pronunciation of tzere was without the yod sound[4].

[1] Some of the halachic consequences of this is in writing of Gittin, see for instance Minchat Yitzchak (10:135 and 9:147) regarding the word lake. For example a Hassidik Bet Din would not write Lakewood the same way as a Lithuanian one although bedieved once one spelling is accepted R. Weiss is hesitant to change it for Hungarian Hassidim

[2] some Modern Orthodox Jews who took the Israeli accent actually pronounce tzere as e but tzere with yod as ei but this is not consistent

[3] GRA on tikunim (pg. 38d in his edition) and others try to also prove from the same braita that the letters without the soft dagesh were pronounced the same way as with dagesh, otherwise there would not be any need to make a pause between the words Esev and Besadcha, Hakanaf and Petil. Some argue against this proof (e.g. Yabia Omer Orach Chaim 6:11). Modern scholarship seems to indicate that actually there were different pronunciations in different communities at different times; professor Yehuda Libes (' " ": ) argues that at some point through Greek influence this dagesh was pronounced as an extra h sound and that explains the Reish with dagesh mentioned in Sefer Yetzira.

[4] Another simple argument might be the fact that Greek transliteration of Amen is not Amein, see also Yaskil Avdi 2:3 who uses a similar proof against the Hungarian accent: