Learning the Parsha

We are in the midst of our barmitzvah preparations, as you know. One of my readers sent me the following letter, hoping I could help, or that you, my wonderful readers, could advise her in any way.

Dear HSM,

Over the years, I have been a “wandering Jew” seeking the best Jewish education for my kids. At first I enrolled them in a Jewish day school, but I found the teachers and curriculum were not able to provide the best support for kids with ADHD. So I moved them to public school, which was the best thing I could have done for their secular education. However, we then found ourselves wandering between different conservative  synagogue-based Jewish schools. I was repeatedly frustrated that 1 or 2 rowdy kids could disrupt their classes so badly that no one in the class learned anything. Finally, over two years ago I found that the best solution was simply to enroll my kids with a private tutor for Hebrew education.

The private tutor has been an expensive commitment, plus at the time I was going through a divorce and launching a new career. Hence I joined a small congregation, that is unaffiliated and runs services that are very reform-ish. It is not a good fit because we are more Conservative and steadily becoming more Conservadox, but it was a bit of a marriage of convenience.

Now my son is in the countdown for his Bar Mitzvah this summer. We started studying with the Cantor of our congregation so that he can learn trope. I was under the impression that my son reads Hebrew fluently for a kid his age, but the first time he read the parsha for this Cantor, the Cantor said he made frequent vowel mistakes. So we went back to the tutor to review this.

Lo and behold, I have just learned for the first time in my life that there is more than one convention for interpreting Hebrew vowels! So much for Hebrew being a phonetic language. When a letter has two dots below it, side by side, it can be read as either “eh” (as in red) or “ey” (as in grey). For years and years, my son has been reading it as “eh”, whereas this Cantor reads it as “ey”.

First of all, can anyone explain the origin of these two systems? It doesn’t seem to be a breakdown of Ashkenazi vs Sephardic… or is it?

My bigger concern is whether this Cantor is going to pressure my boy to change the way he reads Hebrew and how to handle that…. My tutor and I think it is more important to spend the next 6 months learning trope than to try to change the way he has read Hebrew for years. Especially since the way he is reading is not “wrong”, it is just a different convention, a convention used by many big synagogues. I am hoping that this Cantor does not have a hissy fit over the phonetics, but Cantors tend to be that way.

Do you or your readers have any advice for me?

Concerned Mom in MD


5 responses to “Learning the Parsha

  1. Pronouncing that vowel as “eh” is how it is said it conversational/modern hebrew. So for example the word for “yes” is pronounced kehn, not kayn.

  2. don’t worry about the pronounciation. a “soft” ay or a hard eh sounds almost the same. leave the kid alone and let him learn the trop.

    and this is coming from a person who is very careful about hebrew pronounciation. i say “rofay” and NOT “rofeh”, since it is certainly more correct. but, today, “rofeh” is acceptable.

    and, btw, the name of the vowel is tzAYrAY and NOT tzEHrEH…..that should tell you something.

  3. I learned the Ashkenazic pronunciation in Hebrew School and still use it for prayer, but when speaking Hebrew I adapted to the Sephardic/modern pronunciation (e.g., kamatz is pronounced “ah,” the same as patach, in modern Hebrew, rather than “aw”). The tzeyrei (pronounced “ay”) being pronounced like the segol (“eh”) is relatively new for me, although I think I remember some people pronouncing it that way. I would still pronounce the word “keyn.”

    Frankly, I think the cantor should let the boy read the Hebrew the way he’s familiar with it and concentrate on having the boy master the trope.

  4. For those of you who say “ey”, do you also pronounce a tav without a dagesh “/s/” (Shabbas, emes, etc.)?

  5. This short discussion that summarizes the opinions of poskim with respect to pronunciation is excellent. Heads up: it’s a PDF. http://www.bknw.org/library/articles/miscellaneous/Proper%20Pronunciation%20of%20Hebrew.pdf

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