Why did my great grandfather pray in Sephardic hebrew?
November 4, 2009 1:04 PM   Subscribe

Why did my Ashkenazi great grandfather Daven in Sephardic Hebrew?

My great grandfather was a fair-skinned, blue eyed Ashkenazi Jew from Odessa. Yet, he prayed using the Sephardic pronunciation of Hebrew and I'm not sure why. Any ideas?
posted by ranunculus to Religion & Philosophy (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Modern Hebrew was developed by Europeans around in the mid 19th century and was based on Sephardic Hebrew, as that was the pronounciation used in Israel at the time. If your grandfather was raised in an environment where the revised Hebrew language was taught as a spoken, living language, he would have been taught the sephardic pronunciation.
posted by Astro Zombie at 1:14 PM on November 4, 2009

Where I'm from (Sarajevo) there were a lot of Sephardic Jews who came there back during the times of the Inquisition. Many migrated around Eastern Europe, and many would have been found their way to Odessa.

Here's a quote from the oddly named "Evil Places" website:

From the 19th Century, a number of wealthy Sephardic Jewish families migrated to Odessa boosting the cities historic number of Jewish families that had continued to live in the area since the time of the Sarmatian Khazars.
During 1941-1944 the city was under the control of the Catholic Fascist regime of Romanian King Carol II. While some citizens were shipped to the Vatican human sacrifice camps in Poland and Russia, the vast majority of Sephardic and native Jews in the city remained unharmed, including their property --one of the greatest historic anomalies of World War II.

The obvious answer then would be (assuming he isn't actually Sephardic) that he had a teacher / rabbi / set of influences who were Sephardic Jews back in Odessa.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 1:16 PM on November 4, 2009

I believe that Standard Hebrew took its pronunciation more from Sephardic than Ashkenazi pronunciation. Did your great grandfather have much to do with Israel, or the rebirth of Modern Hebrew?
posted by jeather at 1:17 PM on November 4, 2009

Could be any number of things. Did he grow up in an oppressive atmosphere? Perhaps that prayer book was the only one available. Perhaps his mother was raised with the Sephardic tradition and taught it to him, and it's what felt most comfortable to him. Perhaps he liked his maror with dates.

From my reading of Chaim Potok, I'm under the impression that during the time that some of Potok's stories took place (U.S., 1940s), Ashkenazi dialect speakers were considered a little more old-fashioned, behind the times, not with it, than the Sephardi speakers, who were more "cool". Just speculation on my part.
posted by Melismata at 1:18 PM on November 4, 2009

From the siddur -Tehillas Hashem
"According to the Kabbalah. there are in fact twelve nuschaot - one for each Tribe of Israel, in accordance with the unique and distinct spiritual quality of each. Similarly, there are in heaven twelve gates, corresponding to the Twelve Tribes. The prayers of each, teaches the Kabbalah can ascend to heaven only through its particular gate by means of its specific nusach.
This will explain the Nusach Sefarad and perhaps shed some more light on the subject.
posted by watercarrier at 2:39 PM on November 4, 2009

To respond to some of the above:

My great grandfather only prayed in Sephardi Hebrew and otherwise spoke Yiddish and Russian. Also, he had nothing to do with modern Israel and Zionism or any trends (Potok's or otherwise) regarding the coolness of one Hebraic pronunciation over the other.
posted by ranunculus at 2:48 PM on November 4, 2009

In addendum to what I wrote above, ranunculus - Nusach Sefarad is the 13th Gate of Prayer. See the above wiki entry.
posted by watercarrier at 2:51 PM on November 4, 2009

The Nusach Sefarad seems the likely reason but I'm still a bit confused as he was not a Hasid. Yes, he was orthodox, perhaps even considered ultra orthodox, but he despised the Hasidic movement with a gusto that followed him from Odessa to Brooklyn. So, I wonder, did non-Hasidic Ashkenazim follow the the Nusach Sefarad?
posted by ranunculus at 3:00 PM on November 4, 2009

Because, kabbalistically it is the most potent channel through which to daven - especially if one is not sure of their specific Tribal affiliation. In other words, using the Nusach Sefarad in prayer, with the fervor and intent, assures one of their prayers reaching their destination.
posted by watercarrier at 3:06 PM on November 4, 2009

It can be an affectation. I went to an Ashkenaz yeshiva (in the US, in the 80s, student body ranging from modern orthodox to orthodox) and though we almost all had Yiddish-speaking grandparents or great grandparents some kids preferred to use Sephardic pronunciation. Our teachers, who were mostly Haredi, weren't consistent this way either.

I know it's a different time and place, but it's an example of people just doing what they prefer.
posted by birdie birdington at 7:39 PM on November 4, 2009

Seconding Nusach Sfarad. Nearly all Hasidic branches incorporated Sefardic liturgy into their prayer practices for Kabbalistic reasons, as the Wiki article mentions. This included aspects of pronunciation - the hard taf chasser [ת] for one. This predated modern Zionism, and it's still around today. Walk into a Chabad (they're Lubavitcher Hasidim, after all) and take a look at the siddur they use. It's full of Sefardi-isms.

The nusach sfard differs from fully Sefardic practices in the Shemona-Esrei where, I believe, the actual text still reflects the Ashkenazi traditions.

Your grandfather likely grew up praying at a Hasidic shteibl and kept the tradition. Or he may have had Hasidic roots himself. But it's safe to say it wasn't an affectation or a reflection of political preference. That's not how these things usually work.
posted by awenner at 11:40 PM on November 4, 2009

Some of the posters are confusing Nusach Sefard (an arrangement of the daily prayers common among Hasidic groups) with Sephardi pronunciation. They are not at all related; most people who use a Nusach Sefarad prayerbook will read it with an Ashkenazi pronunciation. Sephardim themselves use a variety of different prayer books.

I think the poster meant to ask why his grandfather read or spoke Hebrew with a Modern Hebrew pronunciation: why he said shaBAT instead of SHAboss. Since he wasn't associated with Zionist or Israeli groups himself he was probably taught by people who adopted this as a sort of political signifier or in the belief that it was more authentic.
posted by Joe in Australia at 2:27 AM on November 5, 2009

Main article: Nusach

Nusach (properly nósach) primarily means "text" or "version", in other words the correct wording of a religious text. Thus the nusach tefillah is the text of the prayers, either generally or as used by a particular community. In common use nusach has come to signify the entire liturgical tradition of the community, including the musical rendition. It is narrower than minhag, which can refer to custom in any field, not necessarily that of communal prayer.

Both nusach and minhag can thus be used for liturgic rite or liturgic tradition, though sometimes a nusach appears to be a subdivision of a minhag or vice versa; see different Jewish rites and popular siddurim under Siddur. In general one must pray according to one's "nusach of origin", unless one has formally joined a different community and accepted its minhag. (Perisha rules that if one abandons a nusach that has been accepted universally by the wider Jewish community, his prayer is disqualified and must be repeated using the accepted nusach: Arba'ah Turim, Orach Chayim, 120 ad loc).

The main segments of traditional Judaism, as differentiated by nusach (broadly and narrowly), are:

* Minhag Sefarad: in general refers to the various Sephardi liturgies, but also to obligation/permissibility of Kabbalistic elements within the rite. Versions of this are:
o The rite of the Spanish and Portuguese Jews
o Nusach Morocco (Moroccan rite: there are differences between the Spanish-Moroccan and the Arab-Moroccan customs)
o Nusach ha-Chida (The Chida's rite, named after Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai: often used by North African Jews)
o Nusach Livorno (Sephardic rite from nineteenth-century editions printed in Italy, often used by North African Jews)
* Minhag Edot hamizrach: often used to mean the Baghdadi rite, is more or less influenced by the Sephardi minhag.
* Nusach Teiman (see Yemenite Jews): can be subdivided into:
o Minhag Baladi (original Yemenite rite)
o Minhag Shami (influenced by Sephardic rite)
* Minhag Italiani and Minhag Benè Romì, see Italian Jews
* Minhag Romania, the rite of the Romaniotes, that is the original Greek Jewish community as distinct from the Sephardim
* Nusach Ashkenaz: the general Ashkenazi rite of non-Chasidim. Can be subdivided into:
o Minhag Ashkenaz (German rite)
o Minhag Polin/Lita (Polish/Lithuanian/Prague rite)
* Nusach Sefard or Nusach Ari (Ashkenazi Chasidic rite, heavily influenced by the teachings of Sephardi Kabbalists)

minhag on wiki
posted by watercarrier at 5:16 AM on November 5, 2009

Sephardi and Mizrachi Nuschaot

Main article: Sephardic Judaism

There is not one generally recognized uniform nusach for Sephardi and Mizrahi Jews. Instead, Sephardim and Mizrahim follow several slightly different but closely related nuschaot.

The nearest approach to a standard text is found in the siddurim printed in Livorno from the 1840s until the early 20th century. These (and later versions printed in Vienna) were widely used throughout the Sephardic and Mizrahi world. Another popular variant was the text known as Nusach ha-Hida, named after Rabbi Chaim Joseph David Azulai. Both these versions were particularly influential in Greece, Turkey and North Africa. However, most communities also had unwritten customs which they would observe, rather than following the printed siddurim exactly: it is easy, from the printed materials, to get the impression that usage in the Ottoman Empire around 1900 was more uniform than it really was.

From Wapedia - Wiki: Nusach

posted by watercarrier at 5:21 AM on November 5, 2009

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