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Shabbat Parashat R'ei | 5769

Ask the Rabbi: Correcting the baal kriah when he reads

Question: In my shul, some people correct the ba’al kri’ah when he reads a kamatz katan like a regular (classic Ashkenazi) kamatz (as in the word, “nut”) instead of like a cholam (as in, “note”). Not all ba’alei kri’ah appreciate this, and one refuses on principle to read it as the “correctors” want. What are we to do?


Answer: If your shul has a rabbi, this public policy matter is his decision. Since not all shuls have a rabbi and not every rabbi wants to rule on matters of dikduk, we will present our opinion.

A major difference between classic Ashkenazic and Sephardic (or Israeli Zionist Ashkenazic, which is popular in Modern Orthodox day schools) pronunciation is that the former has different pronunciation for the different vowels, just as each has its own symbol. Sephardim pronounce kamatz and patach the same (as opposed to Teimanim), as well as tzeireh (two dots) and segol (three dots). Ashkenazim will argue that if the ba’alei mesorah (of Teveria) wanted us to read the vowels the same, they wouldn’t have made different symbols. Sephardim apparently accepted the Tiverian vowel symbols, which are representative of grammatical distinctions, but not the pronunciation. (Note that kamatz and tzeira are tenuot gedolot (long vowels), and patach and segol are tenuot ketanot (short vowels).)  Thus, Sephardim are consistent in pronouncing a kamatz katan not like their kamatz (which is like an Ashkenazi patach, as in, “not”) but as a cholam, despite the kamatz symbol. However, it is inconsistent with Ashkenazic grammatical logic to pronounce a kamatz katan like a cholam; rather it is to be pronounced like a kamatz. (The idea of a longer kamatz katan symbol than that of a regular kamatz was “instituted” only decades ago by some publishers as a convenience).

Why is there a kamatz katan if all kamatzes are the same? Grammatically, there are significant differences (for Ashkenazim, too) between the kamatzes. A kamatz katan comes primarily when the vowel “should have been” a cholam but, because the word is joined with additional words or syllables, the rules of pronunciation turn it into a tenuah ketana that is read like a kamatz. (Some ba’alei kri’ah make a somewhat shorter kamatz, with the same basic sound.) Since it is a tenuah ketana, if it is followed by a sheva, it is a sheva nach unless that letter contains a dagesh chazak. [Apologies to those who are confused.] It is illogical, though, according to the Ashkenazic approach, to change a cholam into a kamatz because it is hard to pronounce a cholam and yet pronounce it precisely as if it remained a cholam. Under similar circumstances, when a kamatz is shortened into a patach (e.g., yum (sea) turns into Yam Soof), Ashkenazim change the pronunciation.

Admittedly, there are at least some dikduk experts who agree with the correctors. However, many Ashkenazi ba’alei dikduk (and we would argue, the majority) agree with the stubborn ba’al kri’ah. More importantly is the matter of minhag. This respondent has been laining and listening to expert ba’alei kri’ah for several decades and has, of late, been asking older ba’alei kri’ah if they, before the last decade, ever heard a classic Ashkenazi ba’al kri’ah read a kamatz katan like a cholam. No one has! We would discourage either side in this debate from correcting the other, especially since the words’ meaning rarely changes as a result (a complicated discussion of its own). The correctors’ intentions are noble, as the “young experts” are convinced the new approach is correct, and perhaps, despite our arguments, it is. However, it borders on chutzpa to correct a system of reading which has been followed by their fathers’ and grandfathers’ generations (to which I can attest) and, likely, hundreds of years before. Those (whom we respect) who switch to the pronunciation experts consider most authentic should probably sound more like Teimanim.

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