Saf, Taf, Loshon HaKodesh, and Pronunciation of the Prayer for the State of Israel
By Alan Krinsky
In my Modern Orthodox and Religious Zionist synagogue, when we sing and recite Avinu ShebaShamayim, the prayer for the State of Israel, we pronounce the last letter of the Hebrew alphabet as taf, and not saf, despite the fact that the Rabbi and most members of the congregation are of Ashkenazi descent. In truth, the synagogue has no set pronunciation rules—the Ashkenazim are more or less split on taf and saf in their davening and our regular baal koreh uses taf—but lately I have been wondering about the proper pronunciation of the Avinu ShebaShamayim prayer for otherwise saf-saying Ashkenazi Jews.
Of course there exists an entire responsa literature on switching one’s Hebrew pronunciation , and the incidence of mispronunciation and inconsistent pronunciation is large, yet I am unaware of any effort to address the particular question of the prayer for the State of Israel. In this special case we must concern ourselves with temporarily switching one’s pronunciation, and, perhaps more importantly, with the relationship between Religious Zionism and the Hebrew language as Loshon HaKodesh.
I suspect that the choice of taf over saf in my shul is one done out of acknowledgment and respect for the manner in which the letter is pronounced in the State of Israel. After all, the language of the State uses taf, so why utter a prayer on behalf of the state using saf?
Well, I think there is at least one good reason. If, for Religious Zionists, the existence and persistence of the State of Israel is understood as a religious phenomenon with theological meaning, should we not use religious language in reference to it? That is, if I use saf when I pray in general, using Hebrew as a religious language, as Loshon HaKodesh, and if the state has religious meaning, should I not also use saf in my prayers for the state, including for its soldiers? Does doing otherwise, using taf, not serve to separate my prayer for Israel from the rest of my prayers, uttering the latter but not the former in what to me is Loshon HaKodesh Hebrew? In this light, I would suggest, saf-saying, Religious Zionist Ashkenazi Jews ought to maintain their Ashkenazi pronunciation in their prayers for the Israeli State.
Of course, this leaves us with a different problem. To be consistent, should such Ashkenazi Jews not also speak Hebrew in everyday life in Israel in accordance with the Ashkenazi pronunciation rules? If Israel as a state has religious meaning for me and Ashkenazi pronunciation is my religious language, should I not use this language on the streets and in the markets of modern Israel?
This is, no doubt, an absurd proposition. I would appear rather foolish to use saf in normal conversation in Israel. And in this regard, I suppose the non-Zionist and anti-Zionist Chasidim and some Charedim remain consistent: the state has no religious significance; when they engage in Modern Hebrew in modern Israel, it makes sense that they would use taf instead of saf to distinguish the secular Hebrew of the state from the sanctified, religious Hebrew of Judaism.
What, then, is a saf-speaking Ashkenazi Religious Zionist to do? Well, if it is impractical and laughable to use
Ashkenazi pronunciation in Israeli daily life, then might there be some sense in changing one’s pronunciation in daily prayer and in the synagogue?! If I believe the State of Israel has religious meaning, and if the language of that state is a variant of Sephardic Hebrew, then perhaps the time has come to use this religious pronunciation in the synagogue and in Torah and Talmud study? Now, I realize that overturning the customs of one’s ancestors in a matter such as this one is by no means simple, if even permissible, but I think it at least worth raising the question for discussion. Maybe now it is time to advance towards the dream of a universal and unified Hebrew pronunciation in Israel? And perhaps, for a start, a person in such a situation should use saf when reciting Avinu ShebaShamayim?
This matter is all the more pronounced (pun intended) for someone like me, a Baal Teshuvah who grew up in a non-Orthodox congregation pronouncing taf but in becoming observant decided to switch to the saf that was almost certainly the custom of my great-grandparents from Poland. Now, in hindsight, I wonder if this was a mistake, especially with children learning Modern Hebrew as a language—why did I burden them with having to learn two different pronunciations, one for prayer and one for Modern Hebrew? Perhaps, paradoxically, it is time for me to return to the pronunciation of my non-Orthodox upbringing and use taf instead of saf?
Alan Krinsky is a writer and healthcare analyst; his essays have appeared in Conversations, The Jewish Press, and The Providence Journal, as well as in various on-line venues.