Yemenite Hebrew (Hebrew: עִבְרִית תֵּימָנִית Ivrit Teimanit, Arabic: العبرية اليمنية al-ʿibriyya al-yamaniyya), also referred to as Temani Hebrew, is the pronunciation system for Hebrew traditionally used by Yemenite Jews. Yemenite Jews brought their language to Israel through immigration. Their first organized immigration to the region began in 1882.
Yemenite Hebrew has been studied by scholars, many of whom believe it to contain the most ancient phonetic and grammatical features. The Yemenites, themselves, among all Jewish ethnic groups, have garnered considerable praise because of their strict application of the laws of grammar. The notable Tunisian rabbi and scholar, Rabbi Meir Mazuz, once said of Yemenites that they are good grammarians. It is believed by some scholars that its phonology was heavily influenced by spoken Yemeni Arabic. Other scholars and rabbis, including Rabbi Yosef Qafih and Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, hold the view that Yemenite Hebrew was not influenced by Yemenite Arabic, as this type of Arabic was also spoken by Yemenite Jews and is distinct from the liturgical Hebrew and the conversational Hebrew of the communities. Among other things, Rabbi Qafih notes that the Yemenite Jews spoke Arabic with a distinct Jewish flavor, inclusive of pronouncing many Arabic words with vowels foreign to the Arabic language, e.g., the Qamats ( קָמַץ) and Tseri (צֵירִי). Hence, pronunciation of Yemenite Hebrew was not only uninfluenced by Arabic, but it influenced the pronunciation of Arabic by the Jews, despite the Jewish presence in Yemen for over a millennium.
Among the dialects of Hebrew preserved into modern times, Yemenite Hebrew is regarded as one of the forms closest to Hebrew as used in ancient times, particularly Tiberian Hebrew and Mishnaic Hebrew. This is evidenced in part by the fact that Yemenite Hebrew preserves a separate sound for every consonant - except for sāmeḵ (ס) and šīn (שׂ), which are both pronounced /s/, but which had already merged in ancient times, as evident in the spelling variants in the Dead Sea Scrolls.
Yemenite Hebrew may have been derived from, or influenced by, the Hebrew of the Geonic era Babylonian Jews: the oldest Yemenite manuscripts use the Babylonian system of vowel symbols, which is believed to antedate the Tiberian vowel system. As late as 937 CE, Qirqisāni wrote: “The biblical readings which are wide-spread in Yemen are in the Babylonian tradition." Indeed, in many respects, such as the assimilation of paṯaḥ and səġūl, the current Yemenite pronunciation fits the Babylonian notation better than the Tiberian. This is because in the Babylonian tradition of vocalization there is no distinct symbol for the səġūl. It does not follow, as claimed by some scholars, that the pronunciation of the two communities was identical, any more than the pronunciation of Sephardim and Ashkenazim is the same because both use the Tiberian symbols. A distinct feature of Yemenite Hebrew is the slight similarity between the ḥōlam and the ṣêrệ which, to the untrained ear, sound as though they were the same phoneme. Yemenite grammarians will point out the difference. For example, the word "shalom" (Hebrew: שָׁלוֹם), is pronounced sho løm, the /øː/ having the phonetic sound of something between a non-rhotic English "er" and the German o-umlaut. For all practical purposes, this sound is similar to the "i" in girl. Some see the assimilation of these two vowels as a local variant within the wider Babylonian family, which the Yemenites happened to follow. It should be noted that these sounds are only identical in a minority of Yemenite Jews (e.g. the Jews of the provinces), as opposed to that of the Sana'ani pronunciation which most Yemenite Jews use.
The following chart shows the seven vowel paradigms found in the Babylonian supralinear punctuation, which are reflected to this day by the Yemenite pronunciation of Biblical lections and liturgies, though they now use the Tiberian symbols. For example, there is no separate symbol for the Tiberian səġūl and the pataḥ and amongst Yemenites they have the same phonetic sound. It should be noted in this connection that the Babylonian vowel signs remained in use in Yemen long after the Babylonian Biblical tradition had been abandoned, almost until our own time.
|vowels with ב|
|qamaṣ||paṯaḥ, (səġūl)||ṣerê||shewā mobile|
Yemenite pronunciation is not uniform, and Morag has distinguished five sub-dialects, of which the best known is probably Sana'ani, originally spoken by Jews in and around Sana'a. Roughly, the points of difference are as follows:
The Yemenites in their reading practices continue the orthographic conventions of the early grammarians, such as Abraham ibn Ezra and Aaron Ben-Asher. One basic rule of grammar states that every word which has a long vowel sound, that is, one of either five vowel sounds whose mnemonics are "pītūḥei ḥötham" (i.e. ḥiraq, šūraq, ṣeré, ḥölam and qamaṣ), whenever there is written beside one of these long vowel sounds a meteg (or what is also called a ga’ayah) and which is denoted by a small vertical line below the word (such as shown here זָ|כְרוּ), it indicates that the vowel (in this case, qamaṣ) must be drawn out with a prolonged sound. For example, ōōōōōō, instead of ō, (e.g. zoː— kh ru). In the Sephardic tradition, however, the practice is different altogether, insofar that they will also alter the phonetic sound of the long vowel qamaṣ whenever the vowel appears alongside a meteg (i.e. a small vertical line), giving to it the sound of "a", as in cat, instead of "ōōōōō." Thus, for the verse in Hebrew: כָּל עַצְמוֹתַי תֹּאמַרְנָה (Psalm 35:10), the Sephardic Jews will pronounce the word כָּל as "kal" (e.g. kal ʕaṣmotai, etc.), instead of kol ʕaṣmotai as pronounced by both Yemenite and Ashkenazi Jewish communities.
The meteg, or ga’ayah, has actually two functions: (1) It extends the sound of the vowel; (2) It makes any šewa that is written immediately after the vowel a mobile šewa, meaning, the šewa itself takes on the sound of a reduced vowel in Germanic languages, equivalent to <ə>, or "a" in the word "about." For example: šoː m ru= (שָׁמְרו), yei r du= (יֵרְדו), yei d ‘u= (יֵדְעו), ʔö m rim= (אוֹמְרים), šö m rim= ( שׁוֹמְרים), sī s ra= (סִיסְרא), šū v kha= (שׁוּבְך) and tū v kha= (טוּבְך), et al.
The Qamats qatan is realized as the non-extended "o"-sound in the first qamats (qamaṣ) in the word, חָכְמָה ⇒ ḥokhma (wisdom).
The Yemenite qamaṣ ⟨ ָ ⟩, represented in the transliterated texts by the diaphoneme /oː/, is pronounced as the English "a"-sound in "all" or as in "halt", or "caught," and this phoneme is always the same, whether for a long or short vowel, with the exception that the long vowel sound is always prolonged.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook and Rabbi Jacob Saphir have praised the Yemenites in their correct pronunciation of the Hebrew language. To this day they read the biblical lections and liturgies according to what is prescribed for Hebrew grammar, being meticulous to pronounce the mobile šĕwā Hebrew: שוא נע in each of its changing forms. While most other communities will also adhere to the rule of mobile šĕwā whenever two šĕwās are written one after the other, as in Hebrew: יִכְתְּבוּ, most have forgotten its other usages.
Aharon Ben-Asher, in his treatise on the proper usage of Hebrew vowels and trope symbols, writes on the šĕwā: "[It is] the servant of all the letters in the entire Scriptures, whether at the beginning of the word, or in the middle of the word, or at the end of the word; whether what is pronounced by the tongue or not pronounced, for it has many ways… However, if it is joined with one of four [guttural] letters, א ח ה ע, its manner [of pronunciation] will be like the manner of the vowel of the second letter in that word, such as: בְּֽהֹנוֹת ידיהם ורגליהם (Jud. 1:7) = bhonoth; מתי פתים תְּֽאֵהֲבוּ פתי (Prov. 1:22) = t’eihavu; עיניו לְֽחֵלְכָה יצפנו (Ps. 10:8) = lḥeiləkhah; שריה רְֽעֵלָיָה מרדכי (Ezra 2:2) = rʻeiloyoh."
Regarding the mobile šĕwā and its usage amongst Yemenite Jews, Israeli grammarian, Shelomo Morag, wrote: "The pronunciation of the šĕwā mobile preceding א, ה, ח, ע, or ר in the Yemenite tradition is realized in accordance with the vowel following the guttural; quantitatively, however, this is an ultra-short vowel. For example, a word such as Hebrew: וְחוּט is pronounced wḥuṭ. A šĕwā preceding a yōḏ is pronounced as an ultra-short ḥīreq: the word Hebrew: בְּיוֹם is pronounced byōm. This is the way the šĕwā is known to have been pronounced in the Tiberian tradition."
Other examples of words where the mobile šĕwā in the same word will take-up the phonetic sound of the vowel assigned to the adjacent guttural letter, or where a mobile šĕwā preceding the letter yod (י) will take up the phonetic sound of the yod, can be seen in the following:
מִזְמוֹר שִׁיר לְיוֹם הַשַּׁבָּת. טוֹב לְהֹדוֹת לַה' וּלְזַמֵּר לְשִׁמְךָ עֶלְיון. לְהַגִּיד בַּבֹּקֶר חַסְדֶּךָ וֶאֱמוּנָתְךָ בַּלֵּילוֹת
(vs. 1) lyöm -- (vs. 2) lhödöth -- (vs. 3) lhağīd
The above rule applies only to when one of the four guttural letters (אחהע), or a yod (י) or a resh (ר) follows the mobile šĕwā, but does not apply to the other letters which, in their case, the mobile šĕwā is always read as a short-sounding pataḥ.
Geographically isolated for centuries, the Yemenite Jews constituted a peculiar phenomenon within Diaspora Jewry. In their isolation they preserved specific traditions of both Hebrew and Aramaic. These traditions, transmitted from generation to generation through the teaching and reciting of the Bible, post-Biblical Hebrew literature (primarily the Mishnah), the Aramaic Targums of the Bible, and the Babylonian Talmud, are still alive. They are manifest in the traditional manner of reading post-Biblical Hebrew practised by most members of the community. The Yemenite reading traditions of the Bible are now based on the Tiberian text and vocalization, as proofread by the masorete, Aaron ben Asher, with the one exception that the vowel sǝġūl is pronounced as a pataḥ, since the sǝġūl did not exist in the Babylonian orthographic tradition to which the Jews of Yemen had previously been accustomed. In what concerns Biblical orthography, with the one exception of the sǝgūl, the Yemenite Jewish community does not differ from any other Jewish community.
Although the vast majority of post-Biblical Hebrew and Aramaic words are pronounced the same way, or nearly the same way, by all of Israel's diverse ethnic groups, including the Jews of Yemen, there are still other words whose phonemic system differs greatly from the way it is used in Modern Hebrew, the sense here being the tradition of vocalization or diction of selective Hebrew words found in the Mishnah and Midrashic literature, or of Aramaic words found in the Talmud, and which tradition has been meticulously preserved by the Jews of Yemen. The following diagrams show a few of the more conspicuous differences in the Yemenite tradition of vocalization and which Israeli linguist, Shelomo Morag, believes reflects an ancient form of vocalizing the texts, and was once known and used by all Hebrew speakers.
Notes on transliteration: In the Yemenite Jewish tradition, the vowel qamaṣ ⟨ ָ ⟩, is pronounced as the English "a"-sound in "all" or as in "halt", or "caught," and is signified by the diaphoneme /oː/. The Hebrew character Tau (Hebrew: ת), without a dot of accentuation, is realized by the symbol /θ/ and is pronounced as the English "th"-sound in "thank-you." The Hebrew character Gimal (Hebrew: גּ), with a dot of accentuation, is signified by the diaphoneme /dʒ/, and has the phonetic sound made by the English "j", as in "joy." The Hebrew word גנאי (in the above middle column, and meaning "a thing detestable"), is written in Yemenite Jewish tradition with a vowel qamaṣ beneath the Hebrew: נ, but since it is followed by the letters אי it produces the sound of the diphthong "oy", as in "boy" or in "loin," and is realized by the diaphoneme ɔɪ. The vowel ḥolam in the Yemenite dialect is written here with the German phoneme /ö/, as in nördlich. Another peculiarity with the Yemenite dialect is that the vast majority of Yemenite Jews (excluding the Jews of Sharab in Yemen) will replace /q/, used here in transliteration of texts, with the phonetic sound of [ɡ].
It is to be noted that in the Yemenite tradition, the plural endings on the words זָכִיּוֹת ( merits), מַלְכִיּוֹת (kingdoms), גָּלִיּוֹת (exiles), טעִיּוֹת ( errors), טרפִיּוֹת (defective animals) and עֵדִיּוֹת (testimonies), all differ from the way they are vocalized in Modern Hebrew. In Modern Hebrew, these words are marked with a shuraq, as follows: זָכֻיּוֹת - מַלְכֻיּוֹת - גָּלֻיּוֹת - טעֻיּוֹת - טרפֻיּוֹת - עֵדֻיּוֹת. Although the word Hebrew: מַלְכֻיוֹת (kingdoms) in Daniel 8:22 is vocalized malkhuyöth, as it is in Modern Hebrew, Shelomo Morag thinks that the Yemenite tradition reflects a phonological phenomenon known as dissimilation, whereby similar consonants or vowels in a word become less similar. Others explain the discrepancy as being in accordance with a general rule of practice, prevalent in the 2nd century CE, where the Hebrew in rabbinic literature was distinguished from that of Biblical Hebrew, and put into an entire class and category of its own, with its own rules of vocalization (see infra).
The Hebrew noun חֲתִיכָּה (ḥăṯīkkah), in the upper left column, is a word meaning "slice/piece" (in the absolute state), or חֲתִיכַּת בשר ("piece of meat") in the construct state. The noun is of the same metre as קְלִיפָּה (qǝlipah), a word meaning "peel," or the "rind" of a fruit. Both the kaph and pe in these nouns are with a dagesh. However, the same roots applied to different meters, serving as gerunds, as in "slicing/cutting" [meat] and "peeling" [an apple], the words would respectively be חֲתִיכָה (ḥăṯīḫah) and קליפָה (qǝlīfah), without a dagesh in the Hebrew characters Kaph and Pe (i.e. rafe letters), such as when the verb is used with the preposition "after": e.g. "after peeling the apple" = אחרי קליפת התפוח, or "after cutting the meat" = אחרי חתיכת הבשר.
In the Talmud (Ḥullin 137b; Avodah Zarah 58b), the Sages of Israel had a practice to read words derived from the Scriptures in their own given way, while the same words derived from the Talmud or in other exegetical literature (known as the Midrash) in a different way: "When Isse the son of Hinei went up [there], he found Rabbi Yoḥanan teaching [a certain Mishnah] to the creations, saying, raḥelim (i.e. רחלים = the Hebrew word for "ewes"), etc. He said to him, 'Teach it [by its Mishnaic name = רחלות], raḥeloth!' He replied, '[What I say is] as it is written [in the Scriptures]: Ewes (raḥelim), two-hundred.' (Gen. 32:15) He answered him, 'The language of the Torah is by itself, and the language employed by the Sages is by itself!'" (לשון תורה לעצמה, לשון חכמים לעצמן).
This passage from the Talmud is often quoted by grammarians of Yemenite origin to explain certain "discrepancies" found in vocalization of words where a comparable source can be found in the Hebrew Bible, such as the Yemenite tradition in rabbinic literature to say Hebrew: מַעְבִּיר (maʻbīr), rather than Hebrew: מַעֲבִיר (maʻăvīr) – although the latter rendering appears in Scripture (Deuteronomy 18:10), or to say Hebrew: זִיעָה (zīʻah), with ḥīraq, rather than, Hebrew: זֵיעָה (zeiʻah), with ṣerê, although it too appears in Scripture (Genesis 3:19), or to say Hebrew: ברכת המזון (birkhath ha-mazon) (= kaph rafe), rather than as the word "blessing" in the construct state which appears in the Scriptures (Genesis 28:4, et al.), e.g. birkath Avraham (ברכת אברהם), with kaph dagesh. Others, however, say that these anomalies reflect a tradition that antedates the Tiberian Masoretic texts.
In Yemenite tradition, many words in both Biblical and Mishnaic Hebrew which are written with the final hê ending (without the mappîq) are realized by a secondary glottal stop, meaning, they are abruptly cut short, as when one holds his breath. Shelomo Morag who treats upon this peculiarity in the Yemenite tradition of vocalization brings down two examples from the Book of Isaiah, although by no means exclusive, where he shows the transliteration for the words תִּפָּדֶה in Isaiah 1:27 and וְנֵלְכָה in Isaiah 2:5, and which are both given the diaphoneme /ʔ/ showing an abrupt ending, as in tippoːdä (ʔ) and wǝnelχoː(ʔ) respectively. The word פָרָשָׁה (Bible Codex) in the upper-middle column is pronounced in the same way, e.g. foːroːshoːʔ.
Excursus: The preposition (Hebrew: שֶׁלְּ... שֶׁלַּ... שֶׁלִּ... שֶׁלָּ ...), translated as < of > or <belonging to> in English, is unique in the Yemenite Jewish tradition. The Hebrew preposition is always written with the noun, joined together as one word, and the lamed is always accentuated with a dagesh. For example, if the noun, מלך ⇒ king, would normally have been written with the definite article "the," as in הַמֶּלֶךְ ⇒ the king, and the noun was to show possession, as in the sentence: "the palace of the king," the definite article "the" (Hebrew: ה) is dropped, but the same vowel pataḥ of the definite article is carried over to the lamed, as in שֶׁלַּמֶּלֶךְ, instead of של המלך. The vowel on the lamed will sometimes differ, depending on what noun comes after the preposition. For example, the definite article "the" in Hebrew nouns which begin with aleph or resh and sometimes ayin, such as in הָאָדָם and in הָרִאשׁוֹן, or in הָעוֹלָם, is written with the vowel qamaṣ – in which case, the vowel qamaṣ is carried over to the lamed, as in שֶׁלָּאָדָם and in שֶׁלָּרִאשׁוֹן and in שֶׁלָּעוֹלָם. Another general rule is that whenever a possessive noun is written without the definite article "the", as in the words, "a king's sceptre," or "the sceptre of a king" (Heb. מלך), the lamed in the preposition is written with the vowel shǝwa (i.e. mobile shǝwa), as in שרביט שֶׁלְּמֶּלֶךְ, and as in, "if it belongs to Israel" ⇒ אם הוא שֶׁלְּיִשְׂרַאֵל. Whenever the noun begins with a shǝwa, as in the proper noun Solomon (Heb. שְׁלֹמֹה) and one wanted to show possession, the lamed in the preposition is written with a ḥiraq, as in (Song of Solomon 3:7): מטתו שֶׁלִּשְׁלֹמֹה ⇒ "Solomon's bed", or as in עונשם שֶׁלִּרְשָׁעִים ⇒ "the punishment of the wicked", or in חבילה שֶׁלִּתְרוּמָה ⇒ "a bundle of heave-offering."
Another rule of practice in Hebrew grammar is that two shǝwas <חְ> are never written one after the other at the beginning of any word; neither can two ḥaṭaf pataḥs <חֲ> or two ḥaṭaf sǝġūls <חֱ> be written at the beginning of a word one after the other. The practical implication arising from this rule is that when there is a noun beginning with a ḥaṭaf pataḥ, as in the word, חֲבִרְתָּהּ ⇒ “her companion”, and one wishes to add thereto the preposition “to” – as in, “to her companion” ⇒ לַחֲבִרְתָּהּ, the lamed is written with the vowel pataḥ, instead of a shǝwa (i.e. a mobile shǝwa), seeing that the shǝwa at the beginning of a word and the ḥaṭaf pataḥ, as well as the ḥaṭaf sǝġūl, are all actually one and the same vowel (in the Babylonian tradition), and it is as though he had written two shǝwas one after the other. Likewise, in the possessive case, “belonging to her companion” ⇒ שֶׁלַּחֲבִרְתָּהּ, the lamed in the preposition של is written with the vowel pataḥ.
The Leiden MS. of the Jerusalem Talmud is important in that it preserves some earlier variants to textual readings of that Talmud, such as in Tractate Pesaḥim 10:3 (70a), which brings down the old Palestinian-Hebrew word for charoseth (the sweet relish eaten at Passover), viz. dūkeh (Hebrew: דוכה), instead of rūbeh/rabah (Hebrew: רובה), saying with a play on words: “The members of Isse's household would say in the name of Isse: Why is it called dūkeh? It is because she pounds [the spiced ingredients] with him.” The Hebrew word for "pound" is dakh (Heb. דך), which rules out the spelling of " rabah " (Heb. רבה), as found in the printed editions. Today, the Jews of Yemen, in their vernacular of Hebrew, still call the charoseth by the name dūkeh.
Other quintessential Hebrew words which have been preserved by the Jews of Yemen is their manner of calling a receipt of purchase by the name, roʔoːyoː (Hebrew: רְאָיָה), rather than the word " qabbalah " that is now used in Modern Hebrew. The weekly biblical lection read on Sabbath days is called by the name seder (Hebrew: סדר), since the word parashah (Hebrew: פרשה) has a completely different meaning, denoting a Bible Codex containing the first Five Books of Moses (plural: codices = פרשיות).
Charity; alms (Hebrew: מִצְוָה, miṣwoː), so-called in Yemenite Jewish parlance, was usually in the form of bread, collected in baskets each Friday before the Sabbath by those appointed over this task for distribution among the needy, without them being brought to shame. The same word is often used throughout the Jerusalem Talmud, as well as in Midrashic literature, to signify what is given out to the poor and needy. Today, in Modern Hebrew, the word is seldom used to imply charity, replaced now by the word, ts’dakah (Heb. צְדָקָה). In contrast, the word צדקה amongst Jews in Sana’a was a tax levied upon Jewish householders, particular those whose professions were butchers, and which tax consisted of hides and suet from butchered animals, and which things were sold on a daily basis by the Treasurer, and the money accruing from the sale committed to the public fund for the Jewish poor of the city, which money was distributed to the city's poor twice a year; once on Passover, and once on Sukkot. The fund itself was known by the name toːḏeir (Hebrew: תָּדֵיר), lit. "the constant [revenues]."
Although Jews in Yemen widely made-use of the South-Arabic word mukhwāṭ (Arabic: المُخْوَاط) for the “metal pointer” (stylus) used in pointing at the letters of sacred writ, they also knew the old Hebrew word for the same, which they called makhtev (Hebrew: מַכְתֵּב). The following story is related about this instrument in Midrash Rabba: “Rabban [Shimon] Gamliel says: ‘Five-hundred schools were in Beter, while the smallest of them wasn’t less than three-hundred children. They used to say, ‘If the enemy should ever come upon us, with these metal pointers (Hebrew: מַכְתֵּבִין) we’ll go out against them and stab them!’…”
In other peculiar words of interest, they made use of the word, shilṭön (Hebrew: שִׁלְטוֹן), for “governor” or “king,” instead of “government,” the latter word now being the more common usage in Modern Hebrew; kothev (Hebrew: כּוֹתֵב), for “scrivener”, or copyist of religious texts, instead of the word “sofer” (scribe); ṣibbūr (Hebrew: צִבּוּר), for "a quorum of at least ten adult males," a word used in Yemen instead of the Modern Hebrew word, minyan; ḥefeṣ (Hebrew: חֵפֶץ), a noun meaning “desirable thing,” was used by them to describe any “book” (especially one of a prophylactic nature), although now in Modern Hebrew it means “object”; fiqfūq (Hebrew: פִקְפוּק) had the connotation of “shock,” “violent agitation,” or “shaking-up,” although today, in Modern Hebrew, it has the meaning of “doubt” or “skepticism”; the word, harpathqei (Hebrew: הַרְפַּתְקֵי), was used to describe “great hardships,” although in Modern Hebrew the word has come to mean “adventures.” The word fazmūn (Hebrew: פַזְמוּן), any happy liturgical poem, such as those sung on Simhat Torah, differs from today’s Modern Hebrew word, pizmon (Hebrew: פִּזְמוֹן), meaning, a “chorus” to a song. Another peculiar aspect of Yemenite Hebrew is what concerns denominative verbs. One of the nouns used for bread (made of wheat) is himmuṣ (Hebrew: הִמּוּץ), derived from the blessing that is said whenever breaking bread, המוציא [לחם מן הארץ] = He that brings forth [bread from the earth]. Whenever they wanted to say its imperative form, “break bread!”, they made use of the denominative verb hammeṣ! (Hebrew: הַמֵּץ). Similarly, the noun for the Third Sabbath meal was qiyyūm (Hebrew: קְיּוּם), literally meaning “observance,” in which they made use of the denominative verb, tǝqayyem (Hebrew: תְּקַיֵּם מענא) = Will you eat with us (the Third Sabbath meal)?, or, נְקַיֵּם = Let us eat (the Third Sabbath meal), or, qiyam (Hebrew: קִיַּם) = He ate (the Third Sabbath meal).