Thursday, November 20, 2008

The First Two Words Of Kaddish

I learned in yeshivah that the proper way to pronounce the first two words of Kaddish are with the "tzeireih" vowel (two dots): Yisgadeil Ve-Yiskadeish. However, the more I have looked into this, the more I have become convinced that this is wrong. Here is a brief summary of the history and issues involved, taken mainly from a 1994 article by Chaim A. Cohen in issue 8 of the journal Mesoros.

Rashi, quoted in a few places in texts that emerged from his school, said that the first words of the first two passages of Kaddish are in Hebrew and the rest of the words are in Aramaic. He said that the words prior to a reference to God's name are in Hebrew. This means "yisgadal ve-yiskadash" in the first passage and "yisbarakh... ve-yishallal" are in Hebrew.

Click here to read moreThat's all Rashi said. In the 1700s, a grammarian named R. Zalman Hennau wrote that if these words are in Hebrew then they should be pronounced with a tzeireih (yisgadeil) and not a patach (yisgadal), the latter being the common pronunciation that he was trying to correct.

Other grammarians objected to R. Hennau's position. Most notably, R. Ya'akov Emden harshly rejected it for two main reasons:
1. The texts from Rashi's school are notoriously unreliable and the entire Kaddish should be in Aramaic.
2. Even in Hebrew, the future tense of words in that form (hispa'el) sometimes have a patach, including the words under discussion (e.g. Deut. 3:23, Daniel 11:37, Psalms 18:27, Hab. 2:3).

It is noteworthy that, in addition to R. Ya'akov Emden's prayerbook, the Ba'al Ha-Tanya's and Dr. Seligmann Baer's payerbooks also have it as "yisgadal". And that is how (to my knowledge) all old prayerbook manuscripts have it.

However, the Vilna Ga'on pronounced the words like R. Hennau (Ma'aseh Rav, no. 54). The Peri Megadim (MZ 56:1) and Mishnah Berurah (56:2) rule that this is the proper pronunciation.

It seems to me that if you follow this position then you should also pronounce the first few words in the second passage with a tzeireih also (yisbareikh...) because, according to Rashi, those words are also in Hebrew. I've rarely heard anyone do that.

The fact is, though, that Rashi never said that we should pronounce the words that way. In the Bible, there doesn't seem to be a consistent rule over how to pronounce such words. Even though most have a tzeireih, some have a patach. If Rashi was not referring to the pronunciation when he said that the words are in Hebrew, what did he mean? I've heard an interesting answer: The words themselves are in Hebrew because Aramaic has different equivalent words. For example, yisgadal in Hebrew is yisrabah in Aramaic. Rashi was pointing out that we must use the Hebrew words and not their Aramaic counterparts.

It seems plausible, maybe even convincing, to me.

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