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Magick101: How to Pronounce Hebrew Properly

 Recently, a noted occult writer wrote me a letter asking why it was that the Hebrew pronunciations given in an earlier and now obsolete book of mine on the Qabalah differed radically from almost every other contemporary Qabalistic writer. When answering him, it had been my intention to assert that the explanations had already been given. When, however, I proceeded to examine the obsolete book anew, I found that this had been carelessly omitted. (Falcon Press has just issued several tapes which give the correct pronunciation of most of the Qabalistic and other words used in this text.)

My reply took a page and a half to clarify the issue. In order to eliminate possible repetitions of this expenditure of time and effort, let me offer the following.

I can best begin by asserting that no matter where or by whom spoken, English is English. The accents used, for example, in the North of England are entirely different from those employed in Kent or Sussex in the South of England. The English of Wales sounds strangely melodious compared to that of Surrey or Northampton. All however are English.

Much the same is true in the United States. The accent of an inhabitant of Minnesota is entirely different from one who lives in Alabama or Georgia. All speak that variety of English we know as American. Which one is correct?

Let me say that there is no standard or fixed accent which is accepted universally as authoritative. I fancy much the same is true of every other language. Northern and Southern Italian vary in many ways. So also in Germany, France and elsewhere. Accents and dialects are integral parts of the linguistic process.

This is true also in Hebrew which is part of the magical language of what has come to be called the Western esoteric tradition. There are two main streams of Hebrew pronunciation called the Ashkenazic relating to North Europe, England and the United States, and the Sephardic spoken in the Mediterranean and Levantine areas. The history of these two streams is really irrelevant to this essay. Anyone interested can do a little research in a good encyclopedia.

The Mediterranean area, as we know historically, achieved a higher level of cultural development far earlier than did Northern Europe. Much of the Qabalistic literature had its origins in Spain where there was a fascinating merger of Christian, Arabic and Hebrew mysticisms in pre-Zoharic times, as well as in the Levantine area as a whole. The obvious result of this cultural superiority was that the spoken Hebrew had a Sephardic accent. When the literature came to be translated by later scholars and Christian Qabalists, the translations or better still transliterations took on the Sephardic flavor.

Much later in the 18th century, when there was a revival of Jewish mysticism called Chassidism, in Central Europe, Poland and Russia, the Ashkenazic accent or dialect was  employed. Regardless of how popular Chassidism became, English translators persisted on the whole in using the Sephardic dialect, which is interesting because Baal Shem, the founder of what became the Chassidic movement, obviously used Ashkenazic Hebrew. It seems, however, that the Sephardic dialect and the whole Qabalistic literary corpus were intimately bound together, so that very few could conceive that there was any other way of transliterating Hebrew. This persisted right up to modern times. S.L. Mathers in his Kaballah Unveiled, Arthur E. Waite in all of his Qabalistic writings, and Frater Albertus in one of the early Alchemical Bulletins, amongst many other distinguished writers, all used the Sephardic dialect.

 It so happened that when I began my interest in the Qabalah in my mid-teens, I wanted to be able to translate some of the important books and manuscripts that yet remained to be rendered into English. The head of the Semitic Division of the Library of Congress whom I came to know in those days - I must have made myself a young nuisance to him requesting information about Qabalistic texts in English - recommended that I get a tutor from whom I could learn Hebrew. As a result I had a year's intensive training in Hebrew from a young man attending George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where I then lived.

 Many years later, when I had learned to manipulate letters and numbers (Gematria) with some dexterity, I found that on occasion the Ashkenazic transliterations were far more useful and illuminating than the Sephardic, as I demonstrated in an earlier but now obsolete book on the Qabalah. Various people to whom I spoke as a very young man showed not the least interest, so I kept my counsel to myself.

A large number of personal notes and quotations from various authorities gradually accumulated over the course of years. In 1931, while I was in a London literary environment, serving as a secretary to first one and then another novelist and author, I was encouraged to put my ideas in book form. I did so. It became my first published book a long time ago. I had hoped that the use of the Ashkenazic dialect which had solved a number of gematria problems for me, would attract some attention from other students and authorities and be used constructively in other texts. No such thing happened. Since that book was written in the early 1930's, I have seen my Ashkenazic transliterations used only three or four times at most. I was disappointed, I must confess, so that in later writings I dropped it, returning to the more conventional spelling and transliteration of the Hebrew alphabet and Qabalistic terms.

When the State of Israel declared its independence in 1947. with Hebrew as its official language, naturally the Sephardic dialect was used since Palestine was part of the Levantine area. That confirmed my decision to drop the Ashkenazic style of transliteration.

 It must not be supposed however that every Jewish community in Europe or the United States has dropped the Ashkenazic dialect by any manner or means. It is still used. But if you went to the State of Israel, your Ashkenazic dialect will hardly be understood, any more than you could make heads or tails out of the Sephardic dialect if you happened to be an Ashkenazi.

It is rather as if someone born and bred in Northumberland or Yorkshire could make much sense out of the Cockney accent used in parts of London. Some Australians have a version of the Cockney accent, with all its colloquialisms, that makes them rather hard to understand at first. But, never let it be forgotten, they are all speaking English - in much the same way that anyone speaking the Ashkenazic dialect or the Sephardic dialect is speaking or reading Hebrew.

This is the core of the Hebrew language problem of the Qabalah in the simplest possible terms. So when I have used "Bes" or "Ches" or "Tes" I am referring to the same letters as "Beth,""Cheth," or "Teth." Keser and Tipharas and Malkus are no other than Kether and Tiphareth and Malkuth - and so on and so forth. I still suggest that the student of QBL - as Frater Achad and Frater Albertus choose to term the subject matter - learn both dialects. He may find one more useful than another in certain specific areas. When he wishes to discover the numerology or Gematria of his name, for whatever reason he may have in mind, he may get much further by the use of one rather than the other, and achieve his objectives more readily.

The student must discover which of these two suits his own personal predilection and answers to the necessity imposed by the results of study and experience. The Order teaching employs the Sephardic pronunciation, and 1 have not ventured to interfere with that in any way at all. I simply mention the matter here to render impossible the likelihood of further confusion arising.


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