how to say “to vote” in Hebrew


having trouble seeing the print?


Yesterday we encountered the Hebrew word for elections – בְּחִירוֹת .

But just as election and vote are two different words in English, בחירות has a counterpart as well.
להצביעThe active-causative הִפְעִיל verb, לְהַצְבִּיעַ, is related to the word for finger, אֶצְבַּע , the root of both being צ.ב.ע (ts.b.a). להצביע also means to point at or to raise one’s hand. When we vote, we point at a particular candidate or party.
For example:
הַיּוֹם 90 מִילְיוֹן אָמֶרִיקָנִים מַצְבִּיעִים בַּבְּחִירוֹת הַכְּלָלִיוֹת.
Today 90 million Americans are voting in the general election(s).
Voting and colors
You may have noticed that the root of להצביע seems to be the same as that of the word for color, צֶבַע. But before you publish a theories on the relationship between the two concepts, here’s a Hebrew historical tidbit.
מפהIn ancient times, the letter ע (a) represented two distinct sounds: a guttural a and an also-guttural gh (very similar to the Modern Hebrew רr and the Modern French r). Arabic, Hebrew’s closest living relative language, retains the two sounds using two different letters to represent them: ع for the guttural a, and غ for the guttural gh.
While the root of אצבע (finger) and להצביע is צ.ב.ע where the ע represents the guttural a sound, the root of צבע (color) is צ.ב.ע where the ע represents the guttural gh sound. 
Two distinct roots, two distinct concepts.


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  • לק”י

    The above “historical” tidbit that the Hebrew ע originally represented two distinct sounds, is a claim without historical proof. The Arabic language – though Hebrew’s closest relative – does not tell us how the Hebrew language was originally pronounced. To know how the Hebrew language was pronounced, one would have to either have lived over a thousand years ago, or listen to a speaker of Hebrew that has proved to have an unbroken tradition (מסורה) from those days. For the latter, one must listen to the Jewish Yemenites (תימנים). As an example: (mms:// This is a recording of Aharon Amram’s cantillation of שביעי in פרשת מקץ (starting from פרק מג פסוק כד). Aside from the distinct pronunciation of the ע – which is said with the same ease as the א is pronounced – pay attention to verse 26. There you can hear that the Jewish Yemenite (born in Yemen and now in his 70s) actually pronounces this אלף with the דגש that it has (in the word וַיָּבִיאּוּ).

    שמעיה אפל

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    • שלום שמעיה

      It’s fairly clear that ע represented two sounds, as attested in the names עזה and עמורה, which in English are pronounced Gaza and Gomorrah. How did English get “g” when Hebrew has ע? There was an additional sound represented by the letter ע.

      Talmudic, Midrashic and Kabalistic traditions emphasizing the divine value of the Hebrew alphabet relate to the letters, not the sounds.

      The Yemenite Jews likely have the closest pronunciation to Ancient Hebrew (which itself had many pronunciations throughout the Land of Israel and throughout Biblical history – take note of how שׂ becomes ס in certain books), but even their pronunciation was influenced by local speech – case in point, the j sound for the letter ג.

      שבת שלום


      Ami Steinberger Reply
  • לק”י

    שלום עמי

    Thank you for your response.

    Your post mentioned that the Arabic language retains 2 distinct sounds where Hebrew does not. Although Arabic has similarities to Hebrew, a language other than Hebrew – be it Arabic and all the more so English – cannot serve to attest to the original pronunciation of Hebrew. An unbroken tradition (מסורה) from those days can.

    I don’t know why the supposedly English transliteration of Gaza (instead of Azzah) is as it is; perhaps its source is the Arabic language. I wrote supposedly because I don’t think the transliteration of the יוד in יוסף with J (instead of Y) has its origin in English. Regardless of the reason, even if one were to claim that the pronunciation of Hebrew words as written in English can tell us how Hebrew was pronounced by a particular person or group at the time of the English transliteration, it most certainly couldn’t tell us how Hebrew was originally (i.e., 1000+ years ago) pronounced. As such, it is far from clear that ע represented two sounds in the Hebrew language and as I wrote there is no historical proof.

    The תלמוד refers not only to the letters of Hebrew, but also to the sounds of those letters (like א vs ע). E.g., עירובין נג ב (א”ר אבא: אי איכא דמשאיל להו לבני יהודה דדיקי לשני, מאברין תנן או מעברין תנן? אכוזו תנן או עכוזו תנן?). מגלה כד ב (אין מורידין לפני התיבה לא אנשי… מפני שקורין לאלפין עיינין ולעיינין אלפין).

    Can you tell me where in the תלמוד and מדרש you have seen an emphasis on “divine value” of the letters of the אלף בי?

    Indeed, like you wrote, not everyone was able to correctly pronounce Hebrew in Biblical times (e.g., שׁבולת vs סבולת). But, even in those times when Hebrew was pronounced differently by some (thankfully not in such quantity as the unfortunate state of our times), would one claim that all were correct! אלו ואלו?!

    CONTINUED IN NEXT POST (can’t write more than 4,096 characters in one comment)

    שמעיה אפל Reply
  • Although the Jewish Yemenite pronunciation of the גימל דגושה (as the English pronunciation of J) also exists in Arabic, it does not necessarily follow that their pronunciation was taken from the Arabs. As we know, there are supposed to be double pronunciations for the letters בגד כפת (with the רפה and דגש sounding different from each other). The תימנים still differentiate between them all (and therefore they can truthfully be in accordance with the הלכה that הקורא קרית שמע צריך להאריך בדלת של אחד).
    Though you are not the first one with the הנחה that the Jewish Yemenite pronunciation was influenced by local speech (Arabic), already in the ’60s Rabbi Yosef Kapach explained that this supposition is without basis. I have typed just a portion from his מאמר titled “מסורות הגייה ושליטת העברית בקרב יהודי תימן” (it was reprinted in his ספר כתבים ב עמ’ 943-946, ירושלים תשמ”ט, עורך: פרופ’ יוסף טובי) for the benefit of those without the essay at hand (though I recommend reading the whole article):
    טענה זו אמנם אפשרית באופן תיאורי ואפשר להשליכה לא רק כאן אלא גם בכל מקום אחר, אלא שהיא מצד מהותה טענה מאוד תלוּשה וזקוּקה היא לבסיס כל שהוּא שתחול עליו, אחרת, הרי היא נשארת מרחפת ללא תנוחה ודינה להתנדף ולהעלם, כי כל ממש אין בה. כל שכן כאשר אנו מוצאים כדמות ראיה לאידך גיסא, כלומר, במצאנו בניב העברית של יהוּדי תימן דבר שאינו בשפת הסביבה, יש בכך משוּם הוכחה שמסורת זו שמרה על כלילוּתה וסגוּלותיה הייחוּדית.
    ננסה להדגים בשני מישורים, במישור הסימניות, כלומר, האותות, ובמישור התנוּעות. האות פ הדגוּשה, הברה זו אינה מצוּיה בשפה הערבית ואין דוברי הערבית מסכּינים לבטאה, וכאשר מזדמנת להם אות זו במלים משפה זרה, מחליפים אותה באות ב. ואילוּ היהוּדים מבטאים אותה בקלוּת ומבחינים היטב בינה לבין כל הברה אחרת הדומה לה, כדרך שהם מבחינים היטב בשאר כל אותות בגד כפת הדגוּשות והרפוּיות. שניה לה האות ב הרפוּיה. גם הברה זו אינה מצוּיה בשפה הערבית ויהוּדי תימן מבטאים אותה בקלוּת וּללא כל מאמץ, ואילוּ הערבים כאשר מזוּמנת להם הברה זו בציטוט משפה זרה מבטאים אותה כאות פ הרפוּיה המצוּיה בלשונם — כי לא הסכּינוּ לה. שתי אלה ודומיהם שׂמים לאַל לדעתי את הטענה, כי הבחנת יהוּדי תימן בין ג רפוּיה ודגוּשה באה להם מן הערבית, למרות שבעלי טענה זו אין להם תחליף ייחוּדי להברות אלה, כי אילוּ היה ממש בטענת ההשפּעה הערבית, איכה נשתמרוּ להם ליהודי תימן הברות עבריות יחוּדיות אלה, אמור מעתה מציאוּתם של הברות בלעדיות כגון אלה מקשים ומכבידים על תחוּלתה של טענת ההשפּעה הזרה.

    By the way, the Yemenite pronunciation of this Yemenite Rabbi’s last name is קַאפֵח (עם פ’ רפויה וצרויה), despite the common English pronunciation as Kapach.

    שבת שלום
    שמעיה אפל

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    • שלום שמעיה

      English received the hard g sound for Gaza and Gomorrah from its Greek predecessors, who transcribed עזה as Γάζα and עמורה as Γομορρα (Γ being the capital version of the letter Gamma), most likely because they heard the hard g sound for lack of a closer sound in Greek, when the locals pronounced the names of these locations. This is not incontrovertible proof that such was the ancient pronunciation (since we don’t have audio recordings from that time, proving such is impossible), but it’s pretty likely, especially when corroborated with the two ע sounds in such a close cognate language as Arabic.

      My reference to the mention of the divine value of the letters in Midrash and Talmud is אסתכל באורייתא וברא עלמא – albeit not a salient discussion of the value of the letters themselves, but related nonetheless. I was making a broader comment about the view that the Hebrew letters have divine value – part of being לשון הקודש.

      In contrast, the reference in ערובין to pronouncing ע as an א certainly shows the importance of normative (and therefore, relatively speaking, correct) pronunciation when communicating publicly or praying on behalf of the congregation, but it does not attest to divine value of the sounds.

      The shibboleth-sibboleth discrepancy appears to have been not a mistake, but rather a regional accent, distinguishing בני אפרים from other tribes.

      As you pointed out, the בגד-כפת letters each, historically, have a hard sound and a soft sound. Most of the soft sounds were lost in Europe pronunciation, but the Yemenite Jews (among others) preserved them, allowing for a long ד in אחד. However, the soft sounds result from their following vowels, not from being completely differentiated phonemes from the hard sounds.

      For example, תּ (t) becomes ת (th or s), a softer version in the same place of articulation in the mouth; דּ (d) becomes ד (dh), etc.

      It would then follow that a גּ would be a hard sound, corresponding to a softer sound in the same place of articulation. But compare the j and g/gh sounds – they’re made in two different parts of the mouth. The g and gh sounds, however, are made in the same place of articulation, one sound being hard and the other soft.

      It seems to me that Rav Kapach’s passion arises from the same passion with which his Jewish community preserved Hebrew pronunciation so well over thousands of years. But neither that pronunciation nor his argument are perfect.

      Language evolves over time and space – time among earlier and later generations of speakers, and space among regions. As divine a language as Hebrew may be, it is no exception – not today, nor in ancient times, nor throughout history.

      I admire your enthusiasm as well as the time and consideration you put into your response.

      כל טוב


      Ami Steinberger Reply

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