We’re all eating it this week — in some cases, more than we’d like to — but why on earth do we spell it “matzo,” or “matzoh”? What Jew says, or ever did say, “mah-tso,” pronouncing the last syllable to rhyme with “oh” or “glow”? Ashkenazic Jews always have said “MAH-tse,” with the last syllable like the “e” in “the,” and Sephardic and Israeli Jews say “mah-TSAH,” with the last syllable like the “a” in “Pa” or “Ma.” “Mah-tso” is something that only a tourist from Wyoming, reading the brand names in a New York supermarket (“Manischewitz Matzos,” “Streit Matzos,” “Yehuda Matzos,” “Aviv Matzos”), could conceivably utter.
The Ashkenazic/Sephardic dichotomy in Hebrew pronunciation is the key to this conundrum. The Hebrew word for “unleavened bread,” first occurring in the biblical story of the Exodus, is spelled dvn, with the three consonants m-ts-h unvocalized, since ancient Hebrew lacked vowel signs. Such signs were first invented in the eighth century C.E. by several schools of Hebrew grammarians known as the Masoretes (from Hebrew mesorah, “tradition”). And although modern Hebrew, too, is generally written without them, they do appear in certain categories of printed texts (the main ones being Bibles, prayer books, children’s books and poetry). In the Masoretic text of the Bible, m-ts-h is vocalized dvn_, the vowel sign under the first consonant being known as a patah. and the one under the second consonant as a kamatz.
How are these vowel signs to be pronounced? About the patah., there is no disagreement: It represents an “ah” sound for both Sephardim and Ashkenazim. The kamatz, however, is a different story: Although also pronounced “ah” by Sephardim, it is an “aw,” as in “law,” for Ashkenazim. This goes back to an ancient, pre-Masoretic difference of pronunciation between the Jews of Babylonia and those of Palestine, whereby the latter lengthened the “ah” of stressed syllables into “aw”; hence, the word pronounced in biblical times as “mah-TSAH” became “mah-TSAW” in Palestine. Since the Masoretic system that was eventually accepted by the Jewish world was invented in Palestine, in the city of Tiberias, it used the two signs of patah. and kamatz to distinguish between “ah” and “aw.” Yet, the Babylonians, while adopting the Tiberian notation, continued to pronounce both vowels as “ah” — and so, when the Babylonian pronunciation eventually spread to all the Jews of the Middle East and Southern Europe, and the Palestinian pronunciation to Northern and Eastern Europe, this became a difference between Ashkenazic and Sephardic Hebrew.
Indeed, for liturgical purposes, “mah-TSAW” is how the word is pronounced by Ashkenazic Jews to this day and how you will hear it articulated by any Torah reader in a synagogue that prays in Ashkenazic Hebrew. Yet, in medieval Yiddish, both in its Western European and Eastern European versions, two other things happened. One was that the syllabic stress of Hebrew words shifted forward, so that “mah-TSAW” changed to “MAH-tsaw.” The other was that, consequently, the de-stressed last syllable was shortened again. “MAH-tsaw” then turned into the “MAH-tse” that American Jews are eating this week.
But why, then, you may ask, aren’t American Jews buying “Manischewitz Matzes” or “Manischewitz Matzaws”? The answer to this is, first, that when, in the 19th century, the Hebrew word came to be transliterated by Ashkenazic Jews into Latin characters, this was done according to its formal, liturgical pronunciation rather than according to its vernacular Yiddish one. And second, this process of transliteration first occurred in Germany — and although German has an “aw” sound in the middle of words, which is represented by the vowel “o,” (as in a verb like kommen), it does not have one at the end of words. The best that German Jews wishing to represent it could do, therefore, was, quite un-Germanically, to write mazoh, the “ts” sound in German being indicated by the letter “z.”
Thus, when a new immigrant to the United States, Lithuanian Jew Dov Behr Manischewitz, settled in 1886 in Cincinnati, Ohio — a stronghold of German Jewry and its traditions (it was here that the German-inspired Reform movement established its theological school, the Hebrew Union College) — and invented a matzo-baking machine that inaugurated the mass commercial production of unleavened bread for Passover, it was natural for him to use the German Jewish spelling for his product. The rest of American Jewry followed.
Eventually, “mazoh” became “matzoh” and then “matzo.” Yet, the pure German spelling hung on in some places for a long time. For example, in Henry Roth’s classic novel of a Jewish immigrant childhood on New York City’s Lower East Side, “Call It Sleep,” published in 1934, there is a scene in which heder children are being prepared by their rabbi to chant the Four Questions for the Seder. “Now! To your books! [exclaims the rabbi] Dig your eyes into them. The Four Questions. Noo! Begin! ‘Ma nishtanaw.’ ‘Ma nishtanaw halilaw hazeh,’ they bellowed, ‘mikol halaylos. Shebchol halaylos onu ochlim chometz umazoh.’”
Note that while Roth Americanized the “aw” sound of the kamatz in such words as halilaw and nishtanaw, he left it Germanized in mazoh. Such is the power of tradition.
It’s all pretty aw-some. Have a happy Passover.
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This story "A ‘Matzo’ Mystery" was written by Philologos.