It's a Sin!
The other Motzaei Shabbos, it happened again. An accomplished, articulate, and learned man—in a shul full of accomplished, articulate, and learned people—took the amud to daven. Maariv passed uneventfully. Until the end, that is, when, in the extra pesukim we read after the Shemoneh Esrei, the chazzan concluded: “Orech yamim ashbi’eihu ve’areihu bishu’asi.”
Arrgh. It’s a sin!
This was not the first time I’d heard this particular mistake, and I sincerely doubt it will be the last. Nor is this example the only mistake of its kind that my tender ears have been exposed to over the years. I hear it again in the concluding verse of the shir shel yom for Thursday: “…umitzur devash ashbi’eka”; or sometimes “asbi’echa”; or else the doubly wrong “ashbiecha.” For some People of the Book simply reading the Book correctly proves problematic.
Are people paying attention? Should someone say something?
The Tanach warns us of the problem. In the book of Shoftim, the people of Ephraim started up with Yiftach Hagiladi. War broke out and Yiftach’s side won. Subsequently, Yiftach’s men stood guard by the Jordan river and would not let the people of Ephraim cross back over to get to their homes. In order to determine who was from Ephraim, they seized upon a speech pattern unique to the Ephraimites—replacing a “sh” with “s.” When someone approached, “they said to him, please say shibboles, and he said sibboles for he could not pronounce it properly, and they took him and slaughtered him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand from Ephraim fell at that time” (12:6).
While I’m not suggesting capital punishment for textual misreadings, it is clear that proper pronunciation does count for something.
And while we’re on the subject, am I the only one who cringes when the person saying Kaddish refers to G-d’s Name as "Shemei dekedushah Berich Hu," instead of "deKudsha." Here's another favorite from the birchas haminim in Shemoneh Esrei: "Vechol oh-vecha meheirah yikareisu." While I understand that there are people who are preternaturally incapable of pronouncing the sound,"oy” under any and all circumstances, there remains in the word a yud that demands to be recognized. Not to worry. As it is coupled with a sheva nah, it can be rendered, with a little effort, "oh-yehvecha, your enemies." Ovecha, on the other hand, simply means, "your necromancers." And while cutting off necromancers may not be a bad idea, it’s not the idea of this particular berachah.
Likewise, whenever I attend a siyum, I squirm in my seat, hoping it won’t come. But too often it does. Nearing the end, the mesayeim will declare, "Vehakitzosa hi teshichecha." Someone needs to give a shichah about this problem. It's wonderful to finish a mesechta in Shas or a seder of mishnayos, but would it hurt to first learn the pesukim?
I'm not even addressing the evils of slurring words or of alternating between muttering and mumbling while davening, or, worse, while leining from the Torah. Nor am I getting on anyone's case about the difference between the sheva na and the shva nach. Or the mapik hei. Not today anyway.
Today I simply want to point out that when a shin has a dot on the left end, it’s a sin.
Perhaps the best use of my perturbation (other than writing about it) is further introspection. For lest anyone think that I am Mr. High and Mighty, condescending upon the lowly, befuddled masses with their troubled tongues and marbly mouths, I have, on occasion, caught the malapropic bug myself. For instance, it was decades before I recognized that the phrase in the shir shel yom for Wedensday was "veyesomim yeratzeichu." For years, I had been saying (ahem) "yeracheitzu"—and while I’m quite sure that most orphans would far prefer to be washed than murdered, it was still incorrect.
Besides for watching out for my pronunciation and that of others I also should be careful with what I’m saying. I’m not talking about putting on “kavanah face”—but about increasing focus on pirush hamilos, or avoidance of daydreaming at the very least.
We all make mistakes—some more important than others. When it comes to tefillah, it behooves us to pronounce the words diligently, even if it slows us down. But when we catch someone else making an error, it also pays to be forgiving. After all, we are asking no less for ourselves from God.