A reader has suggested that the vowel signs and their names should be set out for the benefit of those readers who are unfamiliar with them.
A vowel is a sound produced as the air rises from the lungs between the vocal chords while they are touching each other lightly, making them vibrate against each other. (The vocal chords consist of a cover over the windpipe which, when closed, prevents food from entering the lungs, hence the Sages said 'One should not speak during a meal in case one gives priority to the windpipe over the oesophagus' Ta'anit 5b.) It is the vibrations which are heard as a vowel. In the outward flow of air via throat and mouth the air is not blocked at any point, but changes in the shape of the mouth cavity by raising parts of the tongue and setting the lips create the differences between one vowel and another. The length of time that the airflow continues also changes the auditory value of the vowel. The vowels produced in a short airflow are called short vowels, and those that take longer are called long vowels.
In the pronunciation of the Sefaradim who came from the lands around the Mediterranean Sea the difference between long and short vowels, if heard at all, is only in the length of the vowel. R' Yosef Caro (who was a Sefaradi), in his Shulhan Arukh (O.H. 25:7) clearly refers to the differences in sound of Qamatz and Patah. However, according to the tradition of the Ashkenazim and Teimanim who came from the extreme north and south of the Diaspora respectively and were not in contact with each other, there is a change in quality between long and short vowels - particularly Qamatz and Patah.
Traditionally there is no difference between the form of the Long Qamatz and the Short Qamatz. However in recent years, prayer books intended for people reading in the Sefaradi pronunciation have been produced with indications distinguishing between these two vowels.
And now to our Parasha. The name Noah has a Holam and a furtive Patah. What is the characteristic of this Patah? Many teachers of reading say that it is difficult to teach. This is because all the other vowel signs are read after the letter to which they belong, whereas this Patah of the Het of Noah (and also of final Heh and Ayin) is read before the final letter. The reason for this is that Heh, Het and Ayin are guttural sounds and Patah is a vowel where the back part of the tongue rises into the throat. As a result, it is easier to pronounce Heh, Het and Ayin with Patah than with other vowels. Therefore, the rule prescribes that if a word has a long vowel (other than Qamatz) in the last syllable, the last letter of which is Heh, Het or Ayin, the Patah is inserted between the vowel and the final letter.
I will be happy to receive comments on
these notes in English on Hebrew grammar related to the week's Parasha.
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