Hebrew vs. Aramaic

I wrote this for my book, but at the last moment I decided to replace it with a different text more typical of Biblical Hebrew. This is pretty technical, so feel free to skip it till Middle East Construction Kit comes out and you can read the Hebrew mini-grammar there. Many thanks to Carlo Yehuda Meloni who provided the texts and transliterations.

Let’s take the opportunity to compare Hebrew and Aramaic. We’ll look at Daniel 7:2-4, which is written in Aramaic. The English translation is the JPS’s.

First, here’s the Hebrew. This is actually a +19C back-translation into Hebrew by Samuel Leib Gordon. As such it’s a far later Hebrew than BH, and highly influenced by Aramaic. The main difference is a very frequent use of the active participle rather than the PC or SC. (Prefixing vs suffixing conjugations.)

עוֹנֶה דָּנִיֵּאל וְאוֹמֵר: רוֹאֶה הָיִיתִי בַּחֲזוֹנִי עִם לַיְלָה, וְהִנֵּה אַרְבַּע רוּחוֹת הַשָּׁמַיִם מְגִיחוֹת לַיָּם הַגָּדוֹל.

ʿōneh Dāniyyēl wə-ʾōmer, rōʾeh hāyītī ba-ħăzōnī ʿim laylāh, wə-hinneh ʾarbaʿ rūħōṯ ha-ššāmayīm məgīħōṯ la-yyām ha-ggāḏōl.

answering-sm Daniel and-speaking-sm / seeing-sm be.SC-1s in-vision-1s with night / and-behold four.f wind-pl.cons the-heaven-du stirring-pl.f to-sea the-great-sm

Daniel related the following: In my vision at night, I saw the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea.

וְאַרְבַּע חַיּוֹת גְּדוֹלוֹת עוֹלוֹת מִן הַיָּם, שׁוֹנוֹת זוֹ מִזּוֹ.

Wə-ʾarbaʿ ħayyōṯ gəḏōlōṯ ʿōlōṯ min ha-yyām, šōnōṯ zō mizzō.

and-four.f beast-pl great-pl.f coming-pl.f from the-sea / differing-pl.f this.sf from-this.sf

Here zoṯ ‘this.sf’ is replaced by zō, as in Mišnaic Hebrew.

Four mighty beasts different from each other emerged from the sea.

הָרִאשׁוֹנָה כְּאַרְיֵה וּכְנָפַיִם שֶׁל נֶשֶׁר לָהּ, רוֹאֶה הָיִיתִי עַד אֲשֶׁר נִמְרְטוּ כְנָפֶיהָ וְנִשְּׂאָה מִן הָאָרֶץ, וְעַל רַגְלַיִם כְּאָדָם הוּקָמָה, וּלְבַב אָדָם נִתַּן לָהּ.

Hā-riʾšōnāh kə-ʾaryēh ū-ḵənāpayīm šel nešer lāh, rōʾeh hā-yīṯī ʿaḏ ʾăšer nimrəṭū kənāpēyṯāh wə-nissʾāh min hā-ʾāreṣ, wə-ʿal raglayīm kəʾāḏām hūqāmāh, ū-ləḇaḇ ʾāḏām nittaw lāh.

the-first-sf as-lion / and-wing-du which eagle to-3sf / seeing-sm be.SC-1s until sub scour.nip̄ʿal.SC-3pm wing-du.cons-3sf and-3sf-raise.nip̄ʿal.SC from the-earth / and-on foot.du as-man stand.hop̄ʿal.SC-3sf and-heart.cons man give.SC-3sm to-3sf

You’d expect the construct state for ‘wings of eagles’, but Aramaic preferred the construction X di Y, and Gordon translates this literally as X šel Y.

The first was like a lion but had eagles’ wings. As I looked on, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted off the ground and set on its feet like a man and given the mind of a man.

Daniel was written as late as the 2C, so the transliteration I’ve been using, suitable for the Iron Age, is anachronistic. Carlo Yehuda Meloni provides the following phonemic transcription:

ʕonɛ daniyyel wəʔomer: roʔɛ hɔyiθi baħazoni ʕim laylɔ, wəhinne ʔarbaʕ ruħoθ haʃʃɔmayim məɣiħoθ layyɔm haggɔðol. wəʔarbaʕ ħayyoθ gəðoloθ ʕoloθ min hayyɔm, ʃonoθ zo mizzo. hɔriʃonɔ kəʔarye uxnɔfayim ʃɛl nɛʃɛr lɔh, roʔɛ hɔyiθi ʕað ʔaʃɛr nimrətˤu xənɔfɛhɔ wəniśśəʔɔ min hɔʔɔrɛsˤ, wəʕal raɣlayim kəʔɔðɔm huqɔmɔ, ulvav ʔɔðɔm nittan lɔh.

Here’s the Aramaic Biblical text.

עָנֵה דָנִיֵּאל וְאָמַר, חָזֵה הֲוֵית בְּחֶזְוִי עִם-לֵילְיָא; וַאֲרוּ, אַרְבַּע רוּחֵי שְׁמַיָּא, מְגִיחָן, לְיַמָּא רַבָּא.

ʕɔne ðɔniyyel wəʔɔmar, ħɔze haweθ bəħɛzwi ʕim leləyɔ; waʔaru, ʔarbaʕ ruħe ʃəmayyɔ, məɣiħɔn ləyammɔ rabbɔ.

speak.act.part-sm Daniel and-speak.act.part-sm / look.act.part-sm see.SC-1s in-vision-1s with night / and-behold / four.sf wind-pl.cons heaven stir.act.part-sf to-sea great-sm

Daniel related the following: In my vision at night, I saw the four winds of heaven stirring up the great sea.

וְאַרְבַּע חֵיוָן רַבְרְבָן, סָלְקָן מִן-יַמָּא, שָׁנְיָן, דָּא מִן-דָּא.

wəʔarbaʕ ħewɔn ravrəvɔn sɔləqɔn min yammɔ, ʃɔnəyɔn dɔ min dɔ.

and-four beast-pl great-pl.f come.act.part-pl.f from sea / differ.act.part-pl.f this.sf from this.sf

Four mighty beasts different from each other emerged from the sea.

קַדְמָיְתָא כְאַרְיֵה, וְגַפִּין דִּי-נְשַׁר לַהּ; חָזֵה הֲוֵית עַד דִּי-מְּרִיטוּ גפיה (גַפַּהּ) וּנְטִילַת מִן-אַרְעָא, וְעַל-רַגְלַיִן כֶּאֱנָשׁ הֳקִימַת, וּלְבַב אֱנָשׁ, יְהִיב לַהּ.

qaðmɔyəθɔ xəʔarye, wəɣappin di nəʃar lah; ħɔze haweθ ʕað di-mməritˤu ɣappah untˤilaθ min ʔarʕɔ, wəʕal raɣlayin kɛʔɛnɔʃ hoqimaθ, ulvav ʔɛnɔʃ yəhiv lah.

first-sf as-lion / and-wing-pl of eagle to-3sf watch.act.part-sm watch.SC-1s until till pluck.nifal.SC-3pm / wing-pl.cons-3sf and-3sf-raise.nifal.PC from earth / and-on feet.du as-man stand.hofal.SC-3sf and-heart.cons man give.SC-3sm to-3sf

The first was like a lion but had eagles’ wings. As I looked on, its wings were plucked off, and it was lifted off the ground and set on its feet like a man and given the mind of a man.

Buggy book

At the library I picked up a book on history which I hoped would be dull but informative– perfect for reading at the gym or just before bed. Almost the first thing in the book is a map of the ancient Middle East, which shows Sumer… as a city.

Oops! But maybe this was a singular error and the text would be OK. But no, it turns out to be full of little errors.

  • The author says that both Egypt and Mesopotamia tamed their rivers by means of elaborate waterworks. That’s more or less true of southern Mesopotamia; not so much Assyria or Egypt. Egypt barely needed waterworks: the entire Nile valley flooded every year, and the Egyptians just had to recover the locations of their fields after the flood.
  • He has Egypt founded by Menes, not Narmer. He describes the Nubians as being too weak to resist Egyptian domination, though in fact Nubia conquered Egypt at one point.
  • He describes the Amarna letters as showing the supremacy of Egypt over all other kingdoms, and to prove this quotes a letter from an Egyptian vassal. In fact the letters show that the major states were and presented themselves as fully equal to Egypt. A little clue that Egypt wasn’t top dog is that the letters are written in Akkadian!
  • He has the Sumerians as successors to the Akkadians, and declares that the Sumerians ruled from Ur. In fact the Sumerians came first, and were notoriously divided into fractious city-states. He talks about the Assyrians inheriting culture from the Babylonians– he doesn’t seem to realize that they spoke the same language.
  • He says that Babylon never recovered after the fall of Hammurabi– though in fact it was a major player for another thousand years, usually able to stand up to Assyria, and finally triumphant over it. He mentions the Kassite takeover of Babylon but doesn’t seem to know that the Kassites ruled peacefully for almost 500 years.
  • He summarizes Hinduism as the worship of Lakshmi and Vishnu, which not only erases Shiva but forgets that there was a whole different pantheon in Vedic times.
  • He says that India’s major external threat, until the Europeans arrives in the 16C, was the nomads of Central Asia. Which, um, forgets the Persians, the Greeks, and the Arabs.
  • He has the early Chinese surrounded by exotic peoples named Xirong, Beidi, and Nanman. This is a confused and truncated reflection of the Chinese giving a name to the barbarians in each direction: Róng to the west, Dí to the north, Mán to the south, and Yí to the east. The author’s versions redundantly add the Chinese direction name: Xī-Róng = ‘west Róng’. None of these names should be taken as ethnic groups or nations.
  • He uses temple names for (medieval) Chinese emperors, which leads to absurdity when he mentions a Khitan emperor crowning himself Taizu. First, temple names are posthumous; second, Tàizǔ is the traditional temple name given to the founder of a dynasty; it’s more of a title (‘great ancestor’) than a name.

Naturally, my upcoming book won’t have these errors. (Of course, in my less self-confident moments I worry that it will be riddled with other errors. But hopefully they’ll be more interesting and better-informed ones.)

I’m not going to name the book, because my intent is not to shame the author. I don’t expect to finish it, anyway, because he’s lost my trust. I expect he’s reading way out of his field, and he is trying to talk about all of history, which implies a pretty overwhelming research load. But still, didn’t he have any specialist friends who could give the manuscript a quick read?

Oh, one more complaint– he talks about a Middle Eastern “dark age” from 1200-1000. That’s not an error exactly, but it’s kind of an outdated way of thinking. In many regions historians focus on strong, high-profile states… largely because these are the places that left impressive ruins and lots of documents. It’s fair to say that these were nice times to be alive if you were in the elite and lived in the capital. It’s far less accurate to say that these were the best times for the rest of the population.

Take, say, the Old Kingdom of Egypt. We can trace the rising power of the leaders from predynastic times, culminating in the near-totalitarian power of the 4th dynasty (which built the Giza pyramids). Centuries later, the power of the kings declined; tombs of provincial leaders increased in size; there was a tendency toward regional art styles. Finally the central power collapsed.

Was this a “dark age”? For the royal family, sure! But arguably prosperity was spread far more equally at the end of the dynasty and beyond it, and the common people were perhaps better off when they weren’t being forced to build pyramids.

We get the “dark ages” concept from European history, and European historians’ eternal disappointment at the fall of Rome.

  • The prosperity of the Roman empire is frequently exaggerated, especially in the West. Urbanism didn’t have deep roots in Gaul or Spain, and largely collapsed when central authority did.
  • Rome was really pretty badly managed. There was never really a golden age of Roman republicanism, and the emperors operated at about the level of Third World warlords.
  • The collapse in power and technology we see in the western half of the empire should not be imputed to interregna elsewhere, e.g. China and India. A set of small kingdoms ruling where there was once an empire is not inherently bad.

MECK readers needed

It’s (finally) that time again: I need readers for the first draft of the Middle East Construction Kit.

The book is similar to my China and India books. It covers the history, culture, religion, and literature of ancient Mesopotamia, Canaan, and Egypt, up till the Macedonian conquest, and includes meaty grammatical sketches of Sumerian, Akkadian, and Hebrew.

If you’re interested and have time, send me e-mail. If you’ve done this before, welcome back! If not, tell me if you have any special expertise. This is not required, as I need general readers too. If I get a load of replies I may save some of you for the second draft.

If you’re curious, that’s king Horemheb above, circa 1300 BCE, greeting Hathor in the afterlife, and hoping no one notices he has two right hands.

More Talmud

I finished the Talmud, or rather Norman Solomon’s selections from it, which is less than 10% of the whole thing. But at 800 pages I feel that reading even that is an accomplishment.

Now, all too much of the book reads like this:

If someone bends down to drink, the water that comes up on his mouth or his moustache is ki yuttan, but [that which comes up] in his nose or on his head or beard is not ki yuttan.

Ki yuttan is “if it is put”, from Lev. 31:37-38:

If such a carcass falls upon seed grain that is to be sown, it is clean; but if water is put on the seed and any part of a carcass falls upon it, it shall be unclean for you.

You see, don’t you, that ki yuttan implies that the water got there by human intention, so it’s important to clarify what actions are intentional and what are not. Drinking, your intention is to get water in your mouth but not on your head. Why the moustache but not the rest of the beard is ki yuttan I can’t tell you, presumably because Solomon does not include the gemara in this chapter.

So, it’s fun when the rabbis instead decide to include a comedy routine. This comes in the context of a discussion of first-borns. Rabbi Joshua ben Ħanania goes to Athens to debate the Greek elders in their fortified academy. The Greeks had a rule that if the inner guards see a foot enter,  the outer guards are killed for their negligence; if the outer guards see a foot leaving, the inner guards are killed. Joshua places his shoe down facing the interior, then facing the exterior, so that the elders killed both sets of guards, and he could enter.

He then enters a debate with the elders, where they try to trick him and he one-ups them each time:

Elders: If salt goes bad, what do they salt it with?

Joshua: With the placenta of a mule.

Elders: Does a mule have a placenta?

Joshua: Does salt go bad?

Elders: Build us a house in the air!

Joshua uttered a divine Name and suspended himself between the earth and the sky. Pass me up bricks and mortar! he demanded.

Elders: If a chick inside an egg dies, which way does its spirit emerge?

Joshua: It goes out the way it came in!

And so on, for a page or two. Apparently some scholars did not find the comedy and instead tried to extract deep meanings from the debate.

It’s also interesting to find some bits of weird science.

  • There’s a discussion of “refining gold a thousand times”, so that a thousand measures of gold were reduced to one. Gold is an element and can’t be refined. (An alloy can be refined, though something that was just 0.1% gold would hardly be called an alloy of gold!)
  • It was believed that flies and other creatures spontaneously generate in, say, meat. This was relevant to cleanliness rules. Were they part of the meat, or were they separate, unclean “swarming things”?
  • There’s a discussion of what happens when a cow gives birth to a camel, or vice versa. This was considered rare, but a definite possibility and therefore something to worry about, as cows are kosher but camels are not.
  • The rabbis suggested that the father produces a baby’s bones, sinews, and the whites of its eyes, the mother its flesh, skin, pupils, and hair; and God the spirit and the power of sensation and movement. It’s striking that this white/red division of genetic labor was the same as that posited by the Indians. (India Construction Kit p. 179)

Finally, here’s a taste of gematria. Hebrew doesn’t have separate numerals; rather, each letter has a numerical value as well. This means that every word can be read either as a linguistic sign or as a number, and that invites endless esoteric discussion. Proverbs 8:11 states

I endow those who love me with substance;
I will fill their treasuries.

E.g., ‘substance’ yesh is ישׁ. Now שׁ is 300 and י is 10, so the numerical value of yesh is 310. So Rabbi Joshua ben Levi concluded that “the Holy One will reward every righteous person with 310 worlds.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Talmud

I’m reading the Talmud right now. It’s good coronavirus reading since there’s 37 volumes in the 1886 Vilna edition. (I am not reading that edition.  I’m reading a one-volume, 800-page selection, translated by Norman Solomon.)

To get you in the mood, here’s a lovely scholarly putdown from the Talmud:

If you learned [Scripture] you did not review it; if you reviewed it you did not go over it a third time; if you went over it a third time they never explained it to you.

You probably know that for many Jews, lifelong study in a yeshiva is the highest aspiration. What are they studying, the Bible?  Not really– it doesn’t take years to read the Bible. They’re studying the Talmud. Here’s the first page of the Vilna edition:

talmud2

This page has been helpfully color-coded.

  • The pink in the middle is the Mishna (3C)
  • The orange just below it is the gemara (6C), the Babylonian rabbis’ discussion of the Mishna. The pink + orange is the Talmud proper
  • The cyan column to the right is the commentary of Rashi (11C, France)
  • The blue to the left is the commentary of the Tosafists (Rashi’s successors)
  • The yellow is commentary by Nissim ben Jacob (11C)
  • The other colors are cross-references and other helps

And there’s 5500 more pages like that. You can see it’d take awhile to absorb.

So, what is it? Well, the rabbis believed there was an “Oral Torah” which accompanied and explained the written Torah. After the destruction of the Temple in 70, rabbis gathered in yeshivot, first in Yavne near Jerusalem and later in Galilee, to codify the Oral Torah. It was finally written down (edited by Judah ha-Nasi) in the 3C; this is the Mishna.

An example. Exodus gives instructions for Passover: “Seven days you shall eat unleavened bread; on the very first day you shall remove leaven from your houses, for whoever eats leavened bread from the first day to the seventh day, that person shall be cut off from Israel.”

Now, if you want to take this seriously… and, let’s be honest, if you have a pedantic mindset… this raises a lot of questions. First, do you remove the leaven the first day, or the day before that? The Mishna comments:

This [Ex. 12:15] means on the eve of the festival. Or could it mean on the first day of the festival itself?  No, for it is written, “you shall not slaughter my sacrifice with leaven.” ….But Rabbi Aqiva says, This is not necessary. It says “But on the first day you shall remove leaven from your house”, and it is written, “No work shall be done on those days”; since burning is a principal category of forbidden work, it is clear that the removal of ħametz [food with leaven] should not take place on the festival day itself.

Now, even this wasn’t considered enough by the rabbis. They kept talking for a few more centuries, both in Palestine and in Babylonia, where there was a large community of Jews safe from Roman persecution (whether pagan or Christian). The result was two Talmuds, though the Babylonian (Bavli) Talmud is both more thorough and more authoritative. It was finally written down in the 6C. It took a few more centuries to get to Europe.

Here’s a sampling of the discussion of the above point:

Evidently, [Meir and Judah] both agree that it is forbidden to eat ħametz after the 6th hour [of 14 Nisan, the day before Passover]. On what is this based?

Abbaye said, on two verses. One states, “No leaven shall be found in your houses for seven days”, and the other states, “But on the first day you shall remove leaven from your houses.” What does this imply? The 14th of Nisan is added to remove ħametz.

…It was taught in the School of Rabbi Ishmael: “We find that the 14th is called first, as it is said, “In the first, on the 14th day of the month.” Rav Naħman bar Isaac said, “First may mean previous, as when Scripture says “Were you the first of men to be born?” [Job 15:7]

Then what about “You shall take for yourselves on the first day”? Can that mean the previous day? That is different, for it continues, “And you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days”; just as the 7th day must be the 7th of the festival, so the 1st day is the first of the festival.

Oh dear, and they’re not done yet. They go on to analyze why “first” has a definite article and what that means, and the use of “first” elsewhere in the Bible. They conclude that indeed you must remove the leaven on the 14th, because burning it on the 15th would be work, which is forbidden. (Which is what the Mishna had already concluded.)

After this there’s a discussion of what to do if there are two houses that are already pure, and a mouse takes a bundle of ħametz, but we don’t know which house it entered. They discuss variations on this for several pages.

Isn’t this faintly ridiculous?  Well, the Talmud isn’t above telling jokes. But it’s a thought experiment, no sillier (and perhaps no more serious) than modern ethicists telling stories about trolleys.

The yeshivot had masters and students, but proceeded by argument and discussion. This is reproduced in both Mishna and Talmud, but it’s an artful editorial creation: the rabbis mentioned lived in different times and centuries. Sometimes the issue is resolved, and sometimes it’s not– Elijah would rule on all the unresolved issues when he came. I like the way that disagreements are recorded– even if a point is resolved, it’s a reminder that things will look different to different sages. It’s evident that the compilers relished a juicy rejoinder or a clever bit of logic.

Linguistic note: the Torah and Mishna are written in Hebrew; the Gemara is written in Aramaic, the spoken language of the time. So you need to know both languages to study the Talmud. (And even so the discussion can be difficult, which is where Rashi is invaluable.)

Now, the rabbis believed that the Mishna might be mistaken, but the Torah itself was inerrant. This led to a good number of problems, which were faced and addressed:

It is written, “Do not answer a fool in accord with his folly” (Proverbs 26:4), and it is written “Answer a fool in accord with his folly (26:5). No problem! One verse refers to matters of Torah, the other to worldly things.

That seems like a stretch, but often the rabbis are pretty free with their interpretations… if a verse anywhere in the Tanakh sounds vaguely appropriate they’ll cite it. A particularly freewheeling example: Abba Arika is discussing astrology, and recounts a discussion between Abraham and God. Abraham says (this is not in the Tanakh!) that his horoscope says he won’t have a son. God replies that if Abraham’s belief is based on Jupiter being in the west, he (God) can move Jupiter to the east. The citation is Isaiah 41:2: “Who has roused a victor from the East, summoned him to His service?” Huh?  As it happens, ṣedeq ‘victory’ is also the name for Jupiter!

The Talmud can be charmingly digressive– e.g. a discussion of the Sabbath leads into this discussion of whether astrology is true (the best rabbis say that it doesn’t apply to Jews). In the middle of the discussion of Passover, the rabbis are suddenly insulting “ignoramuses” (those Jews who didn’t take the Law seriously) and discussing the benefits or disadvantages of marrying a priest’s daughter.

Or, there’s this nice story contrasting Shammai and Hillel, teachers in the -1 to 1C:

A heathen presented himself to Shammai saying, Convert me on condition that you teach me the whole Torah while I stand on one leg! Shammai drove him away with the builder’s measure he was holding.

He came to Hillel with the same request, and Hillel accepted him as a convert.He said to him, “Do not do to others what you would not like them to do to you! That is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary; go and learn!”

Now, the statement of the Golden Rule is elevating and all that, but the piquancy comes from Hillel’s evasion of the pagan’s trap (teach the Torah in a few moments), as well as the contrast to the irascible Shammai. (Rabbinic Judaism goes with Hillel in the few instances where they disagree, thus the slightly negative picture of Shammai here.)

I’m reading about the Talmud and about Judaism as research for my book on the ancient Middle East. And really, I’m surprised the Talmud is so little known or studied outside Judaism. For one thing, it’s one of the largest troves of literature from its time… we can only dream of a similarly voluminous text from Babylonia or Egypt. (As I’ve noted before, you can read almost all of ancient Egyptian literature in three short volumes.)

The other thing is undoubtedly Christianity’s uneasy relationship with Judaism. Christians read the “Old Testament” basically with the idea that they can ignore the Law… except on those issues where they can use it to support a prejudice of theirs. (E.g. they carefully read the prohibition on male homosexuality, and ignore the bits on forgiving debts.) The overall result is that Christians are very interested in Jews… up till the lifetime of Paul, and after that not at all, except for the occasional persecution.

And the result of that is that I think most Christians imagine that the Jews “just have the Old Testament”– that their religion is focused on the Tanakh as Christianity is focused on the New Testament. No, there’s this whole Talmud thing too!

(It’s more complicated than that, of course. There were those that rejected the Talmud, such as the Karaites. There’s Kaballah, which adds a whole mystical element. And the chaos of modernity, which was as disruptive to Judaism as it was to literalist Christianity.)

There is one group of non-Jews that study the Talmud. That’s… South Koreans, where study and discussion of (a simplified, translated) Talmud is a big craze.