Thursday, July 21, 2005

'Aza, Gaza, mah zeh?

I am rarely at a loss for an opinion, especially about Israel. Yet the only opinion I can manage to muster about the Gaza withdrawal is sadness--not sadness because I think it is a bad move. That is what I cannot, for some reason, form an opinion about. Sadness because whether it is the right thing to do or not, it is unquestionably a sad moment in Jewish history. I just don't know what to think, but I am sad. I can only pray that this be nothing more than a speed bump in the history of the Jewish people and particularly in the life of the affected settlers, rather than a mountain.

But since Gaza is in the news, I thought it might be interesting to discuss why Gaza is called Gaza when it is spelled in Hebrew with an 'ayin. Now, it is hardly a secret to Ashkenazi Jews who do not distinguish between an 'aleph and an 'ayin that there is a difference. Many people know this and would suppose that this is why Gaza is transliterated with a "G". The guttural 'ayin becomes a hard g in English. Not so pashut. Moses' father, Amram, isn't Gamram.

In fact the reason why Gaza is Gaza and not 'Aza is because of Origen's Hexapla. Origen was a 2nd century Christian scholar who wrote an edition of the Bible in six versions side by side; Hebrew, Hebrew in Greek letters, the targum of Aquila, Targum Symmachus, the LXX and Theodotion's.

The column of Hebrew in Greek letters is especially exciting to Bible geeks, because it gives us greater understanding of how Hebrew was pronounced. In the Hexapla, 'Aza is rendered Gaza, notably because the 'ayin sound does not exist in Greek. However he didn't choose the "a" sound, as one would in English. One might think this was purely arbitrary. A guttural can go other way. Take it all the way to "g" or just leave it out. But no, his 'Amram gets the "a" treatment. Why?

In Arabic there is a letter called ghayn as well as 'ayn. The ghayn is basically a harder version of the 'ayn, but not yet a hard g. This letter doesn't exist in Hebrew. But perhaps, perhaps during the 2nd century, at least, there were some 'ayins in Hebrew* that were pronounced like a ghayn and some like an 'ayn. How would a speaker know which was which? Well, they'd just know intuitively. But we don't. It is for this reason that the twin city of Sodom, 'Amorah, became Gomorrah. Gaza, Gomorrah and Amram.

*Or maybe it was an Aramaic influence on Hebrew of the time.

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1 comment:

  1. Of course.

    Gaza in Arabic has a ghayn, as does Baghdad.
    And gharb / maghreb for west (Ma'arav in Hebrew).



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