Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Something about Hebrew abbreviations, abbreviature, rashei tevot

If you're like me, you take ראשי תיבות, and other kinds of Hebrew abbreviations, for granted. רש''י, הנ''ל ,עמו''ש, וא''ת, וגו'י and much, much more. But it is an interesting convention nonetheless, if not necessarily unparalleled.

Apart from simply being interesting, fluency in such abbreviations is necessary for understanding rabbinic literature. So it was that the great Christian Hebraist Johann Buxtorf (the father) wrote De Abbreviaturis Hebraicis (published in 1640) as a key to these mysterious abbreviations.

Below is an interesting excerpt from a little book published in England in 1736 by John Gibbs called An historical account of compendious and swift writing.

The Encyclopedia Judaica has a fine article on Hebrew abbreviations. Here are two interesting excerpts:

Misunderstandings and Misinterpretations

The increasing and inconsistent use of abbreviations has inevitably led to occasional confusion and made the study of Hebrew texts more difficult, a fact recognized in the 16th century by Solomon Luria (Yam shel Shelomo, Hul. 6:6). Misinterpretations have occurred when ambiguous abbreviations were printed in full. In any case, difficulties arise when an abbreviation can be read in more than one way, so that, e.g., in a bibliographical context ד''ו could be read as דפוס ויניציאה (“Printed in Venice), or דפוס וורשא (“Printed in Warsaw”), or דפוס וילנה (“Printed in Vilna”), or דפוס וינה (“Printed in Vienna”). Because of the risk of misrepresentation, no abbreviations may be used in a bill of divorce (Git. 36a and Sh. Ar., EH 126) or other religious documents. Misrepresentations have also occurred in the work of censors and Christian scholars (e.g., three yod's have been taken to denote the trinity. Hebrew abbreviations have been found on Christian amulets, and Christian writers have used kabbalistic methods, such as regarding a complete word as notarikon (e.g., ברא as בן רוח אב). Because of the many obscurities in the Hebrew writings, which Christian scholars were anxious to study, a guide to abbreviations was needed and it was a non-Jew, Johannes Buxtorf the Elder, who produced the pioneer work De Abbreviaturis Hebraicis (1613). The first Jewish work of this kind, by Elijah Levita, concentrated mainly on the masoretic ambiguities; lists of abbreviations were eventually added to Hebrew works and were followed by independent, comprehensive compilations. Of these, the following are the most important: J. Ezekiel, Kethonet Yoseph. A Handbook of Hebrew Abbreviations (Heb.-Eng., 1887); G. H. Haendler, Erkhei ha-Notarikon (1897); M. Heilprin, Ha-Notarikon . . . (1872, 19302); A. Stern, Sefer Rashei Tevot (1926); S. Chajes, Ozar Beduyei ha-Shem (pseudonyms; 1933); S. Ashkenazi and D. Jarden, Ozar Rashei Tevot ... (1965); S. Ashkenazi, Mefa'ne'ah Ne'lamim (1969); A. Steinsalz, Rashei Tevot ve-Kizzurim be-Sifrut ha-Hasidut ve-ha-Kabbalah (1968).
[Ruth P. Lehmann]

Abbreviations in Jewish Folklore

Many abbreviations were misinterpreted (often quite intentionally) and caused misunderstandings which became part of the Jewish folklore. For example, the Yaknehaz abbreviation in the Passover Haggadah. denoting the order of the benedictions (yayin, kiddush, ner, havdalah, zeman), was understood as the German jag'n Has (“hunt the hare”) and pictures of a hare hunt accompany the relevant passage in the printed Haggadah. Many folk etymologies are based upon the notion that the obscure word is an abbreviation; so, for example, the word afikoman is explained by the Yemenite Haggadah as an abbreviation of egozim (“nuts), perot (“fruits”), yayin (“wine”), keliyyot (“parched grain”), u-vasar (“and meat”), mayim (“water”), nerd (“spices”). The abbreviation of Akum for Oved Kokhavim u-Mazzalot (“worshiper of the stars and constellations”) was interpreted by anti-Semitic propaganda (Rohling) as Oved Christum u-Miryam (“Worshiper of Christ and Mary”).
[David Niv]

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