Thursday, February 28, 2008

Jerome's Hebrew

I posted a comment in the Lieberman post directly below this, and I liked the way I brought out my point, so it's becoming its own post. It concerns Jerome.

Shmuel noted that Jerome "actually did know some Hebrew, having lived in Israel and who was tutored by a local Jew in the Hebrew language and the Tanach." I wanted to broaden that, and acknowledge that Jerome's Hebraic knowledge did exceed the way that sounded, despite the fact that he is cut down as a Hebrew authority by the Jewish Encyclopedia's (1906) thorough entry on him (link, saying that his "knowledge of Hebrew is considerable only when compared with that of the other Church Fathers and of the general Christian public of his time. His knowledge was really very defective. Although he pretends to have complete command of Hebrew and proudly calls himself a "trilinguis" (being conversant with Latin, Greek, and Hebrew), he did not, in spite of all his hard work, attain to the proficiency of his simple Jewish teachers."

However, keeping in mind Shmuel's statement that he "knew some Hebrew," I say: He knew more than some Hebrew. He knew Hebrew well, not only having lived in Israel, not only having been tutored in Hebrew (and Jewish interpretations) by JewS, but I know he knew Hebrew well also because he translated the Bible into Latin from Hebrew. Whether or not the Vulgata is the *best* translation ever it is no mean feat to translate the entire Tanakh from Hebrew. (As it happens, it is pretty good, although it naturally also Christological, which makes it Christo-midrashic rather than always literal or peshat oriented.)

Doing only a reasonable job on a translation is impossible without knowing Hebrew well. It is not like today where you can sit down with a stack of translations, Hebrew dictionaries, concordances and references, and so in theory someone who only knows the slightest amount of Hebrew could pretend to make a translation, and perhaps pass it off as something original and even "reasonable." Jerome was working from scratch. He was also an exegete, and he wrote quite a bit about the Hebrew language itself. (Incidentally, he knew Punic, which is cognate with Hebrew. Since he engaged in a little bit of comparative linguistics, I suppose his knowledge of that language helped him. He was no stranger to the tongues of the Shemites, Hebrew included.)

When one considers that the science of Hebrew grammar had barely developed yet, if at all - and that meant that knowledge of Hebrew was achieved through intensive steeping in the texts of that language, nurturing a good intuition and feel for the language - fluency probably would have been achieved in an almost osmosis-like fashion. And how was that done? It would have meant a classic rabbinic education of the time. He therefore did knew Hebrew well.

Jerome achieved what he did in the language (including being able to describe it with sometimes excellent insights) without being, essentially, a צורבא מרבנן.

Monday, February 25, 2008

R. Saul Lieberman on being historical: tikkunei soferim and not conflating ancient with modern sensibilites

Saul Lieberman,"Corrections of the Soferim," in Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, pg 33-34 1994 edition:

"Jacob Reifmann collected a great number of Biblical passages which contain rougher expressions than many of those included among the corrections of the Soferim. Why then, he asks, did the Soferim (or the verse) modify some utterances while they left others unchanged? Why the inconsistency."

"However, we cannot apply our modern standards to the ancients. We are not in a position to measure their sensitivity to certain expressions and their definition of rudeness of style. We really find no consistency in the use of euphemisms even in later rabbinic literature. We are in no position to judge the ancients for their seeming inconsistency; they were guided by their own standards and reasons. We must also take the individuals, times and places into consideration."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

A wedding poem in honor of Ramchal and Mrs. Luzzatto, with non-pc imagery

An Italian* Jewish wedding custom was to compose poetry in honor of the bride and groom. The poems would be distributed to the guests and read at the wedding. This custom persisted into the 20th century.

Here is a description:

The wedding poems, or epithalamia, in The Jewish Theological Seminary's collection date from the 17th - 20th centuries. They are written in Italian, German or Hebrew in verses praising the bride and bridegroom and praying for their prosperity. Designed primarily as celebratory poems praising the newlyweds and their families, Jewish epithalamia are characterized by a common structure. An introduction consisting of honorific statements introduces the names of the groom and his father. Frequently, the bride and her lineage are also noted. In the central section the author presents the poem itself employing any one of a variety of literary formats. The third section usually consists of the author's final salutations and a signature, using either the poet's full name or initials. While many of the poems are printed, the few handwritten examples that remain attest to the personal nature of such verses.

The following is one such poem from 1730, in honor of the wedding of Moshe Chaim Luzzatto to Zipporah Finzi (by Raffaele Haim D’Italia).

Even if this charming custom were to reappear, I doubt the nude cherubs would prove a popular stationary choice these days.

Be sure to check out the JTS Digital Collection (which includes over 200 wedding poems, including another one in honor of 23-year old Moses Hayyim and Zipporah).

Related: Racy title page series at the Seforim Blog.

*To a more limited extent, this custom existed in other lands, including Germany.

Friday, February 15, 2008

Is Lakewood Yeshiva - BMG going to have a web site?

Domain Name: BMG.EDU

601 Private way

Administrative Contact:
Lakewood, NJ 08701
(732)367-1060 x295

Technical Contact:
Pessy Pollack
601 Private way
Lakewood, NJ 08701
(732)367-1060 x298

Name Servers:

Domain record activated: 25-Jan-2001
Domain record last updated: 08-Jun-2006
Domain expires: 31-Jul-2008

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The history of the supposed credo of Karaism

Sometimes when I come across something particularly interesting, I jot a note down for myself. Here's something I found, but I don't remember where I read it, so sorry to whomever I stole the thought from.

A cardinal principle of early Karaism (and perhaps a popular saying among Karaites still, although I am unsure of that) is the following, which is attributed to Anan ben David, possibly a seminal figure in the founding of Karaism, but certainly a seminal figure in Karaism in general.

His saying is as follows:

חפישו באורייתא שפיר ואל תשענו על דעתי
"Search diligently in the Torah and don't rely on my opinion."

This credo really sums up the Karaite attitude toward Scripture. Independence of interpretation being seen as a desirable thing, even as it informs practical halakhic practice.

Someone pointed out that the first half is in Aramaic, while the second half is in Hebrew. Thus it would seem plausible that the second half is actually a gloss on the first. Perhaps Anan did say "Search diligently in the Torah," but perhaps someone else said "and don't rely on my opinion."

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

'Facing the Truths of History' revisited, pt. II; on the Weinberg-Atlas correspondence

The whole Weinberg-Atlas correspondence thing has renewed itself, in a discussion here about this symposium. For the unfamiliar, see my overview on the subject from almost two years ago.

Here is a quote from the Chopping Wood blog:

"While Dr. Shapiro's thesis about the Seridei Eish might certainly be true, the letters that he published were truly private. Rabbi Weinberg never published them, but instead sent them to a friend in confidence. After all, aren't private letters supposed to be confidential. In fact, Dr. Atlas saved his letters but never disseminated them publicly, and it was only his widow - who really had no appreciation for the implications of the publication of those letters -- who gave final permission for him to use them.

"To me, this raises the complicated issue of rabbinic privacy. Of course the Seridei Eish was a gadol, and his halachic works and other public writings have defined him for posterity. But does that public persona then make his entire life "public property"? Doesn't he also deserve to have a private life?"
(emphasis mine)

The answer to that question must be "yes," however there is a common and widespread tradition in both Torah and Western scholarship of collecting and publishing the correspondence of notable people, particularly of the non-mundane variety (sometimes shopping lists are published, but you've got to be a George Washington for that, not a John Paul Jones). While this doesn't mean that there is therefore no such thing as the private life of the notable person, it does mean that the notable person does not write letters under the mistaken impression that they will never see the light of day.1 It is unlikely that R. Weinberg expected Prof. Atlas to destroy the letters he sent him, or that he could have had the expectation that no one would ever publish them.

Finally, there is the question of the judgment that the correspondence between a respected Orthodox rabbi and a Talmudic scholar in a Reform theological school2 would be embarrassing to the respected Orthodox rabbi. One could make a case that respected Orthodox rabbis who carry intimate correspondence with a Talmudic scholar in a Reform theological school are simply not like other Orthodox rabbis in the first place, and assuming the correspondence to be embarrassing is merely projection onto the respected Orthodox rabbi on the one hand, or perhaps the embarrassment is to elements within Orthodoxy that respect the rabbi on the other.

Indeed, in one of Prof. Atlas's published studies on the Talmud3 there is a letter from R. Weinberg printed, which highly praises these studies and wistfully observes that he wished that the traditionalist Torah students would read these studies and learn how to express themselves clearly, precisely and scientifically in Hebrew. Was this letter a secret and was Prof. Atlas wrong to have printed it?

R. Spolter (the Chopping Wood blogger) continues that he got when he challenged Shapiro on the issue of privacy, the latter agreed that he wouldn't be the one to reveal that a respected rabbi had an illegitimate child, provided that the rabbi had acted correctly as a father to that child. On the other hand, if the rabbi had not then he would publicize that fact. This then shows that even Marc Shapiro agrees that gedolim are entitled to a degree of privacy, even posthumously.

It is indeed interesting that Marc Shapiro personally feels that having an illegitimate child is not per se a diminution of the gadlus of a rabbi, but it is no chiddush that a responsible historian must distinguish between gossip and something of importance, nor is it a chiddush that sometimes what is or isn't gossip is basically a matter of opinion. These are problems, to be sure, but nothing ever leaves everyone happy.

Hat tip.

1 I would agree that a distinction might be made between letters from the notable person's youth--before they were notable--and afterward. People cannot predict their future, but the Weinberg-Atlas correspondence which was published in TUMJ begins in 1946.

2 Also notable is that R. Weinberg published a paper jointly with Paul Kahle in the Jewish studies annual of this very Reform theological school (see here if you want to read that paper). Perhaps the reader wishes to make a distinction between the relatively private life of R. Weinberg after WWII, and before when he was Rector of the Berlin Rabbinerseminar? While the Weinberg-Atlas letters were indeed from after the war, the HUCA article is from 1935.

3 I don't remember the name or much about it. I found it lying unloved on a shul's bookshelf, and only got to look at it for about twenty minutes.

Thursday, February 07, 2008

...and 'like an olive' used to be 'like an olive,' too...

Ari has an excellent post about how 18th century Jewish women knew what time to light the Shabbat candles.
"In today’s age we are extremely punctilious when it comes to various zemanim (assigned times). Take Shabbat, for example—we begin and end at a precise minute, and one that varies from week to week. I always wondered, however, exactly how in an era before clocks and watches were household items did people know when to light Shabbat candles. I assume most people did not own a sundial and you can’t always rely on the skies. So how did they know it was 4:53 pm and time to light the candles? Or that the eighteen minutes were up and you had to park your horse and walk home?

"A few years ago I discovered the answer of how they told the difference between 4:53 and 5:07.

"Answer: they couldn’t tell the difference.
Read the entire post.


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