Thursday, November 08, 2007

Eliezer Ben Yehuda, Hebrew &c.

Eliezer Ben-Yehuda is sort of in the news again, being that UNESCO announced that he, along with Darwin and the Maharal, among others (link) would be included in a list of contributors to civilization.

As an aside, let me just make my view clear: he was not the "creator" of modern Hebrew, so no need to tell me that. Yes, he was elevated as a symbol, but his contribution to the revival was real and important. So without overstating things, and without understating things.

Couple of tidbits:

From a interview conducted in 2000 with Dola Wittmann, Ben-Yehuda's daughter:

Dola lit up when I asked her if Ben-Yehuda had a sense of humor when he created the modern language. "Oh, yes, definitely! There are many examples of whimsy in his choice of words." For example? She laughed. "Clitoris. He decided on דגדגן dagdegan, from the root לדגדג l'dagdeg, to tickle."

Dola died in January of 2005. Yes, she was over 100 year old--but being whose daughter she was, it sort of puts time into perspective. Her father's famous activity took place in the late 19th and early 20th century. Not so long ago after all.

The following is an interesting excerpt from the chapter called "The Debate Over Hebrew," in Guardian of Jerusalem, the Artscroll biography of R. Chaim Sonnenfeld (which was based on the three volume biography of R. Chaim, האיש על החומה, by his grandson Shlomo Zalman Sonnenfeld).

Read the whole thing, but I want to highlight the bit which I'll type below:

The footnote to the story of the exchange between R. Shmuel Salant and Ben-Yehuda:

Ben-Yehuda replied hotly to this statement saying, "What kind of shtusim (nonsense - in Yiddish) are you speaking!" R' Shmuel smiled and immediately corrected the famous grammarian, "shtuyot is the proper Hebrew form of the word ..."

and the following footnote:

R' Moshe Blau related in his book: "My revered father-in-law, R' Yaakov Orenstein, was a fiery zealot on behalf of Orthodox causes yet also an extremely pleasant person. Once, while R' Yaakov was delivering a shiur, someone entered and whispered something to him. R' Yaakov interrupted the shiur and stepped outside. When he returned, he explained that Ben-Yehudah had been standing outside, waiting to ask him the meaning of the word amin which appears in the Talmud, Zevachim 40b.1 R' Yaakov maintained that it was a kiddush Hashem for a Yiddish-speaking rav to explain to Ben-Yehuda the meaning of a Hebrew word that he, the famous Hebrew lexicographer, could not fathom."

These may well be completely accurate. The first story is not surprising; Ben Yehuda thought in Yiddish, obviously. Secondly, even great scholars make mistakes. The point of the story is evidently that Ben Yehuda did not know the proper form of the word, but of course he did.

The second story has all the earmarks of a classic (important person summons the hero whilst a crowd waits, and the hero dazzles the important person), but it too is probably essentially true. Of course Ben Yehuda sought the views of traditional Jews and rabbis. Apart from being sound on linguistic grounds, it is also a mark of humility. The point of the story seems to be that Ben Yehuda "couldn't fathom" a Hebrew word. Whether true or not, the story also makes the point that Ben Yehuda could admit this fact and was indeed interested in hearing what truths could be taught about his beloved language wherever it could be taught.

When the Sages "couldn't fathom" Hebrew words they too had the humility, honesty (and keen language sense) to seek an explanation (see prior post which discusses a famous Talmudic passage about the Hebrew language).

In any case, the point of the stories seem also to promote that idea that Ben Yehuda really wasn't *that* great an expert in Hebrew, at least not as much as the traditional rabbonim. That's why it's a story. If R. Blau's father-in-law had went to Ben-Yehuda, that wouldn't have been a story (that is, repeated). It isn't a "story" that R. Benjamin Musaphia's מוסף הערוך used Buxtorf's lexicon to fathom words in Talmudic literature, nor is it a story that R. Hai Ga'on sought clarification for the meaning of a Hebrew from a Christian patriarch (see). Oh, wait. These are stories too. Just different people tell them. ;)

1 Speaking of the word in question, אמין, it's clear from the context that it's some kind of blemish or sore. Rashi translates it as וירוא"ה in Old French. Soncino translates as wart, (which is what וירוא"ה verrue means), Artscroll as blister. Why? I'm not sure, but in the printed texts Rashi does not read וירוא"ה, but וושיא"ה . This is a mistake. In the manuscripts Rashi says וירוא"ה. In fact, there is an earlier לעז on the page which is וושיא"ה. Evidently the printers made a mistake and repeated that, which is why this word appears twice in close proximity.

Have a look at the Bomberg 1520-23 edition:

I guess the preparers of the Artscroll did not see the earlier manuscripts, which Soncino based its translation on (or examine an
אוצר לעזי רש"י), and had to approximate a translation based on guesswork or another source.

I wish I had access to Ben-Yehuda's dictionary at the moment so that I could see what the man himself wrote, but I don't.2

Further reading:

  1. Menachem's post about the ban placed on R. Hayyim Hirschensohn for his association with Ben Yehuda.
  2. From the Language of G-d to the Language of the Devil: On the Struggle of Orthodoxy Against the Hebrew Language by Prof. Be´er Haim in BGU Review, Spring 2005.

תמונת אליעזר בן יהודה

EDIT (11/12/07):

2 I do now. Dave from Balashon was kind enough to send me Ben Yehuda's entry for אם, and here it is:

1 comment:

  1. Just read this post. Reading Ben Yhudas footnote regarding the meaning of the word and the scholarly discussion about Maimon. ommision of the halacha, I see that this can serve as some proof to support the essence of story (but also undermining the gist of it) with R' Blau's FIL. Since he probably asked R' Horinstien, not about the meaning of the word, but rather about the omission by Rambams Mishna Torah, as he himself indicates, that he inquired about this enigma by the sharp minds of Jerusalem. So he really didnt ask about words but rather about Rambams. And BTW, its nothworthy that he actualy wasnt satisfied with their reply.



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