Friday, August 03, 2012

Shadal series #14 - daf yomi edition; on Shadal's linguistic commentary on מס' ברכות

In honor of the start of the 13th Daf Yomi cycle today, which begins with Berachot 2, I thought this Shadal post would be about his linguistic commentary to the beginning of Massechet Berachot.

Excerpts from his manuscript were printed in the 1829 volume of Bikure Ha-ittim #9 (link). Later, more of the complete commentary was printed by his son in the second, posthumous volume of Bais Haotzar (1887) under the title Beur Ketzat Leshonot Mi-leshon Hakhamim. This included an introduction by Shadal, written more than 30 years later. Finally, it was published in its entirety (including the very lengthy introductory Hebrew title which Shadal gave to it) in R. Chaim Hirschensohn's periodical Hamisderonah, from a manuscript provided to him by Abraham Berliner, and it includes Hirschensohn's own annotations. The manuscript itself bears the date 5587/ 1827.

What this commentary does is go through word by word the first few mishnayos of Berachos and explain them linguistically. The lengthy title indicates that it was an ambitious project: 
"Ma'arekhet Leshon Hakhamim; a book which includes all the words and expressions that are found in the six orders of the mishnah, the beraitos and tosefta, and in the sayings that are written in Hebrew scattered all over the Talmud, which are neither Scriptural in origin, or explained elsewhere, with a commentary explaining all aspects of them, and their useage, and to show if they are derived from Hebrew, Aramaic, Arabic, Greek or Latin, with researches and new explanations in various matters of  Torah and Wisdom; arranged alphabetically."
In the introduction to the version he submitted to Bikure Haittim, he begins with a tribute to the Rambam whom, he says, began the linguistic study of the Mishnah. He continues by noting/ claiming that the rabbis were linguists and offering a variation on a popular defense of the Oral Law:
"Whoever does not believe that our Rabbis received knowledge of [the meaning of] words from their predecessors, masters of language, I don't know how they can believe in Torah she-be-'al peh. For if they forgot the language, how did they not forget the halachos? Not only that, whoever disagrees that the rabbis had traditional, oral knowledge of the meaning of the words, even the Written Torah he does not have! For if they forgot the language, then how did they understand the [simple meaning of] words? How did they know what a gamal and chazir were, that are prohibited, and a shor or seh which are permitted? If you say, well look at the signs of these animals, well, how do we know what is maaleh gerah or mafris parsah? It is clear that to believe in the written Torah already requires belief in oral Torah. And this is what Hillel answered to he who told him that written Torah he believes in, but not oral Torah. Hillel did not object to this, but taught him Aleph Beth, and after he mastered all the names of the letters, Hillel reversed it, saying that the shape of an aleph is really called tav, etc. When the man objected, Hillel pointed out that he only knew the letters becaue he had previously accepted what Hillel had taught him. What choice did he have then but to accept that these things are known by oral tradition?"
He continues:
"If you will say, how can you include in Leshon Hakodesh words from the Sages' Hebrew vernacular, knowing that many of their expressions were adopted from foreign tongues? The response is, why did [the Bible] accept many of these such terms, Nisan and Sivanpitgam and patshegen [etc.], and also many other terms directly from Aramaic? Just as it was fitting for our linguistic predecessors to accept this gracefully, so to we ought to accept the words which the sages of the Mishnah - who dwelled Eretz Yisrael and were linguists - and which they transmitted to us, all we know is from them."
It continues in this vein. This last part is addressing an issue at the time, which was whether only purely biblical forms of Hebrew are worthy, while later, rabbinic, Hebrew is not. Shadal was an early proponent of the idea that rabbinic or Mishnaic Hebrew was important and legitimate and also that it was a genuine vernacular, rather than a literary creation of the rabbis. While proponents of Mishnaic Hebrew as a fake language pointed to its foreign borrowings, he pointed to the genuinely Hebrew terminology for so many detailed descriptions of actual life, farming and so on, which are found all throughout the Mishnah. In fact, he even paid linguistic respect to the Hebrew of the poskim, an attitude which was probably singular among maskilim. Shadal's attitude toward language was quite modern in that it was descriptive.

In the work itself, he literally goes through the Mishnah, word by word. I thought it would be worth translating two entries. One of the things I really like about this, or at least the approach attempted, is that very often defining the most common words or terms proves the most devilish and the most interesting. Did you ever think of what, precisely, is the Shema? Maybe, but I don't know if I did. His explanation:
Shema. A noun, feminine (due to the word keriat before it). Inclusive of three paragraphs of the Torah, with the first beginning with the words "Shema yisrael," this reading is well known. In the Temple they preceded the reading of these three paragraphs by the reading of the Ten Commands, but this was not established in all of Israel so that no one could privilege the Ten Commandments alone over the rest of the Torah (Berachos 12). Reading these paragraphs evening and morning fulfills that which is written in the Torah "You shall teach them to your sons . . . " (Deut. 7). Really, the Torah did not intend reading these three paragraphs specifically, but to command fathers to speak words of Torah to their sons in all their spare time, when not at work, as we find in the Talmud (Ber. 21) "Rab Judah said: If a man is in doubt whether he has recited the Shema', he need not recite it again. If he is in doubt whether he has said 'True and firm', or not, he should say it again. What is the reason? — The recital of the Shema' is ordained only by the Rabbis, the saying of 'True and firm' is a Scriptural ordinance. R. Joseph raised an objection to this,  'And when thou liest down, and when thou risest up'. — Said Abaye to him: That was written with reference to words of Torah." - the explanation is that the Sages saw that all the masses of Israel could not truly fulfill this commandment to its literalness, so they ordained something for everyone (i.e., to recite the three paragraphs of the Shema). Something like this was said (Menachos 99): "Even though a man but reads the Shema’ morning and evening he has thereby fulfilled the precept of ‘[This book of the law] shall not depart’.It is forbidden, however, to say this in the presence of ‘amme ha-arez. But Raba said, It is a meritorious act to say it in the presence of amme ha-arez." This does not diminish the importance of the Shema relative to other mitzvos, which encapsulates the essence of the Torah. My father, my master, zatsal, learned by heart all the 613 mitzvos which were ordered according to the Ten Commandments in the book Keter Torah by R. David Vital (Constantinople 1536). Each night he would lie on his bed and recite the shema, as was customary, but he would also explain five or six mitzvos to his wife and children.
Elsewhere, he writes that his father seemed to be going blind in his youth. Alarmed at the prospect, he composed a list of the 613 mitzvos, based on the plan of this work, so that in case he could never see he would have Torah memorized. Lucky for him, he was healed.

Another entry:
Rabbi. A title of obvious meaning. It's root is RBB, from which is derived Rav. When noted sages wanted to give honor to one of their students, to indicate that he has entered their ranks, that their words ought to be heard by all the nation as from one of the great ones, they would call him Rabbi. Being called by this name indicated ordination, and it was prerequisite for a scholar to be able to judge dinei kenasot, for so long as one was not ordained and not called rabbi, he was not allowed to judge such cases, and was not called a hakham, but [merely] a talmid, as it is written in Kiddushin 79: "‘On condition that I am a disciple [talmid],’ we do not say, such as Simeon b. ‘Azzai and Simeon b. Zoma." Rashi ad loc explains, Talmidim who were bachelors, and not ordained, and there were none in their day like them in Torah [accomplishment]." 
There was no ordination outside of Eretz Yisrael, therefore they only used the title Rabbi in Eretz Yisrael. The sages of Babylon were called Rav. Since they were not ordained in EY, and would not judge dinei kenasot, no one was [really] their subordinate, and were not obliged to call them Rabbi, which meant something like "My superior, my master." So they called them Rav, meaning that these men are great and honorable, even though they aren't so great that they are worthy of judging their fellow man according to their knowledge.
We do not find the term Rabbi in use until the last days of the Second Temple, in the generation which witnessed its destruction, such as Rabbi Tzadok, Rabbi Hanina segan kohanim, Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Yehoshua, and their peers (see the reason in my entry "Rav"). Prior to this they only called sages by their name, such as Shemaya and Avtalyon, Hillel and Shammai, and Shimon [Hillel's son]. Three hundred years after the Destruction the formal institution of ordination came to a halt, and the title Rabbi was abolished. The last of those called by the title seem to be Rabbi Hillel the son of Rabbi Judah the Prince [II}, son of Rabban Gamliel, son of Rabbenu Hakadosh. This Rabbi Hillel was the 10th generation from Hillel the Elder. Since ordination was abolished and technically no one was greater than another, the entire nation began to use the title Rabbi [i.e., as a term of honor, rather than a strictly technical term].  
Regarding the pronunciation of the term, there were many arguments about it among the later grammarians. Some (i.e., R. Jacob Emden) read it rebhi from the root RBH on the pattern of peri (fruit). Some read it robbi and some (i.e., Rabbi Solomon Hanau) rubbi and both derive the reading from the word Rav, which is of the root RBB. Others [i.e., Isaac Satanow] read rabbi, deriving it from the term rabbei ha-melekh. Still others read ribbi along the lines of pat [becoming] piti (i.e., 'my bread'). It appears that this last reading is the authentically earliest one, for Rabbi Elazar Hakalir acrostically signed his verse "Elazar beribbi Kalir," with a yud after the resh. Like him, other composers of Kerovot, who lived not less than 800 years ago, signed their verse. Even though the author of Vaye'etar Yitzhak [i.e., Satanow]  in #79, strongly argues against this reading, reasoning that since we find the [scriptural expression] rabbei ha-melekh with a patach [i.e., the vowel "a"] we may only read it rabbi. Nevertheless it is difficult to simply argue with the older reading. It seems possible for me to resolve it this way: perhaps the true oldest reading was with patach under the resh (i.e., rabbi) but after the custom spread to call all people, small and great, with the title "rabbi", they wisely devised a way to distinguish between sacred and profane, and called plain folk "ribbi" with a chirik, and reserved "Rabbi" with a patach for ordained scholars. And with this we can explain why a patach is used in variations on this title, like Rav or a term like "moreh ravcha ke-moreh shamayim," etc. For we never find or hear of a term like "ribkha" or "ribbo" with a chirik. This seems to me to be a correct reconciliation between the views.
I note first of all that his explanation for how "rabbi" could be the truly oldest term, even though the evidence shows "ribbi" seems to contradict what he wrote earlier, namely that the spreading of the title among non-ordained people occurred after the abolition of semikha. I assume that since this is all a speculative reconstruction, he is not wedded to a position on when the term began to be used by all. 

Now, in the 1887 edition of Bait Haotzar, a little introduction to the Maarekhet Hakhamim is included, written by Shadal 32 years later. In it he corrects one thing he had written in this entry, namely the bit about Rabbi Elazar Hakalir using "biribbi" with a yud, in his verse. Shadal indicates that he was relying on R. Elijah Levita's entry Rav in the Tishbi, where this line of evidence for the readding "ribbi" is stated. However, after 30 years of scrutinizing piyutim he had to acknowledge that Levita made a mistake. You do not find bet-resh-yud-bet-yud in Kalir's piyutim. He was not the first person to notice Levita's apparent error. In the famous "Letters" from the Pri Megadim which are printed in standard editions of the Shulchan Aruch, the Pri Megadim writes that he too could not find these acrostics - yet, "ha-tishbi ne'eman yoser mi-me'ah edim," "[Levita] is more reliable than one hundred witnesses" - which says more about the Pri Megadim's esteem and admiration for Levita than the actual evidence in Kalir's verse. My guess is that Levita just made a mistake from memory, confusing the yud which is often found after the bet in ברבי, like בירבי, and is indeed sometimes found in Kalir piyutim, as if it were written after: בריבי.

I would be remiss if I did not mention an interesting observation I once read in an article on Aramaic by Yohanan Aharoni. He pointed out that in Aramaic very often the final yud is dropped altogether, as compared to its cognate in Hebrew. If so then all the spiel about rav being the Babylonian title because of the difference in ordination may have a very simple explanation - it is nothing but the exact equivalent of "Rabbi," only it is Aramaic. This doesn't necessarily preclude the explanation about ordination being correct, but it could be that it is really only the difference between Hebrew and Aramaic.

Incidentally, the pronunciation of the title "rabbi" is a topic which I have accumulated much material on, far more so, I believe, than anyone has ever written about it. Perhaps one day it will come to light.


  1. This is the first discussion I've ever seen of Shadal as a commentator on the Mishnah. You have performed a valuable public service! (And a personal favor to me, since I had misplaced my link to the online version of Bikkurei Ha-Ittim.) Is the full "Ma'arekhet Leshon Hakhamim" as it appeared in Hamisderonah available online? All this goes to show that there is still much work to be done in collecting Shadal's scattered writings and bringing them to public attention.

  2. Some stuff has been written about his polemic with Geiger on the proper interpretation of the Mishnah and Tosefta in Eduyot about the authority of different courts. Ezra Spicehandler discussed it in a HUCA article on Schorr, Marc Gopin in his dissertation on Shadal's ethics, and Hanan Gafni in his dissertation/ book on peshuto shel mishnah. But I too haven't seen this bit discussed.

    Yes, I'll get you the link to Hamisderonah; scattered issues are on, but I have a complete pdf copy, much better scan. Maybe you could tell, I was a little distracted while writing this post, that's why there's less Hebrew, no images, and not enough links, etc.

    I have this fantasy that when I'm retired I'll somehow collect every spare scrap that he wrote, in all languages, and put it all out. There's a lot that has not been properly gathered.

  3. By the way, all the Bikure Haittims are on Just search for the word Bikure.

  4. If you really want to do a public service, you can research the origins of Kad Yasvin, as you mentioned some time ago you might do. See this post.


  5. "Shadal was an early proponent of the idea that rabbinic or Mishnaic Hebrew was important and legitimate and also that it was a genuine vernacular, rather than a literary creation of the rabbis."

    Rambam says this on the first mishna in Terumos, explaining why it says "yisromu", rather than "yarimu", [which is how the word would have appeared Biblically."]

  6. In the introduction to the version he submitted to Bikure Haittim, he begins with a tribute to the Rambam whom, he says, began the linguistic study of the Mishnah. He continues by noting/ claiming that the rabbis were linguists and offering a variation on a popular defense of the Oral Law:

    Mainline Chiropractor

  7. This doesn't necessarily preclude the explanation about ordination being correct, but it could be that it is really only the difference between Hebrew and Aramaic

    Mainline Pilates

  8. Reb Abish Brodt mentioned in an interview that was included in the children's booklet that was handed out at the Siyum that his father (maybe father in law) attended the first Siyum in Lublin. He said that the song he'd sing by this Siyum would be a surprise. He would probably be a good resource in origin of Kad Yasvin.

  9. >" If so then all the spiel about rav being the Babylonian title because of the difference in ordination may have a very simple explanation - it is nothing but the exact equivalent of "Rabbi," only it is Aramaic."

    ראה כתובות מג:
    אמר רב זירא אמר רב מתנה אמר רב ואמרי לה אמר רבי זירא א"ר מתנה אמר רב
    ופירש רש"י:
    אמר רב זירא ואמרי לה אמר רבי זירא - הוא רבי זירא הוא רב זירא אלא בבבל מקמי דסליק לארעא דישראל לקמיה דרבי יוחנן ואין סמיכה בבבל הוו קרו ליה רב זירא ובהא שמעתא איכא למ"ד מקמי דסמכוהו אמרה ואיכא למ"ד בתר דסמכוהו אמרה:

  10. We are new to your blog but really but see that you put a lot of time and effort into it. We really hope that people are donating.



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