[b-hebrew] Early Rabbinic views of Hebrew was Re: Hebrew as a holy language
yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Fri May 22 12:15:58 EDT 2009
On Thu, May 21, 2009 at 7:56 PM, Gabe Eisensteinwrote:
> Regarding the question, when did someone first consider it to be holy, I
> would guess that it arose in the context of 2nd Temple struggles, when
> it needed to be asserted against Aramaic and Greek. In the Talmud (and
> Mishnah) the phrase "holy tongue" is used as a synonym for Hebrew, so it
> must have been established before then. But there is an interesting
> discussion of Hebrew and Aramaic at Sanhedrin 21 that may shed light on
> the notion of holiness applied to language. The rabbis discuss several
> different theories about not only the Hebrew and Aramaic languages, but
> also the respective alphabets. All but one of them recognize that the
> (Paleo-)Hebrew alphabet was used before Ezra. Nevertheless, the
> prevailing view is that the Aramaic (modern "Hebrew") alphabet is the
> holy alphabet (now). The political context of this debate is of course
> the feud with the Samaritans, who continued to use the old alphabet. But
> I bring it up just to show that the argument isn't just about history,
> but about preferred contemporary practice. In the case of the alphabet,
> it's just a matter of Judeans, led by Hillel's crowd who had recently
> come from Babylonia, wanting to snub their rivals. (The discussion in
> Sanhedrin makes this pretty clear.)
I think the phrase "lashon haqodesh" does not mean "Holy Tongue." It
means "Tongue of the Holy." So the language itself is not necessarily
"holy." It is simply a reference to the fact that the holy books are
written in it, and that Holy dialogues (such as prayers) are conducted
in it, and presumably it is the language that God speaks. While all
these may convey a concept of holiness to the language, the Hebrew
term simply doesn't mean "Holy Language," but rather "Language of
the Holy." Sanhedrin 21b is an interesting discussion related to the
issue. It can be read here:
(They translate "Because its script was upright [me'ushshar]" but
this misses a cute pun. The text reads "שהוא מאושר בכתבו",
which can also mean, "Because it is content having only a script.")
A quick analysis of the discussion raises some interesting things:
a) It is not clear who said the particular saying about Hebrew script.
b) It required commentary by Rav Hisda.
c) Rav Hisda comments first about the end (the "hedyotot") and then
about the beginning (the Hebrew characters).
Now, it is even more interesting when we realize the dates of the
Mar Uqba is a first generation (early 3rd cent CE) Babylonian sage
Rav Hisda is a 2nd-3rd gen. Bab. sage (late 3rd cent CE)
Mar Zutra is a 6th gen. Bab. sage (early 5th cent CE)
So, now we have another question: What is Rav Hisda doing
commenting on something that someone said several centuries
later? Well, there is a ready answer: It isn't something Mar Zutra
said, it is something Mar Uqba said. Rav Hisda, in the 2nd-3rd
generation, is commenting on a saying of a 1st generation sage.
What about the order of his statements? Well, the fact of the matter
is that the Talmud is a mix of various layers, and the questions
interspaced between Rav Hisda's statements belong to one of the
rather late layers:
Late Aramaic: Who are meant by the 'hedyototh'?
Early Text: R. Hisda answers: The Cutheans.
Late Aramaic: And what is meant by Hebrew characters?
Early Text: R. Hisda said: The libuna'ah script.
So, the questions come to interpret these two quite concise
statements of R. Hisda. A different interpretation of R. Hisda's
saying is as follows: כותאי ליבונאי. "Cuthean(s) is Lebanese."
We don't have Mar Uqba's original text (or at least, we don't know
what the difference is between the two sages). But it is possible
to suggest that Mar Uqba spoke about something Cuthean, and
R. Hisda defined it as Lebanese. The clearest thing that might be
Cuthean is the script -- the Hebrew characters. So it is possible
to suggest that Mar Uqba originally spoke about Cuthean script,
R. Hisda defined it as Lebanese (ie Phoenician script), and
Mar Zutra restated Mar Uqba's original saying by substituting
the term Hebrew script. The late anonymous Aramaic
commentators of the Talmud found before them a saying of Mar
Zutra that is sometimes associated with Mar Uqba, and a saying
of Rav Hisda that was rather enigmatic saying "Cuthean
Lebanese." So they figured Cuthean refers to the hedyotot,
and Lebanese refers to the script. It may have been a good
attempt but it doesn't sit well given the order of R. Hisda's
But this is only the Babylonian Talmud's view. What about the
Yerushalmi which comes from the land of Israel?
I begin here with the Mishnah in Megilla 2:1 which relates to the
discussion in the Talmuds in an interesting way:
"One who reads [the book of Esther] in a translation of any
language does not fulfill his duty. But you read it to the non-
Hebrew speakers in non-Hebrew, and the non-Hebrew
speakers who heard it in Assyrian has fulfilled his duty."
The interesting question is what is the term Assyrian. But it is
clear here that the term Assyrian refers to something that is
spoken. From the Talmud above, we see that the discussion
classifies Ashurit as a script without a language. Said
differently, it is a script with no specific language -- useful for
both Aramaic and Hebrew. But in the Mishna, it is clearly a
reference to some language. We could claim that Ashurit here
in the Mishna refers to both Aramaic and Hebrew -- anything
that can be written in Ashurit script. So this would mean that:
"But you read it to the non-Hebrew speakers in non-Hebrew"
-- allows a Greek speaker to hear it in Greek, an Aramaic
speaker to hear it in Aramaic.
"The non-Hebrew speakers who heard it in Assyrian"
-- allows a Greek speaker to hear it in either Hebrew or Aramaic
-- allows an Aramaic speaker to hear it in either Hebrew or Aramaic
(although hearing it in Aramaic is already accepted by the previous
statement of the Mishna)
What about the Yerushalmi's discussion. Well, the Yerushalmi
picks up the issue earlier on in Megilla ch. 1. It is much along
the same lines as the Babylonian so I will not retranslate it. But
it is interesting that whereas the Babylonian talmud concentrates
itself with Aramaic - Mar Uqba/Mar Zutra say that Ezra was
given the Torah in Aramaic. But the Yerushalmi makes no such
claim. It quotes only the opinion that originally the Torah was
given in Ashurith script. However, it also quotes an opinion of
a late Mishnaic authority that the Torah was translated by
Aqilas (Onqelos) and he was reprimanded. So the Babylonian
Talmud has a very positive attitude to the Aramaic language
viewing it as the language that Ezra received the Torah from
God. The Yerushalmi quotes rather negative opinions. In a
different place, R' Yohanan (a Israeli sage of the mid 3rd cent
CE) is quoted in the Yerushalmi as noting that "Syriac should
not be light [viewed negatively] in your eyes" (because it is
also used in the Bible). R' Yohanan also calls Mishnaic
Hebrew "the language of the sages":
"The language of the Torah is distinct and so is the
language of the Sages."
So R' Yohanan's terminology and views betray a situation
where Aramaic is gaining among the general population,
while Mishnaic Hebrew is limited only to the "Sages."
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