[b-hebrew] Incidental Evidence from the Talmud

Yitzhak Sapir yitzhaksapir at gmail.com
Fri Apr 24 00:08:45 EDT 2009

On Fri, Apr 24, 2009 at 1:21 AM, Bill Rea wrote:

> Usually incidental detail is regarded as historically valuable even in texts
> which serve a clear polemical purpose. For example if some ancient general
> wrote -- we crossed the wooden bridge on the so-and-so river to meet our
> enemy on the plains of battle and left not a man of them standing -- the
> fact that the bridge is described as being wooden is accepted as likely to
> be fact. Its completely incidental that the bridge was wood, it could easily
> have been stone or they could have waded the river or gone across on small
> boats for the purposes of the narrative. So in the case of the Talmud, I
> presume this is the slave woman who spoke Hebrew story, it depends on
> whether the fact that she spoke Hebrew is incidental or central to the
> narrative which determines its value as evidence.

I quoted and referred to the evidence from the Talmud in part because I was
also going to lay out my claims for a later death of Hebrew death, and this
evidence is part of it.  However, as far as the survival of Hebrew in the 2nd
century CE, it is only a small part.  There is much other evidence such as
the  analysis of the structure of Mishnaic Hebrew itself as well as documents
from the period.  Those who wish to explore it will quickly find it.

The Talmud is very hard to analyze.  It is a very late compendium of legal
code with a complex textual history.  The Babylonian Talmud is generally
attributed to Rav Ashi and Ravina who edited it.  But the Talmudic text
we have today is even later.

In Rosh Hashanah 26b we find an example of such anecdotal evidence
about Hebrew.  The Talmud on 26a is discussing a Mishnah where R'
Yose is of the opinion that all Shofars are called Qeren in the Bible
based on the Biblical verse "Bimshokh Qeren Hayovel."  The Talmud in
discussing this verse brings an anecdote about another Mishnaic
authority, R' Akiva: "When I went to Arabia, they would call a ram yuvla."
This little saying is a go-ahead for all kind of anecdotal information about
the definitions of different words.  Along the way, they discuss a story
about one person who complained another was a qb(n.  So the other
person didn't know and asked about it in public.  He was told the
definition is 'thief'.  At this point a comment is interjected where one
authority says to Rav Ashi, "if I had been there, I'd have tried to figure
out the meaning by asking the original complainer -- how did he qb( you,
where did he qb( you, why did he qb( you -- and from his answers I'd have
understood the meaning as well."  Now, the Talmud adds all kinds of
anecdotes about how the Rabbis learned the meanings of various words
by listening.  The Rabbis didn't know what Serugin meant, but they
heard the servant woman of the House of Rabbi, when she saw the the
Rabbinic authorities come to her in separate groups, asked them "How
long are you going to be coming here serugin serugin?"

The whole story about serugin, and about various other words later
brought up is incidental to this particular discussion that deals with
horns!  There are, however, serious textual issues with the passages
here.  All the passages follow  a strict textual framework:  "The Rabbis
didn't know what X meant.  They heard the servant woman of the
House of Rabbi ..." This suggests that we don't actually know from
these cases the original textual framework of the story.  Now, these
sayings are also found elsewhere, sometimes in variant versions.
For example, the story about Serugin is found in Megillah 18b.  Here,
though, the text is related to the Talmudic question.  The Talmud is
discussing a Mishnah which says, "If one reads the Megillah [the
Book of Esther] serugin, he fulfills [his duty of reading the Book of
Esther on Purim]."  From the point of view of Talmudic analysis the
story of Serugin belongs here much more than it belongs in Rosh
Hashanah.  Here too we find additional anecdotes that describe
how the Rabbis didn't know word X and learnt it from the servant
woman.  The additional anecdotes are just as not home here as they
are in Rosh Hashanah.

Now, in the Yerushalmi Talmud 2:2, we find a similar text.  Here,
though, the text is attributed.  The Yerushalmi is interpreting the
same text as before, and then says, "Rabbi Haggai said, serugim,
hagalgulot, etc. We didn't know so we went to ask at the house
of 'Rabbi', and the servant woman came out..."  From the above
three versions the Yerushalmi text is most at home.  The Bavli
texts grafted the story fitting it into the "didn't know X, the servant
woman said Y" mold.  So in Talmudic study we would regard the
Yerushalmi text as authentic.  It is the earliest and the other
comparable texts are from later textual redactions of the Bavli.

The story about R' Haggai also dates for us the text -- it is the
4th century CE.  In this story, the whole issue about how he learnt
the word serugin is incidental.   He could have just said "serugin
means intervals."  Another important thing to keep in mind is that
we would expect some period of time to lapse.  'Rabbi' is generally
the title of Rabbi Yehuda, the editor of the Mishnah in the late
2nd century CE.  It is reasonable to assume that a word from the
Mishnah was lost on the Rabbis of the 4th century CE.  It is much
less reasonable to assume that only a servant woman of the
house of Rabbi Yehuda knew the meaning and other rabbis of the
time would have to go to her rather than Rabbi Yehuda.  If these
early Rabbis didn't know what it meant they would have used
another word in the Mishnah to begin with!  We could interpret
the words of Rabbi Haggai in two ways: 1) When he says rby
'Rabbi', he means actually "my teacher," not the title 'Rabbi'.
2) 'House of Rabbi' is actually a much wider term, and it refers to
the court of the followers of Rabbi Yehuda some decades later.

In any case, the whole story can only be interpreted to mean that
a significant period of time later than the Mishnah -- some 200
years or so -- Hebrew was still being spoken by common folk,
even if not by the higher class Rabbis themselves who spoke
Aramaic.  The other anecdote that is related with a date is also
to an authority of the late 4th century CE.  This is significant
because the two corroborate each other -- that during the 4th
century CE, Rabbis would use the Hebrew that the common
folk would speak to interpret the Mishnah and Bible.  Besides,
this text is not polemical in any way.  If it were, it would only
be about the meaning of serugin.  R' Haggai would claim it
means "intervals," and a contrary authority would claim it
means something else.  So again, the story is incidental to
the hypothetical polemic.

Yitzhak Sapir

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