Torah on the Road

12 09 2010

I recently drove from Melbourne to Sydney via 1100km of winding country road, alternating between dense bush and parched open plains. My constant companions down this stretch of The Princes Highway were the twenty-four books that I purchased in Victoria, each of which I looked forward to opening at the earliest opportunity. Indeed, as soon as I arrived at a motel in Eden (a pretty seaside town on the southern coast of New South Wales), I hauled them into the room with me and put dinner off by an hour so that I could have a proper perusal.

In addition to the awe-inspiring and truly humbling masterpiece of Shabbetai Frankel (a fifteen-volume Mishne Torah of the Rambam, replete with major commentaries and manuscript variants), I also purchased a variety of midrashim: Midrash Tannaim (an halakhic midrash to Deuteronomy, attributed to Rabbi Ishmael), the Mekhilta of R’ Shim’on bar Yohai (an halakhic midrash to Exodus, discovered in the Cairo Geniza), Shocher Tov (a homiletic midrash to Psalms, also called “Midrash Tehillim”), Seikhel Tov (a homiletic midrash to the Pentateuch, of which only a component of Genesis and Exodus remain), and Leqach Tov (a homiletic midrash to the Pentateuch and the five megillot).

This latter text was the first that I opened. Written by Tobiah ben Eliezer, an 11th-12th century Ashkenazi Jew, the text takes as its initial point of departure the incongruence between the Hebrew word order (בראשית ברא אלהים; for the sake of convenience, “In the beginning, God created”; <adverb> <verb> <noun>) and the Greek word order (presumably, although unattested in Greek manuscripts, ͗Εν α͗ρχῃ ο͑ θεος ε͗ποιησεν; “In the beginning, God created”; <adverb> <noun> <verb>), which it explains by recourse to a Talmudic narrative. The narrative concerns the composition of the Septuagint, and can be found in both the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds (p. Meg. 3:5 and b. Meg. 9a), as well as in Sof 1:8 and various midrashim.

Ascribing the work to seventy-two Jewish sages who were commissioned by Ptolemy, the narrator informs us that they altered various clauses in order that future readers not be drawn into error. In this particular instance, they are said to have feared that Greek readers would mistake the appearance of the verb before the noun as an indication that a god called Inthebeginning created a god called Elohim. Unlikely though this might be, it is a type of concern that finds it way into various other texts as well, and I was pleasantly surprised to have found a similar example in the kabbalistic Sefer HaBahir, 1:32:

דרש ר’ ישמעאל לר”ע מ”ד את השמים ואת הארץ אלמלא לא נאמר את היינו אומרים שמים וארץ אלהות הן א”ל העבודה נגעת אבל לא בררת כן דברת אבל את לרבות חמה ולבנה כוכבים ומזלות ואת לרבות אילנות ודשאים וגן עדן

Rabbi Ishmael expounded to Rabbi Akiva, “Why does it say ‘et the skies, and et the earth? Had it not said et, you would have thought that Skies and Earth were gods!”
He replied, “Divine service! You have laboured, but you have not sifted, and so you have spoken thus. Et includes the sun and the moon, the stars and the constellations; et includes the trees and the vegetation and the garden of delight.”

In this instance, the author (unknown, although traditionally thought to be Ishmael’s teacher, Nehunian ben haKana) ascribes to Ishmael the concern that people might read Genesis 1:1 and, were it not for the presence of a particle dividing the direct objects from the verb, conceive of them as additional subjects. In other words, they might be led to think that the world was created by three gods, named Elohim, Skies and Earth. This story also raises a fascinating parallel with Akiva’s famous midrash on this same particle (more properly Shim’on/Nehemiah haAmsoni’s midrash; b. B. Qam. 41b), but it is the parallel with midrash Leqach Tov that interests me more.

The rabbis, at least in principle, appear to have been bothered by the possibility that their scriptures themselves might be responsible for leading people away from God. In the case of the Talmudic narrative, as reproduced in Leqach Tov, it is non-Jews in particular who are at risk (cf: t.῾Abod. Zar. 9:4 and b. San. 56a for the so-called “Noahide Laws”, which mandate monotheism for non-Jews). In the case of the Sefer HaBahir narrative, we must presume that these are Jews who are at risk, given that they are reading the text in Hebrew.

One must ask, in each of these instances, what the text is attempting to communicate. In the Talmudic baraita, the original purpose is to explain the disparity between Hebrew and Greek word order, while the subsequent purpose (as determines its placement in b. Meg. 9a) is to justify the composition of scriptural texts in Greek. What is the purpose that underlies its placement in Leqach Tov? Surely it is not a concern over the syntactic nature of the Greek language, and it is most definitely not with the intention of permitting the composition of scripture in Greek – a practise that was forbidden subsequent to the composition of the Talmudic text in which the story first appears.

On the contrary, the author appears to have been concerned with a feature of Hebrew syntax, such as is best exemplified through comparison with the Septuagint. While the Greek text ostensibly places “God” before the verb, Hebrew predominantly fronts the verb instead. This happens across the board, although Tobiah ben Eliezer suggests that it was altered for the Septuagint in this particular instance because Ptolemy was too stupid (לא היה לו דעת להתבונן) to understand that this was merely a feature of Hebrew grammar, and the rabbis could hardly have allowed themselves to lead him astray.

The route by which I have reached this point has been no less circuitous than the route by which this book made its way to Sydney, but I wish to stress the novelty of Tobiah’s suggestion. Where the Talmudic passage feared the corruption of non-Jews in general (indeed, anybody reading the text that they are composing for the king), Tobiah attributes their concern to the corruption of the king only. Where the Talmudic rabbis might have feared leading monotheistic gentiles astray, Tobiah (writing in the 11th century) is well aware that nobody could make such a deplorably stupid error, and is forced to insist that Ptolemy was a deplorably stupid king.

The development of Hebrew literature reflects strongly on the development of Judaism as an ethnic group. Tobiah’s modification of the narrative, in his addition of material that makes it relevant only to the possible corruption of a single individual, is born of a profound shift in attitude towards the non-Jewish world in general. For Tobiah, who died approximately one hundred years before the first burning of Jewish books, non-Jewish readership was a threatening sign. While the rabbis might have imagined (however fantastically) that their forebears had translated the Septuagint with the best interests of non-Jews at heart, Tobiah was more interested in what the passage meant for Judaism, and how it reflected upon the nature of Hebrew.

For all of their parochial isolationism, the rabbis of the Talmud still saw themselves as an integral part of the world. It was for the sake of their Torah study that the world was sustained and, while they did not seek converts to Judaism, they believed themselves to exert a profound effect upon the rest of the planet. 11th century Ashkenaz was a place in which Jews were at far greater risk than their ancestors in Sassanid-era Babylonia had been, and the notion that one might care about adversely influencing the religious opinions of non-Jews is anachronistic to the extreme. Indeed, already by the time of the composition of the extra-canonical tractate Soferim (1:7), we find the following assertion:

מעשה בה’ זקנים שכתבו לתלמי המלך את התורה יונית והיה היום קשה לישראל כיום שנעשה העגל שלא היתה התורה יכולה להתרגם כל צרכה

It once happened that five elders translated the Torah into Greek for King Ptolemy, and that day was as hard for the Jewish people as the day on which the [golden] calf was made, for it is impossible to translate the Torah exactly.

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2 03 2013
A Midrash on את | בלשנות

[…] I presented my dissertation lecture yesterday afternoon (in lieu of a formal defense we present a public lecture and take questions), and I thought it appropriate to open with a midrash on את. The human mind is endlessly searching for patterns and meaning. Randomness is anathema. Potato chips look like Abraham Lincoln. The virgin Mary appears on grilled cheese. And so, both grammarians and interpreters have often felt that the use of את to mark an object phrase must have some meaning. The following is a midrash on את which I came across somewhat by random (HT: Davar Akher).  […]

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