The Curious History of a Load of Crap

9 08 2011

Yiddish speakers are very polite. While English speakers might tell you to get stuffed, a Yiddish speaker only directs you to do a poo in the sea (גיי קאקן אויפן ים). While English speakers might tell you to drop dead, a Yiddish speaker will bless you that you should be like a lamp (זאלסט זיין ווי א לאמפ): hanging in the daytime, and burning through the night. In fact, even when you are speaking a load of crap, a Yiddish speaker won’t tell you so. Instead, they will most likely call it a boba-ma’aseh (באבע מעשה): an old wives’ tale.

Literally, the phrase boba-ma’aseh is understood to mean “a grandmother story”, the word ma’aseh meaning “story” and the word boba (or buba, etc) meaning grandmother. Some gender-sensitive people have even taken the added step of inventing a new genre of nonsense: the zayde-ma’aseh (זיידע מעשה), or “grandfather story”. After all, they reason, old women are not alone in their ability to spin webs of utter inanity. Unfortunately, however, this too is nonsense.

To understand the actual origin of this delightful Yiddish phrase, we instead need to cast our thoughts back to the beginning of the 13th century, with the composition of an Anglo-Norman metrical romance known in English as Sir Bevis of Butthead Hampton. His adventures, which are related in “Alexandrines” (whereby each of the 3,850 verses is comprised of lines with exactly twelve syllables), has much in common with older legends concerned with Beowulf, as well as later legends concerning Hamlet.

The son of a murdered Count, Sir Bevis finds himself an exile, sworn to avenge his father’s murder, in love with an Egyptian princess. As with the Hamlet legend, the murderer of Sir Bevis’ father is now his mother’s husband, but unlike the Danish tragedy, Sir Bevis’ mother was instrumental in facilitating her late husband’s death. Sir Bevis acts with purpose and direction, excels himself as a man of a valour, and even conquers the giant Ascaparte, whom he appoints to be his squire. He dies in the end, as all good heroes must, and there was no sequel.

The 14th century English translation of Boeve de Haumtone (“Sir Bevis of Hampton”) was made from various French versions of the epic, themselves written in decasyllables and with over 10,000 verses. The most popular version, however, was the Italian, which was titled Buovo d’Antona, and which went through over thirty editions in the 14th century. Focusing largely on the romance between Buovo and the princess, there named Druziane, it is fair to say that there is little about the story that might be deemed Jewish. Its protagonists are Christians, they pray both to God and to Mary, various individuals get baptised, and there is nary a herring in sight. And so it is a mystery, and perhaps one of the most curious things in all of Jewish literature, that this chivalric romance should have been translated from Italian into Yiddish.

Born in the second half of the 15th century, Elia Levita is best remembered today as a grammarian. He wrote a dictionary of the Talmud and Midrash (תשבי), a dictionary of Targum Onkelos (ספר מתורגמן), an alphabetical presentation of technical Hebrew words (שמות דברים), and a translation of the Torah, the haftarot and the five megillot into Yiddish. His version of Buovo d’Antona, entitled באבה ד’אנטונא, was the first non-religious text published in the Yiddish language, preceding the first Hebrew novel by almost 300 years. Known by many as the באבה בוך (Bovo Bukh, or “Bovo Book”), it is considered by some to represent the finest poetry in the Yiddish language. If you can read it, it is available as a free download here.

In Levita’s version of the story, in which he supplanted various Christological references for subject matter that would have resonated with a Jewish audience, it is the princess of Flanders with whom the exiled Bovo falls in love, and the wicked king of Babylonia who constitutes his nemesis. The Babylonian prince, Lucifer, is promised the beautiful princess, the King of Flanders is taken into Babylonian captivity, Bovo rescues him with the assistance of a magic horse, and the wicked Lucifer is put to death. Twice in the story do Bovo and his lover think the other dead, twice is she almost married to another, and in the midst of all of this excitement he finds the time to return to Antona, banish his mother to a nunnery, kill her murderous husband and become the new king. It’s a real page-turner, I am sure.

And yet, such tremendous excitement notwithstanding, it didn’t take long before many became critical of these sorts of stories. Already by the 17th century, Cervantes found much to ridicule about the chivalric urge, and while Sir Bevis’ giant might have really been a giant, the sober windmills of Quixote have received greater literary attention. Are we so fearful of the fantastic that we need to ground it in realism? Is it truly necessary for a story to be predicated on reason and logic for us to accept its premise? Cannot profound truths be disported within a nonsensical carriage?

For many, perhaps not. And so it is not entirely surprising that the very name by which Levita’s Yiddish translation came to be known in the 18th century – the Bovo Ma’aseh, or Bovo Tale – should have come to denote a piece of foolish nonsense. For my part, I think it time that its original nuance be restored. Had an exciting weekend? Found yourself subject to forces beyond your control, over which you managed to assert yourself in a manner deserving recount? Feel free to embellish it with all manner of extra, fantastical details, and be sure to hold your head up high. Let your listeners know that “it was a real boba-ma’aseh, I assure you”.

[Addendum: It is worth noting the phonological shift between באבה (= bovo) and באבע (= boba). Until a Yiddish expert can correct me, I am under the impression that Yiddish today disallows the representation of a non-aspirated /b/ with anything other than two waws (ie: bovo would be באווה). At the time when Levinas’ באבה דאנטונא was first published, the typesetter employed a rafe (a horizontal stroke) above the second ב, thus indicating that it is not to be aspirated. I expect that the reference to this text being a באבה מעשה (bovo ma’aseh), spelt with a ב, contributed towards it being relexicalised as באבע מעשה (boba ma’aseh), on analogy with the English expression, “old wives’ tale”.]

A Truly Wonderful Thing

30 05 2011

It has recently come to my attention (thanks to a post at Hirhurim) that the entire Soncino English translation of the Babylonian Talmud is now available online. It can be found at Halakhah.com¹, and comes complete with introductions by Rabbi Dr I. Epstein, as well as forwards by Maurice Simon and former Chief Rabbi Dr J.H. Hertz. For the quality of translation, I still prefer Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’s monumental achievement, and am especially in awe of his ability to undertake it singlehandedly. If you are looking for a translation into English, however, the matter-of-fact and formally-equivalent Soncino translation runs rings around the overpriced, misleading and unfaithful translations by Artscroll.

Certainly, nothing can possibly take the place of the actual text, but for those who find translations a useful form of “commentary”, the DafYomi Advancement Forum constitutes an excellent supplement to one’s translation of choice. I cannot even estimate the number of times that I have consulted this incredible site in order to get the basic sense of a sugya and save myself three hours of frustration. I do miss having the time to sit and shteig, as they say, but for the moment it’s all about covering ground.

¹ Surprisingly, the considerably more apt domain name “” appears to be available. Anybody interested?

Goliath’s Song

5 12 2010

This afternoon, together with a small group of Sydney Jews who love to hear themselves speak, I got to talk about myself in Hebrew to a representative of Israel’s Reshet Gimel radio station (!רק מוזיקה ישראלית), who recorded it for playback. While it was fun to speak a little Hebrew again, I thought I’d share the song that I chose to introduce. By 1970s Israeli rock band Kaveret, this song (שיר גוליית, “The Song of Goliath”) is one of my favourites.

Read the rest of this entry »

Beginning at the Beginning: Starting the Torah Again

14 09 2010

I am puzzled by the first word of the Torah. I know this is an issue that gets rehashed again and again, but hear me out. The Hebrew reads as follows: בראשית ברא אלהים, bereishit bara elohim. It is translated, most commonly, as “In the beginning, God created”. And yet, despite this, everybody who translates it seems to be aware that that’s not what it necessarily means.

First of all, most everybody has encountered the idea at one time or another that ראשית (reishit) means “in the beginning of“. That’s not entirely true. The word appears some fifty-one times in the Bible, including the very first verse, and while it does mean “in the beginning of” on forty-five of those occasions, there are six instances in which it appears with neither a suffix nor in construct with a noun. Those who are interested in looking up the other five instances can check Deuteronomy 33:21, Psalms 105:36 (both of which attach a possessive prefix to the following word), Leviticus 2:12 (which uses it as an adjective), Isaiah 46:10 and Nehemiah 12:44 (both of which use it as an absolute noun). So what’s to stop us saying that about Genesis 1:1?

Honestly? Nothing. That is how it is usually translated, and that is most probably what it actually means. But, nonetheless, I’m confused. You see, if it were really that simple (nothing, by the way, is ever that simple), then why are there so many people who insist that it means “in the beginning of”? Why does Rashi, to pick just one example, stress that it’s not as straightforward as a first glance might make it seem?

Well, the answer (or, at least, the first of several questions) lies in the way that the word has been vocalised. If it just meant “in the beginning”, we would expect to find evidence of a definite article. To be more precise, we would expect the word to feature a qamatz under the first letter, and to be pronounced bareishit. This is precisely what Abraham ibn Ezra observed in the 12th century when he resolved that the word must therefore be in construct with the following word, which is a verb. How can something be in construct with a verb, you ask? Well, answers Ibn Ezra (and Rashi as well for that matter), we find such a construction at the beginning of Hosea! Our verse in Genesis might therefore mean, “In the beginning of God’s creating the sky and the earth.”

And yet… that doesn’t seem right. Remember I said that things are never so simple? First of all, if the word were to be in construct with a verb, we would expect the verb to be an infinitive absolute (bereishit baro), which Rashi also notes but completely fails to explain. Furthermore (yes, there’s more), if the individuals responsible for vocalising the Torah (ie: adding the vowels) wanted us to read the word in construct, then why did the individuals responsible for accentuating the Torah (ie: adding the punctuation, or “accent marks”) want us to think otherwise? You see, they placed a disjunctive accent under the first word, which precludes the possibility of reading it in construct! Do we have an argument between the vocalisers and the accentuators? Or are they actually saying something else altogether?

I like to think so. In fact, I actually lied when I started this post because I’m not really puzzled by this business at all. On the contrary, I think it’s very straightforward. This is the bit, then, when I tell you why it’s straightforward and fifty people come up to me and tell me that I’m an idiot. Because nothing is ever straightforward. Not even this.

In my opinion, reishit is an absolute and indefinite noun, and it means “a beginning”. That explains the absence of the definite article, and it also explains the presence of a disjunctive accent. It is my opinion as well that the prefix (ב) is serving an adverbial role – just as it does in 1 Samuel 29:7, Ezra 3:12, and numerous other places in the Bible. It means, “By way of a beginning, God created the sky and the earth”. Finally, it is my opinion that none of what I just said is true, and that the verse actually means what everybody thinks it means, which is “In the beginning, God created the sky and the earth”. But, because what it originally meant is not what we all read, the verse as it appears is the product of masoretic transmission.

Come again? Okay, in a nutshell:

Once upon a time, after centuries of telling stories around a campfire and bashing in the heads of neighboring tribes whose stories were all wrong, some clever fellow decided to write the stories down. The process, one must assume, was not over in forty days, but it culminated in a text that began with the assertion that “in the beginning, God created the sky and the earth.” So far so nifty.

Then, after several centuries of reading this text (and bashing in the heads of neighboring city states whose texts were all different), some clever fellow decided to transmit the way in which the words should be pronounced, and how the one who reads them out should pause, and when, and so forth. This took some time, produced more than one system, and for all we know may have even resulted in somebody getting their head bashed in. The text that they gave us, which has the very same letters as the text that they started with, asserts that, “by way of a beginning, God created the sky and the earth.”

So what do we read!?? Well, there are two answers to that question. When we chant the text in a synagogue at the beginning of the reading cycle (such as will be done on the 2nd of October this year), we are reading the work of the masoretes (who were probably scary Karaites), and who wanted us to think that God created the sky and the earth “by way of a beginning”. However, when we read the text to ourselves (and I know you all secretly do), then we can acknowledge their interpretation alongside every other possible interpretation of the text – one of which is that God created these things “in the beginning”, which is the intention most likely to have been original.

Is there a practical difference? Of course! To say that God created these things “in the beginning” would be to imply that time is an arena of sorts, in which events objectively occur. We might call this the Newtonian Exegesis. To say, however, that God created these things “by way of a beginning” would be to imply that time has meaning only insofar as it denotes causality. This is the Einsteinian Exegesis, in which events occur before, together with, or after other events, but in which the determination of their occurrence depends upon the observer.

When faced with the stark differences between the two accounts of creation in Genesis 1 and Genesis 2, the rabbis determined that God was the observer in Genesis 1 and that the chapter is written from his perspective, but that Adam was the observer in Genesis 2 and that the chapter is written from his. That’s rather clever, even though the reality that underlies the composition (as well as what the text originally meant) may be somewhat different to that. But hey, what do you want from my life? Bash your own head in.

The Old Man

9 05 2010

Since the great Gershom Scholem, academic study of the Zohar has progressed in leaps and bounds. While he (along with Isaiah Tishby, and others) was inclined to view nearly the entirety of the text as stemming from the 13th century, many scholars today are receptive to the possibility that some larger components of the corpus might owe their origin to a significantly earlier time. That the text was written (or was based on a text written) by Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, the story of whose transformation I covered here, is patently absurd, but to suggest that the entire Zohar proper originates with Moses ben Shem-Tov, a 13th century Spanish Jew from Léon, might be likewise untenable.

Traditionally published in seven volumes, the first five volumes of the Zohar contain a midrashic homily on most of the parashot of the Torah, while the subsequent two volumes (Tiqqunei HaZohar and Zohar Chadash) contain meditations on the first word of Genesis and quotations of early Kabbalists, respectively. Of the former five volumes, a total of twenty two sources can be delineated, including the largest source, which is that of the main text – considered by Scholem and Tishby as the section most certainly composed by Moses of Léon. Those sources are discussed in this article.

I wanted to comment upon one of those twenty-two sources, which is sometimes labelled “Discourse of the Old Man”. It runs from 2:94b-114a, and constitutes a discourse on the human soul, based upon some passages in Exodus that concern the laws of the Hebrew slave. I have only recently encountered this text and am therefore not at liberty to properly discuss it, but I wanted to share the text’s beginning. I have included it below in my translation. For those who are interested, I include the Aramaic at the end of this post:

Rabbi Hiyya and Rabbi Yosi met one evening in Migdal Tsor. They walked together and were pleased with one another.
Rabbi Yosi said, “How pleased I am to see the countenance of the Shekhinah! Right now, this whole way, I’ve been struggling with an old merchant, who was questioning me the whole way:

Which is the serpent who flies in the air and walks alone? And despite all this, there is comfort for the single ant, lying between his teeth? It commences with companionship and concludes with isolation? And which is the eagle who establishes his nest in the tree that does not exist, whose young are stolen, but not by creatures, and who was created in an uncreated location? When they ascend, they descend, and when they descend, they ascend. There are two which are one, and there is one which is three. Who is the beautiful girl who has no eyes, whose body is both hidden and revealed, who goes out in the morning but is covered by day, and who adorns herself with non-existent jewellery?

He was asking me all this on the road, and I was struggling. But now I have peace, for had we travelled together we would have laboured with words of Torah, rather than these other haphazard matters.”
Rabbi Hiyya asked, “Did you know this old merchant?”
He told him, “I knew that there was no substance to his speech. Had he known anything, he would have commenced with words of Torah and the journey would not have been in empty chatter.”
Rabbi Hiyya said, “Where is this merchant now? It sometimes happens that a man might find a golden bell in such empty discourse.”
He told him, “Here, he’s fixing food for his donkey.”
They called out to him, and then came before him. He said to them, “Now the two have become three, and the three are as one.”

– Zohar 2:94b-95a

Of this section, the most telling linguistic anachronism (in my opinion) is found in Rabbi Yosi’s response to Rabbi Hiyya’s question, “Did you know this old merchant?” Rabbi Yosi answers him by suggesting that he didn’t, but that he knew at least that there was no substance to his speech. The Aramaic word here for “substance” is a back-formation from the Hebrew ממשות. This Hebrew word didn’t exist at the time of Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai, although the author of this passage was evidently unaware of that fact. It was invented by Samuel ibn Tibbon at the end of the 12th century, itself a back-formation from the Hebrew ממש, in order to translate Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed from Arabic into Hebrew.

Linguistic issues aside, for which one can consult the voluminous writings of Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby, or (more conveniently, albeit briefly) the article to which I linked earlier, there is the question of content. I am led to believe that encountering an old man, apparantly untrained in the strictures of rabbinic exegesis, who gives off all of the signs of being poor and uneducated but who subsequently dazzles his rabbinic companions by divulging a homily upon the secrets of the Torah, is something of a trope in the mystical literature. The provocative, possibly nonsensical, introduction serves to get the reader’s attention, and the means by which one of its more enigmatic pronouncements (“There are two which are one, and there is one which is three”) is spontaneously fulfilled brings promise of the ensuing exegesis being of an enlightening nature.

I was disappointed to discover that the ensuing narrative, while being of interest in its own right, only served to elucidate the final part of the introduction (“Who is the beautiful girl who has no eyes…”), but I wonder if anybody else also thought that the opening line of the old man’s speech was suggestive of a connection between the serpent in the Garden of Eden (Gen 3) and Satan (chiefly, Job 1:7, 2:2)?

For those who are interested, the Aramaic reads as follows:

רבי חיא ורבי יוסי אערעו חד ליליא במגדלא דצור אתארחו תמן וחדו דא בדא אמר רבי יוסי כמה חדינא דחמינא אנפי שכינתא דהשתא בכל ארחא דא אצטערנא בחדא סבא טיעא דהוה שאיל לי כל ארחא

מאן הוא נחשא דפרח באוירא ואזיל בפירודא ובין כך ובין כך אית ניחא לחד נמלה דשכיב בין שנוי שרי בחבורא וסים בפירודא ומאי איהו נשרא דקא מקננא באילן דלא הוה בנוי דאתגזלו ולאו מן ברין דאתבריאו באתר דלא אתבריאו כד סלקין נחתין כד נחתין סלקין תרין דאנון חד וחד דאנון תלתא מהו עולימתא שפירתא ולית לה ענין וגופא טמירתא ואתגליא איהי נפקת בצפרא ואתכסיאת ביממא אתקשטא בקשוטין דלא הוו

כל דא שאיל בארחא ואצטערנא והשתא אית לי ניחא דאלו הוינא כחדא אתעסקנא במלי דאוריתא מה דהוינן במלין אחרינן דתהו אמר רבי חיא וההוא סבא טיעא ידעת בה כלום אמר לה ידענה דלית ממשו במלוי דאלו הוה ידע יפתח באוריתא ולא הוה ארחא בריקניא אמר רבי חיא וההוא טיעא אית הכא דהא לזמנין באנון ריקנין ישכח גבר זגין דדהבא אמר לה הא הכא איהו ואתקין חמרה במיכלא קרו לה ואתא לקימיהו אמר לון השתא תרין אנון תלת ותלת אנון כחד

Different, in any case

5 04 2010

I’m almost too late to write anything about Pesach, which is currently departing for another year, but I wanted to break my lengthy cyber-silence with some words in its regard. The first night of Pesach (or the first two nights, for those who continue to cling to the pre-4th century diaspora custom) features the reading of the Haggada: an early rabbinic text that muses upon the exodus narrative in typically midrashic style. Part of this text constitutes what appears to be a poem, laconically entitled Ma Nishtana, which is traditionally sung by the youngest member of the family.

Read the rest of this entry »

Praise the Lord (of the Rings)

26 09 2009

I recently acquired The Jerusalem Bible: an authorised Catholic translation of the Old Testament (including the deuterocanonical literature) and the New Testament. To the best of my knowledge, this book has been out of print since 1966. Having been criticised for its lack of attention (in some cases) to the original languages, the Bible then passed through the hands of an editorial committee and emerged as The New Jerusalem Bible in 1985. This new edition features egalitarian language and is also generally considered to be more faithful to the underlying Hebrew and Greek. Nonetheless, the 1966 edition was the one that I sought and, after struggling with Amazon’s refusal to ship it to Australia, I eventually found a copy on eBay.

At 2,000 pages, plus introductions and supplements, The Jerusalem Bible is a bit of a handful. The prose, from what I have read, is sharp and eloquent and the poetry natural to my ears. It reads less like a translation of the Bible and more like something that I am supposed to be reading in English. But I did not purchase it simply because I wanted a fresh take on an ancient book. On the contrary, observe the opening page:

Read the rest of this entry »