Monday, November 22, 2004

Did a dialectal difference between Babylonian and Galilean Aramaic lead to a mistaken psak?

From the Jerusalem Talmud, which is written in Galilean Aramaic:

איש מהו להתפיש לו נזירות בלשון אשה?
תמן אמרין הא נזירה איעבר
אשה מהו להתפיש לה נזירות בלשון איש
א"ר יוסי כל עצמו אינו קרוי נזירות אלא בלשון איש:
אִישׁ אוֹ-אִשָּׁה, כִּי יַפְלִא לִנְדֹּר נֶדֶר...
May a man seize upon himself nezirut using the language of a woman {that is, using the feminine form of the word, thus referring to a female nazir)?
There {in Babylonia} they say "behold a nezira (female nazir) passes.
{J: and the verb "passes" has a masculine form, thus making it clear that which normally refers to a female nazir here refers to the man who is a nazir. So when a nazir passes they say "behold a nezira passes." Thus one may.}
May a woman seize upon herself nezirut in the language of a man {saying "behold I am a nazir rather than a nezira} ?
Rabbi Yossi said the entire matter is only called nezirut in the language of a man... {then citing the pasuk to show that the masculine is used for both men and women:}
אִישׁ אוֹ-אִשָּׁה, כִּי יַפְלִא לִנְדֹּר נֶדֶר
"When either man or woman shall clearly utter a vow"
{and the pasuk continues: נֶדֶר נָזִיר - the vow of a Nazirite - and this, נָזִיר, is clearly masculine. Thus she can.}
Yechezkel Kutscher, in Studies in Galilean Aramaic, uses this yerushalmi to show the distinction between Babylonian and Galilean Aramaic dialects. He explains (and we see this is so from other sources as well) that while the kametz aleph ending is used to denote the definite article ("the") in what is called the emphatic form, in some dialects, such as Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic, it is used also for the absolute form (that is, the noun without the word "the" preceding it). However, in Galilean Aramaic, the language of the Jerusalem Talmud, the kametz aleph ending is used only for the emphatic and not the absolute.

At the same time, the kametz heh ending also occurs in Aramaic, to denote the absolute form of the feminine. In Galilean Aramaic in particular (as I recall from my Galilean Aramaic class), the heh and aleph may switch off at the end of a word since after all at the end of a word they are not pronounced (matres lectiones).

Thus (parentheses note letters written but not pronounced):
melek - a king
malka(`) - the king
malka(h) - a queen

but the last two can switch off, such that, for example, malka(h) - the king.

Kutscher claims that what happened here was a dialectal misunderstanding. The rabbis of the Jerusalem Talmud want to know about a man using the feminine form of the noun to describe and thus accept upon himself nezirut. To answer this, they mention that there, in Babylonia, they use the word nezira(h) to describe a male nazir. But, they did not realize that what was happening was that in Babylonia, the people were not using this ending as the feminine form, but as the absolute form of the masculine nazir. The reason they did not realize this is that in Galilean Aramaic, it would only be used for the masculine emphatic (definite) form, not the absolute!

It seems to me that Kutscher is correct in his analysis, at least in terms of what the Babylonians meant when they said this phrase.

If this is so, it means that a dialectal difference between Babylonian and Galilean Aramaic led to a mistaken psak!

I would not come to the conclusion that the speakers of Galilean Aramaic in the Jerusalem Talmud misunderstood the Babylonian Aramaic saying.

After all, tractates nedarim and nazir show incredible linguistic sopihstication. A large element of both is the study of linguistic and dialectal variants, and determining the intent of different speakers in different locales. Thus, for example, we find that the first mishna in nedarim begins:
כל כינויי נדרים כנדרים חרמים כחרמים שבועת כשבועות נזירות כנזירות

That is, alternate names (nicknames) for nedarim, charamim, shevuot, and nezirut are accepted to accept each of these upon oneself.

The first mishna in nazir begins the same:
כל כינוי נזירות כנזירות...

and continues
נזיר נזיק נזיח פזיח ה"ז נזיר
Using the words Nazir, Naziq, Naziach, Paziach is efficacious in accepting nezirut.

In a gemara I read the other day in yerushalmi nedarim 3b (and the same segment occurs in yerushalmi nazir 1a):

אמר ר' יוסי
נראין הדברים במקומות אחרים
אבל במקום שקוראין לנזיר נזיק
כן אני אומר נזיר פסילים לא יהא נזיר
Rabbi Yossi stated,
it seems these matters {saying Naziq rather than Nazir and it being OK} is in other places {than the places with this dialectic variation}.
But in the place itself where they call a Nazir a Naziq {it is obvious that it would be OK, for}
So would I say: A nazir who is a psilos {Greek for someone with a speech impediment - in this case pronouncing the q in place of the r} would not be able to become a nazir?!!?
Thus, what is a dialectal difference in one place makes it acceptable for that place. But additionally, in places where they do not have this dialect, is is also OK.

Here, they wanted to know what the situation would be if one uses the feminine form for one of the forms of nezirut. In the case of nazir, it would be nezira. For naziq, it would be neziqa. What if one used that form.

They answer that in Babylonia, they call a nazir a nezira, saying "Behold a nezira passes."

This does not mean that they think the Babylonians were using the feminine. However, the form used in Babylonia for masculine absolute is the same as the the emphatic, definite form. That form is the same as the absolute feminine form in Galilean Aramaic. And we know, based on Rabbi Yossi, that even if it not the form in one location, if it is a valid form in another location, that is acceptable everywhere. Therefore the form is admissible.

(I may have made some mistake here since I did not finish yerushalmi nedarim + nazir yet. In a few weeks I hope to look this over and if necessary post a correction. But for now I think I am correct.)

Thus I think that Kutscher is right as to the meaning of the Babylonian statement, but mistaken as to how the Jerusalem Talmud understood it. Even so, it makes for a much richer reading of this yerushalmi.

{Update: Note also that in both gemarin I cited it is Rabbi Yossi who is speaking, though in one it is to deal with the latter question - a woman using lashon zachor.}

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