Sunday, June 30, 2013

Was al-wabr first hyrax, or rabbit?

(See also this post at Rationalist Judaism, within the general topic of hyraxes.)

This post is an elaboration of a point I merely alluded to in an earlier blogpost, about That Wascally Wabr:
There is good evidence that where Saadia Gaon was (Egypt, Eretz Yisrael, etc.), it meant hyrax, which is indigenous to the area and was indeed referred to as al-wabr.

However, the Arabic language spread throughout the world, since the Arabs were conquering and converting the entire world. And in other places, they did not have hyraxes, but they did have other animals, which required an Arabic name. And so, the name wabr could be reused to apply to the similar local species.
Assume for a moment that back in early medieval times, we have attestations of al-wabr as hyrax and al-wabr as rabbit. Why should we think that it is the hyrax meaning which is more original, and not the rabbit meaning?

There are several reasons, but here is one of them, which is most convincing to my mind.

In the development of language, items which are local would logically be named earlier than items which are foreign.

Is this the original jurthik?
This horse is indigenous to England.
For example, pretend that in England, there are horses but no zebras. And in Africa, there are zebras but no horses. Now, pretend further that in the English language, both horses and zebras are called by the same name, "jurthik", and are not referred to as "horse" or "zebras" at all.

To which animal would the name "jurthik" have applied first?

As the English language developed, in England, they would have cause to refer to the horse but not the horse. It makes little sense that the common horse had no name but the foreign zebra had a name ("jurthik"). And so, it makes more sense that first the horse was called by its name ("jurthik") and, as the British empire spread to places such as Africa, shared characteristics of the horse and zebra led to the application of "jurthik" to the zebra species as well.
Or is this the original jurthik?
This zebra is indigenous to Africa.

That appears to be the case with the hyrax and rabbit. The Arabic language developed in areas in which, according to archaezoologists, the hyrax existed but the rabbit did not. And in Spain, where the Arabic language did not first develop, the rabbit existed but the hyrax did not.

If both the hyrax and rabbit are called al-wabr at some point in time X, then what would you guess was called al-wabr first?

I would guess that the hyrax was called al-wabr first, because as an indigenous species to the area in which the Arabic language developed, it would need a name before  the rabbit, a non-indigenous species, would need a name.

This ends the reason, which is convincing all by itself.

However, we could add a further detail. The somewhat early reference to al-wabr as (probably) rabbit appears not in a text composed where hyraxes lived and where the Arabic language first developed. It occurs in a dictionary of the Hebrew language written by someone living in Spain, where there are rabbits but no hyraxes and where the Arabic language spread. This is precisely where we would expect the secondary meaning to develop.

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

YUTorah on parashat Pinchas

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Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Did Saadia Gaon have a masorah on shafan as al-wabr?

According to Ibn Ezra, Saadia Gaon sometimes made things up, for the honor of Torah.

To quote Jewish Encyclopedia on Ibn Ezra's allegation:
Nor was Saadia without influence outside Jewish circles. Abraham ibn Ezra, writing on Gen. ii. 11, states, probably on good authority, that Saadia planned his translation of the Bible for Mohammedans as well as for Jews, and that he used Arabic script for this reason; and Ibn Ezra accordingly explains the fact that Saadia translated even those expressions whose meaning was not known through tradition, as being due to a desire that the Mohammedan reader might not think the Bible contains words which are unintelligible. 

I wrote about this Ibn Ezra a few years back (and even mentioned al-wabr), about whether Saadia Gaon dreamed that the Pishon was the Nile. That is, on Bereishit 2:11, which begins shem ha'echad pishon, it Rav Saadia Gaon's Tafsir, it is the Nile River. Al-Nil.

Rashi agrees and gives a derivation, but Ibn Ezra disagrees in a long and harsh comment. And he ends that comment by saying:

 ואין ראיה על פישון שהוא היאור, רק שתרגם החוילה כפי צרכו, כי אין לו קבלה וכן עשה במשפחות ובמדינות. ובחיות ובעופות ובאבנים. אולי בחלום ראה וכבר טעה במקצתם כאשר אפרש במקומו, א"כ לא נשען על חלומותיו אולי עשה כן לכבוד השם בעבור שתרגם התורה בלשון ישמעאל ובכתיבתם, שלא יאמרו כי יש בתורה מלות לא ידענום. 
And there is no proof regarding the Pishon that it is the Nile {which does not share a single source with these, or flow in this manner}. Rather, he {=Rav Saadia Gaon} translated HaChavilah {the country it surrounds} as he needed, for he had no tradition. And so did he do by the families and countries, and the animals, birds, and stones. Perhaps he saw them in a dream. And he already erred in a few of them, as I will explain in each place. If so, we shall not rely upon his dreams; perhaps he did this for the honor of Hashem, for he translated {in the Tafsir} the Torah into the Arabic language, and in their script, so that they should not say that there are words in the Torah which we do not know.
That is, it would be an embarassment before the Muslims to leave a word untranslated, saying in effect that we don't know what the word is. And so Saadia Gaon made things up, or else tried to figure it out based on other pesukim.

This is more than a simple argument between a Rishon and a Gaon, each perhaps with a masorah or perhaps not.

However, there are a number of points to make about this.

1) This is just Ibn Ezra talking, and alleging this. It does not necessarily mean that it is so, that Saadia Gaon did not make use of a masorah. It might mean that Ibn Ezra is trying to justify his arguing with a Gaon.

2) Along the same lines, it is Ibn Ezra saying this. And some 'frummies' are triumphantly citing this Ibn Ezra as halacha leMoshe miSinai, when they would likely not cite other Ibn Ezras in such matters. For one random example, as to what peshat is in the prohibition to shave with a razor.

3) Ibn Ezra also does not mean that in every case, Saadia Gaon operated without a masorah. For example, surely Saadia Gaon knows what a parah is. But Ibn Ezra says:
And he already erred in a few of them, as I will explain in each place
Ibn Ezra does not argue with Saadia Gaon in his commentary in Shemini, about shafan. He is silent, which means that he does not argue. It might still mean that Saadia was operating without a masorah, but Ibn Ezra still thinks he got it right.

4) Given that the hyrax was an animal local to Eretz Yisrael and its vicinity, and was one of the few animals with a distinctive and readily recognizable sign, of apparent rumination while not possessing split hooves, it stands to reason that this would not be one of the animals for which there was no masorah. That is, if the shafan is indeed the hyrax, then it would make sense for there to have been a masorah for it, unlike for random non-kosher animals and birds, for which the masorah was lost.

5) Last but not least, the same folks suggesting that Saadia lacked a masorah are simultaneously suggesting that the Spanish Rishonim may have had a masorah as to the identity of the shafan. Which is more likely, that Saadia had a masorah, or that the Spanish Rishonim had a masorah?

Sunday, June 23, 2013

Daf Yomi Pesachim daf 2-3: naghei vs. leilei

Back in 2006, I wrote a series of posts delving into the true meaning of the naghei / leilei gemara in the beginning of Pesachim.

I will link here to all eight posts, and also in this post repeat the text of the final post. It is really good stuff, so I would recommend checking it out.

1) The Ambiguous אור
2) Leilei Leilei Mamash
3) Naghei vs. Leilei
4) Naghei vs. Leilei - Based on Location?
5) Posts so far on the word אור
6) `or does NOT mean `oreta`
7) Mar Zutra's Proof
8) Reconstruction of the Original Sugya

The basic idea is that both Rav Huna and Rav Yehuda were explaining that when the Mishna said Or -- which obviously meant night based on the very next Mishna which contrasted it to day -- that word Or was not the same as Aramaic Oreta, meaning late afternoon of the 13th. Rather, it meant Leilei / Naghei, when it was actually nightfall of the 14th. Mar Zutra tries to prove this very point from a Mishna in Keritut. But then, the setama degemara does not understand this point, conflates Oreta with Naghei / Leilei, and thinks that they are trying to argue against Or meaning Yom, that is day. And most of the Ta Shemas target that.

I repeat here my final post:

In previous posts, I addressed the true meaning of Rav Huna and Rav Yehuda's statement about the definition of אור, showed how Mar Zutra's proof fit in to that end, and showed how a great many difficulties can be thusly resolved. What I would like to do it reconstruct the original sugya in the beginning of Pesachim, and explain what each statement means and how it fits in with the whole.

Reconstructing the original sugya is a fairly easy task in this instance. All that is involved is citing the statements by named Amoraim and omitting the rest, which is stamaitic.

The sugya I can reconstruct in this was is as follows:

דף ב, א משנה אור לארבעה עשר בודקין את החמץ לאור הנר כל מקום שאין מכניסין בו חמץ אין צריך בדיקה ובמה אמרו ב' שורות במרתף מקום שמכניסין בו חמץ בית שמאי אומרים ב' שורות על פני כל המרתף ובית הלל אומרים שתי שורות החיצונות שהן העליונות:

דף ב, א גמרא מאי אור רב הונא אמר נגהי ורב יהודה אמר לילי
דף ב, ב גמרא מיתיבי מר זוטרא
דף ג, א גמרא המפלת אור לשמונים ואחד בית שמאי פוטרין מקרבן ובית הלל מחייבים אמרו <להן> [להם] בית הלל לבית שמאי מאי שנא אור שמנים ואחד מיום שמנים ואחד אם שיוה לו לטומאה לא ישוה לו לקרבן
תני דבי שמואל לילי ארבעה עשר בודקין את החמץ לאור הנר
דף ד, א גמרא אמר רב נחמן בר יצחק בשעה שבני אדם מצויין בבתיהם ואור הנר יפה לבדיקה אמר אביי הילכך האי צורבא מרבנן לא לפתח בעידניה באורתא דתליסר דנגהי ארבסר דלמא משכא ליה שמעתיה ואתי לאימנועי ממצוה
The אור of the 14th we search for chametz by the light of a candle. Any place where we do not bring in chametz does not require searching. And regarding what did they discuss two rows in a wine-cellar? A place into which we bringchametz.
Bet Shammai say: Two rows over the entire cellar;
and Bet Hillel say:The two outer rows, that are the uppermost.

What is אור?
{We might think this is equal to its Aramaic cognate, אורתא, and thus means thelate afternoon of the 13th, going into the 14th, and thus the Mishna states אורלארבעה .עשר}
Rav Huna said: Naghei.And Rav Yehuda said: Leilei.
{Both agree, and are saying that אור means night and not late afternoon.}
Mar Zutra attempted to prove this {from the Mishna in Keritut 9b}: If a woman miscarries on the אור to the 81st. Bet Shammai exempt from a{n additional}korban and Bet Hillel require. Bet Hillel said to Bet Shammai: Why should the אור of the 81st differ from the day {=morning} of the 81st. If it is equivalent to it in terms of ritual impurity {that if she saw menstrual blood, she would be considered a niddah at this time}, should it not be equivalent to it in terms ofkorban?
{This proves that אור is night and not late afternoon, because late afternoon is still part of the 80th day and if she saw menstrual blood she would not be considered a niddah.}
Indeed - in the academy of Shmuel they taught {the Mishna as}: Leilei of the 14th we search for chametz by the light of a candle.
{Thus, it is clear that they regard אור to be leilei, which is not and not late afternoon. Now, why at night, and perhaps, why not earlier, in late afternoon?}
Rav Nachman bar Yitzchak said: At the hour that people are found in their houses and the light of the candle is good for searching.
Abaye said: Therefore a Torah scholar should not begin his seder of learning on the אורתא of the 13th which goes into the נגהי of the 14th lest his learning draw him in and he will then come to neglect the precept.
Perhaps rather than מיתיבי we should have something along the lines of תא שמע. Also, perhaps one can argue on my interpretation of Abaye's usage of אורתא, and thus manage to undermine this entire tower I have just built up. Comments welcome. :)

Friday, June 21, 2013

That Wascally Wabr

The meaning of words changes over time and over place.

For example, growing up, I was always confused when Torah translations talked about there being corn in Egpyt. Wasn't corn a plant that was native to America? How then could Yaakov have heard that there was corn in Egypt? Either corn existed in Egypt, or this was a strange translation.

I didn't realize that the English translations originated in England, and that in England it means grain, usually wheat, while in modern America it means maize. Or that it locally is understood to denote the leading crop of a district. At the time, in my teens, I didn't think to look up such a common word in a dictionary, and there was no Google to use to find its etymology in three seconds.

Nowadays, I can search for etymology corn and find the etymology of corn:

corn (n.1) Look up corn at
"grain," Old English corn, from Proto-Germanic *kurnam "small seed" (cf. Old Frisian and Old Saxon korn "grain," Middle Dutch coren, German Korn, Old Norse korn, Gothic kaurn), from PIE root *gre-no- "grain" (cf. Old Church Slavonic zruno "grain," Latin granum "seed," Lithuanian žirnis "pea"). The sense of the Old English word was "grain with the seed still in" (e.g. barleycorn) rather than a particular plant.

Locally understood to denote the leading crop of a district. Restricted to corn on the cob in America (c.1600, originally Indian corn, but the adjective was dropped), usually wheat in England, oats in Scotland and Ireland, while Korn means "rye" in parts of Germany. Maize was introduced to China by 1550, it thrived where rice did not grow well and was a significant factor in the 18th century population boom there. Cornflakesfirst recorded 1907. Corned beef so called for the "corns" or grains of salt with which it is preserved; from verb corn "to salt" (1560s).
I did know that there were differences between American English and British English. For example, boot either means the trunk of an automobile or a shoe. But that is not nearly as confusing as when the word is a cognate, that is, almost the same meaning, with the same surface form, in the two languages.

Here is another example: Rabbit.

Did you know that in British English, and in scientific zoological usage, "rabbit" refers to one group of animals (I'll call them "true rabbits" to keep things clear), while in American English "rabbit" it refers to an entirely different group of animals ("hares")?

That is, from the perspective of scientific taxonomy, looking at the genera (genuses) that make up the family Leporidae,
Members of all genera except Lepus are usually referred to as rabbits, while members of Lepus (which accounts for almost half the species) are usually called hares.
And in British English, this is true. However, in American English, hares are called rabbits. That is because there are no native "true rabbits" in America, only hares. And so the term "rabbit" was applied to the closest species.

I found this out from an online etymological dictionary:

rabbit (n.) Look up rabbit at
Zoologically speaking, there are no native rabbits in the United States; they are all hares. But the early colonists, for some unknown reason, dropped the word hare out of their vocabulary, and it is rarely heard in American speech to this day. When it appears it is almost always applied to the so-called Belgian hare, which, curiously enough, is not a hare at all, but a true rabbit. [H.L. Mencken]
Note that Americans call rabbits hares and hares rabbits.

It is no wonder that, on occasion, American publications will confuse the terms and speak of rabbits instead of hares, where earlier and later works, employing the precise scientific taxonomic names, make it clear that hares were the subject matter. A certain fellow pointed to sources showing "rabbits" in Eretz Yisrael, based on American sources,
Rabbits were also found in excavations in the Negev [Theron Douglas Price, Anne Birgitte Gebauer. “Last hunters, first farmers: new perspectives on the prehistoric transition to agriculture”. School of American Research (Santa Fe, N.M.) School of American Research Press, 1995 - Technology & Engineering - 354 pages, page 61] and in Israel’s vicinity like Syria [Andrew M. T. Moore. “A Pre Neolithic Farmers' Village on the Euphrates”. Scientific American. 1979;241(8):62-70, page 66]
and refused to accept any correction in this matter, in part on ideological grounds.

This is an example of the meaning of a word changing based on locale. The word "rabbit" also changed across time. From the same etymological dictionary:

rabbit (n.) Look up rabbit at
late 14c., "young of the coney," from French dialect (cf. Walloon robète), diminutive of Flemish or Middle Dutch robbe "rabbit," of unknown origin. "A Germanic noun with a French suffix" [Liberman]. The adult was a coney (q.v.) until 18c.
Thus, initially it meant the young of a coney, whereas now it refers to both young and old of the species.

The gemara, as well, makes note of words changing their meaning, and that this can have practical ramifications. Shabbat 36a-b:
For R. Hisda said: The following three things reversed their designations after the destruction of the Temple: [i] trumpet [changed to] shofar, and shofar to trumpet. What is the practical bearing thereof? in respect of the shofar [blown] on New Year. [ii] 'Arabah [willow] [changed to] zafzafah and zafzafah to 'Arabah. What is the practical bearing thereof? — In respect of the lulab [iii] Pathora [changed to] pathorta and pathorta to Pathora. What is the practical bearing thereof? — In respect of buying and selling. Abaye observed: We too can state:Hoblila [changed to] be kasse and be kasse to hoblila. What is the practical bearing thereof? In respect of a needle which is found in the thickness of the beth hakosoth, which if [found] on one side, it [the animal] is fit [for food]; if through both sides, it [the animal] is terefah. R. Ashi said, We too will state: Babylon [changed to] Borsif and Borsif to Babylon.
Another famous example is the tzvi. As Dr. Yehuda Feliks wrote in Nature and Man in the Bible: Chapters in Biblical Ecology, the Biblical and Talmudic tzvi is the gazelle, but later European translators transferred the term to the Biblical ayal, a deer.

Next, we have the shafan. The Biblical term most likely refers to the hyrax, which the Israelites were familiar with. Pesukim in Mishlei and Tehillim describe behavior and habitat for the shafan that matches that of the hyrax. I am not going to rehash all of this here.

Saadia Gaon translates the shafan as wabr in his Tafsir. Thus, where the Torah has:

Rav Saadia Gaon writes:

He wrote the Tafsir between 922 and 928 CE.

Is this Rav Saadia Gaon's al-wabr? :-)
Great, but we don't know what a wabr is. Is the wabr a hyrax? An octopus? Maybe it means llama or pica! Saadia Gaon was writing for an audience, though, so we can try to determine what al wabr meant in his time and his place. There is good evidence that where Saadia Gaon was (Egypt, Eretz Yisrael, etc.), it meant hyrax, which is indigenous to the area and was indeed referred to as al-wabr.

However, the Arabic language spread throughout the world, since the Arabs were conquering and converting the entire world. And in other places, they did not have hyraxes, but they did have other animals, which required an Arabic name. And so, the name wabr could be reused to apply to the similar local species.

Indeed, I've seen wabr translated as 'weasel', 'guinea pig', 'coney', and 'hyrax'.

At some point, at least 85 years later (that it, some time after 1013 CE), and in Spain, a country that did not have hyraxes, Rabbi Yonah Ibn Janach wrote Sefer HaShorashim, in which he explains shafan as al wabr, and then proceeds to define the term in medieval Spanish.

Thus, he writes:

Zohar Amar has translated it as:

"הוא 'אלובר', בעל חיים כמידת חתול שהוא מצוי מעט במזרח, ואולם אצלנו הוא מרובה, ואולם המון העם אינו מכירו באותו השם, אלא בשם 'קנליה' (قنلية), והוא ניב ספרדי"
In English (some help from commenters on this post):

"This is the al-wabr, an animal the size of a cat which is found rarely in the East, yet by us it is plentiful. [Footnote 45: And it is well known in Morroco.] And the hamon am do not recognize it by this name [Josh: of wabr], but rather by the name conilio, which is a foreign [=Spanish] word."

We see here that Ibn Janach, who did not travel to the East, is identifying the Arabic al-wabr as conilio. Since in modern Spanish, conilio means rabbit, it is quite plausible that he meant it to be rabbit. The hyrax is not found in Spain; the rabbit was not found (or at least found plentifully) in the East, and was plentiful in Spain.

He is also saying that this is not what the people in his vicinity would call the creature. It is thus an identification he is making himself, or which some people use.

It thus seems quite likely to me that this is an instance of a word's meaning shifting over time and place. That is, Ibn Janach did not know of the hyrax, but he did know of the rabbit, and that some people called the rabbit by the term al-wabr, and so he assumed that this was the meaning of Saadia Gaon's term.

And so, Ibn Janach reports and passes on the masorah of shafan as al-wabr from the authority or authorities before him, but accidentally shifted the identification of al-wabr to the rabbit. This is similar to the way in which various Rishonim living in Europe identify Chazal's shafan as the rabbit. Indeed, perhaps Ibn Janach is the very vector of the shift.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

YUTorah on parashat Balak

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Monday, June 17, 2013

Justifying "the land of Ammon"

Check out these two posts first -- The land of the children of his people, and the land of whose people?

Eretz Bnei Amo -- does it perhaps mean Eretz Bnei Ammon? From an earlier post, this image of the Samaritan variant. As I noted there, I don't think this is the original reading, just that it could reflect an ancient understanding of the Eretz Bnei Amo phrase. And I didn't start from the Samaritan variant. I had always thought of this possibility, and discovered the Samaritan variant afterwards.A commenter left a lengthy comment, and I reply here, to add some justification for thinking the reference is to Ammon.

The well written question:
Dear Parsha Blog,

I am puzzling over the theory you've previously suggested that "eretz bnei amo" (the land of his people) in Bamidbar 22:5 really means the land of *Amon*. A friend of mine in Shul independently made the same suggestion to me yesterday.

But I don't understand what that would mean? Bilam clearly was summoned from *Aram* (in Mesopotamia), per Devarim 23:5, as you also mention in your posts. Not Amon. Balak was king of Moav, and presumably Balak was in Moav when he sent for Bilam -- in fact see 22:36, when Bilam arrives he meets Balak in Moav. What would 22:5 possibly mean if it is referring to the land of Amon? Who is located in Amon, and how is Amon connected to the summoning of Bilam?

If the Torah meant "Amon", does the text provide enough other facts to make sense of how Amon is involved? Or would it require all sorts of speculation and invention to rationalize the relevance of Amon? 
When I consider the fact that "Amo" and "Amon" are so close in spelling, and Amon does feature in *other* nearby parshiyot of the Torah (e.g. Chukat, battles of sichon & og), and "eretz bnei amo" is kind of an odd phrase, the conclusion I draw is: it's easy to imagine how a Samarian scribe who maybe wasn't following the story details too closely could have mistakenly transcribed "Amon" in 22:5. 
What I don't understand is how interpreting 22:5 as meaning/referring to "Amon" leads to a more coherent pshat? What does the land of Amon have to do with Balak king of Moav sending messengers to summon Bilam from Aram? 
If our Masoretic text had instead said "eretz bnei amon", then I suspect objective, truth-seeking bloggers :-) would be wondering what that means (since Petor is in mesopotamia), and suggesting that the correct text is really eretz bnei *amo* and simply means Petor was Bilam's homeland, and that the reference to *Amon* in the (hypothetical) masoretic text is erroneous. No? 
Bottom line, it seems to me that "Amon" in the Samarian text is just an easy-to-imagine typo, and not a variant reading that makes more sense than our masoretic version Amo. Am I missing something? My friend still agrees with your theory, for what that's worth -- but I don't undesrtand why!

My response, much shorter:

 Why should  ארץ בני עמו be a reference to the Iand of Ammon?

 1) In Ki Teizei both Ammon + Moav are (possibly) implicated in the hiring of Bilaam.
[Devarim 23:4-5]:  "An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter into the assembly of the LORD; even to the tenth generation shall none of them enter into the assembly of the LORD for ever;
because they met you not with bread and with water in the way, when ye came forth out of Egypt; and because they hired against thee Balaam the son of Beor from Pethor of Aram-naharaim, to curse thee."

2) we see already national ambiguity in parashat Balak, bet. Midianite + Moabite. This coalition might have included the close neighbor Ammon as well, + Balak might have ruled there as well.

3) Before I suggested that this was Bilaam's source, not destination.

4. ארץ בני עמו is weird, calls out darsheini. (The land of Bnei Ammon is an entity. The land of the children of his people is a rather awkward phrase.)

5) Indeed in Devarim it is more explicit that Petor is in Aram Naharayim. But local to Bemidbar it is just on the
Nahar without further elaboration

6) You rightly point to a pasuk that says he met him in Moav: 
עיר מואב which is on the border of Arnon, the utmost border,
Bemidbar 22:36.

This river Arnon was the border 
between Moav and
Ammon. (And their meet 
happened at this very border, 
right by eretz Bnei Ammon.) 
So Ammon is still plausibly 
involved, either as a source or destination.


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