Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

May 09, 2006

Had a few interesting observations the other day.
The first one was prompted by a passage in Daniel (which I am currently studying in my Aramaic class). The verse is Dan 2:20 and it runs, "לְהֱוֵא שְׁמֵהּ דִּי־אֱלָהָא מְבָרַך ְ מִן־עָלְמָא וְעַד־עָלְמָא" (trans. 'May the name of God be blessed forever and ever'). I am assuming, incidentally, that the word להוה is a jussive (which makes a great deal more sense than just "God's name will be blessed...") but it does appear to be a regular imperfective in form. In any case, I was chatting to a friend after the class and he noted that the word מברך also appears in the Hebrew liturgy. This seemed strange to us at the time (because it is an Aramaic pa'el passive participle, and the Hebrew equivalent (a pu'al participle) should have the form, מְקֻטַּל), but it later turned out to be an ordinary Hebrew form for a word with a medial guttural.

But this is all beside the point! The passage in question (in the Hebrew liturgy) is the one spoken at the beginning of Birkat HaMazon (the Grace after Meals). The passage, יהי שם ה' מברך מעתה ועד עולם, is basically a word-for-word translation of the passage in Daniel. But then it occurred to me that this line also appears, in modified Aramaic, in the longer of the responses to the Qaddish: יהא שמה רבה מברך לעלם ולעלמי עלמיא. There is, however, a major difference between the two. The passage in Daniel speaks of God's name being blessed; the passage in the Qaddish says, "May His great name be blessed..." There is no reference in Daniel 2:20 to God's name being great. Ah, but then a thought occurred to me! Perhaps the accusative suffix on the word שם is actually an anticipatory pronominal suffix! That would make the meaning, "May the name of the great one be blessed...": not only a literal rendering of the passage in Daniel but an indication that רבה, 'great one', was an epithet for God. Or maybe it was just written by the students of Raba...

My second observation was more fun, but only because it touches upon a HILARIOUS Ibn Ezra.
Ex 21:35a relates some of the laws of a goring ox: "וכי־יגף שור־איש את־שור רעהו ומת" (trans. by JPS, 'When a man's ox injures his neighbour's ox and it dies'). This reading follows the traditional Jewish understanding of the verse, indicated in the Masorah by the conjunctive accent under the second שור: the ox of his friend, in other words. This is probably indicated by Rashi who explains that שור איש means שור של איש ('the ox OF a man'), although Siftei Khakhamim understand him differently. It is certainly indicated by Ibn Ezra who mocks the alternative hypothesis - that of a certain Ben Zuta of Qara'ite fame. The following is Ibn Ezra's commentary, with my translation:

אמר בן זוטא כי רעהו תואר לשור. ולא ראה כי שור איש סמוך הוא, וכן הוא שור רעהו. ואין לשור ריע רק בן זוטא לבדו

"Ben Zuta says that 'his friend' is a reference to the ox (ie: 'when one ox injures his friend, an ox'). But he does not see that the words 'ox' and 'man' are in construct, and so are 'ox' and 'his friend'! (ie: just as the first ox belonged to a man, so too must the word 'his friend' be a reference to that man's friend, the owner of the second ox'). After all, the only person suitable to be an ox's friend is Ben Zuta himself!"

This Ibn Ezra always makes me smile. But, if I may also speak in Ben Zuta's defence, Gen 15:10 uses a strikingly similar syntax. When Abraham separates the animal pieces in the Covenant of the Parts, it says: ויתן איש־בתרו לקראת רעהו ('and he placed each piece opposite its counterpart'). Ibn Ezra does comment here on the usage of the word איש (although not רעהו), but does so in exactly the manner that we can assume Ben Zuta did in Exodus! I raised this question to Dr Shani Berrin, and she also indicated to me a passage in mMak 1:3 which does the same. While Ibn Ezra was not renowned for his Talmudic acumen, he was certainly aware of the validity of this syntax. Perhaps, however, the opportunity to mock a Qara'ite was just too good to pass by.


At 1:11 AM , Blogger Beisrunner said...

You're missing the parallelism. If you translate "shor reehu" as "ox which is his friend", you must also translate "shor ish" as "ox which is a person". Which is not reasonable.

Yes, the juxtaposition of "ish" with "achiv/reehu" (and the female equivalents) is often used with animals and inanimate objects as well as with people. That is what Ibn Ezra is referring to in 15:10.

But because of the parallelism, such a construct cannot be used here. Ibn Ezra is right after all.

At 8:34 AM , Anonymous Simon Holloway said...

Of course Ibn Ezra is right, but not automatically so. I would not rely on a vague sense of Biblical parallelism to assert that this clause cannot be read any other way - it certainly can. Aside from the fact that this is not true parallelism anyway (in the A and what's more B sort of sense), but merely a poetic economy of expression, there are plenty of other examples within the Bible of subjects and objects being changed within the space of a verse. My only point with the Genesis quote was that the word √רעה can be used for an animal or an object, despite the fact that Ibn Ezra seems to imply that it could not.


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