Category Archives: Semitics

Near-Eastern literature with a special focus on Hebrew.

The Struggle for Jewish Identity after the Destruction of the Temple

How the Jewish community adapted their religious system after the destruction of the temple in 70 AD.

The loss put Judaism at a crossroads. The destruction meant an end to the sacrificial system – a concept central to Jewish life and faith. This forced the Jewish community to adapt. Ephraim E. Urbach covered this in his great work, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Mr. Urbach “was a distinguished scholar of Judaism. He is best known for his landmark works on rabbinic thought, The Sages, and for research on the Tosafot. He was an unsuccessful candidate to be President of Israel in 1973.”(1)

Enclosed is his coverage on how the new Jewish identity had shifted from sacrifice to study and charity. The quote names a few important Rabbis. The most prominent name in this discussion is Yochanan ben Zakai . The New World Encyclopedia gives an outline of this important leader in Jewish history:

“Yochanan ben Zakai (Hebrew:יוחנן בן זכא , died 80-90 C.E.), also spelled Johanan b. Zakki, was an important rabbinical sage in the final days of the Second Temple era of Judaism and a key figure in the transition from Temple-centered to Rabbinical Judaism.

Already a well known teacher in Jerusalem before the Jewish Revolt of 66-70 C.E., Yochanan was smuggled out of the city during the rebellion and convinced the future emperor Vespasian to allow him to reestablish his academy at Jamnia. This institution became the leading center of Judaism after the Temple was destroyed. Under Yochanan’s influence, animal sacrifices were abandoned in favor of prayer as the primary means of atonement between man and God.”(2)

Here is a portion of Urbach’s explanation:

Ephraim E. Urbach. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1979. Vol 1. Pg. 611

. . . R. Isaac taught ‘Whoever occupies himself with the law of the sin-offering, and whoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah is regarded as if he offered up a sin-offering, and whoever occupies himself with the law of the guilt-offering is regarded as though he offered up a guilt-offering.’ Rava came and said ‘Whoever occupies himself with the study of the Torah needs no burnt -offering nor sin-offering, no meal-offering nor guilt offering.’(4) The wording of Rava’s dictum ‘needs no’ etc. is more extreme than the dicta of his predecessors and their like, such as, ‘A Sage who sits and expounds (Torah) in public is accounted by Scripture as though he offered up fat and blood upon the altar,(5) for all these sayings contain the expression ‘as though (if)’. Even in the anonymous homily that states ‘When the Temple is not in existence, how shall you find atonement? Occupy yourselves with the words of the Torah, which are comparable to the sacrifices and they shall make atonement for you. . . ,(6) the study of the Torah serves only as a surrogate and replacement for atonement by the sacrifices. Even this concept is already the result of late development, for when the Temple was destroyed, Rabban Johanan b. Zakkai declared that acts of charity and benevolence were Israel’s atonement,(7) while others again looked upon fasts as substituting for and replacing sacrifices.(8) The supercession of fasting and the practice of benevolence as a means of expiation by the study of the Torah accords with the views of various Sages who chose the way of R. Simeon b. Yohai, rather than that of R. Judah b. Ill’ai.(3)Ephraim E. Urbach. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1979. Vol 1. Pg. 611


Footnotes found in the above text.(4)found in Ephraim E. Urbach. The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs. Translated from the Hebrew by Israel Abrahams. Jerusalem: Magnes Press. 1979. Vol 2. Pg. 967 -968

These footnotes are for those already familiar with Jewish thought and method or want to know more details about the above passage.

  • (4) T. B. Menahot 110a. See Sifre Deut. § 41: ‘ “And to serve Him” — this refers to study of the Torah. You say this refers to study of the Torah, but perhaps it means actual (sacrificial) service! When Scripture declares “And the Lord God took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to serve it [לעבדה usually rendered ‘to till it’] and to keep it” (Gen ii 15) – but what service was there in the past, and what keeping was there to do in the past? — thus you learn: “to serve it” means study of the Torah, “and to keep it” means the observance of precepts; and just as the service of the altar is called “service”, even so is the study of the Torah called “service”.’ This exposition is difficult, for it is impossible to tell why ‘to serve it’ should connote study of the Torah and not the service of sacrifice (and thus it is actually interpreted in Gen. Rabba xvi, 5. p. 149: “To serve it and to keep it” refers to the sacrifices’: see ibid n. 2. With regard to the precepts observed by Adam see above, p. 320). The understandable homily that follows emphasizes this difficulty: ‘ “And to serve Him” — this means prayer. . . but perhaps it means non other than service? (Hence Scripture says) “With all your heart”. Is there then service in the heart? . . . just as the altar-service is called “service”, even so prayer is called “service”.’

  • (5) ’Avot de-R. Nathan iv, p. 18; see the notes ibid.

  • (6)Tanḥuma, Aḥare, 10; ed. Buber, ibid., xvi, 35a

  • (7) See my article ‘Megammot Datiyyot we-Ḥevratiyyot be-Torat ha-Sadaqa shel Ḥazal’, Zion, XVI, 1951, pp. 6 ff.

  • (8) See my article ’Asqezis we-Yissurim’, Sefer ha-Yovel le Yitzḥak Baer, pp. 54 – 56

References   [ + ]

Everyone Should Read Josephus


Why everyone who likes ancient Middle Eastern history should read the works of Josephus.

The contributions of the first century writer, historian, and apologist, Josephus are innumerable. His words wield such rich treasures in historical and theological artifacts, and are so well known for almost two millennia, that he likely is the most taken-for-granted author ever. Old English print copies, online versions, and even a movie has covered a portion or all of his works, which makes him so celebrated, that it feels like qualifying anything from him is stating the obvious. His works are well prepared and documented, and carry little controversy or surprise to almost anything. He simply adds more details to the already known historical records, and does a superb job with this, but his narrative writing form is very gripping – especially the The Jewish War.

There are many parallels to the New Testament record and then some more. Nowhere else can one find such in-depth information about the Herod dynasty than his accounts.

Josephus was captured by the Romans in a rebellion against them, and became a slave and interpreter for the Emporer Vespasian. He was considered a defector by the Jewish community. The majority of his writing was spent to reestablish two things: reacceptance into the Jewish community by defending Jewish values, history, and literature from a Graeco-Roman perspective. Secondly it was to defend Judaism against the Graeco-Roman community who disbelieved the Jewish accounts, and found them inferior to their own religious beliefs and historical records. He covers theology, and Biblical texts in great detail because of this.

One can find special accounts about Moses, Noah’s Ark and many more not found anywhere else.

Jacob Feeley, a PhD Candidate at the University of Pennsylvania in Ancient History, published a state-of-the-union address on academic pursuits of Josephus’ works entitled, The Understudied and Marginal Josephus: Bringing Him into the Conversation, which is well worth taking the time to read.

The writings of Josephus are a must-read for anyone that has an interest or commitment to the New Testament writings, or Jews, wanting to know their own history. His style is not that difficult to comprehend. It is actually a pleasurable read compared to most historical writers.

It should be the first book outside of the Bible given to novices who wish to understand the history and context related to the life of Christ.

There is a reference to Christ, albeit a very small one, and arguably may not even exist in the original text, and one about John the Baptist, which once again is small piece, but preserves the idea that John the Baptist was a prominent figure during that time. What is the most captivating is his coverage on the insurrection, and utter destruction of Jerusalem. He took into account the political, social, and personal complexities of war from both the Roman and Jewish camps that few writers are seldom able to achieve. It is a sad story, but very much fits into why Christ said, “When you see ‘the abomination that causes desolation’ standing where it does not belong—let the reader understand—then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. Let no one on the housetop go down or enter the house to take anything out. Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers!” (Mark 13:14-17 NIV) If you read, or have already read Josephus with this in mind, you will know what is meant here.

Josephus’ stories still come alive. As I once stood on the top of Masada and looked out across to the high hills that border around it, the stone rows used by the Romans for their camps are still clearly visible. Masada and those stones have very little meaning outside of Josephus, but because of his words, it caused me to imagine this fortress two thousand years ago, and brought this place alive again.

My copy of Josephus is worn, as shown by the picture above. Once you start reading, it won’t take long to wear the book out, or if you have it on an e-reader, it may establish the top position on your reader list for historical non-fiction.

The works of Josephus can easily be found online, or as an ebook, or in print.

The Purpose of Prayer


The ArtScroll Siddur contains one of the best definitions of prayer found anywhere. A siddur is a Jewish prayer book that outlines personal and communal prayers for almost any occasion; life, death, loss, birth, success, and everything in-between. It is written from an Orthodox Jewish perspective. The following is an excerpt.

“Prayer, a Timeless Need

When we think of the word ‘prayer’ we think of our needs and requests, and the litany is endless: ‘Heal me.’ ‘Enlighten me.’ Enrich me.’ ‘Redeem me.’ ‘Glorify me.’ ‘Forgive me.’

Perhaps our concept of prayer has all been wrong. As children we would ask God to grant our wishes, just as we asked our parent to take us places and to buy us toys. “Please, Father take me to . . . !’ ‘Please, Mother, buy me that . . .!’ ‘Please God, give me this . . .!’ Rather than fall into the modern trap of insisting that man can control so much of his life and environment that he need not pray, let us examine what prayer really is, and always was. When we are done, we will realize that the commandment to pray is no less binding today than ever, and that our need for its benefits is perhaps greater than ever.

Man’s Essence

AS A SYNONYM for a human being the Mishhah (Baba Kamma 2a) uses the name מַבְעֶה [mav’eh], an unfamiliar word that the Talmud (ibid. 3b) derives from the root בעה, to pray. In other words, the Talmud defines man as ‘the creature that prays.’ Furthermore, the Talmud teaches that even נֶפֶשׁ, the life-sustaining soul, is synonymous with prayer (Berachos 5b). Strange. Such definitions appear fitting intensely spiritual observant people — but what of someone whose observance is casual, or a non-believer? The Talmud’s teaching applies even to such people. How, then, is prayer so central to their lives?

What is man but his soul, for his soul and intelligence are what make him ‘man’ rather than simply a higher order of beast. And what is man’s soul but his innermost longing, whatever matters to him most? As the Sages pithily expressed it, a burglar prays for God’s help as he prepares to enter the home of his victim (Berachos 63b in Ein Yaakov). Incongruous, is it not, that on the threshold of a sin that may result in violence, even murder, the thief asks for the help of the One Who commands him to desist? Yes, but because his most sincere desire is to commit his crime undetected, his soul cries out for success. Wherever one puts his faith is a form of prayer, whether or not that word is in his vocabulary (Michtav MeEliyahu).

Prayer, then, is not a list of requests. It is an introspective process, a clarifying, refining process of discovering what one is, what he should be, and how to achieve the transformation. Indeed, the commandment to pray is expressed by the Torah as a service of the heart, not of the mouth (Taanis 2a).

To the extent that we improve ourselves with prayer, we become capable of absorbing God’s blessing, but the blessings depend on each person’s mission. One man’s task may be to act as God’s treasurer, to amass wealth and distribute it for worthy causes, or to set an example of how to remain uncorrupted by riches. Another’s mission may call for modest or reduced circumstances. Meyer Amshel Rothschild became rich because his mission was to be the banker of monarchs and the patron of paupers, and Rabbi Zusha of Anipoli remained destitute because his mission was to subsist on a crust of bread and bowl of beans, and joyously say that he never experienced a bad day in his life! Each recited the prayer for prosperity in Shemoneh Esrei and each was answered — in the manner that was best for him. But the reasons for these differences between people and nations are not apparent to human intelligence. Nor do we discern the hand of God in the complexities of everyday life.

In this welter of contradictions, man needs all his inner strength as a Jew and bearer of the Torah to ward off the attacks on his faith. We may enter adulthood with the idealism of youth and faith ingrained by parents and teachers, but life chips away incessantly at them. In the eloquent words of R’ Samson Raphael Hirsch (Horeb): Life often robs you of the power and strength its circumstances make necessary, for it tends to remove truth from you and to offer falsehood; it forces you to surrender where your task is to conquer.

Modern society has learned that people ‘burn themselves out’ if they never withdraw to relax and regain perspective and inner strength. What makes us think we can fight the moral war demanded by God without removing ourselves from the trenches every now and then to regain our perspectives on the purpose and strategy of the battle?

Prayer’s Function

ITS HEBREW NAME IS תְּפִלָּה, tefillah, a word that gives us an insight into the Torah’s concept of prayer. The root of tefillah is פלל, to judge, to differentiate, to clarify, to decide. In life, we constantly sort out evidence from rumor, valid options from wild speculations, fact from fancy. The exercise of such judgement is פְּלִילָה. Indeed, the word פְּלִילִים (from פלל) is used for a court of law (Exodus 21:22), and what is the function of a court if not to sift evidence and make a decision? A logical extension of פלל is the related root פלה, meaning a clear separation between two things. Thus, prayer is the soul’s yearning to define what truly matters and to ignore the trivialities that often masquerade as essential (Siddur Avodas HaLev).

People always question the need for prayer — does not God know our requirements without being reminded? Of course He does, He knows them better than we do. If prayer were intended only to inform God of our desires an deficiencies, it would be unnecessary. Its true purpose is to raise the level of the supplicants by helping them develop true perceptions of life so that they can become worthy of His blessing.

This is the function of the evaluating, decision-making process of תְּפִלָּה, prayer. The Hebrew verb for praying is מִתְפַּלֵּל; it is a reflexive word, meaning that the subject acts upon himself. Prayer is a process of self-evaluation, self-judgement; a process of removing oneself for the tumult of life to a little corner of truth and refastening the bonds that tie on to the purpose of life.”

Used with permission from Mesorah Publications, ltd. The Complete ArtScroll Siddur: a new translation and anthologized commentary, by Rabbi Nosson Scherman. New York: Mesorah Publications, ltd.1985. Pg. XII-XIII

The ArtScroll Siddur continues to describe prayer in detail for a number more pages. To read the complete article, one can purchase an ArtScroll Siddur from the ArtScroll website, or visit a local Jewish library.

The grammar and punctuation in this reprint follows the ArtScroll Siddur print copy.

A History of Chapters and Verses in the Hebrew Bible

The complex story on the present chapter and numbering system of the Hebrew Bible.

The present book divisions, chapters, verses and structure of the Bible were standardized in the sixteenth-century. One would think this would apply exclusively to the Christian editions of the Bible, but has been administered retroactively to ancient Hebrew Bibles as well.

Most would assume the Hebrew Bible is so old and carefully guarded that the text has been standardized for almost 2000 years. This is not so when it comes to book names, chapters and numbering. The Hebrew versions popularly available today are considerably different from the Dead Sea Scrolls when it comes to format structure.

To understand the problem, one has to uncover the history of the Hebrew Bible.

Book structure as it is found in the Dead Sea Scrolls.

The best place to start is with the handwritten Great Isaiah Scroll written between 125-100 BC. This text comprised two methods to break up copy into paragraphs, but did not have chapters. Instead, it had:

  • One or two words as orphans on a line with complete white space until the next line. This is the end of a distinct literary unit.
  • Having a four to nine character white space between words, which would simply be interpreted today as the end of a paragraph.

The sample below is taken from Isaiah 7:25-8:5. It is a demonstration of long spacing representing a literary unit, and short spacing for a paragraph within a literary unit.(1) Scrolls from Qumran Cave 1. Photographs by John C. Trever. The Albright Institute of Archaeological Research and the Shrine of the Book, Jerusalem. 1972. Page 29. It can also be viewed on line by going to the Israel Museum website.

Aleppo Codex Sample

It may not be so obvious so the same image is supplied below with highlights. The yellow highlights are to demonstrate the long blank spaces that represent where a literary unit has ended and the next one should begin. The small blue highlight represents a paragraph within the same literary unit.


Why the ancient book structure had to be modified.

By the 9th century AD, Hebrew died as an active tongue. The writing system lacked vowels and just had consonants. The only way to know how to pronounce a word properly was passed on through the generations by oral traditions. This skill became very technical and fewer people had this ability as each generation passed. The loss of pronunciation naturally led to ambiguity of interpretation.

This process of Hebrew being eroded as a native tongue was recognized as a problem at least in the 7th century or earlier. Starting in the 7th century in Tiberius and Jerusalem, a Jewish group of scholars and Karaite scribes, called the Masoretes, laboured to retain the ancient pronunciation and speech that existed in the ancient Hebrew text. The tradition set-forth by Ben Asher standardized these additions, called niqqud, in the tenth century. The creation of the niqqud system inserted vowels and alternative vocalizations of consonants in the text. The niqqud became common in the 11th century and afterwards as part of the Hebrew text. These were placed above and below the consonants.

In the old way, Genesis 1:1 would look like this:

בראשית ברא אלהים את השםים ואת הארץ

The niqqud were then added, and it looks like this:

בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ

Cantillation marks were then added for vocalization and punctuation. This looks very similar to the niqqud. One has to view carefully to see the difference. Wikipedia has a great article on how the cantillation system looks along with an explanation. Here is their sample with the cantillation in blue and the vowels in red from Genesis 1:9:

Wikipedia graphic on Hebrew cantillation

More on how cantillation acts as punctuation can be found at the Hebrew for Christians website.

In addition to this, many texts have editors notes on the edge of the manuscript page showing word usage. These were typically for identifying the amount of words the copyist had written and therefore to be compensated for. This also counts for scribal accuracy as well. The count is to match that of the master manuscript. These margin notes are not typically reproduced in any digital or modern printed Hebrew Bible.

Structure according to the Aleppo Codex.

The Aleppo Codex is a tenth-century manuscript that accurately reflects the Jewish tradition of properly reading the Hebrew Scriptures. It was written by the renowned Masorete, Aharon Ben Asher.(2)

The manuscript shows chapters, literary units and paragraphs in a slightly expanded form from that of the Dead Sea Scroll era:

Aleppo Sample header Deuteronomy

The large space on the right side is where Deuteronomy 29 begins in the Christian Bible. However, the Aleppo Codex does not recognize it as such. It’s division happens at the Christian position of 29:9. The margin notes also indicate this as well.

The sof pasuq ׃

One of the more important cantillation marks that one must be aware of is the sof pasuq. It looks like a large semi-colon (:). It is similar to the period used to mark the end of a sentence in the English language. This was the Hebrew traditional method which shows the end of a verse.

The sof pasuq is not an old invention. It was introduced in the ninth-century.(3) Unit delimitation in biblical Hebrew and Northwest Semitic literature by Uitgeverij Van Gorcum Pg. 236

Sof Pasuq in Aleppo Codex

The sof pasuq is highlighted with a yellow oval so it is easier to identify.

Note the nine character empty space in the middle of the last line after the sof pasuq. It demonstrates the end of a paragraph. A larger space but not a complete blank line, usually indicates the end of a literary unit.

These snapshots are taken from the Aleppo Codex website.

This spacing was typical of older Hebrew manuscripts. It was not acceptable to improve the text by adding chapters and headers in the copy. The margins had allowances for this. However, it was OK to identify literary sections by the creative use of leaving empty spaces between words.

The results of these labours are called Masoretic texts. The Aleppo and the Leningrad codexes are the best known copies of this tradition and based around 900 to 1010 AD.

Approximately 200 years later after the introduction of Masoretic texts, the influence of the Christian chaptering and numbering system began to infiltrate the Hebrew copy.

When was the modern edition of chapters introduced to Hebrew Bibles?

According to the Catholic Encyclopedia found at the New Advent website, chapters were first introduced by Stephen Langton in the early 1200s. Then Arius Montanus in 1571 actually broke up the Hebrew text into chapters. This article explains why most Hebrew Bibles contain the structure they do today.

The Christian division into chapters, invented by Archbishop Stephen Langton about the beginning of the thirteenth century, has gained an entrance into the Hebrew Bible. The beginning was made by Rabbi Solomon ben Ismael who first (c. A D. 1330) placed the numerals of these chapters in the margin of the Hebrew text. In printed Bibles this system made its first appearance in the first two Bomberg editions of 1518. Arias Montanus, in his Antwerp Bible of 1571, “broke up the Hebrew text itself into chapters and introduced the Hebrew numerals into the body of the text itself” (Ginsburg). This, though contrary to the Massoretic directions, is still followed in nearly all printed Bibles on account of its great usefulness. In most instances (617 out of 779) the chapter coincides with one or other of the Massoretic sections. In Bomberg’s great Bible of 1547-8, Hebrew numerals were affixed to every fifth verse.(4)

The work of Stephan Langton was so popular and influential that by 1330 this divisional system became a standard in the Jewish community when Rabbi Solomon ben Ismael placed these numbers in the margins of the Hebrew Bible. More importantly, the current divisional system was introduced by the controversial christian, profiteer, and printer, Daniel Bomberg, who under the blessing of Pope Leo X, included the numbers inside the printed Hebrew text, along with the fifth verse being in Hebrew. Bomberg took advantage of the warm spirit of learning of Hebrew texts within Catholic studies and the need for printed materials. This epoch was opposite to earlier crusades against Jewish literature that led to massive destruction of documents or severe censorship of their writings.

The old spacing technique better served the reading-out loud of a text than personal reading. When the printing press came along, the spacing technique lost prominence. Paragraphs were now identified by a line height of 1.5 or 2x larger from the previous text. This spacing, or in typography language called leading, was done to make the paragraph section more obvious. Chapters were given a header plus a number instead of a large amount of space from the previous text.

This has highly influenced the popular Hebrew Bibles in use for study and research today in the Evangelical community.

The Snaith edition Hebrew Bible.

The Snaith edition Hebrew Bible was named after Norman Henry Snaith who prepared this for the British and Foreign Bible Society in 1958. It is a controversial publication because it is not clearly known which manuscripts it is based on, and there are numerous publishing and textual errors. However, it is a representation on the evolution of the Hebrew Bible. It is a synthesis of Masoretic Hebrew text influenced by Christian and modern traditions. It is laid out for the novice Christian Hebrew reader to easily read, index and understand. It is also inexpensive, and at one point, at least in Canada, was given for free to any Bible student studying ancient Hebrew.

The Snaith edition is an odd book in that it has a two different numbering and chaptering systems represented on each page. The headers and header numerals are in Latin. Every page strangely has a parallel Hebrew number at the margin where the Latin chapter header appears. Then the verses are in the modern western numbering system with every fifth numeral in Hebrew. The Hebrew is following the Latin and Christian chaptering system which doesn’t exist in the original Masoretic texts.

The second system is the Masoretic one. But one has to look more carefully to see it. A header will be found solely in Hebrew with a corresponding Hebrew chapter number and slightly to the left of the Hebrew is a contemporary modern number.

Henry Snaith's version of the Hebrew Bible

A sample of Exodus 27:19 – 28:2 from the Snaith Edition with a cross-section of Latin headers, Latin numerals, Hebrew and Arabic numbers, and Christian chaptering system.

The Snaith edition also includes the ancient Jewish cyclical reading system called Parshiyot — a system which recognizes Genesis to Deuteronomy as one book broken into 54 sections. The combination of Genesis to Deuteronomy is called the Torah. The above illustration which has תצוה כ 20 means Parashat Tetzaveh 20 — the twentieth reading from the annual reading cycle. Parashat is the singular form for Parshiyot.

The Parashiyot is broken up this way: the Genesis section in the Hebrew Bible has only 12 readings, compared to the Christian 50 chapters. In the Hebrew system, the Book of Exodus doesn’t exist by name. This section starts at reading 13. Leviticus is a continuation and begins at reading 24. Numbers starts at 34. Deuteronomy at 44 and ends at reading 54.

The combination of all these influences are very strange and confusing to the novice or intermediate Hebrew reader.

Bibilia Hebraica Stuttgartensia.

The much better received Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartstensia is standardly used in places such as Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. BHS does not follow the Snaith edition in the Hebrew numbering system. It has its own set of guidelines to show the spaces found in the Hebrew manuscript.

Here is an example of how it appears in BHS. The paragraph and division formatting is highlighted in red in this example so the reader can easily spot it.

Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia Sample

The online edition of BHS, which lacks critical notes, does not input the old Hebrew numbering system at all. It simply displays the Christian order. It makes it appear that the chaptering system is based on the Masoretic text, when it is not.

How printed editions of the Hebrew Bible try to alert the readers of space formatting.

Editors of printed Hebrew editions felt the necessity to alert the reader when a traditional space formatting had occurred in the original handwritten text.

The Snaith and BHS alert the reader to this phenomena by use of special codes.

In the Torah:

  • Snaith edition only: Hebrew chapters usually can be found to begin after the repetition of the Hebrew letter peh, פפפ, repeated three times in a row, and a newline. About 15% of the time it is alternately written as ססס, as seen in the above example. This is not done in BHS. BHS uses this symbol: ס פרש.

  • A literary unit can usually be identified by the single letter peh,פ with a large space afterwards. This is short for פתוחה petuchah or in its longer form, פרשה פתוחה, parashah petuchah. Sometimes referred to as a open paragraph.

  • Paragraphs within a literary unit are represented by a samech, ס, and a smaller four to nine blank space. This is short for סתומה stumah or in its longer form,

    פרשה סתומה, parashah stumah. Sometimes referred to as a closed paragraph. These are sub-paragraphs.

Both the Snaith and the BHS add another layer of abstraction for the reader/analyst. The Hebrew reader is either forced to use his or her time to learn this abstraction or learn to read the original manuscripts without the use of the niqqud or cantillation marks. The level of abstraction is quite large and will take some time. It is better and less confusing to use the original manuscripts first.

The Snaith and BHS Bibles are not consistent with the ancient formatting.

These editions do not parallel the spacing system found in the Dead Sea Scrolls. If one looks at the Dead Sea Scroll sample of Isaiah above and compare it to Snaith or BHS, there are many irregularities between them.

The sof pasuq in the Aleppo Codex is used less than in the Snaith edition. For example in Joshua chapter 1, the Snaith used it 17 times. The Aleppo used it only six times.

One mystery of demarcation in the Snaith edition, is that it stops the ancient Hebrew tradition of printing pehs after the Torah (Pentateuch). The sof pasuq still exists after that from the Book of Joshua and onwards.

If one looks further and compares the Aleppo Codex with Snaith in the Book of Joshua, it becomes clear there is not an exact agreement on punctuation and structure. The Book of Joshua begins chapter two in the same location in both texts but it departs from there. Joshua 4:16 has the next double return in the Aleppo, meaning that a chapter should start here but the Snaith is totally absent in any marking. Joshua 5:1 are in agreement, but the Aleppo then begins the next chapter at 5:10 which once again is in disagreement with the Snaith edition, which has nothing to demarcate here at all.

There are many more details that could be written on the subject but hopefully this introduction will assist many Bible researchers with studying and understanding the Hebrew Bible.

For more information and links:

References   [ + ]

Attempts on Translating Rashi and Jewish Aramaic

Rashi, an 11th century French Rabbi, is one of the most important commentators of the Talmud and is central to the contemporary study of it. In fact, some texts of the Talmud are difficult to understand without reference to him.

One would think that his works would be ubiquitous for the English reading audience, but English translations, outside of his commentary of the Torah, are almost non-existent.

This forces curious researchers such as myself to look at texts in the original language, which in this case is a complex mixture of classical Hebrew, Rabbinic Aramaic and at a lesser rate, old French.

There are several barriers one has to overcome in providing a legitimate translation of his works. First of all, the translator will immediately arrive with the problem at the lack of resources. “The study of Aramaic is a difficult thing, not merely because of the inherent toughness of the language, the lack of standarisation in spelling and grammar, and the wild dialectal varieties one finds; but also because grammatical and lexicographal aids are few and far between.”(1)Manual of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic.

The best aids found so far are:

  • Aiding Talmud Study by Aryeh Carmell. It is so succinct and helpful. No beginner translator should work without it. It is also very inexpensive.

  • There is also A Manual of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic but this one is not recommended. It is definitely not designed for independent study and is frustrating to approach it with such an intention.

  • Marcus Jastrow’s Dictionary of the Targumim, Talmud Babli, Yerushalmi, and Midrashic Literature is also indispensable. It is also available on-line for free access.

  • The Hebrew on-line dictionary called morfix is helpful. It requires that you type in Hebrew for dictionary finds. It takes some time to learn to type in Hebrew, but it is worth it. At first, I just cut and paste Hebrew text directly into the search engine. Now I have learned to change my Mac’s typing direction along with the Hebrew font very quickly. This site is very quick and thorough. Sometimes it is not sufficient enough for words in a Rabbinic context.

  • Eliezer Ben Yehuda’s complete 17 volume or so Hebrew dictionary can also be a good source for referencing hard to find words. Unfortunately it is not available on-line, nor on DVD. It has to be purchased through a specialty bookstore. It is not the same as the pocket dictionary under his name. This is not a good source to work from.

  • The Talmud Babli itself with its corresponding Rashi commentary in the original text and layout can be found online at edaf. I prefer to use the Hebrew Wikisource version of the Talmud found here. It contains the entire Talmud page in searchable text, plus any texts originally printed in Rashi script is converted to the regular Hebrew font.

    One of the initial difficulties is dealing with the unique Rashi font typically used in any publications of his original works. It is a unique script that most readers familiar with traditional Aramaic or Hebrew block fonts will not recognize. It is closer to modern Hebrew cursive. Rashi Script was not invented nor promoted by Rashi. Rather it was the font chosen by the printers to publish his text. If one prefers to translate from the original printed text, it takes some time to get used to. I find it especially difficult to differentiate between the heth and teth, and also the mem and samek.

    If one wants to translate directly from the Rashi script, then this site will help with understanding the alphabet link

  • There is also Instone-Brewers Rabbinic writings site. This is a massive project to provide the Talmud in parallel English and original texts. However, it does not provide translation of Rashi. Also, one has to realize that this is a work in progress. The English translation does not always parallel with the Hebrew equivalent. These problems are still being ironed out.

The internet is not very helpful as a tutor to translate Rashi. One place that had at least some introductory help is the Megilla Tutor, but this is one of the better choices out of very few sites available.

The traditional way of learning to translate Rashi, along with most Jewish Rabbinic texts is firstly through a Yeshiva. This is a higher centre of Jewish learning, the equivalent of an intense Bible College. An alternative would be through the mentoring and discipleship of a local Rabbi versed in this style of learning.

So those who do not have access to such resources have a more difficult but not impossible task. It just will take more time.

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