In the Desert

By Philologos

Published March 16, 2007, issue of March 16, 2007.
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Howard Marblestone, Charles Elliot professor of Greek and Latin at Lafayette College, has written me often over the years, generally to correct — always gently and kindly — some Greek or Latin gaffe of mine. Now, in the course of commenting on my February 9 column, “Biblical Discontinuity,” he chides me for referring to the fourth book of the Pentateuch, which in English is called Numbers, as “Bamidbar” and writes of the book’s Hebrew name:

“It should not be Ba-midbar, but rather Be-midbar, since in the text, the word midbar, ‘desert,’ is in the smichut [possessive construction] with ‘Sinai.’ How’s that for a kvetch?”

I have never suspected Professor Marblestone of stooping to kvetch, and he isn’t doing it this time, either. On the contrary, he’s raising a perfectly good question: What is the proper way to pronounce the Hebrew name of the fourth of the five books of Moses: “Bah-mid-BAHR” (or “Bah-MID-bahr” in the Eastern European pronunciation) or “Buh-[spelled B’- or Be-]mid-BAHR”?

Let’s start by analyzing the problem. As I pointed out in my February 9 column, each of the books of the Pentateuch is traditionally named in Hebrew for one of its first words, and Numbers is named for the fifth word of its opening verse, “Vayidaber Adonai el Moshe bemidbar Sinai,” “And God spoke to Moses in the desert of Sinai.” Why, then, shouldn’t we just call the book Bemidbar and be done with it?

The answer is, for two closely related reasons. The first is that, traditionally, Jews have preferred the form Bamidbar. The second, which accounts for the tradition, is that bamidbar, which means “in the desert” (in the Hebrew, the preposition b’, “in,” the definite article ha-, and midbar are combined in a single word), can stand by itself, whereas bemidbar, which means, in this verse, “in the desert of” and is followed by “Sinai,” cannot. Just as it would sound strange to call a book in English, “In the Desert of,” so it sounds strange to call a book in Hebrew bemidbar. (True, bemidbar can also mean “in a desert,” but that is not its meaning here.)

Hence the traditional preference for Bamidbar, even though that’s not how the word is spelled in the first verse of the book — and indeed, when I was a boy growing up in an Orthodox home in New York, and attending an Orthodox day school back in the late 1940s and ’50s, Bamidbar was all I ever heard. Actually, it was all I heard until not too long ago, when I began coming across Bemidbar more and more. Today both forms are common, my impression being that Bamidbar is still preferred by most Orthodox Jews, although it seems to be losing ground among them, too.

Thus, if we look at some recent Jewish translations of the Bible into English, we have, on the one side, Bamidbar — Numbers, a volume in The Judaica Press Complete Tanach, and ArtScroll’s “Bamidbar: The Torah With Rashi’s Commentary.” On the other side, we have B’Midbar in the Jewish Publication Society’s 1985 Tanakh (changed from Bamidbar in the 1917 JPS Bible) and Bemidbar in Robert Alter’s “Five Books of Moses,” in Everett Fox’s “The Five Books of Moses” and in three Orthodox translations: Soncino Press’s revised 1960 “The Pentateuch and Haftorahs,” Philip Feldheim Publishers’ “Chumash Chorev Ha-Menukad” and the Kehot Publication Society’s “Chumash.”

It is, I believe, the proliferation of new Jewish Bible translations into English that has largely brought about the shift from Bamidbar to Bemidbar, despite the latter’s sounding unnatural to a Hebrew ear. The reason for this is that while the scriptural text itself is always spelled in printed Hebrew Bibles with all its vowels marked, title pages and page headings are not, so that the unvocalized title, xacna, can be read as either bamidbar or bemidbar, even though the vocalized text clearly says bemidbar. In English, on the other hand, it is necessary to choose between the two — and since the spelling Bamidbar would be in clear contravention of the text, most recent translators have opted for Bemidbar. This has affected the pronunciation of Jews using these translations, which in turn has had a ripple effect on other Jews.

The current trend and Professor Marblestone notwithstanding, I intend to go on saying Bamidbar. It’s what I’m used to, it’s what most other Jews who read the Bible in Hebrew are used to, and I see nothing wrong with it. It’s descriptively accurate — the book of Numbers indeed takes place in the desert — and if it’s not the way the word appears in the opening verse of that book, so what? It’s not the only Hebrew title of a book of the Pentateuch of which this can be said. The book of Deuteronomy is known in Hebrew as Devarim because of the second word in its first verse, “Eleh hadevarim asher diber Moshe el kol Yisra’el,” “These are the words that Moses spoke to all Israel.” And yet the second word of the verse is not devarim, “words,” but hadevarim, “the words.” If Professor Marblestone and those who agree with him wished to be consistent, they would have to refer to Deuteronomy as Hadevarim, which of course they don’t.

Not only that, but since bemidbar can also mean, as I have said, “in a desert,” it could mislead a Hebrew speaker who is not familiar with the Bible into thinking that this is a book about being not in a particular desert, but in any desert at all. That’s yet another reason for saying Bamidbar. I think there are enough to tip the balance in its favor.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.


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