With Frog in Throat

On Language

By Philologos

Published April 01, 2009, issue of April 10, 2009.
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Since one of the guests we will be having for our Seder this year is a native French speaker who knows no Hebrew, he will get to use a Haggadah in our possession that is a facsimile of an original published nearly 200 years ago. Its title page is printed in both Hebrew and French, the latter saying, “HAGGADA DE LA PÂQUE orneé de Figure, Par Jc Soreph fils Ainé, Bordeaux l’An 5573, qui correspond a l’An 1813” — that is, “A Passover Haggadah illustrated by Jc [Isaac] Soreph the Elder, Bordeaux the [Hebrew] Year 5573, which corresponds to the Year 1813.” Napoleon was not to meet his Waterloo until two years later.

I have no idea who Isaac Soreph the Elder was, but his illustrations are charming. So are the food stains that appear, as in most facsimile Haggadot, on many of the pages, telling the story of a book that was read around a family table, year after year, with no thought of its value to future ages. One can see the wine drops that spilled from the Kiddush cup, and others that were spattered by a finger during the recital of the 10 Plagues. And although its Hebrew text is no different from that of other Haggadot, the Bordeaux Haggadah has a few idiosyncratic features, such as its French translation accompanied by explanatory notes at the bottom of the page, and its ritual instructions in French and — Bordeaux Jewry having been heavily Sephardic — Ladino. (Thus, for instance, the opening Kiddush is followed by the French stage direction on boit chacun son verre, “everyone drinks his glass,” accompanied, in Hebrew letters, by the Ladino y bibieron cada uno su vaso.)

There are other curiosities. One is the regular use in the French translation of the word schimour to mean matzo. This is clearly related to Hebrew matsah shmurah (known in Yiddish as shmureh matseh), from shamur, “guarded” or “watched” — that is, matzo made from wheat that has been carefully supervised. Yet I have never come across schimour or shimur in this sense in any Jewish language or dialect, and it must have been peculiar to the long-extinct vernacular of southern French Jewry that was known to its speakers as Chuadit or “Jewish.”

Another interesting detail in the French of this Haggadah is its use of the Latin characters ngh for the Hebrew letter ayin: The part of the Seder known in Hebrew as orekh, for example, the eating of the Passover meal, is spelled ngorech. Although this looks strange today, it was a common practice in the transcription of Hebrew words among Italian and Spanish-Portuguese Jews of the period, and it indicates that the guttural Semitic consonant ayin, which is pronounced with a pharyngeal contraction in Arabic and Middle Eastern Hebrew, was still being given this value, or an approximation of it, in southern Europe long after it was lost to Ashkenazic Jews. The Italian Jew Guglielmo Franchi, for instance, published a Hebrew grammar in Latin in 1599 that referred to the ayin as nghain and called for pronouncing it by “twisting the deepest part of one’s throat almost to the point of strangling oneself with the help of one’s nose.” Anyone who has studied Arabic, or tried learning to pronounce the Hebrew ayin in its original, Semitic manner, will recognize his initial efforts in this description.

Although on the whole, the French translator of the Bordeaux Haggadah did a good job, he was guilty of at least one howler. This occurs in the passage about the five Mishanic rabbis, Eliezer, Yehoshua, Elazar ben Azariah, Akiva and Tarfon, who stayed up, we are told, until sunrise one Seder night while “sitting around [mesubin] in Bnei Brak,” discussing the Exodus from Egypt. Bnei Brak, which means, literally, “Sons of Brak,” was a Palestinian town mentioned in the Mishnah and is today the name of a large, mostly ultra-Orthodox township in metropolitan Tel Aviv. Yet the French relates that the five rabbis “ètait assemblès en rond dans le collége des enfans de Beraq” — that is, “were gathered in a circle in the academy of the children of Brak,” turning the event into one in which the sons of a man named Beraq ran a yeshiva where the rabbis had their Seder! As many of the French notes to the Hebrew text testify, such as one explaining to the unlettered that the schimours or matzot were les petis gâteaux azimes que l’on fait avec beaucoup d’exactitude, “little unleavened cakes prepared with great care,” Bordeaux was not a center of Jewish learning.

But who am I to laugh? Just last week, in the course of acknowledging an error in a previous column, I cited the story of my ancient namesake, Philologus, and the Roman orator Cicero — who, I wrote, was put to death by the triumvirate of Julius Caesar, Marcus Antonius and Marcus Aemilius Lepidus. Wrong again! The Caesar in question was, of course, Octavian and not Julius. You can’t deny that it takes a measure of talent to make a mistake while confessing a mistake.

A bonne Pâque to you all!

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


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