Master of Reading

On Language

By Philologos

Published August 03, 2007, issue of August 03, 2007.
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Gilad J. Gevaryahu writes to ask my opinion of a grammatical error in Hebrew that he noticed has been spreading in Orthodox religious circles in recent years. It goes back, he points out, to a mistake that was common in Yiddish-speaking Eastern Europe, one that no longer seems mistaken to most people, because it has long been a traditional usage — namely, calling the Torah reader in the synagogue a ba’al-korei.

What’s wrong with ba’al-korei? Well, as Gevaryahu writes, according to the rules of Hebrew grammar, these two words do not mean, as they are supposed to, “a reader [of the Torah].” Here’s why:

The word ba’al in Hebrew (which etymologically goes back to the name of the ancient Semitic god Ba’al) can be either an ordinary noun, in which case it means (to the dismay of some feminists) “owner,” “master” or “husband,” or else a grammatical particle prefixed to a noun, in which case it functions like the English suffix “-er.” Melakhah, for example, is the Hebrew word for “work” or “craft,” and a ba’al-melakhah is a worker or craftsman; din means law, and a ba’al-din is a litigant, etc.

But korei is not a noun. It is a verb, the present-tense, singular, masculine form of lik’ro, to read, as in “He is reading,” hu korei. Just as one can speak in English of a “read-er” but not of a “reading-er,” so ba’al korei in Hebrew is illogical. If you want to refer grammatically to a Torah reader using the ba’al construction, you have to take the noun keri’ah, “reading,” and say ba’al-keri’ah,— that is, “a master of reading.”

But though ba’al-korei rather than ba’al-keri’ah may be bad enough, this erroneous form is now metastasizing, Gevaryahu complains, to other expressions in the Orthodox world, so that he has been hearing a shofar blower referred to as a ba’al-toke’a, a “blowing-er”; the author of a halachic book as a ba’al-meh.abber, a “writing-er,” and so on. The correct expression for a shofar blower is, of course, a ba’al-teki’ah, for the author of a book, a ba’al-h.ibbur, etc.

I must say that I have never encountered ba’al-toke’a, ba’al-meh.abber or any similar expressions other than ba’al-korei — but then again, I don’t move in the Orthodox circles in which Gevaryahu does. When it comes to why some Jews started saying ba’al korei rather than ba’al keri’ah in the first place, however, I have a theory. It may or may not be right, but you know me well enough by now to know that the fear of being wrong has never kept me from theorizing.

The noun keri’ah in Hebrew actually has two different meanings and two different spellings. Spelled with the letter Alef as dixw, it means, as we have said, “reading,” from the verb for “to read,” lik’ro,exwl. Spelled with the letter Ayin as drixw, it means “tearing,” from the verb for “to tear,” lik’ro’a, rexwl. Furthermore, each of these meanings of keri’ah has a specifically ritualistic sense alongside its more general one. Keri’ah with an Alef refers to the reading of the Torah in the synagogue. Keri’ah with an Ayin refers to the act of tearing one’s garment at the onset of mourning for a close relative — a custom with which anyone who has been to a traditional Jewish funeral is familiar. And therefore, a ba’al-keri’ah can also be one of two things: either a “read-er” of the Torah, or a “tear-er” of his or her garments — that is, a mourner who is obliged to carry out the act of keri’ah.

In Jewish societies in the Middle East, which pronounced the Alef and the Ayin differently, as was done in ancient Hebrew and is still done in Arabic, the distinction between the ba’al-keri’ah who was a Torah reader and the ba’al-keri’ah who was a mourner was clear. In Ashkenazic Europe, however, where the Ayin lost its pharyngeal quality and came to be pronounced just like an Alef, the distinction was lost. Now, ba’al keri’ah a Torah reader and ba’al keri’ah a mourner sounded exactly the same. How was one to distinguish between them?

The solution to this problem was, I propose, to call a Torah reader, quite ungrammatically, a ba’al-korei. This kept him from being confused with a mourner not only because one was now a ba’al-korei and one was a ba’al-keri’ah, but also because even if you performed the same ungrammatical operation on the mourner, you would call him a ba’al-kore’a rather than a ba’al-korei and still hear the difference even in Ashkenazic lands.

That’s my theory, anyway. How upset one should be with new usages like ba’al-toke’a or ba’al-meh.abber is another question. Hebrew purists may want to tear out their hair. The linguistically more permissive, on the other hand, may shrug and say: “So the grammatical rule has changed, so what? If ba’al korei didn’t bother anyone in the past, why should ba’al-toke’a or ba’al-meh.abber bother us now?” As for me, I’ll stay out of it. Let the Orthodox work it out among themselves.

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


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