Standing up for El Al’s Good Name

On Language

By Philologos

Published December 23, 2009, issue of January 01, 2010.
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Samuel Sherman writes from Voorhees, N.J.:

“I’m curious about the name of Israel’s airline, El Al. As far as I know (which probably isn’t enough) el and al are both prepositions in Hebrew, meaning ‘to,’ and ‘on,’ ‘above’ or ‘about,’ respectively. How can one preposition be the object of another preposition? Can al be a noun here?”

Although Mr. Sherman is modest about his knowledge, he knows enough to put his finger on a problem that has perplexed biblical commentators for the past 2,000 years. One would never guess this from the official El Al story — which is that when the newly established State of Israel launched, in September 1948, its national airline with a single airplane, a four-engine C-54 military transport repainted in blue-and-white with a Star of David on the tail, it turned to the Bible for a name and found el al, meaning “upwards” or “to the sky.”

Is this actually what el al means in the Bible? The Hebrew words occur in the seventh verse of Chapter 11 of the book of Hosea, V’ami tlu’im l’meshuvati, v’el al yikra’uhu yaḥad lo yeromem. In the King James Bible, this difficult verse is translated as, “And my people are bent to backsliding from me; although they called them to [el] the most High [al], none at all would exalt him.”

The King James translators indeed understood the Hebrew preposition al to be a noun in this verse, meaning “the one who is above,” that is, “the most High,” or God. In this, they were following a number of medieval Jewish commentators, such as Abraham ibn Ezra and David Kimchi, who took al to be a shortened form of elyon, “the Highest,” an epithet for God in many places in the Bible. Glossing meshuvati, from the verb shavav, as “my mischief” or “backsliding” (although such a meaning could also be derived from the verb shuv, to return), the King James assumed that the subject of yikra’uhu, “they called,” was the prophets, and interpreted Hosea 11:7 as saying that the recalcitrant Israelites stubbornly refused to acknowledge God on high, though urged by their prophets to do so.

Yet, how forced this interpretation has seemed to other translators and commentators, and how unclear Hosea 11:7 is, can be gauged from some of the other renderings of it. Here are a few.

Jerome’s fourth-century Latin Vulgate: “My people depends on my return [to them]; a yoke is imposed on them that is not lifted.” (Jerome, unwilling to accept al as a noun, changed its vowel and read it as ol, “yoke.”)

The early Christian-era Aramaic Targum of the rabbis: “And my people cannot decide to return to my Torah; and it has come on great harm and goes about with head unlifted.” According to the 11th–century Rashi, the Targum based its translation on Laban’s words to Jacob in Genesis 31:29: “It is in my power [yesh l’el yadi] to do you harm,” while reading yikra’uhu, “they called him,” as yikruhu, “they came upon it.”

Rashi himself, on the other hand, rejected this reading and proposed that the al of el al be read as a preposition, after all, and rather dubiously suggested translating the verse: “And my people cannot decide to return to me; that about [al] which they have been summoned, they will not lift up.”

Martin Luther’s 16th-century German Bible has the simplest version of Hosea 11:7, albeit also the freest: “My people is too weary to turn to me; and when it is preached to, no one stands up [to obey].”

The 1952 English Revised Standard Version of the Bible, following the Latin Vulgate, gives us: “My people are bent on turning away from me; so they are appointed to the yoke and none shall remove it.”

The 1978 New International Version, following the King James, has: “My people are determined to turn from me. Even if they turn to the Most High, he will by no means exalt them.”

The 1985 New Jerusalem Bible reads: “My people are bent on disregarding me; if they are summoned to come up, not one of them makes a move.”

And finally, we have the 1985 Jewish Publication Society Bible: “And my people are in suspense about returning to me; and although they call themselves upwards, none at all will lift himself up.”

Of all these numerous renditions, that of the JPS alone translates el al as “upwards.” This doesn’t mean, of course, that the JPS translation, the work of a committee of eminent Jewish scholars, is not correct. It does suggest, however, that these scholars may have been influenced by El Al Airlines’ choice of its name, just as was the generally authoritative Even-Shoshan Hebrew-Hebrew dictionary, first published in 1966, when it defined el al as “to the sky” without further comment.

In any case, far from naming itself in 1948 with a biblical phrase meaning “upwards” or “to the sky,” El Al Airlines gave that phrase a meaning not previously attributed to it. It is amusing to think that a commercial company has been able in this way to affect our understanding of the Bible.

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


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