The Origins of Ashkenaz

On Language

By Philologos

Published July 01, 2008, issue of July 11, 2008.
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Sol Schindler of Bethesda, Md., writes:

“Paul Kriwaczek tells us in his book ‘In Search of Zarathustra: Across Iran and Central Asia To Find the World’s First Prophet’ that the Hebrew word ashkenazi originally meant a Scythian. I myself always thought it meant a German. Did ancient Hebrew speakers use one term to describe all the barbarians beyond the Danube, or did they actually distinguish between Goths and Scythians?”

The place name Ashkenaz occurs three times in the Bible: In Genesis 10:3, in I Chronicles 1:6 and in Jeremiah 51:27. The first three verses of the 10th chapter of Genesis read:

“Now these are the generations of the sons of Noah, Shem, Ham, and Yefet: and unto them were sons born after the Flood. The sons of Yefet: Gomer, and Magog, and Madai, and Yavan, and Tuval, and Meshech, and Tiras. And the sons of Gomer: Ashkenaz and Rifat and Togarmah.”

The Bible represents Shem, Ham and Yefet as the ancestors of the three great ethnic-and-linguistic families of man known to the ancient Hebrews: the Semitic, the Hamitic or African, and the Indo-European. Yefet, the supposed progenitor of the Indo-Europeans, may derive, modern scholars believe, from the figure of Iapetos, the son of Uranus and father of Prometheus in Greek mythology. Of his seven sons, Gomer can be identified with the inhabitants of Asia Minor known to the ancient Assyrians as the Gimmiraya and to the Greeks as the Kymroi or Cimmerians; Madai with the Medes, a people akin to the Persians who lived in what is today western Iran; Yavan with the Ionians or Greeks. Magog, Tuval, Meshech and Tiras can be identified with, respectively, the seventh-century BCE King Gyges of Lydia in southwest Turkey and with two peoples known to the Assyrians as the Tabal and the Musku, and to the Greeks as the Tibaroi and the Moschoi, living along the southern shore of the Black Sea, and as the Tyrsenoi, as the ancient Greeks called the Etruscans.

As for Ashkenaz, it is almost certainly the Hebrew name of the land of the people known to the Assyrians as the Ishkuza and to the Greeks as the Skythoi or Scythians. The Scythians were a powerful confederation of Indo-European tribes who spoke a language of the Iranian family; their original home was the steppe-lands north of the Black Sea, in what today would be southern Ukraine, from where, in the mid-first millennium BCE, their armies spread southwestward into western Asia Minor and southeastward into the Assyrian and Babylonian empires. Jeremiah, vengefully predicting the downfall of the Babylonians in the early sixth-century BCE, after their destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, proclaims: “Blow the trumpet among the nations, prepare the nations against her [Babylon], call together against her the kingdoms of Ararat, Minni [both in Armenia], and Ashkenaz.”

As we have seen, the book of Genesis connects the Scythians, or descendants of Ashkenaz, with the Cimmerians, or descendants of Gomer, and historically indeed, the two peoples were closely related, since they were originally neighbors north of the Black Sea, from where the stronger Scythians pushed the Cimmerians further south. A rather fanciful account of the wars between them can be found in Herodotus.

By talmudic times, however, both the Scythians and the Cimmerians had disappeared from the world, swallowed up by other nations. Casting about for the location of Gomer, the rabbis of the talmudic period took it on the basis of phonetic resemblance to be Germania, as the Romans referred to the Teutonic areas west of the Rhine whose tribes they were constantly battling. “Gomer is Germamya [sic],” says the tractate of Yoma, while the tractate of Megillah tells us: “There are three hundred crown wearers [that is, petty kings] in Germamya and three-hundred-sixty-five lords in Rome, and every day they go forth and kill one another because they are too busy fighting to have time to unite under a single king.”

This is no doubt the reason that Ashkenaz, the biblical son of Gomer, came to be associated with Germany, too. This association may have been strengthened further by the name Scandza, as Scandinavia, the Germanic-speaking north of Europe, was often referred to in medieval times. By the middle ages, we find Ashkenaz being widely used for Germany in Jewish sources (when the 11th-century Rashi, for example, translates a Hebrew word into German in his commentaries, he gives it to us in “the language of Ashkenaz”), and before long it became the standard term.

Originally, therefore, an ashkenazi in Hebrew was a Jewish inhabitant of Germany. (It doesn’t appear in any Jewish source in the sense of Scythian.) Yet as Jews migrated eastward and northward to Slavic lands from German ones, taking with them “the language of Ashkenaz” (which gradually turned into Eastern European Yiddish), “Ashkenazi” came to denote any Yiddish-speaking Jew, and eventually — as it does today — any descendant of Yiddish-speaking Jews. Ashkenaz, on the other hand, continued to refer in Hebrew to Germany alone, until it was replaced in the 20th century by germanya so as to avoid the ambiguity of ashkenazim meaning both non-Jewish Germans and Jewish speakers of Yiddish. As for germamya, it is gone from the world, along with the Cimmerians and Scythians.

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


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