Cherubic Question

On Language

By Philologos

Published August 21, 2008, issue of August 29, 2008.
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Alvin Golub of Brooklyn has a question about cherubs, those little winged figures who, in paintings and illustrations, cavort about the heavens, tooting their horns. Why, he wants to know, does English also have the form “cherubim,” using the Hebrew plural rather than the English one?

On the face of it, this may not seem a very interesting question. English does occasionally (as I once pointed out in these pages) keep foreign plurals when borrowing words from other languages (we speak of data, for example, rather than of “datums,” and of blini rather than of “blins”), so why not cherubim? We even have a contemporary instance of the Hebrew “-im” in English, kibbutz being pluralized as kibbutzim rather than as “kibbutzes.”

But cherubim is a much more interesting word than kibbutzim. In medieval and Renaissance English, it was taken to be a singular form. This is why, when the Hebrew book of Genesis tells us that after Adam and Eve were driven from the Garden of Eden, God put k’ruvim at its entrance to keep humanity from returning there, the 1611 King James Version gives us, “And he [God] placed at the east of the garden of Eden cherubims.”

Ultimately, this goes back to the standard Latin Bible, which translates these words as et collocavit antes paradisum voluptatis Cherubim. Why Jerome, this Bible’s fourth-century translator, did not render the plural of the Hebrew k’ruv as cherubi or cherubes, in the Latin manner, is explained by his decision to capitalize it. He did not, that is, construe k’ruvim as a plural, but rather as the proper name of some kind of supernatural creature placed by God to guard the Gates of Eden — and as a result, cherubim or cherubin entered a large number of European languages with such a meaning.

Thus, we have Italian cherubino, Spanish querubin, French cherubin and so on, all in the sense of a single cherub. The difference between these languages and English was that in the latter, due to the seriousness with which Hebrew scholarship was taken by 17th-century English Protestantism, “cherubim” as a singular came to be recognized as a grammatical mistake and was replaced by “cherub.” This is the usage in the King James, which rather illogically, however, continues to stick with the plural form “cherubims.”

What led Jerome, an accomplished Hebraist in his own right, to make such a mistake? He would seem to have been influenced by a vision of many cherubim in Chapter 10 of the book of Ezekiel, in which each cherub seen by the prophet is depicted as a composite creature, so that “every one had four faces: the first face was the face of a cherub, and the second face was the face of a man, and the third the face of a lion, and the fourth the face of an eagle.” Since Jerome translates the first part of this as Quattuor autem facies habebat unum: facies una, facies cherub, he apparently understood the singular Hebrew noun k’ruv to be the “cherub-face” of a four-faced creature called k’ruvim in both the singular and the plural, just as our English word “fish” can mean either one fish or many.

Ezekiel’s cherubs, which had wheels and whose “whole body, and their backs, and their hands, and their wings, and the wheels, were full of eyes round about,” are a bit difficult to picture and do not necessarily reflect the idea of a cherub as it existed in biblical culture. Elsewhere in the Bible, cherubs are flying creatures of which golden images stand on either side of the Ark of the Covenant in the Tabernacle and the Temple, shielding it with their wings. The Hebrew word for them comes from Accadian kuribu, a protective angel in ancient Babylonian mythology with wings, a human face, and the body of an ox or lion. Most likely, the biblical Israelites thought of cherubs in the same way.

Why, then, are the cherubs of European art portrayed as cute little baby angels rather than as fierce, semi-animal protectors? This derives from the Babylonian Talmud, which is written in a mixture of Aramaic and Hebrew. In the tractate of Sukkah, Rabbi Huna, who, like the other rabbis of his period, was no longer familiar with the cherub of ancient Semitic mythology, asks, “What is a k’ruv?” The answer is provided by Rabbi Abahu in the form of a play of words on the Aramaic plural of k’ruv, k’ruvaya. A cherub, he tells Rabbi Huna, is “like a ravya” (k’ravya) — that is, like a baby in the colloquial Aramaic of Babylonia.

One suspects that Rabbi Huna was merely joking. He certainly had no inkling that, starting with the Renaissance, generations of Christian artists, appraised of his interpretation by the Judaic studies of Italian humanists, would paint cherubs as chubby children because of him. We owe the adorable putti of Raphael and Titian to a talmudic pun. If that isn’t heavenly, what is?

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


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