A Thorn in One’s Side

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published May 23, 2003, issue of May 23, 2003.
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The Israeli government, so Defense Minister Shaul Mufaz was recently quoted by newspapers as saying, intends to hold the new Palestinian Authority leadership accountable for fighting terror al kotso shel yod, “to the tip of a yod.” This is a fine old Hebrew expression with an interesting history.

If you look carefully at the printed letter yod, i, you will see that it has, in its upper left-hand corner, a tiny tip pointing upward. Several other letters in the Hebrew alphabet have the same feature, such as bet, a, and resh, x. This tip is known in Hebrew as a kots, or thorn, and is simply part of the letter’s design. In rabbinic legend, however, which views the Torah as infinitely full of meaning, each of these “thorns” is considered to have significance. The story is told that when Moses ascended Mount Sinai to receive the Torah, he found that it wasn’t ready, because God was still putting the finishing touches to its letters. “Master of the Universe,” he asked, “for whom are you doing all this?” And God replied, “There will come a man named [Rabbi] Akiva who will extract mountains and mountains of laws from a single thorn on one letter.”

Because yod is the smallest letter in the Hebrew alphabet, the “thorn” on it became synonymous with the minute details of something. In the talmudic tractate of Menahot, for example, there is a discussion of the parchment verses in a mezuza in which the rabbis rule that the slightest mistake in any of them invalidates the entire mezuza. To which Rabbi Yehudah adds: “This refers even to the thorn of a yod.”

Not many people know — in fact, I’ll bet not even many etymologists know — that the English word “iota” in the sense of a very small amount, as in the sentence, “I want you to do what I tell you to the last iota,” goes back to the Hebrew expression “the thorn of a yod.” Originally, an iota was simply the Greek letter , whose name was pronounced “yota” and comes from the Hebrew or Phoenician yod or yoda. (The little mark over the iota, however, is not related to either the thorn of the yod or to the dot over the English “i.” It is the Greek smooth breathing sign and indicates that the vowel is not preceded by an “h.”) The secondary sense of “iota” as a tiny item or detail comes from the Greek New Testament, in which Jesus is quoted by the gospel according to Matthew as saying, “For verily I say unto you, not one jot nor one tittle shall in no wise pass from the Law, till all be fulfilled” (a very Orthodox Jewish position, it must be said.).

This is the King James Version, and it is a rather free translation. In the Greek, Jesus is represented as saying, iota hen ei mia keraia ou mei parelthe apo tou nomou, literally, “Not one iota or ‘horn’ shall pass from the Law.” Yet Jesus did not speak Greek, so what was it that he really said? To answer this, we have to keep two things in mind. The first is that an iota followed by another vowel, such as an alpha or an epsilon, was how the Greeks represented the yod in their transliterations of Hebrew. The second is that a “horn,” keraia, was a Greek scribal term for a mark over a letter, like the rough and smooth breathing signs. It is quite clear, therefore, that when Jesus is said to have referred to “the horn of an iota,” he was actually speaking of the thorn of a yod!

Needless to say, well-educated readers of Hebrew do not associate the expression “the thorn of a yod” with the New Testament. They do associate it with a long narrative poem, titled “Kotso Shel Yod,” by the 19th-century Hebrew writer Yehuda Leib Gordon. Gordon was a maskil, a champion of religious reform, and his poem is ardently feminist and bitterly anti-rabbinical. It tells the story of a beautiful woman, Basshua, who is deserted in a Russian shtetl by her husband Hillel and becomes an aguna, a single mother who cannot remarry because she is not divorced. Forced to support herself and her two children, she ekes out a living from a small grocery store.

One day a kind and wealthy bachelor named Fabi enters Basshua’s store, falls in love with her, as she does with him, and resolves to find Hillel. He tracks him down and arranges to pay him a large sum of money if he will sign a get, or writ of divorce. This is done, the get arrives in the shtetl, and Basshua goes happily with it to the local rabbi, expecting to be granted the freedom to marry Fabi. Alas! The name “Hillel” has been spelled without a yod, and the rabbi, a cruel old curmudgeon, refuses to recognize the document as valid. Meanwhile, Hillel has vanished in a shipwreck and cannot send another get. Fabi and Basshua are devastated, and the poem ends with her lamenting:

I could have been a happy woman for good

If I hadn’t been killed by the thorn of a yod.

Palestinian Authority, take note!

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






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