An Omission, Not a Sin

ON LANGUAGE

By Philologos

Published February 21, 2003, issue of February 21, 2003.

Readers Roslyn Weiss, Menachem Kellner, Peretz Rodman, Martin Jaffee, Jacob Haberman, Gil Student and Michael Bohnen have written in about my January 17 column “Faithful or Fraudulent” — in which, analyzing the Mishna in Sanhedrin containing the statement, “Whoever saves a single Jewish life [nefesh mi-yisra’el] is said by Scripture to have saved an entire world,” I concluded that the rabbis were referring to all human life and not just to one’s fellow Jews. All these correspondents inform me that, although I was right, my discussion was superfluous, since other rabbinic texts, including variant manuscript readings of Sanhedrin itself, show clearly that the word “Jewish” (mi-yisra’el) was a late addition to the Mishna and not originally part of it. Messrs. Bohnen and Student point out that the same statement can be found in the Jerusalem Talmud without “Jewish,” and Messrs. Jaffee and Kellner observe that the 12th-century commentator Maimonides quoted from a version of the Mishna that did not have “Jewish” in it either. And Mr. Jaffee sums up: “It is very likely, therefore, that the inclusion of mi-yisra’el is a result of scribal interference with the received text in the Middle Ages, when rivers of Jewish blood flowed from the Crusades and other anti-Jewish rioters” — i.e., when anti-Christian anger among Jews was, understandably, running so high that many Jews could not bring themselves to speak of non-Jewish lives in the same breath as they spoke of Jewish ones.

All of which greatly reinforces the point, made by me in my column, that, in stressing Judaism’s universalist concerns, one is fully justified in dropping the word “Jewish” from the much-cited passage in Sanhedrin.

* * *

Moshe Kohn of Jerusalem has an interesting observation to make about my column of last October 25, which dealt with Prime Minister Sharon’s allusion in a Knesset speech to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav’s saying, “The world is a very narrow bridge and the main thing is not to be afraid” (or, as Mr. Kohn prefers to translate it, “not to make yourself afraid”). I had written that the haunting song traditionally sung by the Bratslaver Hasidim to the words of this saying became extremely popular in Israel, under circumstances I was not sure of, after the Yom Kippur War. Clarifying these circumstances, Mr. Kohn writes:

As for this song and the Yom Kippur War, I was told the following by two acquaintances. Both were in the Israeli Tank Corps and both participated in the crossing of the Suez Canal led by Sharon, which had a large number of hesdernikim [religiously observant soldiers who do part of their military service studying in yeshivas and part as combat troops]. When Sharon began his advance toward the bridgehead on the canal, the Bratslaver song was suddenly broadcast from his command over the radios and intercoms of all the attacking tanks. This electrified their crews, who soon joined in the singing themselves as they headed for battle, until the song turned into a Tank Corps chorus and the atmosphere became one of riding to a celebration rather than to possible death or maiming. It was soon after that the song became number one on the unofficial hit parade, with people humming it to themselves everywhere. For at least a couple of years after that, no bar or bat mitzvah or wedding celebration was complete without it.

And so Rabbi Nachman’s “very narrow bridge” was also an actual pontoon bridge over the Suez Canal. I concluded my October 25 column with the words, “Only in Israel!” Now I would say: What an understatement!

* * *

Finally, responding to my January 24 column on the controversial “Jehoash inscription” on a tablet purportedly found on the Temple Mount, and on the possibly telltale anachronism of its Hebrew phrase va’a’as et bedek ha-bayit, “And I made the bedek ha-bayit,” Professor Victor Avigdor Hurwitz of Ben-Gurion University’s Bible department writes:

I will concede that [as was argued in this column] va’a’as et bedek ha-bayit could conceivably have meant “I (re)built the damage in the Temple,” but there is no textual evidence that it did. I still think that we are dealing with an anachronism, and until I am shown [in some other text from the period] that the phrase, or an Akkadian equivalent like batqa ipus, had that meaning, I will remain unconvinced.

Akkadian, the Semitic language of Babylon — which, unlike biblical Hebrew, has come down to us in a huge number of ancient inscriptions — was the lingua franca of the Middle East in the period of King Jehoash, and Professor Hurwitz’s caution is certainly understandable. And yet, just as I wouldn’t rule on a matter of 18th-century English usage by referring to 18th-century French, even though the two languages have a closely intertwined history and French was then the lingua franca of Europe, I wouldn’t necessarily draw conclusions about Hebrew from Akkadian. Indeed (as I implied in my column), it strikes me that the seeming anachronism of bedek ha-bayit in the “Jehoash inscription” may, paradoxically, be one of the best proofs of the inscription’s authenticity. After all, what expert forger — and everything indicates that, if the inscription is a forgery, it is a very expert one — would have knowingly put an apparent anachronism in his text? This would have been a foolhardy thing to do, and it makes me suspect that no forger was at work here.

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



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