An Omission, Not a Sin
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.
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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:
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!
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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:
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.
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