Friday, November 4, 2016

Fact-Checking the Torah -- Modal continuity

The other thing we discover by understanding 21st century grammar for Biblical Hebrew, is cultural continuity. One of the modals Dr. Cook discusses morphs for use in later writing of the same culture.
This nun-final modal appears in Torah in Avraham’s negotiation with Gd over the cities of the plain (Genesis 18:17ff), which happened about 2350 BCE. Five times he uses the nun-final form, which Dr. Cook defines as an uncertainty epistemic; it shows that Avraham isn’t claiming that he absolutely knows there are less than 50 righteous people on Sodom, he’s saying “just supposing?”
This form appears throughout Tannakh. It’s in the rest of Torah; it’s in Ruth and Samuel (in feminine gender!); it’s in Yeshayahu and Yermiyahu; it’s in Yehezqel.
After the Babylonian Captivity, a slightly different version of the nun-final form shows up over and over again in both Mishnah and Gemara. Why? The very first Mishnah is a perfect test case.
First, Mishnah Brakhot 1:1 says “From what time are they supposed to read the Shema.” “Read” is this nun-final version, qorin. This is not a commandment  to read the Shema (that it is required in Jewish law is a given here), qorin means something that is supposed to happen, along with the fact that it is supposed to happen at a specific time.
Second, a rabbi’s sons come to tell him they haven’t read the Shema yet; have they violated Jewish law? He says “maybe,” chayavin. Why does he use this morphology? Because, as the complete paragraph shows, he is only supposing they did wrong. He probably doesn’t have two colleagues with him so as to constitute a court that can rule on the subject for sure, leading to a penalty.  (And he’s a relative who can neither testify in nor judge the case.)
Third, the Mishnah continues with a reference to ha-neekhalin, things that are supposed to be eaten by priests from the sacrifices. Again, this might not happen, and  the rest of the statement gives a timing issue related to the timing of reading the Shema.
The nun-sofit form is used to report what the law says.  When Mishnah reports the facts of the  case, in the story about the rabbi’s sons, it uses what we think of as the “normal” masculine plural endings, for something that actually happened.
The nun-sofit form appears in Midrash Halakhah about the time of the Muslim conquest;
in Mishneh Torah by Maimonides during the Crusades;
in Shulchan Arukh by Caro in the Renaissance;
in R. Shneur Zalman of Liady’s Shulchan Arukh ha-Rav in the Enlightenment;
and in Shlomo Ganzfried’s Kitsur Shulchan Arukh in early Victorian times.
They all use it the same way Mishnah does, and they use it when they are not quoting from Mishnah.
This has consequences far beyond proving what a bad translation Septuagint is, but that goes in another part of the blog so for now, I will move on to something else.

© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved


  1. A correction regarding your second example:

    “Second, a rabbi’s sons come to tell him they haven’t read the Shema yet; have they violated Jewish law? He says ‘maybe,’ chayavin. Why does he use this morphology? Because, as the complete paragraph shows, he is only supposing they did wrong.”

    But “chayavin” here is not referring to wrongdoing (there is neither a punishment one would become liable to, nor an act of atonement one would become obligated in, attaching to missing a reading of the Shema) but as is obvious from the context the rabbi is telling his sons that despite their understanding of his colleagues’ teachings (which the sons were following) they remained “obligated” to say the Shema that evening and had not missed their chance.

  2. Oh, I thought that a whole offering came for transgression of a positive commandment like reading the Shema, based on Leviticus 1:4 except for Passover and circumcision which are liable to keret, which is documented in Mishnah Keritot 1:1. Notice that the rabbi did NOT say "chayavim" a firm and positive ruling. Meaning he did not issue a ruling. Which as I point out he could not do because he was a relative. So in any case he is only supposing that they are still obligated -- and do you know why he cannot say for sure that they are obligated? It's there in the paragraph. Anybody who has read the whole paragraph is welcome to post the answer.

    1. Here is the Mishna in its entirety, followed by my own translation of the parts relevant to this discussion:

      מאימתיי קורין את שמע בערבית, משעה שהכוהנים נכנסין לאכול בתרומתן, עד סוף האשמורת הראשונה, דברי רבי אליעזר. וחכמים אומרין, עד חצות. רבן גמליאל אומר, עד שיעלה עמוד השחר.‏

      מעשה שבאו בניו מבית המשתה, אמרו לו, לא קרינו את שמע. אמר להם, אם לא עלה עמוד השחר, חיבין אתם לקרות.‏

      ולא זו בלבד, אלא כל מה שאמרו חכמים עד חצות, מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר. הקטר חלבים ואברים, מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר; כל הנאכלים ליום אחד, מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר. אם כן, למה אמרו חכמים עד חצות, כדי להרחיק את האדם מן העבירה.‏

      From when is Shema read in the evening? [the start time is given] until the end of the first watch, according to Rabbi Eliezer; and the Sages say, until midnight. Rabban Gamliel says, until the morning-star rises.

      It happened that [Rabban Gamliel’s] sons came home from a feast [after midnight] and told him “we have not read Shema.” He told them, “If the morning-star has not risen, you are [still] obligated to read.

      “In fact everywhere the Sages say, ‘until midnight,’ the commandment is actually until the until the morning-star rises […]. If so, why did they say, ‘until midnight’? In order to distance one from sin.”

      The standard explanation for the exchange given in the Gemara is that R. Gamliel’s sons recognized that halacha follows the majority, not their father. But they asked him whether there was truly a disagreement between himself and his colleagues (that after midnight the time for evening Shema had passed) or did the Sages agree that Shema could be read until dawn and only say it should be read before midnight?

      (Interestingly, the Mechon Mamre text (“according to a manuscript attributed to Rambam”) at says, “מותרין אתם לקרות” you are [still] permitted to read in place of “חיבין אתם לקרות” you are [still] obligated to read.)

      At any rate, I am unconvinced that the final-nun form means he’s not issuing a definite ruling. It’s certainly not evident from the text that this isn’t a firm ruling: this is not a context where a relative is impaired from ruling. Perhaps if you’ve proven this final-nun rule from elsewhere it could be an interesting lesson in the mishna commonly missed, but right now it seems like begging the question.

  3. Notice that the father had to say "if the 'pillar of dawn' has not risen", that is, supposing it hasn't. Why does he have to say that? At any rate, what I said in the original post and in the follow up is that throughout the Jewish classical literature I listed, there is a trade-off between reporting the facts of a case, which use the "normal" noun endings, and discussing what the law says, which uses the -in ending related to the uncertainty epistemic in Biblical Hebrew. I go into the uncertainty epistemic examples in Torah in Narrating the Torah which I am doing a possible final edit on. From the works that I listed in the original post, you can see that a blog is not the place to go into all the examples in that material. Now that you know about it, you can watch for it in your own studies as I do in mine. By the way, the rest of the citations about bringing a whole offering for transgression of a positive commandment (aside from Passover and circumcision) are Babylonian Talmud Yoma 36a, Babylonian Talmud Zevachim 6a. I thought they were on the blog but they were in another place.

  4. For readers: If you're going to watch for this grammatical dichotomy in your studies, don't forget that the work I listed may change from post-Biblical Hebrew to Aramaic between one word and the next, and that Aramaic has different grammatical endings than Hebrew. The Biblical Hebrew uncertainty epistemic looks like an Aramaic plural but Aramaic does not use modal MORPHOLOGY, it uses PERIPHRASIS except with imperatives. According to Luzzato and Margolis, Biblical and Talmudic Aramaic do NOT have an attested form identical to the -in form I talk about here as being used with the law.

  5. Mr. Solomon -- I forgot -- can you do readers a favor and post editor/publisher information on some of the editions where they quote the standard explanation? I know it's not on this blog and I know I don't cover it in Narrating the Torah. There must be other important information in those editions that readers should see.

    1. Readers: Notice that this reference encapsulates what I've been saying this entire blog and more specifically in this section, Lost in Translation. In these posts on grammar it becomes clear that grammar changes over time within a language and in the 21st century we are shaking off the shackles of outmoded ways of understanding languages. I say it in more detail on the Bit at a Time Bible Hebrew posts starting with the post called Traditions.