Friday, January 13, 2017

Fact-Checking the Torah -- SWLT One

The first rule of SWLT is that cultures use language for culture-specific expressions and also shape themselves around the expressions they use.
The first part of the first rule used to lead to the proposal that Eskimos have lots of words for snow, each for a specific type of snow. Where I live we know of only the fluffy dry snow that is easy to shovel, and the heavy wet snow that you break your back clearing. As I draft this, we are emerging from a terribly snowy winter and so the difference is fresh in my mind.
It turns out that what took me three to eight words to say above, needs only one word in Eskimo. My multi-word phrases can be expressed in Eskimo, as a single word root with various modifications to indicate the features of weight, moisture content, and effect on clearing. Or something like that. I don’t know the exact details.
In Lakota, a single word can be modified to tell what its result was, such as by pushing either to fasten something down or to insert something into a container.
Russian has a system of motion verbs which can be translated “go” or “come”, but they differentiate between walking, riding a vehicle, swimming, being carried, and so on.
Languages do not invent words as a game or a scholarly exercise. Words come into existence in response to a cultural need for precision. Precision is culture-specific and I have already given part of one example.
In Hebrew, by Mishnaic times, there were two words for animal fat. One was the Torah term chelev, the fat of the gastrointestinal region in animals, taken off and burned during the sacrificial rite as recorded in Torah. This fat was prohibited in Torah for human food. Hebrew evolved the term shuman out of shemen, “oil”, to mean the fat that could be permitted for human food, the way shemen zait is permitted for human food.
Greek culture also had two words for animal fat. One was stear, the fat of ruminants, and the other was pmelin, the fat of non-ruminants. Aristotle discusses this in On Animals. But when it comes to sacrifices, the word is diptykha because the fat used in sacrifices had to be double-folded.
So cultures have separate words for things that are culturally important.
Another example mirrors the Eskimo issue. In Hebrew, Gd creates the raqia on the second day. The usual English translation of raqia is “firmament,” but that doesn’t capture what raqia really means. The Hebrew word is based on a root which, in modern Hebrew, means ductile or malleable. It also relates to two verses in Torah. Exodus 39:3 describes the beaten gold plates from which threads were cut to weave with colored wools to make the efod. Numbers 17:4 describes the beaten copper censers that had belonged to the 250 elders consumed by fire; they were used to cover one of the altars. Raqia is a thin shell like beaten plate metal.
“Firmament” no doubt comes from Greek stereoma, which the Septuagint uses to translate raqia, but which means “hard body.” The Septuagint sets up or benefits from the Aristotelian concept of the celestial spheres, which had to fit inside each other exactly with no empty spaces. That’s because Greek metaphysics rejected the concept of a vacuum.
Jewish culture describes seven raqiot (the plural) in Talmud, each 1000 parasangs thick and separated by 183,500 parasangs. But Jewish culture never takes an interest in what’s between each raqia.
This created discomfort for that stern Aristotelian, Maimonides, who had to admit there was something between each pair of raqiot but couldn’t admit that it might be vacuum. Vacuum was a concept supported by the Mutakallim philosophers against whom Maimonides wrote. You would have to consult Guide for the Perplexed (with the Leo Strauss introduction) to see how he resolved this. At any rate, Maimonides – like Philo – got himself into a mental pickle by adopting the concepts of an external culture and trying to apply them to words in the Biblical Hebrew language.
The meaning of a word is what falls out of its use by multiple people in multiple contexts WITHIN THE  CULTURE over some period of time.
The meaning of a word is NOT its translation, because translations may be a desperate grab for a way to represent material in a different language from that of the culture that developed the meaning of the word. A translation can suffer from ignorance, misunderstanding, or purposeful perversion.
The meaning of a word is not its translation.
© Patricia Jo Heil, 2013-2018 All Rights Reserved

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