Monday, December 15, 2014

Ibn Ezra on the use of foreign words in Tanach

The Ibn Ezra in Parshas VaYeishev writes that Tanach incorporates words from foreign languages and oftentimes when it does so, it will translate the word for us.  His example is interesting: “ha’achashteranim bnei haramachim” – the word “achashteranim” is a Persian word, so the Megillah immediately explains to us that it means “bnei ramachim.” I don’t feel bad in not understanding the translation any better than the original, because Chazal (Meg18a) use this very phrase of an example of words in the Megillah that we don’t have a good explanation for.  Perhaps in light of the Ibn Ezra we can suggest that the gemara deliberately used this example to make the point that the text is so difficult to translate that even when it does the job for us we don’t understand it.

The Ramban, in quoting this Ibn Ezra, gives another example from the Megillah: “hipil pur hu hagoral” – “pur” is a Persian word, so the Megillah immediately tells us that it means “goral.”
The Ibn Ezra raises this issue to explain a pasuk in our parsha: “beis ha’sohar makom asher asirei hamelech asurim” (39:20) – “beis hasohar” is not a Hebrew word, so the Torah translated that it is “makom asher asirei hamelech asurim.”  Ramban disagrees with this example.  Beis hasohar,” says Ramban, simply means prison.  There are all kinds of prisons; therefore, the Torah adds that this was specifically a prison “makaom asher asirei hamelech asurim,” where the king’s prisoners were held.

Assuming the Ibn Ezra is correct, the question that begs asking is why Tanach uses foreign words at all.  Why use a word like “beis hasohar,” that needs explanation, adding to the length of the pasuk, when an equivalent Hebrew word or just the explanation “makom asher asirei hamelech asurim” could just as easily be used?  What assumptions about the vocabulary of the reader are built into the text? 

Jumping from pshat to derash, the Tiferes Shlomo suggests that the word “beis hasohar” alludes to the moon, which in Aramaic is called “si’hara.”  The waxing and waning of the moon is symbolic of the rise and fall of the Jew in galus.  Yosef is not just being thrown into a physical prison – he, and eventually his brothers, will be imprisoned by an exile that will last over 200 years.  So we have the Hebrew text of the Torah using what the Ibn Ezra thinks is an Egyptian word being interpreted by the Tiferes Shomo as an allusion to an Aramaic phrase – how’s that for a linguistic roller coaster ride!


  1. Tanach is reminding us of words and phrases that used to be part of lashon kodesh but were dispersed at the Migdal Bavel.

  2. > the question that begs asking is why Tanach uses foreign words at all.

    Suggestion: because lashon kodesh may not contain a precise equivalent. For example, b'nei ramachim might not be exactly the same animal as the Persian achashteranim; just a similar animal that Jews were familiar with in Israel.

    The example of "pur, hu ha goral" is very interesting and can be explained in similar manner. Perhaps pur in Persian denoted a specific type of dice and procedures, so analogous but not exactly identical to Hebrew/Jewish goral. More deeply: it's clear that haman used pur as a kind of fortune telling method, to reveal which month/day was "best" for his evil purposes. So that's what "pur" connotes. Whereas in Tanach, I'm not sure goral is used in that way. For example, the goral for the two goats on Yom Kippur might just be a way to randomly pick one -- not a way to divine which one of the goats is "best" for the korban and which for azazel. The allocation of Eretz Yisrael to the 12 tribes by goral could also (al pi pshat) just be a way of randomly splitting the portions; or it could be a way of revealing the "right" assignments, but then only because al pi hadibur. Likewise, the identification of Achan (story of Ai) was al pi hadibur. In other words, we never see goral in Tanach as a fortune telling method you can use for your own private purposes, shelo al pi hadibbur; whereas pur may have been precisely that in Persia.

    My point is: the megilla says "hipil pur, hu hagoral" instead of "hipil goral" because pur and goral are not identical; but "goral" is *similar* enough that it helps you figure out what you need to know about Persian pur for purposes of the story. Same thing for ramachim, and beit hasohar.

    1. What bothers me is the question of who he intended audience/reader is. I assume there is no point to using a term unless someone knows what it means -- e.g. if no one knows what a "pur" is until you explain that its something like a goral, you haven't gained anything by tossing in the term. The entirety of the Jewish people were in Egypt and shortly thereafter got the story of Braishis at Sinai. Did that group of people know what a beis hasohar was or not?

      When it comes to megillah, it's easier to answer that question. People were scattered; some may have known what a pur was, some not. If you want to be a little more radical: we know from the megillah itself that the story was recorded in the records of Paras u'Madai. Maybe parts of the text of megillah were lifted from those stories, and some of the vocabulary needed to be explained.