The Study of Mishnaic Hebrew: Some Historical Milestones

The Study of Mishnaic Hebrew: Some Historical Milestones

By Sophie Kessler-Mesguich

Bulletin du Centre de recherche français de Jérusalem, Vol. 12 (2003)

Introduction: The first grammar entirely devoted to Mishnaic Hebrew was published in 1844. Although the linguistic study of this period of the language is relatively recent, it constitutes today a particularly active field of investigation, in particular in Israeli universities. By placing this article in the perspective of the history of ideas in linguistics, I aim to show how the scientific concept “language of the sages” (lešon ḥazal) was constructed, and to analyze the different descriptive methods that have been applied to it from the Middle Ages onwards.

In the fragments of ‘Egron by Sa’adya Ga’on (first printed in 902) one can find a hundred or so words taken from the Mishna and the Tosefta, or about 10 % of the total number of entries. Sa’adya felt that the language of the Bible and that of the Mishna (which for him was a colloquial language) formed a single unit. This attitude is better understood in the light of Sa’adya’s anti-Karaite stances: to understand the written law, it is as impossible to disregard the linguistic information provided by the Mishnaic texts as to disregard the interpretation provided by the oral law in general. However it would be a mistake to reduce this attitude to simple needs of religious polemics, since it permeates and drives all of Sa’adya’s linguistic works.

The Ge’onim also compiled lists of difficult words in the Talmud, within the framework of their rabbinical commentaries and in response to questions they were asked – the Geniza has yielded many fragments. Here I will mention two of the most ambitious lexicographic works, in which post-Biblical Hebrew is the topic in its own right and not a simple auxiliary to exegesis. The first, which is lost today and is known only through mentions made by Nathan ben Yeḥiel of Rome in his ‘Arukh, is the lexicon of difficult words in the Talmud written by Ṣemaḥ ben Paltoy, who was the Ga’on of Pumbedita from 872 to 891; the second is the Kitāb al-Ḥāwī, a true dictionary organized methodologically (according to an anagrammatic classification of roots) and based on a specific corpus, that of the post-biblical literature from the Mishna up to the works of the Ge’onim2. The existence of these two works shows that the vocabulary of the Mishnaic language was studied autonomously, independently of the Bible.

Among the successors of Sa’adya, attitudes as regards Mishnaic Hebrew were predominantly positive. The questions they were asked were both exegetic (Can one use Mishnaic words to clarify the difficulties of scriptural text?) and linguistic (Is Mishnaic Hebrew, with its morphological innovations, a corrupted form of the prestigious language of the Bible?). For instance, to those who rejected Mishnaic Hebrew because of the presumed irregularity of its forms, Ibn Ğanaḥ responded by stressing that the Bible itself is not free of grammatical anomalies; furthermore, he shows that denominative verbs such as taram, “offer” (from teruma)3 were constructed by analogy on forms of the gebura type. Thus linguistic reasoning prompted him to accord Mishnaic Hebrew the same dignity as the language of the Bible, and as a consequence, to use it in his grammar and in his dictionary in a much broader and systematic fashion than Sa’ayda had done. Ibn Ğanaḥ is, parenthetically, one of the few authors to have had recourse to Mishnaic Hebrew not only for the lexicon but also as regards grammatical questions, such as for example the existence of nitpa”al.

The only authors who expressed a negative opinion on the Mishnaic language were Menaḥem ben Sarūq and his disciples. In their view, it was a faulty, incomplete language, inferior to Biblical Hebrew; hence, there was no reason to include it in a grammatical description. Menaḥem reserves the term “holy language” for the language of the Bible. In his eyes, a denominative of the taram type is a morphological monstrosity. However this position was marginal, including in the later tradition; even someone like Profiat Duran (early 15th century), a disciple of Ibn Ğanaḥ but conscious of the “degradation” of the sacred tongue over time, begins with the use of Aramaic in the Talmud and does not hesitate to take linguistic examples from the Mishna.

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