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Daniel Sperber’s Greek in Talmudic Palestine

June 3, 2012

I was going to send this as an e-mail to J. K. Gayle, but decided to put it into a BLT post instead because it might be of interest to a broader audience.

Yair Furstenberg has an interesting review of Daniel Sperber’s new book Greek in Talmudic Palestine (which I have not yet read, and have just now ordered – Bar Ilan Press has a sale on now, but shipping to the US is a little expensive – total cost airmail delivery was  US$ 51.06).

Here is a sample of an the review:

But as the examples in the book demonstrate, the issue at hand is not only in what fields were the rabbis exposed to Greek, but the nature of their proficiency. Thus, the most enjoyable examples are those which not only incorporate Greek terminology but cunningly manipulate the languages through wordplays and puns. It takes an expert to identify those, today as well as back then. Therefore, although we are not surprised to find R. Abbahu in third century Caesarea proving his competence in Greek with a clever wordplay, it is no less than astonishing to find it in other, unexpected contexts. Such is the following case, my personal favorite, (discussed on p. 136) taking us back to the presumably ancient mishnah, which records the halahkhic dispute between the Pharisees and Saduccees (m. Yad. 4:6):

The Sadducees say we cry out against you, O ye Pharisees, for ye say ‘The Holy Scriptures render the hands unclean and the writings of Homer do not.” Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said “Have we naught against the Pharisees save this? For lo, they say ‘The bones of an ass (עצמות חמור) are clean and the bones of Yochanan the High Priest are unclean?’”

As Sperber points out, quoting Chaim Rosen, there is much more to the comparison of texts (Scripture/Homer) to bones (High Priest/ass) than the halakhic issue of impurity: behind the word “עצמות חמור” ["the bones of an ass"] there lies a Greek expression referring to Homeric poetry itself – an expression which has been doctored in a “cacophonistic” manner for the sake of derision and disparagement – “aismat homerou” – viz. “the songs of Homer”. And we can only thank the Pharisees for purifying these bones and songs, reluctantly admitting the enduring influence of Greek language and culture.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. June 4, 2012 11:54 am

    Thank you for posting this Theophrastus! I hope once you get your copy of Sperber’s book, you’ll share much from it. (I’m ordering it too now!)

    For anybody else so interested, I was delighted to see that the link you provided gives us readers immediately the table of contents, the preface, and the introduction. And what a wonderful opener to the Introduction (notice Sperber’s own wordplay in English with “… bathe together naked in a Romano-pagan bathhouse, which apparently constituted a meeting place for the social intercourse of people from radically different walks of life”)! And the question, isn’t his question one of the most compelling ever?

    The Mishna in Avoda Zarah 3:4 relates the following tale:

    Proklos the son of Philosophos asked Rabban Gamliel in Akko while he was bathing in the Bathhouse of Aphrodite, and said to him: “It is written in your [book of] Law, ‘And there shall cleave nought of the devoted thing to thine hand’ [Deut. 13:18]. Why then do you bathe in the Bathhouse of Aphrodite?” He answered: “One may not reply in the Bathhouse” [i.e. speak words of Torah while naked]. And when he came out he said: “I came not within her limit, she came within mine!” They do not say, “Let us make a bath for Aphrodite,” but “Let us make an Aphrodite as an adornment for the Bathhouse.” Moreover, even if they would give much money you would not enter before your goddess nakked or after suffering a pollution, nor would you urinate before her! Yet this goddess stands at the mouth of a gutter and everyone urinates in front of her. It is written: “Their gods” [Deut. 12:3] only; hence, that which is treated as a god is forbidden, but what is not treated as a god is permitted.

    It is by no means certain that this text relates a historical fact. But surely it reflects second-century sitz im leben, in which Jews and Gentiles, even most distinguished Jewish individuals, could bathe together naked in a Romano-pagan bathhouse, which apparently constituted a meeting place for the social intercourse of people from radically different walks of life. And presumably they could converse together in Greek; or was it in Hebrew or Aramaic?

  2. June 13, 2012 7:09 pm

    My copy of Sperber’s book has just arrived from Israel — at a first glance, it looks impressive. However, I’ve had a slight deluge of books recently, so I’m not sure if I will get a chance to read the book this week or not.

    I do hope to post some thoughts after I’ve had a chance to read it.

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