26 December 2010

Poetic & Difficult Language of Iyov

I posted a couple of months ago on a lecture given by Rabbi Eric Levy at this year's YCT's Yemei Iyun in Tanakh and thought I would share another great quote from him at the same conference. Speaking on "Job: How Does One Understand God's Ways?", Levy responds to a question about the difficulty of the language in the book of Job (or Iyov (איוב), in Hebrew), saying "The language of Iyov is unbelievably difficult." He then provides an example:
That happens actually quite a few times in Iyov, where, for instance, הנותן לשכוי בינה, so לשכוי everybody just assumes means the rooster, but, in Iyov, it’s clearly not. לשכוי is like the heart or another part of the body. So, with Iyov, you just sort of have to use context, because the words he’s plucking….
And then he goes onto an excursus on language use:
Poets always use the most ancient forms of language. A poet always reaches out. Whether he’s writing English poetry or whatever, they’re always reaching out to the most obscure words, because they need to really fine-tune their message. I doubt there’s a finer poet than the author of Iyov. And the words he reaches out to are words that can only be understood from the Arabic; there are words there that are clearly Aramaic. He is really reaching out to into the farthest reaches of the Hebrew vocabulary.

And, of course, as Ibn Ezra tells us, don’t forget Hebrew was a dead language. Hebrew died out; half of the Jews in the Second Temple spoke Greek and half of them spoke Aramaic, but essentially nobody spoke Hebrew, which means that our entire vocabulary of Hebrew is limited to the books of Tanakh and a little bit of Mishnah. In Mishnah, sometimes they use words like “Where’d that word come from?” So, scholars will tell you they just made it up and people with a little more faith will say Judaism had some vocabulary beyond the Tanakh. But we are kind of limited – there are a limited number of words in Tanakh because, as a dead language, you’re stuck with what you have there. And, in Iyov, apparently there’s some usages that are just a little bit beyond our ability to understand, otherwise, from context.

1 comment:

David said...

Interesting stuff. Drew.

I learned with Rabbi Levy back in West Orange. Good man.