21 March 2010

Red Sea, Reed Sea, or Something Else?

Once again, in the recent issue of Jewish Action (Spring 2010), Ari Zivotofsky has an excellent brief article. This one is "What’s the Truth about . . . the Translation of Yam Suf?" There are three points I want to mention about it: 1) His excellent conclusion about translations, 2) About Artscroll's translation consistency, and 3) An error in a footnote.
His amusing yet informative conclusion about translations, both specifically and generally:
In summary, Yam Suf in the Bible refers to multiple places, many of which were translated by the ancients as Red Sea. Similarly, specific bodies of water were referred to by multiple names, such as the Mediterranean Sea, which seems to have at least three names: Yam Plishtim (Exodus 23:31), Yam Hagadol (Numbers 34:6, 7) and Yam Ha’acharon (Deuteronomy 34:2). This leaves a translator in a serious quandary. But it is important to remember that translations are not always meant to be literal but rather to inform the reader of the target language what was intended in the source language. Thus, in general, Yam Hagadol is translated in English as Mediterranean Sea and not as Great Sea; Moshe is called Moses and not “drawn forth,” Yam Hamelach is referred to as Dead Sea and not as Salt Sea, and Sha’ar Ha’ashpot is translated as Dung Gate and not Refuse Gate.

Thus, it is possible that the name Yam Suf has nothing to do with suf and was simply the name of the body of water. The name need not have any meaning beyond that, similar to other names of locations (there are not and have never been buffalo in Buffalo, New York, and Beit Lechem, a hilly region, is not known for either its bread or its wheat).

While no one today can state definitively which body of water God split so that the Israelites could pass, the most ancient translations translate Yam Suf in the Exodus story as Red Sea. I would argue that despite the fact that reeds cannot grow in the Red Sea, we should accept the tradition of the Septuagint and of the Geonim and translate Yam Suf as the Red Sea. For those who cannot tolerate anything but a literal translation, they can always simply refer to Yam Suf as the Cattail Sea.
His note 16 on Artscroll's consistency in translations:
One has to credit ArtScroll for being consistent in its policy of translating places literally. It translates Yam Hamelach as Salt Sea (Genesis 14:3, Numbers 34:3 and 34:12) and Yam Hagadol as Great Sea (Numbers 34:6, 7). In truth, while the Yam Suf translation may be justifiable because of the ArtScroll policy of translating according to Rashi, the other two translations cited are inexplicable. Even ArtScroll does not translate Abraham’s two sons as “He is rejoicing” and “May God listen.”
The error Professor Zivotofsky makes is found at the very end of his article in footnote 17, where he says
This, is in fact, the subject of a Tannaic dispute. In the context of the infant Moshe story, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachmani says that suf refers to a marsh with reeds and willows. But Rabbi Elazar opines that suf was shorthand for Yam Suf, and the Torah was not describing the physical surroundings but the actual location (Shemot Rabbah 1:21; Sotah 12a-b).
First, Rabbi Shmuel bar Nahmani and Rabbi Elazar are both third generation amoraim, so they shouldn't be appearing in tannaitic texts. Secondly, although there is a tannaitic text (a beraisa) just above where their discussion is found, commenting on the same verse on which they are commenting, they are not part of that beraisa:
תנא: חמר מבפנים וזפת מבחוץ, כדי שלא יריח אותו צדיק ריח רע.
ותשם בה את הילד ותשם בסוף.
רבי אלעזר אומר: ים סוף
רבי שמואל בר נחמני אמר אגם, כדכתיב קנה וסוף קמל


YC said...

Beit lech could be not where bread is grown, but where sold, like main street. If Jesus was born in beit lechem could be a beit lechem closer to his home.

Anonymous said...

Everyone fastens where there is gain. ....................................................

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Balashon said...

You beat me to it:

yam suf - red sea or sea of reeds?

Drew Kaplan said...

Balashon, so why don't you link my post from yours?