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Daniel Sperber’s Greek in Talmudic Palestine- Review by Yair Furstenberg

Daniel Sperber, Greek in Talmudic Palestine, Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 2012

How much Greek in Jewish Palestine? Were Samuel Krauss to address the question titling Saul Lieberman’s seminal essay of half a century ago, we could expect in reply a most precise datum: 2370. Krauss compiled the dictionary for Greek and Latin loanwords in rabbinic literature (Griechische und Lateinische Lehnwörter im Talmud, Midrasch und Targum) published during the last years of the 19th century, and this is the number of Greek entries in this work (if we are to believe those who counted). However, this enormous number, which supposedly signifies the scope of Greek knowledge in rabbinic circles, would certainly not satisfy Lieberman.

Besides the fact that the Lehnwörter was most fervently criticized early on by linguists and classicists, who rejected a substantial share of its etymologies (between 30-50%) and valued it only as a comprehensive collection of the relevant passages, Lieberman’s major concern in identifying these foreign words laid elsewhere, beyond the realm of lexicography. In the above-mentioned essay, as in his earlier books Greek in Jewish Palestine and Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, he sought not only to identify within rabbinic literature traces of Greek presence, but to map out the types of rabbinic encounters with this culture and the intensity of the exposure. Thus he claims, for example, that whereas philosophical terminology is completely absent from Talmudic literature, which befits the rabbis’ complete disinterest in foreign wisdom, issues such as law, government, and rhetoric are well represented in rabbinic vocabulary.

In the last few decades, contemporary scholarship moved even farther away from the lexicographic endeavor, as it shifted from a philological paradigm in which related words serve as signifiers of sporadic cultural interaction to a broader cultural paradigm that seeks to identify shared structures of thought within the common Greco-Roman environment. From this perspective, even if spoken in the most Rabbinic Hebrew, Talmudic laws, narratives and anecdotes may sound to some like Greek. However, paradoxically, the evolution of new broader scholarly approaches has only reinforced the need for a clearer exposition of the actual contexts and agents (including people, words and institutions) through which such cultural exchange took place. Due to the incompleteness of earlier projects, some fundamental questions have yet to be systematically addressed: How “Greek” is each of the rabbinic compilations? Can we identify different trends or stages in the exposure to Greek language and culture? How should we account for the broader use of Greek in later sources? Did Christianity play a role in the distribution of Greek language and ideas in Palestine? How does the rabbinic exposure to Greek compare with that of other Aramaic and Syriac speaking groups in the eastern Mediterranean?

In his latest book, Daniel Sperber contributes to this endeavor by laying out some of the main findings of his two esteemed masters, Krauss and Lieberman, and by commenting on the challenges which, in his eyes, their works hold for future scholarship. Thus, in the first part, “Greek and Latin Words in Rabbinic Literature: Prolegomena to a New Dictionary of Classical Words in Rabbinic Literaute” (a reprint of two of his articles from the seventies), Sperber surveys the problems and methodological concerns which await the compilation of an improved dictionary, more than a century after Krauss. In the second part, “Rabbinic Knowledge of Greek in Talmudic Palestine”, he readdresses the fundamental question posed by Liebermen: “How much knowledge (and we may add, and of what nature) of the world which surrounded them did the builders of Rabbinic Judaism possess?”. To that end, he adds to Lieberman’s exposition some further examples of his own, relating to regional differences, knowledge of pagan ritual, rabbinic acquaintance with Roman legal and military terminology, and the use of Greek in magical texts.

Those who follow Sperber’s work will identify his examples from the many publications he contributed on the issue of Greek in rabbinic literature during the last three decades. Most prominent of these are his books, in which he not only offered solutions to textual cruxes by deciphering the Greek or Latin etymologies, but in which he sought to classify all foreign terms according to subject matters: A Dictionary of Greek and Latin in the Mishna, Talmud and Midrashic Literature (1984); Nautica Talmudica (1986); Material Culture in Eretz Israel (1993, 2006); Magic and Folklore in Rabbinic Literature (1996). In a way this is the most conspicuous of Sperber’s contributions, in which he dismantled the over-whelming question of Greek in Rabbinic literature into manageable, specific contexts and fields of practice.

The current book is of a different nature, and its purpose is more modest. It advances Sperbers general scholarly approach, which incidentally is largely based on that of Liebermen. However, in the margins, the unique and extremely important aspect of Sperber’s contribution does emerge in this latest book as well. Thus for example, to the list of more than 280 new words which he adds to Krauss’s dictionary (thanks to his elaborate use of critical editions and sophisticated assessment of manuscripts variants) he appended a subject index, which “highlights to us that in certain socio-cultural areas there was a greater penetration of Greek terms… administration, army and weaponry… employment, occupations and professions… building, tools or utensils” (p. 81).

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.

Yair Furstenberg is a Mandel scholar at the Scholion Interdisciplinary Research Center in Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University. He lectures in the university’s department of Talmud and Halakha.