Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Are Greek and Hebrew co-holy?

Are Greek and Hebrew co-holy?

An outrageous idea? Maybe not. Of course, I would never say something like this on my own authority, but it seems like this (or something like it) was the view of at least one of our more forward thinking Tanaaim.

Go to BT Sanh 76b, by which I mean Sanhedrin daf ayin vav amud bet/beiz (depending on where you went to school) and you will find a Talmudic debate about the meaning of the following words: ואיש אשר יקח את אשה ואת אמה זמה הוא באש ישרפו אתו ואתהן

To my shock and chagrin, Rabbi Yishmoel darshens the pasuk -- in fact LEARNS THE HALACHA-- based on what a Hebrew word means in Greek. He says אתו ואתהן actually means:

אותו ואת אחת מהן, שהן ביוונית קורין לאחת הינא
'he and one of them', for in Greek 'one' is he'en.

The way I understand it, Rabbi Y doesn't think God spoke to Moshe in Greek, but that God's INTENTION was to communicate that we only burn אחת מהן, one of them, and that the way He intended for us to figure that out was through our application of the Greek homonym: אתהן/הינא

Why would God do this? Why would He hide the halacha in a Greek homonym? Why would He ask us to follow a law that was based entirely on a word from a contingent and man made language that may not even have existed when Moshe stood at Sinai. And even if "he'en" was the Greek word for "one" at the moment of the Revelation, suppose the Greek language took another development route. Suppose that by the time the Talmud was redacted the Greek word for one had become something else. This halacha would have been lost to us forever.

More importantly, why is God playing hide and go seek with the Halacha? Why is He behaving like the wife in a dysfunctional marriage who can't ever just say, in plain language, what it is that she wants. Couldn't the Master and Creator of All have just told us what He wanted in hebrew?

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