Friday, February 19, 2010

Some speculation resulting from an odd Onkelos translation

This is a Mishpatim post. It is one week late. No refunds.

Exodus 23:5:

כִּֽי־ תִרְאֶ֞ה חֲמֹ֣ור שֹׂנַאֲךָ֗ רֹבֵץ֙ תַּ֣חַת מַשָּׂאֹ֔ו וְחָדַלְתָּ֖ מֵעֲזֹ֣ב לֹ֑ו עָזֹ֥ב תַּעֲזֹ֖ב עִמֹּֽו

If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you azov taazov him with it.

On the spot Rashi, provides evidence that azov is a homonym. The common meaning is "leave", but citing a usage in Nehemia, Rashi shows that azov can also mean "help." Accordingly, Rashi translates the verse as follows:

If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help him him with it.

Onkelos translates the word as leave; to make the verse work with azov as "leave" he is forced to finesse the translation by adding some words:

If you see the donkey of your enemy struggling under his load, do not leave him there. Leave behind the hatred you have in your heart for him and help him.

Robert Alter's comment:

The rare Hebrew verb '-z-b is the homonym of a common verb that means to abandom. It occurs twice... in the sense of "to perform, "to arrange, "to assist," and it has cognates with this meaning in both Ugaritic and Arabic.

My take: Had Onkelos known that azov is a homonym, he wouldn't have kvetched the translation.

See Rashi and Onkelos here

Follow-up questions:
Homonyms in biblical Hebrew? How did that happen?

A language ends up with homonyms in two ways: (1) Either a word undergoes a semantic change (example: mouth*, also called a polyseme) or two words with different etymologies develop independently, and coincidently end up with the same spelling and/or pronunciation.(example: lean*) If the language of the Torah is the language of God, i.e., not a human language that suffered from contingent development, neither type of homonym seems possible, but the second type would be ruled out completely. Azov seems to be the second type, with the less common meaning having entered Hebrew via Ugaritic. How can this be true, if the Hebrew of the Bible is the proto-language?

* mouth opening of a river, or the orifice on your face.
* lean thin or rest against

Search for more information about semantics at

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