Saturday, October 16, 2004

Words, words, words

I was just reading Judith Shulevitz's review of Robert Alter's translation of the Pentateuch in the New York Times, and it's saluatory enough to make me slightly suspect. Of course I'll reserve judgement (although I do hope that Naomi of Baraita will review the book sometime). But there was one thing that bothered me, but that perhaps someone can clear up.

She writes:
Moreover, in his notes, he points out that although this particular Hebrew verb for ''bound'' (as in, ''Abraham bound Isaac his son'') occurs only this once in biblical Hebrew, making its meaning uncertain, we can nonetheless take a hint from the fact that when the word reappears in rabbinic Hebrew it refers specifically to the trussing up of animals. Alter's translation thus suggests a dimension of this eerie tale we would probably have overlooked: that of editorial comment. The biblical author, by using words more suited to butchery than ritual sacrifice....
Apparently Alter doesn't make the comment explicitly, that the word comes from the butcher's trade--so's my guess from that passage of the review, anyway. And, binding up doesn't seem something completely uncommon to animal sacrifice (although I don't know the rituals for sacrifice as prescribed in the Torah or Talmud--just have a vague memory about something about doves for the Temple and the selling thereof, which may be completely confused). Presumably, if trussing is used in those prescriptions, the word is different.

But the confusing thing to me is that the dates for her influence question seem backward: rabbinic Hebrew is later from the Hebrew used in the Torah by a matter of many, many years, no? Why assume that the word meant the same thing, had the same associations, all that time? Plenty of words have changed in association from low to high or high to low over the years.

And, of course, my first thought was that perhaps the later word was picked out of association with the story of the binding of Isaac.

Even if there were other words one could have used, from Leviticus or such, it'd definitely be the more evocative choice. In this case, I'd think rather than having the aborted sacrifice of Isaac "brought down" to the level of slaughtering animals, you could consider it "elevating" the binding of animals to the same level as the binding of Isaac. At least at the start. (After all, even if one of the worst insults I know in Japanese has a very polite etymology, it doesn't make it less of an insult today.)

Although... that brings up another question: in the rabbinic passages the reviewer, and presumably Atler, mention, what sort of trussing was it? For what purpose? All-purpose, or specific? How is that word used, and how does it change over time? Because you can truss up animals for reasons other than butchery, too.

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