What a commentary means

We read Ecclesiastes (Koheles) this past Shabbos. Some read it (or heard it read) in a synagogue, others read it out loud to a two-year-old while she ran around the house babbling to herself. To each their own.

I read it from the Biblica Hebraica Stuttgartensia. When I'm studying part of the Tanakh which I find obscure, or full of impenetrable vocabulary, I often go to the BHS to find which variations in the Masoretic texts might explain a difficult word. This is one difference between, say, BHS and the traditional commentators. The latter explain why the text is the way it is. Historical-critical study of the Bible, on the other hand, often tries to suggest enmendations which help make better sense of the text. (The two sorts of commentary overlap, of course -- traditional commentators often suggest enmendations, though in a different language than modern critics; and Biblical critics for their part often use a literary approach which owes a lot to their traditional forerunners.) To put it very broadly: the BHS is critical while traditional commentary is aesthetic.

But is this really the case? Any resolution suggested by the BHS to a difficulty it points out must be judged on an individual basis. Some of these suggestions (based on alternative manuscripts and words in Akkadian) I can nod my head at and understand passively, but can't criticize with a firm base of knowledge, since Biblical criticism isn't my day (or night) job. On the other hand, when BHS makes a suggestion about the plausibility of one reading over another, I can say yea or nay more confidently. Then we're in the realm of aesthetics, where I feel more equipped with appropriate criteria.

In Ecclesiastes 1:15 it's said (King James translation) "That which is crooked cannot be made straight: and that which is wanting cannot be numbered." In the original: מעות לא־יוכל לתקן וחסרון לא־יוכל להמנות. On the last word (le-himonoys), which means "to be numbered," BHS says: "prp להמלות (cf bBer 16b)". In BHSese, this means "It has been proposed that the alternative reading "cannot be replenished" is more plausible; compare the reference in the Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 16b."

Now, once there, you won't find any reference to Ecclesiastes. This is what you'll find (from an on-line version of the Soncino translation):

WHEN TABI HIS SLAVE DIED etc. Our Rabbis taught: For male and female slaves no row [of comforters] is formed, nor is the blessing of mourners said, nor is condolence offered. When the bondwoman of R. Eliezer died, his disciples went in to condole with him. When he saw them he went up to an upper chamber, but they went up after him. He then went into an ante-room and they followed him there. He then went into the dining hall and they followed him there. He said to them: I thought that you would be scalded with warm water; I see you are not scalded even with boiling hot water. Have I not taught you that a row of comforters is not made for male and female slaves, and that a blessing of mourners is not said for them, nor is condolence offered for them? What then do they say for them? The same as they say to a man for his ox and his ass: 'May the Almighty replenish your loss'. So for his male and female slave they say to him: 'May the Almighty replenish your loss'. It has been taught elsewhere: For male and female slaves no funeral oration is said. R. Jose said: If he was a good slave, they can say over him, Alas for a good and faithful man, who worked for his living! They said to him: If you do that, what do you leave for

The Hebrew of the relevant phrase above ("May the Almighty replenish your loss") is המקום ימלא חסרונך, where the noun for "loss" is the same as that in the Ecclesiastes verse, and the verb is the same as the one suggested by the BHS enmendation.

The question is: what criteria would one use to accept or reject this suggestion? The Talmud was not composed at the same time as Koheles, so what is the reference to the Talmudic tractate meant to show? We know that lashon mikra (the language of the Tanakh) and lashon Chazal (the language of the Talmud and associated texts) are not at all the same.

Perhaps the reference is merely meant to show that the phrase "חסרונות . . . להמלות" is plausible -- i.e. that it makes aesthetic sense. And in that sense, I'm convinced.

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