Notes by Autumn Light

On Hebrew, English, translation, editing, and more—by Jonathan Orr-Stav


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Has anyone ever tried translating Shakespeare into old Hebrew, so its speakers get the same sense of antiquity as they read it as English speakers do?

shakespeare-in-love8Translating Shakespeare into biblical Hebrew was certainly the default approach in the early days of Hebrew theatre (end of 19th, early 20th century)—since Shakespeare’s English is roughly the contemporary of that of King James translation of the Hebrew Bible.

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If the Bible were set in the forests of ancient Europe, how would the stories be different?

If the Bible were set in a purely desert environment (as it is usually depicted in Western films), it would not likely not have produced stories that Europeans could relate to. But it wasn’t. The landscapes of the Galilee and the Judea-Samaria mountain range west of the watershed were (and are) very similar to those found in southern Europe (Greece, Italy, and Spain).

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Were there also checkpoints in ancient Israel?

1180328-Balaam

Oh, yes. Here are a few examples, just from the first few books of the Hebrew Bible:

The most obvious instance of a checkpoint was the one set up by the Gileadites to catch retreating Ephraimite soldiers, after the Ephraimites’ defeat in battle. Since Ephraimites were known to have a particular kind of lisp—pronouncing /sh/ as /s/—the Gileadites put a simple test to every man they caught:

Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand. [Judges 12:6]

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Is there any difference between the pre-exile Biblical Hebrew and post-Exile Biblical Hebrew?

Hugely, yes.

Post-Exile (First Exile, that is—in Babylon), Hebrew was flooded with Aramaic words and expressions, as the returning Judeans sought to introduce the sophistication of the prestigious and cosmopolitan Babylon, where they had lived for over three generations, into the provincial backwater of their ancestral land, where only poor and barely literate Judeans (“none remained, save the poorest sort of the people of the land”—II Kings 24:14) had remained after the Babylonian conquest some 75 years before.

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Is the Torah the first example of the blockchain—since the Torah says every male must write his own copy of the Torah?

And once copies are disseminated, it’s increasingly hard to make additions or changes without consent of the supermajority

blockchain-post-2

Interesting question—to which the answer is:

  • Yes, the Torah might be said to be record of a covenant (agreement), and
  • Yes, it is widely disseminated and cannot be unilaterally changed by anyone—but
  • No, for the simple reason that a blockchain is a record that is continuously added to by its users—whereas the Torah was authored once (be it by Moses—per traditional belief—or rabbinical sages in the early Second Temple), and has since been immutable.


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How do you say ‘The Gates of Hell shall not prevail’ and ‘no weapon formed against me shall prosper’ in Hebrew?

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Certain expressions are inherently foreign to Hebrew, because they are absent in the Jewish tradition. Gates of Hell is one of them: the notion of Hell as a terrible underworld of fire and brimstone is really founded on the Greek idea of Hades, with subsequent embellishment by the Christian Church during the Middle Ages (and Dante, of course), in a bid to keep congregants in line.

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Why does the sculpture of Moses have horns?

Moses' face shining

ומשה לא ידע כי קרן עור פניו | and Moses did not know that his face’s skin shone

This is the result of a misunderstanding (and therefore mistranslation) of the Hebrew (Exodus 34:29):

ויהי ברדת משה מהר סיני ושני לחת העדת ביד משה ברדתו מן ההר ומשה לא ידע כי קרן עור פניו בדברו אתו

The bolded text in Hebrew above, transliterated, says: uMoshé lo yada ki qaran or-panav bedabro itto—meaning ‘and Moses did not know that the skin of his face shone as he spoke with him.’

The word qaran is a verb form of qeren, which can mean either ‘ray’ (of light), or ‘horn’.

Some Latin translations chose—either deliberately, or out of ignorance—to interpret it as ‘horn’, when in fact, what is meant in the original is that his face glowed (presumably as a result of exposure to something during his meeting with God on Mt. Sinai).