Hebrew Grammar

B’nai Mitzvah or Talmidei Bar Mitzvah?

  • A correspondent writes: Like forming the plural of Torah is not Torot,
    referencing several children/students who attained the age of bar and
    bat mitzvah is not bnai or bnot mitzvah.  have to put back in the
    missing words that were contracted out …  so the proper plural is
    talmidei bar mitzvah, etc.

The Question therefore is: what is the right way to pluralize “bar mitzvah.”

The oldest reference I know of to the term bar mitzvah is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Metzia, page 96a:

תיבעי למ”ד שלוחו של אדם כמותו הני מילי שליח דבר מצוה הוא אבל עבד דלאו בר מצוה לא

The problem applies to one who maintains that the agent of a person is just like the person himself–this applies because the agent is bar mitzvah (subject to the commandments). But (if we are speaking of his) slave who is not bar mitzvah, then no.

As you can see, here the term is used to describe an adult, a person who is subject to the law. If we are interested in when we first see the term used to describe a child’s admission to adulthood and it’s responsibilities, we have to move almost a thousand years later. For example, Maimonides (12th/13th century) Yad, Ishut, 2:9–10. But in another place, Maimonides states that the testimony of a boy that young in real estate transactions is invalid because he cannot have experience with such transactions (Maim. Yad, Edut, 9:8).

While the term bar mitzvah doesn’t occur earlier than this, the notion that a boy becomes subject to categorization as an adult at the age of 13 years and 1 day is referenced in numerous places (for example, Avot 5:1 and various commentaries thereon).

None of this really gets to the question of course. But allow me one more detour. In English, people often fumble over the plural of compound phrases such as “sister-in-law.” Should the plural be “sisters-in-law” or “sister-in-laws.” That turns out to be a question of prescriptive versus descriptive grammar. In prescriptive grammar, an expert–usually self-appointed–tells us the correct way to write or speak. This has famously led to generations of American schoolchildren drilled in such deep subjects such as whether to use “lay” or “lie” in a variety of circumstances. As it turns out, throughout the history of British and American English, the words have been mixed in their usage, but in the mid-nineteenth century, various authorities attempted to fix the usage. Which has had little effect, I might add–people still mix the words up.

A descriptive grammarian simply observes usage and documents it. No effort is usually made to determine what the “correct” usage might be. For example, in the Bible we find the word שֶׁ֫מֶשׁ as  feminine in Nahum 3:17 but masculine in Genesis 19:23 and then feminine again in Exodus 22:2. The prescriptive grammarian attempts to tell the biblical author that they are wrong, the descriptive grammarian simply notes that the word is regarded in various places as either masculine or feminine.

Now, that was a bit tongue-in-cheek. I’m not denying that prescriptive grammarians have a place in the world. School children and college graduates really do need their help if they are going to write essays that get them admitted to higher education or land a job. But personally, I learned long ago, that in a large part of life, it’s best just to observe and document and not prescribe.

The central question here regards the proper way to pluralize nouns when they are part of a combination–a structure often referred to as a compound noun. Almost every English handbook provides the advice that it is best to pluralize the principle word in the compound, thus, brothers-in-law rather than brother-in-laws. The problem is that people often ignore that advice and hence we have a classic case of prescriptive versus descriptive grammar.

The authors of the biblical books did not seem impressed by this grammatical advice. One of the most noticeable pluralization issues comes with the word the Bible uses for family, namely בֵּית אָב, bet av, literally household of a father. For example, Gen 34:19, ‎וְלֹֽא־אֵחַ֤ר הַנַּ֙עַר֙ לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת הַדָּבָ֔ר כִּ֥י חָפֵ֖ץ בְּבַֽת־יַעֲקֹ֑ב וְה֣וּא נִכְבָּ֔ד מִכֹּ֖ל בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽיו׃ And the young man did not delay to do the thing, because he was delighted with Jacob’s daughter. Now he was the most honored of all his family. (NRS) Another example: וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה אֶל־אַבְרָם לֶךְ־לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ, And the LORD said to Avram, ‘Leave your land, the place of your birth, and your family (bet av) to the land I will show you. (Gen 12:1).

So what is the plural of בֵּית אָב in the Bible? Fortunately we do have that term several times. (1 Chron 7:7, 24:4, 25:5, etc.), and this text in the book of Numbers illustrates the interplay of this term with mishpahah: נָשׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי גֵרְשׁוֹן גַּם־הֵם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם which means, Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans. (Num. 4:22 TNK). The Hebrew word translated as “ancestral house” is pluralized–literally, “The house of their fathers.”

The discomfort of translating these plurals is nicely illustrated by the case of 1 Chronicles 7:7 וּבְנֵי בֶלַע אֶצְבּוֹן וְעֻזִּי וְעֻזִּיאֵל וִירִימוֹת וְעִירִי חֲמִשָּׁה רָאשֵׁי בֵּית אָבוֹת גִּבּוֹרֵי חֲיָלִים And the sons of Bela (were) Etzbon, Uzzi, Uzziel, Rimot and Iri, five chiefs of families, all powerful men. The plural Hebrew בֵּית אָבוֹת is variously rendered “…heads of the house of their fathers” ( KJV), “They were heads of fathers’ households” (NAS), “….chiefs of families…” (NJB), “…heads of ancestral houses…” (NRS), and finally, “…chiefs of clans…” (NJPS). The variations here reflect the lack of certitude as to what should be pluralized (in English), and whether the term bet av is better rendered as family or clan.

But if you ask a Modern Hebrew grammarian, you might discover that many think the Bible just got it wrong. The plural of bet av they might just tell you, should be battei av or perhaps battei avot–but the important point being that the first element is the one that requires pluralization. And yes, that means we’re back to prescriptive versus descriptive grammar.

Well, at long last back to our question. What is the plural of bar mitzvah? If we are referring to people rather than the ceremony, that almost certainly will b’nei mitzvah. The first element bar (which is Aramaic for the Hebrew ben) means “child of”). Hebrew has already long asserted a usage of the singular for the collective noun mitzvah. If there is a case of pluralizing that term (bar mitzvot) I have never seen it.

In modern times, we have the addition of women who have formally accepted religious traditions, and for them the singular is bat mitzvah and the plural could be either b’not mitzvah or b’nei mitzvah (because in Hebrew mixed gender results in the masculine term).

There is a separate question as to how to think of the term bar mitzvah when what is being discussed is the celebration of the event rather than categorizing the celebrants themselves. In English, I have always seen this refered to as bar mitzvahs where we add the English “s” plural to the end of the phrase. For example, “That synagogue saw so many bar mitzvahs last year!” I’d be interested in hearing from Israelis how that might be rendered in Modern Hebrew.

In any case, the important point in all of this is that no matter how much august institutions such as the Hebrew Academy might wish to formalize Hebrew grammar, they will succumb to the popularization that is normative for all human languages.

We’re Doing a Bit O’Development, Folks!

You may have noticed a drop-off in my posts. It’s not for want of writing more–but I’ve been a bit flummoxed by the new Gutenberg Editor that WordPress introduced. I understand the basics (otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this!) but as many of you know, I use several foreign language typefaces in my posts and so far I have not been able to get the new editor to display those characters properly. Apparently I have to learn some more about the new editor before I can resume regular posts.

Anyway, I’ll do my best to soldier on, and we’ll see what the future brings!

Update 9/21/2019: Still working on the Hebrew language issue. I’ll have more time to devote to this after this year’s Jewish holidays, so hang in there with me!

— Jack Love

On The General Understanding of Talmudic Chronology

Shortly after I returned from my prospectus defense, I found much to my joy that the Second, “Expanded Edition” of Joshua Jacobson’s Chanting the Hebrew Bible The Art of Cantillation had arrived.

As I flipped through it and started reading some of the introductory chapters, I encountered the following description of Chironomy on page 3.

Chironomy is a system of hand signals, predating the graphic symbols, which represent the melodies of the t’amim…the Talmudic passage below attests to the antiquity of this practice. Rabbi Nahman (ca. 350 CE, Babylonia) stipulates that a person should keep his right hand clean, since that is the hand that performs the sacred task of prompting the cantillation…

Why should one wipe with the left hand and not with the right? Rabbi Nahman b. Isaac said: Because he uses it show the t’amim of the Torah. [BT Ber. 62a]

Professor Jacobson is a distinguished professor of Music at Northeastern University and his book is probably the most comprehensive and respected work on the Masoretic vocalization system (certainly of those available in English). The book is published by the Jewish Publication Society in cooperation with the University of Nebraska Press. And Professor Jacobson is not a religious fundamentalist; he is open to the methodologies of modern scholarship.

I mention all this simply because the paragraph above betrays a common outlook even among professionals in the field as to the authenticity and dating of passages found in the Talmud.

In this citation Prof. Jacobson indicates first, that we know as a matter of historical fact that one Rabbi Nahman (b. Isaac) existed, that he can be dated to the middle of the fourth century, and that he has been accurately quoted.

I rate these three claims as likely, possible, and unlikely. I have no particularly good reason to doubt that there was a R. Nahman b. Isaac. The date of 350 CE is arbitrary, worked out by diligent scholars in the 19th century like Hermann Strack. But it is still a guess as none of the materials are conducive to accurate dating. The Babylonian Talmud was edited over a period of a century from about 500 to 600 CE, and our earliest manuscripts date several centuries later than that. The notion that individual comments were accurately transmitted over a period of some centuries is not only contradicted by what we know about human memory and document transmission, but even by our ability to examine parallel passages. On those occasions when we have the same or similar story related in multiple locations, we almost invariably find differences in the parallels. In some cases, identical statements are attributed to different tradents. In others, the same tradent is quoted using different words. There are several examples of this I will provide in my description of the Passover traditions.

The point I am making is that the notion that the Talmud accurately quotes persons said to have lived centuries prior to the final redaction of the Talmud is pervasive even among the scholarly community. What could Prof. Jacobson have said that would have indicated a sensitivity to this nuance? Here is one suggestion I can think of: “Chironomy is attested as early as the 6th/7th century in the Babylonian Talmud where we find a quote attributed to R. Nahman b. Isaac.” It isn’t a lengthy or overly technical change of language, it is simply more accurate.

Even When He Is Silent

Not long ago I had the pleasure of hearing a choral performance of Even When He Is Silent, an anonymous poem set to music by the Norwegian composer Kim André Arnesen. While I can’t provide a video of the performance I heard, fortunately you can hear a lovely rendition conducted by Anton Armstrong by clicking the link to YouTube, located here:

The words express deep religious conviction, and the musical setting by Arnesen does them justice. The lyric is short and goes as follows:

silentI believe in the sun, even when it is not shining.
I believe in love, even though I don’t feel it.
I believe in God, even when he is silent.

The liner notes identified the poem as originating on a wall at Auschwitz.

While I was deeply moved by the sentiment, the music and the superb performance by a talented group of singers, my historian’s sense was pricked. My period is the ancient world, so it is no surprise that I might not know a composition emanating from the era of the Holocaust, but there is something about this language that strikes me as a little too pat for what I would imagine a concentration inmate inscribing at Hell’s portal. I thought to myself, I wonder what the original language of this poem might say? I expected to find that original language to be Yiddish or German, perhaps even French. I was quite certain it wouldn’t be English.

Of course I turned to Google–where else does one go at first these days for such things? I expected to find some recent quotations and a link to some article or book where the original text would be cited. Much to my astonishment, there was no such link! I spent hours looking at everything Google retrieved for me, but all I could find were articles that quoted the poem in English. I did find one version of it in French, but that was clearly a translation of the English, not a claim to have the original language.

One issue was quickly resolved. Whatever the provenance of this quote may be, it has nothing to do with Auschwitz. There is a reason why many people associate it with Auschwitz, though. In January 2015 a public ceremony was held at Auschwitz and Prince Charles of Wales read the poem there. An example of how the poem is described that day from the (England) Telegraph [“Survivors remember Auschwitz: ‘Every time I come here I feel fearful'”, 1/27/15]:

The Prince finished his short speech by reading out a three-line anonymous poem scratched on to a wall by a victim of the Holocaust.

Notice that the journalists make no claim the poem was discovered at Auschwitz itself. It’s just “a wall”. But they do go so far as to state it was written by a victim of the Holocaust. There is no indication of why they believe that to be the case.

Another surprising result of my search was that Google could not find a single example of this quote earlier than 2005. If the quote was discovered in some connection to the Holocaust, written by someone in a camp which was discovered at the end of the war, how likely is it that the first time it is cited is 40 years later?

If you run your own search you should find what I found. One set of articles that attribute the quote to a discovery in the German city of Cologne. Another set that seems to contradict the first. But none of these articles or links is earlier than 2005 (that I have found so far), none quote the poem in it’s original language, and none provide any evidence that the poem had some connection to the Holocaust or a Jewish author.

My preliminary conclusion is that this story is a false attribution. The poem was written in English and circulated anonymously. Someone thought that it sounded like what might be the words of a person in a bleak place such as a bombed out city or concentration camp. Someone else heard this, loved the poem, and posted it as if it were exactly that.

This sort of phenomenon is not at all unusual. There is a beautiful song composed in Yiddish and made famous by (of all people) Joan Baez called Dona Dona. (On Baez’s recording, the song is named “Donna Donna”.) The first line of the lyric is “Calves are easily bound and slaughtered Never knowing the reason why.” Early in the history of this song, someone believed it to be the work of a Concentration Camp inmate or survivor, and there are not a few references to it that way. In fact, it was written by two American Jewish artists, Shalom Secunda and Aaron Zeitlin, and it had nothing to do with the Holocaust. It was written for a play that began its run in the New York Yiddish theater in 1940.

Another similar error occurred in 1967. The Israeli artist Naomi Shemer composed a beautiful song about Jerusalem, Jerusalem of Gold. After the Six Day War, it became an anthem for those who were delirious over the reunification of the city. Large numbers of people are convinced that Shemer composed the song out of nationalistic pride at this event. But the truth is that she wrote it several months before the start of the war, so it is not possible that she composed it as some sort of victory chant.

I am mindful of one of the important principles of my profession: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” In other words, if I simply rely on my statement of the absence of a citation, that evidence can be disproved simply by discovering an earlier quote. The closer in time to the end of WW2, the more likely it becomes that the quote has authenticity. And so rather than state my conclusions as some sort of absolute, I would rather post it as a query. Has anyone found this quote cited, described, perhaps even photographed in situ at a time closer to when it is alleged to have been composed?

On Halakhah, Sharia and Canon

This is a revision of a comment I made to a group on Facebook as part of a discussion on whether and to what extent religious views should influence the civil law of a country.

One of the features of the intellectual history of the Middle Ages was that each of the major religions at roughly similar times came to the realization that some codification of their principles had become necessary. Originally this was not considered important as everything was included in the Torah (Jews), the Christian Bible (Christians) or the Quran (Muslims). But over the centuries more and more principles were added to the core documents, and eventually it became impossible to track it all without some sort of compilation and (eventually) an index.

For the Jews, this framework was called the Halakhah, for the Muslims, the Sharia, and for the Church, it was the Canon.

As things turned out, for all three of these systems unanimous adoption was fleeting (and perhaps never existed). The Jews formally recognized two equally valid systems, basically Eastern and Western (Sephardic and Ashkenazic) in the publication of the major digest called the Shulhan Arukh with the “corrections” of R. Moshe Isserles. Since then even more wrinkles have further divided the notion of a uniform code.

The Muslim version of the Halakhah was the Sharia. It codified the principles of the Quran, the Haddith, and as with the Jews, different versions had to exist to deal with differences among the various Islamic movements and sects. One of the Arabic names of the Sharia is the Qānūn-e Islāmī, which brings us to the third system, the Canon Law of the Catholic Church.

Christians faced exactly the same problems as did the Jews and Muslims, and went about solving them in similar ways. The Roman Church compiled a list of rules which has been subject to revision. And just as the Jews and Muslims divided along various religious fractures, the Christian church split along many different lines. But what to do about the Canon?

Of course it wouldn’t do to create new forms of the Christian church and still acknowledge the authority of the Canon, so the various major movements created different sets of quasi-legal standards. For example, the Anglican Communion spoke of the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Bishops’ Book, etc.

The important point for this discussion is that in the modern world, all of this has coalesced into a series of debates about the extent to which these religious principles should be enforced on the citizens of various countries who may or may not have any connection to the religious communities that created the systems.

We all have heard (but I suspect most of us do not really understand) about the application of Sharia to citizens of some Muslim countries, especially in Saudi Arabia and Iran (which ironically have different Sharia systems owing to the differences among the sects).

One of the fascinating aspects of the creation of the State of Israel is that for the first time since the time of the Maccabees an independent Jewish state has the ability to legislate in a way that affects Jews who might not agree with whomever is in power and even non-Jews who are also citizens of the State. To what extent (for example) should Jews or non-Jews be able to raise pigs on their farms? How kosher do restaurants need be?

And in the United States, where a majority of people identify with Christianity, how much should Christian principles define the life of the country? Not all that long ago, many states had laws which forbade the opening of shops on the Christian sabbath. And employers were free to mandate work on Saturday, which created enormous problems for those Jews who wished to observe their sabbath.

The opposition of the Catholic Church to abortion is summarized in Canon 1398: A person who procures a completed abortion incurs a latae sententiae excommunication.

The question that the United States continues to work through despite the Supreme Court’s decision upholding a woman’s right to control her own body is whether that Canon will be applied to citizens of the United States who do not recognize the authority of the Church. Protestants, and especially Evangelicals who obviously do not think of themselves as ascribing to the Canon, are nevertheless working their way ideologically through the same issues.

I suspect this argument will be going on for a very long time.

Of dots and peculiar cantillation signs…Part 1: Dots

A reader asks:

There are a lot of funny touches in the Esau stories (like the dots in Vayishlach on vayechabkehu and there was a mercha kefula  in the reading this week, and some other funny things that I asked Jack about.  Maybe it has to do with all the deception in one of the most dysfunctional families in the Torah.

There are a few issues tangled in this short paragraph, but let’s start with the dots. In the entire Tanakh there are 15 places where our Masoretic Bibles place dots over words. Of those, 10 occur in the Torah. One of those 10 occurs at Genesis 33:4 where we read:

 וַיָּ֙רָץ עֵשָׂ֤ו לִקְרָאתוֹ֙ וַֽיְחַבְּקֵ֔הוּ וַיִּפֹּ֥ל עַל־צַוָּארָ֖ו וַ֗יִּ֗שָּׁ֗קֵ֑֗ה֗וּ֗ וַיִּבְכּֽוּ׃

Translation: And Esau ran towards him (Jacob) and embraced him and he fell on his neck. And he kissed him and they wept.

I have kept this translation literal rather than attempting to convey any nuance that might be intended by an idiomatic expression such as “fell on one’s neck.” The question, for the moment, is why the verb vayishakehu is written with a dot placed over each letter.

The answer is not difficult to find: dotted letters were a common scribal device throughout the region in the Hellenistic era into Late Antiquity for indicating a word or phrase regarded as requiring deletion. In our Masoretic biblical manuscripts these and a few other editor’s marks are called tiqunei soferim which means “scribal corrections.” In other words, their dots operated like our “strike through.” If we simply delete the dotted word, the translation becomes: And Esau ran towards him, embraced him, fell on his neck and kissed him.

But can we analyze this further and possibly discover a reason why the Scribes might have wanted to delete the word rendered as and he kissed him? Part of the reason may possibly be found in the idiomatic expression I referenced above. What exactly is meant by and he fell on his neck?

The same expression is used at Genesis 45:14, where we read:

וַיִּפֹּ֛ל עַל־צַוְּארֵ֥י בִנְיָמִֽן־אָחִ֖יו וַיֵּ֑בְךְּ וּבִנְיָמִ֔ן בָּכָ֖ה עַל־צַוָּארָֽיו׃

And (Joseph) fell on Benjamin’s neck and wept, and Benjamin wept on his neck.

And yet again a chapter later (Gen 46:29):

וַיֶּאְסֹ֤ר יוֹסֵף֙ מֶרְכַּבְתּ֔וֹ וַיַּ֛עַל לִקְרַֽאת־יִשְׂרָאֵ֥ל אָבִ֖יו גֹּ֑שְׁנָה וַיֵּרָ֣א אֵלָ֗יו וַיִּפֹּל֙ עַל־צַוָּארָ֔יו וַיֵּ֥בְךְּ עַל־צַוָּארָ֖יו עֽוֹד׃

(And) Joseph prepared his chariot and journeyed towards Israel his father in Goshen. And when he saw him, he fell on his neck and he wept on his neck some more.

From all these citations you might conclude that this was a common Hebrew expression, but that is not the case. In fact we have now exhausted the list of citations which employ this phrase or something close to it. The notion of “falling on someone’s neck” is not exactly obvious, although many translators have chosen to render this literally–as if the person fell to the ground on his neck. But since it is hard to embrace someone in this position, I submit that it is an idiom of some sort which was familiar to the author (and readership) of the passages at the time, but has since been lost to us. Although there is almost certainly no connection, you might get a chuckle out of considering the English idiom of necking. (Thanks to a friend for drawing the comparison.)

It may not have been lost just to us. Since no other biblical source seems to use this particular idiom, I would suggest that the idiom was lost even on some who transmitted the text. One of those editors may have tried to explain “he fell on his neck” by inserting the gloss “he kissed him.” A later Scribe, recognizing that a gloss had entered the text, dotted “and he kissed him” as an instruction to other Scribes that when they copied this text they should omit that word.

While I haven’t found evidence yet that would allow me to better understand “fell on his neck,” there is substantial evidence that other Scribes understood the dots to mean “delete.” In the cases of several others of the dotted words (eg Num 3:39 and Num 21:30) the words actually are omitted in several Masoretic manuscripts as well as ancient versions of the Bible (eg the Samaritan Torah, the Septuagint and even the Babylonian Talmud.)

To summarize my reconstruction of the history of this text, there was at some point in the evolution of biblical Hebrew an idiom “to fall on someone’s neck” which clearly means to demonstrate great affection. A later editor, perhaps not familiar with the idiom or just trying to explain it to those who might not be, added the word which is rendered and they kissed to explain the phrase. Still later a subsequent editor who knew that and they kissed was not part of the original text marked it for deletion.

If you would like to consult the technical references I used in preparing this article, please see Emanuel Tov, Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, 3rd Revised Edition, Minneapolis, 2012 pp 51-52 and 203. For a different take on the interpretation of dotted words (this instance from the perspective of the early sages), see Saul Lieberman, Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, New York, 1962 pp 43ff.

This is the first part of the question. In the next blog entry I will try to answer the question about merkha k’fulah.

Back to Qametz Qaton

When I first started this blog, one of the first articles I wrote was an explanation of the rule on pronouncing the Hebrew vowel qametz as o as in hole as opposed to its more usual pronunciation of a as in father. I chose this topic then because as a Hebrew teacher I have noticed that students find it perplexing. This week that discussion returned as a colleague asked me to comment on the word qodashim found in Leviticus 6:18 and repeated at 6:22. There we find it as part of the term qodesh qodashim.

Qodesh Qodashim in Hebrew

This happens to be the term associated with the inner sanctum of the Temple and in such context it is often rendered “The Holy of Holies.” In this case, however, the meaning is more prosaic–the author is indicating that a particular foodstuff of offering has the highest degree of sacred status and in that context the translation is better rendered most holy or most sacred.

The meaning of the text is reasonably clear, but the pronunciation of the first vowel in qodashim is anything but.

When we first looked at the text, both the version of the Hebrew Bible we used and my electronic version contained the same spelling of the text. The vowel was a qametz followed by a diacritical mark called a metheg. Under normal circumstances, this indicates an a pronunciation, so the word would be vocalized: qadashim. The problem is that no one pronounces it that way. And that is the reason that I have been spelling the word qodashim rather than qadashim.

The View from Ashkenaz: What’s All the Fuss About?

At this point I need to explain that there is a significant part of the Hebrew-aware community that doesn’t see any problem here. The community of Jews who speak with the dialect of the Eastern European Hebrew heritage (known by the Hebrew designation Ashkenaz) pronounce the vowel qametz something akin to the aw in claw. They are consistent in this pronunciation: each sign that looks like any sort of qametz is pronounced the same.

Speakers of Israeli Hebrew, Jews from the Mediterranean and Islamic regions of the world use the variants on qametz that we are discussing and this has become the dominant pronunciation. But it should be conceded that one reason there may be problems here is that the group of scholars who invented the sign qametz almost certainly spoke something more akin to Ashkenaz and therefore did not distinguish among the various forms of qametz. How do we know this? Because they used the same sign for all the variants. They could just as easily have chosen other signs. So Ashkenazi Jews are not without a serious argument when they ask what the fuss is about here. I’ll return to this concept at the end of our journey.

The reason is that the Tiberian Masoretes were not the only group of scholars annotating the text of the Bible. There were at least two other groups (deemed Babylonian and Palestinian in most handbooks) whose diacritical marks suggest that they had a pronunciation more akin to the non-Ashkenazi Jewish community. And even without that evidence, we can’t simply ignore the fact that there is a substantial, important and lettered community of people who have faithfully transmitted a dialect of Bibilical Hebrew which has three separate phonemes for the sign qametz.

Back to Basics: The Segholate Nouns

Notice that the word preceding qodashim is qodesh. The grammatical form of qodesh is well understood. It belongs to a category of nouns termed segholate. The segholates are among the oldest base forms in Hebrew. What I mean by this is that a number of core, common Hebrew words are in the category. For example: yeled (child), melekh (king), shemesh (sun). All of these words began as monosyllabic words containing an a vowel. The original Semitic word for child was yald. King was malk. Sun was shamsh.

In the course of time speakers of Hebrew developed a dislike of consonant clusters. Notice that each of the Hebrew words above ended in two consonants with no vowel between them. Hebrew speakers began to insert just a bit of a helper vowel between the two consonants. Malk became malik. Shamsh became shamish. Eventually, the 2nd (newly created) vowel started to exert some influence over the first, original vowel. People liked to homogenize the two vowels. So in time (and in fact by the era of our Biblical texts) yalid became YEled, malik became MElekh, and shamish became SHEmesh. The reason I capitalized the letters was to show you where to put the accent or stress on the word.

This placement of the stress seems to violate the rules of Hebrew pronunciation, which prefers the accent on the last syllable. But in this case, by retaining the accent on the first syllable, the Hebrew speaker was holding on to the original word. If you think about it, where was the stress on the word malk? You see, all these words had only one syllable, so there was only one place for the stress!

One of the interesting aspects of segholate nouns is that they have a particular pattern for forming plurals. Lets look at a few of these: yeled becomes y’ladim; melekh becomes m’lakhim; regel becomes r’galim. In other words, the eh/eh vowel sequence changes to shva followed by an a vowel in the second syllable. But the phenomenon I’m pointing to is that the very first vowel shrivels up to sh’va. The reason for this is simple: in the plural, the natural inclination of Hebrew to accent the final syllable overpowers that first syllable. As the speaker rushes to get to the third syllable, the first vowel is slurred over.

We can now turn out attention to the word qodashim. What we expect based on the examples above is q’dashim with that first syllable shrinking to sh’va. Part of the explanation for why this does not happen lies in the fact that there are actually three types of segholate nouns as we mentioned above. The most common type is the eh/eh we demonstrated. All of these are based on ancient groundforms which began with the a vowel. Some segholates originate in a word that featured the i vowel. And what we have here is a word whose origin goes back to an o or u vowel.

One phenomenon we see demonstrated here is that it is more difficult to slur over the o/u vowel than the a vowel. People remember that o sound and continue to express it.

A second issue here is that the qof (quf) is one of the more striking consonants in the Hebrew language. Although modern speakers do not differentiate the quf from plain k sound of the kaf. But the original sound of the qof was produced deep in the throat–a kind of clicking sound. When a consonant is produced in the throat, most speakers will retain a vowel to help them pronounce that sound. In other words, it is more difficult to slur a throaty consonant than others.

So we have two reasons to preserve the original sound of the vowel. First, the “stickiness” of o vowels and second, the need to assist the speaker in pronouncing a throat consonant.

For these reasons we expect to see the word qodashim. But when we look at text, we do not see that. We see what appears to be qadashim. Beneath the qof we find the qamatz. Some knowledgeable speakers might say that this is no problem. We have the qamatz qaton, a vowel that is written exactly like a regular qamatz, but is pronounced o as in hole. The trouble with that explanation is that the qamatz qaton has a specific spelling convention and this instance does not agree with that convention. Next to the qamatz we see a diacritical mark called a metheg. That mark, shows that the qa is an open syllable. A qamatz in an open syllable is an ordinary qamatz, not a qamatz qaton.

What is going on here? Should we ignore our inclinations and pronounce the word qadashim rather than qodashim?

At roughly this stage of the game I decided to have a look at my copy of Biblia Hebraica, the most commonly used text for Biblical Hebrew scholars. This text has undergone something of an evolution. One of the earlier versions was prepared by Rodolph Kittel, who became infamous by assuming a position at a German University after ensuring that his Jewish forebear was dispatched to a concentration camp. As you might imagine, Jewish scholars have never been enamored of consulting that version, and so it came as a great relief when a new version, vastly improved by consultation to original manuscripts, was published as Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia (BHS) in the 1960s. This is the version that I consulted.

In Lev 6:10 we have the first of three occurrences of the term qodesh qodashim in the chapter and I found qametz followed by metheg. But in 6:18 and 6:22 something different! In both those verses, the qametz hatuf (aka hataf qametz) is printed. This vowel would have been very easy to explain and I happily reported to my colleague that the mystery was solved. The qametz qaton is a simply slurring of the o vowel which would be completely normal for a segholate plural. The first instance must be a case of misprint or perhaps a misreading of the manuscript–after all, these printed versions are all the result of someone staring at a manuscript–and often a poor quality photocopy of a manuscript.

My giddiness at having solved the puzzle was short lived.

One of my study partners immediately informed me that her version of BHS has the qametz/metheg spelling. What’s going on here? This part is not so complicated. The BHS is the premiere text of the Hebrew Bible for most of the scholarly community. As such, there are new editions which correct errors from time to time. My edition happens to be the first (produced in the mid-1960s) and there have been several since. In the more recent editions, the text we are examining was corrected to qametz/metheg.

Wanting just a bit more evidence I turned to the Qoren edition of the Hebrew Bible. The Qoren was the first Hebrew Bible entirely typeset in Israel and it was meticulously prepared from new photographs of the most complete Biblical text, namely the Leningrad Codex. In another article I will discuss the available manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible, but for now, all you need to know is that the Qoren text also has qametz followed by metheg.

Bottom line: my simple and elegant solution was pulverized.

Is there another solution? As it turns out, not really. In fact, the great grammarian of the classical Hebrew language, Gesenius, lists this spelling and simply finds it to be an exception. Grammatically it appears to be a qametz that should be pronounced a as in father. But no one would pronounce it that way.

As I mentioned earlier, Ashkenazi Jews would pronounce it aw. Among non-Ashkenazi Jews, it is essentially universally pronounced o. And there is a good reason for this whatever the spelling: the close proximity of this word to the base form qodesh. When seeing the phrase qodesh q?dashim, it is almost impossible to pronounce it any other way!

I have a personal theory as to why this spelling never bothered the Masoretes. I believe that the pronunciation of the Tiberian Masoretes was closer to the Ashkenazi than the Sephardi pronunciation. If so, they would have heard little difference–they would say qodesh qawdashim and that would have worked well for them. Some day I hope to be able to examine this passage in a manuscript vocalized in the Babylonian system. But that will have to wait for another day.



On the Definition of Christianity

During the part of my career in which the Jewish community tasked me with the job of doing whatever is in our power to retain Jewish kids for posterity, it all seemed so clear and obvious to me. Orthodox, Conservative and Reform Jews are Jews. Secular Jews are (oddly enough from a religious perspective) Jews. Reconstructionist Jews are Jews.  Jews who join other religions are still Jews, but they are not practicing Judaism.  Christians are not Jews. For people untrained in the arcania of Jewish theology, some of this might not be obvious, and perhaps I’ll explain in greater detail in another article.  But for now, let’s take these basic principles as givens.

In the 1970s and since, some groups of Evangelical Christians set new goals for converting Jews to Christianity. Of course, most Christians would have welcomed Jewish converts. But the difference Jews noticed here was that these groups didn’t just specifically target Jews, they adopted a new strategy: the claim that worshiping as a Christian did not mean renouncing Judaism. The idea was that missionaries might have an easier time if they could convince Jews that following Christ did not mean abandoning their parents or religious community.

The Reader might recall that for centuries, the Church had made something of a big deal out of the necessity for Jews to disown their ancestral faith in order to be accepted as Christians. So this was a rather new idea, especially to Jews  who had some vivid memories concerning the Inquisition.

One of the odder consequences of this new movement is that those of us in the organized Jewish community confronted people who were not Jews in any sense that we normally understood, but who had ostensibly converted to Judaism and then, while adopting some Jewish rituals, also accepted Christ. To us, this seemed like a ruse, a subterfuge, really not fair play.

Let me hasten to acknowledge that the founder of the movement called Jews for Jesus, Moshe Rosen, was indeed technically a Jew by birth. He was raised in a Jewish home, and does seem to have made his decision to join Christianity based on a conviction that he could adopt that religion without renouncing his Jewish identity. The problem Mr. Rosen faced was that an astonishingly small number of his eventual followers could make the same claims. After decades of evangelizing, there have been very few Jews who have joined his cause.

Let me also hasten to say that although Judaism is no longer an evangelical religion, I and most Jews recognize, understand and accept that other religions (especially Christianity and Islam) are evangelical in nature. The issue for us in the matters I’ve been discussing is fair play. We believe that the Jewish students who are meeting people of other faiths are entitled to know that they are being solicited to consider abandoning the faith of their ancestors in favor of a new religion.

Inevitably, we are led to the question of “How does one define a Jew?” Is Judaism an ethnicity, a religion, a nationality? We must have some sort of definition if we want to understand what it means to be a Jew or practice Judaism (and we might have to admit that those two terms are different things rather than two sides of the same coin.) The alternative is “anything goes.” Anyone can say or do anything and call themselves Jews. Conversely, Jews can say or do anything and still claim they are practicing Judaism.

To shorten a long story, after many years of dealing with Jewish students at the University of California at Berkeley and subsequently, in the early days of Internet chat rooms (called UseNet back then), many of us worked on a definition that seemed to satisfy most people. Jews have been known for a very long time as “the people of the Book” and there is something to that notion. Jews are people who accept a specific version of the Bible as sacred (ie, originating either directly or via inspiration from God), and reject any notion that God is multiple, divisible, anything but the One. The most sacred single text of Judaism is the Sh’ma, “Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is one.” Even secular Jews usually have no problem with the Sh’ma. To recapitulate, Judaism is the religion of those people who teach that God is One and that God’s message is contained within a library of sacred works that most of the world calls the Old Testament. (The word “old” sometimes conveys the idea of “outmoded” so many Jews prefer to use terms such as the Jewish Bible, the Hebrew Testament or the Tanakh, which is one of the Hebrew names of the book.)

This definition works pretty well. Why aren’t Jews the same as Muslims? After all, the Muslims are if anything even more strictly monotheistic than Jews. Because the sacred scripture of the Muslims is not the Old Testament, but rather the Quran. Now the Muslims do concede that both Jewish and Christian scripture is worthy of study and religious status. In fact, the Muslims agree as Jews do not that Jesus was a Prophet. But they insist that the primary source of religious inspiration is the Quran. Neither Jews nor Christians are willing to acknowledge the Quran, so this becomes a basic measure of distinction.

As another example of the importance of canon, consider the Samaritans. The Samaritans accept the first five books of the Old Testament (the Torah) but do not consider the remaining books of the Old Testament to be worthy of sacred status. Jews, on this basis, reject  the Samaritans for inclusion in Judaism, and the Samaritans agree that they are not Jews.

The Karaite sect has proven an interesting borderline case. The Karaites split off from the Jews around the 8th century. By that time, the rabbis had well established themselves as arbiters of religious custom and law and generated a large body of literature designed to interpret Jewish tradition. Many Jews began to chafe under what they felt was the burden of an elite unattested in scripture. Their movement accepted the sacred status of all of Jewish scripture–the Old Testament–but rejected  rabbinic authority to interpret that scripture. Their movement became wildly popular and some historians have suggested that in its heyday, Karaism may have had adherents that outnumbered the followers of the rabbis.

In modern times, the Karaites have diminished to a relatively small population. Some of them have requested the right to live in Israel, which has led to discussion among religious Jews as to whether they should be considered Jewish or not. Unlike the Samaritans, the Karaites are not only monotheistic, but share the same exact scripture as Rabbinic Jews. While opinions have varied, the consensus has been that they should be permitted to come to Israel and enjoy the same rights and privileges as the rabbinic Jewish community.

In other words and to sum up, at least for Jews, scripture (the canon) matters.

Christians too hold that their Scriptures are sacred, but again, those books (the Gospels, Epistles and Apocrypha) were not included by most of the Jewish community as they were promulgated. Those Jews who did accept the Christian scriptures became Christians. At first and in the early days of Christianity there was a sense among Christians that Jews could indeed accept the teachings of the Christian Bible and yet continue to worship as Jews. But soon (on the scale of religious history) most Christians denied this possibility and the rabbinic Jewish community was all too happy to accept that judgment.

In addition to the scriptural issue, most Jews have historically been uneasy with Christian groups who have maintained various dual nature or Trinitarian views of God. Although the Jewish critique pales in comparison to the Islamic viewpoint, nevertheless, Jews have always had a sense that Christianity is a tad less than monotheistic in its approach to the Divine than they could accept. This is not to say that Jews have labeled Christians as polytheistic. Over more than a thousand years, those Jewish scholars who have considered the matter have concluded that Christian doctrine is sufficiently monotheistic to avoid the label of polytheism but they have held that Jews ought to know better.

In my debates with Jews for Jesus and other so-called Messianic Jews, these arguments have stood the test of time. Although bristling and adamant that Christianity is purely monotheistic and asserting that Divine Revelation did not end with the Jewish Bible, it was pretty difficult for most evangelical discussants to overcome the simple definition based on Scripture.

In recent days, all this has come to my mind because of the odd circumstance that a member of the Mormon faith will be a serious candidate for the presidency of the United States. Large numbers of people will likely be voting for Mitt Romney even though the incumbent is a member in good standing of the Protestant community. In the midst of all this, a few people have raised the question as to whether Mormonism should be considered Christianity.

Based on the discussion I recapitulated above, I had thought this would be something of a “no-brainer.” Of course (I imagined) Christians would deny that Mormonism should be considered Christianity. This was clear to me because 1) Mormons accept the authority of a prophet who lived long after prophecy was declared at an end by Christians as well as Jews, and 2) Mormons accept as Scripture a book which is rejected by most Christians.

It turns out that I was wrong. Not entirely, but enough to make things interesting. Of course, Roman Catholics and the Orthodox Churches have a set of standards that would preclude Mormons from being considered Catholic or Orthodox. These churches have elaborate hierarchies and long historical standards regarding the canon.

But disputes about the canon are nothing new. The reason why some Bibles contain the Apocrypha (books like Maccabees and Tobith) and others do not is that some Churches accept their value as Scripture and others do not. As for the recognition of sacred persons such as prophets and saints, here too we find ample room for disagreement. In northern Israel and Lebanon there is a numerically significant group of Christians known as the Maronites. These are distinct from Roman Catholics only because they insist on recognizing as a saint a person who Rome declined to beatify. But no one would deny that Maronites are Christians.

As I looked further and further in to this, it became clear to me that there is an interesting issue here. As I said above, while we can determine pretty easily who is a Catholic and who isn’t, I was finding it very difficult to define who is a Christian. What makes a Christian a Christian?

I asked one person raised as a Roman Catholic how she defines a Christian, and her reply was instructive: anyone who believes that Jesus is God should be considered a Christian. Technically this definition could easily have excluded many of Jesus’ own followers. Today it might exclude some Unitarians and perhaps even some Quakers. This definition makes no connection to a sacred scripture. And it doesn’t appear to rule out pagans who might (for example) include Jesus as one among many gods. I pushed my friend on this question and it produced a slight refinement in the definition: A person may claim to be a Christian if they believe that Jesus is the one and only God.

Of course one lay person does not a theology make, so it’s time to do some real homework. How do the standard dictionaries define Christianity?

Oxford English Dictionary: The edition of 1971 provides four definitions. I’ll skip the first since it is denoted as obsolete and the third and fourth as they are irrelevant to our discussion. The second reads: The religion of Christ; the Christian faith; the system of doctrines and precepts taught by Christ and his disciples.

Websters: the religion derived from Jesus Christ, based on the Bible as sacred scripture, and professed by Eastern, Roman Catholic, and Protestant bodies.

As one might expect, the encyclopedias do a bit better job, usually beginning with a short definition, and then expanding to cover additional topics.

The Catholic Encyclopedia (on-line citation): Christianity is the name given to that definite system of religious belief and practice which was taught by Jesus Christ in the country of Palestine, during the reign of the Roman Emperor, Tiberius, and was promulgated, after its Founder’s death, for the acceptance of the whole world, by certain chosen men among His followers.

Wikipedia (cited 5/27/12): Christianity (from the Ancient Greek: Χριστιανός Christianos) is a monotheistic and Abrahamic religion based on the life and teachings of Jesus as presented in canonical gospels and other New Testament writings. Adherents of the Christian faith are known as Christians.

This is of course not any sort of comprehensive list, either of dictionaries or encyclopedias, but I think it is sufficient to discover a few commonalities.

First of all Jesus is important. All sources agree that Christian belief requires acknowledgment of Jesus as the founder and leader of the Christian religion. Interesting to me, none of these sources cite a requirement to believe that Jesus is God, although that is unquestionably a foundational belief in most Christian churches.

What about the canon, the list of sacred books? Several of the sources specifically cite the need to respect the New Testament.  The OED is one source that does not specifically mention the New Testament. But how should we understand the phrase the system of doctrines and precepts taught by Christ and his disciples? Where would one look to find these “doctrines and precepts” if not in the transmitted words and doctrines of Jesus and his disciples that we know as the New Testament?

My conclusion is that as with Judaism, there are two factors which in combination can determine whether it is reasonable to consider someone a Christian. First, a belief in the centrality of Jesus as the primary teacher of the faith, and second, a belief that the source for knowledge about Jesus is the canon of sacred scripture.

So does this mean that I now have a tool which can determine whether Mormonism should be considered Christian? Although I had initially thought so, on reflection, I must admit that case is not clear.

In discussion with a friend who teaches the history of Christian movements in the United States, I learned that Mormonism can be understood from a historical perspective as one of several outgrowths of American Protestantism in the early nineteenth century. The people who followed Joseph Smith and later Brigham Young saw themselves as Christians. They saw their religious documents as “perfecting” errors in the ancient scriptures. Indeed, they regarded Jesus as the primary source of their knowledge. They simply felt that the scripture revealed by Smith added to the ancient canon, and primarily in ways that related to the Christian settlement of the New World (North and South America).

For Jews, this discussion would not have mattered because Judaism teaches a sealed canon. Nothing can be added because of a doctrine which holds that true prophesy has ended. There are 22 books and there will never be more than 22 books. Jonah is sacred scripture. John is not. The Quran–not. The Book of Mormon–not.

Christianity, on the other hand, does not possess a doctrine like this. The Roman Catholics do, and therefore they can say that Mormonism is not Catholic. But can they say it is not Christian? The Protestant revolution overthrew the authoritarian structures of the Orthodox Church. In doing so, they broadened authority. Who now has the authority to determine whether a given group or sect should be considered Christian or not?

If it is possible to believe in Jesus, but also to believe that Revelation did not end with the New Testament, then Mormons are within their religious rights to deem their religion Christian.

For Episcopalians, or Lutherans or Baptists or Methodists or even Unitarians, to deny Mormonism inclusion in the spectrum of Christianity, they will have to demonstrate that the Mormons hold a belief that is inconsistent with Christianity. But without a canon, on what would such a position be based?

That is where I need to leave this question for now. I will be very interested to learn of other opinions out there.

Update on 6/13/2010: The New York Times ran an Op-Ed piece today of interest to this discussion. I’ll provide the link, but in the event that the Times doesn’t allow access or the link fails to work at some point, I will add a summary:

David V. Mason on the definition of Mormonism and Christianity

Mr. Mason is identified as a religious and expert Mormon (a member of the religious hierarchy). He states that in his opinion, Mormons should disassociate themselves from Christianity just as Christians disassociated themselves from Judaism. His arguments relate to the theological nature of Jesus and also discusses elements of the canon.

Of Shins and Sins

A correspondent writes:

It is about the letter(s) shin and sin.  These are usually indicated as the same letter in the Hebrew alphabet. However, they are definitely not interchangeable in a word in the same way a bet and vet are.  They seem to be different letters, but they differ solely because of a dot that didn’t even appear in classical Hebrew.

Can you help me out with my understanding of this?

Dear Reader:

First of all, I must compliment you on the fact that within just a few short phrases you encapsulated a great deal of accurate information. I’m afraid that while I might be able to answer it, I won’t be able to replicate your brevity. Sometimes short questions engender long answers!

As you suggest, a dot can make a difference for the letter בּ in a very different manner than the dot associated with שׁ. And you are again correct that these dots were developed long after the end of the use of Biblical Hebrew as a spoken language.

To the best of our knowledge, both kinds of dot were invented by a somewhat mysterious group of scholars called the Masoretes. These people were engaged for a period of centuries with the task of preserving what they knew of the proper pronunciation of the ancient Hebrew language. We know of them primarily through the manuscripts of the Hebrew Bible they have left for us, the earliest of which dates to about the year 850 or 900 CE.

In the case of 6 letters (of the total of 22), the pronunciation preserved by the Masoretes indicate that the passage of air through the mouth results in a slight softening of the sound. You mention the bet which is the first of these letters. The usual pronunication of the bet is a stop whereby the sound is stopped by the lips. The sound is essentially the same as the b in boy. But if a puff of air should precede the bet, the sound softens into the v of very. If you try making these two sounds yourself, you should notice that even though b and v are distant from each other in the order of the English alphabet, still, they are pronounced with the same speech organ, namely the lips.

The Masoretes indicated this difference in pronunciation with a dot (Hebrew: dagesh). This dot is found in five more letters (about which we will speak in greater detail in a later article).

A critical point of all this is that even though one of these six letters is subject to differences in pronunciation, the meaning of the word never changes. Whether the word is pronounced bayit or vayit, it still means house.

With the shin the Masoretes faced a much different dilemma. Long before their time, in the earliest phases of Biblical Hebrew, there were some words which used the sh sound and others which used the s sound. In some dialects of Biblical Hebrew, the speakers were not able to readily distinguish between these two sounds. In fact, this gave rise to the famous story of the word shiboleth which you can find in Judges 12:5-6.

(This is, by the way, one of the few cases of a Hebrew word migrating into English.)

For those (Biblical era) people who recognized a different pronunciation for the letter shin this became a significant difference because a word with shin would have a different meaning from a word with the pronunciation. Unlike the bet there was a possibility for a difference in meaning. But the Biblical Scribes did not recognize the difference. They used the same letter ש to spell both sounds, much as English sure uses the plain s to render the sound sh.

The Masoretes elected to use a dot to help us with this distinction in a similar fashion to the dagesh. They placed a dot to the right of the letter if it should be pronounced in the more common fashion of sh and they put the dot to the left of the letter if they wanted us to pronounce it as an s. Although it is a dot, it is not a dagesh. If this diacritical mark has a name, perhaps some Reader out there can post a reply letting us know its name.

The problem of the shin has led to some difficult aspects for the dictionary writers. How to cope with the fact that the shin and sin are critical to the meanings of words even though they are the same symbol? What you will find is that some authors of dictionaries will actually separate the two forms as if they are indeed separate letters of the Hebrew alphabet. No less an authority than the Brown-Driver-Briggs Biblical lexicon follows this approach. Other dictionary writers elect to intermix the shins and sins as if there was no difference whatsoever. It is your problem, when using a dictionary, to figure out which strategy the authors have followed.

I hope that throws at least some light on your question, and if not, perhaps you’ll ask a follow-up in the reply box offered below.

On Date Terminology, BCE and CE versus BC and AD

Well, the controversy over how to write dates has now spilled over into popular culture. I recently heard some sort of comedy show in which the stand-up comic made fun of people who use the terminology CE and BCE instead of AD and BC respectively. Since I am among those people, I will make a likely futile effort to explain why I believe that CE and BCE are least among a variety of evils.

I don’t want to belabor what is a now common explanation and story. There are people who feel a religious attachment to any given dating system–for example, Jews who use a chronology dated from the date they regard as the creation of the world, about 6,000 years ago. This is often abbreviated AM which stands for Anno Mundi or the “year of the world.” Another example would be Muslims who use a lunar calendar which begins the year that they believe Muhammad ascended to Heaven. People with these attachments will use the system they prefer and ignore anything the rest of have to say.

For most people today, the dating abbreviation AD and BC are just formulaic. Very few people think about what those letters mean. It is therefore sensible that they wonder what all the fuss is about. But the abbreviations do have meaning. In fact, they stand for “before Christ” and “Anno Domini” which is Latin for “the year of our Lord.” For non-Christians these terms can be difficult to use.

An interesting side note is that AD is correctly used before the year rather than after as you most commonly see it. That’s because it means, “In the year of our Lord 2011,” etc. The fact that you usually see this printed as 2011 AD is just another indication that AD has ceased to have any meaningful connection with Christianity.

Most scholars would probably prefer to use BC and AD just because of their relative ubiquity and acceptance in most modern contexts. As letters, they just have a meaning of “we start counting at an arbitrary year 1″ which happens to be about 2011 years ago as I write this note.” But those who are sensitive to the religious connotations have standardized for a few decades now on a different set of abbreviation: CE and BCE.

CE is supposed to mean “Common Era,” but note that it can be understood as “Christian Era.” Some hoped that this would placate those Christians who might resent having time torn away from them. BCE then means “Before the Common Era.” But it could likewise mean, “Before the Christian Era.”

There is one good academic reason for using BCE and CE. The year 1 which Christians have been using for millennia now does not correspond to any particularly interesting event in Christian history. The date was originally set based on someone’s computation of the birth date of Jesus, but that (medieval) scholar simply got it wrong, as absolutely everyone agrees. Without wasting time on the discussion of Jesus’ birth year, I hope it’s safe to say that if everyone agrees that the year 1 is arbitrary, then it can be used without worrying about whether it has any particular significance for any religion.

Therefore, the year 1 in the BC/AD or BCE/CE system is ideal. Before this tempest in a teapot for better or for worse the Christian dating scheme was by far the most popular dating system in the world. Now that the tempest has blown over, it can be seen as a dating system that has the advantage of having no ties to anything religious.

As far as I know, CE and BCE are used only in books and articles where there is some apprehension that Jews might be offended by BC and (especially) AD. Fortunately, AD is rarely used–if it’s after the year 1 most people just write the year without any qualifier. Therefore, in most cases, Jews who are sensitive to this issue will only flinch at the occasional BC.

As you can tell from the way I’ve written this, I think the whole discussion is silly. But that doesn’t mean I won’t take sensibilities into account. After all, if you are interested in Classical or Biblical Hebrew, chances are you don’t agree with me. You might be a committed Christian who wants to retain AD or you might be a Jew who is offended by it. There’s probably no good way to cut this Gordian knot, but as you’ll see if you keep reading here, for the most part I will use the terminology CE and BCE. After all, if you’re a Christian who likes AD, you just have to read C as “Christian.”