Published online by Cambridge University Press: 15 October 2009
As far as we know, the rabbis were not well acquainted with Latin, but there are occasional examples in rabbinic literature of their ability to formulate or understand bilingual (Hebrew-Latin) puns. In Midrash Tanḥuma, for instance, there is a play on Latin corona/Hebrew qeren, and, according to an observation attributed to Yehoshua Guttman, at B.T. Ta‘anit 29a on Latin nasi (nasus)/Hebrew nasi. The talmudic anecdote quoted below can be best understood when we perceive the Latin wordplay on which it is built.
2.. B.T. ′Avodah Zarah 10b:
3.. Dio 67:14. Those who have maintained this identification include Gratz, Heinrich, “Judisch-geschichtliche Studien,” Monatsschrift fur Geschichle und Wissenschaft des Judentums 1 (1852): 196–202 (see also Geschichte der Juden, 4th ed., 11 vols. in 13 [Leipzig, 1899–1911],4: 111, 402–403);Google ScholarDerenbourg, Joseph, Essai sur I′histoire el la geographie de la Palestine (Paris, 1867), pp. 335–36;Google ScholarJewish Encyclopedia, s.v. “Flavia Domitilla”; Bamberger, B. J., Proselylism in the Talmudic Period, 2d ed. (New York, 1968), p. 237, thinks it “plausible.” Gedaliah Alon, Toledot ha-yehudim be-′eres yisra′el bi-lequfat ha-mishnah ve-ha-lalmud, 2 vols. (Tel Aviv, 1954), 1: 74–75, is justifiably skeptical. Joseph Kobak, “Adarkhan u-Qeti′ah bar Shalom,” Jeschurun (1875): 161–70 (Hebrew sec), rejected Gratz's view and suggested that the emperor is Septimius Severus. His argument relies on forced interpretations, emendations of the text andGoogle Scholar
4.. Our editions at ′Avodah Zarah 10b read () (cf. Yalqut Makhiri, Zech. 2:10; Yalqut Shim′oni, Ezek. 373 has ). I assume is active in sense, not passive, “mutilating” rather than “mutilated,” though it would make little difference to my interpretation. If passive, the Aramaic pun would be slightly different in sense from the Latin though based on the same wordplay. The oldest complete manuscript of ′Avodah Zarah (published by Shraga Abramson, New York, 1957) in fact reads which is then exactly Caesar caesor.
5.. Another example of the rabbis transposing a pun from one language into another probably occurs in Mishnah ′Avot where Raanana Meridor has argued (“A Greek Play on Words in the Mishna?,” Scripta Classica Israelica I : 131) that the expression “when I have leisure I shall study” (li-khe-she-′eppaneh ′eshnehj) reproduces a Greek pun built around the multiple meanings of schole (leisure, study).
6.. For the biographical data see Dio 69.3–4, HA 15.10–16.6, 20.7–8, 21.3.
7.. Rabbi Akiba is involved in another story that centers around circumcision at Tanhuma, Tazri′a 5.
8.. Herr, M.D., “Sibbotav shel mered Bar Kokhva,” Zion 43 (1978): 1–11, has recently argued that Hadrian's ban on circumcision preceded and precipitated the Jewish revolt.Google Scholar
9.. Elements of the Ketiah story occur elsewhere in rabbinic texts. At Deut. Rab. 2.24 we read of a Roman senator who committed suicide to save the Jews and circumcised himself before dying. The phrase () occurs in a Roman-Jewish confrontation at B.T. Pesahim 87b and Yalqut Shim′oni Shofetim 50. I do not see any fruitful connections to be made. I am indebted to Professors Daniel Sperber and Abraham Wasserstein who read an early draft of this article and made helpful suggestions.
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