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Bad language in the Good Book

November 2, 2009 – 5:31 pm14 Comments
Are there 'dirty words' in the tanakh?

Are there 'dirty words' in the Tanakh?

By Simon Holloway

In a Sydney synagogue, a local rabbi delivered a sermon in which he criticised foul language as essentially not Jewish. I will not question the fact that classical Jewish literature eschewed scatological and sexual innuendo, but many are unaware of the prevalence of such language within the Tanakh itself. I would like to look at one particular example, which can be found in Deuteronomy, Isaiah, Jeremiah and Zechariah. This word made people so uncomfortable that, believe it or not, the generation of scholars known as the Masoretes (c. 7th-11th centuries, CE) edited it out and replaced it with a gentler term.

Etymology is fascinating and, for that reason, I would like to present the origin of this particular word. Doing so should enable us to better appreciate the precise range of meaning that this word came to have in Biblical Hebrew.

First of all, what is the Hebrew word for palace? Well, that depends on whether you were living in the south of the country (scholars refer to “Judean Hebrew”) or the north of the country (“Israelian Hebrew”). In the south, the word was quite simply בית (house), or בית המלך (house of the king). In the north, where the language was heavily influenced by Aramaic, and even in southern texts that describe palaces in the north of the country, the word used was היכל (heikhal).

This word comes directly from Aramaic, but the origin of the Aramaic word is a little more complex. It derives from the Akkadian ekal, which in turn derives from two Sumerian words: É and GAL. In Sumerian, É means “house” and GAL means “big”. A “big house”, the house in which the king and his royal entourage lived, was a feature of Ancient Near-Eastern monarchic society, and the word itself made its way from Sumer, via Akkad, to Aram and, thence, to Israel. In other words, from Sumerian, via Akkadian, to Aramaic and “Israelian Hebrew”. In later years, היכל (heikhal) became the standard Hebrew word for palace, and the name of a branch of Jewish mysticism that focused on the heavenly palace of God.

Part of the royal retinue that lived in the palace was the king’s harem. This was made up of women, whose sole purpose was to gratify their august monarch. Reading the book of Esther, we are vouchsafed a glimpse into the lives of these “women of the palace”, who beautify themselves in expectation of their night with the king, and live to serve his every need. The job may have come with some very desirable perks, but it’s fairly safe to suggest that the actual occupation was not so highly sought – and was not the sort of job that one would hope for their daughters.

“Woman of the palace”, in Akkadian, is ishi ekal, but in Aramaic and Hebrew, this becomes contracted to שיגל (sheigal). As a noun, this occurs five times in the Hebrew Bible, both in Hebrew (Psalms 45:10 and Nehemiah 2:6) and in Aramaic (Daniel 5:2, 3 and 23), but it also occurs four times as a verb. What does it mean as a verb? Can you royally concubine somebody? I am almost certain that readers of Galus can come up with an appropriate English collocation to express this particular word, and I am positive that the word they alight upon will not be the sort of word that they would expect to find in an English translation of the Tanakh.

The prophet Isaiah (13:16) speaks, for example, of the terrible things that will happen on the “day of the Lord”. Children will be smashed to pieces before the eyes of their parents, houses will be plundered, and women will be… royally concubined. Likewise, Jeremiah 3:2 features the prophet’s indictment of the Judeans who sought allies from amongst the foreign nations. Likening them to whores who are prepared to have sexual intercourse with anybody, the author lambasts them: “Lift up your eyes to the high places! Where have you not been ‘royally concubined’?” Again, I am sure that we can all come up with more appropriate translations.

The problem is, nobody feels particularly comfortable with using more appropriate translations: the Tanakh is great literature, not a source of lewdness! Well, fear not: it would seem that the earliest scholars of the Hebrew Bible had a problem with it as well. One of the many things that these scholars did was determine where words were to be read in a manner that differed from the manner in which they were to be written. This is known as Qere / Ktiv (which is Aramaic for “read” / “written”), and anybody who has ever chanted from the Torah in a synagogue would be well aware of the phenomenon.

Modern printed editions differ as regards how to represent these, but generally you find an asterisk over the word in question, which links you to an alternate word in the margin, with which you are supposed to replace it. Most of the time, this is the simple result of an error in transmission: words lack the final heh to denote the feminine, or feature an extra vav, etc. Sometimes, however, the alteration is made on stylistic or theological grounds.

If you would like to look these passages up, there are four of them. Two are mentioned above (Isaiah 13:16 and Jeremiah 3:2), but the others are Deuteronomy 28:30 and Zechariah 14:2. In each of these instances, the Masoretes replaced the offending word with a verb that possesses the root שכב (to lie down). While “lying somebody down” may have similar connotations, it is markedly gentler than the original term. The original term could not be removed, for the Tanakh already enjoyed a sacred status at this point in its history, but it could be marked as something not to be read aloud.

The Hebrew Bible is by no means a “dirty book”, but to suggest that its language was never vulgar would be to never bother reading it. Whatever your feelings are concerning appropriate discourse, it’s interesting to know that they weren’t necessarily shared by those who actually composed Judaism’s most sacred texts in the first place.

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