A New Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic.

Author:Kwasman, Theodore
Position:Critical essay

Dictionary making is not an easy undertaking, and consequently many dictionaries for various Semitic languages are outdated, unusable, or not available. The necessity for proper scholarly dictionaries as an indispensable tool for research does not need to be justified--without proper dictionaries scholarship is handicapped.

The most widely used dictionaries for Late Aramaic Jewish texts until now have been J. Levy's WOrterbuch uber die Talmudim and Midraschim and M. Jastrow's A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature. (1) Both dictionaries are more than a century old and the fact that they could have circulated for so long has less to do with their status as major reference works than with the state of contemporary lexicographical research.

It is indeed fortunate that M. Sokoloff has taken upon himself the enormous task of producing not one, but two dictionaries in a fairly short span of time. It may be said without exaggeration that M. Sokoloff's A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, the dictionary under review here, is a milestone in Aramaic lexicography. And it should be emphasized that this dictionary is all the more impressive since it is not the product of a project or a team of scholars, but the mammoth effort of one person.


A Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (DJBA) covers two historical periods: the Sasanian period (ca. third--sixth c. C.E.) and the period after the Arab conquest (seventh-eleventh c.), which, as the author himself notes, spans the Amoraic, Savoraic, and Geonic periods of Jewish history. The dictionary is based on Jewish Babylonian Aramaic sources and it is the first time that Eastern and Western Aramaic have been separated lexicographically. Until now, these dialects had been treated together in the dictionaries. In addition, DJBA is an exclusively Aramaic dictionary, having eliminated the traditional Rabbinical Hebrew lexemes. The reason for including Hebrew in an Aramaic dictionary had always been justified on grounds of expediency. (2) The omission of Hebrew is sound lexicography, although it limits the use of the dictionary and forces the user to consult the older editions. On the other hand, this circumstance underlines the necessity for dictionaries of Rabbinical Hebrew, a desideratum long overdue. Another milestone of DJBA is that it includes important sources such as the incantation bowls and post-Talmudic texts, making accessible a wider lexical range of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic than was previously available. (3) Among the outstanding features of the dictionary are the updated word derivations, short discussion sections with secondary literature, and Geonic references for the meanings of words.


The sources or dictionary corpora are divided into five categories: 1) the Babylonian Talmud; 2) Geonic literature, which includes: a) responsa, b) legal compendia, c) formularies and documents, d) the historical work [??], e) lexical works, f) liturgy; 3) writings of Anan; 4) magical texts, which include incantation bowls and [??]; and 5) Masoretic texts. For the Babylonian Talmud, electronic text material from the Academy of the Hebrew Language's Historical Dictionary and the Lieberman Institute was used. Whereas for the Babylonian Talmud only manuscript sources and occasionally the printed editions are employed, the Geonic sources are based mostly on published editions (p. 24).

Not included in the dictionary are texts that according to the author do not belong to Jewish Babylonian Aramaic proper, such as Megillat Taanit, quotations from Tannaitic literature, and the Targumim to the Pentateuch and Prophets. Also not included are what the author terms "archaic words occurring in writs," onomastica, toponyms, and non-Aramaic words.


Jewish Babylonian Aramaic sources used in the dictionary are listed on pp. 55-67. On pp. 55-60 a list is given of Babylonian Talmudic manuscripts divided into columns according to tractate, an abbreviation of the tractate, the library signature of the manuscript, and the siglum used for each manuscript. For every tractate more than one manuscript is listed. The first manuscript is the default manuscript, which is used for an attestation quoted by tractate without a siglum or source designation. No explanation is given why a specific manuscript has been selected as the default or for the order in which non-default sources are listed. Not explained in the introduction is that the pagination for incomplete manuscripts is given in square brackets and the missing sections completed by the following manuscript(s) in the list. This can cause confusion to the reader since an attestation quoted only by the tractate within a dictionary entry may not refer to the default manuscript, but to one of the non-default sources. The pages, however, often overlap. For example, three MSS are used to complete the tractate RH: New York, JTS Rab 218 (EMC 270) [2a-18a]; Munich 140 [18a-28a]; and New York, JTS rab 1608 (ENA 850) [28a-35a]. Thus the reader does not know what MS source was used for attestations of RH 18a and RH 28a.

For the tractate Nedarim, the default MS V21 with the pagination 2a-20b is completed with M for the pages 21b-91b. Thus for Ned 21a it is impossible to know which source is being quoted s.v. [??] M is a complete MS, so the pagination is probably a printing error (i.e., 21b for 21a). Also the siglum Ei is used for the tractates RH and Yoma to designate the MS JTS Rab 218, but the same siglum is used for Pes to mark the MS JTS Rab 1623 (EMC 271). Not all manuscript sources were actually employed for each tractate. MS Ox 366 (siglum 0) is listed as the default manuscript for Ber and Shab, but is not among the sources used for the tractates Yoma, Suk, Megillah, and Hag. Guenzburg 1017, which contains the tractate Yeb, has been overlooked, as well as Guenzburg 1139 for the tractate Ket. The MSS belong to the same MS as Guenzburg 1134 (Mo). The place names, i.e., cities where the MSS are found, are mentioned, but not always the institutions where they are housed. An alphabetic list of sigla, which is standard practice, would have been useful.

The author has largely avoided printed editions, with the exception of the Venice printings used mostly for the tractates Meila and Tamid and sporadic quotes from the Pesaro edition. The non-utilization of printed editions is problematic. The issue cannot be treated within a review, but it may be noted that it is quite questionable whether printed editions of the Babylonian Talmud may be ignored or dismissed outright. (4) This includes not only the standard printed editions such as Venice, Soncino, Pesaro, etc., but also such important printed sources as the Spanish/Portuguese fragments. (5) The printed editions are based on manuscript sources and often contain important linguistic information. The dictionary, however, does use the Venice printed edition to establish certain readings, such as [??] MQ 12a. (6) For one lemma, the reading from the printed editions has been preferred even to the manuscript sources: 2# [??] n.m. 'a fuller's vessel' (p. 88) is based solely on a reading in the printed editions in contrast to most MSS and Geonic sources, which have [??]. Following Epstein, Sokoloff emends all the attestations to conform to [??]. There does not seem to be any cogent reason to list this word as [??] instead of the better-attested [??], as Sokoloff himself states: "... however, the tradition of the MSS and the Geonic responsa overwhelmingly have the rdg. [??] and [??] is essentially found only in the edd.;. ..." (7) Here is a clear instance where the sources and not the printed edition should have been followed.

Many Babylonian Talmudic attestations are quoted from (iconic sources. Sokoloff clearly has a preference for Geonic readings. No doubt Geonic sources may be used for BT attestations, but their usage within a dictionary should be carefully selected and filtered. In many cases, the Geonic text may paraphrase a Talmudic passage or render it into Geonic Aramaic. There are also differences between the Geonic and receptive Talmudic text. (8) A general rule of thumb is that the textual witnesses of a source are those that should be used for attestations. This means that Talmudic manuscripts and printed sources should be used in quoting Talmudic passages, and only in cases where it is deemed absolutely necessary should Geonic sources be quoted. For example, [??] is a BTA interrogative pronoun and [??] is the corresponding Geonic word. The lemma [??], [??], [??] pron. f. 'to which one?' (p. 83a) does not distinguish the forms. The article is divided into two sections: a) in phrase [??]and b) generally shortened to [??], etc. Obviously, the construction or phrase designated sub a) should be listed after b); it is expanded, not shortened. The attestation [??] Ket 88a sub b. is cited from the Geonic source HP and Geon 390:9. The BT MSS, as expected, have the form: [??] M, V, Soncino, Fr, [??] [V.sup.5], attestations that should have been noted in the entry (note that the pagination listed on p. 57 for Ket Fr and Vi6 is incorrect). Thus the distinction between a Geonic and BTA word is not always discernable. An example is [??] 'brightness' Ber 58b on p. 406b, where the reading is taken from the Aruch. No cross reference is made, however, to [??] found in BT sources and listed on the following page where the same passage from Ber 58b is quoted.


Geonic sources are cited from text editions, which are of varying quality and reliability. Many Geonic text editions are outdated and in need of revision. This is also true of published Geniza fragments, such as Ginsberg's [??] or some of the publications of fragments for Anan, which need to be re-edited or at least collated. Cassel's edition of early Geonic responsa (TGCas) from 1848 is an example. (9) Already...

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