Rabbinic Elements in the Verbal Systems of Maskilic Hebrew Fiction 1857-1881

Article excerpt

This paper proposes that the verbal system of the Maskilic Hebrew fiction composed between 1857 and 1881 by authors such as P. Smolenskin, J. L. Gordon, A. Mapu, and I. M. Dick exhibits a substantial number of rabbinic morphological and syntactic elements. Rabbinic features include the use of nitpa'el verbs, for example Dick's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]; the employment of the masculine plural qotel ending in nun, such as Gordon's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]; the infinitive construct of verbs with first-radical nun, as in Mapu's [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.]; the periphrastic construction consisting of a qatal of the root [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] followed by a qotel used to convey past habitual actions; and the tendency to avoid the wayyiqtol. In many cases these rabbinic elements are used inconsistently in maskilic texts and appear to be fully interchangeable with their biblical counterparts. Similarly, for the most part there is no indication of a conscious semantic motivation underlying the authors' decision to use such features, and the circumstances in which they appear are identical to those of their counterparts in classical sources such as the Mishnah and Talmud. However, in some cases, such as Mapu's use of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.] and Gordon's selection of [TEXT NOT REPRODUCIBLE IN ASCII.], the rabbinic form may have been employed intentionally as a tool to convey the feeling of vernacular speech. This paper proposes an alternative to the traditional scholarly perception that Maskilic Hebrew is predominantly biblical in both morphology and syntax.


This paper addresses the nature and extent of the Rabbinic Hebrew morphological and syntactic elements present in the verbal system of the Hebrew prose fiction written by maskilic authors between 1857 and 1881. The rabbinic aspects of Maskilic Hebrew fiction have not been the subject of thorough linguistic research; indeed, this literature is traditionally regarded as a pseudo-biblical creation. For example, Robert Alter describes the language of nineteenth-century Hebrew prose fiction as "a lifeless pastiche of biblical fragments" (1) and Yair Mazor characterizes it as "using biblical patterns of speech in a clumsy, cliched way." (2) This view can be traced back to the genesis of Maskilic Hebrew, which was an intentionally created, purely written medium largely designed to further its authors' ideological goal of integrating the Ashkenazi Jews into European society. In order to achieve this aim, they advocated the adoption of Biblical Hebrew in the creation of a canon of prose fiction in keeping with that extant in the major European languages. This fiction was designed to help bring Jewish culture in line with that of its host nations, and therefore its form as well as its content had to be consistent with maskilic beliefs. (3) It is logical that they chose Biblical Hebrew as the vehicle for this new body of didactic literature because the Bible is the primary Jewish text and it recalls a period during which the Jews were a strong, independent nation living in their own homeland. (4) Thus, while the maskilic authors were well-versed in postBiblical Hebrew sources such as the Mishnah and Talmud, they generally held these layers of the language in low esteem because they viewed them as grammatically corrupt; (5) in addition, they associated them with Yiddish,6 as well as the educational tradition of the heder and yeshivah, which they perceived as serious obstacles to the Jews' enlightenment.

However, the maskilic authors' ideological drive to employ only Biblical Hebrew was constantly in tension with their intimate knowledge of rabbinic usage, and this tension is clearly evident in the verbal morphology and syntax of their writing. For example, although the authors tend to favor biblical morphology, on many occasions they employ mishnaic and amoraic forms. In certain cases, the selection of a rabbinic variant may have intentional semantic motivation, but in other instances, it seems to be random and quite likely stems from the authors' subconscious ingrained familiarity with rabbinic literature or indicates that they were not as concerned with avoiding post-biblical forms as is commonly believed. …