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25 March 2002

To Professor Raphael Loewe:

I am writing for your help to correct a mistake in the Bible, or rather to cancel an erroneous correction.

In Psalm 127 we read, (ending with an aleph) but is corrected in Hebrew Bibles to read (ending with a ). In the King James English Bible the hebrew word with an asterisk is translated ‘sleep’. In Bar Ilan Bible it is translated as ‘tranquility’, but in many other Bibles it is paraphrased as ‘asleep’ or ‘while sleeping’.

I maintain that ‘while sleeping’ is the correct meaning of with an aleph at the end, and that with an aleph at the end is not an error but a construction of the word ‘sleep’, similar to such constructions in Arabic

Twenty five centuries ago, Hebrew was no longer the spoken language of the Jews, and they became ignorant of some of the refinements of the Holy Tongue.

It seems spoken Hebrew is now still too young for people to appreciate such variations, especially as most Jews now relate to Western languages than to Arabic.

Do you think we could bring this to the notice of the ‘powers-that-be’ to remove the asterisk from that word from any future publications and to use that construction as part of the Hebrew grammar?

Naim Dangoor


I write to thank you for your very kind letter of 25 March, and trust that since then you have had an enjoyable Pesah. It was a great joy to my wife and myself to have so many friends around when celebrating our golden wedding: God has been bountiful to us

Concerning your question regarding in Psalm 127,2. There are 3 aspects to this, namely (1) the spelling, (2) the grammatical construction, and (3) what meaning (or possibly alternative meanings) (2) permits. I deal with these in turn.

1 (a) As you know, Hebrew normally represents a final ã vowel by whilst (late) Aramaic and Arabic do so by . But occasionally biblical Hebrew does the same, possibly through unconscious change by Aramaic-speaking scribes.. Thus at Jeremiah 23, 39 we have which clearly means forgetting as does the foregoing and has no connection with = deceive. In post-biblical Hebrew there is much more fluctuation: thus you will find the name Akiba spelled with either aleph or he at the end, probably due to local differences in spelling convention.

(b) The Massorah, which (in the 8th – 10th centuries) provided running notes to preserve accurate transmission of the biblical texts, states at Ps. 127,2 that this is the only instance of the word = sleep being spelled with aleph. Our printed texts retain this note in abbreviated form. All printed Hebrew bibles (except for some 20th century scholarly editions) descend from the 2nd rabbinic bible printed in Venice in 1524-5, the editor of which had late manuscripts only at his disposal. An 18th century survey of the sort of MSS that he will have used records eight (out of several hundred) as spelling the word with he (it would be without comment). We ought not, therefore, make too much of the abnormal orthography.

2. You correctly observe that biblical Hebrew, like Arabic, uses the (unindicated) accusative case to indicate an external state referring to action, e.g. Leviticus 19, 16 [do not go about] as a tale-bearer. In Micah 2,3 [go not about] in haughtiness, the abstract noun would parallel your proposed understanding of, but I find this strained; to express the sense “he gives to his beloved [whilst he is] sleeping” I would expect the accusative not of the noun = sleep but of the participle = sleeping, i.e. in Hebrew , not , as in Arabic na’ima .

3 (a) When we come to semantics, I see an insuperable difficulty, since the verb = he gives is left without an object: What is it that he is supposed to give to his beloved whilst asleep? It is not permissible to fudge matters by translating not as gives, but as “is generous, bountiful towards”, since Hebrew has several words to express this sense, in particular . Thus, an Arabic translation of the Psalms which I have just taken from my shelves translates literally by , not .

(b) Jewish tradition, from the Targum to Psalms onwards, generally treats as the object of the verb, “he gives his beloved sleep”. Thus Abraham Ibn Ezra, “He, i.e. God previously referred to, gives his friend sleep. cf. Ecclesiastes 5, 11, sweet is the sleep of the labourer”. Rashi, who did not always focus on linguistic rigour as rigorously as does Ibn Ezra, construes the text on your lines although reaching a completely different result, and he arbitrarily introduces (wherewithal of livelihood) as object of the verb. He writes: “he gives, i.e. God provides the wherewithal of sustenance to one who denies his eyes sleep in order to study the Torah one who keeps his eyes far from sleep” (This last is so free a flight of fancy as to expose its author to the charge of irresponsibility towards his own terms of reference). But Rashi’s commentary has always been so popular that I suspect his exegesis may have been regarded as giving a green light to those who want to mean “whilst asleep”, and develop the notion in a sense diametrically opposite to Rashi’s own understanding of it.

There is, however, one Jewish commentator, Menahem Me’iri, born in Provence in 1249, who understands the verse very much as (I think) you wish to yourself. I slightly abbreviate what he writes:

“It is vain for you, etc: The verse means, it is vain for you people who from the early morning onwards apply yourselves to your work and stay up late, hard at it deep into the night, with the result that you eat your bread at the price of painful toil; because He gives etc, i.e. all that profit which you have gained through your industriousness He gives to his beloved asleep, i.e. to one in whom He takes pleasure he gives it in “sleep”, i.e. rest, without his having to toil for it. The aleph in is in place of he. The point is not to disparage industriousness and praise indolence, which no intelligent man would do, but rather to inculcate that one ought not repose all one’s confidence in industriousness, reckoning that what he gains is achieved by sheer sustained application, but one should rather realise that it is God who has extended to him his grace in this manner”. This is very nice, but I fear that its arbitrary treatment of (see above, 3(a)) prevents one from endorsing it in the sense of maintaining that that is what the author of the psalm himself intended to say.

I hope that this is all clear.

Second letter to Professor Loewe:

Thank you for your comprehensive and scholarly reply to my enquiry about the word “shena”. Allow me therefore to state my lay opinion on the subject:

1. The spelling with an aleph is not a mistake, but deliberate.

2. The intended meaning of this word is most probably not ‘sleep’ but ‘while sleeping’.

3. My purpose in highlighting this word is to revive its form in current Hebrew literature.

4. The apparent absence of an object to the verb “give” should be assumed as being “in the mind of the poet”.

5. The word “Ezra” is also spelt with an aleph ending, to indicate a male name.

6. It is praiseworthy that biblical text were transmitted from generation to generation without attempting to correct what may be thought to be an error.

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