Our Language and Others: Old French Glosses in Berechiah Ha-Nakdan’s Uncle and Nephew and Commentary on the Book of Job

Ruth Nisse
Wesleyan University

Uncle and Nephew (1160s), Berechiah’s Hebrew version/translation of Adelard of Bath’s Latin  Questions on Natural Science (ca.1120), includes several French glosses (la‘azim: “foreign  words”) for natural phenomena. These include––in Hebrew characters–– gesier, foudriantperles, gaune, and malencolie. In the most prominent (and curious) case, Berechiah repeats the  translated formula “kerach (“ice”) called grêle אליירג “( )for “hail” five times in his brief  discussion of hail and thunder; grêle appears as a gloss of barad––the usual Hebrew word for  hail–– in Rashi’s commentary on the book of Job.  

My paper will examine how Berechiah’s use of French glosses in the scientific-philosophical Uncle and Nephew draws on two distinct theories of translation: his own ideas about Hebrew and  Latin in the text itself and the use of French in contemporary biblical commentaries, with a focus  on his and Rashi’s la’azim in the book of Job. Job, with its numerous obscure passages and  hapaxes, calls for exegetes to use French, along with the traditional full Aramaic targums (written form 3rd-7th c.), as one way to find intelligible Hebrew meanings through translation.  Berechiah’s commentary cites a wide range of sources, from the targums to the Talmud to Rashi  and Joseph Kara to his father Natronai to his favorite biblical interpreter and natural scientist  Abraham ibn Ezra. While it was composed later than Uncle and Nephew, the two texts provide a  dialogue of sorts on the status of Jewish languages. 

In Rashi’s commentaries, French is lashonenu, “our language” as opposed to Hebrew, the Holy  Language (by contrast Ibn Ezra calls Hebrew lashonenu). Its status as a Jewish vernacular–– lower than the revealed and universal Aramaic, but often serving a similar function––allows  Rashi to interpret some difficult passages of Job through French culture. In a particularly  imaginative example, for “For you will have a pact with the rocks in the field (avnei ha-sadeh), And the beasts of the field will be your allies.” (Job 5:23), he interprets the rocks as the Mishnaic adnei ha-sadeh (man-like beasts of the fields) with the la’az שלורג) garoles?) Experts have  emended this to the fitting garoves–– werewolves. To cite a passage that shows Berechiah’s  engagement with French: “Elihu waited out Job’s speech…his wrath was kindled (Job 32:4-5);  he explains “the Targum of ḥikah (waited) is matan, from which the language of the sages, matun (slow or careful), atendre in la’az.” While this may seem like a convoluted way to get  from the Hebrew to French words for waiting, the Aramaic Targum on Job, also cited by Rashi, mediates the meaning of one to the other, both in terms of translatability of semantic range and  the hierarchy of rabbinic authority. The Hebrew and French can be recognized as equivalent  because of the Aramaic recovery of meaning in the past––a language at once vernacular, sacred,  and close to Hebrew. 

Even if French, as is frequently claimed, serves in these texts to explain Biblical Hebrew words  to other learned medieval readers, here this is clearly not the primary intention. Ḥikah is not an  obscure word and is already refined by the Aramaic translation; Rashi’s werewolves are an  elaboration of an elaboration of rocks. Rather, the French glosses serve the more theoretical aim  of inscribing the spoken Jewish language into scriptural reading as a living Targum, once written  able to assume a place in a bilingual and trilingual dialogue about the sacred texts at the level of  the word. 

Uncle and Nephew closely follows the historical moment of the first generation of French glossators Rashi and Joseph Kara, and their heir Berechiah turns his attention away from  scripture to a secular text to imbue it with a similar interplay of languages. The triangulation in  this text is between its original language, Latin, Hebrew, and the occasional French words.  Berechiah’s idea of translation is that Latin (which he creatively identifies as already a  translation from Arabic), while useful, must be “purified” from “the hand of the Gentile.” As the  language of Rome, Latin can never be a Jewish language––or a language of Jewish culture. In  theory, Berechiah translates Adelard’s debased culture into a localized Hebrew idiom that  occasionally employs French terms as a means of appropriation; if Latin is the language of  Christian scholars, French becomes the common language for an exploration of new “natural  questions.” The la’azim in Uncle and Nephew don’t work to recover senses of terms alongside  the Targum as in biblical commentary; rather they open the possibility of a substitute for Latin. When Berechiah repeats gresle several times for effect, it may clarify a specific form of ice as hail (which, following Adelard, he calls petotei kerach–– “morsels of ice”), but it also presents a  polemical response to Latin with a missing word. Hail, after all, is not a mysterious concept in  Hebrew; it is one of the ten plagues that God visits on the Egyptians, and the word barad appears  seventeen times in Exodus 9-10. The French la’az “kerach called grêle,” then, effectively erases  Adelard’s Latin grando, the Vulgate’s translation of barad. While he uses the proper word barad once in a later chapter on atmospheric forces, Berechiah here subverts this obvious biblical  translation into words that seem to struggle for equivalence. Following Rashi, Berechiah  understands French as lashonenu, the living language that can both animate a rabbinic discussion and tackle the omnipresent problem of Latin.