A Foreign Nature: Old French Glosses in Berechiah Ha-Nakdan’s Uncle and Nephew

Ruth Nisse
Wesleyan University

Uncle and Nephew, a Hebrew version/translation of Adelard of Bath’s Latin Questions on Natural Science, includes several French glosses (le‘azim: “foreign words”) for natural phenomena. To give one example, grêlefor “frost” appears in Hebrew characters גריילא)) in Berechiah’s discussion of hail and thunder; a similar gloss appears in Rashi’s commentaries on Psalms and Job. In this paper, I will examine how twelfth-century Hebrew biblical commentaries and other texts make sense of nature as its definition and study evolved in the shared Jewish and Christian culture of Northern Europe. While most of the French glosses originate in Rashi’s commentaries on the bible and Talmud to explain difficult Hebrew and Aramaic words across cultures, Berechiah uses them as a tool for his larger project and theory of translation. In effect, he translates Adelard’s Latin into a Hebrew idiom that occasionally employs French terms as a means of appropriation; if Latin is the language of Christian scholars and the Vulgate, French is the common language for an exploration of new “natural questions.”