UCL Hebrew & Jewish Studies


Introductionary Poems to the Babylonian Targums

Funded by the Rothschild Foundation (Europe)

The project Introductory Poems to the Babylonian Targums, conceived by Dr Willem Smelik, continues departmental research into Late Aramaic as the background of the language of the Zohar. This pilot project, which is generously funded by the Rothschild Foundation, Europe, has Dr Alinda Damsma as the main researcher, in consultation and cooperation with Dr Willem Smelik.

In the Late Second Temple period, the knowledge of Hebrew was gradually lost among the Jewish population of Roman Palestine. Translations of the Scriptures into Greek and Aramaic appeared, which triggered rabbinic regularization of the way such translations may and may not be used in the synagogue. Following these rabbinic prescriptions, scriptural translation in the synagogue assumed the form of an oral-performative interpretation alongside the Hebrew original text. Although the translation thus assumed an oral form, its text was not necessarily fluid, free or spontaneous, but acquired a relatively fixed form in Babylonian Judaism. The Aramaic translations of the Scriptures (= targum) became known as Targum Onqelos (Pentateuch) and Targum Jonathan (Prophets), which became the de facto standard in Babylonian Judaism, and later also made inroads in Palestinian Judaism. As a standard element in Jewish liturgy, the targumic performance received a formal introduction and conclusion in the form of introductory poems and doxologies such as the collection included at the end of Codex Reuchlinianus 3 (Karlsruhe, Germany). In the Palestinian Targum-tradition, which never assumed as fixed and standard a text as its Babylonian counterpart, many of these poems became part of the targumic tradition itself.

In recent years, a selection of such Jewish Palestinian Aramaic (JPA) poems has been published. Earlier some of the Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (JBA) poems have been discussed. Yet a systematic collection and linguistic analysis of the Jewish Babylonian introductory poems has never been produced. Among the Cairo Geniza fragments, many unpublished (parts of) poems remain unexplored, while medieval manuscripts, in particular of the Jewish prayer-books for festivals (mahzorim), but also of Talmudic literature, may contain further specimens of such poetry.

The language of these framing poems represents an important stage in the development of late Jewish Literary dialects. Aramaic had long been the international language of the Middle East, the vehicle of textual transmission for science (astronomy, medicine, magic). After the rise of Islam, Arabic had gradually replaced Aramaic, and literary Aramaic appears to have become dissociated from a vernacular, supra-regional base, resulting in linguistic features that have never been studied satisfactorily despite their importance for a number of questions in the study of Late Aramaic. The production in Aramaic of the Zohar, the greatest work in qabbalistic literature, has long been considered in isolation from the literary Aramaic production at the turn of the first millennium CE. There is, however, reason to re-examine the consequences of the vernacular loss of Aramaic, of the geographical and transcultural translation of Jewish traditions for the dialect of medieval Aramaic. In recent studies, the results of regional transference and transculturation have been demonstrated in the textual history of the polemic tractate Toldot Yeshu, indicating that an original Palestinian composition in JPA underwent several subsequent developments during its textual transmission in the Babylonian Diaspora, culminating in certain peculiarities that could be dated to the very end of the first millennium CE in Palestine.

To further the study of the Late Aramaic dialects, it is necessary to (1) locate the extant specimens of targumic introductory poetry written in either Literary or Babylonian Aramaic; (2) analyse and describe the linguistic features of these texts; (3) publish the critical text of the introductory and concluding poems of the Targum, together with an English translation and grammatical description. The one-year Rothschild Fellowship makes it possible to conduct a pilot study that will pave the way for a comprehensive publication of all the relevant manuscript materials as the next stage.