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Tag: Prophets

Eco: The Mother Tongue


The Hebrew alphabet. Compiled and posted by Assyrio on Wikipedia. The copyright holder releases this work into the public domain, granting anyone the right to use this work for any purpose without any conditions, unless such conditions are required by law.  

Humiliter dedicata a amico miles Georgius Hand IV, polyglottis et πολυμαθής.

“Despite this, Abulafia did not think that this matrix of all languages (which coincides with the eternal, but not with the written, Torah) corresponded yet to Hebrew. Here Abulafia made a distinction between the twenty-two letters as a linguistic matrix, and Hebrew as the mother tongue of humanity.

The twenty-two Hebrew letters represented the ideal sounds which had presided over the creation of the seventy existing languages. The fact that other languages had more vowels depended on the variations in pronouncing the twenty-two letters. In modern terminology, the new foreign sounds would be called allophones of the fundamental Hebrew phonemes.

Other kabbalists had observed that the Christians lacked the letter Kheth, while the Arabs lacked Peh. In the Renaissance, Yohanan Alemanno argued that the origins of these phonetic deviations in non-Hebrew languages were the noises of beasts; some were like the grunting of pigs, others were like the croaking of frogs, still others were like the sound of a crane.

The assimilation of bestial sounds showed that these were the languages of peoples who had abandoned the right path and true conduct of their lives. In this sense, another result of the confusion of Babel was the multiplication of letters.

Alemanno was aware that there were also other peoples who considered their languages as superior to all others. He cited Galen, who claimed that Greek was the most pleasing of all languages and the one that most conformed to the laws of reason.

Not daring to contradict him, he attributed this fact to affinities he saw as existing between Greek, Hebrew, Arabic and Assyrian.

For Abulafia, the twenty-two Hebrew letters represented the entire gamut of sounds naturally produced by the human vocal organs. It was the different ways of combining these letters that had given rise to the different languages.

The word zeruf (combination) and the word lashon (language) had the same numerical value (386): it followed that the rules of combination provided the explanation to the formation of each separate language.

Abulafia admitted that the decision to represent these sounds according to certain graphic signs was a matter of convention; it was, however, a convention established between God and the prophets.

Being aware that there existed other theories which claimed that the sounds which expressed ideas or things were conventional (he could have encountered such an Aristotelian and Stoic notion in Jewish authors like Maimonides), Abulafia, nevertheless, invoked a rather modern distinction between conventionality and arbitrariness.

Hebrew was a conventional but not an arbitrary language. Abulafia rejected the claim, maintained, among others, by certain Christian authors, that, left entirely to itself, a child would automatically begin to speak Hebrew: the child would be unaware of the convention.

Yet Hebrew remained the sacred mother tongue, because the names given by Adam, though conventional, were in accordance with nature. In this sense, Hebrew was the proto-language.

Its existence was a precondition for all the rest, “For if such a language did not precede it, there couldn’t have been mutual agreement to call a given object by a different name from what it was previously called, for how would the second person understand the second name if he doesn’t know the original name, in order to be able to agree to the changes.” (Sefer or ha-Sekhel; cf. Idel 1989: 14).

Abulafia lamented that his people in the course of their exile had forgotten their original language. He looked on the kabbalist as a laborer working to rediscover the original matrix of all the seventy languages of the world.

Still, he knew that it would not be until the coming of the Messiah that all the secrets of the kabbala would be definitively revealed. Only then, at the end of time, would all linguistic differences cease, and languages be reabsorbed back into the original sacred tongue.”

Umberto Eco, The Search for the Perfect Language, translated by James Fentress, Blackwell. Oxford, 1995, pp. 32-3.

Magical Raiment

” … Some bodies which were laid in Sumerian graves were wrapped up in reed matting, a custom which suggests that the reeds afforded protection or imparted magical powers. Magical ceremonies were performed in Babylonian reed huts.

As we have seen, Ea revealed the “purpose” of the gods, when they resolved to send a flood, by addressing the reed hut in which Pir-napishtim lay asleep. Possibly it was believed that the dead might also have visions in their dreams which would reveal the “purpose” of demons who were preparing to attack them.

In Syria it was customary to wrap the dead in a sheep skin. As priests and gods were clad in the skins of animals from which their powers were derived, it is probable that the dead were similarly supposed to receive inspiration in their skin coverings.

The Highland seer was wrapped in a bull’s skin and left all night beside a stream so as to obtain knowledge of the future. This was a form of the Taghairm ceremony, which is referred to by Scott in his Lady of the Lake.

The belief in the magical influence of sacred clothing gave origin to the priestly robes. When David desired to ascertain what Saul intended to do he said, “Bring hither the ephod.” Then he came to know that his enemy had resolved to attack Keilah.

Elisha became a prophet when he received Elijah’s mantle.”

Donald A. Mackenzie, Myths of Babylonia and Assyria, 1915.

Conversing with Moses and Metatron

“From a somewhat earlier period, around 1200, comes the Hebrew protocol, recorded in Rouen, of the appearance of a prophet of the same type, R. Shemuel ha-Nabi, who conversed, in the presence of witnesses, with Moses and the angel Metatron as well as with the tosafist masters Rabbenu Tam and R. Elias of Paris, and who communicated mystical revelations dealing with talmudic matters.

Similar revelations concerning talmudic and halakhic questions likewise occurred in the Languedoc, in the neighborhood of the Rabad and the same generation. Even if we regard as metaphorical rather than strictly mystical the expressions employed by Rabad (see pp. 205-6) with regard to the manifestation of the Holy Spirit in his school, the occurrence of such revelations is conclusively proven by the curious case of Jacob of Marvège (today in the Department of Lozère), who flourished around 1200.

He sought the answers to halakhic problems through “dream questions,” she’eloth halom, that is, through a visionary procedure. Alongside figures of this kind there also appeared pure mystics whose illuminations were of an inward kind that resulted, when the occasion warranted it, in esoteric doctrines.

How did these revelations come about? Did they appear spontaneously, without preparation, to mystically inclined souls, or were they the result of specific acts and rituals that required a certain preparation? Is it possible that a theurgic element also played a role? There is no unequivocal answer to these questions. We do, however, possess certain testimonies suggesting that in this Provençal circle such revelations were linked, at least in part, to a specific ritual and that they were even tied to a particular day.”

Gershom Scholem, Origins of the Kabbalah, pp. 239-40.

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