Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The Baker's Baskets (Gen. 40:16)

Genesis 40:16 "I also was in my dream, and, behold, I had three white baskets on my head."

What kind of baskets does the baker see in his dream? The KJV above has "white baskets," while the New American Standard has "baskets of white bread." The NRSV has "cake baskets," and Robert Alter translates "openwork baskets." The Hebrew phrase is סלי חרי.

The "white" interpretation is venerable, and depends on an etymological connection of the hapax חרי with the Aramaic חור, "white." I suspect this etymology, however, even if it is enshrined in BDB and HALOT; the waw in the Aramaic root is consonantal, not vocalic, and so one would not expect it to disappear in the word חרי. (See the root in person in Isa. 29:22 and Dan. 7:9.)

Other etymologies, I surmise, underlie the other translations. "Cake" for חרי suggests a link with חררה, cake baked on coals, known from Mishnaic Hebrew; and "openwork," I suppose, is based on חר, "hole" (e.g. 2 Ki. 12:10): a "holey" basket. The LXX has κανᾶ χονδριτῶν, "baskets of coarse bread."

Overall I think I favor an etymology from the root חרר, "to bake, burn," as the NRSV implies; not only because it fits the desired meaning "bread" better (what else would a baker see in a dream?), but because the same root underlies the homophone חרי, "wrath." I don't know if this is "peshat" or "derash," literal or allegorical, but I think there may be a wordplay here, as there is in the previous dream of the cupbearer. The poor baker saw baskets of bread, but also, as Joseph perceived, baskets of wrath.

Also interesting is the rendering of Targum Onkelos, which I haven't yet figured out. The translation is סלין דחירו, "baskets of...freedom"? This is so at odds with the context, that there may be a copyist error. Perhaps it originally read סלין דחורי, "baskets of white bread," which brings us full circle. On the other hand, חרי does remind one of yet another word חרים, "free men" (e.g. Neh. 6:17). But if there is another wordplay here, it's too deep for me. If anyone can shed light on the rendering of the Targum, let me know.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: My library is unfortunately poor in commentaries on Genesis. Alter's translation is from his Genesis: Translation and Commentary (Norton, 1996).


elf said...

What edition of Onkelos are you using?

EMC said...

I am using Sperber but I also checked the reading in the Mikraot Gedolot...if you have seen variant readings in other MSS, please e-mail me, I'd like to know!