Thursday, September 05, 2013

Levita Meets the Maronites

One of the most interesting encounters in the history of Aramaic studies occurred in the course of the Fifth Lateran Council (1513-1515). Three delegates from the Middle East, religious from the Maronite community, requested permission to hold a mass using the Syriac liturgy. This was the occasion of the introduction of Syriac studies into the west.

This is well known. What is less well-known is that the three Maronites in the course of their stay had some philological discussions with the eminent Jewish scholar Elias Levita, author of the first Aramaic dictionary (Ha-Meturgeman) and thus the father of Aramaic philology as a discipline. He was able to examine the Syriac books they brought with them, and concluded that, although their common language (לשונם ההמוני) was Arabic, the language of their books was
the language of the Chaldeans, which is called also Aramaic, or Babylonian, or Assyrian, or Chaldee, or Tursai (טורסאי), or Targum, having in all seven names.
This passage is found in his Massoreth ha-Massoreth (1548), from the edition of C. D. Ginsburg, published in 1867.

The designation Tursai has proved difficult for scholars to untangle. Robert Wilkinson writes "I do not know what is 'Tursaea' [sic] unless it refers to 'Tarse' the home of 'Les Trois Rois tarsensiens' or the Magi discussed by Postel in Les Merveilles du Monde (Paris, 1552) ..."

However, it is perfectly clear that the word should be read סורסאי, the samekh and tet being easily confused. Sursai means just "Syrian" or "Syriac" (Jastrow 970), a proper addition to the other names for the various Aramaic dialects.

The discussion must have been interesting; the only part of it that Levita reports is on the issue of vowel points. He asked if they used vowel-signs, and they replied that, being familiar with the language from their youth, they had no need of them. He fails to note the language in which the discussion took place, although I would guess it was in Latin or possibly Arabic.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: C. D. Ginsburg, The Massoreth ha-Massoreth of Elias Levita, Being an Exposition of the Massoretic Notes on the Hebrew Bible (London, 1867); Wilkinson, Robert J. Orientalism, Aramaic, and Kabbalah in the Catholic Reformation: The First Printing of the Syriac New Testament. Leiden: Brill, 2007.