Author: Steve Kaufman

About Steve Kaufman

Stephen A. Kaufman is the Professor Emeritus of Bible and Cognate Literature at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion, Cincinnati, USA and Editor-in-Chief of the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon

A New Tool for Teaching and Studying Biblical Aramaic

A New Tool for Teaching and Studying Biblical Aramaic

A review of Biblical Aramaic: A Reader & Handbook, Hendrickson, 2016, described by the publisher as “an essential tool for everyone who wants to read the Aramaic portions of the Bible with ease, understanding, and enjoyment.”


In 2015 Hendrickson Publishers issued Biblia Hebraica Stuttgartensia: A Reader’s Edition, prepared by Donald R. Vance, George Athas, and Yael Avrahami, a volume for students in which almost every word of the Stuttgartensia is annotated with lexical and grammatical information, albeit using a very awkward and concise grammatical code. Here the material for Biblical Aramaic has been extracted and the annotations converted into a more legible format for this much shorter volume. Rather than trying to explain the format further, a picture of a typical page may suffice.

Note that the 53 forms (not lexemes) that are most frequent are not glossed in the notes but are rather listed in a “Glossary” at the very end of the book. The ubiquitous and multifaceted דִּי is annotated each time, however.

The bulk of the volume, however, is made up of 63 “Vocabulary and Morphology Lists” prepared by Jonathan G. Kline. These are divided into Frequency Lists, Parts of Speech, Verbs by Stem, Verbs by Root Type, Verbs by Frequency of Attested Form and Number of Stems, Pronominal Suffixes, Easily Confused Words, and Loanwords.

There is obviously a lot of material here and one may quibble about this or that detail, especially concerning the usefulness of the annotations for students. For example, as seen in the above, at Dan 3:15 the expression בַּהּ־שַׁעֲתָה is not explained but rather simply annotated as two separate words. In the lexical lists I would have preferred to see verbs glossed as, e.g. “to bring” rather than simply “bring”. There are no paradigms, rather the student is expected to deduce them from the attested forms in the lists, a process that might prove more difficult than the authors hope.

I have never been a fan of word by word annotated biblical texts for students. To be sure, if the instructor demands that students come to class ready to recite everything in those annotations without looking at them, some learning is sure to be achieved. But at best, that is all. If the students have to go to the lexicon, however, to identify a difficult form in the first place, to learn the various usages of the lexeme and follow its usage across multiple biblical texts, the amount of learning is magnified exponentially. Of course, it depends on what the instructor is trying to achieve.

Nonetheless, this volume can probably serve as an adequate introduction to Biblical Aramaic for students of Biblical Hebrew, and will surely be helpful for former seminary students and scholars in other fields who wish to refresh their knowledge. The question I would like to consider here, however, is whether this volume constitutes a solid foundataion for those who wish to move on to a greater breadth of Aramaic studies. I believe it can if used as a resource and not just as a prop. All of the most common vocabulary should be mastered and the lists used for extracting grammatical principles in a systematic way under the guidance of an instructor or a plan. In any case, the authors are to be thanked for providing what should serve as a useful new resource and introduction to Biblical Aramaic studies.

A New Edition of DJPA


Just a brief note to alert readers to the appearance of a “Third Revised and Expanded Edition” of Sokoloff’s A Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic by Bar-Ilan University Press, Ramat Gan, 2017.

The major changes would seem to be the incorporation of or reactions to comments by reviewers to the earlier edition and the incorporation of material from Genizah magical texts published after the appearance of the first edition. Citations of forms from Syriac and CPA are now in the “native” fonts of those dialects, though the use of the latter is unlikely to be of help to most users of this dictionary.

I am not quite sure, though, why he calls it an “expanded” edition. Indeed it is “contracted,” inasmuch as there is no index of passages, an invaluable feature of the earlier editions.  One may assume that Press pressures may be responsible both for the subtitle and the lack.

What’s the Matter with Samaritan?

A lot! In many ways, the publication of A. Tal’s A Dictionary of Samaritan Aramaic (2 vols., Brill, 2000), based on the decades-long research and collection of lexical material by the late Z. Ben-Ḥayyim, may be said only to have muddied the waters of Aramaic lexicography. To be sure, it provides a long-missing guide to understanding Samaritan Aramaic texts of all periods. But the language there described, most of whose unique lexemes come from the very late “A” version of the Pentateuch, often bears little relation to normative Aramaic, being largely a combination of Hebrew and Arabic words and meanings, as well as the unique words of that text, many of which seem to have a distant relationship to Latin (q.v. e.g. אסולה p. 573!) but not Greek (i.e. those that are not based on Arabic, Hebrew, or a misunderstanding of the Hebrew)! Much of the vocabulary may with certainty be ascribed to the artifical late language first described by Ben-Ḥayyim as “Shomronit” and recently the subject of fine study by M. Florentin in Late Samaritan Hebrew: A Linguistic Analysis of its Different Types (Brill, 2005). In addition, the scholarship presented in Tal’s work is idiosyncratic to say the least: Each group of words is introduced by a presumed root, fully a quarter of which must be said to be imaginary. Infinitive forms of various structures are all given their own entry. Noun forms of the qātōl type, that serve as common participles in later Samaritan, are all given their own lemma. Some words are used in a distinctive way that is based on a misunderstanding of a Pentateuchal form. Definitions often leave much to be desired. Varied spellings of what are obviously all the same lemma are given separate entries. Many of the supposedly Aramaic cited passages are in fact in Hebrew. Scribal errors are included as headwords. There is no index of passages (or any real index at all for that matter). And the less said about etymologies the better.

To give an example of a typical problematic entry that is not included in the CAL, take the root משק, rendered “to rule” (p. 491), which occurs in the A targum. It is without parallel elsewhere in Aramaic, or in Semitic for that matter. It is, however, known from Florentin’s Shomronit Hebrew, where it has been derived from the poorly understood Hebrew text of Gen. 15:2: בן משק ביתי. We see no reason to include such a thing in a dictionary designed to reflect the Aramaic lexicon.

Thus it has been necessary to adopt a strategy for dealing with this material in the CAL in a way that truly reflects the contribution of Samaritan to the Aramaic lexicon: All the words in the clearly Aramaic portions of manifestly earliest texts are to be included; this includes Targum J, book one of Marqe, and the earliest liturgical poems. Infinitives and participles from those texts are listed under the verbal form. Multiple spellings of the same word are combined into a single lemma. Definitions are made to conform to standard Aramaic ones where the connection is obvious. Hebrew usages are included only where they also appear in Jewish Aramaic texts. Words that occur only in the late texts that are also in our database (e.g. Asatir and the later books of Marqe), will be included as they are encountered, for the sake of comprehensiveness and usefulness for students.

What’s the Matter with Babylonian Talmudic?

Those who have tried to use the CAL database for dealing with Babylonian Talmudic Aramaic (JBA) will undoubtedly have encountered many problems not generally encountered when dealing with, say, targumic texts. In light of the interest in our work of several new projects dealing with talmudic material, we are currently reviewing the database toward the twin goals of accuracy and consistency but feel that a detailed explanation of problematic nature of the material for our users is warranted.

The JBA material was prepared by Michael Sokoloff as the basis of his magisterial dictionary. How was it done? First, during a year-long stay at the CAL, he prepared an outline lexicon of entries, based largely on Jastrow. Then he had the chosen texts entered and processed via our algorithms. From him we then received the tagged data. Then the outline lexicon, the tagged files, and the printed dictionary were all incorporated into the CAL database.

All good, then? Not at all. Herewith the problems:

a) The CAL still contains here and there lemmata found only in Jastrow but either eliminated or spelled differently in DJBA.

b) DJBA contains entries from the Talmud not included in the textual database! As was the case with the Talmud Yerushalmi, Sokoloff omitted Hebrew material from the textbase. Where Hebrew appears within extended Aramaic contexts it is marked as Hebrew and not otherwise tagged in the text. But where an isolated Aramaic word occurs in a Hebrew context it is generally not found in the database but is included in DJBA. Similarly, many DJBA (and hence CAL) entries come from variant texts that are not those included in the textbase.

c) The headwords of DJBA are quite properly in Babylonian form, first and foremost, of course, the emphatic form of nouns, but also with extensive matres lectionis. The headwords of the CAL are in standard Aramaic, i.e. in the absolute and without extensive matres. Homograph numbers also may often differ between the CAL entry and that in DJBA. This means that we have to provide extensive data tables to provide the proper correspondences. As of this writing roughly 500 lemmata still remain without collated verification of this data.

d) Lastly and most importantly, Sokoloff simply did not do his otherwise valuable work with the needs of the CAL in mind. Simple typographical errors in the tagging were never corrected. Where the tagging of a specific lemma was correct and consistent, it does not necessarily match the original outline lexicon form that served as the basis of the CAL entry, nor does it necessarily match the form chosen as the headword in DJBA. Nor are all the examples of a single lemma tagged consistently across the database.

We hope to have all of these issues (except for (b) of course) corrected within a few months, but as always any assistance or corrections will be most welcome.

A new Dictionary of Qumran Aramaic

Dictionary of Qumran Aramaic, by Edward M. Cook (Eisenbrauns, 2015) xxii+265pp.


Edward M. Cook has been closely involved with the development of Qumran Aramaic studies for thirty years and has previously published two major lexical projects in Aramaic, a dictionary to (some of?) the targumim in the Accordance computer program database and A Glossary of Targum Onkelos: According to Alexander Sperber’s Edition (Brill, 2008). He is thus the perfect person to undertake the work here reviewed. Continue reading »

A Request for Reviewers: Gzella’s Cultural History

I invite reviews of the new book by Holger Gzella: A Cultural History of Aramaic From the Beginnings to the Advent of Islam (Brill, 2015), available, like most recent Brill publications in our fields, in ebook format (even online in violation of copyright for those who know how to find it–email me)!

Those who have not yet seen the book should be warned that the title is completely misleading and must have been developed by the advertising department at Brill.  I would not blame Prof. Gzella for it. It intends to be a history of the language, not a cultural history. Herewith the key explanatory paragraph:

Since Aramaic was not used by one well-defined speech community but by
very different groups and in quite distinct social contexts, this work does not
focus on the history of Aramaean peoples and their culture throughout the
ages. Rather, it follows the language in its meanderings from the Ancient Near
Eastern city-states and empires via the Greco-Roman matrix cultures into the
Islamic period.

The logic of that paragraph may not be obvious, but so it is.

Continue reading »

Idumean Ostraca, volume 1

Thoughts on Textbook of Aramaic Ostraca from Idumea, Vol. 1 by Bezalel Porten and Ada Yardeni (Eisenbrauns, 2014)


Thirty years ago or so, large numbers of unprovenanced Aramaic ostraca from southern Israel began to appear on the antiquities market and were quickly snatched up by the usual rich collectors. Many of these have been published, largely by A. Lemaire. Many have been loaned to museums. Many remain unpublished. Many (published from photographs) can no longer be located. In short, a typical mess caused first and foremost by the ability of site raiders to sell their wares to antiquities dealers who, in turn, can demand substantial prices from collectors who, in turn, enhance the value of their investments by getting certain scholars to publish their holdings. All this is well known and its ramifications repeatedly pondered by museums and scholarly societies and journals for many years now. It is not a problem with an easy solution, neither for museums nor for scholars tempted to participate in the publications. Of collectors, the less said the better.

The corpus of material in question here, from the second half of the 4th century BCE, has come to be known as the Idumean ostraca, a corpus of somewhere around 2,000 ostraca apparently from ancient Makkedah, modern Khirbet el-Kom. The great majority of the documents are brief “commodity chits,” mostly dealing with the delivery of grain. It is with this group of documents that Bezalel Porten and Ada Yardeni have chosen to begin their publication series of this material with what is an amazingly detailed and handsome volume. Continue reading »

Christian Palestinian Aramaic: A New Dictionary with a text publication

s200_steve kaufmanAn evaluation of A Dictionary of Christian Palestinian Aramaic by M. Sokoloff, Orientalia Lovaniensia Analecta 235 (Peeters, 2014)

The indefatigable Mike Sokoloff has added a new contribution to his list of modern dictionaries of the important and previously underserved Aramaic dialects, this time for Christian Palestinian Aramaic, a dialect not seriously subject to lexical study since the work of Friedrich Schulthess in his Lexicon Syropalaestinum of 1903 (available here ). New texts have been published since Schulthess’ time, and many of the difficult palimpsest texts scattered among European libraries have been read or reread by Christa Müller-Kessler, so the time was ripe for this effort. Continue reading »