Jewish World Review June 20, 2001 / 30 Sivan, 5761

Worthy word books

By Rabbi Berel Wein -- ONE of the surprising best sellers of the past few literary seasons was a book on the origins of the Oxford English Dictionary. The author of that book is following with another work about Roget's Thesaurus. Apparently, the public, certainly the reading public, is fascinated by words, their meanings and their usage. Basic dictionaries are the staple of all home libraries and school work. In fact, it is difficult to imagine any literary achievement that does not owe something to a dictionary or a thesaurus. But dictionaries and a thesaurus are relatively modern creations in the English speaking world. Not so in the Jewish world.

There is a great dictionary of Talmudic words and phrases that was composed in the tenth century by Rabbi Nosson of Rome. Its name is "Aruch," meaning something that is set or edited. In this great compendium of knowledge, not only are many of the difficult and obscure Babylonian Aramaic words of the Talmud translated into Hebrew, but actual interpretations and expositions of Talmudic statements including those words are advanced. The "Aruch" was used by Rashi in the eleventh century in his great commentary to the Talmud and is often quoted by his descendants, the Tosafists of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries.

Approximately a century ago, Alexander Kohut expanded on the basic framework of the "Aruch." He published a multi-volume dictionary of Talmudic words, terms and phrases and titled it the "Aruch Hashalem" --- the complete "Aruch." Though it is a most scholarly work, it has never enjoyed the popularity or authority of the original "Aruch." There are many reasons for this, but the basic reason being that the work was written for Talmud scholars and the study of Talmud is basically an Orthodox Jewish field. Kohut himself was not a member of that group and thus his work gained precious little notice amongst the group who were its natural audience. It therefore has remained a work for individual scholars and not for the mass of Talmudic students in the yeshivas of the world.

However, every book and author has a mazal -- destiny -- of its own. Also a little over a century ago, Marcus Jastrow, a non-Orthodox Jew as well, compiled a great dictionary of Talmudic words, terms and phrases, translated into the English language. This work has been a perennial best seller in the Jewish world. There is no English-speaking yeshiva that does not have a Jastrow dictionary as a research tool in its bookshelves --- and a well-used one at that. The necessity for having a work that would make the Talmud more accessible to the English-speaking student has empowered the success of the Jastrow dictionary. Even those purists of Talmud studies who frown upon the use of the excellently translated volumes of the Talmud into English itself, raise no objection to the presence of Jastrow's dictionary within the walls of the study hall.

The revival of Hebrew as a modern spoken language is mainly due to the work of Eliezer Ben Yehuda, who was an absolute fanatic on the subject. Again, approximately a century ago, Ben Yehuda began his campaign to have Hebrew become the spoken and written language of the then fledgling Jewish yishuv in the Land of Israel. In order to advance the cause, Ben Yehuda created a new and extensive dictionary of Hebrew, which to a great extent remains the basic dictionary of Hebrew until today. He also created new Hebrew words to meet the demand of a language that had not been spoken by most Jews for centuries on end.

The power of dictionaries should never be underestimated. Words are tools of enormous power and influence in human affairs. The Rabbis taught us that they were to be used wisely, sparingly and tellingly. So the fascination with dictionaries and books about words is understandable, since it reflects our basic inner drive to know more about ourselves and our world.

JWR contributor Rabbi Berel Wein is one of Jewry's foremost historians and founder of the Destiny Foundation. He has authored over 650 tapes, books and videos which you can purchase at You may contact Rabbi Wein by clicking here or calling 1-800-499-WEIN (9346).


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© 2000, Rabbi Berel Wein