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The Research Blog—Hebrew and Jewish Studies


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Archive for November, 2015

A natural yet providential tongue: Moses Mendelssohn on Hebrew as a language of action—by Avi Lifschitz (UCL)

By uclhwis, on 27 November 2015


Please join us for this lecture:

Institute of Historical Research (IHR) Jewish history seminar; Monday, 30  November 2015, 5:15 pm;

Professor Olga Crisp Room 102, 1st floor, IHR, North Block, Senate House

How did Moses Mendelssohn reconcile a naturalistic theory of language, advocating the contingent development of all tongues, with the belief that Hebrew was a divine language that did not change ever since its inception? The seeming contradiction was resolved by employing the contemporary notion of the language of action – a primordial means of communication, where gesture and melody were as significant as words. Mendelssohn’s view of Hebrew as the language closest to this idiom was accompanied by his suggestion that the Jewish ceremonial law is a living script which can be properly understood only through oral instruction. He employed both ideas to counter the notions that the Hebrew vowel points were a late invention and that some loci in the Hebrew Bible had been subject to textual corruption. For Mendelssohn, the allegedly supernatural aspects of spoken Hebrew could be naturalised through constant and lively human conversation across the ages. The appropriation of contemporary critiques of the arbitrariness of language allowed Mendelssohn to forge an original synthesis that could simultaneously accommodate naturalism and providentialism.

Why Medieval Jewish Liturgy is not Dull—by Prof. Stefan Reif

By uclhwis, on 27 November 2015

In a PowerPoint presentation entitled “Why Medieval Jewish Liturgy is not Dull” (18.11.2015), Professor Stefan Reif, Emeritus Professor of Medieval Hebrew Studies and Fellow of St John’s College, in the University of Cambridge, discussed eight manuscript fragments of Jewish liturgy from the eleventh and twelfth centuries discovered among the literary treasures of the Cambridge Genizah Collections. He explained how their contents could be analysed for the manner in which they illuminated the evolution of medieval Jewish prayer. At the same time, a close study of each of them also yielded important information for historians of Jewish language and literature, theology, and broader culture, as well as for the serious student of Hebrew codicology and bibliography. Among the items that he explained were a Passover Haggadah with an Aramaic tale of the Exodus, a Qaddish from pre-Crusader Eretz Yisrael, a special collection of biblical verses for use on Shemini ‘Aṣeret, and a previously unidentified version of Saadya’s prayer-book text. He also provided intriguing information about how scholars could be misled by the earlier errors of others. All these fragments are fully transcribed, translated and annotated in his volume Jewish Prayer Texts from the Cairo Genizah which is scheduled for publication by Brill early in 2016.