Maer dos Santos is hoping for an elucidation of the Hebrew of the parables in the Talmud. It is a crime for a student of the Hebrew Bible to read the parables of the Talmud in translation. Still, the unvocalized, unpunctuated text of the Talmud poses a challenge. It is possible, nonetheless, to face the challenge step-by-step.
A nice parable to begin with is that of Jochanan ben Zakkai recorded in the Talmud Bavli, Berakhot 153a. However, I have my doubts about the tendency to treat parables as self-contained units. They may have been (or may never have been), once upon a time, autonomous units. But, just as is the case with the parables of the New Testament, the parables of the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud do not stand on their own anymore. Relationship to context needs to be taken into full account.
In the case at hand, an exchange between R. Eliezer and his students sets the stage for R. ben Zakkai’s parable.
I provide the Hebrew of the Talmud first, according to sense-units. Expressions unattested in biblical Hebrew follow, in vocalized form. I then assimilate the Hebrew of the Talmud to that of the Bible, and vocalize the whole. Unless one’s biblical Hebrew is not up to par, the sense and structure of the Talmudic passage will have now become evident. An English translation concludes the exercise.
The English attempts to adhere to the diction and style of the original with greater stubbornness than is true of previous translations. Translators of the Talmud tend not to follow the rule of: as literal as possible; as free as necessary. I take a road less traveled by.
רבי אליעזר אומר
שוב יום אחד לפני מיתתך
שאלו תלמידיו את ר"א
וכי אדם [אין] יודע איזהו יום ימות
וכל שכן ישוב היום
שמא ימות למחר
ונמצא כל ימיו בתשובה
ואף שלמה אמר בחכמתו
בכל עת יהיו בגדיך לבנים
ושמן על ראשך אל יחסר
מִיתָתָךְ; אֵיזֶהוּ; לָהֵן; כָּל שֶׁכֵּן; שֶׁמָּא
Assimilation to Biblical Hebrew
שׁוּב יוֹם אֶחָד
אָמַר רַבִּי אֱלִיעֶזֶר
לִפְנֵי יוֹם מוֹתָךְ
וַיִּשְׁאֲלוּ תַּלְמִידָיו אֶת ר"א
וְכִי אָדָם [אֵין] יוֹדֵעַ אֵי־זֶה יוֹם יָמוּת
עַל־כֵּן יָשׁוּב הַיּוֹם
פֶּן יָמוּת לְמָחָר
וְנִמְצָא כֹּל יָמָיו בִּתְשׁוּבָה
וְאַף שְׁלֹמֹה אָמַר בְּחָכְמָתוֹ
בְּכָל־עֵת יִהְיוּ בְּגָדֶיךָ לְבָנִים
וְשֶׁמֶן עַל־רֹאשְׁךָ אַל־יֶחְסָר
R. Eliezer would say:
“Repent one day before your death.”
His students inquired of R. Eliezer:
“And since a person [does not] know on which day he will die?”
He told them:
“All the more will he repent today
in case he dies tomorrow.
And he will be found in repentance all his days.”
Solomon, too, said in his wisdom,
“At all times let your garments be white;
let there be no lack of oil on your head.” (Qoh 9:8)
The logic of the passage is stringent. The opening aphorism - repent one day before you die – expresses, on the face of it, a familiar irreligious sentiment according to which one ought to sin for as long as possible, and repent only when not to do so would be risky in terms of one’s final destiny. Still, precisely on that basis, consistent with our ignorance of the day on which we will die, it is logical to repent today – and everyday – on the chance that we will die tomorrow.
The parable which follows in the tractate shares themes with this passage which introduces it: the call to repentance, the concern for one’s life-after-death destiny; and the comparison of repentance to behavior associated with festivities, accomplished here by means of a quotation from Qohelet.
To be continued.