12.02.02, Bos, Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence

Main Article Content

Maud Kozodoy

The Medieval Review 12.02.02

Bos, Gerrit, Martina Hussein, Guido Mensching, and Frank Savelsberg. Medical Synonym Lists from Medieval Provence: Shem Tove Ben Isaac of Tortosa, Sefer Ha-Shimmush, Book 29 Part 1. tudes sur le Judasme Mdival. Leiden:Koninklijke Brill NV, 2011. Pp. 542. ISBN: 978-90-04-16764-3.

Reviewed by:

Maud Kozodoy
Brown University

In Marseille, in the year 1254, Shem Tov ben Isaac of Tortosa, a Catalan Jewish physician, began his translation into Hebrew of the tenth-century Arabic work Kitab at-tasrif li-man 'ajiza 'an at- ta'lif (The Arrangement of Medical Knowledge for One Who Is Not Able to Compile a Book for Himself) by Abu l-Qasim Halaf ibn 'Abbas az-Zahrawi. He called it Sefer ha-Shimmush. When translating Arabic medical texts into Hebrew, the Jewish physicians of Christian Iberia and Provence, of whom Shem Tov was one, faced a vast multilingual pharmaceutical vocabulary in use in the medieval Islamic world. Theirs was the challenge of making sense--in the languages currently most in use by their Jewish colleagues--of a wild profusion of terms found in Arabic medical texts for items like herbs, drugs, animals, instruments, anatomical parts, and more.

In creating his translation, Shem Tov abandoned the indices--in Arabic, Syrian, Persian, and Ibero-Romance--that were included in Kitab at-tasrif and constructed his own two lists of synonyms, one for unfamiliar terms in Kitab at-tasrif and another to be used independently of that work. The twenty-ninth book of Sefer ha-Shimmush features these two lists. The current volume presents the first list with each term as ordered by Shem Tov: Hebrew/Aramaic, Arabic, Old Occitan/Latin; the list is accompanied by a historical and philological introduction and a running commentary. A second, forthcoming volume will be devoted to the second list (ordered: Arabic, Romance, with some Hebrew/Aramaic), and a final volume will provide indices to the first two. To deal with the linguistic cosmopolitanism of this medieval Jewish physician-translator, four contemporary experts have been required, Bos and Hussein being charged with the Hebrew and Arabic, and Mensching and Savelsberg with the Latin and Romance.

By way of providing background, the volume's introduction discusses the genre of Hebrew synonym lists, presents Shem Tov's biography and his historical context, and summarizes his introduction to his translation. But the real work of the introduction lies in two areas. First, the authors trace the sources used by Shem Tov in rendering the various terms into Hebrew, Arabic, Romance, and Latin, a particularly difficult task as many sources are no longer extant. Second, the authors attempt to determine which language underlies Shem Tov's Hebrew transliterations, considering various dialects of Old Occitan as well as Catalan, French, and Latin. Threading through the real difficulties of determining a precise source language from a Hebrew transliteration, the authors settle on the likelihood that Shem Tov composed this part of his list in the local vernacular of Marseille, namely, the Provençal dialect of Occitan, with some infiltration of Catalan, his native tongue.

The material of the volume is based on three manuscripts, described in detail, of which the authors rely on one (color reproductions of a few folios of this appear at the end of the volume) and provide variant readings from the other two in the book's critical apparatus. The material is arranged as follows: the full entry for each term, in all languages, is first given in Shem Tov's Hebrew characters and then in transliteration into Roman characters. Below each entry is a commentary that traces the translation to, respectively, the relevant Biblical or rabbinic source, Jewish-Arabic sources, and the vernacular.

This book is part of a larger project initiated by Bos to map the medical terminology of the various known and anonymous Jewish translators. Bos has long been engaged in producing critical editions and translations of the (Arabic) medical works of Maimonides, along with editions of their medieval Hebrew translations. Bos and Mensching have also studied other Jewish synonym lists. The aim of the current project is twofold. First, by identifying the often corrupt and arcane terms found in medieval Hebrew medical texts, the project's completion will smooth the path of modern scholars making their way through these works. Second, by describing and identifying the technical medical terminology of individual translators, some of whom are known by name, it may make it possible in some cases to identify the otherwise anonymous translator of a particular text. A step in this direction is Bos's Novel Medical and General Hebrew Terminology from the 13th Century, Journal of Semitic Studies Supplement 27 (Oxford, 2011), where he presents Shem Tov together with comparable translations by Hillel ben Samuel of Verona, Moses ben Samuel ibn Tibbon, and Zerahyah ben Isaac ben Shealtiel Hen. In the case of Shem Tov in particular, the aims of the project will be achievable only upon publication of the third volume with its final indices, but for those modern scholars--an admittedly small group-- engaged in reading medieval Hebrew medical texts, most of which remain in manuscript, this volume and the two following it will be invaluable.

In addition to its practical goals, this book makes another important contribution as well. To appreciate that contribution, it is helpful to be aware of the larger translation movement of philosophical and scientific texts from Arabic into Latin in twelfth- and thirteenth- century Europe and, among Jewish communities, the similar and linked phenomenon of the translation of such works from Arabic into Hebrew. It was during this period that medieval Hebrew developed its technical, scientific vocabulary, with different translators making their own new coinages through, for example, semantic borrowing, the employment of calques from the Arabic, and/or the re-purposing of biblical and rabbinic Hebrew. In the case of mathematical and astronomical/astrological terminology, this process has begun to be studied, for example, by Gad Sarfatti in his survey of medieval Hebrew mathematical terms, and in a focused, comparative fashion by Shlomo Sela who has concentrated on the twelfth-century translators (and scientists) Abraham ibn Ezra and Abraham bar Hiyya. [1] Sela's conclusion is that, as opposed to bar Hiyya's openness to using Arabic calques, Ibn Ezra chose to derive his scientific vocabulary from little-used Biblical words; he did so on ideological grounds, seeking to find in the Biblical text the relics of an ancient (and lost) technical Hebrew. Raised in the culture of Islamic al-Andalus, Ibn Ezra had absorbed the linguistic presuppositions that revered Biblical Hebrew as a worthy if not a superior rival to Arabic. In comparison, Shem Tov drew his Hebrew not only from the Bible but also from such rabbinic texts as the Mishnah and Talmud; at the same time, he relied freely on Aramaic, the lingua franca of rabbinic Jewry. His strategy thus reflects a far more relaxed attitude than that of Ibn Ezra toward the unique status of Biblical Hebrew--and this in turn, one might tentatively suggest, reflects the cultural (and temporal) distance of Shem Tov's Catalonia, the least Arabized part of Christian Iberia, from Ibn Ezra's al-Andalus. On the other hand, Shem Tov evinces throughout a desire not simply to adopt calques from the Arabic but to find valid Hebrew equivalents.

On the basis of this rich and impressive volume and similar studies, not only will it become easier to identify texts and translators, but it may also become possible to understand the considerations that shaped the translators' choices of words, and ultimately to draw conclusions about what motivated them to undertake their work.



1. Shlomo Sela, Abraham ibn Ezra and the Rise of Medieval Hebrew Science, (Leiden, 2003), esp. pp. 93-143.

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Author Biography

Maud Kozodoy

Brown University