Hebrew Grammar

B'nai Mitzvah or Talmidei Bar Mitzvah?

  • A correspondent writes: Like forming the plural of Torah is not Torot,
    referencing several children/students who attained the age of bar and
    bat mitzvah is not bnai or bnot mitzvah.  have to put back in the
    missing words that were contracted out …  so the proper plural is
    talmidei bar mitzvah, etc.
The Question therefore is: what is the right way to pluralize “bar mitzvah.”

The oldest reference I know of to the term bar mitzvah is found in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Metzia, page 96a:

תיבעי למ”ד שלוחו של אדם כמותו הני מילי שליח דבר מצוה הוא אבל עבד דלאו בר מצוה לא

The problem applies to one who maintains that the agent of a person is just like the person himself–this applies because the agent is bar mitzvah (subject to the commandments). But (if we are speaking of his) slave who is not bar mitzvah, then no.

As you can see, here the term is used to describe an adult, a person who is subject to the law. If we are interested in when we first see the term used to describe a child’s admission to adulthood and it’s responsibilities, we have to move almost a thousand years later. For example, Maimonides (12th/13th century) Yad, Ishut, 2:9–10. But in another place, Maimonides states that the testimony of a boy that young in real estate transactions is invalid because he cannot have experience with such transactions (Maim. Yad, Edut, 9:8).

While the term bar mitzvah doesn’t occur earlier than this, the notion that a boy becomes subject to categorization as an adult at the age of 13 years and 1 day is referenced in numerous places (for example, Avot 5:1 and various commentaries thereon).

None of this really gets to the question of course. But allow me one more detour. In English, people often fumble over the plural of compound phrases such as “sister-in-law.” Should the plural be “sisters-in-law” or “sister-in-laws.” That turns out to be a question of prescriptive versus descriptive grammar. In prescriptive grammar, an expert–usually self-appointed–tells us the correct way to write or speak. This has famously led to generations of American schoolchildren drilled in such deep subjects such as whether to use “lay” or “lie” in a variety of circumstances. As it turns out, throughout the history of British and American English, the words have been mixed in their usage, but in the mid-nineteenth century, various authorities attempted to fix the usage. Which has had little effect, I might add–people still mix the words up.

A descriptive grammarian simply observes usage and documents it. No effort is usually made to determine what the “correct” usage might be. For example, in the Bible we find the word שֶׁ֫מֶשׁ as  feminine in Nahum 3:17 but masculine in Genesis 19:23 and then feminine again in Exodus 22:2. The prescriptive grammarian attempts to tell the biblical author that they are wrong, the descriptive grammarian simply notes that the word is regarded in various places as either masculine or feminine.

Now, that was a bit tongue-in-cheek. I’m not denying that prescriptive grammarians have a place in the world. School children and college graduates really do need their help if they are going to write essays that get them admitted to higher education or land a job. But personally, I learned long ago, that in a large part of life, it’s best just to observe and document and not prescribe.

The central question here regards the proper way to pluralize nouns when they are part of a combination–a structure often referred to as a compound noun. Almost every English handbook provides the advice that it is best to pluralize the principle word in the compound, thus, brothers-in-law rather than brother-in-laws. The problem is that people often ignore that advice and hence we have a classic case of prescriptive versus descriptive grammar.

The authors of the biblical books did not seem impressed by this grammatical advice. One of the most noticeable pluralization issues comes with the word the Bible uses for family, namely בֵּית אָב, bet av, literally household of a father. For example, Gen 34:19, ‎וְלֹֽא־אֵחַ֤ר הַנַּ֙עַר֙ לַעֲשׂ֣וֹת הַדָּבָ֔ר כִּ֥י חָפֵ֖ץ בְּבַֽת־יַעֲקֹ֑ב וְה֣וּא נִכְבָּ֔ד מִכֹּ֖ל בֵּ֥ית אָבִֽיו׃ And the young man did not delay to do the thing, because he was delighted with Jacob’s daughter. Now he was the most honored of all his family. (NRS) Another example: וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָֹה אֶל־אַבְרָם לֶךְ־לְךָ מֵאַרְצְךָ וּמִמּוֹלַדְתְּךָ וּמִבֵּית אָבִיךָ אֶל־הָאָרֶץ אֲשֶׁר אַרְאֶךָּ, And the LORD said to Avram, ‘Leave your land, the place of your birth, and your family (bet av) to the land I will show you. (Gen 12:1).

So what is the plural of בֵּית אָב in the Bible? Fortunately we do have that term several times. (1 Chron 7:7, 24:4, 25:5, etc.), and this text in the book of Numbers illustrates the interplay of this term with mishpahah: נָשׂא אֶת־רֹאשׁ בְּנֵי גֵרְשׁוֹן גַּם־הֵם לְבֵית אֲבֹתָם לְמִשְׁפְּחֹתָם which means, Take a census of the Gershonites also, by their ancestral house and by their clans. (Num. 4:22 TNK). The Hebrew word translated as “ancestral house” is pluralized–literally, “The house of their fathers.”

The discomfort of translating these plurals is nicely illustrated by the case of 1 Chronicles 7:7 וּבְנֵי בֶלַע אֶצְבּוֹן וְעֻזִּי וְעֻזִּיאֵל וִירִימוֹת וְעִירִי חֲמִשָּׁה רָאשֵׁי בֵּית אָבוֹת גִּבּוֹרֵי חֲיָלִים And the sons of Bela (were) Etzbon, Uzzi, Uzziel, Rimot and Iri, five chiefs of families, all powerful men. The plural Hebrew בֵּית אָבוֹת is variously rendered “…heads of the house of their fathers” ( KJV), “They were heads of fathers’ households” (NAS), “….chiefs of families…” (NJB), “…heads of ancestral houses…” (NRS), and finally, “…chiefs of clans…” (NJPS). The variations here reflect the lack of certitude as to what should be pluralized (in English), and whether the term bet av is better rendered as family or clan.

But if you ask a Modern Hebrew grammarian, you might discover that many think the Bible just got it wrong. The plural of bet av they might just tell you, should be battei av or perhaps battei avot–but the important point being that the first element is the one that requires pluralization. And yes, that means we’re back to prescriptive versus descriptive grammar.

Well, at long last back to our question. What is the plural of bar mitzvah? If we are referring to people rather than the ceremony, that almost certainly will b’nei mitzvah. The first element bar (which is Aramaic for the Hebrew ben) means “child of”). Hebrew has already long asserted a usage of the singular for the collective noun mitzvah. If there is a case of pluralizing that term (bar mitzvot) I have never seen it.

In modern times, we have the addition of women who have formally accepted religious traditions, and for them the singular is bat mitzvah and the plural could be either b’not mitzvah or b’nei mitzvah (because in Hebrew mixed gender results in the masculine term).

There is a separate question as to how to think of the term bar mitzvah when what is being discussed is the celebration of the event rather than categorizing the celebrants themselves. In English, I have always seen this refered to as bar mitzvahs where we add the English “s” plural to the end of the phrase. For example, “That synagogue saw so many bar mitzvahs last year!” I’d be interested in hearing from Israelis how that might be rendered in Modern Hebrew.

In any case, the important point in all of this is that no matter how much august institutions such as the Hebrew Academy might wish to formalize Hebrew grammar, they will succumb to the popularization that is normative for all human languages.

On The General Understanding of Talmudic Chronology

Shortly after I returned from my prospectus defense, I found much to my joy that the Second, “Expanded Edition” of Joshua Jacobson’s Chanting the Hebrew Bible The Art of Cantillation had arrived.

As I flipped through it and started reading some of the introductory chapters, I encountered the following description of Chironomy on page 3.

Chironomy is a system of hand signals, predating the graphic symbols, which represent the melodies of the t’amim…the Talmudic passage below attests to the antiquity of this practice. Rabbi Nahman (ca. 350 CE, Babylonia) stipulates that a person should keep his right hand clean, since that is the hand that performs the sacred task of prompting the cantillation…

Why should one wipe with the left hand and not with the right? Rabbi Nahman b. Isaac said: Because he uses it show the t’amim of the Torah. [BT Ber. 62a]

Professor Jacobson is a distinguished professor of Music at Northeastern University and his book is probably the most comprehensive and respected work on the Masoretic vocalization system (certainly of those available in English). The book is published by the Jewish Publication Society in cooperation with the University of Nebraska Press. And Professor Jacobson is not a religious fundamentalist; he is open to the methodologies of modern scholarship.

I mention all this simply because the paragraph above betrays a common outlook even among professionals in the field as to the authenticity and dating of passages found in the Talmud.

In this citation Prof. Jacobson indicates first, that we know as a matter of historical fact that one Rabbi Nahman (b. Isaac) existed, that he can be dated to the middle of the fourth century, and that he has been accurately quoted.

I rate these three claims as likely, possible, and unlikely. I have no particularly good reason to doubt that there was a R. Nahman b. Isaac. The date of 350 CE is arbitrary, worked out by diligent scholars in the 19th century like Hermann Strack. But it is still a guess as none of the materials are conducive to accurate dating. The Babylonian Talmud was edited over a period of a century from about 500 to 600 CE, and our earliest manuscripts date several centuries later than that. The notion that individual comments were accurately transmitted over a period of some centuries is not only contradicted by what we know about human memory and document transmission, but even by our ability to examine parallel passages. On those occasions when we have the same or similar story related in multiple locations, we almost invariably find differences in the parallels. In some cases, identical statements are attributed to different tradents. In others, the same tradent is quoted using different words. There are several examples of this I will provide in my description of the Passover traditions.

The point I am making is that the notion that the Talmud accurately quotes persons said to have lived centuries prior to the final redaction of the Talmud is pervasive even among the scholarly community. What could Prof. Jacobson have said that would have indicated a sensitivity to this nuance? Here is one suggestion I can think of: “Chironomy is attested as early as the 6th/7th century in the Babylonian Talmud where we find a quote attributed to R. Nahman b. Isaac.” It isn’t a lengthy or overly technical change of language, it is simply more accurate.