What's in a Word?

For the week ending 4 February 2023 / 13 Shvat 5783

Bishalach: Scribal Culture

by Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein
Library Library Library

After Deborah and Barak led the Jewish People to a miraculous victory against the Canaanite general Sisera, Deborah sang an epic song praising those Jewish tribes that aided their efforts and criticizing those who failed to contribute. In her song, Deborah lauded the tribe of Zebulun by saying "…and from Zebulun, those who pull the quill of the scribe (sofer)" (Jud. 5:14). The word sofer appears more than fifty times throughout the Bible, often in the context of royal scribes who wrote down the king's decisions to be disseminated to the masses. But in later Hebrew, a different word is also used for “scribe” – lavlar. Are these two words synonymous, or is there some difference between them? This essay explores that question!

The word sofer in the Bible is sometimes used as common noun to refer in general to a “scribe” (e.g., Ps. 45:2, Jer. 8:8, Ezek. 9:2-3). But sometimes, it appears as an appellation with the definite article (“the scribe”) and applies to a specific person, like Seraya the Scribe (II Sam. 8:17,), Shemaiah the Scribe (I Chron. 24:6), Shwa the Scribe (II Sam. 2:25, see also I Chron. 18:16), Shebna the Scribe (II Kgs. 18:18, 18:37, 19:2, Isa. 36:3, 37:2), Shaphan the Scribe (II Kgs. 22:3, 22:8–10, 22:12, Jer. 36:10, II Chon. 34:15, 34:18, 34:20), Elishama the Scribe (Jer. 36:12, 36:20-21), Baruch the Scribe (Jer. 36:26), Jonathan the Scribe (Jer. 36:15, 36:20), Ezra the Scribe (Ezra 7:6, 7:11, Neh. 8:1–13, 12:26, 12:36), Tzadok the Scribe (Neh. 13:13), and Jeiel the Scribe (II Chron. 26:11).

In the Mishnah, the word sofer means “scribe” (Shabbat 12:5, Pesachim 3:1, Gittin 3:1, 7:2, 8:8, 9:8, Bava Metzia 5:11, Sanhedrin 4:3, 5:5, Keilim 24:6, see also Nedarim 9:2), but the plural form sofrim is often used to refer to earlier rabbinic sages (see Orlah 3:9, Yevamot 2:4, 9:3, Sotah 9:15, Kiddushin 4:13, Sanhedrin 11:3, Keilim 13:7, Parah 11:5-6, Taharot 4:7, 4:11, Tevol Yom 4:6, and Yadayim 3:2). There is one particular Tannaitic sage given the appellation sofer — Rabbi Yeshevav HaSofer, although this appellation is not appended to his name in the Babylonian or Jerusalemic Talmuds, but only in later sources (like Midrash Shocher Tov Ps. 9, Iggeret Rabbi Sherirah Gaon, and the Eleh Ezkarah elegy that immortalizes the Ten Martyrs).

The etymology of the word sofer clearlylies in the triliteral root SAMECH-PEH-REISH, which bears a wide range of meanings, including “book,” “story,” “to tell/relate,” “number,” “to count,” “sapphire,” “spherical,” “haircut,” “border,” and more. On the simplest level, sofer relates to the first meaning of this root, because a “scribe” is one who produces a “book.” Over the years, I have written much about the triliteral root SAMECH-PEH-REISH, so I won’t bore you by repeating all of that again here. Instead, you can look up my earlier essays on the topic: “When Just Counting Doesn’t Count” (May 2017), “Telling the Story” (April 2019), “Between Books and Scrolls” (Feb. 2022), “Haircut Time” (April 2022), and “The Shofar’s Horn” (Sep. 2022).

But I would like to focus on the word sofer and its plural form sofrim by asking why the early rabbinic sages are called sofrim (which should literally mean “scribes”)? The Talmud (Babylonian Talmud Kiddushin 30a, Chagigah 15b, Jerusalemic Talmud Brachot 1:4) explains that the word sofer literally means "one who counts." This term is appropriate for the early rabbinic sages because they were said to “count” the letters of the Torah. This may perhaps be an allusion to a scribal practice attested to amongst the later Masoretes, who used numbers to help establish the most accurate text of the Bible and correct their work. Perhaps the early rabbinic sages did something similar in their role as the guardians of the Written Torah.

Alternatively, the Jerusalem Talmud (Shekalim 5:1) explains that the "counting" aspect of the term sofrim refers to the fact that the sages formulated numbered lists as mnemonic devices for remembering complicated Halachot. Examples of such lists mentioned in the Talmud all come from the Mishnah. They include: the five people who cannot tithe (Terumot 1:1), the five grains obligated in challah (Challah 1:1), the fifteen women who are exempt and exempt their co-wives from yibbum (Yevamot 1:1), the thirty-six sins for which one may be punished with karet (Keritut 1:1), thirteen special rules said about an unslaughtered kosher bird (Taharot 1:1), the four categories of torts (Bava Kamma 1:1), and the thirty-nine forms of forbidden labor on Shabbat (Shabbat 7:2). In all these cases, the sages “counted” the necessary bullet points needed to summarize the relevant rules and provided lists. In this way, the sages applied a scribal practice used for written works to the realm of the Oral Torah.

Let us now turn our attention to the word lavlar. This word does not appear in the Bible, but it does appear three times in the Mishnah: once in the name Nachum HaLavlar ("Nachum the Lavlar"), who was apparently a scribe (Peah 2:6); once in relating the rule that a lavlar may not go outside with his writing quill close to the onset of Shabbat (Shabbat 1:3); and once when describing a man contracting a lavlar to write a gett (“Bill of Divorce”) for his wife (Gittin 3:1).

Rashi uses the words sofer and lavlar interchangeably in multiple places, using one to define the other (Rashi to Sotah 20a, Gittin 67a, Bava Batra 21b). Similarly, the Mishnah (Bava Metzia 5:11) states that a sofer who aids in documenting a loan whereby a Jew illegally lent another Jew with interest is himself in violation of the prohibition of lending with interest. When the Tosefta (Bava Metzia 6:17) repeats this rule, it uses the word lavlar instead of sofer. Although the Targumim typically translate the Hebrew word sofer into the Aramaic safra (essentially an Aramaicized form of the Hebrew word), Rabbi Eliyahu HaBachur (1469–1549) points out in Meturgaman that in one instance, Targum (to Est. 3:12) actually translates sofer as lavlar.

Scholars agree that the word lavlar actually derives from the Late Latin word libellarius (“scribe”), which, in turn, is derived from the Latin word libellus. That word libellus is itself a diminutive of the Latin word liber/libri (“book”). It could very well be that the rabbis borrowed the term through its Greek version, liblarios (also spelled libellavrio or liblavrio) as opposed to directly from Latin. These words have etymological relatives in English that are still familiar to us nowadays: the word libel originally meant “small book,” before it eventually came to mean a libelous or accusatory statement. The English word library derives from the Latin librarius, which itself is a derivative of liber. Finally, the English word leaf as “page of a book” also relates to these Greek and Latin words (notice how in the plural form, leaf becomes leaves). According to modern linguists, all of these words derive from the Pro-Indo-European root leup/leub/leubh.

All of this leads to a fairly obvious question: How did libellarius become lavlar? It seems that the pronunciation lavlar — although quite popular and used in various prominent works — is actually a mispronunciation. In fact, the famous Kaufmann Manuscript of the Mishnah, which is the earliest manuscript of the Mishnah that has vowelization, actually vowelizes the word as livlar, not lavlar. Moreover, in the Jerusalemic Talmud (see Gittin 3:1 and Bava Metziah 1:4) the word lavlar is spelled with a YOD after the initial LAMMED, thus suggesting that the LAMMED should be vowelized with a chirik and not a patach. This is somewhat similar to the Biblical names Bitya (I Chron. 4:18) and Milka (Gen. 11:29, 22:20, 22:23, 24:15, 24:24, 24:47, Num. 26:33, 27:1, 36:11), which are vowelized in the Bible with a chirik under the initial consonant, yet somehow morphed into Batya and Malka, with a patach under the initial consonant. It is also possible that when the rabbis adopted the word from Greek or Latin into Rabbinic Hebrew, they slightly altered its pronunciation on purpose to render it lavlar instead of libler (or something more similar to the original foreign word).

Until now, we have seen that there is a clear etymological difference between sofer and lavlar, with sofer/safra being clearly a Hebrew/Aramaic word, making it of Semitic stock, while lavlar is a borrowed from Latin and Greek, making it of Indo-European stock. But is there a difference in the meanings of these two words in how they are used in Rabbinic Hebrew?

The earliest sources that I have found that discuss this question are two Hungarian rabbinic scholars from the previous century, Rabbi Dr. Yehuda Aryeh (Lajos/Ludwig) Blau (1861-1936) and Rabbi Dr. Shmuel Krauss (1866-1948). Blau in his German work Studien zum althebräischen Buchwesen und zur Biblischen Litteratur- und Textgeschichte (which translates into "Studies on Ancient Hebrew Books and on the History of Biblical Literature and Texts") argues that sofer and lavlar refer to two distinct groups. The way he explains it, sofer implies an official scribe (who held a specific bureaucratic post), while lavlar is a general term that includes even a regular run-of-the-mill scribe, who functioned as sort of freelance clerk. Blau thus contends that every sofer is a lavlar, but not every lavlar is a sofer. On the other hand, Krauss in Talmudische Archäologie cites and disagrees with Blau’s assessment, arguing that the two terms are effectively synonymous, but that the loanword lavlar may have carried a somewhat more formal connotation.

Either way, the Hebrew and Latin terms for “scribe” are similar to each other in that both are cognate with the word for “book” in their respective languages (sofer and sefer, libellarius and liber). This stands in contrast to the words for “scribe” in Germanic languages, which are cognate with the verb “to write” as opposed to the word for “book.” For example, in English a “scribe” is called a scribe, whilst in Yiddish/German a “scribe” is called a schreiber. These words are not cognate with the word for “book” in those respective languages. I will, however, note that those Germanic words are related to a bevy of English words including: scrivener, scribble, describe, transcribe, prescribe, subscribe, ascribe, inscribe, proscribe, serif, script, and manuscript.

Interestingly, those with even a modicum of interest in Jewish genealogy might know that of the countless descendants of Rabbi Moshe Sofer (1762–1839) — who famously authored the works entitled Chatam Sofer —some branches of the family use the surname Sofer, while others use the surname Schreiber. Nonetheless, both of those family names mean the exact same thing, just one is in Hebrew and one is in Yiddi

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