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<< Return to SBL Forum Archive H. L. Ginsberg and the Smaller Books of the Bible

Harold Louis Ginsberg (1903-1990) was born in Montreal, Canada. He spent two years in medical school at McGill before moving to mandatory Palestine in 1921, where he became acquainted with judische Wissenschaft. This interest impelled him to spend 1924-1927 studying Semitic languages at Jews' College and the University of London, where he received the B.A. He then returned to Palestine. During Ginsberg's London period the Hebrew University had opened in Jerusalem, and so Ginsberg was able to attend classes there with the great Talmudist and Semitic philologist J. N. Epstein among others, while writing his dissertation, "Studies on the Hebrew Verb," for the University of London, which granted him the Ph.D. in 1930. In 1936 he came to the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City, where he spent his entire scholarly career. The seminary in those days had no Ph.D. program, but as it turned out, that meant that Ginsberg probably had more influence on Jewish biblical scholarship than he would have had in a university. Teaching both in the Seminary's rabbinical school and Teachers' Institute, his scholarly example inspired several generations of students to study Bible and Semitics and enter academic life.

Most of Ginsberg's work on the Bible has a philological and text-critical orientation. Like most scholars of his generation, Ginsberg did not shy away from emending texts when he deemed it necessary. As he wrote in 1950 (HUCA 33, p. 97): "The clearer the general superiority of the Masoretic Text of the Hebrew Bible over its rivals becomes, the greater becomes the need for conjectural emendation. The results of this method are necessarily less assured than those of mathematics, but that is no more cogent argument against its application than against research in any other branch or aspect of the humanities." But Ginsberg did not stop with text criticism and philology. Instead, he employed these tools in analyzing biblical diction to reconstruct inner-biblical literary development and ideological influences.

Among Ginsberg's most significant contributions to biblical scholarship are his studies of smaller biblical books. Hosea and Daniel come readily to mind, but I'd like to deal with two other examples, one popular and one technical. Between the publication of the NJV Torah translation (1962) and the Prophets (1978), JPS published The Five Megilloth and Jonah because these six books are read within the synagogue liturgy. Ginsberg wrote the brief introductions to these books. For readers who tend to regard some of Ginsberg's prose as turgid or perhaps as vestiges of his note-taking style in medical school, these introductions are an eye-opener. I quote from his introduction to Esther:

Of Xerxes—Ahasuerus our book relates that in the third year of his reign he made a banquet, of uninhibited swilling and 180 days' duration, for all his nobles and high officials, followed by a similar seven days' banquet for all the inhabitants of his residence, Shushan (called Susa, the Greek form of the name in secular English writings). The first seven of these 187 days of guzzling sufficed to induce in Ahasuerus such a state of alcoholic euphoria that he ordered his queen, Vashti, to appear so that his nobles and dignitaries might admire her beauty; but inasmuch as it was contrary to convention for the queen to be present at a feast once the drinking had begun, she refused. Upon the advice of Memuchan, the Nestor among his counselors, Ahasuerus degraded Vashti from her queenly rank with the intention of elevating another woman to succeed her. However, when he sobers up from the six months' drinking bout, the king finds that he misses Vashti. To replace her, his attendants suggest that he organize a mammoth beauty contest among the maidens of his vast realm and choose the winner to succeed Vashti as queen. Ahasuerus does so, and thus Esther the Jewess becomes queen. Only pedants will object that the ancient Persian king could take concubines from all over the empire, but was limited to the royal family (the Achaemenids) and the seven priestly families in the choice of queens.

The second example is Ginsberg's work on Qohelet. Jeffrey Tigay's bibliography of Ginsberg lists 11 items pertaining to Qohelet. Among these are two short books. Both are densely written. The first, Studies in Koheleth, appeared in 1950 as volume 17 in Texts and Studies of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. In the foreword to this volume Ginsberg refers to his earlier Studies in Daniel and expresses "the hope that laymen may benefit directly by my researches is therefore perhaps a little more realistic this time." That hope is quickly dashed by his citation on the first page of untranslated passages from the twelfth-century French Jewish commentator Samuel ben Meir. The second book, a running commentary in Hebrew, was entitled simply Koheleth. The book appeared in Israel in 1961 as the first, and I believe the last, volume in a projected multivolume Hebrew commentary. Here he writes [English translation provided by author]:

Blessed be the One who gave me the privilege of producing my contribution. Would that in it will be found much (for how many people are granted their entire wish) substantive contribution to the field. (And would that the book) would have the virtue of attracting interested nonspecialists.

He surely got the first part of his wish: a "substantive contribution to the field." As to the second, to take one example, the intended Israeli reader was liable to spend more time trying to understand Ginsberg's comment to Qoh 3:15b than on the biblical phrase itself. The phrase reads mah shehayah kebar hu'; literally, "that which was long ago it is." Ginsberg characterizes the phrase with a word spelled (p.38) nun-vav-nun-samek nun-samek. I remember Professor Moshe Held relating how long it took him to figure out that the word was "nonsense." What Ginsberg was saying was that Hebrew as it stood was nonsense; indeed, he proved that the phrase (and the entire book) had been poorly translated from an Aramaic original. For Ginsberg's last published thoughts on Qohelet we have his article, "Ecclesiastes" in the 1973 Encyclopaedia Judaica, which like its predecessors is a real contribution to the field.

Once readers get past Ginsberg's prose in the works on Qohelet I cited above, they come to see how clear his reading of the book is and how much sense that reading makes. (Permit me a personal comment: A standard I use for evaluating interpretations is how often I find myself saying "Of course! Why didn't I see that myself?" And over the years I have had that reaction to Ginsberg's work more than to that of anyone else.) Fortunately, there are two clearly written entrées into Ginsberg's work on Qohelet. Younger scholars should begin with "The Structure and Contents of the Book of Koheleth," in SVT 3 (1955 Rowley Festschrift) and proceed to the article "The Quintessence of Koheleth," published in 1963 in Biblical and Other Studies, edited by Alexander Altmann.

As I said earlier, Ginsberg was a master of the shades and nuances of biblical diction. He deciphers Qohelet's program by calling attention to the writer's use of key words and expressions. The first is that the oft-repeated verb `amal and the noun `amal cross the semantic boundary between exertion and its rewards, as had already been seen by Rashbam. (Ginsberg saw Rashbam after having reached his own conclusions. That was the way he worked. In fact, he advises would-be biblicists to consult the medievals last.) It is less a problem of meaning in the original than a problem of translation. The book begins (1:2) with the assertion "everything is (ultimately) futile,") hakol habel. Accordingly, 1:3 is to be understood not as a rhetorical question, but as the beginning of an inquiry: Inasmuch as all is hebel, zero, what manner of yitron, or plus, can a person get out of all of the things he might amass through his labor?

In order to prove that his inquiry is valid, Qohelet needs to demonstrate that his initial assertion hakol habel is accurate. This is done by showing that there is nothing new under the sun (i.e., on earth) and that nothing is added to what was done before or subtracted from it (see 3:14). If any individuals feel that there are new things, that is only because the deeds of the past have been forgotten by them, just as the deeds of their own time will be forgotten in the future. Qohelet then tells his audience that as a king over Israel in Jerusalem who also happened to be wise, he was able to undertake his inquiries, which led him to reject what were alleged to be life's two ultimate purposes: the pursuit of wisdom (1:16-18) and the pursuit of pleasure (2:1-2).

But Ginsberg, with his acute ear for nuances, observes that Qohelet does not equate the two pursuits. Wisdom, for all its superiority over folly, leads to vexation and grief for a number of reasons. The more you know, the more you are pained by what you have learned. Part of that pain comes from knowing that even though wisdom is as superior to folly as darkness is to light, the wise one dies just as the fool does. In addition, the demonstration that there is nothing new under the sun means that everything has been foreordained and that we can't change it. What happens, happens at its appointed time, which God long ago determined, but we don't know what that time is. What makes matters worse is that God has given human beings the craving to discover the schedule of future events, but not the ability to do so. This last point Ginsberg arrived at from his translation of Qoh 3:10-11: "(10) I observed the task that God made the sons of men engage in, (11) while bringing everything to pass precisely at its hour. He planted in their hearts the [striving] to anticipate the things that God brought to pass from beginning to end but without man's ever succeeding." In order to get this sense Ginsberg accepted the views of two scholars at the turn of the twentieth century that ha`olam "eternity" was a corruption of he`amal, which in this passage could only mean "striving"; he emended accordingly (see also 8:17-9:1). In his new JPS commentary Michael Fox agrees that this emendation "produces a meaningful text." To my delight I saw that the critical edition of the Peshitta to Qohelet clearly reads `amla.

The above makes wisdom ultimately zero or hebel "vexation." In contrast to wisdom, the pursuit of pleasure was not merely hebel but meholal "mad," or to stay with Ginsberg's arithmetical figure, minus; that is, less than hebel. Whereas Qohelet takes pains to demonstrate the shortcomings of wisdom, he does not exert himself to demonstrate the madness of frivolity. This for him is a matter of taste that does not need to be proved. He likes food and wine in moderation (9:7) but not in excess (10:17, 19), and that is one ingredient in the answer to his question: What is life's plus—yitron? The yitron is the calm, unfrenzied utilization of the earthly goods that one may be fortunate enough to acquire. Enjoyment is not equivalent to frivolity.

There are several good reasons to enjoy what you have, says Qohelet: 1) What you have is all there is. 2) You can't take it with you because you are going to a place called sheol where there is nothing (11:10). Qohelet finds the need to underline the fact that death is the end and so takes the occasion to polemize several times against teachings to the contrary. 3) As a result, what you amassed though your wisdom might, after your death, go to some fool. 4) You got what you got not because you deserved it, but because God gives out benefits and punishment rather whimsically. You can't count on divine justice, so there's no point in being too just. (You should not be too wicked either, just in case.) You may not have merited what you got, but the very fact (9:7) that you have it proves that God approved of you long ago. In addition, it's a good idea to partake of these God-given goodies while you are still young and healthy because like everything else your youth is hebel. (11:10) Ultimately, it will not be there.

In Ginsberg's own words "It is not a cheerful view of the world that greets us from the book of Koheleth." Michael Fox, in his fine semipopular commentary, describes Ginsberg's Qoheleth as profoundly pessimistic and fatalistic: "According to Ginsberg, the book concludes that all is futile and nugatory. This is true even of wisdom. The same emotions, experiences and activities recur endlessly in human life. God determines the time for every event, which humans may try to discover but to no avail. The nature of phenomena is determined for eternity, and they never cease. This is true even of fear of heaven, oppression, righteous judgment and wickedness. Death wipes away the advantages of wisdom and other talents. The only thing of real value is the enjoyment of material goods."

I think that Fox, although not incorrect, is overstating Ginsberg's negative reading. It is not that the only thing of real value is the enjoyment of material goods. In Ginsberg's words again, such enjoyment is "a compensation which God grants to his lucky favorites for those griefs of life; in fact it is a distraction from them."

Let me also make mention of Ginsberg's approach to the question of the language of Qohelet. Studies in Koheleth is altogether 46 pages in length. The longest chapter, III, entitled "Koheleth Wrote in Aramaic," runs from pp. 16-39. As early as 1922, F. C. Burkitt had expressed the opinion that a number of passages in Qohelet suggested that the Hebrew of Qohelet was derived from an Aramaic original. This view was championed by C. C. Torrey and then by Frank Zimmerman. As late as 1949 Ginsberg had not been convinced of the merits of the translation hypothesis, but close study of the book "converted" him, as he puts it, shortly thereafter.

According to C. L. Seow (Ecclesiates; AB 1997, 13), the theory of translation "has been so effectively demolished by R. Gordis, F. C. Whitley, and others that it is hardly taken seriously anymore." More recently Michael Fox in his JPS commentary prefers, I believe correctly, to leave the question open. At first sight we might be tempted to say of the translation theory what Anton Schoors said in The Preacher Sought to Find Pleasing Words (1992), p. 8. "This is a self-destructive theory, for why should somebody want to translate an Aramaic text into Hebrew when he neither properly understands the Aramaic original nor sufficiently masters the language to offer a flawless translation." But Schoors assumes a self-awareness on the part of translators that might be absent.

In Studies in Koheleth, Ginsberg cites several instances in which the LXX misunderstood the Hebrew. William Hallo, in an essay on bilingualism that appeared in the Haran Festschrift, observes that in translating Sumerian texts word for word and even morpheme for morpheme, Akkadian translators often produced misleading translations. For his part, James R. Russell informs me that there was much bad Pahlavi translation of Avestan. In any case, Ginsberg's understanding of Qohelet does not stand or fall with the translation theory and unlocks much of this book, whose sought-after meaning produces much weariness of the flesh.

S. David Sperling,, Hebrew Union College, New York

Citation: S. David Sperling, " H. L. Ginsberg and the Smaller Books of the Bible," SBL Forum , n.p. [cited Feb 2005]. Online:


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