I. The Ambiguous Stay
While the Jews are famous for wandering in the desert for forty years, the truth is that most of that time was spent camped, particularly in one place. It is traditionally assumed that the Jews camped at Kadesh Barnea for 18 or 19 of the 40 years. One of the verses indicating this is subject to a disputed explanation that I would like to examine.
Deut. 1:46 -- "ותשבו בקדש ימים רבים כימים אשר ישבתם"
The first phrase is clear -- "And you stayed/dwelt/lived in Kadesh many years", where "days" means "years" (see this post: link). The second phrase, however, is difficult to decipher. Translating word-for-word simply, it means "like the days that you lived/dwelt" but that is ambiguous. The Aramaic translations retain that ambiguity and render each Hebrew word into Aramaic without elaboration (Onkelos, Pseudo-Yonasan, Peshitta).
Click here for moreII. The Iraqi Debate
Generally speaking, any translation is a commentary because it requires determining the meaning of ambiguous words. And in order to be entirely clear, it also requires clarifying ambiguous phrases. R. Sa'adia Gaon's translation of the Bible into Arabic is, therefore, a source of commentary from him. R. Yosef Kafach composed a commentary adapted from the translation, showing where R. Sa'adia explained difficult words and phrases, and explaining what he intended. On the above verse, R. Sa'adia translated the second phrase as "approximately like the all of the other years you dwelt". In other words, the Jews stayed in Kadesh the same amount of time that they stayed in other places. This is a traditional explanation because it is in accord with the understanding of Seder Olam.
R. Sa'adia's student in Baghdad who later moved to Spain, R. Donash Ibn Labrat, wrote a book criticizing many of R. Sa'adia's commentaries implicit in his translation (the book is available online - link - PDF). On this verse, R. Donash takes issue with R. Sa'adia (par. 34), calling it a "big mistake". The Jews had traveled for only a year until they reached Kadesh but stayed in Kadesh for 18 (or 19) years. That is hardly the equation implied by R. Sa'adia's translation. Rather, R. Donash translates the phrase as meaning "the years they spent there". In other words, the Jews stayed in Kadesh for many years, the time they spent there. The last phrase serves to emphasize the long span of time spent in one place.
III. The French Connection
This dispute was continued in France a century later. Rashi (without citing this previous debate) takes R. Sa'adia's side in this dispute and provides an answer to R. Donash's question. The Jews stayed in Kadesh for the amount of time spent outside of it afterward, not before. They spent 19 years in Kadesh, wandered the desert for 19 years, and then returned to Kadesh.
Rashi's grandson, Rashbam, takes R. Donash's side (without explanation). He explains the second phrase as meaning "as you know" -- you know how long of a time you spent there. There is, therefore, no indication that it was directly equal to the amount of time spent elsewhere.
IV. The Third Option
Ibn Ezra has a radically different approach to understanding this phrase. He utilizes the connection between the Spies' sojourn into the Land of Israel and the amount of time spent in the desert, 40 years in the desert as a punishment for the 40 days in Israel (Num. 14:34). The phrase "like the days that you dwelt" refers, therefore, to the spies dwelling in the Land of Israel.
Shadal rejects Ibn Ezra's approach because of two questions: 1) Why did they only stay an additional 38 years in the desert when the spies were in Israel for 40 days? 2) Why does it say that the spies dwelt in Israel when really they traveled through it? There is a further question that can be asked: 3) Why does the verse say that the Jews dwelt for that period of time when it was only the spies?
In response to these questions, we can answer: 1) It was a show of God's mercy that he cut the punishment a little short (Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah). 2) & 3) The verse speaks about the time that the entire nation waited while the spies traveled the Land (Ha-Kesav Ve-Ha-Kabbalah). Or 3) The spies were acting as the agents of the entire nation and it is as if they all traveled the Land for 40 days (Mendelssohn's Bi'ur).
V. Modern Jewish Commentaries
Mendelssohn's Bi'ur commentary quotes both the views of Rashbam (& R. Donash) and Ibn Ezra, and Shadal assumes he adopts the latter. However, in his German translation of the Torah, Mendelssohn follows Rashbam, or at least that is what Shadal claims. I don't understand the German but here it is: דיא איהר דאזעלבסט האבט פערוויילען מיססען.
Shadal rejects Ibn Ezra and accepts Rashbam. R. David Tzvi Hoffmann offers both Rashi's and Rashbam's explanations. Hertz follows Rashbam. S.L. Gordon (Shelag) follows Rashbam and adds that Kadesh was the main encampment throughout the stay in the desert but the Jews journeyed from there many times. A.S. Hartom also accepts Rashbam, and writes that the Torah does not specify the amount of time because it is not important. Da'as Mikra quotes both Rashi and Rashbam in the text of the commentary, and Ibn Ezra in a footnote with an instruction to see Shadal's comments, which dispute Ibn Ezra's approach (as above).
As mentioned above, the Aramaic translations rendered the phrase under discussion word for word, without explaining it. Nearly all of English translations follow Rashbam:
KJV: So ye abode in Kadesh many days, according unto the days that ye abode there
NIV: And so you stayed in Kadesh many days--all the time you spent there
NRSV: After you had stayed at Kadesh as many days as you did
Net Bible: Therefore, you remained at Kadesh for a long time – indeed, for the full time
NAB: That is why you had to stay as long as you did at Kadesh
JPS: So ye abode in Kadesh many days, according unto the days that ye abode there
NJPS: Thus, you remained at Kadesh all that long time [fn: Lit. "many days, like the days that you remained"]
Living Torah: You remained in Kadesh Barnea for a long time, as long as you remained [in all the other places]. (See footnote: link)
Only R. Aryeh Kaplan's The Living Torah follows Rashi and R. Sa'adia Ga'on. The rest follow Rashbam and R. Donash. In the debate between R. Sa'adia and R. Donash, it seems that the student has prevailed.
Tuesday, September 01, 2009
I. The Ambiguous Stay