Wordtrade LogoWordtrade.com


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences


Berakhyah Ben Natronai ha-Nakdan, Sefer Ko’ah Ha-Avanim (On the Virtue of the Stones). Hebrew Text and English Translation. With a Lexicological Analysis of the Romance Terminology and Source Study by Gerrit Bos and Julia Zwink (Brill Academic)  The lore of the supposed magic and medical virtue of stones goes back to the Babylonians and peaks out in the lapidary literature of the Middle Ages. The famous work of Marbode of Rennes, which made lapidaries a very popular type of medieval scientific literature, was translated into numerous vernacular languages. The Jewish tradition, missing a particular lapidary literature of its own, absorbed non-Jewish works like that of Marbode. Several Anglo-Norman Marbode translations could be identified as the main source of the present edited Hebrew lapidary Ko’ah Ha-Avanim, written by Berakhyah Ben Natronai ha-Nakdan around 1300. The edition is accompanied by an English translation, a source study, and a linguistic analysis of the Romance, mostly Anglo-Norman, terms featuring within the text in Hebrew spelling.

Excerpt: Berakhyah Ben Natronai ha-Nakdan was a Hebrew scholar, punctuator, commentator of the Bible, and fabulist whose life and identity have been the object of much speculation in the past, as there is very little definite information. Especially in the nineteenth century his life and literary activities received much attention from Jewish scholars and promoters of the "Wissenschaft des Judentums," such as Julius Fürst, Leopold Zunz, Heinrich Graetz, and Moritz Steinschneider, next to other scholars like Adolph Neubauer, Henri Gross, and Joseph Jacobs. To quote just a few of the opinions held by these scholars: Graetz called him "a poor scribe, also called `Crispia', flor. 123o-1245 ." According to Jacobs, Berakhyah is identical with Benedictus le Puncteur of Oxford and was one of the most important English Jews who lived around 119o.3 Steinschneider, in his catalogue of the Hebrew books in the Bodleian Library,4 refers to him as a "punctator" (punctuator), "Gallus" (from France), also called "Crispia", and adds that if he is the interpreter or epitomizer of Sa'adya Ga'on's "Beliefs and Opinions", he must have flourished before 117o; in his Die hebräischen Ubersetzungen he states that we do not know for certain Berakhyah's native country, that we do not have sufficient proof to suppose that it might have been England, and that he lived in the thirteenth century,' and in his Lapidarien adds that he is of French origin.  Gross thought that he lived in Dreux, in the north of France and is identical with Crespia.

The divergent opinions held by these scholars were, with the exception of Graetz, critically reviewed and summarized by Herman Gollancz in 1902 with the following words: "This, then, is in effect almost all that has been hitherto written concerning our author, and the result is comparatively unsatisfactory. Neither the date of his birth, nor of his activity, is fixed with any precision; the place whence he came, the amount of knowledge he possessed, the sources which he utilized, the whole character of his works, all these points have not yet been definitely determined."' Gollancz then unfolds his own theory concerning the author's life and works based on the few data we possess. From the rarity of the family name he surmises that he had a brother, a Tosaphist in France, called Samuel ha-Nakdan who is mentioned for the year 1175 and that he was not so much a punctuator of the Bible himself but hailed from a family of Nakdanim. He refutes the identification of Berakhyah with Crespia or Crispia ha-Nakdan, suggests that he was born early in the twelfth century in the Provence and may have moved at some time to the north of France, and that his literary activity reached its zenith between 116o and 117o.9 Gollancz's own theory concerning Berakhyah's identity was in its turn critically reviewed by Nathan Porges, Jacob Gutman," Israel Lévi, and Steinschneider. Especially Levi was sharp in his critique of Gollancz's reconstruction of Berakhyah's biography when he concluded that "his attempt to freshen up the old hypothesis had failed".

Following these discussions about the author's identity more than half a century would pass without any fundamental new insight into the question of the author's biography. Thus, Moses Hadas, the translator of Berakhyah's Mishlei Shu'alim (Fox Fables) into English states that "there is very little information about the life of Rabbi Berakhyah ben Natronai ha-Nakdan", that he was "French, born perhaps in Burgundy, and that he spent much time in Provence", and that he is possibly identical with Benedictus le Puncteur. And A.M. Habermann remarks in the entry on Berakhyah in the Encyclopaedia Judaica, published in 1971, that he lived at the end of the twelfth-thirteenth century, has been identified with Benedictus le Puncteur, and also with Crespia or Crispia which has proven to be wrong, that he lived in Normandy, and at some time also in England.

In 1974 Norman Golb came up with new data concerning Berakhyah's biography and literary activity in his monograph on the history of the Jews of Rouen," and in his history of the Jews in medieval Normandy published in 1998. However, it seems that also his "biography" is not the final word on Berakhyah's life and activities, as it has been criticized by a number of scholars. According to Golb, Berakhyah lived in the second half of the twelfth century in the city of Radom (= Rouen) in Normandy which was at that time ruled by the Angevin kings of England whose rule is marked by generous liberties and protection granted to the Jews. This political situation facilitated the development of Rouen into a center of both religious and secular learning, with prominent scholars like Samuel Ben Meir (Rashbam), Eliezer of Beaugency, Abraham ibn Ezra and Berakhyah. While Samuel Ben Meir and Eliezer of Beaugency were concentrating as biblical commentators on the Jewish religious tradition, both Ibn Ezra and Berakhyah took great interest in secular science and wisdom from non-Jewish sources and played a central role in its transfer to the Jews in northwestern Europe. Ibn Ezra was above all active in promoting the introduction of popular and learned science, such as grammar, mathematics, astronomy and astrology derived from Arab sources into Jewish circles, his fellow citizen Berakhyah concentrated foremost on the transmission of science and wisdom to his Jewish compatriots derived from Christian sources.

Berakhyah's literary activity should be seen in the light of the following confession in the work called by the editor Gollancz Dodi we-Nekhdi according to which he saw himself as a transmitter of foreign (Greek, Arabic) lore and literature, philosophy and science which were hidden in the works by Christian authors to his Jewish compatriots:

I, Berachya, son of Natronai, was worried in thought till I girded my loins, and translated these subjects into Hebrew. I found them in non-Jewish writings, translated as they were from the Arabs. In them were concealed matters coming from the wise men of our age, and this splendid knowledge of the expert was not even looked at by the eye of the untutored. Now when I saw such splendid wisdom placed in front of (restored to) you in an ugly setting ... I cleansed it from the hand of the Gentile, and wrote it out in the Holy Language, which is so dignified in tone.

Thus, he composed the following works: 1. Mishlei Shu'alim (Fox Fables), a collection of 119 fables, largely drawn on the Aesopic fables in their different medieval versions. A similar version in old French or Anglo-Norman was produced by Marie de France who was active as a poet in the second half of the 12th century. The earlier assumption" that Berakhyah was inspired by this French version is, according to Golb, unlikely. Berakhyah's special endeavour with his Fox Fables was, as Golb puts it, "to produce a Hebrew Ysopet of elevated taste, with which he wanted to make accessible in Hebrew a product of non-Jewish culture that he believed could have value for the Jews of his milieu." In order to "Judaise" the material at hand, to purify it from its ugly, i.e. pagan elements, Berakhyah eliminated all mythological and pagan references, as well as the deities mentioned in his prototypes. 2. Two religious-ethical treatises, one entitled Sefer ha-Mazref, and a second treatise which the editor Gollancz called "Hibbur" (Compendium) as he could not find a title for it,24 but which probably carried the name Musar or Musar Haskel ("The Discipline of Wisdom"), following the reconstruction of the title from the colophon of the Vatican manuscript by Golb." Both works are largely an adaptation and summary of religious ideas expressed by Sa'adya Ga'on in his K. al-Amanat wa tiqadat (Book of Beliefs and Opinions), which was accessible to Berakhyah in the old, unprinted Hebrew paraphrase. Other secondary sources consulted by him are Bahya ibn Pakuda and Solomon ibn Gabirol. In this way Berakhyah transmitted basic ideas of Muslim Kalam philosophy as above all expressed in Sa'adya's Book of Beliefs and Opinions to a Jewish public. 3. Sefer Dodi we-Nekhdi or She'elot mentioned above, a Hebrew adaptation and paraphrase of the Quaestiones Naturales, a popular twelfth century book on the natural sciences composed by Adelard of Bath which belongs to a genre called "Masd'il wa-ajwiba" in the Arab literary tradition, and especially reminds one of the so-called "Problemata physica", which study the reasons and causes of phenomena in nature." 4. Sefer Ko'ah ha-Avanim, see below. Finally, Berakhyah also played a prominent role in promoting knowledge of the Jewish tradition by commenting on the books of the Bible, especially by explaining difficult terms and translating them into Old French.27

Sefer Ko'ah ha-Avanim (On the Virtue of the Stones)

This work composed by Berakhyah at an unknown date is extant in a single manuscript, namely Oxford Bodleian Library, Can. Or. 7o, cat. Neubauer 1147, fols. 73a-8ob, which was copied in an Ashkenazi script in the fourteenth century.28 The text featuring in the margin of a liturgical text has been copied by a scribe who hardly new any Hebrew and did not understand the text at all, so that it is replete with mistakes and corruptions. Recently, the text has been published anonymously in an

anthology of 29 Hebrew texts on precious stones entitled: Sefer Segullot ha-avanim ha-tovot. Unfortunately, this edition is uncritical and replete with mistakes. Berakhyah's lapidary, allegedly the oldest Hebrew lapidary that has come down to us, received much attention in the past because it contains possibly one of the earliest references to the sailor's compass in the following passage describing the stone called "aimant" (magnet stone):

There is one variety of it (i.e.magnet stone) which the seamen carry with them, because owing to it they know, when they drift on the sea, which way leads in the right direction, for it attracts the iron. They put a needle in the water and the stone next to it, and the needle rushes to the stone by virtue of its force. But the diamant, because of its superior force, takes the needle away from it.

The book describes 72 stones which are arranged in alphabetical order as is common for lapidaries, with the exception of stones 68 to 7o. The virtues of the stones are of a medical-scientific character and/or of a magical-supernatural one; we do not find any reference to allegorical or astrological connotations of the stones. These virtues can be activated in essentially two different ways, either by external application of the stone to the body just like an amulet, or by internal application in case the stone is friable. In the case of external application the stone can be worn by putting it in a bag and hanging it around the neck or by setting it in a ring or necklace. If the stone has a hole it can be attached with a thread to the body. Thus, Berakhyah remarks in the case of the onyx (5) that it "induces dreams in everyone who wears it on his finger, but if he hangs it around his neck he is visited in his dreams", and the crystal (57) is said to be beneficial for a woman suffering from a difficult childbirth if attached to her leg, suspended by a woolen thread. Next to these common methods of external application one also finds other ones, as in the case of the magnet stone (1) of which it is said that "Magicians carry it with them to be used in their deeds. The one who carries it with him will not dream when he is asleep. It protects from all reptiles, calms wrath and appeases quarrels. It makes wise the fools, and keeps the enemies away. Its force [is active] when one carries it in his hand or in the left wing(?) of his garment" When the stone is applied internally, its powder is imbibed with a liquid like a medicinal powder, alternatively one may rinse the stone with a liquid and then drink it. For instance, for redness of the eye it is recommended to leave a beryl (28) in water for one night and then to rinse one's eyes with that water.

Such detailed descriptions and stipulations of the actual application of precious stones go back to Dioscurides, Materia Medica, which was composed between 50-7o CE and not only describes the medicinal properties of plants but also those of around two hundred stones in book five." Following Dioscurides these different ways of application became part and parcel of ancient and medieval lapidaries in genera1. Thus, they feature in the description of minerals and gemstones by Pliny the Elder (23-79), whose Natural History, Books 36 and 37 drawing on a wide variety of sources became one of the most influential sources for medieval stone lore. Next to the applications mentioned above, Pliny describes some novel ones, such as stones that are not ingested as a powder, but to be carried in the mouth, and stones to be attached to the body with the hair of a certain animal. These traditions recur in later lapidaries, including that by Berakhyah who relates about the "alectorie" (alectorius) (no. 3):

Whoever carries it defeats his enemies in war, wherefore ancient kings used to wear it. Possessing it increases wealth, and merchants who carry it are successful and return home. Whoever wears it will not be thirsty, and who carries it between his teeth will please everyone. It arouses sexual desire, fills (...) (the brain: trans. Marbode), and is beneficial for a woman in hard labour. Ladies wear it to please men, and it is extremely powerful when one carries it in his mouth.

Likewise it is stated of the gelacia (44) which looks like hail and is always cold that if you put it in your mouth at midday at the time of the New Moon, you will know future events. And the tradition to attach the stone to the body by means of a hair features in the description of the chrysolite (29): "The one who wears it need not fear wild animals. If you find it pierced, pass a hair from the tail of an ass through the hole: it is then beneficial for madmen, to bring them back to their mind," and also in that of the chalcedon (58).

Most the stones described in Berakhyah's lapidary are effective through their intrinsic power which can be activated by men through their mere external or internal application. However, in the following tradition related in the lapidary (29) the power can only be activated through certain magical formulas which should, perhaps as stones are difficult to write on, be written on the object in which one carries it: "If someone who goes to the council wears it (i.e. the chrysolite) around his neck [inserted] in the skin of an unborn deer he will not die. He should write on it [i.e. on the skin]: Oshie[l], Ba'adie[l], Havhie[l] provide me with assistance." And in the case of the unidentified stone called "Peritora" (52) it is stated that the formula TiBaQoT QWTNY should be written on the silver ring in which the stone is set, as these names are tried [as beneficial] for gout, also when one does not use the stone.

According to some historians such an object should not be called amulet, but talisman, as it has letters or words inscribed on it. And in a tradition about the topas (4o) the magical practice of interiorising the power of the stone by drinking wine with which the stone has been rinsed is associated with that of inscribing magical formulas on a piece of parchment and drinking it: "One should wash it in wine three times a day, in the evening, morning and afternoon, and drink [the wine]. One should [also] write on parchment: 'NQ, YWD(?), TRYP, PTYR, 'WG', then wipe out what is written in wine, and drink this". These kinds of magical practices which intended to transmit the charm in physical form were, as Trachtenberg remarks, common practice in medieval love charms. In the Jewish tradition examples of this practice are found especially in the context of recipes for forgetfulness, as in Hayyim Vital's "Practical Kabbalah and Alchemy":

Take three leaves of the Rubus sanctus (seneh), on the first leaf write TTYTYTYH; on the second SSS, and on the third leaf PPPYH; erase the names with wine or water and drink this. Even if one has only learned Humash, his heart will be opened (the common expression used for the ability to remember) so that the miracle will be great.

These magical practices in which certain formulas or letters had to be written on stones in order to activate their power originated in Alexandria in the second century where many treatises recording these practices are based upon litteromancy, and are divided into twenty-four chapters, each corresponding with a letter of the alphabet. The most important treatise of that kind is the so-called Kyranides, of which the prologue states the first book to be the work of Cyranus King of Persia. It became influential through the Latin translation by Gerard of Cremona in 1175.

It should be noted that in some cases Berakhyah's lapidary not only describes the way in which the stone is to be applied but also stipulates physical and psychical conditions, as in the description of the agate (2), where it is said that "Everyone who wears it with a whole heart and with true understanding will be comforted of his grief," while of the beryl (28) and jasper (41) it is stated that its wearer has to be pure. In the case of some stones, such as the emerald (4), chalcedon (58) and calcofanus (6o) it is stipulated that one should not have sexual intercourse while carrying them. Such stipilations feature in other texts on precious stones as well. Thus, the 13th century exegete, preacher and kabbalist Bahya ben Asher ben Hlava states in his Torah commentary in the section on the twelve precious stones which were part of the breastpiece of the high priest: "I saw in the Book of Stones composed by the philosopher [i.e. Aristotle] that stones require purity. Well-known is their special property that if someone wears a stone while he is impure their power is abolished or weakened. But if he repents and becomes pure, the stone regains its former power" The same quotation with a kabbalistic argumentation features in an anonymous text entitled "Avnei ha-hoshen left shemot hashevatim" (The stones of the breastpiece according to the names of the twelve tribes) which is extant in MS Paris BN hebr. 1284, fols. 145a-146a.39

If we look at Berakhyah's lapidary from a statistical, medical point of view, it is clear that stones beneficial for women's diseases feature most frequently, namely ten times, followed by those for eye diseases (eight times), bleedings (seven times), poisons and poisonous reptiles (six times), epilepsy (five times), gout and swellings (four times).

When looking into the source(s) of Berakhyah's lapidary the first thing to take into consideration is that of the nature of this particular literary genre in general which has been characterised by John Riddle in the following words:

One is immediately struck by the remarkable variations among the lapidaries in the information concerning what is presumably one stone. In fact, hardly any two lapidaries among the many hundreds are alike. Far from relying entirely on classical authorities, the lapidarists often felt obligated to relate their own experiences about the wonderful effect of stones. When one becomes aware of the large number of stones and variations, sometimes contradictions, in information about them, it is obvious that the compiler exercised personal judgment of some kind in determining what to put into his particular text.

To make his point Riddle gives us a concrete example of the various traditions of the emerald as they exist in the medieval lapidary literature. The texts belonging to this genre are not static but variable, fluid, changeing all the time, as the compiler(s) would add or delete as they saw fit. And this holds good also for the copyist(s) as we shall see in the case of the anonymous Ellu shemot ha-avanim ha-tovim, that is the Hebrew prose translation of Marbode of Rennes' De lapidibus. The eclectic character of lapidaries may also explain why research sofar has only given us general and vague indications of the possible sources of this lapidary.

Thus, Renan-Neubauer remark that it is a translation of a French or Latin lapidary; Gross remarks that he does not know its sources as there existed many lapidaries in Berakhyah's time. Steinschneider surmises that the original should be looked for in Romance literature. Gollancz suggests that he translated from a French source from which he copied verbatim the French words as in the text before him.46 Habermann states that it is a translation-adaption of a Latin book about the magical powers in stones.47 In his monograph on the Jews of Rouen Golb remarks that Berakhyah's lapidary is neither identical with that composed by Marbode of Rennes, nor similar to it in its contents," and in his more recent monumental monograph on the Jews in medieval Normandy he states that according to Steinschneider this lapidarium was translated literally from a Latin or French work, but that a prototype of this kind has never been discovered.49 However, the anonymous editor(s) of the collection of Hebrew lapidaries intimated a close relationship between Berakhyah's lapidary and that composed by Marbode, as they stated that Ellu shemot ha-avanim ha-tovim drew amongst others drew on Berakhyah's lapidary. Our research into the possible sources of Berakhyah's lapidary has indeed confirmed a connection between the two texts insofar as both have Marbode as a common source. Marbode (ca. 1035-1123) was born in Angers, France, where he became master of the cathedral school c. 1067 and chancellor of the diocese of Angers c. 1069. In 1096 he became archbishop of Rennes in Britanny. His De lapidibus written in Latin hexameters and drawing on a wide variety of sources, such as Damigeron, Dioscurides, Pliny, Isidore of Seville, Solinus, and Costa ben Luca, was the most popular medieval book on stones surviving in not less than 160 manuscripts. It was, moreover, translated into virtually all European languages, such as French, Provençal, Italian, Irish, Danish, Hebrew, Spanish, Castilian, and Dutch.

Especially the French translations and adaptations of Marbode are of prime importance since both the Hebrew translations, that is the anonymous Ellu shemot ha-avanim ha-tovim and the verse translation prepared by Jacob Ben Reuben, and Berakhyah consulted these versions, and not the Latin ones. These medieval French versions were composed in Anglo-Norman England, the earliest, the socalled First French Version of Marbode's Lapidary before 115o, to be followed by three more versions which are called the "Second and Third Prose Lapidaries" and the "Second Lapidary of Engraved Gems". Soon after their composition they spread beyond the island into continental France. The version which Berakhyah consulted more than any other for the composition of his stonebook is the Cambridge Version of Marbode which was made directly from the Latin text and is not dependent, like the other Anglo-Norman versions, on the First French Version.55 The Cambridge Version was Berakhyah's main source for at least 43 of the 72 stones featuring in his lapidary, as is shown in the supplement in the detailed analysis by Julia Zwink.

As to the Hebrew translations, the anonymous translation starting with: Ellu shemot ha-avanim ha-tovim koham we-zeva mar'ehem u-gevuratam be-tavnitam (These are the names of the precious stones, their virtues, colors, powers and shape) is extant in MS Bern, Burgerbibliothek 200.2 which was copied in an Ashkenazy semi-cursive script in the year 129o. The text features on fols. 104a-lo8b, while the text featuring on fols. lo9b-lllb contains a discussion of some engraved stones, partly agreeing with Arnaldus Saxo "De gemmarum virtutibus". This manuscript is characterized by numerous short additions in both margins and in the text itself, as noted above. A second copy of this translation can be found in MS Oxford, Bodleian Heb. d. 11 (cat. Neubauer-Cowley 2797 /45),57 fols. 352a-358b. It was copied by Eleazar ben Asher ha-Levi in an Ashkenazy script in the fourteenth century, and ends, contrary to the previous manuscript, with the following excipit: (This is the end of the stonebook which is called "Lapidarius" in Latin). This manuscript was used for the uncritical and faulty edition in Sefer Segullot ha-avanim ha-tovot mentioned above. An indication for the fact that this text is not derivative upon a Latin Marbode Vorlage but a French one are some Old French terms which it shares with French versions of Marbode's Lapidary. Two examples are: namely (MS Oxford) for luve cervire, i.e. lynx, and (MS Oxford) for limaçun, i.e. tortoise. Since the anonymous translation is just like Berakhyah's lapidary derivative upon the old French versions of Marbode's lapidary its readings closely parallel those by Berakhyah in the case of several stones. In some cases this translation has been used to emend corruptions and to clarify obscure terms or passages in Berakhyah's text.

The critical edition is based on the Hebrew text as it features in the margin of the Oxford manuscript. As the text contains many corrupt and hard to read passages and words, it has been emended throughout, when possible on the basis of secondary material, amongst which ancient and medieval lapidaries such as Pliny, Damigeron, Arnoldus Saxo, Marbode's Latin text and French translations and the anonymous Hebrew prose translation with which Berakhyah's text shares several terms and even passages, as we showed in the comparative table following in supplement 2. The question of the relationship between Berakhyah and the anonymous Hebrew Marbode prose translation lies beyond the scope of this edition and might never be answered unequivocally, as we do not know the identity of the author of the translation, nor the date of composition.

The first supplement consists of a comparison between the text of some stones as it features in Berakhyah's stonebook and that of the anonymous translator of the stonebook by Marbode of Rennes.

The second supplement prepared by Julia Zwink consists of the following items:

  1. A general introduction to the Old French terms, written in Hebrew characters, in Berakhyah's lapidary.
  2. A linguistic study of the graphical / phonological and lexicological aspects of every single Romance / Latin term.
  3. Berakhyah's sources.
  4. Tables of the sources.
  5. Glossaries.
  6. Bibliography and abbreviations.
  7. Subject index of English and foreign terms.







Special Contents

insert content here