Throughout the Middle Ages, the study of the Hebrew language underwent major developments in different regions and most notably in al-Andalus, where the bases of the methodology still in use today were laid. In the medieval Islamic world, the study of language occupied a leading role among the sciences, for language was regarded as the key providing access to the other disciplines. Within linguistic studies, lexicography – that is, the study of words – ranked extremely high.
It therefore comes as no surprise that Jewish medieval scholars devoted much energy to this discipline. Their efforts took the shape of either dictionaries or studies dedicated to specific biblical passages or words. The importance of lexicography within Jewish medieval literature is made evident not only by the high number of lexicographical works produced at the time, but also by their quality and by the impact they had in shaping and orienting other sciences, such as grammar.
Insofar as Hebrew lexicography stemmed from the study of the Bible, medieval Hebrew dictionaries were almost infallibly dictionaries of biblical Hebrew and medieval Hebrew lexicography can hardly be conceived as separated from the study of the grammar of Biblical Hebrew. Thus, medieval Jewish lexicographers put all their efforts in clarifying the words of the Bible.
When speaking of “medieval Hebrew grammar”, contemporary scholarship usually refers to Andalusian grammatical works on Hebrew grammar. These works rest on the principles of the ars grammaticae, which are totally different from those that structure the medieval notion of ‘ulum al-luga as developed for example by al-Fārābī (872-950). In fact, a study of the history of Jewish biblical studies in the Middle Ages evinces how the structure and contents of lexicographical compendia evolved over time.
The great flourishing of Jewish linguistic studies took place in al-Andalus from the tenth throughout the twelfth century. The most important representative of this flourishing can be identified with Ḥasday ibn Shaprūṭ (c. 910-c.975), the leading intellectual figure of Andalusian Jewry, whose work must be understood within the context of the policy of Arabicising promoted by the caliph ‘Abd al-Raḥmān III (912-929-961).
In the wake of the twelfth-century invasion of Iberian Peninsula by North African armies, the Jews had to immigrate to Christian lands. In this new environment, the Jews abandoned the Arabic language and adopted the Hebrew language to compose their works and spread their lexicographic compendia. The most important works from this period are Solomon ben Parḥon of Calatayud’s Maḥberet he-‘Arukh, written in Salerno around 1160, and David Qimḥī’s Sefer ha-Shorashim (‘The Book of roots’), which was written in Provence. The first part of Maimonides’ Guide of the Perplexed should also be understood within the framework of this movement.
These authors paved the path for a period of assimilation (thirteenth-fourteenth centuries) which saw the emergence of a series of dictionaries written by authors from both sides of the Mediterranean basin. Although not of Andalusian origin, they were nevertheless inspired by works that had been produced in the Iberian Peninsula. Among the most noteworthy instances of this literature is a Hebrew work entitled Anonymous Dictionary of Provence and the Kitāb al-Taysīr ‘Book of Facilitation’, written in Arabic in ancient Cairo by Solomon ben Ṣaʿīr ben Mobarak.
These new dictionaries are the first to somehow look like nowadays dictionaries. While they usually do not contain any remarks concerning the ‘symbol’ (that is, concerning the morphology of the word), they rather focus on the ‘referent’ (meaning).
In comparison with their predecessors, thirteenth- and fourteenth-century Hebrew lexicographers show a greater propensity to give their lexicographical articles a standardized form. What are the peculiarities of this standardized form? A lexicographical article is made up of at least three main components: lemma, entries and meaning.
In Hebrew dictionaries, lemmas allow us to date the dictionary itself: indeed, whenever week and geminates roots are expressed as triliteral lemmas, we can safely state that the dictionary was written after the end of the tenth century, that is, after the treatises of Ḥayyūǧ were published and studied in the entire Judeo-Arabic world. By contrast, the use of biliteral roots is not necessarily indicative of the time when a lexicographical work was composed: indeed, as late as the twelfth century many authors – and, most notably, karaite authors – still used pre-grammatical methods of analysis or anagrammatical criteria, as for instance Hay Ga’on in the eleventh century. But to my point of view, this is not the case of Andalusian dictionaries.
In each lexicographical article, one can distinguish three ‘segments’. The ‘first segment’ is represented by the ‘entries’ (i.e. the flexed forms of a root). As is to be expected, as a rule entries appear in an established order: perfect, imperfect, participle, imperative, infinitive, and nouns. This amounts to saying that the ‘first segment’ comprises morphological, etymological and other elements pertaining to the lemma.
The ‘second segment’ is represented by the ‘meaning’: it is usually expressed by a synonym of the entry. Each entry has a basic meaning (ḥaqīqa) and sometimes also secondary meanings – i.e. a metaphorical (ista‘ar) or figurative (maǧāz) meaning. Following the lexicographical tradition developed in the first part of Dalālat al-ḥā’irīn, Maimonides used to add an allegorical meaning (tašbīh) deriving from the metaphorical one.
A ‘third segment’ is represented by the complementary information that sometimes appears alongside the other two segments. This information can refer either to the first or to the second segment. This information does not appear in a fixed position within each article, its position depending on the author’s choice.
In the light of this tripartition of the information found in Hebrew dictionaries, we can distinguish between two main types of dictionaries – that is, synthetic and analytic dictionaries. In synthetic dictionaries, much information is given for granted implicit and it is up to the user to decode the implicit information. By contrast, in analytic dictionaries all the relevant information is clearly spelled out. This is why analytic dictionaries may also be styled as ‘narrative’ dictionaries.
Here is an example from David Qimḥi’s Sefer ha-Shorashim:
עלץ. עלץ לבי ביי . יעלוץ השדה . בעלוץ צדיקים רבה תפארת . והשם עליצותם כמו לאכול עני במסתר. ענין שמחה וגילה. ואלו שלושה שורשים בזי »ן ובסמ »ך ובצד »י נשתוים.
עָלַ֤ץ לִבִּי֙ בַּֽיי : עלץ (2 Samuel 2:1). יַֽעֲלֹ֥ץ הַשָּׂדֶ֖ה (1 Chronicles 16:32). בַּֽעֲלֹ֣ץ צַ֭דִּיקִים רַבָּ֣ה תִפְאָ֑רֶת (Proverbs 28:12). The name is [‘aliṣut] עֲלִ֣יצֻתָ֔ם כְּמוֹ־לֶאֱכֹ֥ל עָנִ֖י בַּמִּסְתָּֽר (Habakuk 3:14). The meaning is ‘happiness, joy’. These three roots with zayin (עלז), samekh (עלס) and ṣade (עלץ) are identical.
First segment: עָלַ֤ץ 3MS perfect. יַֽעֲלֹ֥ץ 3MS imperfect. בַּֽעֲלֹ֣ץ infinitive. עֲלִ֣יצֻתָ֔ם action name + suffix 3MP
Second segment: basic meaning שִֹמְחָה, גִּילָה.
Complementary information: similar roots showing interchanging sibilants basically have the same meaning.