My friend told me that there is a section of the Talmud which relates that the rabbis lacked expertise in Hebrew and so they had to ask a house servant about the meaning of Hebrew words which they hadn’t a clue how to understand.
I wanted to ask if this is true, and if you could give me the cite for the section.
Many times the sages of the Talmud did not know the meaning of Scriptural and Mishnaic words and used the assistance of others. I do not see this lack of expertise as lessening the honor of Chazal, particularly as they admitted to their deficiency.
Thus, for example, (in Tractate Rosh Hashanah 26b) there is a chain of words from the Scriptures and the Mishnah which Chazal did not understand. I will cite two examples. The word y’havchah in the verse “Cast y’havchahon the Lord and He shall sustain you” (Psalms 55:23) was unknown to the sages and they learned of its meaning from a random encounter with an Arab traveling merchant who said “Take y’havchah and rest it on the camel.” From his words they understood the word to mean “burden.” Thus, too, for the word seirugin which appears in the Mishnah instructing us that one who reads the Scroll of Esther on Purim by seirugin and who dozes off has fulfilled his obligation (Megillah 2:2). Once they happened to hear a maid in the house of Rabbi Judah the Nasi say, after watching the sages enter the study hall bit by bit instead of all at one time, “How long are you going to enter seirugin seirugin?” and they understood then the meaning of the word seirugin.
The sages were aware that Scriptural Hebrew had undergone changes, and therefore they said “The language of the Torah is one thing and the language of the sages another.” It is said that one of the sages who taught his son Mishnah changed the wording of the Mishnah from “The first cut of the shearing is not practiced except on rachelot,” as written in the Mishnah (Tractate Chulin 11:1), to “The first cut of the shearing is not practiced except on rachelim.” One of the sages asked why he had distorted the language of the Mishnah and was answered: I used the language of the Torah, “two hundred rachelim” (Genesis 32:15). And keeping to the same idea, in the Scriptures and, of course, in the words of the greatest rabbis, there is no consistency in the use of male and female nouns. “For behold, the stone that I have laid before Joshua: Upon the stone are seven [shivah] eyes” (Zechariah 3), and in I Kings 18: “How long will you falter between two [shtei] opinions?” (it should have read shnei). In Psalms (102) it is written “I lie awake, and am like a [male] bird alone on the housetop” while in Deuteronomy (14) the same word is used as a female noun “All pure birds may you eat.” The Ibn Ezra wrote about this usage in Psalms (102:8) “Like a bird — a male noun, and in the Torah it is female, just as the word se [sheep] [is sometimes male and sometimes female]. Se pezurah (female), rak se tamim (male).” Even within the same verse words can change gender; for example (Exodus 35) “The hangings of the court, its pillars [male], their sockets [female]” and I Kings 19, “And behold, the Lord passed by, and a wind gedolah v’chazak [great and strong, female and male] tore into the mountains and broke the rocks in pieces.”
We will return to our discussion. Since language changes, it is only natural that Scriptural Hebrew would not be clear and understandable even to the sages. What is troubling is that the method used by Chazal to interpret the Scriptures is illogical and unacceptable. Thus, for example, one of the sages (Rosh Hashanah 26a) argues that the Scriptures mean a cow’s horn when speaking of a shofar and that therefore one is permitted to sound a cow’s horn on Rosh Hashanah, and brings as proof the verse “This also shall please the Lord better than a shor par [ox or bull]” (Psalms 69:32). The sage joined the words shor par to create a new word, shofar, and thus learned that the cow’s horn is called a shofar. Another example is from Rabbi Akiva, who studied the way the tefillin housing for the head was made. He took the Biblical word totafot and divided it in two: tot and fot. He translated tot to mean “two,” for he said that in a foreign language that is what it meant. The word fot, he said, also meant “two.” Together, totafot means four, and so the tefillin housing is to be made of four compartments.
Wishing you a happy new year,