Geek alert - sefer barrier stuff
March 01, 2007
One of the classes I'm taking this spring is called Breaking the Sefer Barrier. "Sefer" means "book;" this is a course designed to help students achieve facility with rabbinic texts. This isn't a course in reading and understanding Hebrew; it's presumed that everyone in the class already has at least some proficiency there. No -- we're focusing on decoding rabbinic Hebrew, which means in large part learning to handle references and acronyms.
(Geek alert: this may only interest about three of my readers, including Talmida...)
Every time I run into a cluster of letters I don't immediately recognize, I need to decide whether it's simply a vocabulary word I don't yet know, or whether it's a number (remember, Hebrew numbers and letters are designated by the same characters,) or whether it's a reference.
The references are the tricky ones. Book titles are usually abbreviated. (CW"S, for instance, might mean Complete Works of Shakespeare -- or Chicago White Sox. Context is everything.) So are phrases. (Think of how a fluent English-speaker knows that FYI stands for "for your information," and that R.S.V.P. expands in French to réspondez, s'il-vous plâit.) So are names. (The acronym RaMBaM expands to Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, a.k.a. Maimonides. For an English-language comparison -- well, when the seventh Harry Potter book comes out, we'll know who R.A.B. is, won't we?) To make things even more interesting, Hebrew abbreviations often use not just first initials, but the first and last letters of a word or phrase.
Daunted yet? To the novice reader, this is tremendously challenging. Every inch of text needs unpacking, and the work of puzzling over it until one can expand it fully is a little bit exhausting. But when I can approach it in the right frame of mind, the treasure-hunt quality is kind of...fun.
(There's a terrific post about this very subject over at English Hebraica: Something about Hebrew abbreviations, abbreviature, rashei tevot. The coolest part of the post, to my mind, is the reprint of the 1736 text aimed at explaining this stuff to an English audience.)
My shiny new copy of Otzar Roshei Teivot, a glossary of common abbreviations and the titles, references, and phrases to which they expand, arrived in the mail last week. When I showed it off to Ethan, he seemed bemused by our continuing use of antiquated technology. This seems, he noted, like the perfect use for hypertext. Imagine if these texts were all digitized, and each acronym could be expanded to its full meaning with a simple click!
Is anyone out there doing such a thing? I have to admit, part of me yearns for it; and another part of me suspects there's a certain fun to doing it the old way. Or there will be, once I get my skills up to speed...