From the Sources by Eliezer Segal: It sounds better in Tarsian

by Eliezer Segal

(AJNews) – Among the leaders who accompanied the Jewish governor Zerubbabel in the return to Zion after the Babylonian captivity, as told in the books of Ezra and Nehemiah, is a person named Mordecai. That list contains ten names, which would seem to indicate ten separate persons. However, the absence of conjunctions allows for the possibility that one or more of the cases involves an individual with two names.

This is a possibility that might apply to Mordecai whose name is followed by an otherwise unknown “Bilshan.”

As far as I am aware, academic scholarship has not reached a consensus regarding the meaning of “Bilshan.” Some derive it from a Hebrew word for “inquire” or “investigate.” Others connect it to a Babylonian word connoting “their lord.” In the Apocryphal Greek work known as “1Esdras” the name appears as “Beelsarus” which might incorporate a blessing for the deity Bel [= Marduk].

The prevailing view of the sages in the Talmud and Midrash was that Bilshan is a descriptive epithet attached to the name Mordecai. “Mordecai” was a common Babylonian name, and it was customary for Babylonian and Persian Jews to go by both Hebrew and non-Jewish monikers (as we learn from the case of the double-named Hadassah-Esther). Rabbi Abraham Ibn Ezra conceded that the Hebrew syntax allows for both possibilities: that “Bilshan” is attached to the name Mordecai, or that it refers to a separate person. He preferred the latter option.

In fact, the book of Esther speaks of Mordecai as one “who had been carried away from Jerusalem with the captivity which had been carried away with Jeconiah king of Judah.” Jeconiah’s exile took place in 597 B.C.E., and Zerubbabel’s return is estimated at around 530 B.C.E. The events of the Megillah occurred during the decade following 483 B.C.E.—when Mordecai would have been more than a century old. Some have suggested therefore that the person who is being linked to Jeconiah’s exile is not Mordecai himself but his ancestor Kish, a possibility that is quite possible from a grammatical standpoint. The book of Esther contains not the slightest hint of Mordecai’s traveling to Judea at any point in his life.

Ibn Ezra declared categorically that the Mordecai of Ezra was one and the same as Mordecai the Jew in Esther. In taking this position he was allying himself with the predominant view of the talmudic sages.

The plot thickens considerably when we take note of a passage in the Mishnah that enumerates various officials who served in the second Jerusalem Temple. The text in the standard printed editions reads, “Pethahiah presided over the nests [that is, the distribution of doves for sacrificial offerings]. Pethahiah was Mordecai. Why was he designated by the name Pethahiah [from the Hebrew root for opening or uncovering]? Because he would ‘open’ matters and expound them; and he understood seventy languages.”

Ascribing such impressive linguistic expertise to Mordecai dovetails neatly with the view that equates him with “Bilshan,” which contains the Semitic root for tongue or language, LShN. Commentators have interpreted the term in the sense of “master of tongues,” “mixer of tongues,” and so forth. Indeed, “balshan” has been adopted as the modern Hebrew term for a linguist.

However, the words “Pethahiah was Mordecai” are not attested in any reliable text of the Mishnah. Furthermore, Mordecai was not of priestly lineage and therefore was ineligible to hold office in the Temple.

Nevertheless, the Talmud connects Pethahiah’s / Mordecai’s mastery of languages with the premise that he was a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish high court. Rabbi Yoḥanan stipulated as a necessary qualification for that position that a judge must be proficient in seventy languages, in keeping with the rabbinic conception about the total number of nations in the world. The rationale for this requirement was to preclude the need to hear testimony through translators or interpreters.

That assumption reflects the legendary aura that surrounded the memory of the Temple era for later generations. Some medieval authorities tried to ease this language requirement for judges. Thus, Maimonides speaks about their understanding “most” languages and only recommends it as a desirable ideal rather than a mandatory prerequisite. At any rate, this ideal does not appear to be influencing appointments to rabbinical courts today.

Without mentioning Mordecai’s name, the Jerusalem Talmud relates several tales that illustrate the linguistic acumen of Pethahiah – albeit not so much in mastering foreign tongues (which, after all, was a skill supposedly shared by all qualified judges), as in his cleverness at deciphering non-verbal hints and gestures.

For instance, once, during a drought, it was impossible to locate barley in time to perform the “Omer” rite, and a certain mute was the only person who knew about an available supply in a place called Gaggot Serifin [= “roofs of sheds”]. Pethahiah was able to correctly interpret the mute’s charade of placing one hand on a roof and the other on a shed.

A similar problem arose with respect to the wheat necessary for the two loaves offered on Shavuot, which could only be found in a place called ‘Eyn Sokher. When the mute pointed to his eye and to a door-lock, Pethahiah figured out that he was indicating that locality; since ‘Eyn in Hebrew can designate an eye or a spring, and sokher means “shut” or “dam.” The Babylonian Talmud tells these same stories, but identifies the hero as Mordecai.

According to the Talmud, it was Mordecai’s polyglot skills that equipped him to eavesdrop on the conversations between Bigthan and Teresh when they were plotting to assassinate Ahasuerus. They were natives of Tarsus and were confident that their exotic vernacular would not be understood by outsiders.

If nothing else, all this serves as a powerful argument for a broad liberal education that promotes the acquisition of foreign tongues.

Whether interrogating witnesses, snooping on conspirators or enjoying foreign literature, there are always some things that are best appreciated in their original languages.

Eliezer Segal is a Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

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