Meshamdutho and Meshumad le-Teavon: Motivation of Evil Doers in Syriac and Hebrew Terminological-Conceptual Traditions

Author: Avraham Yoskovich (University of Haifa, Israel)
Speaker: Avraham Yoskovich
Topic: Anthropological Linguistics
COMELA 2021 General Session


Language can be a confusing mirror for relationship between communities while it enables connection and separation simultaneously. Indeed, Jewish and Christian communities had a close but complicated relationship in late antique-early Islamic period Babylon (the fertile crescent). That relationship revealed also in using similar dialects of Aramaic: Jewish Babylonian Aramaic and Christian Syriac Aramaic. My study describes changes and developments in the status of apostate (Heb. Meshumad) in the Jewish literature of late antiquity by examining terminological variations. In this presentation I wish to present the Syriac developments and compare the two in order to understand the mutual process in one terminological and conceptual case.

One such case is the idea of defining apostate not only by his wrong doing but  by seeking his motivation to do it. According to that model if an evil act originated from his desire or lewdness he should be judged in a more containing manner than if it originated by rage or theological purpose. It was phrased in Hebrew by the words Meshumad le-Teavon ‘apostate out of desire’. The second new word le-Teavon (for (his) desire), is a predicate added to the basic ancient term Meshumad, ‘apostate’. This model and new phrasing are connected mainly with Rava, who was a prominent sage who lived in 4th century CE in Mehoza, close to Ctesiphon, the capitol of the Persian Sassanian dynasty.

The Syriac word Shmad is a well attested since the early testimonies of syriac literature, in different forms, connected to the semantic field of curse, ban and excommunication. Only in sources from the 5-6th centuries CE we find a new form of that root  Meshamdotho which means ‘lewdness’, ‘to be wanton’. The new form changes the focus of the root from describing the wrong doing and its social implication to describing his manner of doing, maybe even to the reason for his or her behavior.

My presentation will raise the question of the connection between those almost parallel changes. Are they related to one another? in what way? what is similar and what are the differences? Can we explain the reason for raising of a new paradigm in communal defining the apostates and wrong doers? I will examine few sources, Jewish and Christian, who relate to those terms and ideas.

Keywords: Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, Christian Syriac Aramaic. parallel changes