The captain approached him and said to him, "How come you slumber.
and cry to your G-d! Perhaps He will give us thought and we will not
The verse that we are about to discuss represents an opportunity to take
up an important question in how to interpret the book of Yonah. It is
basic and intuitively accepted by anyone who had seriously studied a
foreign language that one must be intimately acquainted with the idioms,
turns of phrase and expressions before he can properly understand a text
written in that language. Without that background, much will be missed or
misinterpreted. As an example, consider a poem written in high flowing
poetic language, in which suddenly one of the characters uses a colloquial
or even a vulgar expression. Clearly, the author intends to make some
point with that device, but it could be missed by a reader not fully
fluent in the original language.
The book of Yonah is full of unusual expressions and words. Many of them
are more typical of later Mishnaic rather than pure Biblical Hebrew and
others appear to be imported from Arameic, a related and widely spoken
language at that time, the lingua franca of the ancient world. A list of
15 of these can be found in the introduction to the Jewish Publication
Society (JPS) translation of Yonah and three of them are in our verse.
1. How come you slumber. In classical Hebrew this would be phrased
lkha ki nirdamta". The form "ma lkah nirdam", without preposition and the
present participle, is found only in Ezekiel 18:22 and is typical of
2. Give us thought - an Arameic form of the word as found in the
portion of Daniel 6:4. It is not the Hebrew form of Pslams 40:18.
3. Captain - Rav Hachovel. The usage is extremely peculiar. If the
of rope pullers is intended, as most commentators suggest, the term should
be Gadol Hachovlim. Rashi in Ezekiel 27:8 suggests that this is the term
used for the fellow who commands the wheel at the stern to direct the
ship. Still, the word Rav is widely used in the Mishna to mean great but
it is never used that way in Tanakh, where it always means numerous (See
Vilna Gaon's commentary to Proverbs 3:3); this example seems to have been
missed by the JPS translation).
The reader therefore is faced with a two-fold problem. First, we much
account for the general tendency of the book to use unusual words or
expressions. Secondly, we must determine whether we must approach these
linguistic peculiarities as examples of general tendency or as specific
and intentional clues to the author's intention in that particular case.
There are three approaches that are consistent with Torah and tradition to
address these problems.
1. Although the language of the Bible is remarkably preserved along
range of Biblical compositions spanning almost a thousand years, it is
possible that a certain process of language development was taking place.
Ultimately it eventuated in the form of the language that is familiar to
us from the Mishna. Yonah being a late work from the end of the First
Temple period reveals the beginning of this process of change; similar
deviations are regularly found in other later works - Ezekiel, Esther,
Ezra/ Nehemiah, Daniel and Chronicles. If so, we should not ascribe too
much significance to "pure" Biblical patterns. Were we to do so, we might
over-interpret and end up with meanings that the author never intended.
2. Yonah is written in the so-called Northern dialect (see G. A.
Rendsburg, Morphological Evidence for Regional Dialects in Ancient Hebrew,
in Linguistics and Biblical Hebrew, ed. W. R. Bodine, Eisenbrauns, In.
1992). It has long been proposed, primarily to explain stylistic and
linguistic peculiarities of the Song of Devorah, a Northern prophetess
(Judges 5), that the language of the Northern tribes differed somewhat
from the reigning dialect of Judea. The linguistic maps of the ancient
Middle East show multiple overlapping language belts stretching from the
Summerian in the far North-East to Amharic in Ethiopia. The middle of the
map is dominated by Arameic as it slowly transitions into Hebrew. There
are indications from the Tanach itself (see Judges 12:5-6) to the
existence of this putative Northern dialect. In this view, we should also
not ascribe too much significance to linguistic deviations in the book of
Yonah, a prophet from the North.
3. As in our English, there may have been a distinction between
and colloquial language, often termed di-glossia. It is reasonable to
suppose that both co-existed during the Biblical period. Professor Steven
(not Saul) Lieberman suggested that the elite spoke and wrote Biblical
language while the common-folk spoke a variety of Mishnaic Hebrew
(Response, Jewish Languages, 1978, 21-8). The discovery of the pure
Biblical inscription in the Siloam aqueduct constructed at the time of
Hezekiah appears to argue against this theory (See
t) . However, if true, use of colloquial expressions within the literary
matrix would be intentional and must be noted and interpreted.
What could the use of colloquiallisms and Arameisms signify in this verse?
It could, of course, serve to characterize the Gentile captain as speaking
a foreign language (even a non-Jew recognized that the storm came from G-d
while Yonah continued to resist Him) or to call attention to Yonah's
Northern origins at this critical juncture.
The deliberate use of Arameic expressions may, however, also remind us
that Yonah faced a real choice. He could, indeed he must have, accepted
his destiny, turn the ship toward Nineveh and spend the rest of the trip
polishing his Arameic, the language of the Assyrian empire (see Isaiah
36:11-12). There a number of passages that suggest that the prophets
delivered their message to the non-Jews in Arameic, for example Yirmiah
10:11. It is because he chose not to do at this critical point that we
have the rest of the book.