The Hebrew encyclopedia Sha'ar ha-Shamayim by Gershon ben Shlomoh. How to build knowledge by building language.

2017 edition

Albert Lizandra

The aim of my presentation (Flash Talk) is to demonstrate how the transliteration of certain non-Hebrew words became a relevant part of the Sha’ar ha-Shamayim, or The Gate of Heaven, by Guershon ben Shlomoh of Arles. The Gate of Heaven is an encyclopedia that contends with issues pertaining to the natural sciences, astronomy and theology.  A critical edition, a translation into Spanish from Medieval Hebrew and a study of this encyclopedia is the main goal of my PhD dissertation.

It is widely believed to be the only text in existence written by Guershon, and is thought to have been written between 1242 and 1300 C.E. although there is not evidence of concrete dates. This author used many fonts from different writers and bodies of literary works in order to compare and contrast his own. Consequently, this text is a compilation of different books by other Medieval and Classical authors. The book was written in Hebrew, but to fulfill the whole composition, the author needed to add a lot of words borrowed from other languages including Arabic, Latin, Greek, Catalan and Spanish that the author wrote with Hebrew scripts. Several examples of this phenomenon called aljamia will be discussed to exploring how aljamia – using Arabic/Hebrew for transcribing European languages – influenced the creation of his masterpiece. This work was studied for centuries in Jewish schools, and its richness comes from its body and contents and multi-language use.

One example of aljamia is found in the first part of the text, in the first chapter; section five dealing with the rivers, the seas and the winds: we find that Gershon referred to a storm (in Hebrew סופה) named «kalmona» (כלמונ”א), the author indicated that this word came from vernacular language. Some other examples are located in the seventh chapter regarding fishes, where we read the words «lobster» (לגושט”א) from Catalan «llagosta», «sea turtle» (טרטוג”א מרינ”א) from Spanish or Catalan «tortuga marina»; Guershon did not use the Hebrew word «צב ים». Moreover, Gershon used the Catalan word «balena» (בליינ”א) for «whale» instead of using «לויתן». These examples illustrate the particularities of the Hebrew language used by the author who built it by means of introducing new words.

Following the structure of many encyclopedias of that time, Gershon divided his text into three parts:

The first part, בחכמת הטבע, literally «about the knowledge of the nature» is the widest fraction. It is subdivided into ten tractates: the four elements, the inanimate objects, the plants, the animals, the birds, the bees, ants and spiders, the fishes, the human being, the human body and its different parts, and the dreams and insomnia. The second part, בחכמת האלהות והנפש, «about the Divinity and the Soul», has two chapters dedicated to the Soul and its forces. The third part, בחכמת התכונה, is presented in seven chapters that deal with the topic of Astronomy.