Thursday, 8 March 2018

Biblical Concordances

 From RRW

Guest Blogger: Mitchell First
                                      Guide to Writing a Biblical Concordance
         How did I choose this topic to write about? Am I that desperate for topics? Shouldn’t I be writing about the yeshiva tuition crisis? Well, I will say at the outset that if one devotes ones time to writing a  concordance, I suspect that one will have difficulty paying yeshiva tuition.
        With that out of the way, let us begin. I am writing this article because I think we will all learn a lot about Tanach and the Hebrew language from it.
          1. Some parts of Tanach are in Aramaic. Do they deserve a separate section? In the concordance of S. Mandelkern, they were given a separate section towards the end of the concordance. I.e., the sections of Dan. 2:4 to 7:28, Ezra 4:7 to 6:18, and Ezra 7:12 to 26 were given their own section. Also included in this section are the two Aramaic words of Gen. 31:47 (“yegar sahaduta”), and the Aramaic verse at Jer. 10:11.
                 Of course, dividing your concordance into one large Hebrew section and one barely noticeable Aramaic section has risks, since people don’t read introductions.  I will never forget the time when I was in YU’s Revel graduate school and Dr. Leiman asked us if a certain word was in Tanach. We all checked the body of the Mandelkern concordance (= the Hebrew section), and we responded that the word was not in Tanach.  Well, of course the word was in Tanach. It was in the smaller Aramaic section. None of us realized that there was such a separate section that had to be checked. I always make sure to check both sections now.
                In the concordance of Even-Shoshan, the words in the Hebrew and Aramaic sections are all integrated. But when a word comes from one of the above special sections, the concordance has a note telling you that the word is Aramaic.  
           2. What about “shin” and “sin”? Should they be combined into one entry?   A few generations ago scholars believed that “sin” was merely a later development from “shin”.  Now scholars realize that the letters were originally separate. They were able to make this determination based on a review of the other Semitic languages.  Since “shin” and “sin” originated as separate letters, we should not normally attempt to equate roots in which one root has a “shin” and the other a “sin,” and they deserve separate entries. Mandelkern has separate entries for “shin” and “sin.” But it is surprising to me that in the Even- Shoshan, the two are merged into one entry. (I can only guess that because some of the earlier concordances combined them, perhaps to make it easy for non-Jewish scholars, Even-Shoshan chose to continue doing so.)
              3. What to do with nouns with initial “mem,” e.g. M-K-D-Sh (mikdash)?  The root of this word is K-D-Sh. As a general rule concordances are organized by roots. The issue here is should the author of the concordance assume that his reader knows enough to ignore the initial “mem” and look for the word in the root K-D-Sh? Or is that making too much of an assumption, and the author should list the word in the ”mem” entries? This is a big decision since nouns of this form occur hundreds of times in Hebrew.
              Mandelkern assumes that his readers know enough to chop off the initial “mem” and look for the word in the root K-D-Sh. By doing this, he is able to gather all the words with the root K-D-Sh into one section, which is very useful. Even-Shoshan, on the other hand, lists the nouns with the initial  “mem” in the “mem” section, so they can be found easier. The problem with this is that one can easily go to the root K-D-Sh, see all the words there, and not realize that you have overlooked all the nouns with this root, like M-K-D-Sh.
                4.  What do you do with a word like “yipol”? This is a simple word that means “he will fall.” The initial root “nun” dropped out, a common occurrence in Hebrew. The word should be understood as if it was written “yinpol” (=YNPL). There are hundreds of words with dropped initial “nuns” in Hebrew. Here, however, even Even-Shoshan has no entry Y-P-L.  Just like Mandelkern,  Even-Shoshan is forcing his users to realize that an initial “nun” dropped and to look for the word in the N-P-L entry. It is surprising that Even-Shoshan does not think his readers know enough to drop initial “mems,” but he is relying on them to put back omitted “nuns,” and this is much harder! (But I do realize that he had no choice. The alternative is unworkable.)
                 5. The biggest problem with using a concordance to look up a word is that many times the root of the word is unclear. We are not talking about merely chopping off an initial “mem,” or putting back an initial “nun.” Some times more creativity than that is required. I have spent hours over the past decades attempting to look up words in Mandelkern but not finding them easily because I could not figure out with what root the word is categorized.  Some of these problems are solved with the Even-Shoshan who requires less ingenuity from the user.
                     Mandelkern’s concordance was first published in 1896. In 1955 a professor added a special supplement, a few pages in length, that enables you to look up hard words the exact way they are spelled in Tanach, and it points you to their location in the concordance. (Presumably, concordances on line solve some of these problems. I am not familiar with them. )
                      Once in a while Mandelkern has mercy on his users. For example, with regard to the word Mabul (=flood), he knows that the root is not M-B-L. He knows that it is either N-B-L (decay/fall), B-L-L (confuse/mix), or Y-B-L (flow). But he also realizes that it will be hard for his readers to find the word if he makes a determination and chooses one of these. So he is willing to place his entry in the position for M-B-L, so the word can be easily found, and there he explains that M-B-L is not the root.
               6. What do you do with roots like Chet-Resh-Peh which mean two different things (reproach vs. harvest-time)? If the meanings are completely different, like this example, you create two separate entries, I and II.  But often there is a possible relation between the two roots, but one is not sure. For example, the root Lamed-Yod-Tzade means both “mock” and “translate.” Mandelkern decided to merge them both into one entry based on his conjecture that translations mock the original, so the two meanings may have had a common origin. (In fact, a common origin for these words is very unlikely.)                             
                   Mandelkern’s concordance is much better than Even-Shoshan’s if one is interested in word origins. At the beginning of each root entry, in very small print, he comments about the relation between the root and other similar Hebrew roots, and the relation of the root to roots in other languages, and makes many interesting conjectures. Even-Shoshan, on the other hand, is much less interested in conjecturing about word origins.  But Even-Shoshan’s concordance has many other advantages over Mandelkern’s. One will benefit by having both in one’s home.
                The strangest thing about Mandelkern’s concordance is that, for each entry, his primary way of defining the word was with a Latin word! It is very odd to see all these Latin words in a Hebrew concordance. Probably, he was creating his concordance for non-Jewish Biblical scholars as well. In my role as one of the librarians of the Congregation Beth Aaron beit midrash, I have made sure that we have a Latin-English dictionary placed right near the Mandelkern concordance! (Thank you to my chavruta Josh Teplow for donating it years ago!)
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar.  If he ever authors a concordance, he is not going to include entries for “et” and hopes you can forgive him for that. He can be reached at  

Sunday, 4 March 2018

King Darius

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                                        Archaeology Sheds Light on King Darius

                                     I spent many years studying the period from 539-332 BC.E. This is the period when the Jews were subject to the rule of the kings of ancient Persia. I focused on this period because there is much material outside of Tanach here that can shed light on the figures in Tanach. In this column, I am going to discuss one of the ancient Persian kings: Darius I. He reigned from 522-486 B.C.E. I will summarize the extraordinary amount of material that we have about him from extra-Biblical sources. This is the king in whose reign the Second Temple was built.
                           As further background, I have to point out that the Talmud assumes that the kings Koresh, Achashverosh and Daryavesh reigned in that order. But the accepted view of history today is different: Koresh, Cambyses, followed by a usurper for 7 months, then Daryavesh (=Darius I), and then Achashverosh (=Xerxes). The Daat Mikra commentary (published by Mossad Harav Kook) follows the accepted (=non-Talmudic) view. I will be following this accepted view as well. (I have written much about this topic elsewhere.) So when I write about the Daryavesh/Darius in whose reign the Second Temple was built, I am taking the position that he is the father of Achashverosh. (This is the opposite of what most of you were taught when you were young.)
                         If you look at Tanach, there is only one story involving our Daryavesh/Darius. The story runs through chapters 4 through 6 of the book of Ezra. The work on rebuilding the Temple had started in the reign of Koresh/Cyrus. But because of complaints made against the work by the opponents of the returnees, the work ceased. Due to the encouragement of the prophets Haggai and Zechariah, the returnees renewed their rebuilding work in the reign of Daryavesh. This was almost 20 years after the initial permission by Cyrus, so the Persian governor asked the returnees who had given them permission to engage in this work. They responded that Cyrus had given the permission and that Darius should search for this decree. Darius had a search made and in the palace at Achmata (the modern Hamadan), Cyrus’ decree was found. Accordingly, Darius allowed the Jews to continue their work. He also ordered funds and supplies given to them, so that they would offer their  sacrifices and pray for the life of the king and his sons. The Temple work was allowed to continue and it was finished in his sixth year (=516 B.C.E.)
                         So that is the limited role of the Persian king Daryavesh=Darius I in Tanach: one story in the book of Ezra, in which he orders a search for a prior decree and is willing to go along with it.
                          But what happens when we look for material about Daryavesh=Darius I outside of Tanach? It turns out that we have many inscriptions that he ordered, found in the remains of the three ancient Persian palaces: Shushan, Hamadan and Persepolis. More importantly, Herodotus (middle of the 5th century B.C.E.) writes extensively about his reign and military adventures. For example, we learn that he led a failed invasion of Greece. (The famous Battle at the Bay of Marathon took place in this invasion.)  But the most important thing that Darius is known for is his trilingual inscription at Behistun (in Western Iran), as I will now explain.
                          Darius was not the son of Cambyses, but the son of a satrap named Hystaspes. (Hystaspes was a distant cousin of Cambyses.) So how exactly did Darius become king?  Herotodus tells the following story. After reigning seven years, Cambyses died while out of the country. He had no children. He had previously ordered his brother Smerdis to be killed, but this was not known to the populace.  While Cambyses was away, someone who looked like Cambyses’ brother Smerdis (and was also named Smerdis!) was able to instigate the populace to rebel against Cambyses and he usurped the throne, pretending to be Cambyses’ brother Smerdis. He ruled for seven months. But eventually a few individuals figured out, with the help of one of Cambyses’ wives, that this Smerdis was an impostor. (This wife was able to inspect his ears one night while he was sleeping. She had been told that the true Smerdis would have ears, while the impostor Smerdis had previously been punished by having his ears cut off. Her inspection revealed no ears!) Then Darius and six others decided to join together in a conspiracy to overthrow the impostor. After the conspiracy was successful and the impostor was killed, the conspirators agreed to make Darius the king. (I have just oversimplified a very long story told by Herodotus.)
                                But is there any truth to this story? How credible was Herodotus?
                                In the 17th and 18th centuries, European scholars began to travel to Media and Persia (modern day Iran). They found the remains of Persian palaces in Shushan, Persepolis and Hamadan, with many surviving inscriptions. There was also a very lengthy inscription  at a site called Behistun. This was a text with an accompanying relief, inscribed high above the ground on a rockface, overlooking a main road. At first, no one could decipher any of these inscriptions. Eventually, several scholars made contributions towards the decipherment of this language (=Old Persian cuneiform). The most important work was done by Henry Rawlinson. Rawlinson was an officer in the British army serving in Iran, and he became obsessed with trying to decipher the Behistun inscription. First he risked his life climbing the rockface and copying it. (This was with the help of a Kurdish boy, also named Smerdis. Just kidding! The boy’s name remains unknown to history.) Then Rawlinson dedicated many years in the 1830’s and 1840’s to deciphering this inscription.
                                   So what was this inscription that Rawlinson ended up deciphering? It turns out that it was the story of how Darius became king, this time told by Darius himself!  Lo and behold it largely agreed with the material in Herodotus. Of course, there were some contradictions, but the basic story matched. For example, Herodotus had written that Darius became king with the help of six conspirators. Five out of the six names given by Darius matched the names given by Herodotus!
                                    What about the relief that accompanied the inscription? It turns out that it was an image of Darius, stepping on top of the impostor. (There are a few other figures in the image as well).  A picture of the Behistun inscription is found at Yehuda Landy, Purim and the Persian Empire, p. 14. (There are many pictures on line.)
                                     So the Behistun inscription ordered by Darius is a key source in ancient Persian history and a key source in evaluating the credibility our main ancient narrative historical source, Herodotus.
                                    But the Behistun inscription is important for an entirely different reason. The inscription was a trilingual one. It told the same story in Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian. After the Old Persian portion was deciphered, scholars were able to decipher the Akkadian and Elamite versions as well. Akkadian was the language of ancient Assyria and Babylonia. The decipherment of Akkadian opened up a whole new field of archaeology. The cuneiform inscriptions of ancient Assyria and Babylonia could now be read!  So our king Darius, with a minor role in Tanach, is one of the most important kings in ancient history. It was his Behistun inscription that opened the door to the study of the cuneiform inscriptions of ancient Assyria and Babylonia!
                                    (Interestingly, Allied troops used the inscription for target practice during World War II. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site.) 
                                  Finally, to end with a reference to the Megillah, one of things we learn from the Old Persian inscriptions is that it was Darius who authorized the building of the palace at Shushan! 
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar. His most recent book is Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy. He can be reached at He hopes that the U.S. and Iran can make peace one day so that he can lead  the Teaneck Orthodox Retiree Association on an expedition to Behistun.

Wednesday, 28 February 2018

JVO Blog: The Often Overlooked Message of Purim

Jewish Values Online ( is a website that asks the Jewish view on a variety of issues, some specifically Jewish and some from the world around us -- and then presents answers from each of the denominations of Judaism. Nishmablog's Blogmaster Rabbi Wolpoe and Nishma's Founding Director, Rabbi Hecht, both serve as Orthodox members of their Panel of Scholars. Nishmablog, over the years, has also featured the responses on JVO by one of our two Nishma Scholars who are on this panel. 

The Jewish Values Online website now offers a new service -- a blog which presents comments on various topics within Judaism and the Jewish world. See Rabbi Hecht is also a blogger on this blog.

His latest post 

The Often Overlooked Message of Purim

is now available at
A link is also up on Facebook at 

Monday, 26 February 2018

Two Books to Read for Purim

From RRW
Guest Blogger: Mitchell First

                                               Two Books to Read for Purim

               The book of Esther jumps immediately into the reign of Achashverosh, but provides little background. Fortunately, we get some background from the book of Ezra. There we learn that, after defeating the Babylonians, the Persian king Koresh gives permission to the Jewish exiles to return and build their Temple. The returnees start work, but run into opposition from people already in the land. They have difficulties from the time of Koresh “ve-ad malkhut Daryavesh” (Ezra 4:6). Later, early in the reign of Daryavesh (=Darius I), they resume their work. Since it is now about 20 years later, the Persian governor asks them who gave them permission for this rebuilding work. The returnees respond that Koresh had given them permission. King Daryavesh is notified and he orders a search which locates the initial decree of Koresh. Accordingly, Daryavesh renews the permission and the work on the Temple is completed in his reign.  There is also a one sentence reference to Achashverosh in the book of Ezra. Finally, the book of Ezra and the book of Nechemiah describe the activities of Ezra and Nechemiah and the assistance that king Artachshasta (=Artaxerxes I) provided to them.
            What if you wanted to learn more about kings Koresh, Daryavesh, Achashverosh and Artachshasta? Where would you go? In 1990, Edwin Yamauchi, a professor in Ohio, published a book: Persia and the Bible. It is easy to read, with many pictures and charts, and gives us all the background that we need. You see from the title of the book that is meant for us, readers of the Bible. It is not a dry general history of ancient Persia. (For that, you would read Pierre Briant, From Cyrus to Alexander.) Yamauchi presents in a clear and organized manner all that ancient historians and archaeology teach us  about the reigns of kings Cyrus, Cambyses, Darius I, Xerxes (=Achashverosh) and Artaxerxes I. (With regard to Cambyses, he is not mentioned by name in Tanach, but his reign is alluded to in the word “ve-ad” that I cited above.)
               With regard to Cyrus, Yamauchi summarizes all the legends about his life reported in the various Greek historians (Herodotus and others). We also learn about one of the most important Biblical archaeological finds ever: The Cyrus Cylinder. This was an inscription of Cyrus that revealed that it was not just the Jewish returnees who were permitted by Cyrus to return and build their Temple. Rather, Cyrus gave such a permission to many of the peoples under his rule whom the Assyrians and Babylonians had exiled. This was part of his plan for benevolent rule. This was a dramatic insight. All of a sudden, Cyrus’ permission to the Jewish returnees described in the book of Ezra became understandable!
               Yamauchi then moves on to Cambyses, summarizing the data in Herodotus, the later Greek historians, and archaeology.
              Yamauchi then deals with Darius I. The extra-Biblical material about Darius I is voluminous. First, we learn the most important story in the history of ancient Persia: the story of how Darius became king. Herotodus tells us that Darius was not the son of Cambyses, but was a distant relative.  (Cambyses had no children.) Someone who pretended to be Cambyses’ brother reigned for about 7 months. (The real brother of Cambyses was already dead.) Darius and six others joined in a conspiracy to kill the impostor. After the conspiracy was successful, Darius was installed as king. (I have here oversimplified a very long story!)
              Then Yamauchi focuses on the many inscriptions of Darius I. The most important is the trilingual  inscription (Old Persian, Elamite, and Akkadian) in Behistun (western Iran) that largely confirms the above story told by  Herodotus.  Then we learn about the canal that Darius built between the Nile and the Red Sea, his expeditions against the Greeks and other military adventures, and his work building the palace at Shushan. Finally, we learn about his tomb and his several wives.
            Then comes a 52 page chapter devoted to Xerxes, and another chapter on Artaxerxes.  There are also chapters on the palace at Shushan and the other ancient Persian palaces.
              As I have discussed before, it is clear that the name Xerxes is to be identified with Achashverosh. This was discovered in the middle of the 19th century when Old Persian cuneiform was deciphered and the original Old Persian names of the kings came to light. Once Old Persian was deciphered, we saw that the king the Greeks were calling “Xerxes” had the name “Khshayarsha” in Old Persian. This name is structured around the consonantal sounds Ch-Sh-R-Sh, i.e., the same consonantal sounds as the name A-Ch-Sh-R-Sh.
               Xerxes reigned from 486-465 B.C.E. This was after the work on the building of the Second Temple was completed in the reign of his father Darius I in 516 B.C.E.   From the fourth chapter of the book of Ezra, where Achashverosh is mentioned in a context, you see that Achashverosh followed Daryavesh.  (Unfortunately, the fourth chapter of the book of Ezra was written in a confusing way. This misled Seder Olam and the Talmud, causing them to take a different view of the order of the Persian kings.)
              Yamauchi writes all about Xerxes’ military expedition against the Greeks which took place in the early years of Xerxes’ reign. But he can tell us practically nothing about what happened in the reign of Xerxes after that. Why not? Because Herodotus and the Greek historians after him wrote practically nothing about the events of Xerxes after year 7, when Xerxes returned defeated. This is important because skeptics always point out that the Greek historians don’t refer to the Purim story, the plot to destroy the Jews in the 12th year of Xerxes’ reign (3:7).  But the Greek historians refer to practically nothing in the reign of Xerxes after year seven until his assassination in year 21. (Of course, even if the Greek historians had described some events of years 8-21, it would hardly have been surprising if the plot against the Jews was not mentioned.)
             There is only one flaw in Yamauchi’s book for our purposes. Xerxes’ wife was referred to by the Greeks as “Amestris.” Yamauchi has a section suggesting that Amestris may be Vashti. But nowhere does he consider that Amestris may be Esther. (The “is” at the end of “Amestris” is likely only a Greek addition to her original Old Persian name, which must have been something like M-S-T-R.)  I argue strongly for the identification of Esther with Amestris in my book, Esther Unmasked.
         The other book I recommend is Yehuda Landy, Purim and the Persian Empire (Feldheim, 2010). This book is of a completely different nature. It is a book with wonderful color photos, based on archaeological findings, which helps one visualize the palace at Shushan, and many of the other items mentioned in the Megillah. The author is an Orthodox rabbi and educator in Israel. He knew very little about ancient Persia until around 2006, when he visited a special exhibit on this subject at the British Museum. He was shocked at how much archaeological material there was that confirmed details of the Megillah. He also realized that 99% of the Orthodox world knew nothing about this, so he needed to collect it all and publish it as a book. (He included a text of the Megillah as well, so you can follow the Megillah with his book in your hand!)
           The book includes some history. But he is aware that there are chronology disputes between Chazal and secular history, and he figured out a way to publish his book and publicize the visual material without taking clear positions on dates and historical identifications. After all, he reasoned, Shushan is Shushan, no matter what precise year the events occurred and whether or not Xerxes is Achashverosh.  (But he does take the position that most likely Xerxes is Achashverosh. He does not address the issue of who Amestris is.)
                 I titled this column: “Two Books to Read for Purim.”  We can alternatively reinterpret this title to refer to my own two books on this period, which I also recommend: 1) Jewish History in Conflict: A Study of the Major Discrepancy Between Rabbinic and Conventional Chronology (published in 1997 but unfortunately very expensive), and 2) Esther Unmasked: Solving Eleven Mysteries of the Jewish Holidays and Liturgy (published in 2015 by Kodesh Press and very reasonably priced).  
Mitchell First is a personal injury attorney and Jewish history scholar.  He can be reached at  He is now working on his third book, which he will explain in a future column.