The Tales of Rabbah bar-bar Hannah refer to a total of sixteen short ‘tales’- for lack of a better term - from a third century jew of Palestine; known as Rabbah bar-bar Hannah. (1) We may assume from the content of the tales being that it consists of quoting or citing the - then in a state of flux - Talmudic literature and the Torah. That Rabbah bar-bar Hannah was a rabbi/priest of some description and that he was almost certainly part of the jewish - i.e., largely rabbinical - resistance within Palestine against the Roman Empire. Who had by this point dispersed the jews due to their habit of constantly revolting against Roman rule (as well as massacring any non-jew or jew they happened not to like that they could get their hands on) and then in a final act of sheer lunacy organised a huge jewish conspiracy across the Mediterranean sea to revolt from Rome taking most of Roman north Africa and Syria with it as part of a new jewish empire lead by a Messiah (of some description). This understandably annoyed the otherwise very tolerant Romans somewhat. (2)
In this ‘persecuted’ heavily jewish environment: it was common practice for religious jews to cover up their religious communications/purposes by combining their need to organise and communicate with the legalistic and alliterative nature of rabbinical education into seemingly innocent - although somewhat nonsensical - short tales, which would communicate a specific message by alluding to a particular passage in well-known Talmudic literature or within the Torah itself. (3) As rabbis - even at this early period - placed a lot of store by rote and alliterative learning: it was rather easy to use passages that every highly religious jew would know off by heart to communicate a specific meaning to them. This isn’t to say that there probably were not instances of confusion where one rabbi’s meaning by alluding to a specific passage in the Torah was misunderstood to mean something completely different by another. (4) However what we can say with some assurance is that there was at the very least a common vocabulary and that the gist - if not the very specific points - was obvious to those receiving a given rabbinical message.
Obviously as they could not indicate precise specifics the jews of Palestine adapted a companion to these tales, which involved using hand gesticulation - passed down through rabbi to student and within frum (i.e. pious) families - to indicate the specific instruction given or point made by the allusion within the Talmudic literature or the Torah. This - together with the hinting at specific well-known passages in the Talmudic literature and the Torah - was and is called leshon hakmah (literally: the ‘language of the wise’). (5)
What is interesting here is the implication of this identification in so far as it implicitly asserts that the clever jew is duping the gullible gentile (or perhaps the pejorative ‘goyim’ (6) would be better applied here) by talking in a special/secret language in which the clever jew can make themselves understood, while deceiving the goyim that he/she is talking about something completely different or even simply banal/mundane. In essence what is implicit in the very title of this jewish secret language is the allegedly superior status - as the supposed ‘Chosen of Yahweh/Hashem’, of the jews over their allegedly inferior - neighbours (and at the time of its creation: conquerors) around the world. This indicates to us the mentality that Judaism - as well as jews as a people - explicitly holds towards gentiles.
This kind of thinking - particularly in relation to the messianic fervour in which leshon hakmah was created - is perhaps most aptly described by Lionel Kochan when he summarised it simply in the following words:
‘Not only does messianic thinking and exposition associate itself with particular historical events but its point of reference us also historical in that it encompasses the political and physical destiny of Israel.
This must necessarily be so. The idea of the messiah is here understand as that concept which encompasses all those other concepts – the election of Israel, the covenant with God, the Torah – which have history as their ‘all-pervading dominant sanction’.’ (7)
As Isaac Abrabanel - the 15th century jewish former royal treasurer, rabbinical scholar and traitor to the King of Portugal and then to the King of Spain (then proceeding to serve the King of Naples who he was also trying to topple at the time of his timely death) (8) - put it even more simply:
‘The people of Israel is unique in its divine leadership.’ (9)
We can thus understand that when jews talk of and communicate with ‘the language of the wise’: they are speaking of their own self-ascribed superiority over gentiles and that the leshon hakmah is merely an expression of this as it allows them to ‘be above’and to ‘prove their superiority’ over non-jews. This is - of course - extremely egoistic as it allows each individual jew who has even a passing knowledge of the leshon hakmah to feel that he or she has ‘an edge’ and therefore is superior to those who had at this time ostensibly conquered them and later: those that ostensibly ruled over them (i.e., a powerful if temporary egoistical ‘fix’ if you will). (10)
The use of leshon hakmah is still current today particularly in the orthodox and ultra-orthodox (or ‘haredi’/’chassidic’) communities and is used to indicate particular nuances to the meaning of what a jew says. As far as I am aware leshon hakmah has received no recent academic attention to my knowledge and nor has the language been codified in print to my knowledge (references to it in the literature are few and far between, which seems extraordinary given just how interesting and novel a subject it is for research). However from what Eisenstein says of it and my own observations we can form a reasonable idea of what it entails.
It is perhaps best to quote Eisenstein’s words in regard to how leshon hakmah is used by jews:
‘The Talmud, occasionally uses metaphors, allegories, and parabolic figures, and even brings in pantomime and gestures, as a meanings of covering a secret conversation, which may be a criticism of historical events or serve as a warning against the enemies of Israel and Judaism.’ (11)
Eisenstein here is making it quite clear that leshon hakmah is a device to allow jews to talk about non-jews without them being able to understand and most importantly to do so without knowing that the jews are doing so. Eisenstein also makes it clear that jews use leshon hakmah as a means to identify and talk about their enemies. We may assume this refers specifically to those designated by jews as ‘Amalek’ and therefore the statement is specifically targeted against mortal enemies of the jews who according to the extremely important jewish sage Moses Maimonides (better known as ‘Rambam’) still exist and are to be exterminated by all observant jews. (12) However we should clarify this by stating that ‘Amalek’ status can; and is, given to whole peoples as necessary by jews: most recently it has been assigned to Germans and Arabs, which can be seen in the vile ‘Germans/anti-Semites are Amalek’ thesis of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s controversial - although heavily lauded within the jewish community particularly those significant parts of it with a Zionist slant - ‘Hitler’s Willing Executioners’.
This statement by Eisenstein also implicitly informs us that jews will and have organised and conspired against gentiles using leshon hakmah as we must be careful to remind ourselves that leshon hakmah was originally devised in order to enable religious conspiratorial communication between the rabbis/priests of the jews in the third century. We may also go slightly further - which Eisenstein does not himself do or note - in that the rise of leshon hakmah and its use against the Romans is probably predated by an earlier more primitive form of the language, which was used by the senior members of the various jewish conspiracies to revolt against the Romans to communicate with their fellow members of the tribe in places as far off as Alexandria and Cyrene. (13)
We can suggest this because it seems rather unlikely that leshon hakmah would have spontaneously arisen in Palestine amongst the jews if it had not been innovated at an earlier date and then was improved upon by the rabbinical conspirators in their hideouts from the Roman patrols seeking to carry out the Emperor Hadrian’s will and stamp out Judaism (and thus it was thought - incorrectly with the benefit of hindsight and modern science - the jewish menace) forever. This is attested to because the rabbinical academies of the jews had by this time become expert in dissembling the meaning of their words so as to hide it from prying eyes and to make it seem all rather innocuous to any inspection of their holy and commentary texts that might be ordered by the authorities on whose land the jews were then residing. (14)
Moving into more modern times: we can see the use of leshon hakmah in the habit of jews of gesticulating wildly with their arms, fingers and hands during conversation. This - as Eisenstein tells us - is simply the jews understanding each other’s words (and communicating responses) in a secondary far more meaningful way when they feel that they may be overheard by someone; presumably a gentile or a jew behind whose back they are talking, who they do not wish to understand their actual conversation.
If you have ever been to a place with a large jewish population you will understand what I mean when I say that I have always wondered what the wild gesticulation was about and why precisely jews only tended to use it when they talked to each other rather than to non-jews. This is what they are doing: they are having a secret conversation behind your back that you are not meant to understand and the reference points that they use are the Talmuds (not just the Babylonian but the Palestinian as well) (15) and the Torah (as well as the whole Tanakh today).
We as anti-Semites should be mindful of this and seek to understand that when a jews says something then one must not merely take it at face value, but rather look deeper to try and understand the actual meaning of it and how - more importantly - jews would understand this statement in the light of their own thought processes and history. Anti-Semitism must be based on a keen-edged understanding of the jewish question and not simple jew-bashing: for anti-Semitism is an extremely rational ideology not a reactionary way to explain events that we happen not to like at any given time.
(1) The version from which I cite is Judah David Eisenstein’s, 1937, ‘The Tales of Rabbah bar-bar Hannah’, 1st Edition, Behrman’s Jewish Book House: New York, which contains both the original Aramaic text and the original Hebrew translation in addition to an English translation and short exposition on each tale.
(2) Please see John Allegro, 1971, ‘The Chosen People: A Study of Jewish History from the time of the Exile until the Revolt of Bar Kocheba’, 1st Edition, Hodder & Stoughton: London for a useful summary account from critical scholar in the field. A more recent but very uncritical summary account of the relationship between the Greco-Roman imperium and the jews can be found in Peter Schaefer’s, 1995, ‘The History of the Jews in Antiquity: The Jews of Palestine from Alexander the Great to the Arab Conquest’, 1st Edition, Routledge: New York.
(3) Eisenstein, Op. Cit., pp. 5-7
(4) This probably would have caused quite the argument between rabbis given the general jewish theological habit of arguing about just how many times you could split the number of angels dancing on the head of a pin. For a peek into the verbose and often absurd legalism of rabbinical discourse please see Eugene Borowitz’s, 2006, ‘The Talmud’s Theological-Language Game: A Philosophical Discourse Analysis’, 1st Edition, State University of New York Press: New York and Daniel Boyarin’s, 1993, ‘Carnal Israel: Reading Sex in Talmudic Culture’, 1st Edition, University of California Press: Los Angeles, which should serve as an adequate introduction to those interested in this subject.
(5) Eisenstein, Op. Cit., p. 5
(6) Literally ‘soulless being’/’carcass’, which is derived from the Hebrew root of ‘gowy’, ‘gevah’ and ‘gviyah’; as listed in Strong’s Biblical Lexicon, meaning in effect - although we must stress not literally - that gentiles/goyim are the equivalent (although not quite the same as) any other animal like a pig (which seems the most apt given that the pig is non-kosher animal in much the same way as non-jews are viewed by jews). It can also figuratively mean a troop of animals.
(7) Lionel Kochan, 1977, ‘The Jew and His History’, 1st Edition, MacMillan: London, p. ix
(8) Isaac Abrabanel had been a central lynchpin in the conspiracy of the Duke of Braganza against Alfonso V of Portugal and was subsequently forced to tactically up sticks and home in on his next - fortunately more jew-aware, target - King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. For more information please see the apologetic biography of Abrabanel by the current Israeli Prime Minister: Binyamin Netanyahu, 1968, ‘Don Isaac Abrabanel’, 1st Edition, The Jewish Publication Society of America: Philadelphia.
(9) Isaac Abrabanel, ‘Ateret Zekenim’, p. 34 (1894: Warsaw Edition)
(10) For a more general introduction to the history of the region in which these events/beliefs took place/hold please see Jonathan Golden’s, 2004, ‘Ancient Canaan and Israel: New Perspectives’, 1st Edition, ABC Clio: Santa Barbara and for an older; if rather more complete narrative-cum-analysis, please see W. Oesterley, Theodore Robinson, 1932, ‘A History of Israel’, 2 Vols., 1st Edition, Clarendon Press: Oxford.
(11) Eisenstein, Op. Cit., p. 5
(12) On the use of the concept of amalek in Judaism and jewish culture in general please see Elliot Horowitz’s, 2007, ‘Reckless Rites: Purim and the Legacy of Jewish Violence’, 1st Edition, Princeton University Press: Princeton, especially pp. 107-146.
(13) Allegro, Op. Cit., pp. 243-249
(14) This can be seen in the case of much later important jewish sages in Nahmanides’ (better known as ‘Ramban’) defence of Judaism against the charges of Pablo Christiani (a jewish 'convert') during the Barcelona Disputation of 1263 when Nahmanides essentially inverted his own beliefs to ‘win’ the argument (endorsing positions that were by any score heretical in Judaism and were the exact opposite to his own writings on the subject). On this please see Robert Chazan’s, 1992, ‘Barcelona and Beyond: The Disputation of 1263 and its Aftermath’, 1st Edition, University of California Press: Los Angeles. Also see Eisenstein, Op. Cit., pp. 5-7.
(15) For an introduction into why it is important - in order to understand the concept and complexities leshon hakmah - to comprehend and understand the substantial differences between the two Talmuds in order to understand the given message a jew is trying to get across to another jew using leshon hakmah then please see (for example): Christine Elizabeth Hayes, 1997, ‘Between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds: Accounting for Halakhic Difference in Selected Sugyot from Tractate Avodah Zarah’, 1st Edition, Oxford University Press: New York.