In what is probably the most significant feature of J. R. R. Tolkien’s introductory description of the beings known as hobbits, the author states that they “wear no shoes, because their feet grow natural leathery soles and thick warm brown hair like the stuff on their heads (which is curly).” Accordingly, the most cherished blessing you can bestow on a hobbit would be “May the hair on his toes never fall out!”
While even I would not be so foolhardy to claim that Bilbo and Frodo were described in Jewish literature, there is something in the image of their hairy feet that evokes for me a most intriguing episode from the annals of rabbinic scholarship.
The text that I wish to discuss here speaks of a pivotal milestone in the encounter between Jewish and Hellenic civilizations, the origin of the Greek translation of the Torah known as the Septuagint in the third century B.C.E. The name “Septuagint” derives from the Latin word for ”seventy” and it alludes to the legend that surrounded that translation, a legend whose earliest version is preserved in a work known as the “Letter of Aristeas” (included among the scriptures of the Alexandrian Jewish community), and in more elaborate forms in the writings of Philo Judaeus of Alexandria, Josephus Flavius and in several talmudic traditions.
In that well-known tale, the emperor Ptolemy II Philadelphus of Egypt, eager to partake of the wisdom and laws of his subjects, invited seventy-two Jewish sages, six from each of the twelve tribes of Israel, to translate their holy books into Greek. Though the scholars were placed in isolated chambres and not allowed to communicate with one another, they uncannily succeeded in producing translations that were completely identical with one another.
This miracle story had the effect of bestowing on the Septuagint an aura of revelation that elevated it above the plane of a human scholarly achievement; and it provided a justification for the Jews of Alexandria, many of whom were no longer conversant with the holy tongue, to expound and rely on a translation that had, after all, been produced with supernatural assistance.
Rabbinic traditions reveal that the Alexandrians’ reverent admiration for the Septuagint was shared by the later Jewish sages in the land of Israel and in Babylonia. Talmudic accounts of the episode of the seventy-two elders introduced an important new element: the Jewish translators arrived at their consensus not only with respect to their faithful renderings of the Hebrew original—but also with regard to a number of expressions (between ten and thirteen, according to the respective traditions) where they chose to depart from the literal meaning for assorted reasons.
The altered passages include a rather diverse range of texts. Some of the emendations involved phrases that were felt to be theologically problematic or misleading, such as when God is referred to in grammatically plural forms. Some other examples seem to be based on variant texts of the Hebrew Torah that were in circulation at the time, as we can now confirm with the help of comparisons with the Dead Sea Scrolls or the Samaritan Torah.
Conspicuous among the “emendations” ascribed to the seventy-two sages of Alexandria is their translation of an item from the list of non-kosher animals in Leviticus 11:6 that contains a prohibition of (according to the conventional translations) “the hare, because he chews the cud, but divides not the hoof; it is unclean unto you.”
The Hebrew word that is being translated here is “arnevet” and the identification is problematic in any case since hares do not chew their cuds. Be that as it may, the Talmud relates that a very different issue troubled our translation committee in ancient Alexandria: “They also wrote for him ‘the beast with hairy feet’ instead of ‘the hare,’ because Ptolemy's wife was named ‘Hare’— They feared lest he should say: the Jews have ridiculed me by placing my wife’s name in the Torah”!
Although some of the details of this account have become confused or garbled in the course of their telling, it is nevertheless possible to discern a fundamental kernel of authenticity in several of its details.
To begin, the text speaks of a queen who bore the Greek equivalent of a name like “Bunny,” and it adds that the Jewish translators feared that the Egyptian monarch would find it offensive if he found her name grouped together with rodents, swine and other unclean critters mentioned in that biblical passage.
It is not hard to figure out how this idea arose. Although Ptolemy II may not have had a wife named Bunny, he did indeed have a grandfather who was known to posterity as Ptolemy Lagos—that is, “the Rabbit,” the founder of Egypt’s great Ptolemaic dynasty.
Furthermore, as was customary among ancient Egyptian royalty, Ptolemy II was married to his sister Arsinoe II who was thereby also heir to the Lagos lineage, and whose name bore a slight resemblance to the Hebrew word “arnevet.”
As noted, the Talmud states that the translators replaced the normal word for “hare” with one that meant “hairy-footed.” The text of the Talmud is in fact not entirely clear on this point, since the Hebrew words “se‘irat raglayim” can be read either as “small-footed” or “hairy-footed,”and the two very similar forms are both attested in the manuscripts. However, an elementary acquaintance with Greek is sufficient to remove any lingering doubts on this question. The normal word for “hare” is indeed “lagos,” whereas, the Septuagint translation of this verse employs a less common (and somewhat cumbersome) alternative compound, “dasu-poda”— literally: “hairy-footed”—to designate the forbidden animal.
And so, if we wished to take this discussion an irresponsible step farther in our speculations, we might have some basis—a most tenuous one, to be sure—for the suggestion that Jewish tradition preserves an obscure allusion to a species distinguished by its hairy feet; and (as I believe we are all most pleased to have learned) that those beloved and plucky creatures are not classified as kosher.
I will leave it to more devoted Tolkien aficionados to advise me as to whether or not hobbits chew their cuds.
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