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Are there any existing dictionaries that focus on Rabbinical Hebrew. The way Geonim, Rishonim, Achrei Achronim Wrote their Commentaries, Tshuvas, etc... I'm trying to learn more but sometimes having trouble with the words.

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  • There are Aramaic dictionaries. Would those help? – Harel13 Aug 4 '20 at 23:41
  • Thanks but no. Those are useful for Aramaic – FalseMessiah Aug 4 '20 at 23:42
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    @FalseMessiah What makes Rabbinic Hebrew hard is how much Aramaic it has. And very specific types of Aramaic at that. – Aaron Aug 5 '20 at 0:16
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    This question needs to be reworded or clarified. It is unclear exactly what you are seeking. There are many excellent dictionaries. What do you mean by "Rabbinical Hebrew"? Your 2nd sentence in its present form only confuses the issue. Are you trying to find a dictionary that explains the Hebrew meaning according to traditional usage as found in the writings of the Gaonim, Rishonim, etc? – Yaacov Deane Aug 5 '20 at 13:43
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    Does this answer your question? Dictionaries of Mishnaic/Rabbinic Hebrew – Kazi bácsi Aug 19 '20 at 15:35
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Words

For literal translations of individual words (and the less than occasional phrase):

  • I find that in many cases, the Reuben Alcalay (modern) Hebrew-English dictionary is simply unbeatable for individual words (if you can get your hands on one. I have seen that many Batei Medrash have one, and I usually see them at used seforim/jewish book sales). It certainly is a trick to find the shoresh of a word - a whole 'nother discussion in and of itself, right alongside the discussion on Dikduk - but once found, there (almost) isn't a word the dictionary doesn't have, even for the hebrew that Rishonim generally employ.
  • When I was learning Rambam with a chavrusa, we regularly used the green Even Shoshan dictionary - also modern - to great success. Note that it is written in Hebrew, but the Hebrew of the Even Shoshan dictionary is much easier to translate than the words that it itself is translating.

Another important part of translating is understanding the connotations of an individual word. In English, we have learned to understand the nuances of words like "appreciate", "adore", "admire", etc. Reading a sentence with an understanding of those nuances changes the meaning of the sentence entirely, often adding clarity as to the correct translation. For this sort of translation, I regularly use the [Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew: Based on the Commentaries of Samson Raphael Hirsch (English and Hebrew Edition)][1]. Although in the title it says "Biblical Hebrew", very often seeing the "verbal cognates" of a word will give you a hint into its more subtle meaning(s), even as used by Rishonim, etc. This is because, although the Gemara says in several places (Chullin 137b, Avodah Zarah 58b, etc.) that the language of the Torah is seperate from the language of the Chachamim/Sages -- where do you think most of the Hebrew words that the chachamim use came from? That is to say, there is still a certain level of nuance from the way the Torah uses words latent in the words of the Rishonim. And, I have found that the way Gemara/Rishonim, etc. use Hebrew words is significantly influenced by the nuances that can be seen from the Hirsch dictionary on those words.

It seems to me that the difficulty really rises above the need for a good dictionary. In Rabbinic Hebrew works in general there are often phrases (Hebrew and Aramaic) which do not lend themselves to direct translation, and if translated literally, will either render the passage non-sensical, or completely distort the meaning without the reader realizing.

I understand that the question was excplicityly about dictionaries, but as I said, it seems that is a symptom of a more fundamental difficulty. Allow me to provide a piece to an answer for that more fundamental question:

Phrases

As Aaron in a comment noted, there is a significant amount of Aramaic interwoven in the writings of Rishonim and Acharonim. Often, these are phrases from a Gemara, and will only make sense to the reader who previously knew and understood the phrase in its context. In fact, this is true of phrases in Hebrew as well, not just Aramaic ones. This is because sometimes Rishonim will quote a phrase from Tanach or a Hebrew phrase from the Gemara or Mishna which will - again - only gain any meaning when seen in context. Assuming one can translate the phrase literally, such phrases generally have one of two reasons for being cryptic or ambiguous:

  1. It is a turn of phrase in Aramaic (or Hebrew) which does not have a corollary in English. Seeing the context of the phrase might shed light on its intention/connotation, being that even if the reader can muster together a literal translation of the phrase, it simply won't read in English. In that case, it may be helpful to look up the phrase using the search engine for a library like Sefaria.org(free) or Otzar Hachochma($50/year through Spertus Institue, instead of $560/year from the vendor's website {1}) to find an example of that phrase in the Gemara - if you have access to such libraries. But, unfortunately, it is not always the case that looking at the context will give the phrase any more meaning. Take these examples:
    • "אף על פי" and "אף על גב", which both translate practically to "even though". The phrases translate literally to "nose on mouth" and "nose on back", but are not talking about noses, mouths, nor backs. As I will explain, looking at the context of these phrases may not shed light on their meaning.
    • Not quite what I would call a "turn of phrase", but the commonly used phrase "כביכול", which translates practically to "as it were", would translate literally to "like-with-able". As I will explain, looking at the context of this phrase may shed light on its meaning, but there is room for ambiguity - less so than the above example.
    • "בוצין בוצין, מקטפיה ידיע", which translates literally as, "A cucumber, a cucumber, from its blossoming it can be known." As I will explain, looking at the context of this phrase will very likely make its meaning clear.

      For cases like these I have two suggestions for how to proceed:
    1. Look at the commentaries ad loc., who usually had some way of knowing its intention. They could have had a corollary in their language for the turn of phrase in question, or had an oral tradition from their teachers regarding its meaning, or simply had the breadth of knowledge to know all of the times the phrase was used across the corpus of Torah literature, and piece together the meaning from those cases.
    2. Ask a more experienced learner if they have encountered the phrase in question - they may know what the phrase is trying to convey.

      I posit that you'd be hard pressed to find a commentator explain the phrase "אף על פי", but if you'd ask a more experienced learner, they would immediately tell you that it practically translates to "even though" - a conclusion no reasoning English speaker could come to on their own, but something an experienced learner would surely have learned at some point in their early learning career. Again, context may help, but it may not. When you are working your way backwards (i.e. not previously being familiar with the meaning of the phrase and trying to deduce its meaning from its constituent words), sometimes it is hard to see the forest for the trees, and its meaning may not become clear, despite having the necessary context.

      For the phrase "כביכול"/"like with-able", Rashi on Megillah 21a translates, "Said about Hashem, like with regards to a man about whom it is able/possible to be said". Looking at the context{2} certainly would help to understand the intention of the word, and Rashi pieces the context and the word itself together to show how the meaning is inherent in the word.

      The phrase "A cucumber, a cucumber, from its blossoming it can be known" was the "punchline" of a short story the Gemara (Berachos 48a) had brought, which went as follows:

Abaye and Rava (still children) were sitting in front of Rabba. Rabba asked, "Who do (we) make blessings to?" They said to him, "The Merciful One." He said to them, "Where does he sit?" Rava pointed towards the ceiling. Abaye went outside and pointed towards the sky. Rabba said, "Both of you will be Rabbis." As people say, "A cucumber, a cucumber, from its blossoming it can be known."

Thus, seeing the context of a phrase or looking for one is generally a good first step. If it does not become clear from the source itself, look at the commentaries on that source, if there are any. If still stuck, ask an experienced learner.

  1. It directly references contextual information. This can take two forms:
    1. a quote from someone in response to the flow of discussion (e.g. "לָא שָׁבֵיק מָר חַיֵּי לְכׇל בְּרִיָּה!"- "(Abaye responded:) Master doesn't leave life for any creature!{3})

      If a Rishon were to quote that phrase, it would only be meaningful to the reader who knew the story behind the phrase. Again, looking up the phrase is a good first start. Seeing the commentaries ad loc. would be the next logical step. Asking an experienced learner is another option.
    2. It is a conclusion or statement which very clearly relies on previously stated information to be intelligible. One form this might take is using pronouns to refer to the previously discussed subjects. I am sure there are others, but they do not come to mind. (Finding good examples is really hard!)

I have only provided Aramaic examples, but I could have equally provided Hebrew ones as well. I cannot say, "just as easily", as writing this post has taken me about a week of organizing the thoughts in writing and deeply considering the issue. I do hope that my answer is appreciated.

Note: I have used a somewhat rigid form of classification and categorization here in an effort to make understanding the concepts easier, and do stand by the structure I have proposed, but I understand that the nature of the matter under discussion (colloquialisms, literary style. etc.) is slightly abstract and does not lend itself to strict categorizations and classifications. As such, I am open to hearing counter-categorizations and request the reader to keep this in mind when applying the ideas in practice. That is, to use it as a general outline of "what is out there": not to think that it is all-inclusive.


{1} Totally legitimate by the way, check the website out for yourself.
{2} The Mishna there had said that one can read the megillah while sitting, and the Gemara brought a braisa that one can only stand while reading the Torah. The Gemara said that we derive the latter from the verse (Deuteronomy 5:28) "But as for you, stand here with Me, and I will speak to you all the commandments and the statutes", which indicates that the Torah must be received while standing. Rabbi Abbahu said: "If it weren't a verse which is written (Had the Torah not said it itself), it would be impossible to say it. As it were (כביכול), even the Holy One, Blessed be He, was standing" - which is obviously not reasonable to say, given the fundamental tenant that Hashem does not have a form, without which it would be impossible to "stand" as we refer to it.
{3} In truth, this is a good example of both types of ambiguity (viz. a turn of phrase and a reference to contextual information). The context (Brachos 61b): "Rabbi Yosi Hagelili said, 'The righteous, their good inclination rules them...The wicked, their evil inclination rules them...The "average", both rule them.' Rabba said, 'For example, me, an "average" (person)' Abaye responded: 'Master doesn't leave (sensu: leave behind) life for any creature!'" Rashi speaks out the logical implication, "If ***you*** are an 'average' person, you can never have (i.e. there can never be) a 'fully righteous' person in the world!" Effectively rendering the phrase, "If you are 'average', where does that leave us??"
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I asked the same question here: Dictionaries of Mishnaic/Rabbinic Hebrew

Sadly, based on my research, such a dictionary does not exist.

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