Sunday, March 08, 2009


Purim is coming up, so let's talk about the word bira בירה. No, I'm not talking about the Hebrew word for "beer" - although I will mention that Avineri in Yad HaLashon writes that it would be better if we used the Biblical shekhar שכר for beer. He also doesn't know why the letter heh was added to the end of bira - no European language calls it bira, so we may as well have called it "beer".

No, I'm talking about the unrelated word bira - which in modern Hebrew means "capital (city)". However, the word meant something different originally. It derives from the Akkadian birtu, meaning "fortress", and according to the Encyclopedia Mikrait entered Hebrew via the Aramaic בירתא. We find it in the later Biblical books - Nechemiah (1:1, 2:8, 7:2), Divrei HaYamim I (29:1,19) where it referred to the Beit HaMikdash or the fortress protecting it, Daniel (8:2) and of course frequently in Megilat Esther as Shushan HaBira שושן הבירה.

The meaning in the biblical passages is up to some debate, but is generally understood to mean fortress, citadel or palace. My own theory is that perhaps it is equivalent to armon ארמון - which only appears in the earlier First Temple books (see also Radak, Sefer Hashorashim pg 42.)

Prof. Paul Mandel in his article "Birah as an Architectural Term in Rabbinic Literature" in Tarbiz 61 (1992) shows how by the time of Talmudic Hebrew, the word bira came to mean "a large building" or an insula. This is the sense used in the midrash where Avraham is compared to someone seeing a bira (mansion) on fire, and looks for the ba'al habira בעל הבירה (master of the mansion).

The idea that bira meant some kind of fortress (either one building or a compound) seems to have been universally accepted by both commentaries and translations until relatively recently. For example, Ibn Ezra on Esther 1:2 distinguishes between the city of Shushan and the bira of Shushan (see here for an extensive discussion of the Ibn Ezra in English, along with diagrams). This distinction seems quite necessary, since we see twice (3:15, 8:14-15) that both the city and the bira are mentioned - indicating two separate entities. This article by Avraham Korman (based partially on Reuvein Margolies in HaMikrah v'Hamesorah, which is also quoted here) points out a number of difficulties that our distinction helps resolve:

  • In 1:5 it says that the king made a banquet in his garden everyone who lived in Shushan HaBira. If it referred to the entire city, it would be hard to understand how thousands of people could fit in his garden. But if it was only for the king's fortress, it is a reasonable (although still impressive) number. The assumption is that within the royal fortress lived approximately 1000 people.
  • In 2:5 it mentions that a Jew lived in Shushan HaBira - Mordechai. This seems to indicate that he was the only Jew. How is that possible - there were many Jews in the city of Shushan? However, he was the only Jew in the king's compound. The Vilna Gaon points out in his commentary that this is mentioned to highlight the miraculous nature of the story, where Mordechai was fortunate enough to be in the king's stronghold.
  • In 9:6, it says that the Jews killed 500 men in Shushan HaBira. In 9:15 it describes how after receiving permission from the king, the Jews killed 300 people in Shushan. This indicates two different incidents.
  • He also quotes Rabbi Meir Mazuz as pointing out that Shushan is always spelled with a kamatz, whereas Shushan HaBira is always spelled with a patach.
This is also confirmed by more modern archeological research (famously done by Dieulafoy), for example here:

The fortress ... This distinguishes the acropolis, in which the palace lay, from the less strongly fortified surrounding "city of Susa", which lay on the other side of the river Choaspses.
(It's interesting to note the the midrash in Megillah 15a notes that Mordechai had to cross a river in order to pass the message from Esther - who was in the bira - to the Jews in the city of Shushan.)

So if bira is distinct from "city", when and how did it come to mean "capital"? The linguist Yosef Klausner wrote in a 1912 essay that the use of bira as "capital" was common in literature, but should be abandoned, since the original meaning was "fortress". He says that this is a relatively new usage in any case, as it only began during the period of the Haskala - the Jewish Enlightenment.

And indeed if we look at the Biur, the Biblical commentary written by Mendelssohn and his students, we see that they deliberately gave the word a "new" definition. (Thanks so much to S. from On the Main Line for his help finding the Biur as well as other sources in this post.) According to this book, "the commentary on Esther (1788) contains a German translation by A. Wolfsohn and a Hebrew commentary by J. Lowe". Lowe (also known as Joel Bril) writes the following in his commentary on Esther 1:2 -

"the city where the king sits is called bira, and according to the Ibn Ezra, the meaning is palace"
Why they felt the need for this change is not clear to me. But it is evident that they "knew what they were doing". This wasn't a natural progression of meaning - it is a clear rejection of the Ibn Ezra, who represented the consensus.

The Biur's explanation seems to have had a major influence on Isaac Leeser, who wrote one of the first Jewish English translations to the Bible. According to this article

The Jewish prototype for the Leeser Bible was Zunz's Die vier und zwanzig Bucher der Heiligen Schrift (1838). Leeser even used the English equivalent, The Twenty-Four Books of the Holy Scriptures, for his Bible. "As respects the translation," Leeser wrote in the postscript to his Pentateuch, "he feels it his duty to acknowledge that he has received the greatest aid from the Pentateuch of Arnheim, and the Bible of Zunz, even to a greater degree than from the works of Mendelssohn, Hochstatter, Johlson, Heineman, and several anonymous contributors to our biblical literature.
However, in this case, Leopold Zunz translates bira as burg, meaning "castle", whereas Leeser translates Esther 1:2 as

In those days, when this king Achashverosh was sitting on the throne of his kingdom, which was in Shushan the capital

Leeser apparently had a great impact on future Jewish translations. For example, Koren's The Jerusalem Bible, translated by Harold Fisch, draws on Leeser as well as the later Jewish Family Bible by Friedlander. All three use "capital" for bira.

A comparison of Google search results is helpful here:

  • "the fortress shushan" - 121
  • "the capital shushan" - 159
  • "shushan the capital" - 1,080
  • "shushan the fortress" - 1,730
  • "shushan the palace" - 12,900
  • "shushan the castle" - 274
  • "shushan the capitol" - 158
Now I'm sure that the high number of "shushan the palace" is due to it being used in the very popular KJV translation. But what I find interesting is that from looking at the examples of "shushan the capital" (and "the capital shushan") is that they are nearly all from clearly Jewish websites. Even very Orthodox sites use this "non-traditional" translation. I have a feeling that this is not only due to the influence of Leeser, but also from the impact of teaching and speaking Modern Hebrew, even in English speaking countries. Everyone knows now that Yerushalayim is the bira of Medinat Yisrael - so it is logical that Shushan would be the capital of Persia.

If you noticed, one of those search results is a little strange. "Shushan the capitol"? As a reminder, capital and capitol are not synonyms. From The American Heritage Book of English Usage:

Capital and capitol are terms that are often confused, mainly because they refer to things that are in some ways related. The term for a town or city that serves as a seat of government is spelled capital. The term for the building in which a legislative assembly meets is spelled capitol.
So who called Shushan the "capitol"? If I'm not mistaken, this was first used by Artscroll, in their very first publication, an English edition of Megilat Esther. Here's an excerpt from that book. They translate Esther 1:2 as:

that in those days, when King Ahasuerus sat on his royal throne which was in Shushan the capitol
But in the commentary, they write:
Shushan the Capitol
This was the palace surrounded by the less fortified עיר שושן, the residential part of Shushan where the Jews lived. [The capitol was separated from the city by a river.]
Even after considering this for a while, I haven't been able to figure out what Artscroll was going for here. Was capitol a spelling mistake and they meant to write "capital"? That doesn't seem likely, as they clearly identified Shushan as a palace in the commentary. In the introduction to the volume, they explain how their translation is more in tune with tradition than the JPS 1917 translation. That translation uses "Shushan the castle.". Maybe they figured they could appear different from the JPS, while also staying connected to tradition by giving it the name of a building? And so perhaps they appropriated the term capitol for bira? Not sure. And why do they jump between upper and lower case?

In any case, in this later book, the Interlinear Megillah - they use the more common "capital".

So what we have here, is an innovation that should have been rejected by both the traditional Orthodox: כָּל אִישׁ שֹׂרֵר בְּבֵיתוֹ "every man should wield authority in his home" as well as the Modern Hebrew linguists - וּמְדַבֵּר כִּלְשׁוֹן עַמּוֹ - "and speak the language of his own people". But in the end - וְנַהֲפוֹךְ הוּא - the opposite occurred...

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