Menachem ben Jacob ibn Saruk
(c. 920 - 970)
Menachem ben Jacob was a
tremendously influential Spanish Jew during the rise of Spanish Jewry. He was
a Jewish lexicographer and poet who composed
the first Hebrew-language
dictionary, a lexicon of the Bible;
earlier biblical dictionaries were written
in Arabic and translated into Hebrew. The
father of Hisdai ibn Shaprut was his patron.
With the death of Hisdai's father, he made
Menachem his secretary. Menachem was a gifted
writer. He composed the letter which Hisdai
sent to the king of the Khazars. He wrote
beautiful eulogies for Hisdai
ibn Shaprut's parents.
He is most famous, however,
for his biblical dictionary, called the Machberet.
Written in Hebrew (instead of Arabic like most scholarly texts
written in Muslim Spain and Babylonia),
Menachem's dictionary was available to the Jews
of Christian Europe as well as the Jews
of Spain. We take understanding of Hebrew
grammar, dictionaries and translations of
sacred texts for granted. Back in the 10th
century, a biblical dictionary was an extraordinary
gift to the Jewish world. Scholars didn't
yet understand the grammatical structure of
Hebrew. (It wasn't until one of Menachem ben
Jacob's students figured out that Hebrew verbs
consisted of three root letters that any real
head-way was made in Hebrew grammar). Written
by hand on parchment, the Machberet text was
an instant hit in Europe. His dictionary was
not without controversy, however. Shortly
after the Machberet appeared, it was vehemently
attacked by Dunash
ben Labrat, who claimed that certain definitions
were likely to lead the reader to erroneous
interpretations of halachah and belief. The expectation that the dictionary
would therefore become a source of heresy
explains the bitterness of the attack. As
a result of Dunash's responsum, Hisdai ibn
Shaprut fired Menachem from his post as secretary.
Menachem himself did not
reply to Dunash's criticisms, but three of
Menachem's pupils, Isaac ibn Kapron, Isaac
ibn Gikatilla, and Judah Hayyuj, took it upon
themselves to defend their master.
Although he made mistaken assumptions about the nature of the Hebrew
three-letter root, Menachem ben Jacob paved the way for his students
to do greater research into the development of the Hebrew language.
Rashi used Menachem ben Jacob's Machberet extensively
as did Rabbenu Tam.
Sources: Gates to