The Commentator Features
March 2, 2006
Yeshiva Faculty Scholar's Lexicon Set to Revolutionize Field of
By: Zev Eleff
After eight years of diligent research, distinguished Yeshiva
College Associate Professor (non-tenured) Hayim Tawil will be
releasing a Biblical Hebrew and Akkadian Comparative Lexicon to be
published by CDL Press within the next month. The Lexicon, which
will be the first of its kind to focus on the comparative study and
interpretation of Akkadian, Aramaic and Hebrew languages, is seen
by many scholars within the field as a groundbreaking intellectual
and spiritual endeavor.
"Professor Hayim Tawil's Lexicon is on the same level as Jastrow or
any top-caliber work," said Yeshiva Hebrew Department Chair,
Professor Samuel Schneider while listing many of the acclaimed
Semitic grammarians who have hailed Tawil's revolutionary opus. "He
is known as a top scholar in his field and deserves the highest of
praises for the places he is taking his particular area of study."
"[Professor Tawil's] work will be of major importance to the
studies of the Bible," wrote the late Brandeis University Professor
and noted scholar, Dr. Nahum Sarna. "It is obviously impossible
today to study Biblical Hebrew successful without knowledge of
Akkadian, and [Professor Tawil's] forthcoming Lexicon should be
particularly important to all students."
Other Semitic experts such as Union Theological Seminary Professor
Emeritus, Dr. George Landes applauded Tawil on his labors as he
viewed the project's importance from its earliest stages. "I want
to encourage your continuing efforts," commended Dr. Landes in a
letter of recommendation of Tawil's work. "I hope that, like Moses,
you will be able to see the 'Promised Land' of your work's
completion, with your sight unimpaired and your vigor unabated."
Structurally, the Lexicon, which features over 1,000 entries,
involves a direct comparison of Akkadian, Biblical Hebrew and
Biblical Aramaic. Tawil's central thesis states that unmediated
comparison can assist in explicating otherwise difficult biblical
lexemes and idioms. The assumption behind this thesis, as Tawil
conveys in the Lexicon's introduction, is that Akkadian
lexicography is further advanced than its Hebrew counterpart.
The Lexicon will aid both students and premier scholars in several
areas of research. In particular, the work aims at uncovering
meanings for Hebrew words that eluded clear definition in specific
contexts and to propose nuances for Hebrew words suggested by
similar Akkadian usages. In addition, Tawil's work attempts to
illuminate idioms from related expression in Akkadian, to correct a
certain understanding of Hebrew words and expressions in light of
their Akkadian equivalents, and to shed insights Akkadian
literature may have on interpreting difficult Biblical Hebrew.
Tawil was born in Jerusalem to Yemenite Jews. His
great-grandparents had imigrated to Israel in 1899, making Dr.
Tawil a third generation sabra. Tawil proved to be a gifted student
before serving in the Israeli Defense Force as a paratrooper in the
Golani Twelfth Battalion. After the army, Tawil spent the ensuing
two years at Hebrew University but decided that in order to better
pursue his area of interest, Assyriology, to relocate to the United
States where a broader range of scholarly venues would allow him to
study Assyriology at a more intense level. Professor Tawil would go
on to earn a PhD from Columbia University.
Fellow Yeshiva College faculty member and Semitics scholar, Dr.
Richard White credited Tawil's mentor for providing him with the
opportunity to rise in the academic world. "What one must bear in
mind about Professor Tawil's scholarship is the rigor of the
training that he went through. He was a student of Moshe Held,
whose approach to the Semitic languages was that of a scientist,"
said White. "In a sense Professor Tawil's articles on biblical
philology are a tribute to the exacting and painstaking methods of
his teacher and are probably better appreciated by people in the
sciences than in the humanities."
The advanced academic path blazed by Tawil was seen as a novelty in
both the Yemenite and Oriental Jewish communities. "Yemenite Jews
didn't get graduate degrees in my period," said Tawil. "They had
too many children and couldn't even afford to send their kids to
high school, which only became free in 1977."
In 1988, Tawil was selected to become the chairman of the
International Coalition for the Revival of the Jews of Yemen. He
was soon charged by the U.S. State Department with spearheading the
operation for the ultimate release of the Jews of Yemen using Track
II diplomacy, by which civilians play the role of diplomats in
rectifying international situations. Tawil was recognized for his
efforts and nominated for the prestigious Eleanor Roosevelt Human
Rights Award - a prize awarded personally by the President of the
United States - in 2002.
After returning from Yemen, Tawil worried that he would not be able
to continue his scholarly endeavors due to the large amount of time
in which he neglected his studies in favor of saving lives. "When I
came back to scholarship, I was very frustrated, because I forgot
basic things," recalled Tawil.
However, after a short period of time, Tawil returned to his
previous levels of proficiency in analyzing Semitic texts. He
attributes his personal renaissance to Divine providence.
Tawil has been teaching in Yeshiva College's Hebrew Department for
over twenty years. He was the recipient of the Yeshiva College
Teacher of the Year Award in 2003 and 2005.
Based on official rules, faculty are not eligible for the prize the
year after being awarded. "I am very appreciative of the honors I
have received at Yeshiva," stated Tawil. "At the same time however,
I am humbled by the immense credit due to my students and peers for
their drive for excellence and constant encouragement toward
Similar sentiments were echoed by other colleagues at Yeshiva.
"Anyone seriously interested in Biblical studies or Semitics will
need his lexicon, which he has been preparing for many years,"
lauded Jewish Studies and Revel Graduate School Professor, Dr.
Yakov Elman. "At long last, a scholar equally at home in Bible and
Assyriology has carefully brought together the date from both
fields to produce a book useful to both."
Professor Tawil credits his students at Yeshiva as being one of the
great sources of inspiration that allowed him to spend painstaking
hours in the fifth floor of the Wilf Campus' Mendel Gottesman
Library sifting through manuscripts and Semitic dictionaries. "I am
very involved with the many students at Yeshiva who are interested
in the field of Hebrew," explains Tawil who was aided by ten past
and current students who tirelessly helped type the initial
manuscript for the Lexicon. "This contributes tremendously to both
theirs and my development of research and academic study in and out
of the classroom."
Tawil describes the two required sequenced courses he teaches at
Yeshiva to be fundamental and important sections that give students
the thorough basis of Hebrew grammar in phonology and morphology.
Moreover, the courses are designed to enhance students'
understanding in the classic texts of the Bible and siddur which
further supplement the spiritual life force of the Yeshiva
Regarding his colleagues in the YC Hebrew Department, Tawil has
nothing but the highest of praise. "The Hebrew faculty is a very
dedicated group led by Professor Schneider who directs us as we try
to achieve the best results for the students."
Tawil also emphasized that the Hebrew Department is specifically
burdened with the responsibility of teaching one of the most
important disciplines a Jewish student must master. "Our faculty is
extremely important because Hebrew will follow the students their
entire lives. The Hebrew language is being neglected by high
schools in the United States and we at Yeshiva are continuously
trying to correct this and allow our students to better access the
tradition of their forefathers."
Aside from lecturing daily at Yeshiva, Tawil is currently working
on a thematic commentary on Canticles featuring a breakthrough, but
still developing, approach to the Biblical text.
Professor Tawil is a prolific writer and has written for celebrated
journals such as Beit Mikra, Journal American Oriental Society,
Journal of Near Eastern Studies, Leshonenu and Orientalia.
"Over the years, Professor Tawil has produced a serious of
carefully honed articles, each one taking issue with the standard
interpretation of a biblical word and providing abundant evidence
for a new understanding," asserted Dr. White. "And now he has
applied his knowledge and experience to produce a dictionary that
will be a sine qua non for all biblical scholars. Until now, no
dictionary has been devoted to studying the entire vocabulary of
the Bible in the light of Akkadian. This ranks as one of the most
important tools for the study of the Bible in the last 100 years."
Biblical Hebrew and Akkadian Comparative Lexicon
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