Tuesday, December 19, 2006

From Ashkenaz to Canaan, around Hagar, past Loez and on to Yavan

Mississippi Fred MacDowell

This is a map of medieval Europe as seen by its Jews. (You can click the image to view a larger version)

While its commonly known that Jews designated Spain "Sepharad" and Germany "Ashkenaz" and perhaps also that France was known as "Tzarfat", that Hungary was known as "Hagar" or the Slavic lands as "Canaan" and so forth is less well known.

The principle at play was that a place name from Tanakh was assigned to a territory
(The Jewish names for Hungary and Italy were not place names.) While Yavan (Ionia) does refer to Greek territory in the Torah and Talmud, obviously the Slavic lands were not "Canaan". In that case, the association was actually with the slave trade associated with the Slave-ic lands. Others, like Hagar and Tzarfat were soundalike wordplays (e.g., Tzarfat/ Francia). Sepharad, it would seem, was also a wordplay, the s and ph invoking Spania.

It's plain from the contexts in which places like Tzarfat, Sepharad and Ashkenaz are used that in Tanakh these are locales in the Near East and not the European places that later were designated by those names.

For example, Ovadiah 1:20
And the captivity of this host of the children of Israel, that are among the Canaanites, even unto Zarephath, and the captivity of Jerusalem, that is in Sepharad, shall possess the cities of the South.

As for Ashkenaz, the question is how the great-grandson of Noah came to be associated with the Germanic lands (and eventually most of Europe). In Yirmiyah 51:27 ("Set ye up a standard in the land, blow the horn among the nations, prepare the nations against her, call together against her the kingdoms of Ararat, Minni, and Ashkenaz") it is given as Turkic. If Yafeth was traditionally regarded as the father of the European peoples, why should an obscure one of his sons, Ashkenaz, take the title?

Jewish sources in antiquity, such as Targum Yonathan, identify Gomer (a brother of Ashkenaz) with "Germania", presumably a place in the Near East, as Gomer (like Yavan) was associated with the Asian Minor territories. It obviously isn't a great leap from Germania to Germany. It seems that the Ashkenaz of the Torah was identified with the territory called Scandia (the old name for Scandinavia, north of Germany) by an early date. In fact, many Christian Bibles to this day comment on the name Ashkenaz of its association with Scandinavia. Presumably the association came because of the s, k and n sounds. Maybe the name Ashkenaz 'migrated' south when Jews came to live there. (This he'ara from Dovid Katz's 'Words On Fire')

Eventually, the two Jewish cultures of Europe that "made it" were Sepharad and Ashkenaz, such that the memory of when European Jews were not just Ashkenazim but also Canaanim has long receded.

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