“Respect” for Rashi

We just finished commemorating Tishah b’Av, when the Holy Temple was destroyed.

The stories in the Talmud relating the events surrounding the destruction (Gitin 55-57) are a popular choice of study on this day.

The Talmud says: “Because of shaka d’rispak, Beitar was destroyed.” What is “shaka d’rispak”? Rashi defines shaka as a “side” (דופן) and rispak as a “women’s chariot” (Heb. מרכבת נשים), so collectively shaka d’rispak means the side of a women’s chariot. Rashi also offers a translation of rispak as ריטוג”א in German. Phonetically, this would appear to be “rituga,” but there is no German word resembling that that I could immediately discover.

So I went to Google translate and tried translating “chariot” into German. I got “Streitwagen.” That didn’t seem right, but then I looked closer and realized that if the “St” part was eliminated, the word would be “reitwagen,” and would actually be quite close to Rashi’s word. The “Reit” part is ריט, and the “wagen” part is “וגא,” leaving only the “n” sound missing. But is a “reitwagen” a thing? As it turns out, yes! It means “riding-wagon” in Middle High German, the language spoken in Germany during (and after) Rashi’s lifetime.

The etymology for “wagen,” incidentally, is derived from “vega,” meaning “way.”

The next part of the mystery is why this is a “women’s chariot” specifically. So I investigated ancient modes of transportation for women and found that there was a type of carriage called a “litter” or “basternum” in which wealthy women were carried by human servants or on the backs of animals (like the mule). The context of the Talmudic passage concerns the daughter of a Roman official, so this would make sense.

I looked up “rispak” in Jastrow’s Dictionary of the Talmud, and he references to another word, “dispak,” which he defines as “litter,” as above.

I’m not sure why Jastrow changes rispak to dispak, but I’m gonna hazard my own guess as to its etymology. Bear with me.

Rispak is very similar to the English word “respect.” I researched the etymology of this word and found that it derives from the Latin verb “respicere” meaning to regard or “look back” at. “Re” means “again” and the SPC root means to look, as in “spectacle,” “spectator,” etc. Hence to “respect” means to look at something with particular regard. Since these vehicles were designed to carry wealthy individuals, to whom others were meant to look with regard, they may have gotten their name from this verb.

If “dispak” is the correct version, this may be a combination of the same SPC verb with the prefix “de” or “dis,” meaning to undo or reverse something. So then this would mean a vehicle designed to obscure the rider from the observer, as these carriages would often have curtains or be closed off to prevent the eyes of commoners from seeing the occupant.

Incidentally, I have a theory that Rashi offers foreign language equivalents of certain words in the text when he wishes to show a linguistic connection or origin, not just a translation. Here, ריטוג”א as the German counterpart for “rispak” works as follows: ריט derives from ריס, as the “t” and “s” sounds interchange, the ו (“v” sound) interchanges with the פ (“p” or “f” sound) and the ג (“g” sound) interchanges with the ק (“k” sound). Hence ריספק to ריטוג”א.

The context of the story in the Talmud is as follows: The Caesar’s daughter was passing the city of Beitar in a rispak, when the “shaka” of the rispak broke. The people of Beitar had a custom to plant certain trees when a boy or girl was born, then, when a boy and girl grew up and married, they used the wood from their respective trees to build their chupah. When the shaka broke, the servants of The Caesar’s daughter cut down one of these trees to use its wood for the carriage. The people of Beitar became incensed and attacked the Caesar’s daughter and their attendants. The Emperor avenged himself upon the city of Beitar, massacring its inhabitants.

From the story, and based upon our exploration above, it would seem that the “shaka,” or “side” of the rispak, may have been one of the poles used to carry it.

Anyway, that’s what I’m thinking. What are your thoughts?


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