Rembrandt’s Hebrew

Rembrandt, Belshazzar’s Feast, c.1635-1638, National Gallery, London

In a previous post Stephanie noted that beginning with the Renaissance artists began to include accurate Hebrew texts in some of their works portraying biblical characters, with prophets, for example, holding a parchment displaying a text from their biblical writings (Raphael’s Isaiah being an example of this). Before this artists often used illegible scrawl instead of accurate Hebrew text (and I noted an example of this in de Ribera’s Saint Peter and Saint Paul).

Rembrandt’s Belshazzar’s Feast portrays a scene from the book of Daniel when Belshazzar mysteriously watched a finger write some text on a wall during a large gathering (Daniel 5). When his experts couldn’t interpret the writing Belshazzar’s mother suggested calling for the Jewish exile Daniel, who was able to interpret it. This part of Daniel is actually written in Aramaic, not Hebrew, although the two languages share the share script. The mysterious writing said מנא מנא תקל ופרסין [MENE, MENE, TEKEL, and PARSIN]. Remembering that Hebrew and Aramaic are written from right to left, if you look closely at Rembrandt’s painting this is not what it says. I recently put this to a class of university Hebrew students who struggled to make ense of it. Did Rembrandt get it wrong, or did he just use a weird combination of Hebrew/Aramaic letters hoping his audience wouldn’t notice?

Rembrandt actually lived in the Jewish Quarter of Amsterdam and obtained the Hebrew/Aramaic text for his painting from his friend Rabbi Menasseh ben Israel, so it should be right. In fact, embedded in Rembrandt’s work is an explanation found in the Talmud (Talmud Bavli, tractate Sanhedrin 22a) for why Belshazzar’s experts couldn’t interpret the writing. Rather than simply being written right-to-left, the Talmud suggests that the letters were also written in columns, top-to-bottom (like some Asian scripts), and that is exactly how Rembrandt has written it! So the first column (on the right), reading top to bottom, says מנא (mene), repeated in the second column, then תקל (tekel) and finally ופרסין (uparsin) split over two columns. To someone who is able to read Hebrew/Aramaic it now all suddenly begins to make sense, until they come to the final letter still being etched by the mysterious divine finger. In Rembrandt’s work that letter is zayin ז while the biblical text actually has a final nun ן. There are a few letters which beginners to Hebrew often confuse because they look similar, especially ז, ו and ן as well as י (there is a similar confusion with ד and ר, and ה and ח) and it’s easy to see why. It’s not just beginners and students who are confused; we can actually see evidence of scribal errors in the most ancient biblical manuscripts, including the Dead Sea Scrolls, with scribes confusing these letters while making their copies. So Rembrandt can be forgiven for making a common mistake with his final letter, although the rest actually makes perfect sense once we have the key to read it in columns rather than simply right-to-left.

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