Nov 192010

I was listening to Christine Hayes’ fine lectures on the Hebrew Bible today (you can download them at Open Yale) and she was talking about leitwort, the technique of word repetition that is key device biblical writers used. E.g. She made reference to the seven repetitions of “…it was good.” It turns out Martin Buber coined the term. Here is his definition. It’s crucial, I think, to see that he describes the effect of the repetition in physical terms, as “movement.” This is obviously a very useful device in any kind of writing.



  8 Responses to “Leitwort, leading word, word repetition as a technique”

  1. I see this everywhere now, in fiction, CNF, poetry, music…even in visual media. Learned it from the Master. It’s actually quite a fascinating concept.

  2. Thanks for linking to this. Very good!

  3. Thanks for including this description. I also was listening to her delightful lessons and searched the term and found your entry.

  4. The phrase “it was good” is not a real phrase when you look at the Hebrew of the text. It is a single word. It is like the NT translation of “And it came to pass.” That’s only two words in the Greek text. Always be careful when you are reading a translation that the text is not simply composed oddly because there is no good way of stating it in English. The problem in the second example, is that the Greek can imitate Hebrew, with the verb at the start of the sentence, and English cannot. KJV is the best, but it still isn’t perfect.

    • Thank you, Paul. Your comments have the feel of expertise. I wish you had been around when the post was originally published. We could have had an enlightening conversation and I might have asked you for something to publish in the magazine. Wonderful, these intricate insights.

      • Thank you for your kindness. I am studying the mnemonics of religious texts, that is, how long oral texts are composed so that the composer can remember them during performance. My current examples are the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and John. As such, I have dug very far into the language of these works, because sometimes the original Greek is easy to memorize if you listen to the word patterns. For example, the third person blessings at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount have beautiful sound patterns. In the first four verses, six words start with ‘p’ and then it never happens again. The beginning of the Tao is amazing. It has an A x A y A, B x B y B pattern that is impossible in English. Translations triple the words in the original. Chapter 19 of the Qu’ran avoids only uses two vowels so that when Jesus says “Allah” over half way through the chapter it is the first time the vowel ever appears. It is impossible in English. When you dig this deep, little things like I noted above pretty much just scratch the surface.

        Thank you for your beautiful Buber quote. I remember he wrote an essay about leitworts, but now I cannot find it. Would you be so kind as to cite the place where you found it. I know of several examples by John, but the only access I have to the OT examples is Adler.

  5. Almost all OT devices have strong examples in the NT Gospels. For example, the first 14 verses of the Gospel of John are leitwort poems.

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