Public-spirited scholar of Aramaic and Hebrew studies
Tuesday December 9, 2003
Judah "Ben" Segal, who has died aged 91, was a leading scholar in the field of Aramaic and Hebrew studies. He was professor of semitic languages at the School of Oriental and African Studies (Soas), in the University of London, from 1961 until his retirement in 1979.
Among much else, he was largely responsible for a degree course that allowed students to study all the major languages of the semitic family, including Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic, Akkadian and Ethiopic. This course, which sadly no longer exists, was unique in a British university at the time, and provided an excellent training for those who wished to undertake a research degree in semitic philology. It ensured that students gained a thorough knowledge of the languages and were able to read the most challenging texts, rather than simply learning "about" the languages.
Segal's own research was wide ranging. Several of his publications concerned the Christian Aramaic dialect known as Syriac, and the culture and literature of eastern Christianity. His first book, The Diacritical Point And The Accents In Syriac (1953), a study of the vowels of Syriac, is greatly admired by semitic philologists and often regarded as one of his best works.
In 1970, he published Edessa: The Blessed City, an erudite but very accessible historical study of the city of Edessa, modern Urfa in southern Turkey, where the Syriac language had its origins. He also made major contributions in the field of Hebrew and Jewish history; his book The Hebrew Passover From The Earliest Times To AD70 (1963) quickly became a standard work.
In retirement, Segal continued his scholarly research with considerable energy. . . .
He was also a war hero who operated in north Africa behind German lines, making good use of his knowledge of Arabic, and who provided intelligence that saved many allied lives. May his memory be for a blessing.
UPDATE (18 December): Rebecca Lesses has more on his work and, as a bonus, gives us the abstract for a paper she's now writing on images in the ancient Aramaic incantation bowls. Here's an example of one such image-bearing bowl from Gideon Bohak's Babylonian demon bowls online exhibition. I suppose we should assume that the sorcery skills of the bowl-makers were greater than their drawing skills.