In a Name: Some Late Night Ruminations on T. Ilan’s Lexicon of Jewish Names 4

People with newborn babies often find themselves awake at absurd hours of the night, a kind of teasing reminder of youthful eves long gone, when staying up late meant going out and having fun. Your parents may very well have worried about you on those nocturnal adventures. Now as a parent, it is you up worrying, and you’re home in the rocking chair. Will she have everything we want for her? Will fate treat her kind? What will we name her? Will she ever burp?

Up with my newborn a few nights ago, I puzzled especially over the penultimate question. One tool at my disposal was Tal Ilan’s latest volume of her Lexicon of Jewish Names in Antiquity – The Eastern Diaspora.  Truthfully, there was no chance on this blessed Earth that my wife would approve of “Mahlafta” – a very popular female name that shows up repeatedly in the Aramaic Incantation bowls, or the Iranian name “Dadī” for that matter (which I suppose was in a way already taken by me). But hunting for baby names was still a good excuse to peruse this invaluable tool for scholars of Jewish late antiquity – Talmudists included.

There is something about being up late that brings out the critic in you. Perhaps this is a fading memory of late night theoretical debates in smoky literary cafes…or perhaps not. That said, my thoughts on the book, even if critical, in no way mitigate the overall value of a work (and series) that is virtually peerless in aim and scope. And my comments are haphazard and not very comprehensive; we might say they are the product of late night ruminations.

The volume, although numbered four in the series, is actually the third to appear thus far. As such, the organizing principles that guide the work were already laid out in the earlier volumes, and now the names just roll. There are however new methodological issues to iron-out, and to her credit, Ilan is honest with her readers about these difficulties and other such challenges. The main issues have to do with the two largest corpora: the Babylonian Talmud and the Aramaic incantation bowls. Both include numerous male names, and in the case of the bowls, many female names (a true boon in a field of inquiry that suffers from a dearth of female names – a legacy of the unequal gender politics of text composition and transmission in the ancient world). As Ilan points out, there is usually no way to know whether a client in the bowls was Jewish or Zoroastrian (or Mandaean, Christian, Manichaean, or what have you), and for this reason she needs to tabulate the statistics twice – with and without these doubtful identifications.  Again, she responsibly informs the readers of the problem, and addresses it in her calculations. Yet the sum total of the book will still give the casual reader the impression that, for example Zoroastrian theophoric names were extremely common for Jewish women in late antique Babylonia (which I should add certainly is possible – witness Yaakov Elman’s suggestion that Rav Nahman’s daughter, דונג, an otherwise unattested name should actually read דינג or Dēnag – a popular Zoroastrian name related to the important religious concept of the Daēna \ Dēn). Perhaps due diligence is enough, but I’m left wondering why not leave these doubtful names out and have the interested reader consult the growing incantation bowl prosopography herself if there is a need to know about names that Jewesses merely may have had in late antiquity. Perhaps Ilan simply could not resist leaving such a valuable treasure-chest of names out of her collection.

Still on the subject of the bowls, the book does attempt to identify some clients of the bowls as probably Jewish based on certain factors.  One is the content of incantations, for example the inclusion of the Shema might indicate a Jewish owner.  But that claim (as the book even somewhat acknowledges) is quite problematic, given what we know about the intercultural travels of magical traditions. The presence of R. Joshua b. Perahya and his Jewish divorce document in Mandaic incantations is a case in point. If scribes of different persuasions might incorporate “foreign” magical formula, why not the clients, who were almost always illiterate. In my opinion a more problematic decision in the book is the tentative identification of all currently etymologically unidentifiable nominal elements in the bowls as Iranian. And similarly, rabbinic names without a clear identification are considered Iranian.  This apparently stems from the need to categorize the names linguistically, following the series’ scheme, but even after the book admits to this rather problematic approach, for me the admission is not enough.  It seems misleading to categorize, even tentatively, names that appear in the corpus of magic bowls or the Bavli as Iranian based merely on context – even if all other avenues of determining their provenience have been exhausted.  If I were to try to correlate all this with Ilan’s broader scholarly approach, I think it has something to do with her  tendency towards comprehensiveness. Her many books and articles aim to include as much data as possible on a subject, instead of focusing on a small set of data and beating that data to death. The volume (and series) certainly is comprehensive, but I wonder if that comprehensiveness sometimes is taken too far.

Still up late in the rocking chair, I also wondered about the book’s immediate contribution to Talmudists. On the one hand we have a helpful attempt to historically locate each rabbinic name with a specific rabbinic personage – even (and especially) when more than one sage bore a certain name. Most of these identifications are based on accepting Sherira Gaon’s (and Seder Tannaim ve-Amoraim’s) chronology, and also based on some of the classic research by Hyman and Albeck. Yet again, the problems of these presumptions are acknowledged in the introduction, and once again, Ilan still proceeds largely unfazed following the obligatory caveat.  I fear that in a quest towards comprehensiveness and” getting it all done”, the exceedingly complicated nature of this particular task is not given its proper due. More than that, signal research in the field, like A. Cohen’s Ravina and his Contemporary Sages which reflects the messiness of the data, is simply omitted. How many ‘Ravinas’ were there, after all?

There also is the issue of literary names, and to what extent these “names” really were names in use at all. A case in point is “Haruta” – the name employed by R. Hiyya’s wife to seduce her husband(!) at b. Qiddushin 81b. As Ilan makes clear, the name might not really be Ms. Hiyya’s real name but perhaps simply a “nickname”.  She dutifully cites Shlomo Naeh’s wonderful article “Freedom and Celibacy: A Talmudic Variation on Tales of Temptation and Fall in Genesis and its Syrian Background” in J. Frishman and L. van Rompay (eds) The Book of Genesis in Jewish and Oriental Christian Interpretation (Louvain 1997), pp. 73-89. But the findings of that article actually indicate that Haruta is not merely a nickname, but an attempt by a storyteller to play with the hot topic of celibacy and consider where “liberation” (Haruta) fits into that discourse – is it liberation from legal and ethical strictures (as we normally understand it today) or liberation from bodily passions (as an ascetic might see it)? This problem repeats itself whenever we have a literary context that gives reason to suspect that the name is not an historical name at all, rather a literary device of some sort. Indeed, the Talmud itself is far more literary than it is historical.  Similarly, the problem exists in extra-rabbinic sources when we encounter a name like Shōshen-Dūxt. As Ilan notes, this was the name of the Exilarch’s daughter who became the Jewish wife of king Yazdgerd I. Or so we are informed by the ninth century Pahlavi work, The Catalogue of the Provincial Capitals of Ērānšahr.  As Geoffrey Herman has pointed out, however, that this source probably merely reproduces a floating tradition then current in the Jewish community, and not anything approaching historical fact. What that means is that the name Shōshen-Dūxt may very well have been a Jewish name, but it was not born by a Jewish Sasanian queen.

One of the great pitfalls of book reviews is that the reviewer nearly always wants something other than what the author is willing to provide. The curse of human differences and expectations, or is it a blessing? In my rocking chair at 2:00am (and the following day, blearily, at my desk) I wanted a book that listed all the names actually in use by Jews in the late antiquity Eastern Diaspora, and one that analyzed their etymology closely. Something along the lines of Philip Gignoux’s magisterial Noms propres sassanides en Moyen-Perse epigraphique (Vienna 1986-) – which in my opinion should have been consulted by Ilan far more than Justi’s Iranische Namenbuch (Marburg 1895).  Alas, I did not get my wish. But the book remains the only of its kind, reflects years of painstaking (and good) research, and will be an indispensable tool for Talmudists and other scholars of Jewish late antiquity.

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3 thoughts on “In a Name: Some Late Night Ruminations on T. Ilan’s Lexicon of Jewish Names 4”

  1. I wonder about חרותא – it does of course have a literary function in the story, but that does not mean it couldn’t count as a personal name. At least of the character with the epithet ההוא חרותא.

  2. But that is the point (if I understand you correctly). Even if in the story there is indeed a character named חרותא, that doesn’t mean there every was an historical Jewish woman named חרותא. The name and the whole story was there to do cultural work, not relate an historical account.

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