The Walking Book

The other week, Leil Leibovitz lodged a complaint against the e-sefer and bemoaned the way that the iPad and its peers strip away the sense of holiness from the traditional experience of studying Talmud. Leibovitz laments the loss of the traditional talmudic tome – a hefty medium that commands our absolute attention.  His complaint is particularly directed at the chussen shas‘ (the gargantuan set of talmudic tomes traditionally given to a groom before marriage) replacement- a sleek device that effortlessly allows its users to flit indiscriminately between Bava Qamma and Angry Birds.

On top of that, Leibovitz has this to say:

One reason Jews have managed to survive for millennia while other, mightier and more populous religious and ethnic groups vanished is our ability to engage in never-ending debate about the tenets of our faith. Rather than demand obeisance to tradition and rejection of modern developments or local customs, Judaism invites its adherents to argue, just as long as they’re all arguing about the same thing.

This is all low-hanging fruit, and some of it surprisingly misguided. As Yitz reminds me, the story of Jewish textual transmission has been one of adaptation. Jews  have moved along with the evolution of different media, even if at a pace different than their neighbors.  Scrolls gave way to  codices, which made way for the printed press. We have merely arrived at the next paradigm.

Over at the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik recently crafted a taxonomy of the great “the-internet-has-irrevocably-changed us” lament.  The same article might have been written about the loss of printed books and their replacement with e-readers – an act of mourning that I am surely joined in by readers of this blog (Here is merely the most recent and gorgeous example, by Leon Wieseltier). The point of Gopnik’s taxonomy, of course, is that a little perspective is in order. Indeed.

In one fundamental way the e-reader actually perpetuates an older trend in Jewish learning, that of the handy and portable talmudic volume, which could be taken anywhere and allow Talmud scholars to realize the rabbinic vision of constant study (“day and night”). Whether through the Hebrewbooks app, ובלכתך בדרך or iTalmud, I find myself carving out more time to study than ever. It is a kind of De Certeauian response to the unstoppable onslaught of media that races through our portable devices.

My old high-school principal, Rabbi Yosef Tendler, recently passed away. He was a gigantic man in more than a physical sense, and he cultivated a culture of total and constant dedication to Torah study. His mournful mantra – also constant – was “you’re wasting your life,” and in this he furthered the school of the Gaon of Vilna and its obsession with industriousness  - where sins were deemed particularly tragic because of the time lost while committing them. It was not for everyone, and some students could not handle the pressure.  For those of us who survived (and thrived) in this environment, the results have stayed with us even during stages and moments in life where such an ideal is all too often out of reach. The circadian rhythms of yeshiva life are indelible. Sometimes, vegged out on the couch on a late winter Thursday night (mishmar!), I still go into a funk.

Rabbi Tendler’s device of choice was an elegant portable talmudic tractate. As they like to say, he did not leave home without it.  Rabbi Tendler used it to both forge ahead in his private course of study and also to review learning already acquired. The message was the medium, and the medium signified the constantly-studying Jew. Yet the portable Shas was no fetish. It hearkened back to the “pervasive orality” (Elman’s term) of rabbinic literature, with its reciters and walking books. When I learned (over the internet) that Rabbi Tendler died in early February, I realized that one of those walking books would walk this blessed earth no more.

I Know it was the Blood

I was invited to participate in a workshop that takes place about three times a year in Paris and Strasbourg. Each time the organizers choose a biblical verse or pericope, and then invite five people to talk about the way these verses were read in different traditions – normally Patristics, rabbinic/ancient Judaism, medieval/ renaissance Christianity, and sometimes also Islam. The next workshop will deal with Leviticus 17:10-12, or in other words:

וְאִישׁ אִישׁ מִבֵּית יִשְׂרָאֵל, וּמִן-הַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכָם, אֲשֶׁר יֹאכַל, כָּל-דָּם–וְנָתַתִּי פָנַי, בַּנֶּפֶשׁ הָאֹכֶלֶת אֶת-הַדָּם, וְהִכְרַתִּי אֹתָהּ, מִקֶּרֶב עַמָּהּ.  כִּי נֶפֶשׁ הַבָּשָׂר, בַּדָּם הִוא, וַאֲנִי נְתַתִּיו לָכֶם עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ, לְכַפֵּר עַל-נַפְשֹׁתֵיכֶם:   כִּי-הַדָּם הוּא, בַּנֶּפֶשׁ יְכַפֵּר. עַל-כֵּן אָמַרְתִּי לִבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, כָּל-נֶפֶשׁ מִכֶּם לֹא-תֹאכַל דָּם; וְהַגֵּר הַגָּר בְּתוֹכְכֶם, לֹא-יֹאכַל דָּם.

I have to admit that even though I accepted the invitation gladly, I had some serious doubts about the potential of the talk to be more than a mere compilation of ancient Jewish traditions, commentaries and exegesis about these verses. After all, the prohibition to eat blood, important as it is in the Bible, does not share the symbolic weight of the interdiction against eating pork, for example. But it turns out, as it often does, that the ancient rabbis will always find a way to surprise you.

I started by asking myself the following question: how come a prohibition that is found no less than seven times in the Pentateuch, and whose punishment, as is clear from our verses, is kareth, becomes almost marginal in what we can call the Jewish collective consciousness. The most obvious explanation, perhaps, is related to the fact that unlike other commandments or prohibitions (eating pork, Sabbath, circumcision…) this prohibition cannot be used as an identity marker. After all, the first biblical figures that are commanded to refrain from blood eating are the sons of Noah (Genesis 9:4), and this prohibition is one of the four commandments kept by Jesus’ apostles in Acts 15:20. In the late antique world, if you don’t eat blood you are not necessarily a Jew. So perhaps the rabbis simply found it pointless to underline this prohibition; in any case it couldn’t help them to promote their version of a distinct Jewish identity (then again, the rabbis did not include it in the seven noahide laws, and interpreted Genesis 9:4 as a prohibition to eat flesh from a living animal. So they did consider the interdiction to eat blood as applicable only to Jews).

The prohibition to eat blood occupies an important place in pre-rabbinic Jewish texts as the book of Jubilees and in the Temple Scroll (see for that matter Cana Verman’s 1994 article in Tarbiz). In other words, the rabbinic “marginalization” of this prohibition is not such an obvious move – other Jewish currents did insist on its importance and elaborated on it a lot.

What is at stake is not only the fact that the rabbis, contrary to the author of Jubilees for example, gave little place in their legal system to discuss the blood eating prohibition, but also the fact that they limited the prohibition to only one type of blood. If the author of Jubilees underlined the fact that the prohibition is in effect for all types of blood (6:13), the sages of the tannaitic period (with the exception of Rabbi Yehuda) hold that only the “blood of life” (דם הנפש) is punished by kareth, whereas other types of blood are not. The main distinction, at least in Torath Kohanim, is between two types of blood (the Mishnah in Karetot 5:1 distinguishes between more than two types) – the “blood of life” (דם הנפש) and the “blood of essence” (דם התמצית). The first one is the blood that  “sprays” out of the animal throat when it is slaughtered. It is called the blood of life since it is the blood with which the life of the animal is taken away (the mishnah calls it דם השחיטה). The blood of essence is the blood that drains from the animal after its slaughter (when it is already dead).

In order to understand this distinction we need to go back to the verses from Leviticus and especially to the reason they give for the blood consumption prohibition – the blood was given by God as a means of expiation since the “life of the flesh is in the blood”. For the rabbis, then, only the blood that has “life” in it, i.e. the blood with which life was taken from the animal, is the blood that was given by God in order to expiate our sins. And since only this kind of blood expiates sins (in Torath Kohanim we read – “אם נתן מדם התמצית לא עשה כלום”), its consumption is strictly forbidden. 

asked some colleagues of mine here, who work on Greco-Roman religions, if such a distinction between types of blood exists in Greco-Roman cults. They said no (but I should examine it further). As far as I know, this distinction does not exist in Second Temple sources either. Did the rabbis invent it, or maybe they inherited it from pharisaic circles?

Another possibility is that the distinction existed in pre-rabbinic circles and was then accentuated by the rabbis as a response to Christianity. After all, saying that only the “blood of life” expiates can be regarded as a critique of Christians who claim that their sins were expiated by Jesus’ blood, as does the author of Hebrews 9. The point of the rabbis might have been the following: since only the “blood of life” of a slaughtered animal expiates, then Jesus’ blood, which the author of Hebrew equals to the blood of sacrificed animals, cannot expiate – he was not slaughtered! So can we say that we are dealing here with yet another rabbinic response to Christianity? On the other hand, the entire midrash of Torath Kohanim on Leviticus 17:10-12 seems like a series of rabbinic responses to the way the author of Jubilees handles the blood prohibition. First of all, the distinction between two types of blood with only one of them expiating (and thus forbidden) is in contrast to Jubilees 6:13 which forbids all types of blood; Second, the midrash emphasizes that only the blood eater will be punished with kareth, not the one who made him eat, not his father nor his son. This stands in contrast to Jubilees that says that all the descendants of the blood eater will go down to sheol (7:28). In general, the rabbis insist on the individual responsibility of the blood eater whereas the author of Jubilees has a much more “collective punishment” attitude.

In any case, it is interesting to note that the inclusiveness of the prohibition that we find in Jubilees is the result of its theory that all types of blood can expiate sins. The same approach is expressed already in Leviticus on the one hand, and by the author of Hebrews 9 on the other. So perhaps we can talk here about a Sadducean/Christian approach (expressed in Leviticus, Jubilees, Temple Scroll and Hebrews) and a Pharisaic/Rabbinic one? Methodologically this possibility is very interesting, since it reminds us once again of how dangerous it is to use the categories “Christian” and “Jewish” as two monolithic entities in the context of the tannaitic period. The rabbinic text can be regarded as a response to both a Christian text (Hebrews 9) and a Sadducean one (Jubilees). Probably it is a response to both, or more precisely to a general approach defended and promoted by the two texts (Jubilees and Hebrews), diverse as they are. Who did the rabbis have in mind when they redacted their exegesis of Leviticus 17:10-12 – a non-rabbinic Jew or a Christian? It is not possible to answer this question and anyway there is no need to. We have the text of the Sifra to speak for itself, to resonate tensions and conflicts that its redactors had in mind, or in the back of it.

Crib Sheet

Pg. 128 of Ginzberg

Ah, finals… In Israel, the period bears multiple names- “bein hasemesterim“, “hufsha“, “tekufat hamivkhanim“, none of which seem to fully own up to the fact that the average BA student has four weeks to complete coursework for around eight classes or so.

But enough complaining. This testing period has had me reading quite a lot of secondary literature on the Yerushalmi, a Talmud which I believe has received relatively little attention here on The Talmud Blog. One of the phenomena that I’ve been taken by over the past couple of months is that of the gerashim in Palestinian corpora. E.S. Rosenthal’s pioneering essay on the Vatican 30 manuscript of Genesis Rabbah in the 1958 Agnon festchrift (immediately followed by a classic Leah Goldberg poem) paved the way for the study of this form of referencing parallel sections found in many rabbinic works from the land of Israel. Even though I’ve been interested in this phenomena for a while now, only now while studying for my test on the Yerushalmi did the thought occur to me that this method of referencing parallel passages might be a function of the transmission of the work in the form of a codex as opposed to on a scroll. That is, if those who first placed the gerashim in the text of say, the Yerushalmi, were familiar with the text in a written as opposed to oral form, then it seems likely that they were familiar with it on a codex. Placing keywords to reference other passages doesn’t help so much in the case of scrolls, whereas with a codex one would be able to just turn the page to the passage referenced.

Alternatively, maybe those responsible for the gerashim worked in a setting based on the simultaneous use of written and oral transmission of the reciter of the text. Perhaps the work was meant to be read from a written source- be it a scroll or a codex- and then completed from memory at the points in which the gerashim were embedded into the text.

Simcha Emanuel’s “Responsa of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg and his Colleagues”- Review by Pinchas Roth

Simcha Emanuel, Responsa of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg and his Colleagues: Critical Edition, Introduction and Notes (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 2012)

Review by Pinchas Roth

The thirteenth century has a reputation for being a little boring. Coming after the roaring twelfth century –  the era of Maimonides, Rabenu Tam and Ra’abad of Posquières – it may not have been a period of intensely creative Talmudic interpretation. But the second half of the 13th century was certainly a heyday for responsa (she’elot u-teshuvot). Two major rabbinic figures emerged during this period, and between the two of them, they wrote perhaps 4,000 teshuvot. Rabbi Solomon ibn Adret (Rashba) of Barcelona was the preeminent decisor for the Jewish communities of Iberia and Southern France, and he fielded questions from as far afield as Austria and even the Crusader stronghold of Acre. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, better known as Maharam of Rothenburg, was also a prolific respondent who became the ultimate rabbinic authority throughout Germany. He continued to respond to Halakhic questions even after his imprisonment in Ensisheim (Alsace) in 1286.

Simcha Emanuel’s MA thesis from 1987 was devoted to a bibliographic analysis of the four printed collections of Rabbi Meir’s responsa (Cremona 1558; Prague 1608; Lemberg 1860; Berlin 1891, and also Teshuvot Maimoniyot). Of his many publications since then, it is worth mentioning two particularly significant ones. In the index of responsa from France, Germany and Italy, published by the Institute for Jewish Law at the Hebrew University in 1997, Emanuel included a series of lists providing parallels to every published responsum of Maharam. That is, for each of the responsa published in the four aforementioned collections, the list provides parallels throughout the printed literature of medieval Halakhah. In 2000, Emanuel published an article titled ‘Teshuvot of Maharam that are not by Maharam’ – passages in the Prague edition of Teshuvot Maharam that have no real connection to Maharam and were arbitrarily included by the editor.

This is the backdrop against which to appreciate Simcha Emanuel’s new book. First, by the numbers: two volumes, 1251 pages. 501 responsa, published from thirteen manuscripts. As the title implies, not all of the responsa can be attributed to Maharam, and they include new responsa by a number of authors both well-known and otherwise (many responsa are unidentified). In light of Emanuel’s study from 2000, this should come as no surprise, since all the medieval collections of Maharam’s responsa include work by others. For example, number 134 was apparently written by the unfortunate R Yaakov Savra, the first known rabbi in Krakow.

The book consists of three sections. First, each of the thirteen manuscripts is described in loving detail. Every attempt is made to explicate the date and location in which the manuscript was produced, and a great deal of information about the travails that each manuscript experienced is provided. For one poignant example – Emanuel identifies Solomon Hirschell as one of the previous owners of Sefer Sinai, a manuscript now in the Berlin Jewish Museum. He also points to the glosses from this same manuscript copied by Hirschell’s father, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Berlin, into his copy of the Cremona edition.

The second part of the book is the main section, containing the responsa themselves. Emanuel added only minimal footnotes, most of which provide textual information without delving into the Halakhic or historical significance of the new texts. By doing so, he has left ample room for historians and other scholars to pick the fruits of his labour. Historians are already plowing through the edition, finding richly suggestive material.

The third section of the book may seem, to the reader, somewhat redundant. It contains a survey of the complete contents of each of the manuscripts utilized for the edition. The edition includes only new responsa that have not been previously published, but the final section provides details about every responsum in these manuscripts – where else it is found, in print and in manuscripts, and additional information it contains (usually, the poetic beginning or ending of the responsum that was often cropped in printed editions). The significance of this section is in the data it provides for scholars searching for all the textual witnesses of any given responsum. Generations of editors have neglected this kind of labour-intensive cataloguing, preferring to focus their efforts on the new and unfamiliar.

The absence of lists like this is sorely felt by anyone doing textual work on medieval responsa, especially collections that are found in multiple manuscripts like those of Rashba. Rashba’s responsa were recently republished in two separate editions, with dozens of newly published texts. But much of the manuscript work that went into these editions was wasted, since the new editions contain no information about which manuscripts contain the hundreds of responsa that have already been published. For someone interested in textual variants, or in the additional information found in manuscripts such as the addressees of the responsa, these new editions are frustrating and tantalizing rather than helpful. Hopefully, Simcha Emanuel’s work will set a new standard, and editors will begin to provide full documentation about the sources they used. Not only identifying the manuscripts accurately (a point on which editors are beginning to improve), but also providing full information about those manuscripts, and about all the details they contain, even when those details seem trivial.

The scholarly community should be grateful to Simcha Emanuel for providing a flood of new primary sources for the study of medieval Ashkenazic Halakhah, and for placing a high bar for future editors to aspire to.

Pinchas Roth is a graduate student in the Talmud Department at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

Reviews Galore

While the Talmud Blog assumes that readers will regularly check its constantly-updated twitter feed (accessible on the top-right of this page and through twitter), there are times when things tweeted might also be blogged, for emphasis. Since 1970, the Journal for the Study of Judaism has been one of the most important journals in the field. Its interests lean heavily “ancient” and not necessarily rabbinic (hence the subtitle “in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Periods”), but there usually are a few directly relevant reviews. The reviews section is indispensable and the current issue is no exception.  Aside from a”rabbinically” focused article by Arnon Atzmon that studies the petihta using a kind of hybridic methodology (with a test case from Leviticus Rabba, Aharei Mot and its Tanhuma parallels), and a solid restatement of Aryeh Edrei and Doron Mendel’s view of a Western and Eastern (Babylonia and Palestine) Diasporic split, we have a very extensive short-review section. Highlights include another review of Thomas Kazan’s Issues of Impurity in Early Judaism, and one of Maren Neihoff’s Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria; Jonathan Klawans has a review of Vered Noam’s book on purity, Dvora E. Weisberg looks at Tamara Or’s Feminist Commentary on Bavli Betsah, one of the first of the ongoing to series to be published, and Steven Fraade has a brief but very helpful review of Aharon Shemesh’s Halakhah in the Making. While the genre of the short-review does not allow reviewers to fully articulate a critical take on the work in question, it sure is a great way to stay abreast in an ever expanding field.

N.B. The ‘books received’ section also has a few gems. I, for one, would love to get my hands on The Scepter Shall Not Depart from Judah: Leadership, Rabbinate and Community in Jewish History: Studies Presented to Professor Simon Schwarzfuchs (Jerusalem: The Bialik Institute, 2011), and anxiously await Stemberger’s updated Einleitung in Talmud und Midrasch (München: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2011; Ninth Revised Edition).

Tu Bishvat as Judgement Day in a Poem by Aharon Mirsky

The cover of Mirsky's book, which was published in 1999 by Bizaron Books

Tu Bishvat (the 15th day of the Hebrew month of Shvat), which is celebrated today, is also known as the New Year of the Trees. This festive date appears for the first time in tractate Rosh Hashana (The New Year) of the Mishna. The Mishna refers to four New Years:

The four new years are: On the first of Nisan, the new year for the kings and for the festivals; On the first of Elul, the new year for the tithing of animals… On the first of Tishrei, the new year for years, for the Sabbatical years and for the Jubilee years and for the planting and for the vegetables. On the first of Shevat, the new year for the trees, these are the words of the House of Shammai; The House of Hillel says, on the fifteenth thereof.

As can be seen there was a dispute between בית שמאי (House/School of Shammai) and בית הלל (House/School of Hillel) concerning the exact date of the new year of the trees. Ultimately (and not surprisingly) the date was set according to the latter. In practice, Tu Bishvat remained a marginal date in the Jewish calendar throughout the Middle Ages. It became gradually more prominent from the beginning of the early modern period, especially in mystical circles and reached its heyday in modern Israel, where it is celebrated widely and quite lavishly.

This post is dedicated to an interesting and charming children’s poem by the late Aharon Mirsky (1914-2001), a prominent piyyut scholar and poet. I bring here a photocopy of the original publication, which is accompanied by drawings by Yehudit Ben-Yosef:

It would be superfluous to provide here a full English translation of the poem but I would like to touch upon its main themes. Mirsky takes here quite seriously the notion of the new year of the trees and compares it to Rosh Hashana, the celebration of the New Year at the beginning of the Jewish High holidays. Since Rosh Hashana is considered to be the judgment day for all human beings, so – according to Mirsky – Tu Bishvat must be the judgment day of the trees and plants. But what does this mean? Mirsky draws here on the famous late antique piyyut for Rosh Hashana (and subsequently Yom Kippur) –           ונתנה תוקף קדושת היום (and we shall proclaim the greatness of the day). A famous line in the piyyut reads: בראש השנה יכתבון / וביום צום כיפור יחתמון (On Rosh Hashanah will be inscribed and on Yom Kippur will be sealed), namely that the people’s judgement will begin on Rosh Hashana and end on Yom Kippur. Similarly, according to Mirsky, the trees and flowers in the garden will be judged.

Then Mirsky draws on another famous part of the piyyut in which the poet enumerates those who will die during the coming year: …מי יחיה ומי ימות / מי בקיצו ומי לא בקיצו / מי במים ומי באש / מי בחרב ומי בחיה (Who will live and who will die; who will die at his predestined time and who before his time; who by water and who by fire, who by sword, who by beast…). This terrifying litany (which also stands behind Leonard Cohen‘s Who by Fire) is echoed in Mirsky’s poem as well, for example: מי עוד יוסיף לפרוח כאן  / ומי גזעו יקמול (who will continue to grow here / who his trunk will wither); מי יטרף בידי עלעול / בבוא ימי הסתיו (who will be devoured by stormy wind [עלעול] in the autumn).

This playful children song does not seem to call for an extension of Jewish theology to the realm of flora but it does bring together brilliantly ancient piyyut and modern Hebrew poetry. I have no doubt that many kindergarten and elementary school teachers could use it in class in order to develop discussions concerning Tu Bishvat in particular and enviormental issues in general.

Definite Article – The Book Club II

The ‘stammaitic consensus’, like many so-called consensuses, has paradoxically not yet achieved a total consensus. Still, aside from persistent skepticism emanating mainly from Israeli scholars, the stammaitic ‘toolbox’ has virtually become the source-critical method in use among academic Talmud scholars working in the field today.

There have in recent years been two interesting challenges to the stammaitic theory of redaction (I do not consider skepticism interesting – even if it is well placed). One, by Moulie Vidas,  questions why anonymity has become synonymous with “lateness” and a final editorial layer if we occasionally find the Stam actively removing attributions – apparently in order to create a distancing effect. Vidas asks source-critics to consider the literary function of anonymity and not only its presumed editorial function.  As of yet, we only have a few examples of the phenomenon of Stammaitic ‘tampering’, but it remains a very interesting argument worth following.

In Zvi Septimus’ recent research, we find another sort of challenge. Zvi questions one of the basic methodologies of “stammaitists”; namely, the attempt to chart a kind of redactional narrative across different sugyot which develops – ever so cleanly - from a set of literary kernels into a masterful and final talmudic mosaic. Like Vidas, Septimus is also interested in literary function – though here not of textual anonymity rather the experiential process of reading the Bavli. As he points out in his “Trigger Words and Simultexts – The Experience of Reading the Bavli,” one can read source-critically and still discover a far more interactive and far less teleological process of talmudic production that questions some basic axioms of contemporary talmudic source criticism. This realization points in the direction of an implied reader, which in turn can go a long way in explaining what the Talmud is ‘really’ about. I won’t give it away, however, since you should go read it here, and then listen to what our participants have to say, below.

Septimus’ article is the subject of the Talmud Blog’s second Book Club not only because it has implications for redactional theory, a pet interest of this blog. The piece is a nice example of how to read the Bavli from the perspective of contemporary literary theories.  Surprisingly, while there are many scholars interested in the “literary” parts of the Talmud, there are very few actively producing readings informed by literary theory. As such, we’ve invited two scholars, Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky and Dina Stein, who are  engaged in just such an ongoing project of reading rabbinic literature as… literature (!), and who are also interested in the processes of reading Talmud. We also strongly encourage our readers to respond to the article and to the respondents. And finally, we’ve invited the author of the article himself to rise from his theoretical death and respond to Dina and Itay’s remarks. Fear not, since you need not take anything he says into account.

Dina Stein (Department of Hebrew and Comparative Literature; Haifa University):

Zvi Septimus should be congratulated on several accounts – for his instating the word “experience” into the practice of reading the Bavli, as well as for his breaking through the narrow quarters of the sugya as the widest possible signifying context in the Bavli. And above all – for writing an incredibly lively, thought provoking essay.

Zvi proposes to replace the diachronic perspective of source criticism with a synchronic perspective of inter (or rather intra-) textuality within the Bavli, indicated by “trigger words”/”simultexts”. Placing himself as somewhat of a (monstrous) heir to Fraenkel he too assumes closure – albeit closure of the entire Bavli. Here, the notion of Iser’s “implied reader” is called upon, so as to rule out any confusion regarding a concrete, historical reader (and to avoid of course historical questions such as when was the Bavli as a whole first recognized, and by whom, and so on). No, the reader is an immune textual construct.

Yet, both “experience” and the new horizons that Zvi offers are not devoid of problems. The “experience” of reading is somewhat misleading since the reader is a hypostasized entity that could hardly be credited with “experience.” More important, the emancipating notion, that the framework within which a given tale should – or can – be read is as vast as the Bavli itself, maybe less liberating than it appears at first. Why should the boundaries of the Bavli be canonized (Zvi explicitly compares the Bavli’s self-glossing poetics to the poetics of the Bible a la Boyarin et al!) in order for the intra-textual principle to function as hermeneutic tool? It is not necessary in my view. It may even raise more problems than it solves.

Twenty five years ago Galit Hasan-Rokem published an article called “The Snake at the Wedding: a Semiotic Reconstruction of the Comparative method of Folk Narrative Research” (ARV: Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore 43 [1987]: 73-87). There are striking similarities between that article and Zvi’s recent project (they even share some “trigger words”), insofar as both consciously shift the lens from philological, diachronic perspectives to a synchronic reading/construction of meaning. Hasan-Rokem employed tools developed originally by the philological-diachronic perspective of the geographical-historical school of folkloristics, i.e. the tale-type and the motif. Following the semiotician Yuri Lotman who wrote about “sign signals” (to other texts), motifs and fixed bundles of motifs amounting to “tale types” served her to construct possible intertexual environments within which a given text – in this case the story of the bridegroom who dies on his wedding night (Vayiqrah Rabbah 20:3) – signifies. Now Hasan-Rokem addressed texts that are not confined to a single composition or to the rabbinic corpus per se, thus allowing for a more fluid context. By referring to motifs and tale-types as “semiotic markers,” her model also implies that the intertextual framework includes oral traditions, which most of rabbinic literature was.

Applying Hasan-Rokem’s model to Zvi’s argument would shift the very heavy burden lying on the shoulders of the (implied) reader to the realm of cultural semiotics in which different texts share “trigger words” (and themes). The legitimacy for reading these texts in relation to each other would not be compromised. Moreover, the hypostasized “reader” need not be chained to what is assumed to be a fixed canonized composition. “Trigger words” in the Bavli can indeed help us reconstruct cultural associations without necessarily erecting yet another set of (imperializing) boundaries, or imagining closure.

Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky (Department of Hebrew Literature, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev).

Zvi Septimus’s article “Trigger Words and Simultexts – The Experience of Reading the Bavli” adds to a growing body of research that attempts to chart a path between two nearly opposite approaches to the talmudic text: the first emphasizes the foreignness of its elements, resulting in a long and dispersed process of creation; the second highlights the aesthetic quality of the final edited form, which gives it a seemingly uniform appearance. The first leans upon evident, necessarily partial seams, meant to merge distinct sources; the latter draws its strength from the success of the act of sewing, which makes the Babylonian Talmud a stylized, comprehensive text. A careful, self-aware movement between such different modes of discourse must lead to a third approach – and indeed Septimus suggest a very coherent one. By means of an extensive and thorough (and surprising!) analysis of a relatively ‘entangled’ story in the forth chapter of Kiddushin tractate (70a-b), the author demonstrates a new reading method, based on two fundamental claims: (A) The source-critical approach (represented here, and not by coincidence, by the work of Shamma Friedman), does not reflect the (non-critical) reader’s experience, therefore, even if it may explain some stages in the evolution of the talmudic text, it will never supply a theory of reading. (B) The “literary” approach (represented here, again by no coincidence, by the work of Jonah Fraenkel), which ignores the fact that the Babylonian Talmud, as a literary complex, constantly breaches the ‘segirut’ (I find ‘closure’, suggested by Jeffrey Rubenstein, the closest translation of the concept) of the story embedded in it,  when connecting it to other stories from different suggiyot. The combination of the two approaches defines the “Septimusian” reader: He is guided by “trigger words” to simultaneously read text-fragments that were originally far from each other, not in order to decompose them into its primary and secondary components, but to illuminate one another as wholes, in their final design; (ונמצאו “דברי תורה עניים במקומן ועשירים במקום אחר” (ירושלמי ראש-השנה, פ”ג ה”ה

This approach is definitely thought-provoking and requires a lengthier discussion; yet in the limitations of this blessed “Virtual Beit midrash” of which I am a new guest (I take this opportunity to thank Shai Secunda and Yitz Landes for their generous invitation), I will have to suffice with short words of evaluation of some of the theoretical choices made by the author, and maybe suggest possible alternatives.

The attempt to read different Talmudic stories together calls into question the aforesaid assumption, associated with Fraenkel, of ‘segirut’. This assumption, discussed in recent years by Jeffrey Rubenstein and Joshua Levinson, considers Fraenkel a prominent representative of New Criticism in the study of Rabbinic literature. Accordingly, and according to Fraenkel’s words, segirut has “external” and “internal” aspects: its mere existence renounces any affinity to non-literary fields (historical, biographical, etc.), and at the same time to inter-literary contexts (textual sequences, parallels). The two aspects combine into one: they are different expressions of “unity” or “cohesion”, which justify reading the Talmudic text through the “hermeneutic circle” – all these are key phrases – meaning, a story ought to be understood from within itself, as a unique artistic expression (and not, Fraenkel emphasizes, a variant of a pre-existing structure). Septimus, sailing away from Fraenkel’s model, does not doubt the segirut as a hermeneutic category, but raises it from a low order to a higher one: from the single story to the Babylonian Talmud as a whole. But the segirut of a short story does not resemble that of an enormous complex text; whereas the latter reflects a tendency of a loosely unified literature, well known to every learner of the Bavli, the former claims something as for the precise, condensed and focused “aestheticization” of the literary expression, randomly set in its pages (it is no coincidence that New Criticism was most fertile when analyzing poetry, especially lyric poetry, rather than prose; its fruitful use with rabbinic literature is made possible primarily thanks to the minimalistic nature of the aggadic story).  The two types of segirut are as two dimensions of the creative story-telling work of the Bavli, which are active simultaneously, and are competing for the establishment of its meaning and its poetic design: the “Narrative art” on one hand, and the “Art of Narrative Connections” (to the local suggya or to the Bavli as a whole) on the other hand.

Is the reading experience of the Bavli – be it imaginary or abstract – necessarily a harmonious experience? Considering the aforesaid, it is possible to suggest another possibility that corresponds to Septimus’ proposal. I believe that a slightly different adaptation of Fraenkel and Friedman’s point of view could pave the third, different way (that could coexist with some post-structuralistic reading practices). This approach may be of aid while attempting to perceive the Talmudic text as a “dynamic” literary framework, in which something “occurs”: a frame within which different creative motivations act as forces. Thus, for instance, instead of converting an obvious axis of development between two stories in the Bavli (Friedman) into pointing out a “static” intertextual relation between them (Septimus), perhaps we should see the intertextual mechanism as one of the strategies (poetic, rhetoric, or in this case – connective) that the Suggiyot use to try and control the meanings of the stories embedded in them, and navigate these meanings to serve the Suggiya’s needs. At the same time, instead of converting the segirut of the single story (Fraenkel) into the segirut of the Bavli as a whole (Septimus), perhaps we should see both types of segirut as if they are challenging each other, revealing the interplay between control and resistance (thanks to the existence of the single tailored story as an independent aesthetic object, with an inner consistency and a distinct ideological world. This description must not be misunderstood; I emphasize here that I do not refer to any polarized manner of “control” and “resistance” relations, nor a strict binary categorization which ranges from “hegemonic discourse” and “subversive discourse”, but to much more meaningful and intricate games of meaning; as Bakhtin teaches us: two shades of understanding can still engage in a dialogue). Surely, the dynamism of the text is obvious when one thinks of it in a diachronic perspective. However, identifying with Septimus’ criticism of the difficulties inherent in basing a reading theory on source-criticism, my suggestion is to see the synchronic reading as a performative act of reading that reflects the inner dynamism of the Talmudic text. Following this line of thought, in the case of the story discussed in the article, an interesting question concerns its violent nature, the (carnivalesque) manner in which it goes “out of control”, and the reciprocal relations between this literary process, and the first subject of the chapter, which deals with different and sometimes problematic personal statutes (‘asara yochasin’); ואכמ”ל .

Septimus successfully uses Iser’s “implied reader” to ensure, among other things, that the reader whose experience the article wishes to restore is not an actual, historical subject, but an imaginary construct, supposedly produced by the Talmudic text itself, out of the connections that weave together its different parts. This is probably one of the most intriguing “implied readers” one could think of, and the inspiring power of the hermeneutic model that Septimus suggests will prove that. However, side by side with this implied one, perhaps we can revive something of the “actual” reader – if it is still appropriate to mention him or her – that exists within every implied reader, and the Bavli reader in particular: the reader experiencing the Bavli over and over again as an incoherent work, with its internal relations, close and distant, are not always clear; the doubting and struggling reader, who dwells on the contradiction in the text, or simply the obscurity of it, on the wondering and the awe, just before trying to settle it all.

Why Do I Read the Talmud?

About a year ago I was asked to write an article for a French Jewish Studies Journal – Tsafon (published by the University of Lille), that would offer to the French scholar a status quaestionis of Talmudic studies. I wrote this article in French and it can be accessed here, but I would like to summarize its main point that I tried to develop in its second half.

The title of the article is “Why one reads the Talmud Today?”. It echoes a very interesting volume edited by Matthew Kraus in 2006 – How Should Rabbinic Literature Be Read in the Modern World. In the article I don’t try to answer this question, but to point out the importance of asking it when we read the Talmud; the importance of being aware of the variety of possible answers, of the one that we come to choose, and of the reasons that lead us to this choice.

It seems pretty obvious today to almost everyone that there is no such thing as objective reading and that the way we read the text is influenced by many personal and subjective factors. The problem is that most of us just nod when hearing this and then go ahead to develop our objective statement, thesis or theory. In other words, we do not learn (in any case I didn’t) how to overcome the problem of our subjective bias. What we do instead is to silently acknowledge the existence of subjective factors in our scientific judgment, without really accounting for the nature of the bias, and the way it actually biases our perspective. In the case of Talmud scholars – we do not always understand (or will to admit) how the reason for which we read the Talmud influences what we read in it (Boyarin’s preface to Borderlines is one, among several, rare exceptions).

There are some obvious examples for this unconscious bias. One of them is described in the interesting contribution of Seth Schwartz to the Cambridge Companion to Rabbinic Literature, published in 2007. Schwarz attributes the position of many Israeli scholars, according to whom rabbinic Judaism was dominant in first centuries Palestine, to their Zionism. Of course, a similar claim can be made on Schwartz as well – the idea that the rabbis occupied a minor position in ancient Jewish society, held by many American scholars like himself, may be influenced by their situation as Jews in the American diaspora. Hillel Newman makes a similar claim in his article “The Normativity of Rabbinic Judaism: Obstacles on the Path to a New Consensus”. And we haven’t even started to speak about questions of gender and sexuality and the way they bias a scholar’s perspective on his/her subject matter.

So what can we do? On the one hand we cannot ignore the fact that our social, psychological, economic, religious, and political positions influence our scientific work. On the other hand we do not want to fall into a post-modernist caricature, where “truth” only exists in our individualistic hearts.

The thinker that helped me most to think this problem through is the French Sociologist Pierre Bourdieu, especially in several passages from his book The Logic of Practice. Bourdieu writes about the work of the anthropologist, who tries to understand societies other than her own. But his ideas can and should apply to us as well, because just like the anthropologist, we too are facing an object produced by people who are not us, and our job is to understand this object, and through it, perhaps, understand the people who created it. Thus, the advice, or maybe even prescription that Bourdieu gives to the anthropologist may be relevant to us as well – according to Bourdieu we should not only acknowledge the fact that we have a subjective relation to the research object, but we should also objectify it. In other words, our own relation to the object (the Talmud in our case) has to be regarded in an objective way. Of course, it is always easier to objectify the bias of someone other than oneself – in a sense that is what I tried to show by referring to the claims of Schwartz and Newman. However, if we want to try to produce objective knowledge (and yes, I still think this is possible), we have to take into consideration, in an objective way, our own relation to the subject matter.

Some questions I find worth asking when I try to objectify my relation to the text I study are: Why did I choose this text and not another? How does the (short) history of my research influence my reading? Do I read the text only to prove I was right, or to understand it better? What is my relationship (real or imaginary) with others who studied the issues I tackle in my research? These questions do not find their way to the paper, but asking them before and during research and writing often proves itself extremely helpful.