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As is the custom, the friends and members of the Talmud department convened this Sunday to award prizes and remember the founder of the department – J.N. Epstein – and one of its master teachers, E.S. Rosenthal. The Epstein prize was awarded to Ms. Shikma Kaspi, who gave a paper on the increasingly scholastic nature of the debate on the penalty for unintentional murderer in rabbinic law. Kaspi claimed that if biblical law was interested in either apprehending an intentional murderer or hiding the unintentional one in a sacred precinct, rabbinic law – having no such sacred precincts – was increasingly interested in the details and particulars of the mistaken act. Kaspi pointed out that B. Mak 7b brings matters to an absurd conclusion, when – like a 9th grade physics teacher – it maps out the various positions and vectors of a meat-cleaver swung over a mishappen butcher’s shoulder. Kaspi took it to mean that the heat of the moment was no longer a concern for the sages. (Following Isaac Baer, she could have also pointed out that rabbinic though understood the cities of refuge to be not only a kind of protective custody, but a penalty in and of itself, following Greek law).
Dr. Ronni Goldstein of the Bible department was awarded the Rosenthal prize. Goldstein discussed several Rabbinic Hebrew words that are better explained by Akkadian. This continues an effort begun already by B.A. Levine, in his awe-inspiringly short doctoral dissertation, and Goldstein added several more words to this list. Most striking, in my opinion, is the Tannaitic reading of Lev. 24:16: “the man (=the blasphemer) shall be put to death; the entire assembly shall stone him with stones”. In Sifra this verse is read thus: “all the assembly shall be his enemies”. Now, on the face of it, this simply means that since the verse already says that the man shall be put to death, the second clause, that of stoning, is superfluous. Additionally, the requirement to stone the blasphemer has already been stated in 24:16. And so, to avoid superfluity, the tannaim derive a moral lesson from the verse. Goldstein showed that in Akkadian both ragamu and bel debabu (I misplaced the handout, ANE specialists, please correct me in the comments) have legal connotations: the first is a law-suit or a complaint, and the second is a legal adversary. Tannaitic Hebrew contained both terms, and the Tannaim read רגום as meaning not “stoning” but “suing”. The homily means therefore: “the entire community shall be his legal adversaries”, pointing out that the blasphemer also, apparently, sinned against the entire community.
In the news department, Prof. Menahem Kahana used the occasion to announce that the catalog of all Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi and Bavli fragments is now in print, and even held up a copy of the title page to prove it. Similar announcements have been made in the past (see, e.g., Yaakov Sussman’s article in Teuda 1 (1980) and its continuation in Mehkerei Talmud 3 (2006)), but this time – as sources confirm – it is for real. The real question, however, is whether the database used to create the printed catalog will be released in the near future as well.