Review by Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick
Towards the end of the sixth century, the torch of rabbinic leadership passed from the Amoraim to leaders referred to in Geonic literature as the Savoraim. Their successors, the Geonim of the Babylonian Yeshivot of Pumbedita and Sura, saw themselves as the logical heirs of Talmudic interpretation and Halakhic ruling. For a period of close to 600 years, the Geonim, through their teachings, responsa and halakhic writings (and those of their students) helped to cement the Bavli’s form. Talmud study that considers the perspective of Geonic (and Geonic-era) literature is invaluable for tracing the redaction of the text and the history and formulation of Halakha; and for understanding many subsequent medieval commentaries as well.
In practice however, using these texts for Talmud study is a daunting task. Geonic responsa have survived in numerous collections but many of them have not been properly indexed; Many Halachic codes and legal monographs shared the same fate. Despite the state of disarray of Geonic literature, from 1928 to 1942, Dr. Benjamin M. Lewin self-published – on his own printing press – 12 volumes of Otzar Ha-Geonim, which he sub-titled “Thesaurus of the Geonic Responsa and Commentaries following the order of the Talmudic Tractates”. Beginning with Berachot and ending – due to his untimely passing – with Bava Kamma, Lewin managed to achieve the impossible. His work did not end with his death: A partial volume to Bava Metsia was published posthumously and his personal hand-lists to tractates Bava Batra and Hullin were included in A. Kimmelman’s index to Geonic literature.
Lewin, working alone and under financial stress, gleaned Geonic material from responsa collections, Geonic halachic works as well as newly published Genizah fragments. He divided (in most volumes) his compilations into two sections; ‘Responsa’ and ‘Commentary’, published parallel sources alongside one another in synoptic fashion, included footnotes of his own and from other scholars of his generation (e.g. Professors J.N. Epstein, S. Assaf, S. Lieberman and S. Abramson) and added detailed indices.
Later attempts to replicate Lewin’s methods are few and far in between. Aside from Kimmelman’s aforementioned list in Shnaton Mishpat haIvri 11-12, we have H. T. Taubes’ compilation to Sanhedrin (1967) and Y. Cohen’s Ginzei Geonim on the first three chapters of Bava Batra (1995).
This is the current literary backdrop against which we eagerly greet Prof. R. Brody’s latest work, Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash. To say that this volume takes up where Lewin left off would be a discredit to the effort and scholarship invested in it. The reader should not expect to find a continuation of Lewin’s oeuvre nor even a revised edition of the older material. Rather, we have before us a fresh volume, meticulously planned from its inception.
Each section has been handpicked by the discerning eye of a master of Geonic literature. This task, daunting in itself, required the editor to decide which sources to include, which are merely repetitions and may be relegated to the notes, and which sources, although related to the sugya, are not truly native to Bava Metsia and should be merely cited but not quoted. Gone is Lewin’s partition between responsa and commentary and the reader is no longer required to alternate between different sections of the work.
All previously published material has been re-edited against the original manuscripts, alongside of which we encounter much ‘new’ responsa and commentary. Specifically, we are made privy to parts of a soon-to-be-published edition of Rav Hai Gaon’s Mishpatei Shavuot. This edition was originally under preparation by the late Prof. S. Abramson. According to the introduction and bibliography in Brody’s new book, it is slated for publication this year. Along with commentaries to Bava Metsia used as source material, Brody’s notes also reference a section in the introduction, written by Abramson, dealing with Rav Hai’s retractions in halachic decisions (p. 24 no 1). And beyond this exciting news, we are provided with newly discovered sources from texts penned by Rav Shmuel b. Hofni. These include Sefer Hamashkon, Sefer Hat’naim, Sefer Hakinyanim and chapter 74 from his “Introduction to the Mishnah and the Talmud”. The great Geonic innovator also makes an appearance – parts of Rav Se’adyah Gaon’s Sefer Hapikadon and his Sefer Hashtarot are represented in Brody’s volume. These works too are being readied for publication, and we look forward to welcoming their arrival in print.
Other novellea await the reader. In Brody’s minimalistic notes, we learn of Rav Sherira Gaon’s knowledge of Greek (p. 152 no. 2 – possible) as opposed to his son Rav Hai’s certain lack of knowledge in this field (p. 120 no. 7). Philological information abounds: Persian loan-words are discussed (see p. 32 no. 8) and the editors, experts in Judeo-Arabic, trace the Arabic etymologies of many words and phrases in Geonic literature (p. 31 n. 7; p. 34 no. 4; p. 215 no. 8; p. 216 no. 1; p. 217 no. 1).
Preserved in the notes as well are vignettes from Abramson’s unpublished discourses, a sort of academic “torah she-be’al peh”. Hinted at is his understanding of the phrase “tartei mativta” to mean the Yeshiva of Sura and the parallel yeshiva of the Resh Galuta (Exilarch), contrary to popular convention that this refers to the yeshivot of Sura and Pumbedita (see p. 80 no. 13). Further such gems include one of Abramson’s notes to the text of Mishpatei Shavuot (p. 316 no. 5) and a discussion of an attribution issue related to a particular work (p. 51 no. 8).
The following Geonic comments provide a sampling of some of the fair: Rav Hai seemed to have understood the sobriquet “Paponai” to mean “followers of Rav Papa”, contrary to the now conventional definition “those of the city of Paponia” (p. 176 no. 5). From a citation in a responsa attributed to Rav Zemah b. Paltoi Gaon (Pumbedita 872) it is apparent that this Gaon viewed the three “Bavot” as one tractate (p. 212 no. 9). This datum adds to our knowledge of the literary structure of Talmudic corpus as understood in the middle Geonic Era.
Those who have studied Bava Metsia are aware that many of the tractate’s passages are attributed by the Rishonim to Geonim or Savoraim. The current volume makes note of this (pp. 25, 72, and 102) and the editor is of the opinion that these attributions are not to be viewed as authentic – providing another viewpoint to the debate as to how the Savoraim and Geonim added to the Talmudic text (if at all). In contrast, see p. 26 no. 2 for a Geonic reading of the sugya, which relegates a part of the text to the “stam”.
The editor informs us in his English preface that three more volumes are planned, thereby completing “Otzar Ha-Geonim” on all of Bavli, after which he hopes to “prepare a corrected and updated version of his [Lewin's] work”. The volume on Bava Batra is cited extensively (18 times), as well as a volume containing Shavuot (pp. 10, 63, 284). Citations to Otzar Ha-Geonim on Sanhedrin are to Taubes’ edition; and no hint is given of whether the remaining three volumes will include Sanhedrin as well. Interestingly, the editor also cites material from the forthcoming volumes to the following mesechtot: Hullin (p. 70), Bechorot (p. 138) and Erachin (p. 131).
Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash on Bava Metsia innagurates a new page in Geonic studies. Bava Metsia is a widely studied tractate, from both a textual as well as an halachic perspective. This volume displays a superb blend of academic and traditional Talmud study. Those with an interest in Geonic Talmud commentary would do well to avail themselves of this literary treasure. We wish to offer our thanks to Prof. Brody for undertaking this vast endeavor, and we eagerly await its succeeding volumes on all of the Talmud Bavli.
Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick is currently writing a PhD dissertation on Rabenu Hananel at Bar-Ilan University. His publications include “Rabenu Hananel on Tractate Bava Kamma” (Jerusalem, 2011).