Two Unusual Traditions in Piyyutim for Shavuot

Shavout is just around the corner and I present in this post two most unusual traditions that appear in piyyutim for the holiday:

Were Hillel and Shamai brothers?

On June 8, 1951 Menachem Zulay published in the Israeli newspaper Ha’aretz two late antique piyyutim for Shavuot that rather astonishingly suggest that Hillel and Shammai were brothers. The first piyyut relates in great detail the chain of tradition of the Torah according to Mishna Avot. Towards the conclusion of the poem we read:

 וכמו קיבלוה מראש שני אחים

כן נמסרה בסוף לשני אחים

That is, at Mount Sinai (‘the beginning’), the Torah was given to two brothers, Moses and Aaron, and at the conclusion of the process it was handed to yet another two brothers. “But who are these two brothers?”, wondered Zulay. The second piyyut has a straightforward answer to this question:

שמעיה ואבטליון מיהרו לדרוש בדת רשומיי

וקיבלו מהם שני אחים הלל ושמאי

According to this piyyut Sh’maya and Avtalyon studied the Torah while two brothers, Hillel and Shammai, received it from them. Two years after the publication of the piyyut in Ha’aretz, Zulay complained that scholars paid little attention to his curious discovery.  He also rejected a suggestion made by the poet Aaron Zeitlin to regard the poems as metaphorical. Zulay then wrote the following the comment, which to a large extent is still relevant today:

It is about time that our learned persons should know that the common way to settle contradictions between payytanic and rabbinic texts is not a scientific one, and at any rate it is unacceptable in regard to the piyyutim in the Cairo Genizah. The naive assumption is that the entire corpus of Jewish texts was fully preserved and that any source that does not agree with the canonical sources is mistaken or the illusion of the author.

Indeed!

Why didn’t the Patriarchs receive the Torah?

Ela’azar birabi Qilir was the first poet to dedicate a special section of the Shavuot piyyutim to the question of why it was Moses who received the Torah and not one of the patriarchs. The section describes God and the Torah as king and  daughter, and in the course of the piyyut God presents to the Torah a set of potential grooms (Adam, Noah, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob).  The Torah refuses since in her view they all sinned. She describes – at great length – these sins and after dismissing all of the suitors she finally chooses Moses. This literary unit is unparalleled in any other source (that is, outside of the payytanic corpus) and I wish to provide one example, that of Abraham. In one piyyut by the Qilir, Abraham is blamed for doubting God at the ברית בין הבתרים (Covenant of the pieces) – as he asks ‘O Lord GOD, whereby shall I know that I shall inherit it?’ (Gen. 15:8).  Admittedly, this is a rather subtle critique. However, in another piyyut the Qiliri is much more daring.  He describes how Abraham hastened to bind Isaac and adds:

עניין כרחם אב על בנים בשכחו / עטיפת תחינה היה לו לערך בשיחו

The Torah claims that Abraham forgot the rule that a father should have mercy on his son  and that he should have prayed before God – apparently to cancel the commandment to slaughter Isaac! A later payytan by the name Yochanan Hacohen (ca. eight century) went even further and wrote:

אבל על יחידו לא קנה רחמים / ושלח יד כאכזר לשפוך דמים

וכל כך לעשות רצונך בלב תמים / ובטוח כי אתה טוב ומלא רחמים

אבל היה לו להתחנן לפניך ולבקש רחמים / ולחשוך יחידו מאש פחמים

הוא לא ריחם לולי ריחמתה, בעל הרחמים

(But on his single one he did not have mercy / and stretched his hand like a cruel man to shed blood

And all that in order to fulfill Your will with an honest heart / and he was sure that You are righteous and full of mercy

But he had to beg before You and ask for mercy / and to save his single one from the fire of coals

He did not have mercy, but you did, O Mercy One.)

Such blames continued to be rephrased in piyyutim for Shavuot in the High Middle Ages in the East as well in the West and it is undoubtedly a striking example of the boldness of these poets. Interestingly, many of the piyyutim that criticize the patriarchs were censored in medieval manuscripts. For many years it was assumed that the censorship was due to the discomfort of medieval Jewish sages who did not want to defame the patriarchs. More than a decade ago, I suggested that they were censored because contemporary Christian apologists attacked the (Jewish) patriarchs by using similar claims to the ones found in the piyyutim. The article was published in Tarbiz 70 (2001): 637-644 and can be downloaded here.

On a parting note, for those of you who would like to delve into the piyyutim of El’azar birabi Qilir for Shavuot I highly recommend Shulamit Elizur‘s critical edition published by Mekizei Nirdamim in 2000; in her introduction Elizur discusses – among other things – the piyyutim that were presented in this post.

And until next time, wishing all celebrants a wonderful holiday of Torah study, milk and honey.

Revolution or an Evolution? A Review of Bar Ilan Responsa Project 20- Guest Post by Josh Yuter

At the end of tractate Horayot (14a), Rabbi Yohanan recounts a Tannaitic dispute between R. Shimon Ben Gamliel and his colleagues over which type of intelligence is superior: being knowledable in the sources or being “able to move mountains” through analytic reasoning.  Generations later, this question was answered in favor of the well-read scholar on the grounds that, “all depend on the master of the wheat.”  After all, even the greatest legal mind needs to process the correct material.

Perhaps the greatest contribution to the production of “wheat-farmer” Talmudists has been the Bar Ilan Responsa Project.  While the project  officially began in 1963, the first version in its most identifiable commercial form was released 20 years ago in 1992 as a CD that not only compiled major Jewish works, but also included a powerful search engine ideal for most classical Jewish text research.  Subsequent upgrades have primarily consisted of additional texts – to the point where the Responsa Project has spun off cheaper versions for those who do not need as much material – and either adding new features or improving earlier ones such as increased hyperlinking within texts that allow users to quickly look up most biblical or rabbinic citations from other sources.  As such, although the project itself was revolutionary, each upgrate is more often than not evolutionary.

The most recent 20th version has some new features which regular users may appreciate, though much of this depends on taste.  Since I spend most of my time with Talmud searches, I’m partial to the embedded references.  For example, double clicking on a Tanna or Amora will display a brief but useful biography of that sage.  There are also tooltips for expanding abbreviations and translating Aramaic to Hebrew, including names which at times conflicts with the aformentioned biographies [Note: screenshots of these and other features are displayed in the slide-show below].

In a feature introduced for this new version, Bar Ilan 20 includes the tzurat hadaf, which allows the user to view a page of Talmud as it appears in the de facto standardized Vilna edition of the Talmud.  You will notice that the editors did not select the clearest or sharpest typesetting, but I would suspect that this would be irrelevant to the average user who insists on the tzurat hadaf – after all the plain Hebrew text is just a few clicks away.  What is important is that the tzurat hadaf is not merely a static image like a PDF, but the text operates as if one were viewing the plain text.  Most notably, hyperlinks are maintained as are their dictionary tooltips.  Speaking of layouts, Bar Ilan 20 also includes a “Recommended Layout” option for all text windows which increases the margins and line spacing, which some users may find clearer.

In terms of functionality, one new feature which stands out is the new default “Natural Language Search.”  Admittedly, I am more used to searching by idioms and grammatical variants such that I have not learned how to take advantage of this feature as it was intended.  Furthermore, I noticed the inclusion of a “Mishna and Bavli Chapters” reference which alphabetically lists all the chapter names in the Talmud.  Since it is not unusual for commentaries to reference Talmud based on page number – especially for those who lived before the tzurat hadaf was formalized – having the index would be useful for tracking down the citation in the original.  However, since most of these commentaries cite at least a few words from the Talmud in the process, it is a simple exercise to simply run the regular Bar Ilan search for those words.  (Speaking of which, here is a pro tip for users: highlight the words for which you wish to search, press Control-R and the highlighted phrase will automatically be placed in the search box.)

Are these upgrades worth the cost? Based on the upgrade pricing scheme, it is always cheaper to postpone upgrading since the improvements are cumulative.  Personally I try to skip no more than two versions since some changes are “under the hood,” like the option (available since at least 17) to install and run searches off of the hard drive instead of the disc itself.  However, if there is a new feature or new sources which are of immediate use, then quicker upgrades could be worthwhile.

Since its initial release, the Bar Ilan CD has been one of the most powerful and versatile tools for Jewish research.  But like any tool, its real value of utility is determined by the needs and skills of the end-user, not to mention the ability to read and comprehend the material.  For what good is it to be a master of the wheat if we do not know how to harvest.

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Rabbi Josh Yuter is the rabbi of the historical Stanton Street Shul in New York’s Lower East Side. He blogs at YUTOPIA (www.JoshYuter.com), and tweets @JYuter.

Iranica Antiqua 47: More on the Hebrew inscription on Ardashir’s Tunic

Relief of Ardashir I’s Investiture at Naqsh-i Rustam

The latest Iranica Antiqua has just been published online.  The Talmud Blog generally does not announce the publication of every journal from the field of Iranian Studies (or Late Antiquity, Early Christianity, etc etc), even though this might be of use to Talmudists.  But particularly in light of our previous treatment of the last Iranica Antiqua volume, the current issue deserves mention.  In this issue, T. Kwasman offers readings of the Hebrew graffiti inscribed on Ardashir’s tunic at Naqsh-i Rustam that differ significantly from those previously suggested on this blog by Shaul Shaked.  Now Shaked’s readings were extremely tentative, particularly given the fact that he was working from a poor photograph of the graffiti and that it was not for a scientific publication. But a number of Shaked’s point are worthy of serious consideration, and it is a shame that Kwasman did not mention them. Apparently, he does not count himself among the hundreds of regular readers of this blog (or 611 readers of that post); he did not discover Shaked’s readings through a Google search; or more likely, current academic discourse has yet figure out a way to include discussions from sources like blogs in scientific journal articles.

In any case, here is the way Kwasman read the graffiti (I was unable to provide some of the markings due to the limitations of WordPress):

A

1. [ז]כר[י]ה שמואל הכהן

2. בן | זכרי[ה]

B

1.  X X רברבה חסן בן סהל בן חסן מן אד\ר

2.                        שנת

3.                       אל שד{ג} סמן

4.                           טוב

5.                         מרחשון

Some of the major differences in Kwasman’s rendition include his adoption of a different calendar that results in a 1741 CE  as opposed to a 992 CE dating; his reading מן אד\ר rather than Shaked’s מזאר (Persian; ‘visit’); and the month מרחשון as opposed to Shaked’s מן חלון (from Hulwan). Kwasman seems to acknowledge the difficulty of the opening term רברבה, which Shaked rather brilliantly suggested should be jointed to the prior characters and read as הזר ברכה (a thousand – Persian hazar – blessings) – while still acknowledging the problematic final ב as opposed to כ.  I would have loved to see some imaginative treatment of what it might mean for a Jewish Persian to visit Naqsh-i Rustam and carve his name on Ardashir’s tunic. Oh well, I suppose there’s little place for that in philological articles.

In the same issue, I also published an article that was written during the hot Israeli summer of 2010.  It patiently (and rather boringly) attempts to date the named authorities in Zoroastrian Middle Persian writings on the basis of some stray historical references; rather problematic epigraphical data, and charting teacher-student relationships.  It is interesting that to my knowledge, it is the first full treatment of the issue, and it took a foolhardy Talmudist like myself, informed by the way things are done in Rabbinics, to attempt it.

Trying to Understand Scribal Practices

Among the many advantages of studying in Jerusalem are the many wonderful opportunities for class-outings. Not since elementary school have I been on so many field trips. Last week, I managed to get myself on a tour of The Shrine of the Book organized by the student councils of the departments of Bible and Hebrew Language. The tour was led by Dead Sea Scroll experts Prof. Emanuel Tov and Prof. Steven Fassberg.

One of Tov’s findings with regards to the biblical scrolls from Qumran that most struck the students on the trip was the character of those scrolls that were apparently written at the Qumran site. In the most recent edition of Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Tov sums up the meaning of some of the changes found in these biblical scrolls: “These changes reflect a free approach to the biblical text…” (103). Fassberg, in his discussion of spoken Hebrew at Qumran, brought examples from The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) that exemplify this attitude. Here are two from Chapter 49 (my bar-mitzvah haftorah):

Masorah

1QIsaa

v24

הֲיֻקַּח מגבור מלקוח

היקחו מגבור מלקוח

v25

גבור יֻקָח ומלקוח

גבור ילקח ושובי

Whereas the Masorah uses the passive Qal (imperfect 3rd person masculine singular) twice, in the first instance The Great Isaiah Scroll has an active Qal in the 3rd person masculine plural, and in the second it has a Nifal imperfect 3rd person masculine singular. The Qumranic version adapts the ancient passive Qal, which disappeared as Hebrew developed, to more current, perhaps even spoken, forms of the verb (see Kutscher, The Language and Linguistic Background of the Isaiah Scroll, pg. 364).

For many on the tour such examples were startling. This attitude towards the biblical text and its transmission seemed at odds with the commonly recieved image of the Qumranic sect as a pious, elitist, and extremely devout group. How could such a group treat textual transmission – of the bible no less – so lightly? This question relates to what we expect from scribes, and how we are to imagine them. Must a pious scribe be a copious one with a significant amount of reverence for the text? And what does “reverence for the text” even mean? As these questions started to pop up in my head while exiting the shrine, I thought of their relevance to some of the well-worn partisan debates from the field of Rabbinics, and how scholars of biblical and rabbinic textual criticism might work collaboratively on problems of textual transmission.

Potty Mouth

Looking for material for my MA thesis, “Injuries and Battery in Tannaitic Law” – and thus avoiding working on the actual thesis – I came across this entertaining snippet from the recently published S. Emanuel, Teshuvot Maharam meRothenburg vaHaveirav, §308 (pp. 641-642, author unknown):

One who calls his peer a mamzer, should leave the synagogue, and fast Monday and Thursday and Monday, and receive lashes after every fast, and ask for forgiveness at the last one, and give 12 dinar to the Kahal, and walk on (perhaps: to) his (the plaintiff’s) mother’s grave in the presence of 10 (men) and say (at the grave): “everything I spoke against your honor (kevodekh) was a lie.” And (the insulted party) can waive his share and the Kahal can waive their share as well. And the same law applies to a woman, but she is not whipped but she should pay the plaintiff 5 dinar for each lash, and the same applies for every law. And this is the case if for instance she is a widow, but if she is married, and owns no property, then she should write (a promissory note) that if she is widowed or divorced – she will pay. But “A Whore’s son (הורן זון)” is not like “Mamzer.”

Emanuel quotes the Nimmukin of R. Menahem of Mirzburg, the laws of shaming (106b), in n. 4:

There is no law concerning calling a man a whore’s son, since all he said was: you are a son of a whore, and perhaps his mother was simply promiscuous, or perhaps she was not married, but he should not(?) degrate himself and prostrate himself on his mother’s grave.

Two interesting items here are (1) there is a grave and severe penalty for calling someone a Mamzer, although Talmudic jurisprudence rules quite unequivocally that shaming with words does not count as shaming, and (2) that the offence was apparently directed not at the person being shamed but at his mother.

This of course leads one to suspect that in fact this was a penalty for calling someone a “son of a whore” and not simply a Mamzer. A mamzer could have come from any number of forbidden unions, all odious but not all casting shame upon the mother – the child of a rape victim, for instance. But calling someone a “son of a whore” insults their very own mother directly, in which case redress of the injured party is called for.

My guess is “son of a whore” was just too common an insult to force anyone who uttered it to drag him/herself over to the graveyard and apologize to the dead mother. But it might also mean that in this cultural milieu, Hebrew insults were stronger and more real than German ones.

A Monumental Loss for Jewish Learning- Guest Post by Moriah Be’er Chriki, Yedidah Koren and Davida Klein Velleman

This post, crossposted from The Times of Israel, is the first in a series on the state of advanced Talmud study for women. 

In a world just opening its eyes to the possibility of women’s advanced and committed Torah study, the closing of the Advanced Talmudic Institute at MATAN, an institution which pioneered women’s study of Talmud, is a tragedy.

In the past few decades, the gates of Torah study have been opened to women, tapping into a previously underutilized sector of our community. Our generation has been privileged to witness and experience tremendous progress in the religious education of women, as, one by one, institutes, seminaries, and houses of study for women were established and thrived as centers for learning and teaching Torah.

In accordance with these developments, today’s women have soared to new heights, becoming active participants in realms previously closed to them – as halakhic advisers, as advocates in rabbinical courts, and even as heads of batei midrash (houses of study).

As women who have devoted their time to Torah study, how fortunate have we felt to actively take a part in this world, one which was largely inaccessible to our mothers and grandmothers.

Unfortunately, these advancements are undermined with the closing of our beit midrash, the Advanced Talmudic Institute at MATAN, at the end of this year.

MATAN, the Sadie Rennert Women’s Institute for Torah Studies, was established in 1988. The Advanced Talmudic Institute began its first cohort in 1999, and is a leading program in advanced study for women. The Talmudic Institute offers its students the unique opportunity to delve deep into the world of the Talmud, using both traditional and modern methods to understand this literary and spiritual gem of Jewish tradition. Over the course of the three-year program, students hone their skills and broaden their knowledge, as they strive to impact the world of learning in particular, and society and culture in general. To help build these future scholars, educators, and religious leaders, MATAN offers students a living stipend.

The Talmudic Institute has proven itself over the years, as its graduates have filled a variety of roles in secondary school and higher education, both in Israel and in the United States, and brought sensitivity and knowledge to the religious leadership. This year, 12 fellows comprise the sixth cohort of the Institute.

But, at the end of this year, the Advanced Talmudic Institute at MATAN will be shut down prematurely. Despite the personal obstacles this has created for us, our greater concern is the implication this has for the wider Jewish community.

The Advanced Talmudic Institute at MATAN is one of the only programs for women in Israel that focuses on high-level Talmud study. Closure of the Talmudic Institute will be a huge step back in the world of Torah study for women. Not only will those seeking to learn suffer, but there will be a community-wide impact as well. This powerhouse for training women to be educators in institutions of Torah study will no longer be able to provide the Jewish community with talented and able female leaders. The institutions that have begun to open their doors to women will no longer be able to turn to MATAN to instruct and support aspiring students of Talmud.

Most of the current students at MATAN have studied Talmud in university and will continue to do so. Although we appreciate the important tools that world offers us, do we want to send the message to Jewish women that the only place they can study this most central text is in academia? A university setting cannot replace the beit midrash, which facilitates careful, intensive Talmud study in an environment that allows one to immerse oneself in its reality.

We are in the middle of a unique historical process that is changing the face of religious Zionist society. The women’s Torah-study revolution is not over; it has barely begun. We must not let it fade into the paleness of a face behind a curtain.

Moriah Be’er Chriki, Yedidah Koren and Davida Klein Velleman are fellows in the sixth cohort of the Advanced Talmudic Institute at MATAN.

UPDATE: Matan issues an update and a clarification.

Conference Review: Legal Heterodoxy in Islamic and Jewish History: Late Antique and Medieval Transformations, University of California, Berkeley, April 23-24- Guest Post by Marc Herman

I confess that I arrived at the conference last week with a healthy dose of skepticism.  Though billed as a treatment of “Legal Heterodoxy in Islamic and Jewish History,” I worried that the conference’s subtitle and chronological frame, “Late Antique and Medieval Transformations,” lightly masked a correlation of Islamic:Medieval and Jewish:Late Antique.  As I reviewed the schedule in advance, I noticed that the symposium poster announced scholars of classical rabbinics in conversation with scholars of medieval Islam.  How, I wondered, would this create a valid historical conversation?  And if history is not the goal, why study late antique Judaism alongside medieval Islam?  Would the goals be ecumenical?  Philosophical?  The theoretical study of law?

When Lena Salaymeh, one of the organizers, opened the symposium with a nod to the above disparity, it began an honest discussion of the challenge of placing Islamic and Jewish law in synchronic conversation.  The pride of place of rabbinics in both Jewish Studies and the popular Jewish imagination leads to a concomitant lack of emphasis on the medieval transmitters and interpreters of rabbinic culture.  Even among those who have studied medieval Rabbanite law, far greater work has been done on Jewish law in Latin Europe than on its counterpart in Arabic lands.  Recent decades have seen a resurgence of interest in Geonica, but surprising lacunae include Jewish law in Muslim Andalusia, North African halakhists, and even, relatively speaking, the legal writings of Maimonides.  Many books could be written about these and other topics, both from an “internal” perspective and by understanding them in light of their Muslim contexts.

This is not to say that the conference papers did not contribute to the study of Muslim and Jewish law in concert.  While previous scholarship has acknowledged connections between Sasanian-era rabbinic and nascent Islamic legal systems, these connections await thorough scrutiny.  G. Libson and others have long championed S. D. Goitein’s “Mediterranean society” view of medieval Judaism and Islam, but scholarship has not always appreciated regional or contextual factors in medieval Jewish legal history.  Developments in the study of Sasanian culture will improve the study of both Geonic-era Islamic and Jewish legal cultures.  Yaakov Elman’s paper, to nobody’s surprise, served as a good touchstone for that project. Only in teasing out what I like to call the “late antique soup” of the pre-Geonic world will we properly understand the rise of Islamic law.

Phenomenologically, I was most excited by the papers of Steven Fraade and Mohammad Fadel.  Fraade analyzed rabbinic traditions that valorize legal pluralism, while Fadel focused on the unusual positions of Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), who lived at the end of Muslim hegemony in al-Andalus and rejected the “normative pluralism” of medieval Sunni orthodoxy.  Though it went unmentioned, it is highly suggestive that as a religious minority, Geonic culture famously downplayed the multivocal vision of the rabbis, conceivably for similar reasons to Ibn Hazm.

A good conference is marked by the questions it poses and the avenues it opens, and this conference was no exception.  In her closing review of the proceedings, Talya Fishman outlined three areas of Jewish studies that could be enhanced by greater understanding of Islamic law: (1) the consolidation of legal traditions in the Geonic period; (2) a change in the “technology” of the law (from oral to written Torah); and (3) Geonic epistemology and treatment of both aggadah and halakhah.  To this list one may add the lacunae mentioned above, as well as scholarly understanding of Karaism (something this blog has recently highlighted).  Ultimately, Judeo-Islamic studies remains a young and exciting field.

Marc Herman is a graduate student in The University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Religious Studies.

The Afghani ‘Geniza’

A few months ago, news broke in the Israeli media of an important manuscript trove that was discovered in Afghanistan. A spate of articles appeared in the press, each one covering just a bit more than the one prior it. Even Israeli television did not lost interest. With all the breathless reporting, the purple prose, and the melodramatic music playing in the background, it has been difficult to get a clear picture of what the value of the collection really is.

Last evening, Shaul Shaked delivered the annual Sara Soroudi lecture on Mount Scopus in a small, stuffy, and packed seminar room. In his unassuming and dignified manner, Shaked gave an initial report on the find, and presented some documents which he read and commented upon.  First things first: The collection apparently stems from around Dareh-Usuf in the vicinity of Balkhs in Northern Afghanistan. Of course neither Shaked nor the other Israeli researches interested in the documents have themselves seen the cave in which the collection was supposedly found. However, Shaked said that his sources in the region, which he claims are trustworthy, did testify to having seen the specific cave that stored the documents.

We know that Jews lived in Afghanistan in the Middle Ages from inscribed gravestones in Kur, but until now we have had virtually no further evidence about the community. Documents have been trickling out for some time now, and particularly in the last two years. There seem to be some two-hundred fragments, though more turn up all the time. And the majority of the collection is held with dealers in London, though in some other locations as well – including Jerusalem. As of yet, all of the research has been done via photographs. The dealers have yet to make a deal.

The find is known as a geniza by name alone. Like the Cairo Geniza, its contents are haphazard and do not represent a planned archival storage. Other than that, there is no evidence that the cave in which the contents were allegedly stored was associated with a specific Jewish communal institution. Further, its contents do not seem to have accrued gradually, rather apparently as a result of one (emergency?) deposit. The texts are mainly in Judeo-Persian, but also in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, and Arabic proper (that is in Arabic script, and sometimes even written by Muslims).

Shaked provided a nice sample of documents, many of which were actually quite colorful and of interest beyond specialists. He discussed two piyutim that have yet to be identified. One poetically referred to a mosaic of nations of the world. Tafsirs were a favored genre in the Judeo-Persian world, and Shaked discussed two of them – one on Genesis and the other on Jeremiah. Both hewed very closely to the original Hebrew, and the tafsir on Jeremiah contained “Babylonian” vocalization on both the biblical text and the Persian translation. “Babylonian” vocalization is actually quite common in the documents, and seems to point to a ninth century CE dating.

In general, medieval Persian-speaking Jews were not particularly interested in rabbinic texts. Shaked did show, however, a few texts of interest to Talmudists. One was a fragment from the second chapter of Mishna Avodah Zara. It seems that the text is close to the known geniza fragments, which would then again imply that written Mishna fragments outside of the Babylonian Talmud stem from a Palestinian and not Babylonian tradition – even when they may well have been written down in Iraq. Mention was also made of fragments associated with Saadya’s commentary on Jeremiah and his responses to Hiwi, while a fragment was shown that refers to the ba’alei miqrayim – perhaps a reference to Karaites. In addition, a charming philosophical text spoke of the endless production of books and book learning. The apparent connection to the Muslim world could be seen in a hadith-like Arabic fragment from the collection; while a business ledger dated to the eleventh century provided a window into everyday life. Finally, a long and detailed letter recounted the story of a poor chap who fled Bamiyan due to accusations of improper business practices and Sabbath desecration. He had to leave his wife back in Bamiyan in order to go live in Razny, and he defends himself in the letter. And so, a nearly millennium old human interest story.

From the evidence, the people associated with the documents seem to have known not only Judeo-Persian and Hebrew, but also Arabic, which may point to recent origins in Babylonia. Regardless, from the small sample that was shown, there is no doubt that the collection is extremely important for reconstructing the history and texture of life of c. eleventh century Afghani Jewry.

The problem of course is that nothing can really be published until the collection is purchased. And here one begins to wonder about matters that Shaked did not discuss: Have some of the dealers been feeding off of the media hype and inflating the prices beyond reason? There is no doubt that there are serious potential buyers out there interested in purchasing these truly important documents and making them available to scholars. But generally, buyers with the serious funds needed for a collection of this sort are not dumb, and they are not interested in paying far beyond the reasonable value. No doubt, antiquity dealers have a right to charge a handsome sum for a valuable collection, but it must be within reason.  They should know that sales of this type are based essentially on trust. And let us not forget, they too have a responsibility to preserve the heritage reflected in the documents by making them available for research.  If the documents are to finally reach scholars, it will take a dealer, or a group of dealers prepared to negotiate in good faith. There is simply no other way.

UPDATE: See Avraham Yoskovich’s comment in the comments section for a review of Haggai Ben-Shammai’s “companion” lecture at the National Library on Tuesday, May 1, 2012.