What is a Redactor?

We are often told that a good scholar has to consistently and continually question the validity of his/her basic assumptions. The problem is that many times an assumption is so inherent to our thinking, that it is easy to mistake it for a universal, objective truth and not an assumption, which is by definition subjective. One way to locate these assumptions, in order to  question them, is to look at their “signs” – the habits in academic writing, the terms we use matter-of-factly. Once we shed light on a term of this sort, we can see which view it represents, and ask ourselves whether we can or should justify its use.

After all, we all have our writing habits. Some are the fruits of extensive academic training, but others are simply the expression of personal preferences. This seems particularly true when it comes to terminology. For example, some scholars, when writing about Roman Palestine, will use the term “Eretz Israel” rather then “Palestine”. Some will use the term stammaic and others will instead use post-amoraic. There are numerous other examples. Choosing one term over another signifies a (silent) agreement with a certain view, position, thesis, theory, or politics.

So, one of my terminological habits, as I realized recently, is to write “redactors” almost each time I refer to the, well, redactors of a talmudic or midrashic text: The redactors of the sugiya, the redactors of the teaching, the redactors of the pericope, the redactors of the midrash. I don’t know exactly when we started using this term in talmudic scholarship but it seems to me a relatively recent convention that some scholars follow quite religiously while others not so much or not at all. I belong to the first group, more or less.

I don’t know exactly what it was, but something has drawn my attention to this writing habit, and signaled it as one. Maybe it is the fact that my fellows in the research center, who work on other, non-Jewish and non-rabbinic texts from late antiquity, never use this term when talking about the people who produced their texts. And it made me wonder – what does my and others’ use of the term “redactors” say about our conception of the agency behind rabbinic texts?

I realized that when I use the term “redactors” I have two others terms in mind, from which I do not wish to chose – author and compiler. Using the term “author” would assume that there is a person or a group behind the text, that has an intention, a message to transmit. This person or group is “responsible” for the text, and as Michel Foucault has shown, this responsibility creates a subject, who can be admired, criticized or condemned. Using the term compiler, on the other hand, would assume a very feeble agency behind the text. The person or group who compiled a text do not bear full responsibility for it. They have simply chosen all the texts that were available to them and put them together. They do not constitute a subject. In the terms of Roland Barthes, they are more “writers” than “authors”.

The problem is that rabbinic texts are both “authored” and “compiled” – the people behind them had a message to transmit, but at the same time they were compiling old traditions and edited them inside their own text. They did not only represent themselves, but also a tradition that they inherited, as well as invented. In the texts they authored, they had to include teachings for which they were not responsible, even when they did not agree with them.

This is perhaps the nature of the activity of those who produced the rabbinic texts, from the level of the midrashic unit, and even the single pericope or saying, to the level of the well developed sugiya.  A rabbinic text can be more compiled or more authored, but often it is both. It is a text that has a variety of agents behind it; each one of them is trying to convey a message that has to be understood in a particular context. It is a text which is a battleground, staged by the final redactor, of several views, often including that of the redactor himself.

Some scholars, and the first name that comes to my mind is Barry Wimpfheimer, have studied and examined the techniques and methods used by the redactors in order to negotiate between the different views and to create their own legal and ideological narrative. But it seems to me as important and fruitful to think of the activity of the redactor himself in these terms, as a hybrid author/compiler whose job is, indeed, a different job than that of the pure author or the pure compiler. In order to fully understand the inherent tension that characterizes rabbinic texts we have to understand that it reflects a drama inside the redactors’ mind who, on the one hand wants to conserve a culture and on the other hand wants to invent one, or to adapt the old culture to their experience, to their views.

The redactors of the rabbinic text always oscillate between tradition and invention in order to create something that is both old and new. Their responsibility for the text is, therefore, multilayered and complex; it is dialectic, as is the text itself.

Shavua haSefer 2012

With the heat intensifying, the first of the summer groups arriving, and the stirrings of social-protest demonstrations, there is no question that the Israeli June is here. For this writer, and I imagine for many readers of the blog, the most exciting part of the month is the multi-week long “Shavua haSefer” (granted, it’s also known as “Hebrew Book month”)Here’s a list, organized according to publisher, of some of the academic books that will be on sale this month at reduced prices, along with other tips about making the rounds at the various fairs to take place around the country. Many of the books are also available at reduced prices through the websites of the publishers, but there is nothing quite like jostling for new books under a bloated Jerusalem moon suspended in the starry summer night sky:


Magnes Press publishes dozens of books related to Rabbinics. Unfortunately, especially now that they are pushing e-book sales, they rarely reprint their older books. One has to be careful to purchase them before they run out.

Some books that will probably run out soon include:

  • Daniel Boyarin et. al, Atara L’Haim (עטרה לחיים). I found this festchrift for Prof. Dimitrovsky in the press’ catalogue and was pretty surprised to see that it was still available. When I went to their offices to pick it up, so were they.
  • David Weiss Halivni’s Sources and Traditions: Bava Metzia (מקורות ומסורות בבא מציעא).
  • Abraham Goldberg’s Tosefta Bava Kamma: A Structural and Analytic Commentary with a Mishnah-Tosefta Synopsis (תוספתא בבא קמא: פירוש מבני ואנליטי). 
  • Ta-Shma’s The Old Ashkenazi Custom (מנהג אשכנז הקדמון), although they’ve been pretty good about reprinting his books.

During Book Month Magnes is running a few different sale models, depending on the book. New books only get 20% off, meaning that some of their books most relevant to Talmud are still pretty pricey. These books include:

These are just some pointers. Magnes has many other volumes, both new and old, that should be of interest to our readers. They also distribute books published by the World Union for Jewish Studies, meaning that, although they have yet to add it to their online catalogue, they may be selling Emmanuel’s Responsa of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (reviewed here by Pinchas Roth) at their stands.


Besides the recently reviewed Sperber volumeGreek in Talmudic Palestine, Bar-Ilan’s catalogue is mainly filled with older volumes, such as:

Yad Yitzchak Ben-Zvi

  • Sussman’s Thesaurus of Talmudic Manuscripts (אוצר כתבי-היד התלמודיים) is without a doubt the most important book for talmudists on sale this Shavua haSefer. While I hope that we can fully discuss the book in a later post, here’s a brief description. The first two volumes list, alphabetically according to library, all of the manuscripts and manuscript fragments in the world of the Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, Bavli and Ri”f. The entries are numbered, and contain a description including the exact contents, and references to secondary literature which may have dealt with them. The third volume contains a few introductory essays- mainly previously published articles of Sussman- and multiple indices. The most important indices, of course, are those that are organized by work. For example: if one is studying m. Bava Bathra 2:7, one can look up the mishnah in the proper index and see the numbers of all of the entries of manuscripts or fragments that transmit that mishnah. One can then look up the entries in the first two volumes, and then look up the manuscripts or fragments themselves. The same is true for halakhot in the Tosefta, and folios of the Yerushalmi, Bavli, and Ri”f.
  • In the field of Geonica, YBZ recently published Shraga Abramson’s edition of Rav Hai’s Mishpatei Shavuot, brought to press by Robert Brody and David Sklare (see here for the table of contents and Brody’s introduction).


Mosad Bialik, publisher of classics like Albeck’s Mishnah, Zunz’s Derashot biYisrael, and Urbach’s The Tosaphists, has some new books that may be worthwhile purchases:

Bialik also has a number of volumes of collected essays, such as those of Ta-Shma (Studies in Medieval Rabbinic Literature, in four volumes), and Moshe Bar-Asher’s essays on Rabbinic Hebrew.


Schocken distributes JTS’ books in Israel, and is probably the easiest and cheapest place to buy their books anywhere. Here too, one can find a nice mix of new and old books. Besides the classics (Lieberman’s books, the various editions put out by JTS, etc.), one should look out for:

Over a year ago at the International Book Fair, the Schocken stand had a few copies of Abraham Goldberg’s commentary to Mishnah Shabbat. Apparently, they had found some box of them after thinking that they were long sold out. A few months later they were still selling copies during Shavua haSefer and it still appears in their catalogue. To be honest, this saddens me a bit. The commentary, the work of an important teacher and scholar, should be in the library of all those who dabble in academic Talmud.


This list is not meant to be exhaustive. Anyone who knows of any other academic books that should be on our radar is invited to write about them in the comments sections below.

Daniel Sperber’s Greek in Talmudic Palestine- Review by Yair Furstenberg

Daniel Sperber, Greek in Talmudic Palestine, Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 2012

How much Greek in Jewish Palestine? Were Samuel Krauss to address the question titling Saul Lieberman’s seminal essay of half a century ago, we could expect in reply a most precise datum: 2370. Krauss compiled the dictionary for Greek and Latin loanwords in rabbinic literature (Griechische und Lateinische Lehnwörter im Talmud, Midrasch und Targum) published during the last years of the 19th century, and this is the number of Greek entries in this work (if we are to believe those who counted). However, this enormous number, which supposedly signifies the scope of Greek knowledge in rabbinic circles, would certainly not satisfy Lieberman.

Besides the fact that the Lehnwörter was most fervently criticized early on by linguists and classicists, who rejected a substantial share of its etymologies (between 30-50%) and valued it only as a comprehensive collection of the relevant passages, Lieberman’s major concern in identifying these foreign words laid elsewhere, beyond the realm of lexicography. In the above-mentioned essay, as in his earlier books Greek in Jewish Palestine and Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, he sought not only to identify within rabbinic literature traces of Greek presence, but to map out the types of rabbinic encounters with this culture and the intensity of the exposure. Thus he claims, for example, that whereas philosophical terminology is completely absent from Talmudic literature, which befits the rabbis’ complete disinterest in foreign wisdom, issues such as law, government, and rhetoric are well represented in rabbinic vocabulary.

In the last few decades, contemporary scholarship moved even farther away from the lexicographic endeavor, as it shifted from a philological paradigm in which related words serve as signifiers of sporadic cultural interaction to a broader cultural paradigm that seeks to identify shared structures of thought within the common Greco-Roman environment. From this perspective, even if spoken in the most Rabbinic Hebrew, Talmudic laws, narratives and anecdotes may sound to some like Greek. However, paradoxically, the evolution of new broader scholarly approaches has only reinforced the need for a clearer exposition of the actual contexts and agents (including people, words and institutions) through which such cultural exchange took place. Due to the incompleteness of earlier projects, some fundamental questions have yet to be systematically addressed: How “Greek” is each of the rabbinic compilations? Can we identify different trends or stages in the exposure to Greek language and culture? How should we account for the broader use of Greek in later sources? Did Christianity play a role in the distribution of Greek language and ideas in Palestine? How does the rabbinic exposure to Greek compare with that of other Aramaic and Syriac speaking groups in the eastern Mediterranean?

In his latest book, Daniel Sperber contributes to this endeavor by laying out some of the main findings of his two esteemed masters, Krauss and Lieberman, and by commenting on the challenges which, in his eyes, their works hold for future scholarship. Thus, in the first part, “Greek and Latin Words in Rabbinic Literature: Prolegomena to a New Dictionary of Classical Words in Rabbinic Literaute” (a reprint of two of his articles from the seventies), Sperber surveys the problems and methodological concerns which await the compilation of an improved dictionary, more than a century after Krauss. In the second part, “Rabbinic Knowledge of Greek in Talmudic Palestine”, he readdresses the fundamental question posed by Liebermen: “How much knowledge (and we may add, and of what nature) of the world which surrounded them did the builders of Rabbinic Judaism possess?”. To that end, he adds to Lieberman’s exposition some further examples of his own, relating to regional differences, knowledge of pagan ritual, rabbinic acquaintance with Roman legal and military terminology, and the use of Greek in magical texts.

Those who follow Sperber’s work will identify his examples from the many publications he contributed on the issue of Greek in rabbinic literature during the last three decades. Most prominent of these are his books, in which he not only offered solutions to textual cruxes by deciphering the Greek or Latin etymologies, but in which he sought to classify all foreign terms according to subject matters: A Dictionary of Greek and Latin in the Mishna, Talmud and Midrashic Literature (1984); Nautica Talmudica (1986); Material Culture in Eretz Israel (1993, 2006); Magic and Folklore in Rabbinic Literature (1996). In a way this is the most conspicuous of Sperber’s contributions, in which he dismantled the over-whelming question of Greek in Rabbinic literature into manageable, specific contexts and fields of practice.

The current book is of a different nature, and its purpose is more modest. It advances Sperbers general scholarly approach, which incidentally is largely based on that of Liebermen. However, in the margins, the unique and extremely important aspect of Sperber’s contribution does emerge in this latest book as well. Thus for example, to the list of more than 280 new words which he adds to Krauss’s dictionary (thanks to his elaborate use of critical editions and sophisticated assessment of manuscripts variants) he appended a subject index, which “highlights to us that in certain socio-cultural areas there was a greater penetration of Greek terms… administration, army and weaponry… employment, occupations and professions… building, tools or utensils” (p. 81).

But as the examples in the book demonstrate, the issue at hand is not only in what fields were the rabbis exposed to Greek, but the nature of their proficiency. Thus, the most enjoyable examples are those which not only incorporate Greek terminology but cunningly manipulate the languages through wordplays and puns. It takes an expert to identify those, today as well as back then. Therefore, although we are not surprised to find R. Abbahu in third century Caesarea proving his competence in Greek with a clever wordplay, it is no less than astonishing to find it in other, unexpected contexts. Such is the following case, my personal favorite, (discussed on p. 136) taking us back to the presumably ancient mishnah, which records the halahkhic dispute between the Pharisees and Saduccees (m. Yad. 4:6):

The Sadducees say we cry out against you, O ye Pharisees, for ye say ‘The Holy Scriptures render the hands unclean and the writings of Homer do not’. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said “Have we naught against the Pharisees save this? For lo, they say ‘The bones of an ass (עצמות חמור) are clean and the bones of Yochanan the High Priest are unclean?

As Sperber points out, quoting Chaim Rosen, there is much more to the comparison of texts (Scripture/Homer) to bones (High Priest/ass) than the halakhic issue of impurity: behind the word “עצמות חמור” ["the bones of an ass"] there lies a Greek expression referring to Homeric poetry itself – an expression which has been doctored in a “cacophonistic” manner for the sake of derision and disparagement – “aismat homerou” – viz. “the songs of Homer”. And we can only thank the Pharisees for purifying these bones and songs, reluctantly admitting the enduring influence of Greek language and culture.

Yair Furstenberg is a Mandel scholar at the Scholion Interdisciplinary Research Center in Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University. He lectures in the university’s department of Talmud and Halakha.