The Mishnah and Second Temple Polemics: A Note on Tractate Hallah

The past few years have seen an abundance of new Mishnah scholarship. Between the literary turn exemplified by Avraham Walfish’s dissertation; the Cover-Bakhtin moment in Moshe Simon-Shoshan’s monograph; and the ritual and Temple focus of the work of Berkowitz, Stoekl Ben-Ezra, Rosen-Zvi, and, most recently, Naftali Cohn, the Mishnah remains at the nexus of exciting academic output where new questions, methodologies, and insights come to test.

In this context, Yair Furstenberg, whose dissertation on Tractate Taharot can be included in the above list, delivered a class on Mishnah Pesahim here in the HUJI Talmud department last semester. At the end of the course, I, along with a friend, penned a paper on Mishnah Hallah. Studying and writing on this short tractate raised some methodological issues that I have been pondering for quite some time and would like to share here.

To what extent can we read polemics into the Mishnah? To be sure, there is no question that the Mishnah engages in some sort of polemics. At times, it claims to record the opinions of what we now term Second Temple sects, going so far as to even bring relatively complex arguments against them. As has been shown, some of these rejected opinions recorded in the Mishnah parallel those found in actual Second Temple literature. One the face of it, tractate Hallah itself doesn’t seem to record any sectarian opinion that differs from that of the Rabbis, but such a view might be found elsewhere in rabbinic literature. Indeed, hints of polemics are found in section 110 of the Sifre Bamidbar. On the verse “מֵרֵאשִׁית עֲרִסֹתֵיכֶם תִּתְּנוּ לַיקֹוָק תְּרוּמָה לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם” (Numbers 15:21), the Midrash states (Horovitz pg. 114, Kahana lines 34-37):

מראש’ עריסת’- למה נא’. לפי שהוא או’ ראשית עריס’, שומע אני את הראשונה שבעיסות. ת”ל מראשית עריס’. מראש’

As noted by Menahem Kahana in his dissertation (“Prolegomena to a New Edition of the Sifre on Numbers”, Jerusalem, 1982), it appears that the Midrash here is rejecting an opinion that identifies Hallah with the commandments of Bikkurim and Omer. Such an opinion would understand the word “ראשית” as it appears in other parts of the Torah in relation to first fruits, practically meaning here that Hallah should be separated only once at the beginning of the year and not from each batch of dough.

Unbeknownst to Kahana, this deferred opinion indeed was a sectarian one, as became clear in a section of The Damascus Document published years after he finished his dissertation. The CD states (according to Shemesh’s reconstruction):

על] חלות התרומה לכל בתי ישראל אוכלי לחם
[הארץ ל]הרים אחת בשנה עשרון אחד תהיה האחת
[ לפני] השלמו לישראל אל [י]רים איש

and Baumgarten comments: “Our text identifies this חלה with the two loaves (לחם תנופה שתים) to be offered on the Festival of Weeks in accordance with Lev 23:17… The text interprets this to refer to an annual terumah, presumably on the basis of the term ראשית (Num 15:20), which is elsewhere applied to first fruits…”.

Non-polemical Hallah

In our paper, we attempted to use this argument as a backdrop for better understanding some of the rather odd structural phenomena of tractate Hallah. In its first chapter, for example, the Mishnah devotes a relatively large amount of time to the comparison between Hallah, Terumah and Ma’aser. Likewise, in the third chapter, the discussion of Hallah is interrupted in Mishnahs 4 and 9 by comparisons to these tithes. By developing the tractate thusly, the editor succeeds in introducing the basic laws of Hallah while at the same time firmly placing the commandment outside of the category of “first fruits”. The method is subterfugal: The Mishnah doesn’t even mention the sectarian opinion as an option. Instead, it emphasizes the aspects of Hallah that are unlike Bikkurim and more like Terumah and Ma’aser: That the requirement to separate it is not a function of time per se, but of the produce or dough’s entering into a state of obligation through its physical state.

But are we overreading here? Can polemics be found here even though they aren’t brought up explicitly? Can the structural choices of the Mishnah’s editor(s) speak of points of conflict between the rabbis and other Jews? I’m not sure if the Mishnah works this way, and I’m wondering what other people have to say.

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4 responses to “The Mishnah and Second Temple Polemics: A Note on Tractate Hallah

  1. A fascinating post!

    I think that there are plenty of examples of where non-explicit polemic underlies the Mishna’s structure, in situations where the discarded view is also rabbinic. While we do learn, for example, in Yevamot 1:4 that the school of Shammai permit a man to marry his deceased brother’s wife, even if another of his wives is forbidden to him, the opening three mishnayot in that chapter take Hillel’s perspective as a given, and the subsequent tractate continues to develop their perspective without any regard for what was evidently an alternative view. Between those two schools in particular, this is something that seems to happen a great deal.

    As for polemic between individual rabbis, the gemara recognises this phenomenon itself, attributing individual mishnayot to individual rabbis and asserting an unspoken bone of contention. A case in point would be Eruvin 4:6, in which Rabbi Shimon likens three people spending Shabbat alongside one another and outside the techum to three adjacent courtyards that each opens into an alleyway. This is later interpreted as being related to a polemic between Rabbi Shimon and the other sages, developed by the gemara but not mentioned at all in the actual text of the Mishna.

    While some of those polemics may be fanciful, the fact that it has long been recognised that some polemic is there and not mentioned explicitly by the text is important. It stands to reason that there might also be unspoken polemic between rabbis (as a whole) and other communities of Jews, but our ability to recognise them depends entirely upon whether or not those other views have been recorded elsewhere. It was certainly not the rabbis’ intention to record their opponents perspectives for posterity, so it strikes me that in many instances those non-rabbinic views have to be inferred.

    • Might I state the obvious here, that we need to develop a useful definition of what we mean by “polemic” as opposed to “disagreement” et al – which is of course the bread and butter of rabbinic literature.

  2. It might be interesting to use some of the methodologies of cultural criticism (developments post Foucault) and reading techniques employed by feminist criticism to locate historical voices that may be silenced.
    I’m not offering this as a full definition of a polemic, versus a makhloket, but I do think that Yitz’s argument rests on the idea that one textual sign of a “polemic” is that the opinion is not quoted and therefore its proponents are not offered the opportunity to defend it. Foucault would suggest that culture’s very power is by making you think that your opinion is the “natural” true way the world works, so that you don’t realize that it is constructed and not necessarily the only way of viewing the world.
    Of course the claim that cultural power tries to erase the footprints of the Other who it silences, raises the very problem of over reading.
    One technique from the literary-cultural criticism world is to look for the fault lines or ruptures in the text, the places where the writer is fighting too hard and therefore undercuts itself, ie. “thou does’t protest too much. ” Meaning, if the Mishnah’s structure is awkward or disrupted by the introduction of the material on Trumah and Ma’aser, then maybe that is a sign of tension. Of course as you say that’s a delicate sign and may only prove useful if the signs accumulate.
    Check out Charlotte Fonrobert’s introduction to Menstrual Purity for her take on this reading technique.

    (By the way, I love the picture of the “non-polemical challah,” but I wonder if the very image of braided challah is not a recent (Ashkenazi?) cultural construction of how real “challah” looks?)

  3. In my opinion when the rabbis wanted to polemecize, they did so. The search for “polemics” strikes me as more connected with the modern academic need for controversy and external context. Usually, the mishnah seems to be operating in a world in which the sectarians and their interpretations are historical recollections, not those with whom they actively argue. I would argue that even when rabbis disagree with sectarian positions, they aren’t necessarily “polemicizing” against them. They may simply be offering their own interpretation.
    I would first exhaust any other possible reading of the mishnah, especially more literary ones, before I claimed to find polemics. Otherwise instead of parallelomania we have polemicamania.

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