A Winter Day in Jerusalem- Dr. Judith Olszowy-Schlanger on “Books within Books”

One of the perks of studying in Jerusalem is “winter break”. No, not our winter break, but rather, those of foreign universities, during which many scholars end up visiting Jerusalem. For the Talmud Blog, this allowed us to hear Ron in person (the day before Stephen Greenblatt, in a lecture on Lucretius at Hebrew University, commented that the Talmud can be likened to Bruno Latour’s concept of “compositionist”), and here in the HUJI Talmud department, this meant that we were privileged to hear a presentation by Judith Olszowy-Schlanger of the Sorbonne.

Olszowy-Schlanger heads a pan-European project entitled “Books within Books” that seeks to locate, photograph, and describe every Hebrew manuscript that can be found in the bindings of mostly Latin books now in libraries across Europe. The name of the project, “Books within Books”, comes as a correction to the misleading term “European Genizah” often used in describing these manuscripts. “I’ve worked with the Cairo Genizah,” Olszowy-Schlanger said, “and this is not a Genizah.” Examples of such material has already been known of since the end of the 19th century. Indeed, some countries have already been sifting through their fragments for some time. Italy started to do so more than thirty years ago, and Austria and others already have their own websites.

Olszowy-Schlanger discussed the many technical difficulties in separating the manuscripts from their “host volumes.” As some of the scholars in the room were already aware, the price of separating a piece of parchment from the binding can run upwards of 1,000 Euro. Paper manuscripts were often pasted together twenty pages at a time, creating a carton that would be strong enough to serve as a binding. Thanks to another costly procedure, these pages can now be salvaged in their entirety. Other problems include the very basic issue of convincing librarians to allow the bindings of their books be ripped open so that Hebrew manuscripts can be extracted from them.

Dr. Olszowy-Schlanger in front of a slide that depicts part of the procedure used to separate a binding made of glued paper pages.

Yet despite all of these difficulties, the incredible benefit of amassing this material is unquestionable. Olszowy-Schlanger brought examples of mahzorim, ketubbot, historical documents, and even Talmudic manuscripts which have been discovered since the publication of Sussman’s catalogue. The sheer number of findings was hard to fathom- “Barely a day goes by when we don’t find another fragment.”

After seven years of working jointly with other teams of codicologists and paleographers from Europe and Israel, Olszowy-Schlanger’s web-based database is about to be launched in mid-January. The BwB site already has links to those collections, like the Austrian one mentioned above, that are already available online. The current stage of the website will only contain new material in its own database from countries such as France, Poland, the Czech Republic, Sweden, and more. It turns out that England, famous for its thousands of Cairo Genizah fragments, has proven particularly difficult to catalog due to the wide dispersion of the “books within books” that may be found there. In, England, manuscripts (not just Hebrew ones) were already used as bindings as early as the twelfth century. Also, some of the fragments that were clearly pulled from European bindings have somehow found their way into such British collections of Cairo Genizah material like the famous Taylor-Schechter collection.

The website is browsable by title and by library, and each photographed fragment is accompanied by an exhaustive amount of details pertaining to its codicological and paleographic characteristics, references to secondary literature, and even the contact information of the scholar who provided the information. Additionally, the website has a list of “mutual books”- fragments of the same original manuscripts that are now found in the bindings of different books, often times even in different libraries (what in Genizah-speak is usually termed “joins”). Overall, the site seems to be easy to use while still providing a large amount of information. It will no doubt become an irreplaceable tool for scholars upon its release (signup will be free, like the FGP site).

Yet the most impressive part of the presentation was not the website, but rather, Olszowy-Schlanger’s inspiring devotion to the overall project. The number of libraries- public, private, church- that she and her team have reached out to, and the amount of hours of painstaking ­restoration and description of manuscripts, are simply innumerable. Thus, it is fitting that at the end of the lecture, Prof. Simcha Emanuel, who had invited her to come speak as part of his seminar on the European Genizah, called Olszowy-Schlanger “a modern-day Schechter.”

The Talmud Blog Live- Ron on “The Torah as the Divine Logos in Tannaitic Literature”

After over a year and a half of blogging, last night, for the first time ever, all of the Talmud Blog’s editors and contributors were actually in the same place at the same time. And what better reason could there have been for such a gathering than to attend, along with a diverse crowd of Talmud Blog followers, a presentation by Dr. Ron Naiweld on “The Torah as the Divine Logos in Tannaitic Literature”.

It is our pleasure to present to you the audio of the lecture here. Enjoy, and feel free to offer your comments below.

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Coverup: Two Examples of Censorship, Then and Now

Censorship, which is supposed to conceal, has the habit of doing just the opposite: To censor is to cover up, and covering up is conspicuous. Here are two cases in point that I recently stumbled upon:

(1) I’ve been lucky enough to spend a few early mornings a week studying at Havruta, a unique Beit Midrash located on Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus. A few days ago a student came over and pointed to a strange formulation at bPes 113a:

שבעה מנודין לשמים ואלו הן: יהודי שאין לא אשה, ושיש לא אשה ואין לא בנים, ומי שיש לא בנים ואין מגדלין לתלמוד תורה ומי שאין לא תפילין בראשו ותפילין בזרועו וציצית בבגדו ומזוזה בפתחו והמונע מנעלים מרגליו וי’א אף מי שאין מיסב בחבורה של מצוה

According to this passage, which is reproduced above from the Vilna edition, the first in the list of people divinely excommunicated is ‘a Jew who does not have a wife’. Since it is more than clear that the Talmud’s target audience is made up of (rabbinic) Jews, the emphasis on the lifelong bachelor’s Jewish identity is strange. Note also that this marker does not appear in the rest of the passage, which goes on to list the other offenders without noting their religious persuasion. A look at the manuscripts reveals that none record the reading “a Jew”, and even early prints omit it as well. Dikdukei Sofrim points out that the first printed edition that contains this ‘emendation’ is the Basil ed. and that it reflects an act of censorship.

Some scholars might say that this reading has no real philological value, but surely it is still useful for understanding the habits of early modern censors. In this case, the change is more than the usual fare. It does not respond to an unflattering portrayal of Christians or Jesus. Rather, it reveals someone troubled by the Talmud’s internal discourse. Here, the very assertion that not getting married is grounds for divine excommunication is seen as a threat to Christianity. Clearly, the passage negates the view that the celibate life is the good life, yet I doubt that it was directed at Christians. By adding the word “a Jew”, the censor attempts to limit the scope of the talmudic statement to the Jewish community, and the lady doth protest too much, methinks.

In his Demonstrations, the fourth century church father Aphrahat felt the need to respond to Jewish views about virginity that irked some Christians (His second, carefully argued demonstration on the topic is worth reading in full, and should be compared with early Jewish biblical traditions, as Naomi Koltun-Fromm has recently done). Apparently, what Jews said about celibacy bothered at least one censor, over a millennium later. And the evidence remains in a variant in the classic, Vilna edition.

(2) On a dark, misty, and rainy day the other week, I participated in what could only be described as a Gothic tour of Beit She’arim together with my home institute. Beit She’arim was the place to be buried in ‘early’ late antiquity, whether you were of rabbinical or non-rabbinical bent, a Jew who heartily embraced figural art, or one who was less than enthusiastic about it. On the way out of the site, I came across a sign whose top, Hebrew half had been skillfully covered by a shiny, screwed-in piece of plastic:

beitshearim censorship

One can still easily read the English text, which nicely highlights the mixing of Jewish and pagan themes in the funerary art. The fact that the English text remained undisturbed means that the censor, whoever he is, was only concerned with the ‘purity’ of (mono-lingual) Hebrew speakers. It was a cold day to begin with, but seeing this act of censorship, not in premodern Basil, but here in contemporary Israel, was chilling. Unlike Ophir’s example of ad-hoc censorship described in an earlier post, at Beit She’arim the censor’s perfectly cut, shiny piece of plastic screwed into an official sign had a certain authoritative feel. Apparently, someone at the parks authority permitted the censor to commit his sorry act. But what exactly the censorship reveals about the place of critical observations at Israeli historical sites – or lack thereof – I cannot know…

The Talmud Blog Live: Dr. Ron Naiweld on “The Torah as the Divine Logos in Tannaitic Literature”

We are excited to announce the Talmud Blog’s third “live” event, which will take place next Tuesday, December 25th, 7:30 PM at Ohel Moshe 5, Jerusalem. We’ll be hosting our very own Dr. Ron Naiweld, a contributor to the blog. Ron will be speaking (in Hebrew) on “Beyond the Letter and the Spirit: The Torah as the Divine Logos in Tannaitic Literature”. More information on his talk, including an abstract, can be found on the event’s Facebook page.

Reader’s interested in attending are invited to RSVP either by emailing us (thetalmudblog [at] gmail [dot] com) or, preferably, via the event page.

A Payytanic Quiz for Hanukkah – “The Answers”

Hanukkah is almost over and it is time to publish the “answers” to the quiz. I put answers in quotation marks since it is not always clear what the payytan meant or was referring to, but this is the case, I would argue, with almost every text.

Before proceeding I would like to thank those of you who responded to the quiz and brought up many interesting (and “correct”) answers. Special thank goes to those who commented that there are indeed more halakhic piyyutim than one would have assumed from my brief introduction. Most significantly are the Az’harot (=warnings) piyyutim for Shavuoth, as Shamma Boyarin pointed out on our Facebook page.

Below are some short comments concerning each stanza of the piyyut; the comments are taken from my forthcoming critical edition of the piyyutim of the Qiliri for Hanukkah and from the critical edition of the piyyutim of Pinhas Hacohen by Shulamit Elizur.

Stanza 1: This was a tricky one; the prohibition to use the Hanukkah candles is well known and attested in Masekhet Sofrim (20:4). What is less known is that in the same chapter we find the following regulation:

.כיצד מברכין? ביום הראשון המדליק מברך שלוש, והרואה שתים

How does one bless? On the first day the one who lights says three blessings, and the one who sees [the candles] says two.

So what we have here is not a reference to the Havdalah or the Hallel blessings as some suggested.

Stanza 2: The reference here is to the prohibition to move the candles once they were lit.

Stanza 3: A clear reference to “נר איש וביתו” from Bavli, Shabbat 21b.

Stanza 4: Here we do have a reference to the Havdalah and the prohibition of using the Hanukkah candle for that purpose. Medieval sages quote the Yerushalmi to back up this ruling, although it is absent from the version that we now have.

Stanza 5: Here we find a direct allusion to the prohibition to use the light of the candle. The reference to spinning might relate to the following saying from Yerushalmi, Berakhot 8:6:

אין מברכין על הנר עד שיאותו לאורו, רב יהודה בשם שמואל, כדי שיהו נשים טוות לאורו

It is forbidden to bless over the candle until its light is sufficient; Rav Yehuda in the name of Shmuel: when women could spin in its light.

Stanza 6: A reference to Bavli, Shabbat 21b: “והמהדרין נר לכל אחד ואחד”.

Stanza 7: “מעש” refers here clearly to the famous story (“מעשה”) about בית שמאי ובית הלל in Bavli, Shabbat 21b.

Stanza 8: One reader noted the similarity to the talmudic phrase concerning the candle of Havdalah “אין מברכין על הנר עד שיאותו לאורו” (quoted above). Indeed, it is attested in our context in Masekhet Sofrim: “ואם הדליקו ביום, אין ניאותין ממנו… שכך אמרו אין מברכין על הנר עד שיאותו לאורו”.

Stanza 9: Again, according to Masekhet Sofrim one should wait until the wick will be entirely consumed and, in addition, it is forbidden to use an old one.

Stanza 10: Here the prohibition to light one candle from the other is hinted; as it is appears in Bavli, Shabbat 22a: “רב אמר, אין מדליקין מנר לנר”.

Stanza 11: Nothing halakhic here but the reference to the candles of redemption brings to mind one of my Hanukkah posts from last year.

Next year, God willing, we will have another Hanukkah quiz, this time with a genuine piyyut by Pinhas Hacohen. See you then!

A Payytanic Quiz for Hanukkah

Hebrew liturgical poems (piyyutim) only rarely relate to halakhic matters. However, we do have one intriguing piyyut for Hanukkah that enumerates laws concerning the candle lighting during the days of the feast. This piyyut is attributed in Genizah manuscripts to the celebrated poet El’azar Birabi Qilir, who lived in the Galilee in the early seventh century, although it appears as well in a composition by the mid-eight century poet, Pinhas Hakohen from Kifra (a suburb of Tiberias). At any rate, we thought that this piyyut would give us an opportunity to hold our first ever Talmud Blog Quiz. Readers are encouraged to decipher the poem: Namely, to explain which laws it alludes to and cite texts that support their answers in the comments section of the blog. When the last day of Hannukah arrives we will post the “correct” answers and respond to your suggestions.

Have fun!