On the Margins: A Review of E. Marienberg’s ‘La Baraïta de-Niddah’

Description: Description: C:\Users\Evyatar\Dropbox\Evyatar docs\Livre - BdN\Final Book\Cover-Front-jpg.jpgEvyatar Marienberg, La Baraïta de-Niddah ברייתא דנידה. Un texte juif pseudo-talmudic sur les lois religieuses relatives à la menstruation (Bibliothèque de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes Sciences Religieuses 157; Paris : Brepols, 2012).

The Baraita deNidah is one of those compositions that should trouble anyone who is interested in the study of rabbinic literature. Its very existence, history of transmission and reception defy traditional views of the rabbinic corpus on both ideological and Halakhic respects. The recent edition of the text by Evyatar Marienberg, with its excellent reproduction of the witnesses and the extremely rich and helpful introduction, is therefore an exciting event. This book is a revised version of the second part of the author’s doctoral dissertation, published in French a decade ago as Niddah. Lorsque les juifs conceptualisent la menstruation (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2003).

The Baraita de-Nidah made its first appearance in the field of modern rabbinic studies with the edition of Haim Meir Horowitz. An Orthodox Jew from Frankfurt, Horowitz owned a bookshop where he sold new and old Jewish books as well as some manuscripts. He published several rare rabbinic texts, among which was our “Baraita” in 1890. Marienberg reproduces the main manuscript upon which Horowitz based his edition (the manuscript itself is now lost). Also published here are all of the other witnesses of the text, which are much shorter. The longest among them is preserved in manuscript Parma Palatina 2342 (De Rossi 541) where our text is entitled הלכות נידה and occupies two out of 284 folios. Other witnesses are found in some medieval rabbinic works such as the Kol Bo, Likkutei ha-Pardes and ha-Rokeah. Each one of the ten witnesses is described by the author and even more importantly, is transcribed by him separately and then in a synoptic edition. Four witnesses contain the story of the birth of Rabbi Ishmael, which is also known from another sources. Based on a philological analysis, the author concludes however that this story did not figure in the original version of the Baraita.

The text, or more precisely the family of texts (one is almost tempted to use here the term “macroform”) offer a series of halakhot in matters of nidah which are far stricter than the ones we find in “normal” (and normative) rabbinic literature. Particularly, the menstruating woman’s capacity to defile is extremely exaggerated when compared to talmudic sources. This lead some scholars to link the Baraitha to the Zoroastrian environment of Babylonian Jewry (p. 66). The problem with this hypothesis, as indicated by the author, is that most scholars believe that our text was redacted in Palestine– it is written in Hebrew and mentions only Palestinian sages. However, as Marienberg argues, one should not rule out a non Palestinian origin of the text (he proposes Italy and the Byzantine Empire). Of course, a Babylonian origin is still possible. Marienberg mentions Ephraïm Kanarfogel and Sharon Koren who connect the Baraita to Heikhalot literature. If we situate the origin of the latter in Babylonia, it may be used as another argument to support a Babylonian origin of the tractate.

Marienberg mentions several theories concerning the reasons the text was written in the first place. Some of them were already raised by Horowitz, particularly the possibility that the small tractate was a Karaite composition since some of its teachings resemble Karaite practices. Thus, it is conceivable that the tractate was written either in order to mock the talmudic tradition or to criticize it by showing that the rabbis of the talmudic period shared some of the ideas that were defended by the Karaites. However, Horowitz himself ruled against the possibility of a Karaite origin, as did most of the scholars who later dealt with the question. This interesting debate together with some others related to the date and the Sitz im Leben of the text are summarized by Marienberg in his introduction. In general, Marienberg is very cautious and quotes Daniel Sperber’s conclusion from the article dedicated to the Baraita in the revised edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, according to which neither the date nor the author of the text can be determined with certainty. Marienberg does, however, suggest that the text was redacted after the talmudic period.

In another important part of the introduction the author discusses the reception and influence of the text after its composition. The rarity of manuscripts shows that at least the two long recensions (Horowitz and De Rossi) were not well-diffused in the Jewish world. However, we do find references and even quotations of the text in some popular medieval books and commentaries. The most famous example is probably Nahmanides’ exegesis on Genesis 31:35 which quotes some of the teachings of the tractate and refers to it as ברייתא של מסכת נידה.  According to one of Marienberg’s conclusions, the tractate was used and quoted mainly by authors living in a Christian environment. He proposes to connect this phenomenon to the absence of a direct confrontation with Karaites in the Ashkenazi world – since the teachings of the tractate are close to some karaite practices, rabbinic authors from Islamic environments, where the karaite movement was relatively strong, felt much less comfortable using it.

Finally, Marienberg proposes to see the Baraita as one of the “minor tractates” whose status in the rabbinic corpus is somewhat liminal. He reminds us that one of the reasons that these tractates came to be considered as belonging to the talmudic corpus is the fact that they were included in the 19th century Romm edition of the Bavli. Horowitz edited the text after the publication of the Romm edition. Thus, Marienberg raises the possibility that an earlier publication of the Baraita, and its subsequent inclusion in the Romm edition, would have changed its place in the rabbinic corpus, enhancing its status as an official rabbinic text. This question is left open. Given the great anxiety pronounced by the author of the Baraita towards menstruating women, maybe it is for the best that this extremely misogynistic text was left outside the “official” edition of the Talmud.

This important publication adds another element to the debate regarding the limits of the talmudic corpus and talmudic culture in general. That is why the thesis about the relationship between this text and Heikhalot literature is so compelling – if we consider, together with Michael Swartz and more recently Moulie Vidas, that the Heikhalot corpus was redacted inside the walls of the Babylonian Yeshiva but not by the same authorities that produced the Babylonian Talmud, we can ask whether the status of the tractate as semi-rabbinic text reflects the position of its authors who acted somewhere on the margins of what became the normative rabbinic discourse.  This may provide us with a multidimensional picture of the early medieval rabbinic movement, in matters of authority, scholarship, Halakha and of course – gender.

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