Category Archives: Readings

Blessing Beaujolais (A special Haggadah Supplement from the Talmud Blog)

Why is this night different from all the other nights? Well, it really isn’t. What makes it different are the words. On all nights, we just eat, and don’t talk, and on this night, we ask questions about eating. On all nights, we mumble blessings before and after our food – quickly – and on this night we embellish our food with explanations and narratives. It’s not that the food is symbolic but rather that we take care and time to point out that the food has a story. Any food would have sufficed - “for on all nights we eat mac and cheese, but this night we eat caviar and steak,” – a would-be son could have asked, and might have been right. Continue reading

Haman the Barber- Some Addenda

The section of the Babylonian Esther Midrash quoted by Shai in his post has a parallel in Vayikrah Rabbah and in the Pesikta de-Rav Kahana (Vayikrah Rabbah 28:6 [664-666]):

על ואזא קאמינא ומזג בלנאיא ואסחייה… אזל המן בעי ספרא ולא משכח. על לביתיה אייתא זוגא מביתיה וספריה. מן דספר ליה שארי מתאנח. אמ’ ליה- מה לך מתאנח? אמ’ ליה- לא ווי ליה לההוא גברא מאן עביד קומוס בדין מאן עביד קומוס קלאטור עביד בלנא וספר! אמ’ ליה- לא אנא חכים ליה לאבוך מכפר קרינוס דהוא ספר ובלניי והוא עביד סטוכטון והדין זוגא דיליה?

Shave and a Hair Cut

In a piece just published at Tablet Magazine, I briefly discuss the Purim Triumph panel at the famous synagogue in Dura Europos. The art at the Dura synagogue is significant for many reasons, one of which is the way it echoes extra-biblical Jewish traditions - aka midrash. There seems to be a bit of this in the Purim fresco: In the left side of the panel, Haman is dressed something like an Iranian stable-boy leading a royally garbed Mordecai on a white horse. It is possible that Haman’s attire points to the lowly position of stable-boys  in Iranian life and particularly in epic literature. Continue reading

A Kalirian Wedding Rahit (Oxford Heb c. 20.46; Cowley 2736)

For Yitz and Daphi, on their wedding day, בהטפת עסיס כעגור וסיס

This Kalirian rahit, a tentative translation of which is offered here, follows the piyyut which our very own Yitz Landes and Daphi Ezrachi chose to quote on their wedding invitation. The entire Kalirian cycle is based on the haftarah reading for the Shabbat before a wedding, Isaiah 61:9-62:9. As can be seen in Daniel Stökel Ben-Ezra’s new THALES project (registration required), this haftarah is read in the Italian rite to this day (See also Encyclopaedia Talmudica s.v. הפטרה, and Shulamit Elizur, “‘al piyyutei hatanim ve-haftarat hatanim,” Massekhet 1 (2002): 64-75, also found here). Following the verse in Isaiah (62:5), it presents pairs of biblical bridegrooms and brides. Some of the verbs used to bless the bride and bridegroom are also taken from the haftarah, Isaiah 61:10, “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of justice, as a bridegroom putteth on a priestly diadem, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.” The many plant metaphors may resonate with Isaiah 61:11. Letter ז echoes the first verse of the haftarah, Isa 61:9.

The brides are often praised for their children. Some notable exceptions are:

  1. Zipporah is mentioned as “wise and intelligent in all knowledge.”
  2. Elisheva, the sister of Nahson, who married Aaron is portrayed as wearing “the cloak of justice.”
  3. Hannah, who is styled “the Prayer at Shiloh,” wears “justice and fame.”
  4. Esther, of course, has “fame, grace, favor and mercy.”

Hannah is paired with her husband, Elkana; Samuel, who had no wife, is not mentioned. Other interesting pairs (from a total of 11) are: Judah and Tamar (letters ז, ח), Joseph and Potiphar’s daughter (ט, י), David and Bathsheba (ק, ר) and Mordechai and Esther (ש, ת), most likely in keeping with the tradition that Mordecai was Esther’s lover, not uncle (b. Meg. 13a). Epithets are used sparingly – the payytan mentions some heroes by name: Potiphar’s daughter, Amram, Yocheved, Aaron, Zipporah, David and Moses (who is mentioned only through the wish that the bridegroom be diligent in studying Torah).

The text, with some minor corrections, is taken from Maagarim. A short commentary can be found in Ezra Fleischer, Shirat ha-qodesh ha-ivrit bi-yeme ha-benayyim, Jerusalem 1975, 161. I tried to mimic the prosody of the piyyut in the translation, with some success.

ובכן “ומשוש חתן על כלה”.

And so, “and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride”

אדרת מעטה הוד והדר כאיתן יאופד חתן.,

בנים ובנות בילדות ובזוקן כעדנה תחבק כלה.,

גיל ומשוש כיצא לשוח בשדה יעוטר חתן.,

דרך ישר וטוב כניתרוצצה בבנים תונהג כלה.

A mantle, a robe of glory and splendor, as the Strong one, will be girded on the Bridegroom

Boys and Girls, in youth and age, as the Young one, shall be embraced by the Bride

Cheerfulness and mirth, as the one who Went out to Meditate in the Field, will adorn the Bridgroom

Down the road of the one who is Straight and Good, as the one who Was Struggled in by Children, shall go the Bride

הון ועושר ומקנה כאיש תם ינתן לחתן

וכרחל ולאה אשר בנו ביית תבורך כלה

זרע ברכה ומלוכה כגור אריה יגזיע חתן

חניטים תאומים כפרץ וזרח ייחם כלה.

Endowments and Riches and Acquisitions, like the Plain Man, will be given to the Bridegroom

For as Rachel and Leah who built a Home will be blessed the Bride

Generation of blessing and kingdom like the Lion Cub will be sprouted by the Bridegroom

Identical offshoots as Peretz and Zerah will be sired by the Bride

טוב חן וחסד ורחמים כפורת ינתן לחתן.,

ילדי אהבה וחיבה כבת פוטיפרע תוחנן כלה.,

כבוד ויקר ומלכות וחוסן כעמרם תן לחתן.,

לולבי נבואה וסיגני כהונה כיוכבד תעמיד כלה.

Jolly-goodness, grace, and favor and mercy, like the Fruitful Bough, will be given to the Bridegroom

Kids of love and affection, like the Daughter of Potiphar’s, will grace the Bride

Honor and laud, kingdom and strength like Amram, give the Bridegroom

Lulavim of prophecy and princes of priesthood, as Yocheved, will be brought up by the Bride

משתעשע יום ולילה בתורת משה יהי חתן.,

נבונה וחכמה בכל מדע כציפורה תהא כלה.,

שרים עובדים ביראה כאהרן הכהן יצא מחתן.,

עדיים מעטה צדקה כאחות נחשון תילבש כלה.

May merry be made in the Torah of Moses day and night by the Bridegroom

Nimble-witted and wise in all knowledge as Zipporah shall be the Bride

Officers, who serve in awe, as Aaron the Priest, will come from the Bridegroom

Ornaments, the robe of justice, as the sister of Nahshon, will be worn by the Bride

פקוד וחון ברחמיך כאיש הרמתים בחדותו חתן.,

צדקה ותהילה תעט כמיתפללת בשילה תעדה כלה.,

קצינים עושה משפט וצדקה כדוד יעמיד חתן.,

רצוים ומרצים אהובים וידידים כבת-שבע תחניט כלה.

Put favor and visit in your mercy, as you did the man from Ramatayyim, the Bridegroom

Righteousness and Glory like the Prayer at Shiloh shall cover the Bride

Sergeants, who produce justice and charity, shall be brought up like David by the Bridegroom

Treasured and gladdening, loved and friendly, shall be ripened as Bat Sheva by the Bride

שם ויד ועטרת כאיש ימיני יתעטר חתן.,

תהילה וחן וחסד ורחמים כהדסה ינתן לכלה

Unending Fame, and a place, and a diadem as the Man of Jemin shall be put on by  the Bridegroom

Valor and grace, favour and mercy, shall be given, as Hadassah, to the Bride

Black Like a Raven: Menstruation and Aesthetics

With my book, The Iranian Talmud: Reading the Bavli in its Sasanian Context (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press) in production and due out later this year, I have finally been able to return to research I first conducted for my dissertation, which looked at the rabbinic laws of menstruation in light of Zoroastrian parallels. I hope to use the space of the Talmud Blog to think “out-loud” through some of the issues – large and small – that I suddenly find myself confronting as I turn this project into a book.  What I will be presenting are readings, meditations about gender, and (formerly) personal thoughts connected to the larger questions of meaning that one is not really “allowed” to ask in academic discourse. I hope readers will indulge me this virtual confession booth, and that you will chime in with your thoughts and reactions along the way.

Filipp Malyavin, "Whirlwind" (1906)
Filipp Malyavin, “Whirlwind” (1906).

Writing in the humanities is a consciously aesthetic form of expression. Yes, the register is critical, even “scientific.” But the truth is that most scholars study people and their cultural productions because humankind is at heart, beautiful and tragic, and ultimately, tragically beautiful. When the charity is absent, the writing does not just fall flat. It bubbles with a venom and scalds the reader.

What happens when the beauty of a certain facet of humanity – especially a religious phenomenon – comes off as unsavory and even disgusting to nearly everyone but the scholar who is totally devoted to its study?  I carried this heavy feeling with me while writing my dissertation on the rabbinic laws of menstrual impurity in light of corresponding Zoroastrian texts.  Why menstruation? Why impurity? Why gender politics and strange Zoroastrians, and the darkness of Babylonia, the distances between men and women, and particularly, the messiness of niddah with its rags, spotting and colors?

I recently came across a poignant midrash that I must have learned before yet it somehow never really registered. The text speaks foremost of the ever-relevant conundrum of finding something meaningful to say when the wellsprings have all dried up. I am sure it still speaks to contemporary rabbis racking their brains for sermon ideas during the harsh winter Sabbaths of Leviticus.

Leviticus Rabbah 19.3 ed. Margalioth 424   

ר’ שמע’  בר’ יצחק  פתר קרייה בפרשותיה שלתורה, אפעלפי שהן נראות כאילו כאורות כאילו שחורות לאומרן ברבים, כגון הלכות זיבה ונגעים, אמ’ הקב’ה הרי הן עריבות עלי.  הה”ד  וערבה  לי”י  מנחת  יהודה  וירושלם. תדע לך שהוא כן שהרי פרשת זב וזבה לא נאמרו באחת, אלא זו בפני עצמה וזו בפני עצמה,  “איש  איש  כי  יהיה  זב  מבשרו”, “ואשה  כי  יזוב  זוב  דמה”.

R. Shimʿon b. R. Yitzḥaq explained the verse [“(His locks are…) black as a raven” -Song of Songs 5:11] as referring to portions of the Torah.  Even though they can seem as if they are ugly, as if they are too black to discuss in public – for example the laws of discharges and skin diseases – the Holy One blessed is He said: “They are pleasing (ʿarevot) to me”.  This is what is said: “Then the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem shall be pleasing (ʿarvah) to the Lord” (Malachi 2.15). You should know that this really is true. For the portion dealing with the zav and zava were not said as one, rather this one by itself and this one by itself: “When any man has a discharge issuing from his member” (Leviticus 15:2); “When a woman has had a discharge of blood” (Leviticus 15:25).

Leviticus Rabbah is a homiletical Midrash, which according to one school of thought means that – even if only very distantly – it reflects a form of public discourse that took place in the quaint synagogues of late antique Palestine.  One can almost see R. Shimʿon b. R. Yitzḥaq struggling mightily to find some comforting message for local synagogue attendees as they read Leviticus 15, with its bloody and seminal discharges.  In frustration, he nearly admits that these parts of the Bible are nothing short of revolting – they are as “black” as a raven.

The genius of this passage is the way it non-judgmentally establishes a distinction between human and Divine aesthetics, yet at the same time questions the validity of the human view. The passage turns on the modifier “seem” and the question of aesthetic “truth.”  In rabbinic aesthetics, black is seen as unattractive. Yet this beauty judgment is simultaneously turned on its head. The classical interpretation of the Songs verse “I am black but beautiful” is not far from “black is beautiful” since it calls into question the original aesthetical claim that black is not beautiful.

It is just as difficult to talk about hideous skin diseases, various bodily functions, and their governing rituals today as it was in the fourth century C.E. – although the reasons for this, in a secular age, may be different.  Even in late antiquity there were rabbis who wished that Leviticus 15 was shorter (something not too difficult to achieve, given its chiastic structure of a. irregular male discharge; b. regular male discharge; a’. regular female discharge; and b’. irregular female discharge). Yet God is depicted as lovingly lingering over the very topics that humans prefer to rush through. The message of this midrash is that human revulsion at menstruation is understandable, but ultimately misguided and immature. God is able to recognize the beauty of these topics which people incorrectly see as “black.” Of course the midrash does not suggest how one is to gain an appreciation of the “pleasing” nature of menstruation.

There has been much writing about the laws of Niddah since the feminist turn in Jewish studies (which I suppose dates back to the 1970s). Some of the scholarship is apologetic, some openly hostile, and while some succeeds in striking a balance of sorts. I suppose the fact that these laws were – and remain – profoundly meaningful sites of religious experience for many women (and men?) should somehow lead the way to seeing its beauty.  Even if the writing must be critical, and the male power-plays not shoved under the rug, there must be a way to achieve a beautiful, productive sympathy.

Some Notes on Yannai and Pesach: Between Exegesis and Received Traditions

Given this blog’s general preference for piyyutim of the Qaliri, it seems like the approaching holiday of Passover would be an appropriate time to discuss the work of his predecessor (and according to some traditions, his teacher) Yannai. Thanks to the placement of his piyyut “קרב יום” in the Ashkenazic Haggadah, Yannai is perhaps the classic payytan most heavily associated with the holiday of Passover. Interestingly, despite the fact that it is now sung on Passover, Yannai did not write that piyyut for the holiday. Rather, it is part of a larger composition that the payytan wrote for the Palestinian Torah reading that started at Exodus 12:29, “ויהי בחצי הלילה.”

However, Yannai did compose a whole slew of piyyutim for the holiday of Passover itself: Rabinovitz’s edition of Yannai’s piyyutim includes two works written for Shacharit of the first day of the holiday; an additional two poems for Musaf or Aravit, which riff off of the Song of Songs; and another work written for the Sabbath of Chol haMoed. Here, I’d like to share some notes on his “first” composition for the first day of Passover.

1) The reading for the first day of Passover in the Palestinian tradition was the section beginning with “שור או כשב,” Lev. 22:27. For Yannai, this meant that he had to connect some relatively esoteric sacrificial laws- e.g., the need to wait until the animal’s eighth day before bringing it as a sacrifice, and the prohibition against sacrificing a parent and its offspring on the same day- with a discussion of the holiday at hand. Yannai manages to do so by culling nicknames from these verses as he “songifies” parts of the Exodus narrative, specifically the section on the plague of the first-born. In Yannai’s idiom, the Israelites become the “שְׁוֹמְרֵי מִצְוַות שׁוֹר וְכֶשֶֹב וְעֵז כִּי יִוֶלֵד” (line 5) and the “תְּמֵידֵי מִלִּשְׁחוֹט מוֹלִיד וְנוֹלָד בְּיוֹם אֶחָד” (line 18).

Similarly, we read lines like the following (6): “זַעַם נָגוֹף שַׁתָּה לְעוֹבְדֵי לִבְהֵמָה // חֶמְלַת רָפוֹא שַׁתָּה בְּעוֹבְדֵי בִּבְהֵמָה”; those who worship animals- that is, the Egyptians- were killed, while those worship through animals were saved. A similar tactic is used by Yannai in his composition for the first day of Rosh haShanah, when the same Torah portion was read. There, Yannai hopes that just as God accepts animals after their eighth day, so too will he accept those who are circumcised on the eighth day (pg. 202, line 6): “כְּבַשְׁמִינִי וְהָלְאָה יֵירָצֶה // לַחֲתוּמֵי בְרִית הַיּוֹם תְּרַצֶּה.”

2) Stronger parallels can be found in Yannai’s aforementioned “ויהי בחצי הלילה.” At lines 5 and 15 of the Passover version of “שור או כשב”, Yannai builds off a midrash according to which the sons killed during the plague of the first-born son included also those who were not-yet-born:

…טָובְחָךְ כָּל בְּכוֹר הַנוֹלָד וְעָתִיד לְהִיוָּולֵד // יֵשַׁע לִבְנָךְ בְּכוֹרָךְ הִיוָּולֵד
פְּקֻודָּתּם בְּאַכְזְרִיוּת כֵּן עַשְֹתָּה // צֶאֱצָאֵי מֵעֱיהֶם לֹא חַסְתָּה

Yannai’s language in “ויהי בחצי הלילה” is extremely similar (14): “פְּגָרִים מֵתִים לָמוֹ עָשִֹיתָ // צוּרַת כָּל בְּכוֹר גַּם בְּמֵעֵיהֶם לֹא חַסְת.” In a note, Rabinovitz references the earliest extant midrash that contains such a theme- the Tanhumic section of Exodus Rabbah, written at least a few hundred years after Yannai:

.ומהו שאמ’ “לנגוף”? מלמד שאף המעוברות שהיו ראויות לילד הפילו ומתו האמהות; והמשחית יצא וחבל כל מה שמצא ואין נגוף אלא עוברות, שנאמ’ ונגפו אשה הרה ויצאו ילדיה

The midrash connects the root “נג”פ” used in Exodus 12:23 with the use of the root in 21:22 in order to make the plague even harsher. Still, what we find in Yannai is a bit different. Unlike the midrash, Yannai doesn’t discuss the mothers of the first-born, nor does he get into the complicated question of “Who Brought the Plague of the Firstborn?

3) As an exegete, Yannai looked for a way to rationalize the harshness of the tenth plague. Rabinovitz terms Yannai’s reasoning as “measure-for-measure,” according to which the Egyptian killing of the Israelite children justified the killing of the Egyptian offspring (14): “שַֹמוּ לְמוֹלִידִים תַּחַת אֲבָנִים // עוֹד לַיְאוֹר הִשְלִיכוּ וַולדֵי בָנִים.”

While this reasoning seems most natural, one would be hard-pressed to find it used by the rabbis. Louis Feldman, in an article comparing the rationale for the tenth plague offered by the rabbis and others, cites a rabbinic tradition from the fifth-century Pesiqta de-Rab Kahana according to which the first-born Egyptians killed some 600,000 of their own in response to Pharaoh’s refusal to release the Israelites and avert their deaths. This seems to be one of the few “justifications” for the deaths of the first-born found in the early rabbinic corpus, and it doesn’t really even seek to do that explicitly. Tellingly, the rabbinic traditions surrounding the tenth plague actually do more of the opposite, enlarging the number of those killed and creating an image of God as more powerful. Adding to those mentioned by the Torah, the rabbis include: first-born daughters, first-born children of second marriages and of illegitimate relationships (one is reminded of Abdu, the protagonist of an early Etgar Keret story…), the oldest of every family regardless of whether or not he or she was born first, the first-born children of non-Egyptians living in Egypt- even first-born children who were already dead.

Yannai’s “measure-for-measure” approach is found in other Jewish poems from Late Antiquity. Yahalom and Sokoloff‘s edition of Aramaic poetry includes an interesting poem told from the perspective of God in the first person as he speaks to Moses in the heavens (lines 7-11):

זרק אין הוא / בנהרה מיינוקייה
[חשבן אחשב עמיה / במה דחשב [..ייה
טירנוס אין הוא / על כל בנייה
יתיב משעבד להון / בטינה ובליבנה
כל בכוריו אתקטל / בפלגות לילייה

If he throws \ the children in the river
I will reckon with him \ like he reckoned with the [bo]ys
If he is tyranical \ with all of the boys
As he sits and enslaves them \ with bricks and mortar
All of his first-born I will kill \ in the middle of the night

The rabbis, Yannai, and the anonymous author of this Aramaic poem all view the tenth plague more as a punishment for the Egyptians than as a way of convincing Pharaoh to free the Israelites. Yet unlike the rabbis, the poets rationalize the punishment by showing how it was met out measure-for-measure. It is worth highlighting how the Aramaic poem goes as far as depicting God as not necessarily even wanting to punish the Egyptians in such a manner: God says that he will punish the Egyptians if (“אין”) Pharaoh throws the children in the river.

[Also in Aramaic, the Syriac church father Ephrem used an imagery that similarly rationalized the harshness of the punishment in his commentary to Exodus, ad loc: "ܕܐܬܡܠܝ ܢܗܪܐ ܒܘܟܪ̈ܝ ܥܒܪ̈ܝܬܐܼ܂ ܐܬܡܠܝܘ ܩܒܪܝ ܡܨܪ̈ܝܐ ܡܢ ܒܘܟܪ̈ܐ ܕܡܨܪ̈ܝܬܐ"- "Just as the river had been filled with the firstborn of the Hebrew women, Egyptian tombs were filled with the firstborn of the Egyptian women."]

4) Lastly, so as not to end on such a dismal note, here’s my favorite rendition of Yannai’s “קרב יום,” featuring the hassidic serenades of a somewhat distant side-curled relative of mine:

Chag Sameach!

A Quotation of Yerushalmi in a Judaeo-Arabic Manuscript

Few textual witnesses of the Palestinian Talmud exist. There is only one complete manuscript (MS Leiden Scaliger 3), and then another exemplar which includes order Zeraim (and tractate Sotah; MS Vatican Heb. 133), plus an assortment of fragments (now collated and described in Sussman, Otzar Kitvei Yad Talmudiyyim [Review Pending]). Quotations of Yerushalmi in medieval literature  are thus helpful in determining the original text of the Yerushalmi and in pointing out where early readers of the text thought an emendation or a paraphrase were in order. Most medieval quotations tend to be lifted verbatim from earlier quotations, mostly the commentary of R. Hananel and the code of R. Isaac Alfasi, and so any quotation not taken from these sources is especially valuable, as are quotations from Eastern works. The earlier, of course, the better.

Looking for midrashic material in a manuscript of Judaeo-Arabic sermons on the Torah, MS JTS 1803, I found a quotation of Yerushalmi, that I offer here for the first time (PDF). The manuscript (dated by the IMHM to the “12th-13th century”) is fragmented, and was obviously part of a larger compendium of sermons, similar to the Sheiltot, but in Arabic rather than Aramaic. Each sermon begins with a quotation from the Babylonian Talmud, and one, on Parshat Vayakhel, begins with a quotation from the Yerushalmi, clearly marked “Yerushalmi,” in large letters. Most of the material is not found in the medieval quotations I know of (which I found by using Moshe Pinchuk’s wonderful Yerushalmi Database), and there are no known genizah fragments of this sugiya. This quotation is 376 words long, and includes both Mishnah Shabbat 7:2 and some of the Yerushalmi ad loc (Ed. Jerusalem, p. 404, ll. 25-50).

The Mishnah in the quotation displays a “mixed” text type.  That the text type of the Mishnah here is not purely Palestinian shows that it was not originally part of a Yerushalmi manuscript, but was supplied later – either by the person who compiled the homilies in MS New York or by the copyist of the Yerushalmi MS used by the compiler. A similar phenomenon is apparent in MS Leiden itself, whose Mishnah may have been copied from MS Parma, as demonstrated by I. Z. Feintuch in 1976.

Like all other known Yerushalmi texts, the quotation offers essentially the same text found in MS Leiden as well as all the medieval authors who quote this text. Its value is in supplying corrections for the text found in MS Leiden, pointing out slight dialectical differences, and corroborating several readings added to MS Leiden by later readers. It also displays two corrupt readings which reflect a lack of knowledge with the Yerushalmi’s terminology and dialect. For example, where MS Leiden (p. 404, l. 25) explains that R. Ashian reported “the eyes of R. Aha went through the entire Torah and did not find that this thing was written” (אשגרת עיינה דר’ אחא בכל אוריתא ולא אשכח כת’ דא מילתא), the quotation reads that R. Ashian claims to have “closed the eyes of R. Aha every night” (אסגרת עיניה דר’ אחא בכל אורתא) and that he did not find this thing written. This reading makes little grammatical sense, and there is little apparent connection between the first and last clauses of the sentence. But the form אשגר עיניה was unfamiliar to a copyist, who emended it to something he understood (on this sentence, see Lieberman, Hayerushalmi Ki-fshuto, p. 128; Sokoloff, Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, p. 538a; Assis, Otzar Leshonot Yerushalmiyim, p. 170).

An interesting feature of the Yerushalmi text in the quotation is its agreement with emendations to MS Leiden. These agreements show us that at least some emendations to tractate Shabbat were based on other Manuscripts of Yerushalmi which we no longer have, and not on scholarly conjectures. This situation is similar to that of Order Zeraim which was emended according to MS Vatican 133, as demonstrated by E. Z. Melammed in 1981, and in accordance with the claims of the printers in the colophon to ed. Vienna.

For those interested, a longer form of this blog post is in the works.

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.

Footnote

In his book on Minhag in early Ashkenaz, I. M. Ta-Shema hid this in a footnote; I thought it would be of interest to the community.

It seems to me that the source of the [Ashkenazi] custom to separate the [marriage] cermony [and hold the betrothal ceremony on Friday, and the huppah on Saturday morning] is the early custom, which was apparently defunct by the 11th century, to sign the ketubah only after the marriage was consummated (בעילת מצווה). And see the words of the Italian payytan Amitai b. Shefatiah, in the 9th century:

ומה נאה לחתן ביום חתונתו

להראות טהרת בתולי אשתו

בראש תלוי לחתום בכתובתו

ולעשות שלימה שמחתו

עד יום צאת טבילה

And how fitting for a bridegroom on the day of his wedding

to show the very purity of his wife’s virginity

with his head held high (?) to sign his ketubah

and to make his happiness whole [i.e. to have sex with his wife]

until the day the immersion is due

(I. David, The Poems of Amitai, Jerusalem 1975, p. 23, ll. 227-229; my hasty translation)

And from this we learn two things:

(1) the ketubah was attested and became valid only after consummation; (2) at this time the ketubah was signed in public and was accompanied by a celebration, and was one of the high points of the marriage ceremonies [...] At the same time the blessing “who planted a nut” was said, see Halakhot Gedolot, ed. Hildesheimer, part II, Jerusalem 1980, p. 226.

I. M. Ta-Shema, Minhag Ashkenaz ha-Kadmon, p. 43 n. 50.

Edited 12 September @ 15:09; “mitzvah penetration” was changed to “consummation,” due to popular demand.