Category Archives: Recent Publications

Naftali Cohn’s “The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis”

In an attempt at remaining sane during the present Israeli election cycle, I found myself reading Naftali Cohn‘s The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis (although given some of the rhetoric voiced here by wannabe politicians over the past few days, one could argue that a book about the Temple is actually quite relevant to Israeli politics). The book, published in Penn Press’ “Divinations” series, attempts to tackle a rather large topic that has been growing in popularity in recent years: the place of the Temple in rabbinic thought.

Whereas author scholars like Ishay Rosen-Zvi‘s or Daniel Stoekl-Ben-Ezra have devoted studies to specific topics within Temple-related tractates, Cohn devotes his to the Mishnah’s Temple discourse as a whole; reaching the conclusion that the Mishnaic portrayal of the way in which the rituals were performed at the Temple comes to “claim authority for the rabbis” (pg. 120). Claiming authority over the Temple by depicting it as functioning in a rabbinic fashion is essentially a way for the Rabbis of the Mishnah to gain authority over their fellow Judaeans. Cohn explains that the authors of the Mishnah work on multiple fronts, chief among them being the insertion of the Great Court, the Sanhedrin, into the Temple complex, along with its proto-Rabbinic sages who are depicted as the ultimate deciders of Temple practice. Cohn also argues that the manner in which the Mishnah discusses how and where rituals were performed in the Temple is geared at giving authority to the Rabbis. I admit, I’m not well read in ritual theory, but I’ll note that Cohn’s use of it in his analysis of Temple practice may fill in some of what Meir Bar-Ilan missed in Rosen-Zvi’s monograph.

The last chapter of Memory is dedicated to a comparative study of the Mishnah’s Temple, and is entitled “The Mishnah in the Context of a Wider Judaean, Christian, and Roman Temple Discourse.” Cohn combs through a dazzling array of different of sources, such as Pseudepigraphic works, Christian literature, archaeological findings (specifically synagogues and coins), and Hellenistic sources in order to contextualize the Mishnah’s picture of the Temple. Such an attempt should be commended. It is no doubt important, and as Cohn shows, fruitful, to understand the Rabbis’ Temple discourse in such a way. For him, such an analysis proves that the memory of the Temple was a point of contention, and that it was exploited by different communities in their attempts at achieving authority during the Tannaitic period.

As noted, Cohn stresses throughout the book the place of authority in Rabbinic depictions of the Temple, but I’m not so sure a) how Temple discourse in the Mishnah really gives them more authority over their fellow Judaeans, and b) if this is really why the Mishnah (and rabbinic literature more generally) spends so much time discussing the Temple.

Beyond that, I think that before we can really even compare the rabbinic Temple discourse to that of other communities, the Mishnaic Temple narratives must first be understood in their more local context of Tannaitic literature. Such a contextualization should begin with an understanding of the how the narratives concerning the Temple found in the Mishnah relate to the Mishnah’s non-narrative sections. The vast majority of the Mishnah, including its discussion of the Temple, is not what most scholars define as “narrative.” Additionally, recent attempts at analyzing the Mishnah with an eye for genre have yielded interesting results, at times even pointing out that different layers of genre may contain various Mishnaic conceptions of a given set of laws. Maybe the hundreds of non-narrative sections of the Mishnah paint a very different image of the Temple than the narrative ones do? The inclusion of such information would also change how the comparison between the Mishnah and non-Rabbinic works would be performed: the very fact that Temple is discussed by these different groups would not be the only point of comparison, but rather, the differences in the details of the practices themselves (specifically in the earlier Qumranic material) would also need to be unpacked in order to shed light on alternative conceptions of the Temple.

Second, it is very possible that the image of the Temple found in the Mishnah differs from that of the Tosefta or Midrash Halakha. The Mishnah is not the sole Tannaitic text, and, therefore, the “Rabbinic” view of that period probably cannot be deduced from it alone. To be sure, Cohn often uses the Tosefta to better understand Mishnaic passages. At one point, he does more than that, accurately noting a few telling differences between the Mishnah and the Tosefta (pg. 47): the Mishnah never depicts sectarians as actually having the power to perform the ritual as they please, while the Tosefta does so on at least three occasions. Cohn ties this to the Mishnah’s depiction of a “powerful Court that has fully suppressed the sectarians,” a depiction that is absent from the Tosefta. It is very possible that Cohn is on to something here. Scholarship concerning the relationship between the Mishnah and Tosefta has slowly been moving from issues of relative chronology to issues of what may be termed ideology or outlook. This example may be added to the list, and there is a need to further tease out the differences between the idea of the Temple present in these two intertwined Tannaitic works. Similarly, it is very probable that treatment of works of Halakhic Midrash, which to the best of my knowledge are not used in the book at all, would further nuance the position of the Temple in Tannaitic thought.

More can be said, and no doubt will be. I don’t think that I have a better answer to questions like “why the Rabbis spend so much time discussing the Temple?” than Cohn does, although I do think that we have to work a little differently in order to respond to them more fully. Nonetheless, Memory marks a significant step in furthering the research into rabbinic conceptions of the Temple in that it forces us to evaluate the Rabbi’s discourse in the context of post-destruction Judaean society.

A Trip to the Bookstore

After holding back for a longtime, I caved in last friday and made a trip to my local ultra-Orthodox bookstore, Girsa. As one can imagine, there were even more options than ever for someone coming to do some daf yomi shopping. I lamented that they weren’t all on display together, making it difficult to photograph, but there must have been at least five or so paperback pamphlet versions of Massekhet Berakhot specially designed for the learning of daf yomi, alongside the popular hardcover Artscroll edition. I asked the guy working at the store what the difference is between all of them and he told me that it seems to him to be a matter of personal preference, but that it might be interesting for me to buy all of them and learn from them side by side to see how they really differ from one another (it was unclear whether his suggestion was based on his looking out for my genuine curiosity or just capitalizing on it).

I’m always amazed by how many new books are constantly coming out in this country, with an ever-growing level of specificity. By way of example, here are some titles which caught my eye:

Sefer Rosh Bashamayim (“Head in the Sky”) doesn’t interest me too much- it deals with the halakhic intricacies of under-age and sick people who want to fast on Yom Kippur despite being exempt- but I thought that the title was pretty funny, given its frequent use in Israeli slang [UPDATE: for an alternative, more probable understanding of the title, see the comments section below].

Another book surprised me less by its clever title than its esoteric topic. Its title is actually pretty straightforward: “HaCheck baHalakha“. The book, which spans two volumes, also includes discussions of laws pertaining to the use םכ credit cards and bank transactions more generally (okay, I guess this actually is a very complicated topic).

I also saw a few books that might be of interest to our readers. Two of them are a little beyond my realm of expertise so I will just mention them briefly: Mosad haRav Kook has published a new two-volume edition of  the responsa of Rav Sherira Gaon, edited by R. Nathan David Rabinovitz, and another volume of Peirush Rabeinu Hananel, on Bava Metsia, is out, edited by Yisrael Soloveitchik.

Another interesting title is Yaakov Laufer’s MeSoncino vi’ad Vilna (“From Soncino to Vilna”), which tries to answer questions such as: “What happened to the word ‘Talmud’?”, “Who decided that the Tosafot will be placed on the Gemara page?”, and, most interestingly, “Who set the page layout (tsuras hadaf) for coming generations?”. The book answers much more than that, building off of R.N.N. Rabinowitz‘s monumental essay on the printing of the Talmud to provide a lot of information on the many different editions of the Talmud, their publishers, their innovations, their mistakes, and more, ending even later than Vilna with descriptions of recent digitally printed editions such as Oz veHadar.

Laufer also provides some quasi-philological examples of what has changed over the generations in the text of the Talmud. While he makes extensive use of important academic tools like The Lieberman Institute’s Talmudic manuscripts Database (although in its older version; stay tuned for a post in the coming days on updates to the newer version of the database), his use of textual witnesses often lacks sound methodology. For example, in his chapter on the first Venice Printing, Laufer brings an example of what might be considered mistake in Yerushalmi Megillah, where we read “רב אמר צריך לאמר ארור המן ארורים בניו”. According to Laufer, this version might be a “correction” made by the non-Jewish printer, Daniel Bomberg, of the less politically correct “ארורים כל הרשעים ברוכים כל הצדיקים” which is said in the prayer “Shoshanat Yaakov“, recited on Purim. It seems to me that Laufer has come across an interesting case in which the halakha eventually brought in such codes as the Tur and Shulchan Aruch is influenced heavily by the version of an Ashkenazi Sefer Yerushalmi like text, and he seems to favor it over the version that appears in our Yerushalmi (MS Leiden). Eliezer Brodt, who let us know about MeSoncino vi’ad Vilna, also informed us that he plans on writing more about Laufer’s book over at the Seforim Blog soon (another review can be found here).

Halakhah: Explicit and Implied Theoretical and Ideological AspectsTwo more recent publications are David Weiss Halivni’s new volume of Mekorot uMesorot, which completes Seder Nezikin, and another volume in the joint Van-Leer and Magnes series on the Philosophy of Halakha. This volume, partially based on a 2006 conference on Halakha and ideology and bearing the title “Halakha: Explicit and Implied Theoretical and Ideological Aspects”, contains contributions from Yair Furstenburg and David J. Landes, both of whom have guest-blogged for the Talmud Blog.

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.

Iranica Antiqua 47: More on the Hebrew inscription on Ardashir’s Tunic

Relief of Ardashir I’s Investiture at Naqsh-i Rustam

The latest Iranica Antiqua has just been published online.  The Talmud Blog generally does not announce the publication of every journal from the field of Iranian Studies (or Late Antiquity, Early Christianity, etc etc), even though this might be of use to Talmudists.  But particularly in light of our previous treatment of the last Iranica Antiqua volume, the current issue deserves mention.  In this issue, T. Kwasman offers readings of the Hebrew graffiti inscribed on Ardashir’s tunic at Naqsh-i Rustam that differ significantly from those previously suggested on this blog by Shaul Shaked.  Now Shaked’s readings were extremely tentative, particularly given the fact that he was working from a poor photograph of the graffiti and that it was not for a scientific publication. But a number of Shaked’s point are worthy of serious consideration, and it is a shame that Kwasman did not mention them. Apparently, he does not count himself among the hundreds of regular readers of this blog (or 611 readers of that post); he did not discover Shaked’s readings through a Google search; or more likely, current academic discourse has yet figure out a way to include discussions from sources like blogs in scientific journal articles.

In any case, here is the way Kwasman read the graffiti (I was unable to provide some of the markings due to the limitations of WordPress):


1. [ז]כר[י]ה שמואל הכהן

2. בן | זכרי[ה]


1.  X X רברבה חסן בן סהל בן חסן מן אד\ר

2.                        שנת

3.                       אל שד{ג} סמן

4.                           טוב

5.                         מרחשון

Some of the major differences in Kwasman’s rendition include his adoption of a different calendar that results in a 1741 CE  as opposed to a 992 CE dating; his reading מן אד\ר rather than Shaked’s מזאר (Persian; ‘visit’); and the month מרחשון as opposed to Shaked’s מן חלון (from Hulwan). Kwasman seems to acknowledge the difficulty of the opening term רברבה, which Shaked rather brilliantly suggested should be jointed to the prior characters and read as הזר ברכה (a thousand – Persian hazar – blessings) – while still acknowledging the problematic final ב as opposed to כ.  I would have loved to see some imaginative treatment of what it might mean for a Jewish Persian to visit Naqsh-i Rustam and carve his name on Ardashir’s tunic. Oh well, I suppose there’s little place for that in philological articles.

In the same issue, I also published an article that was written during the hot Israeli summer of 2010.  It patiently (and rather boringly) attempts to date the named authorities in Zoroastrian Middle Persian writings on the basis of some stray historical references; rather problematic epigraphical data, and charting teacher-student relationships.  It is interesting that to my knowledge, it is the first full treatment of the issue, and it took a foolhardy Talmudist like myself, informed by the way things are done in Rabbinics, to attempt it.

The Babylonian Talmud, Now in Arabic

As reported in such news outlets as the Jerusalem Post, Yeshiva World News, and PaleoJudaica, a new translation of the Babylonian Talmud into Arabic has just been published in Jordan and is on sale for $750. Veteran readers of the Talmud Blog may recall Jonathan Marc Gribetz’s article on past attempts at translating the Bavli into Arabic. Various friends of ours have been keeping us up-to-date on this seemingly succesful publication, one of whom tracked down this advertisement promoting the Sha”s:

Translation (based on that of blog-reader Yedidya Schwartz):

 The Babylonian Talmud (In Arabic)

The translation of the Babylonian Talmud is historically unprecedented, entailing a six-year effort of more than 95 translators, researchers, and language editors under the supervision and leadership of the Middle East Studies Center – Jordan.

Hurry to buy the first copy translated into Arabic (20 Volumes).

The Babylonian Talmud is considered the most important product of historical Judaism and theoretical religious teaching for Jewish communities.

The translation of the Babylonian Talmud into Arabic represents a fundamental shift in the perception of the religious and intellectual foundations of Orthodox Jewish thinking.

This translation opens up a wide horizon for academic studies in understanding Jewish religious thought and in recognizing its various manifestations throughout history.

Stay tuned for a full review of the edition in the coming months.

Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash- Review by Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick

Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash, Ed. R. Brody with C. Cohen and Y.Z. Stampfer (Jerusalem: Ofeq Institute, 5772).

Review by Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick

Towards the end of the sixth century, the torch of rabbinic leadership passed from the Amoraim to leaders referred to in Geonic literature as the Savoraim. Their successors, the Geonim of the Babylonian Yeshivot of Pumbedita and Sura, saw themselves as the logical heirs of Talmudic interpretation and Halakhic ruling. For a period of close to 600 years, the Geonim, through their teachings, responsa and halakhic writings (and those of their students) helped to cement the Bavli’s form. Talmud study that considers the perspective of Geonic (and Geonic-era) literature is invaluable for tracing the redaction of the text and the history and formulation of Halakha; and for understanding many subsequent medieval commentaries as well.

In practice however, using these texts for Talmud study is a daunting task. Geonic responsa have survived in numerous collections but many of them have not been properly indexed; Many Halachic codes and legal monographs shared the same fate. Despite the state of disarray of Geonic literature, from 1928 to 1942, Dr. Benjamin M. Lewin self-published – on his own printing press – 12 volumes of Otzar Ha-Geonim, which he sub-titled “Thesaurus of the Geonic Responsa and Commentaries following the order of the Talmudic Tractates”. Beginning with Berachot and ending – due to his untimely passing – with Bava Kamma, Lewin managed to achieve the impossible. His work did not end with his death: A partial volume to Bava Metsia was published posthumously and his personal hand-lists to tractates Bava Batra and Hullin were included in A. Kimmelman’s index to Geonic literature.

Lewin, working alone and under financial stress, gleaned Geonic material from responsa collections, Geonic halachic works as well as newly published Genizah fragments. He divided (in most volumes) his compilations into two sections; ‘Responsa’ and ‘Commentary’, published parallel sources alongside one another in synoptic fashion, included footnotes of his own and from other scholars of his generation (e.g. Professors J.N. Epstein, S. Assaf, S. Lieberman and S. Abramson) and added detailed indices.

Later attempts to replicate Lewin’s methods are few and far in between. Aside from Kimmelman’s aforementioned list in Shnaton Mishpat haIvri 11-12, we have H. T. Taubes’ compilation to Sanhedrin (1967) and Y. Cohen’s Ginzei Geonim on the first three chapters of Bava Batra (1995).

This is the current literary backdrop against which we eagerly greet Prof. R. Brody’s latest work, Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash. To say that this volume takes up where Lewin left off would be a discredit to the effort and scholarship invested in it. The reader should not expect to find a continuation of Lewin’s oeuvre nor even a revised edition of the older material. Rather, we have before us a fresh volume, meticulously planned from its inception.

Each section has been handpicked by the discerning eye of a master of Geonic literature. This task, daunting in itself, required the editor to decide which sources to include, which are merely repetitions and may be relegated to the notes, and which sources, although related to the sugya, are not truly native to Bava Metsia and should be merely cited but not quoted. Gone is Lewin’s partition between responsa and commentary and the reader is no longer required to alternate between different sections of the work.

All previously published material has been re-edited against the original manuscripts, alongside of which we encounter much ‘new’ responsa and commentary. Specifically, we are made privy to parts of a soon-to-be-published edition of Rav Hai Gaon’s Mishpatei Shavuot. This edition was originally under preparation by the late Prof. S. Abramson. According to the introduction and bibliography in Brody’s new book, it is slated for publication this year. Along with commentaries to Bava Metsia used as source material, Brody’s notes also reference a section in the introduction, written by Abramson, dealing with Rav Hai’s retractions in halachic decisions (p. 24 no 1). And beyond this exciting news, we are provided with newly discovered sources from texts penned by Rav Shmuel b. Hofni. These include Sefer Hamashkon, Sefer Hat’naim, Sefer Hakinyanim and chapter 74 from his “Introduction to the Mishnah and the Talmud”. The great Geonic innovator also makes an appearance – parts of Rav Se’adyah Gaon’s Sefer Hapikadon and his Sefer Hashtarot are represented in Brody’s volume. These works too are being readied for publication, and we look forward to welcoming their arrival in print.

Other novellea await the reader. In Brody’s minimalistic notes, we learn of Rav Sherira Gaon’s knowledge of Greek (p. 152 no. 2 – possible) as opposed to his son Rav Hai’s certain lack of knowledge in this field (p. 120 no. 7). Philological information abounds: Persian loan-words are discussed (see p. 32 no. 8) and the editors, experts in Judeo-Arabic, trace the Arabic etymologies of many words and phrases in Geonic literature (p. 31 n. 7; p. 34 no. 4; p. 215 no. 8; p. 216 no. 1; p. 217 no. 1).

Preserved in the notes as well are vignettes from Abramson’s unpublished discourses, a sort of academic “torah she-be’al peh”. Hinted at is his understanding of the phrase “tartei mativta” to mean the Yeshiva of Sura and the parallel yeshiva of the Resh Galuta (Exilarch), contrary to popular convention that this refers to the yeshivot of Sura and Pumbedita (see p. 80 no. 13). Further such gems include one of Abramson’s notes to the text of Mishpatei Shavuot (p. 316 no. 5) and a discussion of an attribution issue related to a particular work (p. 51 no. 8).

The following Geonic comments provide a sampling of some of the fair: Rav Hai seemed to have understood the sobriquet “Paponai” to mean “followers of Rav Papa”, contrary to the now conventional definition “those of the city of Paponia” (p. 176 no. 5). From a citation in a responsa attributed to Rav Zemah b. Paltoi Gaon (Pumbedita 872) it is apparent that this Gaon viewed the three “Bavot” as one tractate (p. 212 no. 9). This datum adds to our knowledge of the literary structure of Talmudic corpus as understood in the middle Geonic Era.

Those who have studied Bava Metsia are aware that many of the tractate’s passages are attributed by the Rishonim to Geonim or Savoraim. The current volume makes note of this (pp. 25, 72, and 102) and the editor is of the opinion that these attributions are not to be viewed as authentic – providing another viewpoint to the debate as to how the Savoraim and Geonim added to the Talmudic text (if at all). In contrast, see p. 26 no. 2 for a Geonic reading of the sugya, which relegates a part of the text to the “stam”.

The editor informs us in his English preface that three more volumes are planned, thereby completing “Otzar Ha-Geonim” on all of Bavli, after which he hopes to “prepare a corrected and updated version of his [Lewin's] work”. The volume on Bava Batra is cited extensively (18 times), as well as a volume containing Shavuot (pp. 10, 63, 284). Citations to Otzar Ha-Geonim on Sanhedrin are to Taubes’ edition; and no hint is given of whether the remaining three volumes will include Sanhedrin as well. Interestingly, the editor also cites material from the forthcoming volumes to the following mesechtot: Hullin (p. 70), Bechorot (p. 138) and Erachin (p. 131).

Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash on Bava Metsia innagurates a new page in Geonic studies. Bava Metsia is a widely studied tractate, from both a textual as well as an halachic perspective. This volume displays a superb blend of academic and traditional Talmud study. Those with an interest in Geonic Talmud commentary would do well to avail themselves of this literary treasure. We wish to offer our thanks to Prof. Brody for undertaking this vast endeavor, and we eagerly await its succeeding volumes on all of the Talmud Bavli.

Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick is currently writing a PhD dissertation on Rabenu Hananel at Bar-Ilan University. His publications include “Rabenu Hananel on Tractate Bava Kamma” (Jerusalem, 2011).

Recent Publications from Brody and Co.

As tweeted earlier last week, Prof. Brody of Hebrew University’s department of Talmud and Halakha has just published, along with Zvi Stampfer and Carmiel Cohen, a new edition of Otzar Ha-Geonim. Stay tuned for an in-depth review in the coming weeks, and, until then, check out the table of contents and introduction here. This new volume is part of a larger project, funded by the Israel Science Foundation, which will eventually fill in all the original volumes B.M. Lewin did not complete, as well as supplement the earlier volumes with more material.

And if you’re already calling the Ofek Institute or your preferred seforim store for a copy, you might want to think about asking them to save you a copy of Prof. Brody’s  Teshuvot Rav Natronai Gaon, first published in 1994, and recently reissued in a brand new edition.

The Book Club: Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires


Book clubs are not only for Oprah Winfrey fans. While there are numerous forums that assess recent Rabbinics scholarship, including books received, abstract digests, short reviews and review essays, conference papers and sessions, and long and looping footnotes in academic books and articles, there are surprisingly few places where scholars can get together and engage in extensive discussion about recent books of potentially great significance for the field.  The Talmud Blog’s Book Club endeavors to create just such a space. Ultimately, we’re shooting for a new kind of scholarly discourse that is able to take on numerous aspects of a work and do so in a relaxed (though serious), free-wielding conversation between friends.

The first book we’ll discuss is Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires: Yetzer Hara and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity.  Our Book Club etiquette is that we will first hear opening reflections from three readers: Amit Gevaryahu, Eva Kiesele, and Raphael Magarik.  Below you will find their (incredibly astute) thoughts and critiques about the book. They are all worth reading in full, and carefully.  Before reading them you may also want to look at Raffi’s and Amit‘s previous reviews of the book. I will serve as the MC.

For the first day or so comments will be closed to all except Amit, Eva and Raffi. This will give them time to respond to each other, if they so (demonically) desire, and I hope to weigh in as well. After that point, comments will be open to all, though we will be moderating more than normal in order to keep the discussion moving along nicely. We ask that you comment only if you have read the book, and that you direct discussion to the proper target by clicking on “reply” under the comment you want to respond to, or “leave a reply” at the end of the thread for more general reflections on the book.  To stay up-to-date with the discussion, I suggest you subscribe below, where it says “Notify me of follow-up comments via email”.  After a week of discussion, if the author wishes he will have an opportunity to respond.

Let the games begin!

Amit Gvaryahu:

Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires is in fact an inquiry into an unspoken assumption of the liberal arts: that people are, by and large, the same throughout history, and that their fundamental concerns can be discerned by inference from our own.

Rosen-Zvi begins with the philological. This should be an obvious point of departure for anyone who writes on ancient texts; sadly it is not. He surveys the existing literature and categorizes it according to time, place and milieu.

Drawing on the tremendous advances made in the study of rabbinic texts in the last fourty years – the classification of manuscripts, the critical editions, the new grammars and linguistic tools, the consciousness that various strata of a rabbinic text will not necessarily speak the same language – he is able to create a corpus of texts that is comprehensive and complete. This in itself is no mean task. The book could not have been produced without computerized tools such as Maagarim, or at least their predecessors, the Kosovski Concordances.

Rosen-Zvi, as advertised, however, goes further into investigating the origins of the yetzer hara. Not content with just a Tannaitic description of the yetzer, he discusses sugiyot in Palestinian literature (aha! They do exist!) and the Bavli, that typify and reify the yetzer even more. He manages to sketch not only a psychology of the yetzer, but a biography: the road that led the yetzer from its lowly origins to its great mastery of all that is sinful.

All that, however, is merely groundwork for what in my opinion is a groundbreaking and exciting aspect of this work: the isolation of a dialect of late antique koine. By this I mean thus: students of late antiquity are used to seeing boundaries and borders in their world as permeable and flexible. We know from amulets and synagogue floors that Jews and Gentiles both venerated Helios and the God of Israel. We know that the late antique Middle East shared myths and stories from all segments of society. Moses was a known quantity in Greek literature and he and the Jews were credited (or discredited) with various customs and laws that Greeks ridiculed and/or adopted.

Christianity of course made this koine even more monolingual: Jewish scripture in the vernacular was now a common cultural stratum that almost everyone could share (except the Zoroastrians). Literacy meant literacy of scripture and with it the sharing of even more ideas about cosmology and cosmogony, sin and salvation. Concepts and categories, for Jews and gentiles, began to overlap.

Rosen-Zvi’s work on patristic and rabbinic demonology is one locus of this overlap. Religious practitioners of both communities, rabbis and hermits, lived in common fear of evil beings that would entice them to sin, that could be warded off with constant mumbling of holy words. Salvation could be hindered by these beings, and promoted by proper spiritual exercises used against them. This is the koine.

The “Jewish Dialect” of this koine is the Amoraic yetzer. In a situation analogous to the existence of two mutually intelligible but distinct Aramaic dialects side by side in two faith communities, the rabbis reified and typified the Ishmaelian yetzer that they received from their past, into a demon with powers and weaknesses comparable to other demons in the neighborhood. But this rabbinic demon does not live outside the body, like the Christian (and Zoroastrian) demons; it lives inside it. It is the “leaven in the dough”, “a fly that lives between the two openings of the heart”.

And so, within the same semantic field of sin and salvation, with the same tools of adjuration and verbal resistance, and in the same discourse of demonology, the rabbis shaped their own distinct dialect of the late antique koine that is the evil yetzer.

This is the meaning in context of the evil yetzer. And so – to the contemporary context of the book – Rosen-Zvi contends that our own problems in life, for which we turn to Freud or William James, Durkheim or Jung, are not the problems of the ancients. The past is also a different country in the sense that the deepest concerns of its inhabitants are markedly different from ours. The yetzer is not just undeveloped language and a metaphorical image for what our psychoanalysts really know, but rather a window into a multireligious and multiethnic community – of people who were not concerned with a conflicted soul but with salvation from demons; not with mental health and hygiene but with mental and spiritual training. In that sense, Rosen-Zvi speaks Hadot in a Jewish dialect, pointing out that the people whom we (philosophers and Talmudists) identify as our spiritual forbearers are in fact colossally different from ourselves.

Eva Kiesele:

‘Demonic Desires’ is more than just the sum of Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s articles on the yetzer published over the course of a decade. It is supplemented by vast material for cross-cultural comparison, mainly Greek and Syriac patristic literature, and may well become an invaluable source for anyone interested in rabbinic anthropology. In many ways it is a reply to Daniel Boyarin’s ‘Carnal Israel’ and what has been written in its aftermath. It even delivers the famous fourth volume of Foucault’s ‘History of Sexuality’. But more importantly, it comes as a long due correction to the widespread trend of overreading: Yetzer discourse has for too long been charged with sexual apologetics, and has suffered from highly selective readings and from a tendency to quote from Boyarin’s oeuvre instead of quoting the primary sources. A certain polemical breeze throughout the book might be owed to this fact. ‘Demonic Desires’ undertakes to provide us with comprehensive analysis of all classical rabbinic sources instead, and with a proper blend of cross-cultural comparison, redaction and source criticism, and close readings. However, sometimes I found that in the process, overreading was replaced by underreading. This seems to be the case exactly in the two crucial aspects that are at the basis of most apologetics: dialectics and sexuality. Ishay routinely tones down sexual overtones – e.g., when GenR 22:6 describes a man who beautifies himself and prances around on the streets, he argues to read this as “pride” or “arrogance” (p. 69 and 104). But is not such “pride” simply courtship behavior, especially when (in a parallel) the “bear”- aka Mrs. Potiphar- lurks around the corner? He also spares certain passages from the reader that might have evoked a different impression. This is not meant to refute, though. His basic tenet that sexual transgression is just one out of many sins the yetzer leads to, is certainly convincing. The common construction of Judaism as a sex-affirmative religion via the yetzer cannot be upheld after this book.

More problematic seems to me his reading of sources that present two yetzarim, or those that might shed ambivalent light on the one yetzer. In dealing with the famous homily in GenR 9:7 (והנה טוב מאוד…) he writes, “If anything, it teaches that the evil yetzer is considered as the worst thing on earth” (p. 73). This holds true for the rhetorical question, but certainly not for the following sentence in the homily. Although through redaction criticism Ishay is able to turn down the claim that yetzer meant sexual desire, he is less sensitive to the redactional contexts with regard to possible ambivalence. See, for instance, the following passage (yYom 6:4 43d), which he does not reckon among the dialectic:

“על כל סוכה וסוכה אומר לו: הרי מזון והרי מים – לייפות את כוחו.” [mYom 6:4] למה? שאין יצר הרע תעב אלא דבר שהוא אסור לו. כהדא רבי מנא סלק למבקרה לרבי חגיי, דהוה תשיש. אמר ליה: צהינא. אמר ליה: שתה! שבקיה ונחת ליה. בתר שעה סלק לגביה. אמר ליה: מה עבדת ההיא צהיותך? אמר ליה: כד שרית לי, אזלת לה.רבי חייה בר בא הוה משתעי הדין עובדא: חד בר נש הוה מהלך בשוקא וברתיה עימיה. אמרה ליה ברתיה: אבא, צהייא אנא! אמר לה: אורכין ציבחד. א”ל: אבא, צהייא אנא! א”ל: אורכין ציבחד.ומיתת. ר’ אחא כד מפני מוספא הוה אמר: קומיהון אחינן, מאן דאית ליה מיינוק, ייזיל בגיניה!

The yetzer is no doubt introduced as sin as such; but the anecdote of the sick rabbi gives an almost ridiculous touch to the principle (why would a sick person not be allowed to drink?), and the death of the daughter clearly marks horribly exaggerated practice. While this passage is probably intended to reject asceticism, it does invest the yetzer implicitly with a quality of a drive necessary for survival – and compare this to GenR 9:7, or similarly, the passage in bYom 69b where the יצרא דעבירה gets blinded. A concept of a life-sustaining impulse existed in Stoic thought and was most probably known to the rabbis – s. the Stoically tinged dialogues of Antoninus and Rabbi. The only explanation Ishay offers regarding dialectic sources is that they are probably remnants of some midrash on מעשה בראשית. The text quoted here, however, is not at all related to creation. He pushes his point very hard when he categorically rejects the possibility of a parallel, more ambivalent notion of the yetzer.

Ishay’s review of Greek and Syriac sources is a landmark in understanding the nature and development of the yetzer. The parallels he presents are compelling, both regarding the yetzer’s demonic nature and the process of its internalization. But I do miss a third party to cross-cultural comparison: the Persian sources. The notorious difficulties in their dating aside, they share so many points of contact that it is a loss to exclude them from the picture. Qumranic demonology in general  – the assumed origin of demonic yetzer discourse – is believed by Shaked and others to be influenced by Zoroastrianism. But more specifically: At least in the more sophisticated strata of Zoroastrian literature, demons are characterized by a negative ontology – they are non-existent and “are” non-existence. The way these demons work is not causing illness or mishaps, they are there to deny and destroy religious law and the good creation, or in Ishay’s own terms for the yetzer: sin qua sin. They enter from the outside and occupy people’s minds. And just like in patristic and rabbinic literature, if you neglect religious study you become easier prey to the demons. The development of psychological traits into reified entities is typical of Zoroastrian thought; and these demons are highly “moral”. In chapter 27 of the Bundahišn (the Iranian account of creation), e.g., they are held responsible for such vices as a-rāh (“leaving the proper path”), slander, illicit intercourse, and most prominently: wrath (xešm or aēšma – the model for talmudic Ashmeday), ultimately leading down the slippery slope to heresy. Rings a bell? Yup. These demons also cause you to entertain religious study without a teacher. This said, I am doubtful whether “moral demonology” is in fact a Judeo-Christian contribution, nor is the yeshivish/monastic perspective necessarily so. I would like to make a strong claim that we have to enlarge the demonic koine.

While I do not consider the omission of Persian sources a shortcoming per se (and to be fair, Ishay admits that he leaves these texts for “specialists in the Middle Persian language and Zoroastrian culture” [p. 12]), I do think that ‘Demonic Desires’ is facing a methodological problem here. Yishay’s approach is total analysis in order to reach bold conclusions regarding the notion’s origin and development. But these conclusions may become less reliable if you do not actually consider all relevant data. For example, he describes multiple moves of in- and externalization of the yetzer and finds that the Babylonian yetzer, with its national dimension, quite surprisingly, seems closer to the Qumranic yetzer than to the tannaitic one. Ishay speculates that an “old Jewish tradition [had been] consciously ignored by early rabbis” (p. 80). Would it not be more plausible to assume that an originally Persian concept, which had reached Qumran and from there the rabbis, was revived upon returning home?

In my eyes, the most fascinating parts of the book are the analyses of the yetzer’s functions on a meta-level. There is the yetzer as rhetorical device: certain answers to halakhic lacunae are, although theoretically acceptable, marked off as no-go territory by labeling them as the yetzer’s suggestion. Don’t even think about it – this is yetzer hara! Here we are right in the kitchen of rabbinic cultural policy: the yetzer is used to draw the boundaries of rabbinic identity where it cannot be negotiated by means of argument. Ishay points out that social “others” (heretics, philosophers, matrons, etc.) fulfill a similar function of marking “forbidden” arguments, but that the yetzer is unique in that it is never engaged through dialogue. I am tempted to understand this as: The arguments presented by the yetzer do not actually belong to any “other” that one could argue with, being factually kosher, but the rabbis do not want them to be “us”, either. Awkwardly, they are “us” that is not really “us”. If so, the same mechanism works on both the collective and the individual level: the yetzer is a part of “me” that is not really “me” (cf. p. 129). This construction is a bit unwieldy, but summarizes in the best possible way the underlying dilemma: it is exactly the yetzer that allows the rabbis to legally access not only human actions but their thoughts (s. the chapter on sexuality for this ethical “inward turn”); but it cannot be allowed to “become” a thought – and thus an integral part of “me” – because such would topple the basic positive anthropology. Is this the solution to the problem of human transgression of a society that already has a notion of personal agency and responsibility but not yet a notion of an autonomous subject (into the mind of which transgressive thoughts could be integrated)? Ishay touches here on so far almost untrodden grounds, and he rightly is careful not to use too many philosophical anachronisms. In spite of such restrictions, ‘Demonic Desires’ lays excellent ground for future inquiry into the rabbinic concept of the “self”. And in doing so, it delivers yet another desideratum: beginning to integrate rabbinic literature into Peter Brown’s account of late antiquity.

Raphael Magarik

First off, I’d like to thank Shai and Yitz for asking me to contribute: unlike other participants, I’m only an amateur student of rabbinics, and it’s a great pleasure to be involved in this type of conversation around a great book.

Second, since I’d like to pick up where my review left off. In the review, I identified what I see as the book’s central move, namely shifting the context for yetzer from Hellenistic psychology (in the sense of philosophical study of the psyche) to Patristic demonology. I should say, for the little it’s worth, that the shift seems to me totally convincing.

I then raised two related questions, one internal to the book’s argument and one external. As I’m just an amateur, these will be fuzzy and philosophical — not technical or historically specific — responses.

(1) Is there a functional difference between these two discourses — do demons actually work differently than psyches, or are they just a different metaphorical register? This is a question Rosen-Zvi engages with in a number of ways, most directly when he points out that “there is no true dichotomy between character and being”—that is, between a psyche and a demon—”only a spectrum of levels of reification.”

I’d like to push the point a little: I’m not sure that some of the purported distinguishing features of demons cannot also be attributed to psychological complexes or parts of the soul. Two of those features (I think) are: that the yetzer can be defeated, that it encourages not bodily tempting sins but rather those that are specifically evil (or perhaps those which are marked as “outside” communally). But Freud thought he could cure neuroses, and I believe certain American Christians understand “Free Grace” as indicating that salvation effects a basic personality change in a person. And on the second point, not only psychological entities are bodily (Freud’s id is, but his death-drive, I think, is not), and as the death-drive illustrates, not all psychological desires are continuous with plausibly pleasurable motivations.

Now, to be clear, I’m not questioning Rosen-Zvi’s individual points about rabbinic yetzer — those seem to me astute, novel, and exciting: I’m just curious as to what’s at stake saying something like (my words), “We believe in psychology; the rabbis believed in demons” — can such a statement make a functional difference? Does Freud believe in psyches, or demons? What difference does it make? This question, of course, is a bit of a Pragmatist intervention and blends somewhat into the next one, as I’m not really worried about “whether the yetzer was a demon”: I’m not sure whether the implicit question about rabbinic ontology (what was the yetzer?) is very important at all.

(2) What’s the book’s larger intellectual project — how does Rosen-Zvi’s dispassionate historicization jive with his mentor Boyarin’s “recovery” of a usable rabbinic history? to put that question in less parochial terms, why excavate the demonological context to the yetzer now?

On this point, I’ve said a little in the review, and the question’s not so much even the mild, uncertain critique of (1) — it’s really just curiosity. Antiquarianism (in the strict Nietzschean sense) is not the most common form of socio-cultural history around today. In  footnote 14 on page 136, Rosen-Zvi says something to the effect that even Foucault needs to be problematized — well, from what angle? Do we need to return to traditional questions about the nature of evil? Recognize that the rabbis were more primitive (and their concerns more remote from our own) than we’d like to believe?

Boyarin says somewhere that the goal of writing an academic book is to get people to buy onto your historical story even if they don’t share your philosophical or political agenda — i.e., to argue for a history persuasively. I think that’s right, and I’m curious is a) Rosen-Zvi does — perhaps he takes a more positivist line about discovering the past? and b) if so, what are those commitments? I think that though Boyarin’s right to say that the point of writing history is to persuade the unsympathetic reader (and thus appeals to the commitments are invalid in the argument itself), readers still ought to know (or at least are going to be curious!) what those commitments are.