Category Archives: Talmud in the News

The Afghani ‘Geniza’

A few months ago, news broke in the Israeli media of an important manuscript trove that was discovered in Afghanistan. A spate of articles appeared in the press, each one covering just a bit more than the one prior it. Even Israeli television did not lost interest. With all the breathless reporting, the purple prose, and the melodramatic music playing in the background, it has been difficult to get a clear picture of what the value of the collection really is.

Last evening, Shaul Shaked delivered the annual Sara Soroudi lecture on Mount Scopus in a small, stuffy, and packed seminar room. In his unassuming and dignified manner, Shaked gave an initial report on the find, and presented some documents which he read and commented upon.  First things first: The collection apparently stems from around Dareh-Usuf in the vicinity of Balkhs in Northern Afghanistan. Of course neither Shaked nor the other Israeli researches interested in the documents have themselves seen the cave in which the collection was supposedly found. However, Shaked said that his sources in the region, which he claims are trustworthy, did testify to having seen the specific cave that stored the documents.

We know that Jews lived in Afghanistan in the Middle Ages from inscribed gravestones in Kur, but until now we have had virtually no further evidence about the community. Documents have been trickling out for some time now, and particularly in the last two years. There seem to be some two-hundred fragments, though more turn up all the time. And the majority of the collection is held with dealers in London, though in some other locations as well – including Jerusalem. As of yet, all of the research has been done via photographs. The dealers have yet to make a deal.

The find is known as a geniza by name alone. Like the Cairo Geniza, its contents are haphazard and do not represent a planned archival storage. Other than that, there is no evidence that the cave in which the contents were allegedly stored was associated with a specific Jewish communal institution. Further, its contents do not seem to have accrued gradually, rather apparently as a result of one (emergency?) deposit. The texts are mainly in Judeo-Persian, but also in Hebrew, Aramaic, Judeo-Arabic, and Arabic proper (that is in Arabic script, and sometimes even written by Muslims).

Shaked provided a nice sample of documents, many of which were actually quite colorful and of interest beyond specialists. He discussed two piyutim that have yet to be identified. One poetically referred to a mosaic of nations of the world. Tafsirs were a favored genre in the Judeo-Persian world, and Shaked discussed two of them – one on Genesis and the other on Jeremiah. Both hewed very closely to the original Hebrew, and the tafsir on Jeremiah contained “Babylonian” vocalization on both the biblical text and the Persian translation. “Babylonian” vocalization is actually quite common in the documents, and seems to point to a ninth century CE dating.

In general, medieval Persian-speaking Jews were not particularly interested in rabbinic texts. Shaked did show, however, a few texts of interest to Talmudists. One was a fragment from the second chapter of Mishna Avodah Zara. It seems that the text is close to the known geniza fragments, which would then again imply that written Mishna fragments outside of the Babylonian Talmud stem from a Palestinian and not Babylonian tradition – even when they may well have been written down in Iraq. Mention was also made of fragments associated with Saadya’s commentary on Jeremiah and his responses to Hiwi, while a fragment was shown that refers to the ba’alei miqrayim – perhaps a reference to Karaites. In addition, a charming philosophical text spoke of the endless production of books and book learning. The apparent connection to the Muslim world could be seen in a hadith-like Arabic fragment from the collection; while a business ledger dated to the eleventh century provided a window into everyday life. Finally, a long and detailed letter recounted the story of a poor chap who fled Bamiyan due to accusations of improper business practices and Sabbath desecration. He had to leave his wife back in Bamiyan in order to go live in Razny, and he defends himself in the letter. And so, a nearly millennium old human interest story.

From the evidence, the people associated with the documents seem to have known not only Judeo-Persian and Hebrew, but also Arabic, which may point to recent origins in Babylonia. Regardless, from the small sample that was shown, there is no doubt that the collection is extremely important for reconstructing the history and texture of life of c. eleventh century Afghani Jewry.

The problem of course is that nothing can really be published until the collection is purchased. And here one begins to wonder about matters that Shaked did not discuss: Have some of the dealers been feeding off of the media hype and inflating the prices beyond reason? There is no doubt that there are serious potential buyers out there interested in purchasing these truly important documents and making them available to scholars. But generally, buyers with the serious funds needed for a collection of this sort are not dumb, and they are not interested in paying far beyond the reasonable value. No doubt, antiquity dealers have a right to charge a handsome sum for a valuable collection, but it must be within reason.  They should know that sales of this type are based essentially on trust. And let us not forget, they too have a responsibility to preserve the heritage reflected in the documents by making them available for research.  If the documents are to finally reach scholars, it will take a dealer, or a group of dealers prepared to negotiate in good faith. There is simply no other way.

UPDATE: See Avraham Yoskovich’s comment in the comments section for a review of Haggai Ben-Shammai’s “companion” lecture at the National Library on Tuesday, May 1, 2012.

From the Pages of Haaretz

One of the best parts of the holiday season here in Israel is that the local papers have to put out more supplemental material to keep everyone occupied. In addition to the regular weekend magazines, each holiday gets its own special section.  This seems to mean more articles that relate to rabbinic literature, as editors scramble to fill these now numerous weekend and holiday editions. Two of them, from Saturday’s Haaretz, are worthy of discussion here.

In the book section, folklorist Eli Yasif has a review of a recent collection of papers given at the fifteenth World Congress of Jewish Studies’s session on Louis Ginzberg’s Legends of The Jews. The papers, originally delivered in honor of the passing of one hundred years since the start of the book’s publication, cover a wide variety of topics, some only tangentially related to Legends (videos of the lectures have been available online for quite some time now on Hebrew University’s youtube channel). Together they also provide ample room for Yasif to discuss the “American” characteristics of Legends, and hence the name of the article, “An American Legend”. Yasif seeks to better understand why the work has become a standard on bookshelves across America, often in its shortened Legends of The Bible version, whereas Israelis have for the most part gotten their dosage of aggadah exclusively from Bialik and Ravnitsky’s Sefer ha-Agadah (a point brieflly addressed on the Talmud Blog this past summer). He offers a few explanations, such as Legend‘s size and the lack of a Hebrew translation of the one volume Legends of the Bible. To his reasons I would add that Bialik would have still been a household name in Israel even if he hadn’t co-penned Sefer ha-Agadah. Bialik’s stature clearly played a role in his collection’s success while Ginzberg’s pedigree and position in the Conservative movement in America did not help in Israel. As Yasif mentions, the academic virtues of Legends far exceed those of Sefer ha-Agadah. I would venture that its relative slow appreciation in academic circles in Israel, also noted by Yasif, might be due in part to the rather late appearance of an index to the Hebrew edition. Although a Hebrew edition had already appeared in the sixties, the index was only published in the recent Shechter edition.

The other Haaretz article deals with the technological aspects of the Friedberg Genizah Project. Some of the most exciting parts of the article are its discussions of the project’s breadth and of the technology behinds the “joins” – cases where previously unconnected fragments can be shown to have actually stemmed from one artifact. Amazingly, project director Prof. Yaakov Shweka promises to have 99% of all genizah fragments online by the end of 2012. The article’s discussion of the technology behind fragment recognition is truly fascinating and well worth reading. It turns out that some of the programmers joined the team because of their work developing face-recognition programs for Google and Facebook. Similar technology is being used to recognize and piece together various fragments dispersed in libraries all over the globe. The hope is to one day apply this technology to sift through Qumran fragments as well.

From Tahrir to Ben Ezra, it is exciting to see that even Genizah study is being affected by Facebook.

Around the Web (more or less) – August 12, 2011

Mississippi Fred MacDowell of On the Mainline posted a fascinating comment on Christian Hebraism and the Mishnah on Amit’s post from two weeks ago. Although he only identifies here as “S.”, the digital-database savvy and characteristic out-of-the-box thinking of MacDowell is as apparent as ever.

Tālār-e āʾina, 1896. In the Golestān Palace Museum.Encyclopaedia Iranica announced the publication of a volume of collected entries on the Jews of Iran:

Comprising all the entries published in the Encyclopaedia Iranica through 2010, the Jewish Communities of Iran represents the most comprehensive collection of research published to date on the life, history, culture, language, music, literature, and customs of the Jews of Iran, one of the oldest communities of the Jews in the world.

The book is available for preorder on Amazon or Eisenbraun’s.

And finally, Shana Strauch-Schick’s recent dissertation is noted at JTA.  But you heard it first here. Stay tuned for a list of recent dissertations in the field.

August 11, 2011

NEW YORK (JTA) – Yeshiva University’s graduate school of Jewish
studies will award a doctorate in Talmud to a woman, Shana Strauch
Schick, for the first time.
[The dissertation is on "“Intention in the Babylonian Talmud: An
Intellectual History”]

While Yeshiva has multiple programs in Talmud, Schick, 30, is the
first woman to obtain a doctorate in the subject from the Bernard
Revel Graduate School. A New Jersey native now living in suburban
Detroit, Schick successfully defended her dissertation on Aug. 4 and
will formally graduate in September.

“Orthodoxy has long emphasized the value of the study of Talmud,”
Schick told JTA in an interview. “But Talmud study, which in yeshivot
is the central focus of the religious duty to learn Torah, is still
rarely emphasized as a vital part of women’s education.”

Schick holds a master’s degree in Bible from Revel and a bachelor’s
degree in Judaic studies from YU’s Stern College for Women. She plans
to spend the next academic year in Israel doing post-doctoral studies
at Bar-Ilan University.

The Book and the Legend

No longer just "the national poet", Bialik has become a fashion statement.

In the year 1903, C.N. Bialik and Y.H. Ravnitsky, neighbors in the same building in Odessa, set out to produce what would be one of the most influential books in the study of aggada since the Ein Yaakov. Sefer ha-Aggadah- The Book of Legends- was completed 100 years ago, with the publication of its sixth section in 1911.  To mark this anniversary, Ha’aretz recently featured an article (hat-tip- Ancient Hebrew Poetry) by one of the foremost Bialik scholars, Shmuel Avneri (not to be confused with Shlomo Avineri). Avneri lists numerous instances where Bialik’s books were burned by some ultra-Orthodox Jews in Israel, and he emphasizes how these cases were at odds with the positive and productive relationships which Bialik had with other segments of the charedi community. The author also lists numerous critiques of Sefer ha-Aggadah by secular and academic intellectuals, from Agnon to Shinan, who for the most part took issue with the liberal editing policies of Bialik and Ravnitsky. To his list I would add the important footnote in Carnal Israel in which Boyarin criticizes Bialik for his “misogynistic” selection of texts.

As a translation and anthology, Sefer ha-Aggadah has many problems, some of which Prof. Shinan’s own updated version will seek to correct. Yet no one can deny the massive contribution that it has made to the popularization of aggadah over the past hundred years. As Alan Mintz has pointed out:

Throughout the early twentieth century, cultural and religious Zionists sensed the need to make rabbinic thought available in formats and languages that were accessible to native Hebrew speakers, religious and secular alike. Sefer ha-Aggadah (The Book of Legends) by C.N. Bialik and Y.H. Ravnitsky was an early example, one that has profoundly influenced Israeli culture.

As attested by the reflections of several modern Israeli writers, Bialik and Ravnitzky had an enormous influence on the early generations of Zionists in Palestine/Israel. Yoram Kaniuk writes in his memoir 1948:

We were the sons of the Bible, yet we were also sons of Bialik and Ravnitsky’s The Book of Legends, and we loved to read how Moses sees Joshua enter the Tent of Meeting and is jealous of him and says to God “one hundred deaths and not one jealousy”.

More examples may be found in Amos Oz’s Story of Love and Darkness. Without such a compilation it is doubtful that Rabbinic literature would have succeeded in taking such a significant role in the formation of the Zionist ethos. One may add that Bialik’s position as “the national poet” also contributed to the work’s success.

Thanks to the translation of William G. Braude, Sefer ha-Aggadah has become a staple of Jewish learning outside of Hebrew speaking communities, as evidenced by such English language online learning attempts as Sefer Ha-Bloggadah. Through such forums, Sefer ha-Aggadah continues to enlarge the community of readers that engages Rabbinic texts, and promises to do so in the future as well.

Reading the Talmud in…

The South Korean ambassador to Israel visiting a yeshiva in Bnei Brak, earlier this month (picture from ynet, courtesy of the municipality of Bnei Brak)

The South Korean interest in Talmud has been a real hot-topic over the past few months. This piece outlines the phenomena, but as a simple Google search will show, there are many, many more articles on the subject (see also Menachem Mendel’s coverage).

But what does Talmud Study in South Korea actually look like? Perhaps a recent op-ed by Mario Blejer in the Korean JoongAng Daily, one of South Korea’s three daily English-language newspapers, may help answer that question. Commenting on the current debt crisis in Greece, the former governor of the central bank of Argentina and former director of the Bank of England seeks to find a solution in “the Talmud, the ancient repository of Jewish legal commentary – and one of the oldest sources of human thought on morality and economic activity”.  He then goes on to summarize the sugya of “kofin oto ad she-yomar rotze ani” as it appears in Bavli Kiddushin (50a) in order to “show that there are mechanisms that can – and should – be used to place pressure on the parties in the interest of obtaining superior voluntary outcomes.”

The article’s title, “The Talmud and Greek Debt”, is quite reminiscent, interestingly enough, of studies penned by Saul Lieberman.