Tag Archives: Bet Shearim

Coverup: Two Examples of Censorship, Then and Now

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

beitshearim censorship

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