A few weeks ago I was learning daf yomi while nursing my daughter when I came upon the following Talmudic passage, which begins with a quote from the Song of Songs: “‘Our little sister has no breasts.’ Rabbi Yohanan said: This refers to Eilam, who merited to learn but not to teach” (Pesachim 87a).” My infant daughter was lying bare-skinned on my breast, and I looked down at her as I puzzled over this passage. Why is having no breasts analogous to learning but not teaching? Continue reading
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.
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…”.
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.
I can’t claim to be much of a sports guy. Yes, I enjoy running, and I joined a makeshift ultimate frisbee team at my highschool for a couple of months (we were doomed from the get go- when it came to frisbee, the Modern-Orthodox kids were nothing compared to those from the Conservative day schools; why, I do not know), but that is pretty much the extent of my athletic career. I also cannot say that I follow sports all that much, and perhaps the two are tied together. But still, when it comes to the Olympics, I always end up watching my fair share, more out of awe for the amazing feats of athleticism than out of allegiance for the teams of my two home countries. Most amazing to me is seeing how athletes have progressed over the years, setting new records in almost every sport. While I try and shy away from claims of historical progress, these concrete numbers show that humans really are getting better at performing very specific actions, like “snatching” 188kg weights.
In the realm of academic Talmud, the bar is also constantly being raised. If only a few decades ago it was completely legitimate to cite in an academic article the Munich manuscript of the Bavli by quoting from Rabinowitz‘s Dikdukei Sofrim, nowadays that would never fly. Rabinowitz’s Dikdukei Sofrim was one of the most influential projects on Talmud study ever (its ambition, however, cost Rabinowitz his life, as he passed away while travelling in Russia to find more Talmudic manuscripts). The situation today is decidely different. From the comfort of an iPad, one can access many more manuscripts than Rabinowitz could ever have dreamed of seeing, and the Dikdukei Sofrim is now mainly used to see what girsa was before each rishon. One who wishes to employ philological methods in studying a sugya now how has a couple of tools for consultation:
- The Dikdukei Sofrim Hashalem, which covers most of Seder Nashim.
- The Israel National Library’s website of Talmudic Manuscripts, which contains some of the Bavli’s main “complete” manuscripts.
- The Friedberg Genizah Project, for material from the Cairo Genizah.
- Yaakov Sussman’s catalogue (or, “Thesaurus”) of Talmudic Manuscripts, which lists all of the witnesses available on a particular passage.
Perhaps the most heavily relied on tool of all, which may deserve more credit, is the Lieberman Institute’s Sol and Evelyn Henkind Talmud Text Database. Named for Prof. Saul Lieberman, the institute has been serving the world of academic Talmud for almost a generation. The Institute’s head, Prof. Shamma Friedman, has informed us that since the database went online last year, replacing the 5th CD-ROM version, it has gone through numerous enhancements in terms of how much material it contains. The website now has almost 1,330 transcriptions of genizah fragments and 300 transcriptions of complete manuscripts, transcribed by a team of dozens of scholars over the past few decades. Another addition are the almost 3,000 high-resolution images of the Mishnah and Talmud. About thirty institutions of higher learning are already subscribed. Along with the website of the Academy for the Hebrew Language and Bar-Ilan’s free Tannaim website, the database ensures that almost all of Rabbinic Literature has been transcribed according to the best manuscripts and is readily available online. Many scholars choose to copy from these databases and then check the transcriptions against photographs of the actual manuscripts, while some still insist on transcribing the manuscript evidence all on their own.
Another, and perhaps even more significant, feature of the Lieberman database is its sophisticated search engine. The possibility of using the Lieberman website to perform searches greatly enhances one’s ability to clarify many issues and phenomena across almost every manuscript and genizah fragment of the Bavli.
For years, alongside the CD-ROM version of the text database, the Lieberman Institute produced a CD-ROM of a “Bibliographical Index”. Similar to Moshe Pinchuk’s site on the Yerushalmi, the index lists secondary literature that relates to specific passages of rabbinic literature. For example- someone looking to find secondary literature on a sugya that they are working on can simply punch in the daf number and immediatley receive references to academic works that deal with it. This database is also set to launch as a website, which will allow for constant upgrading by users and will link to the secondary material that is available online. The index includes the Mishnah, Tosefta, Bavli, and Yerushalmi. A preliminary list of the material included is available here.
These databases, which will continue to grow with the help of user input and future technological advancements, will further serve scholars for years to come, ensuring the continued rise of the academic standard to new records. Come 2016, who knows what we will be able to do.
Everyone knows about the Karaites. They need little introduction: Ninth century Jews tired of geonic hegemony, going back to scripture to find law and independence. But there is very little beyond that which has trickled outside of the academic circles that busy themselves with the Karaite movement, despite its great importance to the study of rabbinic Judaism.
There is much Karaite material waiting to be read. Simply read. The great age of Karaite scholarship – in Jerusalem and its environs in the tenth-eleventh centuries – produced a great mass of work, fascinating and useful not only for students of Karaism. However, most Karaite commentaries lack editions of any kind; the Karaite communities have little interest in their own literature, and not much of it was published, while even less is in print today.
“It is one of the ironies of fate […] that the Karaites, the great fighters against the oral Torah, allowed me, with the grace of God, to reconstruct a new segment of the literature of the oral law.” Thus Menahem Kahana in his introduction to Sifre Zutta Deuteronomy (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2003). Kahana discovered this midrash by mistake in a survey of Hebrew manuscripts in Russian libraries, during the first days of Soivet perestroika. Kahana identified fragments catalogued as “Midrash on Deuteronomy,” as belonging to the commentary on Deuteronomy by the Karaite Yeshuah b. Yehudah. But he also discovered a long-lost tannaitic midrash quoted in them as well: Sifre Zutta Deuteronomy, which he proceeded to publish, with an extensive commentary and study.
This is just one dark corner of the Karaite world that Kahana helped expose. But he was not alone in this enterprise. Ofra Tirosh-Becker, a linguist by training, has been working on one aspect of this Karaite material for many years. Her doctoral dissertation – under the same name – was approved in 2000. In it, she discusses as many quotations of rabbinic works in Karaite literature as she could find.
Our book is an expansion of this dissertation, both in terms of the breadth of the corpus of quotations in vol. 2 and in terms of the “philological and linguistic discussions,” in vol. 1. Tirosh-Becker discusses such questions as the ways in which Karaite scholars treated rabbinic material, whether or not they forged it for their own purposes (usually not, but there is one fake barayta forged by Sahel b. Masliah, mentioned on p. 106-107), and what they called it when they quoted it (usually, “the first ones said”, qâl âlâwalûn). She also devotes an extensive chapter to the question of the script employed in Karaite works: Karaite writers used both Hebrew and Arabic scripts, and wrote both languages in both scripts. This is of importance to the linguist, as many rabbinic sources are transliterated into Arabic script, allowing for the reconstruction of the reading tradition of certain words (e.g.: the reading ribbi is attested, as in all other rabbinic sources – and not rabbi; the letter ג is transliterated as jim and as ghain, depending on its positon in the word: gevul but reghilim).
Additionally, the Karaites employed some Hebrew diacritics in their Arabic to signify phonemes that do no exist in Arabic, like Hebrew vowels, and the rafe sign over the Arabic bah. But this is of importance to the cultural historian, too: why did Rabbinites use only Hebrew script, and Karaites Arabic? Was it an economic divide, or an ideological one? Tirosh-Becker discusses some previous research cursorily, but essentially leaves the field for others to till. She makes that work easier, too: a description of all the manuscripts employed is appended to vol. 1 (chapter 14), and it allows for a survey of material where interesting discussions of rabbinic material might show up. More such discussions abound – the chapters on nikkud (10) and cantillation marks (9) are fascinating as well. Tirosh-Becker also identifies errors that testify both to the oral recitation of the texts, as well as some errors that clearly point to a written provenance of the same texts (I wonder if Karaites stopped copying from the rabbinic texts themselves at some point and started copying from each other; we do know that many rabbinic texts were owned by the Karaite synagogue in Cairo – but the fake barayta was copied over and over as well).
But the great treasure of the book is vol. 2. Spanning over 800 pages, this volume includes all the quotations of rabbinic literature in Karaite works Tirosh-Becker was able to find. She was careful to leave the script as she found it – no transliterations for you! – with or without all the diacritics. In a feat of typesetting (it seems the book was created entirely on MS Word), she was able to reproduce the Hebrew diacritics, Arabic diacritics, and scripts accurately and precisely. She also points out where the quotations diverge from the MS chosen by “Maagarim” to represent the work. This is another area where a Talmudist should intervene, and check the quotations to see if they match any one text-type of the Mishnah.
Tirosh-Becker also publishes a large number of quotations from the previously-lost Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai. This is a real find, and the author promises an article soon with Menahem Kahana on their value (see pp. 112-115 for a discussion, and pp. 856-882 for the quotations). There is a disproportionately large amount of quotations from this Mekhilta in the corpus, pointing to its prominence in Babylonia (indeed, the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael was sometimes called “the Palestinian Mekhilta”). Many of these quotations are from parts of the Mekhilta not attested in known Genizah fragments, and were reconstructed from the fourteenth century Yemenite Midrash Hagadol twice: by D. Z. Hoffmann, and by J. N. Epstein. The latter was more conservative in his reconstructions, but several quotations discovered by Tirosh-Becker actually support Hoffmann’s more extensive reconstructions. However, these quotations, as far as I could see, are not marked in any way as derived from the Mekhilta, and in some cases (see e.g. pp. 859, 860-862) I’m curious why the author thinks they are from this work and not simply from one of the Talmuds, which contain similar material.
There is also one quotation from the lost Mekhilta to Deuteronomy (1124), a handful of quotations from the Palestinian Talmud (Talmud llshâm), and a long quotation with the story of the Oven of Aknai – a rallying point for laughing Karaites everywhere (1172-1175). The rest of the rabbinic library is proportionately represented too: Mishnah, Sifra, Sifre (Num and Deut), Bavli, Midrash Agada and even some Tosefta.
The unimaginatively named Rabbinic Excerpts in Medieval Karaite Literature is now another resource scholars of rabbinics must consult on matters of text, readings and reception history of the rabbinic text. But it is also a repository of a culture negotiating its relationship with revered predecessors represented in this world by bitter enemies; a story of cultural appropriation and literary positioning. In that sense, Tirosh-Becker’s book is a collection of artifacts still waiting to be read.
We all have our coping mechanisms. I really do enjoy the soaring liturgy of Rosh Hashana, the tunes, the gravitas. But everyone has their limits. To get through the marathon sessions in shul, an interesting book is quite simply, indispensable. This holiday, it was the latest volume of Mishnat Eretz Yisrael - tractate Rosh Hashana (2011). Like previous volumes, the book represents the intellectual fruits of study sessions held in the Safrai family. The text of the Mishna includes both the ed. princ. alongside the celebrated Kauffman manuscript, which unfortunately is not reproduced in the clearest manner. The commentary, referred to as the “Safrai commentary” is historically and sociologically oriented (whatever the latter is supposed to mean). I picked up Mishnat Eretz Yisrael previously, but this Rosh Hashana I had enough time to get through almost the entire volume, start to finish.
There are plenty of readings that I disagreed with, instances that I thought the scholarly judgment was “off,” and many times that I found the commentary stray well beyond the matter at hand. And yet as a cultural phenomenon – a new edition of Mishna that incorporates academic insights and presents them to a non-academic public (that is, beyond the sphere of S. Jerusalem, where as the saying goes, even the milkmen are learned) – I think it is a great accomplishment. In certain respects, it recalls the Da’at Miqra series. Yes, there are serious and even fatal flaws in the approach taken by the project as a whole and even in some of the better volumes. But the fact remains that the series was successful in introducing certain (selective) aspects of the academic study of the Bible into the Orthodox Jewish sphere. I have to say that the Safrai Mishna does it much better, and from an Orthodox theology perspective, will encounter far less resistance from the Orthodox public. It also. I believe, has the potential to travel far beyond the confines of Israeli Orthodoxy, if it is only marketed properly, and if future volumes are just a little prettier.
This guest post is by Talmudblog friend Richard Hidary, who runs the extremely helpful website rabbinics.org.
1. ובלכתך בדרך is a free iPad and iPhone app with lots of rabbinic and halakhic works and much more, just search for “onyourway” in the app store.
2. Accordance is not only a fantastic Bible program, and probably the best Dead Sea Scrolls program, but also has some useful rabbinic texts. It runs on Mac and now has a fantastic iPhone and iPad app. It runs suitably on a PC with a Mac emulator. It includes all the scrolls in Hebrew and English and all of the Biblical scrolls in order of Tanakh or in manuscript order (you can pull up the MT and Dead Sea Bible side by side and scroll them together). Modules are also available for the Mishnah according to printed editions, Neusner’s translation of Mishnah, and Kaufman ms. with all punctuation. The best feature is that all these texts are grammatically tagged – useful for easy grammatical analysis and sophisticated searching.
3. Neusner’s translation of the Yerushalmi is available on CD-ROM. It is available at SBL for a discounted price. You can copy it to your hard drive – it’s just a pdf and is very easy to use.
4. Mikraot Gedolot Haketer, which has published only a few books, has made available all of Tanakh and all of the included commentaries on CD-ROM. The software is only for sale at their office in Bar-Ilan and they only accept cash and do not ship. However, if you can get there or send someone, this fine collection of texts is well worth the 490NIS.
5. Jastrow’s dictionary is available on HebrewBooks but also in an easy to use interactive format here. The dictionary is also available as an add in on the iPad app iTalmud where you can touch any word of the Bavli and jump instantly to the dictionary. Unfortunately, the program doesn’t know the root of the word and so usually takes you to the wrong place.
6. Saul Lieberman’s works are available here: Tosefta Kifshuta/Tosefet Rishonim/ Al HaYerushalmi
8. The Steinsaltz Talmud of the daf yomi is posted daily here. You can also go back a few hundred days to get previous dapim from Yevamot and on. There did once exist a CD-ROM of the entire Steinsaltz Talmud but I haven’t been able to locate a copy in any library or in any store (this site advertizes it but doesn’t sell it – I already checked). Does anybody know more about this?
10. On rabbinics.org one can find my Version Editor macro for lining up manuscripts, perfect to use in conjunction with the new http://www.lieberman-institute.com/. The Macro is free, but please share your charts so that we can together create a database of texts for use of the general community.
Also on the rabbinics.org site, I have begun to post Hebrew dissertations. Many people at Israeli Universities have fantastic research hidden in master’s and PhD theses that never get published. If you fit into that category, or know someone who does, and would like to make your work available, please send a pdf to me at rhidary [at] yu.edu.
Rabbi Dr. Richard Hidary is an assistant professor of Judaic Studies at Yeshiva University, Stern College for Women and an assistant Rabbi at Sephardic Synagogue in Brooklyn.
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.
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.
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
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.
A serendipitous combination of circumstances brought Jonathan Z. Smith’s Drudgery Divine and Hanan Gafni’s Peshutah shel Mishnah to my shelf side by side. Gafni’s brand-new book, based on a dissertation written under the supervision of Jay Harris at Harvard, is written in beautiful and clear Hebrew and attempts to introduce the uninitated reader into the complex and fraught world of Mishnah scholarship in its infancy.
The Mishnah has two strands of textual tradition: the Babylonian and the Palestinian. Yaakov Zussman, through his command of the Mif’al Hamishna, claims that there are no Mishnah manuscripts that follow the tradition of the Bavli. This is no coincidence, per Zussman: the Babylonian tradition – of which all extant Jewish communities are heirs – did not prize the study of Mishnah on its own. The Mishnah was to be studied in conjunction with the Bavli. When Maimonides wanted to write a commentary on the Mishanh, he had to use a Palestinian Mishnah manuscript and sometimes update it to keep it in line with the Mishnah or the halakha of the Bavli.
The first edition of the Mishnah was printed in Naples, in 1502, with Maimonides’ commentary. Ovadia of Bertinoro published a commentary in Venice, in 1549. Study of the Mishnah on its own regained some ground in Kabbalistic circles in 16th century Safed – R. Joseph Karo’s supernatural Maggid was in fact the Mishnah personified.
But Gafni’s study begins in earnest somewhat later, scouring Kabbalistic works from the Lurianic school for oblique references to “Peshat and Derash” in the Mishnah. These references – that give his book its name – were the seedling that allowed Mishnah scholarship to begin in the school of the Vilna Gaon.
Gafni surveys scholars by geography, beginning with Safed, then Lithuania, Italy, Galicia, Germany and then, finally, Vienna. Scholars are selected, described and their work is discussed. Each chapter ends with an example, that is useful for understanding the real meaning of the figure’s work – often readers of such books end up knowing so little about the actual substance of the work. Many of the debates important to the interface between Jewish studies and Jewish people in our time are echoed in these sketches: should scholars be engaged in the issues of their communities? Should they bring their religious agendas to their work with them?
But for me – reading Smith at the same time – the striking point was the Protestantism of it all. The idea that these early Mishnah scholars had, that at some time in Jewish history there was a moment of purity, of clarity, when everything was pristine and not mangled up by the Talmud and its casuistry strikes a note that Smith hears elsewhere. Just as early study of religion was focused on highlighting the “uniqueness” of the one Religion – i.e. Apostolic Christianity, through a Protestant lens- so perhaps early study of Judaism by Jews was marked by their aversion to the Talmud (read: Bavli), its embarrassing complication, superstition, and stringency. The Bavli was the repository of choice for the shame Jews had of their own religion; as the protestants blamed the “rabbins” for the Jews and their strangeness, the Maskilim blamed the Bavli. Then, when they began to study the Mishnah as a work unto itself, this added another layer of embarrassment: really, the Bavli couldn’t understand the Mishnah at all!
The field in fact took over a century to recover. Only David Halivni and Eliezer Rosenthal, neither a “natural” heir to this tradition, both steeped in traditional talmudic study that they did not hate, were able to bring the Bavli back into the limelight. Numerous lessons were learned from this retreat from the Bavli, as well: first, that there are other texts besides the Bavli, and second, that the Talmud is neither stupid or superstitious. It is an interesting and complex product of its time and place - and that it is, on a most basic level – still not really understood.