English, Guest Posts

Natural Language Processing of Rabbinic Texts: Contexts, Challenges, Opportunities

The Talmud Blog is happy to continue our series on the interface of Digital Humanities and the study of Rabbinic Literature with a post by Marton Ribary of University of Manchester.

I read Michael Satlow’s enthusiastic report on the Classical Philology Goes Digital Workshop with great pleasure. I am delighted to see how the study of Rabbinic literature moves towards the use of digital tools and especially Natural Language Processing (NLP) methods. Below I shall sketch the background of NLP methods applied to Rabbinic literature and what we can learn from projects concentrating on other classical linguistic data, notably Latin. I shall briefly discuss the enormous obstacles Rabbinic literature poses even compared to Latin, which means that our expectations to achieve meaningful results in standard 3-5 year research projects should be very moderate. Nevertheless, I shall argue that we should dream big and aim for courageous projects accompanied by an outward-looking strategy in order to attract big corporate money. Continue reading

English, Guest Posts

Digital Humanities and Rabbinic Literature

The Talmud Blog is happy to be hosting a series on the interface of Digital Humanities and the study of Rabbinic Literature. Our first post comes from Prof. Michael Satlow, of Brown University. 

The other week I attended a workshop called Classical Philology Goes Digital Workshop in Potsdam, Germany. The major goal of the workshop, which was also tied to the Humboldt Chair of Digital Humanities, was to further the work of creating and analyzing open texts of the “classics”, broadly construed. We have been thinking about adding natural language processing (including morphological and syntactic tagging – or, as I learned at the workshop, more accurately “annotation”) to the Inscriptions of Israel/Palestine project. While we learned much and are better positioned to add this functionality, I was most struck by how far the world of “digital classical philology,” focused mainly on texts, has progressed, and it got me thinking about the state of our own field. Continue reading

English, Postscripts

Forked Lightning

On Shabbat Shuva 5777, the incomparable scholar of Judaism, Jacob Neusner, returned to his Maker. From his histories, to his comprehensive translations and studies of rabbinic texts, his biographies, his thematic studies, his theologies and taxonomies, introductions and invitations, personal ruminations and reflections, interfaith writings, methodological and theoretical treatments, and, of course, his vigorous polemics, Neusner’s output was simply astounding. Continue reading

Talk of the Town

“We Read Thus”: On Hachi Garsinan and Learning Talmud in the 21st century


A screenshot from Hachi Garsinan 2.0: a synopsis of b. Bab. Kam. 89a (left) and a genizah fragment from Oxford, Heb.c.21/31-36, with a marginal note in Judaeao-Arabic

Since its creation, the text of the Talmud has been the object of critical inquiry. Amoraim inquired after the exact wording of Tannaitic texts, Geonim struggled to establish the correct version of the Oral Talmud, as did the Rishonim with their written copies. The advent of philology, from the renaissance on, prompted the collection and collation of manuscript copies of the Talmud as well as scholarly emendations and corrections. The Vilna Shas is the product of many centuries of scholarly work, pious and less-so, presented to the discerning student in what was the best technology available. Continue reading

Ruminations, עברית

מחשבות לרגל יום הולדתו ה727 של כתב יד ליידן

השבוע לפני שבע מאות עשרים ושבע שנה, בכ”ה באדר א’ שנת ה’ אלפים מ”ט (1289), השלים ר’ יחיאל ברבי יקותיאל ברבי בנימין הרופא את העתקת כתב היד המפואר של הירושלמי, המכונה כיום “כתב יד ליידן”. דומה שאין עוד כתב יד של חיבור מן הספרות הרבנית שמשך אליו תשומת לב מחקרית כמו כתב יד ליידן. העובדה שזהו כתב היד היחיד שבידינו המכסה את הירושלמי כולו מראשו ועד סופו, חברה לצירוף המקרים ההיסטורי יוצא הדופן שגילגל אותו אל בית הדפוס של בומברג בונציה, שם הוגה על פי “תלת טפוסין אחרנין” – שלושה כתבי יד אחרים – ועל פי נוסחו המוגה והמורכב הודפס הירושלמי לראשונה בשנת רפ”ג, 1523. מכיוון שהירושלמי כולו לא הגיע אלינו בדרך אחרת הפכה היסטוריה פתלתלה זו לחזותו היחידה של הירושלמי כפי שהוא עומד לפנינו היום. יחודיותו ויחידיותו של כתב יד ליידן נחגגו על ידי חוקרי התלמוד במאה השנים האחרונות, והאחרון והחשוב שבהם הוא פרופ’ יעקב זוסמן.

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Around the Web, English

A Synopsis of the Entire Talmud

Few texts present philologists with as many difficulties as the Babylonian Talmud, whose complicated transmission history – oral and written, spanning centuries and continents – has created countless conundrums that we are only now beginning to understand. At the same time, scholars dispute the proper way to understand the development of the text of the Bavli, meaning that opinions vary with regards to the proper way in which one should explain a difference in the Talmudic text: Is this event a consequence of fluidity during an early stage of oral transmission, or is it perhaps a later interpolation of a learned scribe? Such differences between textual witnesses of the Bavli are countless, and the different scholarly attempts to approach them are related to different ways of understanding how the Talmud developed over time. Thus, the close study of thousands of differences between manuscript versions of the Bavli not only helps explain the sugya at hand, but also sheds light on the development of the Bavli itself. Continue reading

Dissertations, English

Dissertations and Theses, 2015

In keeping with The Talmud Blog tradition, here’s our fifth (!) annual Dissertations and Theses listing. If you know of anything that should be added, please email the reference, preferably along with an English abstract, to thetalmudblog [at] gmail [dot] com. We apologize for only getting it up now. Things have been a bit busy for the editors here at The Talmud Blog, but we hope to get more content to you soon enough. Until then, congrats to all the recent graduates – Talmud Blog editors included! 

Ilaria Briata, “Derek Ereṣ Rabbah and Derekh Ereṣ Zuṭa: Two Deuterotalmudic tractates on savoir-vivre,” Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, 2015 (Italian)

The dissertation concerns the Rabbinic tractates Derek Ereṣ Rabbah (DER) and Derekh Ereṣ Zuṭa (DEZ). These two late compilations are traditionally included among the Minor Tractates of the Babylonian Talmud and deal with etiquette and ethical instruction. The term derek ereṣ, as understood in the texts themselves, can be translated as manners or courtesy – in other words, the behavioral features that most immediately and evidently distinguish a member of the Rabbinic élite conducting a sage-like way of life. Etiquette prescriptions in DER and DEZ address various areas of everyday life, such as table manners and hospitality, but also cover apparently more trivial matters such as behavior in toilet and public baths. Both the tractates collect gnomic maxims, practical prescriptions and exempla that are partly original and partly excerpted from Talmudic and Midrashic sources. The Derek Ereṣ corpus underwent a complex textual history, so that it is impossible to date precisely its composition. However, the main stages of redaction have probably occurred during the 7th – 10th centuries.

The redactional issues of DER and DEZ are exposed in Part II of the dissertation. The basis for the textual inquiry is the only critical edition of the two tractates, prepared in the ’30s by Michael Higger. Higger’s hypothesis regarding subdivision of the materials into earlier independent literary blocks and regarding different lines of transmission and versions of the texts is discussed in detail.

Although it is impossibile to draw certain conclusions about date and place of redaction of the tractates, studying the transmission of the texts in manuscripts and in indirect quotations from later literary sources has been a productive tool in order to understand the significance of reception of DER and DEZ by Rabbinic Judaism in Medieval Europe. Part III tries to frame the Derek Ereṣ corpus into the context of etiquette literature developing in Christian Europe in late Middle Ages. My investigation presents the state of art of current scholarship on savoir-vivre manuals and suggests a theoretical structure which could take into account and explain otherwise merely exotic documents as the Rabbinic works DER and DEZ. In this sense, the concept of derek ereṣ itself is illuminating, as it seems partially to overlap to Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, i. e. the peculiar style, learned through practise, that distinguish a social group. The literary reception of the  Derek Ereṣ corpus attests the need for codification of a socially distinctive lifestyle – a need shared by both Christian and Judaic élites during the historical phase of cultural textualization in Europe (11th – 13th centuries).

The main bulk of the research is devoted to the Derek Ereṣ texts themselves (Part IV). DER and DEZ have been translated into Italian for the first time. The Italian version is completed by a commentary comprehending linguistic and philological annotations, analysis of parallels in Rabbinic literature, explanations on particular ideas and concepts raised by the texts. When pertinent, considerations extend also to a comparison with sorrounding cultures, such as Graeco-Roman world, Christian Late Antiquity and Middle Ages. The translation is based on manuscript JTS 2237 (Provence, 1271) for DER and DEZ 10 – 11 and manuscript Oxford 896 (Lybia, 1203) for DEZ 1 – 9. The Hebrew text is transcribed in Part V.  A  list of all the manuscripts attesting the Derek Ereṣ corpus is also compiled (Part VI).

As appendix (Part VII), I present a comparative examination of a set of narrative passages on the topic of good manners taken from DER and from the Christian compilation Apophthegmata Patrum (Egypt, 5th – 6th centuries). Even though belonging to distant cultural settings, the selected stories represent late literary developments of the chreia, a widespread Hellenistic narrative model which was adopted in Late Atiquity by various intellectual or religious élites (such as the rabbis and the Egyptian monks) as a rhetoric instrument for self-representation and instruction.

Noah Bickart, “Tistayem: An Investigation into the Scholastic Culture of the Bavli,” The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2015

This dissertation investigates the meaning and usage of a particular set of linguistically related Talmudic terms in order to show how and in what cultural context the Talmud began to take shape in the emerging scholastic centers of rabbinic learning in late Sassanian Babylonia. The term tistayem is here defined as meaning, “let it be promulgated” and is thus shown to be inherently redactional in nature. By its very meaning and the way it is employed it speaks to the ordering of extant traditions in new literary frameworks. This term has analogs both in early sources dating from Amoraic disciple circles, in which an analogous term was used to indicate the process by which different reports of statements could be combined to achieve a more authoritative version of a tradition, and in later texts from Geonic times in which the term comes to denote a specific kind of scholastic practice in which traditions were ordered for easy memorization and promulgation. Additionally, parallels to these terms are found in the literatures of Syriac speaking Christians providing avenues for comparisons between these scholastic cultures which shared scripture, language and similar modes of study as worship. Finally, this study demonstrates the ways in which increasing sophistication in usage of these terms mirrors increasing academization during the Talmudic period. As such, evidence is marshalled in support of a more gradual model of the redaction of the Talmud.

Shmuel Fink, “The Impact of Technology on the Study of Talmud,” Nova Southeastern University, 2014

The study of Talmud has experienced a virtual explosion. Aside from many benefits that can be gained from the daily study of Talmud,it facilitates life-long learning behaviors. The creation of life-long learners is especially crucial in today’s job market, where the introduction of new technologies makes it essential for employees to constantly update their skills.

In particular, the idea of studying a page of Talmud a day, known as Daf Yomi, conceived in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, has become common practice. Although once the purview of Orthodox males, it has been proposed this practice has extended to females, Jews of all denominations, and even some non-Jews. Paralleling this practice, there has been an explosion of technology based resources created for the Daf Yomi student. The last known study of these resources was in 1990 and focused exclusively on the one resource available, a telephone call-in system.

Based upon the many developments in computing technologies in the past 25 years, the time has arrived to determine what types of additional resources currently exist, how they are being used, and who is using them. These methods were documented in a single, current resource to enable both people who learn Daf Yomi to easily determine what resources are available, and those designing the programs to better take the needs of the customer into account.

In addition, the demographic of those using these resources is largely undocumented. The study attempted to discover if the increase in technological tools has caused the study of Talmud to expand to a much larger segment. It was found that many people are currently studying Daf Yomi for the first time. Woman, Conservative Jews, and non-Jews are involved in Talmud study; many for the first time ever. Many attributed the technological tools available to them as the reason for their study.

Shimon Fogel, “The Orders of Discourse in The House of Study (beit midrash) in Palestinian Rabbinic Literature: Organizing Space, Ritual and Discipline,” Ben-Gurion University, 2014 (Hebrew)

My study is a delineation of the “Map” of the study hall (Beit Midrash), as it is revealed in the discourse of the early rabbinic sources. This “map” shows the conventions, hierarchies, ideologies and conflicts of the study hall.

The first discussion deals the rabbinic arrangements regarding entrance into the study hall, using the tools provided by the field of “ritual studies”. These texts, and the discourse surrounding them, shape the image of the learning space, separate it from the outside and define the various roles of its inhabitants, as well as the relationships between them.

The second issue is the connections between the way in which study hall participants sit in its space, the discourse which takes place within its walls and the statuses and hierarchies which combine and collide in it. Thus, as part of the developing trend of studying rabbinic literature from the perspective of spatial studies. Alongside tools whose origin is in the study of architecture and geographical studies and the idea of ‘Heterotopia” (Termin coined by Foucault). The resulting picture is one of a system which aims to impose an order based on Torah knowledge, although it is not completely devoid of the influence of political and economical systems.

The third discussion relates to exiting the study hall and the issue of expulsion of participants. Excommunication, particularly in its study hall context, is examined from a perspective of the theory of punishment, and its roles in shaping the boundaries of society and of its discourse. I suggest an understanding of banishment as a practice whose boundaries are not clear or organized. Similarly, it is unclear who holds the authority to use banishment in the study hall. This lack of clarity regarding the boundaries of the study hall discourse can create a constant feeling of threat and supervision.

Eliashiv Fraenkel, “Meetings and Conversations of Sages in Stories Regarding Halakhic Background in the Babylonian Talmud,” Bar-Ilan University, 2015 (Hebrew)

This thesis discusses a literary genre within the Babylonian Talmud—the halakhic tales, and the halakha-based tales. Over the past two generations, beginning in the late twentieth century, dramatic advances have been made in the study of aggadic tales. In contrast, the halakhic tales “fell between two stools”, as the aggada scholars identified them (justifiably, to an extent) as “halakha”, whereas the halakha scholars classified them as stories (equally justifiably), thus the discussion and the literary analysis remained neglected by both sides. As a result, we see only a few tales of this genre having received the appropriate attention and an actual scholarly literary analysis.

The halakhic tales discussed in this thesis are examples of artistic storytelling and, as such, display these three characteristics: concise language, literary devices and, especially, dramatic tension. This dramatic tension is characteristic of each and every one of these tales, and is the most prominent indication that these are indeed stories worthy of literary analysis. Our greatest challenge in this thesis was pinpointing and describing the dramatic tension, similar to the dramatic tension in the aggadic tales. Concise language is used in these tales, especially in conversations between sages, as this conciseness is often found as well in amoraic dicta and in give and take that take place in “regular” halakhic discussions that are not dramatic tales. In some of the tales we found literary devices, thus we may define them as literary narratives. However, the great brevity found in some of the stories does not always make it possible to clearly define the devices, beyond a mere general structure of the tale indicated.

The halakhic component that exists in these tales is borne out mainly through the conversation between sages appearing in them, a conversation that either stems from a situation in which the sages find themselves, or within the context of a specific halakhic discussion.

The concept bet midrash (study hall) has a rather broad sense in the Babylonian Talmud–and in this thesis as well–and is not confined to any concrete structure. A bet midrash is defined as the place in which study takes place, and this can be a lone individual reflecting on his studies while travelling, or any place where a group of scholars sit around their teacher in joint study. Subsequently, such conversations, just as any halakhic discussion, may take place “in” the bet midrash (where one exists) or outside of it—e.g. in a doorway, on the road, or even in the course of visiting another town, and so on and so forth.

What do these description of halakhic conversations propose to transmit, stories or law? It is our contention that whatever halakha is present in the halakhic tales, this halakha is, in effect, the platform and the foundation for the story. In the absence of any particular halakhic theme, and without the sages discussing halakha, usually there would be no cause for any discussion to develop or be reported. We stress, however, that contrary to the halakhic sugya, where the halakhic give and take is the main focus, in the tales—halakha is the matter from which the story was created, but is not its primary objective. Without exception, in all of these tales, the halakha could have been removed from the story and presented independently, devoid of the dramatic events surrounding it. Having fully comprehended the halakhic theme, and after we exhausted the halakhic queries and the halakhic backdrop for the discussion, we focused on the dramatic components of the story, which, we contend, are the primary element of the tale and are not halakhic (in the common sense of the word) at all.

The central foundation for this study is the recognition of Torah-study as a supreme value in the world of the sages. The value, which is that very core of the spiritual world of our sages, is for us an Archimedean point in the analysis of the conversations contained in the halakhic tales. Any action, or inaction, that contributes to the study of Torah, will be evaluated in Talmudic literature (either by the sages themselves or by narrators) favorably. Conversely, anything that prevents the development of Torah study, and intentionally or unintentionally hinders it, will be evaluated critically. This criticism may be harsh or mild, direct or indirect, but it is always present.

We did not resolve conclusively whether or not the halakhic tales did in fact occur as described in the Talmud. On the one hand, we have the argument that there is an inverse relation between art and “artistic”, verses realistic and historic. The halakhic concepts in these tales are consistent with normal halakhic discourse, and the scenario discussed is realistic. On the other hand, the more artistic a tale is, so too does it distance itself from the rules of a bona fide presentation of the historical reality. In this thesis we have shown time and again that the moral values permeating in the halakhic tales are very similar to those which we discussed in aggadic tales, especially the genre referred to as “The Tales of Our Sages” (ma’asei chachamim). And, like any artistic text, the tales are even analyzed in a manner familiar to us from the analysis of aggadic tales. At the same time, it is evident that these are not imaginary mythical legends about which scholars are in consensus that they are not historic. The halakhic tale genre (which is the subject of this thesis) stands in between hundreds of bet midrash events recounted in the Talmud, for which there is no compelling reason to argue that they did not occur exactly as told, and aggadic tales, where the opposite should be assumed. In other words, the question remains, whether the halakhic treatment of the tales, and the sense one gets that these tales were the product of actual bet midrash events, detracts in any way from their being literary or artistic.

The chapters of this thesis

In the introduction, we discussed at length the topics presented above, as well as further questions relating to the degree to which the halakhic tales remain independent of the halakhic discussion in which they appear. We set an exact definition of a halakhic tale and the distinction between these and halakhic events, of which thousands appear throughout the Talmud. We presented a structural outline for these tales, as well as addressing the question, when were they composed, which relates to the realism question mentioned above. In the introduction we also recorded the history of the research. We presented in brief the major change that took place in the latter half of the twentieth century with regards to the Talmudic tales—both aggadic tales and halakhic tales. We found only a few scholars who treated the halakhic tale genre as literature, and we compared their work. Amongst the scholars cited in the introduction were Urbach, my late father and mentor Jonah Fraenkel, and Ofra Meir—of blessed memory— as well as my mentor Prof. Shamma Friedman, Rubenstein, Kalmin, and Ruhama Weiss. My own thesis, which discussed “Ishtik” sugyot in the Babylonian Talmud, was also cited in this section.

In the first chapter of the analysis of the tales, we discussed tales dealing with remaining silent in the study hall. I discussed silence at length in my thesis, and in this chapter I selected several oft-recurring devices mentioning a sage remaining silent. We also interpreted several slightly longer tales in which silence is mentioned, either explicitly or surreptitiously within the discourse among sages. Silence does on occasion reflect a crisis in the relationship between sages studying with one another in the bet midrash. This outcome is actually a type of death. Conversely, in other instances, silence leads to the reorganization and rehabilitation of the relationship between the sages, all in the interest of preserving the bet midrash situation.

In the second chapter we discussed tales of encounters between sages and figures that we labeled as “other”, that is to say figures who are not a part of the regular milieu of the bet midrash scholars. Such an “other” figure may be an unfamiliar sage from another town, and agent who is not part of any group of sages, or one of the sages from whom we understand—as we conclude from the tale—that we ought to distance ourselves because he is in effect an “other”.

In the third chapter we discussed halakhic tales of sages on the road. Certain situations and occurrences create dramatic tension in the relationship between the sages, which affects their ability to study together. An error in behavior—deliberate or not–by one of the sages, may also damage the relationship between the sages, and this in turn damages their ability to study together and jeopardizes the survival of the bet midrash institution.

In the fourth chapter we discussed tales that take place at the dinner table. We showed that these tales, and the conclusion we reached in discussing them, are not essentially different from the other halakhic tales cited in the other sections of this thesis. The drama that at unfolds around the dinner table, which is expressed in the halakhic tales, is yet one more facet of the drama existing in other encounters between sages, and the deliberations as to how one should conduct oneself during the meal are among the dilemmas that beleaguer the sages in other situations as well.

In the fifth and final chapter, we collected all of the pirka tales in the Babylonian Talmud. One of the first challenges was to ascertain the proper wording of each and every tale; this due to grave discrepancies found in several of the tales in the various manuscripts and printed edition. For each tale we proposed the optimal wording, and then we analyzed the purpose of each tale, and showed where they differ and what they have in common. In addition to the pirka tales, we further included several accounts of sages who decided to leave the bet midrash and their studies within it (usually temporarily) and we showed the reaction of the narrator to these decisions.

Throughout all the chapters, for those tales for which we found a parallel in the Jerusalem Talmud, we cited and analyzed it. We found that at times the account in the Jerusalem Talmud was less developed, and the tale less dramatic, than in its Babylonian parallel. On the other hand, in quite a few instances we saw that the Babylonian account showed a decline in the literary value of the tale. We refrained from any bias, as one never knows a priori which account will be better from a literary standpoint, the one in the Jerusalem Talmud or the one in the Babylonian, not until we examine each case individually and arrive at informed conclusions for each case.

Having analyzed scores of accounts of halakha-based conversations within the Talmud, we have proven the existence of this genre, which is, on the one hand, an additional (but distinct) division of tales in the Babylonian Talmud and, on the other hand and at the same time, part and parcel of halakhic literature.

David Grossberg, “The Meaning and End of Heresy in Rabbinic Literature,” Princeton University, 2014

In this dissertation, I critically reexamine the category of heresy as scholars have applied it to the study of rabbinic literature, and I propose an alternative approach to rabbinic polemic and rhetoric of exclusion and inclusion. I suggest that the category of heresy is too multivalent and imprecise to allow for a rigorous historically-contextualized study of the rabbis and is best considered to be just one species of a broader phenomenon of polemical exclusion or boundary-drawing between communities in antiquity. Heresy and heretics are, properly considered, elements of a narrow technical lexicon that functions in the context of heresiology as an early-Christian literary genre rather than trans-historical archetypes for the entire endeavor of rhetorically delegitimizing those perceived as outsiders.

Approaching the rabbis in this way reveals significant diachronic shifts in the predominant rhetorical strategies that characterize various texts or textual strata of the classical rabbinic corpus. I argue that earlier rabbinic texts and textual strata tend to deploy a type of exclusionary polemic that aims to represent its targets as in some significant sense illegitimate and therefore rhetorically excluded from the Jewish community. This type of exclusion is typical both of polemic generally and of early Christian heresiology specifically and for this reason has been the primary focus of scholarly interest in this subject. However, a close analysis reveals that later rabbinic texts and textual strata tend to deploy an innovative type of polemic that is actually inclusionary in its immediate effect, rhetorically including even sinners and recreants within the Jewish community, but polemical in its implications, targeting those with different conceptions of the Torah by which this community is bound than that promulgated by the rabbis. I argue that this shift from exclusionary to inclusionary polemic reflects developments in the rabbinic movement’s social structure between second century Roman Palestine and seventh century Sassanid Persia. Although earlier scholarship tended to presume a unified and authoritative rabbinic community throughout this period, my dissertation supports the growing scholarly consensus that the development of a unified rabbinic self-conception and the achievement of practical judicial authority actually occurred gradually over the classical rabbinic period.

Ruth Haber, “Rabbis on the Road: Exposition En Route in Classical Rabbinic Texts,” The University of California, Berkeley, 2014

Throughout classical rabbinic texts, we find accounts of sages expounding Scripture or law, while “walking on the road.” We may well wonder why we find these sages in transit, rather than in the usual sites of Torah study, such as the bet midrash (study house) or `aliyah (upper story of a home). Indeed, in this corpus of texts, sages normally sit to study; the two acts are so closely associated, that the very word “sitting” is synonymous with a study session or academy. Moreover, throughout the corpus, “the road” is marked as the site of danger, disruption and death. Why then do these texts tell stories of sages expounding en route?

In seeking out the rabbinic road, I find that, against these texts’ pervasive notion of travel danger runs another, competing motif: the road as the proper – even necessary – site of Torah study. Tracing the genealogy of the road exposition (or “road derasha “), I find it rooted in traditional Wisdom texts, which have been adapted to form a new, “literal” metaphor. The motif of sages expounding en route actualizes the Proverbial “Way of Wisdom” making it a real road upon which sages tread. That way is paved by a (literalized) reading of the Shema’s command, “speak [these words] as you walk on the road…”

In the first part of my study, I consider the motif’s setting, asking what rabbinic texts tell us about this site. I find that danger is the keynote of discourse about the road; indeed the multitude of dangers and risks indicate that this is a far from suitable place for Torah study. Rabbinic discourse about the road seems to preclude discourse while on the road. The second part of my work focuses on teachings that (in spite of this pervasive sense of road danger) actually adjure travelers to study en route, declaring that Torah study protects travelers on the way. Not only do these teachings seem to justify the accounts of road exposition, but they also point the way to the roots of the motif; by closely reading each teaching and its links to the larger corpus, I mark the way to the Wisdom tradition in which the motif is grounded, and which it transforms. Finally, in the last part of my study, I consider a text containing many road derashot – and of which the main theme is the journey. This text, which concerns esoteric wisdom, complicates our motif, for here (instead of guiding and protecting us on the way), Wisdom is considered a dangerous path, from which we are warned away. And yet, even against warning and prohibition, it seems that the imperative to “speak [these words] on the way” is still in force. For here too, we find sages expounding on the way – accounts that are emblematic of the text’s larger discursive journey towards this dangerous wisdom.

Katharina Esther Keim, “Pirqei deRabbi Eliezer: Structure, Coherence, Intertextuality, and Historical Context,” The University of Manchester, 2015

The present dissertation offers a literary profile of the enigmatic Gaonic era work known as Pirqei deRabbi Eliezer (PRE). This profile is based on an approach informed by the methodology theorized in the Manchester-Durham Typology of Anonymous and Pseudepigraphic Jewish Literature, c.200 BCE to c.700 CE, Project (TAPJLA). It is offered as a necessary prolegomenon to further research on contextualising PRE in relation to earlier Jewish tradition (both rabbinic and non-rabbinic), in relation to Jewish literature of the Gaonic period, and in relation to the historical development of Judaism in the early centuries of Islam. Chapter 1 sets out the research question, surveys, and critiques existing work on PRE, and outlines the methodology. Chapter 2 provides necessary background to the study of PRE, setting out the evidence with regard to its manuscripts and editions, its recensional and redactional history, its reception, and its language, content, dating, and provenance. Chapters 3 and 4 are the core of the dissertation and contain the literary profile of PRE. Chapter 3 offers an essentially synchronic text-linguistic description of the work under the following headings: Perspective; PRE as Narrative; PRE as Commentary; PRE as Thematic Discourse; and Coherence. Chapter 4 offers an essentially diachronic discussion of PRE’s intertexts, that is to say, other texts with which it has, or is alleged to have, a relationship. The texts selected for discussion are: the Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic Literature (both the classic rabbinic “canon” and “late midrash”), the Targum, the Pseudepigrapha, Piyyut, and certain Christian and Islamic traditions. Chapter 5 offers conclusions in the form of a discussion of the implications of the literary profile presented in chapters 3-4 for the methodology of the TAPJLA Project, for the problem of the genre of PRE, and for the question of PRE’s literary and historical context. The substantial Appendix is integral to the argument. It sets out much of the raw data on which the argument is based. I have removed this data to an appendix so as not to impede the flow of the discussion in the main text. The Appendix also contains my entry for the TAPJLA database, to help illuminate the discussion of my methodology, and a copy of my published article on the cosmology of PRE, to provide further support for my analysis of this theme in PRE.

Andrea Lobel, “Under a Censored Sky: Astronomy and Rabbinic Authority in the Talmud Bavli and Related Literature,” Concordia University, 2015

Until the last few decades of the twentieth century, research on Judaism and astronomy and related celestial sciences tended to emphasize the medieval and Second Temple periods. To date, with the exception of analyses of the Jewish calendar and its development, few studies in the history of science have focused upon the rabbinic period, although a growing number of scholars, including Annette Yoshiko Reed, Noah Efron, and Menachem Fisch, have begun to address this gap.
The emerging sub-field of the history of rabbinic science ca. 70-750 C.E., spans the fields of both Jewish studies and the history of science. This dissertation represents an original contribution to knowledge, demonstrating both the richness of celestial discourse in the Babylonian Talmud and the nuanced play of differing typologies of rabbinic authority articulated by Avi Sagi, Michael S. Berger, and other scholars, particularly epistemic and deontic authority. These are shown to interact strongly with rabbinic discourses addressing the overlapping celestial concerns of astronomy, astrology, astral magic, astrolatry, and cosmogony. By examining these astronomical topics together in a study of this kind for the first time, I demonstrate a recurrent pattern of tight rabbinic controls over the celestial sciences preserved in the Babylonian Talmud. This is of importance to the trajectory of Jewish scientific thought due to the enduring centrality of the Bavli.
I also underscore an idealized portrayal of rabbinic legal deontic authority over these sciences, and a focus upon shows of honour and prestige associated with the rabbinic station itself in the Bavli. Further, I highlight the ways in which these preserved talmudic portrayals also serve to illuminate the self-presentation of the rabbis as inheritors of the interpretive and legislative powers bequeathed to them by God, the cosmic lawgiver, at the time of creation and at the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Yoel Kretzmer-Raziel, “The Category Muqse and its Development in Amoraic Literature,” Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 2015 (Hebrew)

This dissertation follows the development and categorization in the halakhic field of handling and consumption of objects on Sabbath and festivals, including the evolution the concept muqṣe (set aside) in Amoraic Literature.

The dissertation is comprised of three sections: Chapters 1-2 deal with the pre-amoraic base of the prohibitions of handling and consumption on Sabbath and festivals, in the Hebrew Bible, in works from Second Temple times and in Tannaitic Literature. Chapters 3-6 discuss the hermeneutic, conceptual and perceptual developments in this field in the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds (Hereafter: Yerushalmi and Bavli). Chapters 7-9 analyze the crystallization of the concept muqṣe itself from the Mishnah and Tosefta, through the Yerusahlmi and primarily in the Bavli.

The Dissertation follows five major routes:

1. Textual and Hermeneutic Development: The biblical instruction, ‘they shall prepare that which they bring in’ (Ex. 16:5) and the prohibition to carry burdens (Jer. 17) provided formative conditions for the creation of norms that restrict the consumption of foods and the carrying of objects on Sabbath and festivals. These can first be traced in the Damascus Document and in fragments from Qumran. In Tannaitic Literature there are detailed proscriptions against consuming and carrying, however an overt effort to link them to Scripture is lacking. The affinity to Scripture may be traced in the tannaitic usage of the term mukhan (prepared), echoing the verb ve-hekhinu (they shall prepare). The Amoraim deal extensively with the laws of consuming and carrying, with a seemingly hermeneutic focus, attended at the interpretation of tannaitic sources, rather than at new cases arising from reality. Even when it seems that the Amoraim are discussing a new case, often it can be shown that the cases at hand have been imported from texts in other fields of law, chiefly Purity law. Close affinity may be found between the two Talmuds and repeatedly it seems that the Babylonian Sugya, with its concepts and principles, is a processed form of the Palestinian one.

2. Regulating the Chaos: The laws of consuming and carrying on the Sabbath in the Mishnah and Tosefta seem textually and conceptually chaotic. The primary strategy of the Bavli in coping with this chaos is to analyze the sources according to their acceptance of the principle of muqṣe and to divide them into two groups – those that accept the principle are ascribed to the tana R. Judah and those that reject it are ascribed to R. Shimon. This procedure generates a polarization of the views at hand, as the tannaitic consensus regarding the notion that there are objects that may not be handled or consumed on the Sabbath, the Bavli portrays a dispute on this very idea.

3. Categorization: Selection, Branching out and Specification: The term mukhan which appears in the Damascus Document plays a central role in Tannaitic Sabbath law, despite its foreignness to Mishnaic Hebrew. This “frozen” term receives a new sense, relating to the status of an object at the commencement of the Sabbath. Albeit its centrality, the concept mukhan is not and underlying principle for all tannaitic restrictions on handling and consumption on the Sabbath. In Amoraic Literature two processes occour parallel. On the one hand, tannaitic concepts are widely developed (e.g.: mukhan > hakhana, keli > keli she-melakhto le-issur). On the other hand, a marginal term in Tannaitic Literature (muqṣe) assumes a central role and branches out in several directions. In some cases it seems that muqṣe replaced lengthier terms, due to ‘word ecology’, driving to selection of concise forms. However, muqṣe does not replace other terms exclusively. The abstraction of muqṣe commences in the Yerushalmi and does not culminate in the Bavli, in which the term muqṣe relates primarily to consumption of goods and hardly ever to handling. The only utensil that the Bavli applies the term muqṣe to is the oil lamp.

4. The Influence of Purity Laws: Amoraic discourse regarding the laws of muqṣe is heavily influenced by tannaitic purity laws. Talmudic discussions in this field widely borrow cases (e.g.: ‘heads of beams’), linguistic forms (‘a base [for a forbidden object]’, ‘prepared for-‘, ‘[muqṣe] on the acoount of-‘) and distinctions (‘placed/forgot’) from the order of Purities. The deepest influence appears in the form of the ‘mental turn’. While tannaitic law takes account of physical criteria in determining whether objects may be handled on the Sabbath, in both Talmuds there is a tendency to examine objects according to one’s thought or awareness towards it. Casuistic rulings are worded utilizing mental criteria and in the same manner earlier sources are interpreted or rephrased. The vocabulary of these mental criteria as well as their ritual function point directly to tannaitic purity laws.

5. Function and Significance: The term muqṣe is elusive and analysis of all its occurrences in the Bavli does not easily produce one simple definition thereof. On the one hand, it is clear that muqṣe is not merely a paradigmatic case, useful for legal analogy. On the other hand, in contrast to post-Talmudic sources, in the Bavli muqṣe is not a code for all prohibitions of handling and consuming on the Sabbath, nor is it synonymous to ‘set aside from one’s mind’. We could view muqṣe as a “family-resemblance concept” or more accurately as a “prototype concept”, with a dominant sense, as well as marginal meanings. Instead of defining the concept, it seems useful to describe its function. Lexically, muqṣe often replaces eino min ha-mukhan as the antonym for mukhan. Therefore, we cannot talk of a conceptual revolution replacing the notion of preparedness with that of setting aside. From a discursive perspective, muqṣe functions in the Bavli chiefly as a tool for taxonomy of texts – determining whether a text adheres to the principle of prohibition of consuming or handling of unprepared goods on the Sabbath and festivals or not.

Daniel Reifman, “​The Role of Rationales in Halakhic Adjudication: A Semiotic Approach,” Bar-Ilan University, 2015

This dissertation seeks to address three fundamental questions regarding the use of rationales in halakhic discourse: 1) What types of statements do we expect and/or accept as rationales for halakhic rules or rulings?  2) Do halakhic adjudication and interpretation necessarily mandate the formulation of a rationale for a given rule?  3) To what extent does the rationale for a halakhic rule determine its range of application?  We approach this topic through a series of typological examples, longitudinal analyses of the development of specific laws and their rationales from the rabbinic period through the modern era.

We use semiotic theory to argue for a distinction between analogies and rationales as the two fundamental axes of halakhic reasoning.  Analogical reasoning is central to the interpretation of most rabbinic texts, where casuistic laws – laws formulated in terms that are sufficiently specific and concrete to serve as a practical guide for popular (i.e., non-professional) legal behavior – are juxtaposed with little or no conceptual explanation.  In Saussurian terms, analogical reasoning is the process of determining the value, or semantic range, of a given legal formulation, which by definition involves comparison and contrast with other similar legal formulae.  From a semiotic perspective, legal analogy is not merely a tool for adjudication and legal reasoning; rather, it is the essential means of constituting a cohesive discourse out of disparate legal formulations.

However, value is only one dimension of meaning, that aspect which is generated internally within a system of signs, based on the patterns of similarity and difference between the sign-units of that system.  A semiotic model also posits a second aspect of meaning which is generated by our ability to substitute any sign in the system with a different sign from outside the system (e.g., a translation into another language), referred to as the interpretant.  This is the dimension of meaning that is established by providing a rationale or explanation for a given casuistic law: fundamentally, what enables a statement to serve as a rationale is not that it is more general or abstract than the law it is invoked to explain, but rather that it comes from an external source or discourse.  We may define a legal rationale as a signifier that is not part of a system of casuistic laws which serves as an interpretant for one or more casuistic laws within that system.  Every statement that serves as a legal rationale must have one or more form features that mark it as not belonging to the semiotic network of casuistic laws: its form must be either non-legal (e.g., moral precepts, descriptions of fact, consequentialist concerns), non-casuistic (e.g., legal principles or other conceptual formulations) or non-tannaitic (citations from biblical law codes). 

This definition has numerous implications for the use of rationales in halakhic reasoning. For example, the fact that there can be any number of interpretants for a given sign determines that no single explanation can be the exclusive or authoritative rationale of a given casuistic law, and hence that no rationale is essential to that casuistic law’s functioning as a unit of legal discourse.  When rationales are invoked within halakhic discourse, their function is almost always to justify distinctions within the law: to account for a difference between two casuistic rulings (or a debate between two authorities about a certain case), to explain why a broadly formulated law does not apply to a specific case, or to rationalize a ruling that breaks with established practice. On the other hand, a judge will rarely invoke a rationale when she is merely extending an established precedent or practice to a new case; in such instances, the analogy between the precedent and the target case is typically considered sufficient basis for the decision.  Moreover, the meaning of the rationale is not fixed, and may evolve over time, either in concert with the law or in divergence from it.  We demonstrate these points through a close analysis of the laws of shehiyah – leaving food on a heat source from before Shabbat – in Shabbat, chapters 1 & 3, and their subsequent development in the post-talmudic period, up until their application to contemporary stovetops.

The latter chapters of the thesis apply this model to two types of rationales which feature prominently in contemporary halakhic discourse: moral precepts and scientific propositions.   We again use typological examples of sugyot which contain moral and science-based rationales to draw out some of the fundamental differences between legal semiotic systems on the one hand and moral and scientific semiotic systems on the other.

Yakir Paz, “From Scribes to Scholars: Rabbinic Exegesis in Light of the Homeric Commentaries,” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2014 (Hebrew)

The main argument of this research is that the Homeric commentaries, as representatives of Hellenistic scholarship, had a major impact on the formation of rabbinic biblical commentaries and their modes of exegesis. This impact is discernible not only in the terminology and hermeneutical techniques used by the Rabbis, but also in their perception of their canonical text as a literary product, their learning methods, editorial principles and aesthetic sensitivities. In fact, it is the influence of Greek scholarship which can help explain the drastic difference between earlier biblical commentaries from Palestine, such as the Pesharim, and the rabbinic scholastic Halakhic midrashim (from the 3rd century AD). Yet, as I point out in the first chapter (introduction), the vast corpora of Homeric commentaries has to date received very limited attention by scholars of rabbinic literature.

The second chapter discusses the various ways the commentators implemented their concept of the canonical text as the source of all knowledge. Thus, both Aristarchus and R. Yishmael assume that the text itself teaches the commentator how to clarify obscure words. There is also a significant resemblance in the didactic lessons drawn by the Homeric commentators (of the bT scholia) and the Rabbis. The second part of the chapter is dedicated to the way the commentators from both communities rescripturize traditions, that is, they wish to prove that a word or verse in the canonical text triggered later traditions.

The difference between extracting lessons from and returning traditions to the text is essentially rhetorical, since the goal of both exegetical efforts is to bind knowledge to the canonical text through identical fixed terms (διδάσκει, מלמד ; ἐντεῦθεν PN φησι/φασι, מכאן היה ר’ פלוני אומר/מכאן אמרו ). This scholarly practice marks a significant change in the role of the commentator (or editor) in the rabbinic literature in comparison to earlier biblical commentaries.

The third chapter deals with approaches to various redundancies in the canonical texts: repetitions, synonyms, resumptive formulae and conjunctions. The school or R. Yishmael usually views redundancies as stylistic features whereas the school of R. Akiva strives to prove that what seem to be redundancies actually convey new content. I argue that one should regard this dispute between the two schools as part of a contemporary aesthetic dispute documented also among Homeric scholars and Jewish Hellenistic commentators. Furthermore, the Rabbis deal with the same biblical redundancies as Alexandrian Jewish commentators. This might indicate that the Rabbis were exposed to these scholarly practices through the mediation of Hellenistic-Jewish scholars.

In the final section of this chapter, I argue that the rabbinic focus on conjunctions as self-standing semantic entities should be viewed in light the rise of grammar as an independent science in the first centuries CE and the systematic efforts to classify conjunctions.

The fourth chapter focuses on the use of questions and answers in an exegetical context. Question and answers are ubiquitous in the Midrash, as well as in the Greek commentaries and Jewish-Hellenistic authors, but are not at all documented in the Dead Sea scrolls. The many similarities between the Homeric commentaries and Midrash are highlighted through a wide range of questions such as “Whence did he know (πόθεν οἶδεν? מנין היה יודע?) and “Whence did he have?” (πόθεν αὐτῷ? מנין היה לו?) alongside questions dealing with contradictions and verisimilitude. Both the rabbinic and the Homeric scholars also present very similar answers, reflecting common reading strategies. These similarities point to an impact of the Greek scholarship on the Rabbis most probably through the mediation of Jewish-Hellenistic commentators.

In the fifth chapter the various ways in which the commentators deal with ambiguity are discussed. Both the Rabbis and the Homeric scholars often present explicitly their dilemmas between two possible readings. The first part of the chapter demonstrates how both deal explicitly with the same three kinds of syntactical ambiguities: homonyms; uncertainty as to the subject of the verb, or to which noun the adjective refers. Not only do the commentators recognize the same ambiguities but they also tend to solve them in similar ways: either by the immediate context or by using another verse. The second part of the chapter compares two scholars of the second century CE, Nicanor and Issi Ben Yehuda, both of whom assume that there are cases where one cannot adjudicate between two possibilities of punctuation and hence one should present both alternatives as grammatically valid. The striking similarities between the Rabbis and the Homeric scholars in both identifying and resolving the ambiguities seem to point to a shared grammatical discourse.

The main part of the sixth and final chapter is dedicated to word-transpositions as an exegetical method. I demonstrate how the rabbinic method of seres is borrowed from the Greek rhetorical tropes of hyperbaton and reversal of the natural order of events (τάξις). The Greek commentators assumed that in a literary text the author might change the order of the words or events for rhetorical purposes. Therefore, one can use such methods also exegetically in order to solve various problems in the text. Similarly, I argue that the assumption underlying the use of seres by the Rabbis is not that the text is divine and hence it could be read in various word orders. On the contrary, the rabbis assume that the Torah is written as a literary text using various rhetorical tropes, one of which is word-transpositions.

The second part argues that the Rabbis formulated their rhetorical maxim  ראשון ראשון ואחרון אחרון  (“first, first and last, last”), i.e. that one should answer the first question first, as a polemical response to the Aristarchian principle of reversed order, later known as ὕστερον πρότερον Ὁμηρικῶς (“last first in the Homeric style”). Finally, I suggest that the common maxim among the Homeric commentators dealing with simultaneity – ἅμα πάντα λέγειν ἀδύνατον (“it is impossible to say everything at once”) – stands in background of the rabbinic interpretation that the ten commandment were said simultaneously (בדיבור אחד) by God. But whereas for the Homeric scholars this maxim described the limits of the narrator (unlike the painter), the Rabbis reinterpreted it as pointing to the essential difference between the divine and human narrators.

Sara Ronis, “‘Do Not Go Out Alone at Night’: Law and Demonic Discourse in the Babylonian Talmud,” Yale University, 2015

This dissertation focuses on the modes of controlling, avoiding, and appropriating demons in the Babylonian Talmud, with particular attention to rabbinic legal discourse. Though scholars have largely overlooked demons as a source of information about rabbinic legal discourse, cross-cultural interaction, and theology, this dissertation has asked how the inclusion of rabbinic demonology enriches our picture of rabbinic discourse and thought in Late Antique Sasanian Babylonia.

I analyze rabbinic legal passages relating to demons within their larger textual, redactional, and cultural – Zoroastrian, Christian, and ancient Near Eastern – contexts, in order to uncover and highlight the discursive choices made by Babylonian rabbis in their legislation regarding demons, and in their constructions of the demonic. I argue that the rabbis constructed demons as subjects of rabbinic law in ways that adopt, adapt, and reject particular cultural options available to them. This act of cultural bricolage results in the creation of a uniquely rabbinic perspective.

The first chapter reviews previous scholarship on demons in ancient Judaism and religious studies more broadly and lays out the theoretical model for my study of those ancient texts which deal with demons. The second chapter examines one extended passage in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Pesahim 109b-112a) using source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism, in order to create a basic model of Babylonian rabbinic demonic discourse. I argue that the Babylonian rabbis neutralize demons by turning them into subjects, informants, and teachers of rabbinic law, thus subjugating them to the legal system. The third chapter highlights those areas where the Babylonian rabbis differed from the Jewish traditions they inherited, by comparing demonic discourse in the law and narratives of the Babylonian Talmud with those of Second Temple literature and the Palestinian Talmud. I suggest that this differentiation was a crucial element of Babylonian rabbinic self-formation as an elite distinct from their Palestinian confreres. The fourth chapter contextualizes Babylonian rabbinic demonic discourse within early Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, Zoroastrian, Armenian, and Syriac Christian literatures, as well as the Babylonian incantation bowls. I show that Babylonian rabbinic demonic discourse aligns in content with ancient Sumerian and Akkadian understandings of the demonic, and adopts only the form of legal discourse from the contemporaneous Zoroastrian elite. My conclusion advocates for a more nuanced understanding of rabbinic interaction with non-Jews and non-rabbinic Jews which takes into account both past and present cultural traditions, as part of the construction of rabbinic identity as an elite group empowered over and against other Jews.

My understanding of the role of demons in Talmudic law also suggests one way for scholars of monotheistic religion more generally to understand the historical attitude towards and construction of semi-divine beings within monotheistic systems as part of a broader holistic theological and legal worldview. My work also contributes to a refinement of broader theories of demons, magic, and religion by situating demonological concerns within the realm of normative religion and not that of non-normative magic.

Daniel Rosenberg, “Short(hand) Stories: Unexplicated Story Cues in the Babylonian Talmud,” New York University, 2014

There is an uncommon phenomenon in the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) of stories that are referred-to, but are not told. The phenomenon has been noted beginning in the medieval period, and explained using various justifications: that the stories were censored (because of gender bias against women subjects or because of externally-objectionable content), that they were too common to need explication, or that they were forgotten. However, these arguments seem inconsistent in comparison with the rest of the Bavli, and they are made on the basis of only a few stories in each case.

This dissertation systematically examines all fourteen unexplicated cues in the Bavli. It uses redaction criticism tools developed by David Weiss-Halivni and Shamma Friedman, together with thorough “horizontal” philological analysis, to identify the historical provenance of each cue within its Babylonian sugya context. It examines manuscript and medieval commentarial witnesses to the state of the Bavli text, and confirms that explicated solutions to these cues were never in the text of the Bavli. The manuscript examination also attests to general textual stability of the sugyot, an established indicator for text dating and demonstration of textual non-interference by later authorities.

Once it has been established that the cues were never in the written Bavli text, the dissertation discusses scholarly work on geonic history and relationship to the Bavli text. In light of the pervasive orality that typifies geonic academic learning prior to the shift to writing, the partially-inscribed text is also examined with the contributions of theories of oral performative cultures and their relationships to writing. The amoraic and geonic academic cultures were less fundamentally opposed to writing than popularly depicted. The act of partial inscription makes sense within a primarily oral culture that utilizes secondary written adjuncts (in non-declamatory settings). Unexplicated cues appear to preserve an early stage of the writing of highly-condensed oral structures, and their solutions (contrary to most such cases in the Bavli) were never inscribed – and were either kept as solely oral geonic traditions or lost.

Avram Shannon, “Other Peoples’ Rituals: Tannaitic Portrayals of Graeco-Roman Ritual,” The Ohio State University, 2015

This dissertation looks at the ways in which the Tannaitic Sages portrayed and discussed non-Jewish ritual. Although this has been traditionally characterized as “idolatry,” this dissertation argues that that is not a category which would have been applied by the Sages of the Mishnah, Tosefta and the Tannaitic Midrashim. In fact, the Sages did not consider worship of avodah zarah, as it is called in this text, as something which was wholly different from their own ritual. The Tannaitic Sages conceived of non-Jewish ritual and Jewish ritual to be part of a single category of ritual. This category ultimately derived from the ritual practices of the Jerusalem Temple, which meant that rituals which were performed outside of that context were sacrilege and an affront to the God of Israel. It was precisely the similarities, rather than the differences, between Jewish and non-Jewish ritual which gave the Tannaitic Sages pause. These similarities, however, also gave the Sages tools for controlling non-Jewish ritual. They did this through a quest for plausible contexts for non-Jewish ritual behavior. Through establishing these contexts, the Tannaitic Sages are able to control what does and does not qualify as the worship of avodah zarah.

Peri Danit Sinclair, “When Rabbis Conceive Women: Physiology and Gestation in Leviticus Rabbah Chapter 14,” The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2014

This dissertation explores the language employed by the editor(s) of Leviticus Rabbah in their articulation of women’s physiology and gestation in chapter 14. Established as a compilation of aggadic literature from 4 th and 5th century Palestine, Leviticus Rabbah reflects the social construction of the community of that geo-cultural setting. Divorced from the halakhic -legal strata, Leviticus Rabbah presents us with a glimpse of rabbinic community and gender construction that substantially differ from the picture painted in the legal corpus.

This thesis analyzes the rabbis’ choice of language and construction of metaphors relating to female physiology and procreation. These lexical preferences are compared to other recurring metaphors within the rabbinic corpus, as well as with appearances of the same metaphors in rabbinic, Greco-Roman and Early Christian traditions. The overall conception of women emanating from chapter 14 of Leviticus Rabbah, as interpreted by the author, expresses rabbinic wonder and marvel at the woman’s ability to actively engage in creation through gestation and birth.

Reading rabbinic literature as the interaction of the rabbis with the Biblical text in light of their individual experiences, we expose Leviticus Rabbah as a porthole through which we might glimpse the views of a particular community at a given historical era, conveying a rhetorical reality and socio-cultural ideologies rather than traditional historical fact.

A close reading of chapter 14 deconstructs the workings of rabbinic ideology, revealing the prevailing cultural assumptions while shedding light on tensions and struggles regarding concepts of gender within rabbinic society as it encountered its broader milieu. This reading sheds light on competing discourse regarding the female body which existed within rabbinic thought.

Agnes Veto, “Rabbinic Conceptualization of the Male Body as Reflected in the Halakhic System of Male Genital Emissions,” New York University, 2015

This project seeks to understand how the rabbinic impurity legislation of the male genital emissions of shikhvat zera (mildly-defiling, potentially-procreative emission) and zivah (strongly defiling non-procreative emission) contribute to the construction of gender. The work begins by delineating how Leviticus 15 describes these two male genital emissions in terms of their definition and defilement properties: they seem to be categorized by two different taxonomies. One of these taxonomies focuses upon the manner in which each emission is exuded and its concomitant impurity level. The other taxonomy involves the ability (or lack of ability) of each emission to facilitate procreation. While both shikhvat zera and zivah were ritual impurities, zivah, the stronger defiler, shared a particular characteristic with moral impurities—the ability to defile the Temple from afar. The study next examines whether rabbinic legislation maintained or departed from biblical legislation. It concludes that although the rabbinic impurity laws use the same taxonomies as the biblical ones, they redefine the emissions and the ways in which the emissions are understood to defile. On the one hand, in rabbinic legislation the distinctly separate characters of shikhvat zera and zivah show signs of blurring; on the other hand, each category itself is more thoroughly elaborated. The importance of shikhvat zera—the mildly-defiling, potentially-procreative emission—increases as its relationship to sexuality is increasingly emphasized. As part of this process the emission acquires a new type of impurity that is moral. These developments are evident in the representation of semen in metaphors that illuminate or complement legal discussions. In a parallel development, zivah—the strongly-defiling, non-procreative emission—is understood as not precipitated by stimuli that usually impact the body, such as food or drink, physical exertion or sexual thoughts or visual experiences. Zivah will be used as a least common denominator of maleness: even a questionably male person is marked by his ability to be subject to zivah. A complementary part of the project demonstrates that female emissions and their power of defilement were not necessarily sites of more rabbinic legal innovation than male emissions and their power of defilement. It acknowledges that distinct hierarchies of male and female prerogative and privilege undoubtedly existed in terms of the practical implications of the purity laws, hierarchies that advantaged men and excluded women. However, contrary to previous scholarship—which asserts that rabbinic use of metaphors to describe female impurity and rabbinic law concerning female impurity were motivated by a desire to objectify and exclude women—this study proposes that metaphorization, objectification, and the introduction of some external supervision served to further nuance the laws and thus consolidate the power of the rabbis. The study reveals that male emissions were also metaphorized, and that the male body was also objectified as a consequence. Rabbinic treatment of emissions reveals a gender bias only in that men were less subject to supervision than were women. This lesser degree of supervision elicited some resistance from men, here interpreted with reference to Foucault’s idea of subject constitution via subjugation by power and the responses to that conceptualization by Butler and Mahmood.

Rebecca Wollenberg, “The People of the Book Without the Book: Jewish Ambivalence Towards Biblical Text After the Rise of Christianity,” The University of Chicago, 2015

This dissertation argues that, contrary to popular conceptions and the current scholarly consensus, rabbinic Jewry did not become a people of the book, or even the people of the Book, until the high middle ages. For in the classical rabbinic period, many rabbinic authorities appear to have been suspicious of reading as a source of information and ambivalent about the written text of the Hebrew Bible, a document that had proven a problematic manifestation of God’s covenant when it made possible the growth of a rival biblical religion in Christianity. In place of this promiscuous and easily misunderstood written record of the covenant, a less threatening iteration of the biblical tradition took on the mantle of revelation in many early rabbinic circles, a memorized oral formula of the Hebrew Bible–to which intangible object rabbinic thinkers attributed all the qualities of transcendence, comprehensiveness, and multiplicity that they associated with the divine and found lacking in the bald written transcript of revelation.

Chapter 1 examines early rabbinic descriptions of late antique literacy practices and concludes that many rabbinic authorities viewed sight reading for information as an alien mode of engaging with written signs practiced by non-Jews and heretics. Rabbinic practitioners, in contrast, ‘read’ the Bible by reciting memorized oral formulas from memory with (or more often without) reference to a written text. This mode of engaging with the biblical text required two distinct transcripts of the biblical tradition to circulate in classical rabbinic circles: a memorized oral formula and a written consonantal transcript. Chapter 2 argues that classical rabbinic thinkers came to conceive of these two transcripts as independent, and even conflicting, witnesses to the biblical revelation. This chapter suggests that many early rabbinic authorities came to see the memorized oral transcript of the Hebrew Bible as a more authentic record of the biblical revelation than the written consonantal text. Chapters 3 and 4 compare rabbinic descriptions of childhood literacy education with narrative and material evidence concerning late antique reading education in the Greek and Roman Mediterranean. These chapters argue that rabbinic practitioners were taught to engage with the written text of the Bible using a cross-cultural pedagogical system that cultivated a combination of highly circumscribed phonetic literacy and extensive literary memorization. Chapters 5 and 6 track the growth of classical rabbinic ambivalence towards the biblical text as a reaction to Christian claims on that document.

Jael Yaffe, “The Relevance of Text Structure Instruction for Talmud Study: The Effects of Reading a Talmudic Passage with a Road-Map of its Text Structure,” Columbia University, 2016

This study investigates the effect of access to a visual outline of the text structure of a Talmudic passage on comprehension of that passage. A system for defining the text structure of Talmudic passages was designed by merging and simplifying earlier text structure systems described for Talmudic passages, following principles taken from research on text structure. Comprehension of two passages were compared for students who did traditional reading of a Talmudic passage (the passages had punctuation added, and a list of difficult words and their meanings was appended) (the control condition), and students who read the passage with these same materials as well as with an outline of the text structure of that passage (the experimental condition). Seventy-two 10th and 11th graders participated. After a brief training on text structure, students were randomly assigned to the control or experimental condition for Passage 1. All students took a comprehension exam on Passage 1. In the next session, all students who read Passage 1 in the control condition read Passage 2 in the experimental condition, and all students who read Passage 2 in the experimental condition read Passage 2 in the control condition. Students then took a comprehension exam for Passage 2.

The text structure outline improved students’ ability to comprehend Passage 2, but no benefits were seen on Passage 1. The results provide evidence that awareness of the text structure of a Talmudic passage helps readers when the passage is concrete and somewhat well organized.

MA Theses

Hillel Gershuni, “Early Anonymous Material in The Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Sotah and Avodah Zarah,” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2015 (Hebrew)

Yitz Landes, “Studies in the Development of Birkat ha-Avodah,” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2015 (Hebrew)

Shira Shmidman, “The Levirate Bond and Levirate Betrothal in Rabbinic Literature,” Bar-Ilan University, 2015 (Hebrew)


מאה שנים למותו של שכטר


למה אני כל אך אוהב את התמונה הזאת?

שניאור זלמן שכטר יושב כאן באולם שהקצו לו בספריה של קימברידג’, שמש בריטית עגומה מאירה מהחלונות את אוצרות הגניזה המבולגנים עדיין, חלקם עוד מונחים בתוך תיבות העץ הכבדות בהן הובאו מקהיר, חלקם כבר פרושים על השולחנות אחרי מיון ראשוני. הצלם תפס היטב את היחסים שבין שכטר לבין החלל שבו הוא נמצא. השולחנות הארוכים הללו נראים קצת כמו שולחנות של שטיבל חסידי, הדלת הכפולה מאחור כמו ארון קודש, ובכלל האולם נראה כמו בית כנסת שנותר בו רק מתפלל אחד.

הצילום מבויים לעילא, קווי הפרספקטיבה מתנקזים כולם אל ראשו של שכטר, הנישא מעל גבו הרחב, הכפוף משהו. גם מדידת האור המדוייקת מעידה על הכנה מוקדמת, גם הריצפה המטואטאת. זהו צילום במסורת צילומי הניצחון הקולוניאליים, רגע פתיחת הארגזים, הצייד עומד ומניח את מגפו על ראשו של האריה השחוט. אבל כאן ניכר איזה טון אחר. שכטר מניח את ראשו הכבד על כף ידו כאילו חוכך בדעתו אם להוריד את הראש לנפילת אפיים. ריח האבק ממלא בוודאי את החדר ונדבק לחליפה. זווית הברכיים מלמדת שלא נוח לו על הכסא הזה, אולי התיישב עליו במיוחד לצורך הצילום. מסתמא רוב עבודתו עברה עליו בעמידה ובהתרוצצות משולחן לשולחן. על מה הוא חושב כשהוא מרים את מבטו לרגע מן האותיות הפורחות שעל הקרע שלפניו. אולי הוא מעלה בעיני רוחו את הדרכים בהן לא בחר – את פניו הזועפות של השואל ומשיב, ממנו קנה את תורתו, את פניו של אביו השוחט, אולי את נופי ילדותו ברומניה או את רחובה הראשי של זכרון יעקב, מקום מגוריו של אחיו התאום, החלוץ. אחרי רגע הוא בטח מתעשת במשימתיות כזאת שחב”דניקים יונקים עם חלב אמם ולא מאבדים לעולם, מזמזם לעצמו איזה ניגון התוועדות נמרץ שהוא זוכר מינקותוו ושב לעבודה.

כאן, בקלויז המאולתר והמבודד שלו, הוא בורא לעצמו עולם חדש במקום העולם שנטש, ביצירתיות מעורבבת עם חקרנות ועם תחושת דחיפות של אוריינטליסטים רומנטיקנים מושבעים, שיודעים שאת כל פלאי תבל נוכל למצוא אם רק נצרף נכון את הדפים. פה הוא מקים לתחיה את בן סירא, מרכיב מחדש את ברית דמשק, מגלה את המכילתא החדשה ונופח באפה נשמת חיים, בורא את העולם החרב מחדש ואז יוצא חזרה החוצה אל הנסיונות שוברי השיניים לתרגם את המחשבות שממלאות את ראשו ביידיש למשפטים באנגלית רצוצה.

יהודי יקר. יארצייט מאה השבוע ועוד חושבים עליך כאן.

Photo by Roi Sabar

M. Blidstein on S. Miller, ‘At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds’

Purity in a Slowly Changing World, by Moshe Blidstein

Stuart S. Miller, At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds: Stepped Pools, Stone Vessels, and Ritual Purity among the Jews of Roman Galilee, Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht 2015.

The book under review here, Stuart S. Miller’s At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds: Stepped Pools, Stone Vessels, and Ritual Purity among the Jews of Roman Galilee (2015) is part of a general surge of interest in the role of purity in post-70 CE Jewish culture(s).

Miller’s book includes an introduction, eleven chapters, and a postscript, copiously footnoted, all in vigorous and generous conversation with scholarship, much of it of the recent decade. Most of it is on ritual baths and bathing in the archeology of Palestine and in Palestinian rabbinic texts, but there are a number of long excurses: a chapter on P. Oxy 840, a Christian text dated to sometime in the first four centuries which seems to describe a mikveh, a chapter on stone vessels, and a chapter on priests and purities.

In the introduction, Miller outlines the trajectory of the study of the 850 or so ritual baths excavated in Hellenistic and Roman Palestine, especially focusing on and acknowledging the work of Ronny Reich and Yonatan Adler. This leads to the first of the two main negative arguments of the book: since some (though not many) of the baths are post-destruction, and many of them were found in domestic, funerary and/or agricultural contexts, neither 70 nor 135 CE should be seen as decisive and immediate turning points in the history of Jewish ritual purity practices. Rather, as purity rituals always had a double focus, on the temple and on the household, the destruction of the temple only knocked out one of these, while the other continued and was perhaps even enhanced.

The second negative argument, made in chapters 1-4, 6 and 9, is that ritual baths found in excavations have been overdetermined and overinterpreted. Miller argues that it is generally impossible to identify excavated ritual baths as “pharisaic”, “rabbinic”, “priestly” or as belonging to any other group known from the texts, or, even, to identify them as not rabbinic or not sectarian. Architectural markers scholars wrested from the texts and deployed to assign baths to various groups (niẓoq, oẓar, divided stairways) are in fact irrelevant: they do not describe an architectural feature (niẓoq), are a modern invention (oẓar, hashaqa) or may be merely decorative (divided stairways). Ritual baths – water basins large enough for immersion with steps leading into them, commonly found in Palestine but not elsewhere, and therefore “Jewish” – are simply that: basins which could be used for bathing of a ritual nature of various types, but also for secular uses. In parallel, the Mishna and Tosefta and even the Yerushalmi rarely discuss specific structures but rather different types of water, and people who bathe in them in various ways. The overlap between artifact and text is therefore rather slim, leading to the seemingly somber conclusion that the texts do not say exactly who used the artifacts or how they used them, and the artifacts do not provide information on the degree of observation of the regulations of the texts.

These negative observations, however, do not show that archeology and text cannot inform each other, but rather that the questions they can answer must be carefully formulated and their respective domains clearly demarcated. Excavated ritual baths can independently answer general questions such as – in which spatial/architectural contexts did people bathe? What role did these facilities play in certain periods and places relative to others? What type of water did they use? However, they cannot answer questions such as – what meaning did people assign to bathing? What was their identity? Therefore, the discussion has to start with the archeological finds, interpreted as minimally as possible in light of the general cultural context, and not in light of the details of contemporary prescriptive texts. Second, these contemporary texts must be read against the grain in order to locate the common assumptions and customs of the society that produced them, rather than the specific opinions and idiosyncrasies of their authors. Only then can they be integrated with the results of the archeological investigations. These methodological observations are not new, but their systematic application to the purity rituals of the inhabitants of the Roman Galilee is novel.

The positive results are as follows: Ritual baths are found in Palestine (but hardly at all in the diaspora) starting in the second century BCE and into the sixth century CE, in Jerusalem, Galilee, and the Hebron Mountains. Most of them are from the two last centuries of the second temple, but many are much later, and they are found in diverse domestic contexts. Interpreting these findings on the background of the biblical purification requirements and Near Eastern perceptions of water (ch. 6 & 7) indicates that purification through immersion continued to be frequently practiced even after the Destruction: not only for nidda impurity but also for the impurity of corpses, zav/zava and sexual relations; not only for entering the temple, but also for eating ḥullin; not only by priests or select ḥavverim but also by other Jews. Returning in chapter eight to rabbinic texts (especially y. Ber. 3.4, 6c), as well as to later geonic and medieval texts (ch. 10) Miller finds much evidence for popular practices of immersion and/or sprinkling for purification after sexual relations, even when not required by the Rabbis, as well as of purification from niddah with “drawn” waters not according to Rabbinic halakha. Together, the rituals baths and the texts testify to traditional customs of purification in water, dependent neither on the temple nor on the Rabbis but on the domestic sphere of Jews who were not clearly part of any sect or movement in Palestinian Jewish society of the Roman period. This conclusion is of course part of the wider debate about the place of the “Rabbinic movement” in Jewish society of the time. More generally, Miller calls to turn to “complexity theory” to account for both the fluidity and the emergence of patterns in this society. I think it is unfortunate that this call was not developed to a greater extent, in order to provide a robust theoretical alternative to the flawed methods criticized (rightly, in my opinion) by Miller in the first chapters.

One criticism from the comparative perspective: Concerning popular purity practices, I thought Miller may not have gone far enough. Additional evidence for the purity habitus of the non-Jewish Roman East may have been relevant here: Jews, Christians and Jewish Christians were not the only ones immersing and sprinkling in water for the sake of purity, ritual or other (Porphyry, On Abstinence Book 4 is probably the longest repository of evidence in this direction, with all the problems of its philosophical ideology). Neither are they the only ones who built purpose-made basins for this purpose, though the other examples are in temples, not domestic contexts – e.g., the various water installations in Isis-Serapis temples, and the standard washing basins (perirrhanterion/louterion) in Greek temples. It may be relevant to note that Isiac water installations in the Roman Empire have a purificatory function lacking in Egyptian Isis temples, according to Robert Wild; perhaps this is a parallel case of Hellinization/architecturalization of purity rites? Another case in point is washing in Asclepius shrines, as found, for example, in the medico-religious account of Aelius Aristides: here washing clearly had several dimensions. Turning to Jewish-Christians, witness the multiple types of washing in the Ps-Clementine Homilies and Recognitions – daily washing upon waking, washing after and before sexual relations, both side-by-side with one-time baptism. And moving from texts to artifacts, what does archeological/anthropological theory have to say about the relationship between ritual and non-ritual washing (or: ritual and non-ritual action in general) in other local contemporaneous cultures?

One possible significance of this may be that purification after sexual relations, contact with death or birth, before eating is not necessarily part of a “purities-holiness nexus,” as Miller describes with approval the opinion of Christine Hayes (p. 205), but rather part of a more general, unstructured disgust from sex and other bodily phenomenon (disgust is an important term in contemporary purity studies). If Yair Furstenberg is right and netilat yaddaim originated in Greco-Roman eating practices (p. 222, n. 48), this is an example of a Jewish purity practice which had nothing to do with holiness, at least at first. Although Miller acknowledges general Greco-Roman perceptions of pollution (pp. 231-2) and agrees that washing after sexual relations may have resulted simply from “popular conceptions of sex is dirty” (p. 234) he does not investigate this perception regarding the Rabbis themselves; I think the contrast drawn here between Rabbis and commoners may be too strict in this regard. Furthermore, if popular Jewish purity habitus was part of Greco-Roman culture in the East, perhaps it was not based only, or even primarily, on the bible, as is often claimed here? Thus in one of the stories in y. Ber. 3.4 (6c), a woman who does not wash (after sexual relations? After menstruation?) is compared to a beast. Christian authors, too, often argued that purification (after sex, after menstruation, before worship) was simply the “natural” way of doing things (see Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.92-96; Origen, Commentary on 1 Corinthians, frg. 29; Ps.-Clementine Homilies 11.28 [where the one not washing is compared to a dung-beetle; compare Epictetus Disc. 4.11, who prefers a comparison to pigs]).

Notwithstanding these criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The long and sometimes winding tour is full of insights and leads to follow; I felt part of a lively and thoughtful seminar, in which all participants are treated with respect and intellectual honesty. The careful assessment of the evidence, together with the hesitation to identify artifacts with social groups known from the texts, instills confidence in the conclusions. Miller provides a solid foundation on what is actually known about Jewish purity practices in this period, upon which the more speculatively inclined textual exegetes can build their edifices.

Moshe Blidstein is a postdoctoral fellow at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His main research area is rituals and ritual discourse in the religions of the Roman Empire. His current project is entitled “The Oath, Religious Identities and Mentalities in the Eastern Mediterranean, 0-500 CE.”

Dissertations, English

Daniel Boyarin’s Dissertation on b. Nazir

The field of academic Talmud study has its share of myths and legends, including works of research that were thought lost to the world. One of these is Daniel Boyarin’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America dissertation on tractate Nazir, which to our knowledge is not available in any public or university library. To that end – and in honor of the daf yomi cycle again reaching Nazir – we are happy to present a pdf of the dissertation, along with some reflections by the dissertation-writer himself. We thank Prof. Boyarin for allowing us to make the dissertation available here and for sharing with us a few words of introduction:

Nazir, which is in many ways an atypical tractate in its literary form as well as its transmission, since it was not studied during the period of the Geonim, as is well known, presents particular textual problems. The text, along with several other Tractates, called the Special Tractates, evince a different dialect of literary Babylonian Aramaic, as well as a different set of technical terms, such as תיבעי for תיקו. The latter and more usual term means, “Let it stand,” i.e., the question stands open, while the term used in Nazir means, “Let it [remain] a question.” The import is the same but the words are different. The Aramaic of Nazir and its fellows is a more literary Aramaic, apparently less close to the spoken forms of Babylonian Aramaic that we find in the other Tractates. All this suggests that the Stamma of Nazir and its fellow tractates belong to a different redactorial group (set of stammaim??) than the main body of the Talmud.

What is most fascinating, however, and what animated the dissertation that you can read here (desperately needing updating after forty years! – I have begun updating it, with some recently published – an currently accessible at Google Books – in the Yaakov Elman Festschrift) is how much the text was liquid well into the period of the Rishonim, or perhaps, better put, how much the Rishonim were active in forming the text that we see in front of us. This is, of course, true to a certain extent with all the Talmud but with Nazir we palpably see the text being formed before our eyes, as it were; that is, I suggest that we see with Nazir something like the textual processes that formed the main body of the talmudic text hundreds of years earlier, of the final form, so to speak, of the text being formed in the discussions of commentators. It was the discovery of this aspect of the text, aside from the fascinating content of the Tractate and the excitement of studying a new dialect of Aramaic that animated my work on the dissertation, lo those decades ago. I hope that the learners can find something of value in this גולם.