English, Ruminations, Technology

The Talmud in the Digital Age: Fragments From the Cutting Room Floor- Shai Secunda and Elli Fischer

The most recent issue of the Jewish Review of Books is now on the stands and online. On the cover of the magazine there is an endearing drawing (below) by Mark Anderson of three cheder kids completely entranced by an iPad running a Talmud application. The image was commissioned by the JRB to illustrate a review of the ArtScroll Talmud App co-authored by our own Shai Secunda and Elli Fischer. The article is not just a review of a piece of technology, but a meditation on revolutions in Jewish learning media and the future of Talmud study in the digital age.

The topic is as massive as it is important. Inevitably, not everything could be included in the final draft, and given the medium, sources and references were not cited. In the following post, the Talmud Blog includes some thoughts from the ‘cutting room floor’ on digitization, media saturation and their implications for Talmud study.  An upcoming post will list some of the many articles and books that functioned as dialogue-partners for the review.

The advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century had famously revolutionary effects in the Christian world (think Martin Luther), and less known but still substantial repercussions in Jewish culture.  Yet, the next truly dramatic innovation in the media of Jewish study was inaugurated only in 1963. It was then that a project got underway  at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel to digitize rabbinic texts, mainly responsa, for the purpose of historical research. By 1979, the project had migrated to Bar Ilan University and its database was available at terminals on and off campus. The real breakthrough came in the early 1990s when the entire database was made available on a compact disc. Not only were the contents of a formidable Judaic library encoded in a small bit of plastic, but these contents were searchable. The vast erudition that characterizes the greatest talmudic scholars could now be replicated by a computer, inducing anxiety on the part of rabbis.

The Bar Ilan Responsa Project is now on Version 19 20 and is considered an indispensable tool for teachers, scholars, and indeed rabbis, though one can still hear occasional polemics about reaching halakhic conclusions based on keyword searches. In truth, though, by now the Bar Ilan Project is a small part of the mind-boggling volume of data that is easily accessible and fully searchable using basic internet search engines. PCs and especially laptops have lessened the physical exertion and dampered the thrill of accumulating and working through a mountain of tomes in search of a solution to a particularly thorny exegetical riddle. For those who availed themselves of the digitized Torah libraries (and it should be acknowledged that many traditional Talmudists did not) the frenetic activity of the traditional study hall ground to a halt. There is no longer any need to consult the bookshelf or library when everything is a few clicks away. There is also little room for a study partner or any sort of live conversation when seated at a computer desk. The vast differences between the quiet library and the noisy beit midrash have been lessened somewhat. Not long after the release of the Bar Ilan CD, its traditionalist opponents complained that the classical notion of ‘toiling in Torah’ would go missing if Talmud scholars began learning off of computers.  We laughed then, but from this vantage point, one begins to wonder.

The Bar Ilan CD is no doubt a powerful reference tool that supports and enhances the study of printed texts. Yet, it keeps users tethered to the computer screen. Digitization and searchability may have changed the nature of talmudic and halakhic research, but they did not replace the book. This is actually the legacy of media saturation, the shockingly recent transformation of everyday life into a wired reality of screen ubiquity and wireless connectivity. Now, the computers are actually tethered to us, and they simultaneously tally Syria’s dead, recall the date of Shakespeare’s birth, and ferry messages to and fro.  Our mobile devices are little more than sleekly packaged portable brains in jars. Actually, they are far more.  The grey matter in my pocket is magically, creepily connected to the brains in yours.

The mobility that the portable devices introduced to the experience of Talmud study seems like a relatively minor addendum to digitization, but its effects are profound. It is no longer necessary to stay confined to the beit midrash, like Bialik’s pale-skinned matmid, when the the bookshelf can be transported to the beckoning outdoors. There is something unprecedented in the presence of massive digital libraries on small portable devices.  Within the dark confines of a pants pocket, a movable Borgesesque talmudic bibliotheca has grown up.

Media theorists and New Yorker cartoonists have been diligently documenting the diverse cultural changes heralded by this newest wrinkle in the digital revolution.  It is the transformation of the book that for many causes the greatest unease.  To be sure, digitization has not yet finished off the physical book – and certainly not rabbinic texts – but that honor may well go to the e-reader and tablet computer, and soon.  Along with the demise of the traditional book, bibliophile Luddites also fear for our brain chemistry and our family life.  Media saturation with its ubiquitous hypertext links, pop-up ads, and assorted bells and whistles has pulled our attention in a thousand directions, making it difficult to pursue any one subject with single-minded focus. Educators, including Talmud teachers, lament their students’ lack of interest in the subject matter, offering Lamarckian theories about how skimming and skipping through material renders one unable to actually read. How can the mind that absorbs information in packets of no more than 140 characters be expected to get through War and Peace, with its one hundred thirty characters?

Concerns have also been raised about what media saturation is doing to the fabric of the modern family. Many of us cannot pull our eyes away from Retina™ displays long enough to look into our children’s faces. This sorry if ubiquitous state of affairs has recently received thought-provoking artistic expression by the contemporary Armenian artist, Tigran Tsitoghdzyan. One powerful image from his ‘Millenium’ series (2012)  plays with the intriguing feature of many classical madonna icons in which strangely, to modern sensibilities at least, Mary looks off to the side of the frame, apparently ignorant of attachment parenting’s most sacred rule – ‘lock thy gaze’.  In this untitled artwork, Tsitoghdzyan depicts a modern madonna looking to the left, past the baby seated on her lap; her eyes and fingertips fastened to a smartphone.  In the far right of the frame one can make out the dark edge of a television, which captivates the baby’s attention.

But all this is old hat. Intellectuals, especially public Jewish ones, have for some time been whining about the disappearance of the book, the death of the publishing industry, and other assorted textual tragedies. Peddling dystopia is easy, and words weary. As we have seen, this is not the first time that changes in technology have altered the way humans obtain and process information, nearly always to the chagrin of the old guardians of knowledge. Perhaps the human mind is simply freeing itself from the illusion that ‘books’ ever really stood alone –  hypertextuality makes intertextuality obvious – and rebelling against McLuhanian hot” books that insist on progressing linearly. Is it possible that an entire generation has been misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder? Alternatively, is it possible that a brain wired to rapidly shift between stimuli is not disordered at all, and in fact better equipped to excel in a media-saturated environment?

Despite the modern air-brushed veneer of Tsitoghdzyan’s madonna, which seems to preach to us about modernity and its discontents, the traditionalist iconography reminds us that we have been here before.  As any voraciously reading, bookish parent knows, even prior the advent of the mobile device, texts of all types – magazines, newspapers, books, and really anything fit to print –  fought for attention with the loving flesh and blood beings who make life worthwhile.  In some ways, media saturation has simply made this bad habit a more common ill.

In traditional Jewish society, a scholar who carries around a small volume of Talmud to peek at during spare moments is actually not deemed rude or distant, but industrious. He is really just an evolved form of the Jewish walking book – the “reciter” of the Geonic academy. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, due to certain technological and religious developments, highly portable talmudic tractates perfect for reviewing studied texts began to appear on the European continent. These quaint little books encapsulated a rabbinic ideology that hearkens back to Deuteronomy 6 and its exhortation to speak the Divine commandments “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Until recently, the modern version of these slim volumes were commonplace on New York city trains, Jerusalem buses, and London cues.  Now, they are increasingly replaced by mobile devices that house unadorned digital Torah libraries.

Digital mobility has now freed the Talmud from the study-hall; digital connectivity, from the sometimes isolation of Talmud study; and the hypertextual architecture of the web from the linearity of the traditional printed  book. If only someone would design an app that could realize the explosive potential residing in the Talmud. Now that, would be ‘cool‘.

English, Zutot


In his book on Minhag in early Ashkenaz, I. M. Ta-Shema hid this in a footnote; I thought it would be of interest to the community.

It seems to me that the source of the [Ashkenazi] custom to separate the [marriage] cermony [and hold the betrothal ceremony on Friday, and the huppah on Saturday morning] is the early custom, which was apparently defunct by the 11th century, to sign the ketubah only after the marriage was consummated (בעילת מצווה). And see the words of the Italian payytan Amitai b. Shefatiah, in the 9th century:

ומה נאה לחתן ביום חתונתו

להראות טהרת בתולי אשתו

בראש תלוי לחתום בכתובתו

ולעשות שלימה שמחתו

עד יום צאת טבילה

And how fitting for a bridegroom on the day of his wedding

to show the very purity of his wife’s virginity

with his head held high (?) to sign his ketubah

and to make his happiness whole [i.e. to have sex with his wife]

until the day the immersion is due

(I. David, The Poems of Amitai, Jerusalem 1975, p. 23, ll. 227-229; my hasty translation)

And from this we learn two things:

(1) the ketubah was attested and became valid only after consummation; (2) at this time the ketubah was signed in public and was accompanied by a celebration, and was one of the high points of the marriage ceremonies […] At the same time the blessing “who planted a nut” was said, see Halakhot Gedolot, ed. Hildesheimer, part II, Jerusalem 1980, p. 226.

I. M. Ta-Shema, Minhag Ashkenaz ha-Kadmon, p. 43 n. 50.

Edited 12 September @ 15:09; “mitzvah penetration” was changed to “consummation,” due to popular demand.

Dissertations, English

Recent Dissertations and Theses

Even if papers remain ‘owed’ and exams still need to be graded, by most accounts the 2011-2 academic year is through. Below we have posted the most recent yield of dissertations and theses that deal with rabbinic literature. Please, if you are so inclined, use the comments section to discuss the dissertations.  And if you wish your thesis to appear here, send an email to the Talmud Blog. The list will be updated over the next few days.  

Stephen Hazan Arnoff, Memory, Rhetoric, and Oral-performance in Leviticus Rabbah, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2011.

Oral-performance represents the pedagogical experience of the rabbinic class in the period in which Leviticus Rabbah takes shape. While written materials within this oral matrix are essential cogs in the wheel of rabbinic cultural production, contemporary scholarly assumptions concerning the balance of written and oral influences underestimate the oral practices crucial for the composition of LR and similar rabbinic endeavors as well the ways that orality defines and is embedded within surviving rabbinic written texts themselves. Performance, artificial memory systems, and writing all participate in the reception, storage, transmission, and meaning-making natural to the milieu of LR. Analyzing LR through the multilayered lens of these oral-memorial technologies and in context of contemporaneous patristic and pagan rhetorical pedagogical systems sharpens understanding of its mechanics and meaning, while also highlighting the core pedagogical systems and structure of the rabbinic movement of Late Antiquity as a whole.

Meir Ben-Shachar, Biblical and Post-Biblical History in Rabbinic Literature: Between the First and Second Destruction, Hebrew University 2011.

Eszter Katalin Fuzessy, Dialogues Between Sages and Outsiders to the Tradition”: Creation of Difference as a Literary Method of Religious Polemics in Rabbinic Literature, The University of Chicago, 2011.

My dissertation addresses the “historical” problem of the emergence of “rabbinic” Judaism out of the many post-biblical Judaisms. It studies, on the example of a specific group of texts, the portrayal of this “historical” transformation on the literary, discursive level of the text in rabbinic literature. The argument throughout the dissertation is principally literary; however, through analysis of literary texts I strive to give answers to basically “historical” questions.

Texts found in abundance in rabbinic literature in which a dialogue is portrayed between a Rabbi and an “Outsider to the tradition” can, if studied collectively as texts belonging to a specific literary genre, be considered as reflecting the discursive transfer in rabbinic literature from a world of different Hellenistic Judaisms to the world of rabbinic Judaism that considers and portrays itself as the sole, “normative” form of Judaism. These texts, among many others, attest to the process of creating “rabbinic” identity in the cultural discourse of rabbinic literature. Thus, the main concern of the dissertation is to study this process of transformation; the main literary question of the dissertation is concerned with the way this transformation is accomplished and portrayed in the discourse of rabbinic literature.

In reading specific texts in rabbinic literature I try to trace the vestiges of the creation of “rabbinic” identity in the literary discourse; thus I go against the presupposition that such an identity already existed and the texts only mirror it. On the contrary, the texts are proof to the process, not the end result of, this transformation.

The main “historical” question the dissertation strives to give an answer to concerns the point in history after which we can speak of rabbinic Judaism. In the dissertation I hope to find an answer to the how and the why the change from a “pluralism of Judaisms” to a “Judaism of pluralism” happened at that specific point in “historical” time.

Chayuta Deutsch, Encounters between Sages and Matrons: Fixed Patterns and Variations, Bar-Ilan University, 2011.

Ryan Dulkin, The Rabbis Reading Eden: A Traditions-Historic Study of Exegetical Motifs in the Classical and Selected Post-classical Rabbinic Sources on Genesis 1-3, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2011

This dissertation establishes an in-depth traditions-history of a representative sample of major themes in the Eden traditions of rabbinic literature, paying special attention to its development throughout the major corpora of the classical rabbinic sources. This study demonstrates that rabbinic literature on the Eden narrative cannot be perceived as an undifferentiated monolith, but must be understood as a dynamic process which developed over the course of many centuries. It shows that a core of Adam traditions crystallized in the period of the redaction of the major Palestinian amoraic corpora and were recycled and/or expanded in later sources. Using Genesis Rabbah as a base source, this study focuses on five key sets of scriptural verses in the Eden narrative which comprise the arc of the biblical story, from the events that lead to humanity’s creation to the judgment and punishment of Adam and Eve: the creation of humanity (Gen 1:26-28; 2:7, 21), Adam’s exalted stature in prelapsarian Eden (2:8, 15–17), the description of the serpent as the craftiest of creatures (3:1a), the transgression sequence (3:1b-7), and the enumeration of the punishments inflicted upon the progenitors (3:16-19). These themes are chosen for their centrality to the Eden narrative and for their evidence of significant development in the classical sources.

These themes are analyzed diachronically in the following strata of rabbinic literature: tannaitic literature (ca. second-third c. C.E.); Palestinian amoraic midrashim (primarily Genesis Rabbah , Leviticus Rabbah , and the Palestinian Talmud) [ca. fifth c.], the Babylonian Talmud (ca. sixth-seventh c.), and the gaonic collections Tanhuma (both the Warsaw and Buber editions), ‘Abot de-Rabbi Nathan , and Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer (ca. eighth-ninth c.).

This dissertation focuses primarily on the intra-rabbinic development of these themes, yet recognizes that rabbinic literature did not develop in a cultural vacuum. Where necessary, it address outside influence, e.g. Christianity and/or Islam, especially with respect to the later strata of the selected rabbinic sources. This dissertation employs literary, redactional, and traditions-history criticisms as its major methodological tools.

Jason Mokhtarian, Rabbinic Portrayals of Persia: A Study of Babylonian Rabbinic Culture in its Sasanian Context, University of California, 2011

This dissertation examines the ancient Iranian context of the Babylonian Talmud, the vast compendium of Jewish law and lore that the rabbis produced while living under the Persian Sasanian Empire (224-651 C.E. ) whose official religion was Zoroastrianism. While for decades scholars in Rabbinics have written prolifically on the Greco-Roman and early Christian contexts of Palestinian Rabbinic Literature, by comparison the study of the Persian context of the Babylonian Talmud has been relatively understudied. My dissertation contributes to Talmudic Studies by exploring aspects of Babylonian rabbinic culture from a comparative perspective that draws heavily from primary and secondary sources in Ancient Iranian Studies. The overarching question that I explore in this work is what role the ancient Persian Empire, as both a real socio-historical force and imaginary literary interlocutor, played on the Babylonian sages’ constructions of a group identity and authority vis-à-vis “Persian others.” With this basic problem permeating my dissertation, each chapter explores the representations of a different “Persian other” in the Talmud–namely, the Persians as an imperial ethno-class, the Sasanian kings Shapur I and II, and the Zoroastrian priests.

Chapter one in this dissertation outlines the methodology that I employ in the study of the Sasanian context of the Talmud. In this chapter, I situate my dissertation within the field of Rabbinics and describe both the prospects and inherent limitations in the integration of Ancient Iranian Studies into Talmudic Studies. Chapter two of this dissertation analyzes the generic representations of “Persia” or “Persians” in the Talmud in light of the question of to what extent the Babylonian sages possessed knowledge of Persian culture. After giving an overview of the Talmud’s images of Persians as an imperial ethno-class, as well as the Middle Persian loanwords in the corpus, I evaluate three talmudic texts that shed light on the complex ways in which the rabbis discussed and absorbed Persian civilization. In chapter three of this work, I examine the ways in which the Talmud’s depictions of the Sasanian kings Shapur I and II relate to Sasanian royal narratives and Zoroastrian historiographical trends that viewed the kings as icons of authority. In the final chapter of this dissertation, I explore the socio-cultural interface between the Babylonian sages and Zoroastrian priests. Through a detailed analysis of the administrative and religious functions of the Zoroastrian priesthood, I delineate the ways in which the Sasanian world impacted the Talmud’s portrayals of Zoroastrian priests.

Yael Wilfand Ben Shalom, Poverty, Charity and the Image of the Poor in Rabbinic Texts from the Land of Israel, Duke University, 2011.

This study examines how rabbinic texts from the land of Israel explain and respond to poverty. Through this investigation, I also analyze images of the poor in this literature, asking whether the rabbis considered poor persons to be full participants in communal religious life. Within the context of rabbinic almsgiving, this study describes how Palestinian rabbis negotiated both the biblical commands to care for the poor and Greco-Roman notions of hierarchy, benefaction and patronage.

The sources at the heart of this study are Tannaitic texts: the Mishnah, the Tosefta and Tannaitic midrashim; and Amoraic texts: the Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud) and the classical Amoraic Midrashim – Genesis Rabbah, Leviticus Rabbah and Pesiqta de Rab Kahana. Other texts such as Babylonian Talmud, non-rabbinic and non- Jewish texts are included in this study only when they are able to shed light on the texts mentioned above. In reading rabbinic texts, I pay close attention to several textual features: distinctions between Tannaitic and Amoraic compositions, as well as between rabbinic texts from the land of Israel and the Babylonian Talmud, and evidence of texts that were influenced by the Babylonian Talmud. This method of careful assessment of texts according to their time of composition and geographic origin forms the basis of this investigation.

The investigation yields several key findings: I suggest various factors that shaped Palestinian rabbinic approaches to poverty and almsgiving, including: the biblical heritage, the Greco-Roman and Byzantine environments, the diverse socio-economic status of the rabbis, and their adherence to “measure for measure” as a key hermeneutic principle.

The study also portrays how the rabbinic charitable system evolved as an expansion of the biblical framework and through engagement with Greco-Roman notions and practices. This unique system for supporting the poor shows evidence of the adoption of select Greco-Roman customs and views, as well as the rejection of other aspects of its hegemonic patterns. We have seen that the language of patronage is absent from the Mishnah’s articulation of the rabbinic charitable model.

Several of the texts analyzed in this study indicate that, for the rabbis, the poor were not necessarily outsiders. Following the main stream of biblical thinking, where the ordinary poor are rarely considered sinners who bear responsibility for their abject situation, Palestinian rabbinic texts seldom link ordinary poverty to sinful behavior. In these texts, the poor are not presented as passive recipients of gifts and support, but as independent agents who are responsible for their conduct. Moreover, rabbinic teachings about support for the poor reveal not only provisions for basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter but also attention to the dignity and the feelings of the poor, as well as their physical safety and the value of their time.

Pinchas Roth, Later Provençal Sages – Jewish Law (Halakhah) and Rabbis  in Southern France, 1215-1348, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012.

The South of France had a strong and significant Jewish presence in the Middle Ages. This area, often known as ‘Provence’ though it contains several political units besides the County of Provence, had been a part of the Roman Empire. The Jewish presence in the South of France began in the Roman period, and Jewish settlement in the area reached its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries. Important Jewish figures that emerged from this area include philosophers, scientists, physicians and poets.  At the same time, many local sages devoted their efforts to the more traditional fields of Talmudic exegesis and legal decision-making (Halakhah).

In the academic field of History of Halakhah, the Halakhic works of Southern French sages play a minor role. For the most part, scholars have focused on the sages of Ashkenaz (Germany) and the Tosafists of Northern France, and to a lesser degree, on the rabbis of Andalusia and Christian Spain, while Provençal figures are usually mentioned only in passing. When they are actually mentioned, it is usually 12th century sages that receive attention. The only sage from a later period who is routinely mentioned in modern scholarship is Menahem ha-Meiri, who lived in Perpignan in the second half of the 13th century.

This dissertation is devoted to shedding light on the Halakhic community of Southern France in the 13th-14th centuries, to adding to the historical knowledge available about the sages of this community, and to identifying the characteristics of their approach to Halakhah. The dissertation focuses on practical law (applied law, as found in responsa, or legal codes), as opposed to exegetical works on the Talmud, and it deals with the areas of Languedoc and Provence, from 1215 until the arrival of the Black Death in 1348.

Samuel Frank Thrope, Contradictions and Vile Utterances: The Zoroastrian Critique of Judaism in the Škand Gumānīg Wizār, Graduate Theological Union and University of California, Berkeley, 2012.

My dissertation examines the critique of Judaism in chapters Thirteen and Fourteen of the Škand Gumanig Wizar. The Škand Gumanig Wizar is a ninth century CE Zoroastrian theological work that contains polemics against Islam, Christianity, and Manichaeism, as well as Judaism. The chapters on Judasim include citations of a Jewish sacred text referred to as the “First Scripture” and critiques of these citations for their contradictory and illogical portrayals of the divine. This dissertation comprises two parts. The first part consists of an introductory chapter, four interpretative essays, and a conclusion. The second part consists of a text and new English translation of Škand Gumanig Wizar Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen.

My first essay presents a new approach to the relation between the citations from the First Scripture in the Škand Gumanig Wizar and Jewish literature. Previous scholars have tried to identify a single parallel text in the Hebrew Bible or rabbinic literature as the origin for each of citation. Borrowing approaches developed by scholars of the Qur’an and early Islamic literature, I argue that the Škand Gumanig Wizar’s critique draws on a more diverse and, likely, oral network of traditions about the biblical patriarchs and prophets.

My second essay contains a close reading of three linked passages concerning angels in Škand Gumanig Wizar Chapter Fourteen. I argue that the depiction of angels in these passages responds to a widespread Jewish belief in Metatron, an angelic co-regent whose power equals God’s. This essay analyzes these angelic passages in light of the traces of this belief that can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, Jewish mystical literature, and other texts.

My third essay concerns one of the longest citations in the critique of Judaism, a version of the story of the Garden of Eden from the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis. This essay demonstrates that this citation is one of a motif of connected and mutually illuminating garden passages found throughout the apologetic and polemical chapters of the Škand Gumānīg Wizār. I argue that gardens’ prominence in the critique of Judaism, and the Škand Gumānīg Wizār as a whole, derives from gardens’ symbolic role in Iranian culture.

My final essay compares the critique of Judaism in the Škand Gumānīg Wizār to a Zoroastrian anti-Jewish text from another Middle Persian work, the Dēnkard. Whereas the earlier Dēnkard depicts Judaism mythically, relating the story of Judaism’s creation by an evil demon, the Škand Gumānīg Wizār depicts Judaism textually, as citations from the First Scripture. I argue that the Škand Gumānīg Wizār’s presentation of Judaism as a text is an interpretative key for understanding the Zoroastrian work as a whole.

MA Theses

Neri Yeshayahu Ariel, The Case of a Genizah Monograph: Towards a Methodology of Identification, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2011.

During the late Geonic period, commentaries appeared in Judeo-Arabic on halakhic topics concerning formal and informal duties of the judges. In this thesis I challenge the attribution of several Genizah fragments of these documents made by prominent modern scholars and contend that the inaccuracy of their conclusions stems from inadequate standards and lack of clear-cut criteria in modern research. I analyze the aforementioned fragments in light of a methodological framework which has been developed for this purpose, but which can be applied to the study of Medieval Judeo-Arabic halakhic literature written in Muslim environments in general. Thus, the contribution of the present work to this area of knowledge far exceeds the analysis of the texts under discussion, in that the theoretical model proposed in it has ramifications for future research, in particular in the setting of standards and criteria.

It is far from my intention to claim that this study has made it possible to attribute henceforth every single fragment to a specific author or commentary, or even to identify it as belonging to the genre of “Judges’ Duties.” Rather, it points to a need for a fundamental inquiry and puts forward a number of guidelines upon which such an inquiry should be based. I have endeavored here to publish one single Genizah fragment and to identify it unequivocally, based on a clearly circumscribed set of criteria. The substantial difficulties encountered in identifying the document in question indicate that further research is required and that the standards outlined in this thesis need to be refined.

Hallel Baitner, Sifre Zutah on Parshat Parah – Studies in Text, Exegesis, Language and Structure, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012.

In my MA Thesis, Sifre Zutah on Parshat Parah – Studies in Text, Exegesis, Language and Structure (under the supervision of Prof. Menahem Kahana), I dealt with one section of the Midrashic work “Sifre Zutah” to Numbers – a Tannaitic Midrash from the Midrashic school of the students of Rabbi Akiva. Although this Midrash was known to medieval sages, the success of its “big brother” – Sifre to Numbers – led to its rejection and eventual disappearance at some point during the Middle Ages. Various testimonia of this Midrash have reached us via the “Yalkut Shimoni”, penned by Rabbi Shimon haDarshan of Frankfurt (13th cent.), and the “Midrash haGadol” of the Yemenite Rabbi David Adani (14th cent.).

Only two original fragments of this Midrash survived in the Cairo Genizah. The larger fragment, which I dealt with extensively, is located in the Firkowitz collection in St. Petersburg and includes most of the Midrash’s commentary on the portion “Hukkat”, which discusses the laws of the Red Heifer and corpse-impurity. This fragment was already published, along with an introduction and commentary, by Yaakov Nahum Epstein in 1930. I attempted in my thesis, to the best of my abilities, to reach an additional level of understanding of this Midrash in the subjects of textual versions, language, content and structure.

Avigail Bamberger (Manekin), Parallels between Aramaic Incantation Bowls and Rabbinic Texts, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012.

The texts written upon the Aramaic incantation bowls are of considerable importance to rabbinic studies as they constitute the only Jewish epigraphic material that exists from Babylonia at the time of the editing of the Talmud. Despite this fact, there is no comprehensive study on the many parallels between these bowls and the Talmud. Rabbinic elements in the bowls have been discussed only briefly by various scholars. Recently this trend seems to be changing, with the recent publication of various editions of newly discovered bowls and with the future publication of hundreds of new bowls by Prof. Shaul Shaked and others.

In my thesis I discussed the nature of these parallels, which, I argued, occur mainly in three areas: magic, liturgy and legal terminology. My thesis focuses on the third area, demonstrating many verbal parallels between the divorce formula in the Talmud and bowls that contain formulas to divorce demons. The study of these parallels is significant as it sheds light on the diffusion of rabbinic teachings beyond the beit-midrash and teaches us firsthand about the beliefs and practices of the non-rabbinical Jewish population at the time of the Talmud.

Amit Gvaryahu, Tannaitic Laws of Bodily Damages, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (completed, not yet submitted).

Almost as  famous than the dictum “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is the apologetic that the rabbis were appalled by this “barbaric” law and circumvented it. This thesis examines the rabbis’ approach to the seemingly unequivocal biblical texts that prescribe the laws of bodily damages. The thesis concludes that not only did the rabbis continue to engage with these verses well into the late tannaitic period, but that they were a point of contention between the school of Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva, with practical ramifications. The thesis then examines the process by which “an eye for an eye”  was supplanted by pecuniary damages, and concludes that this process preceded the rabbis by many generations, and was perhaps supported by a homiletical reading that can be reconstructed through a careful reading of the pertinent halakhic midrashim.

Yakov Meir, The Creation of a Hasidic Way of Study – A Bio-Bibliography of R. Yitzḥak Isaac Safrin from Komarno between 1832 and 1853, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012.

This work is devoted to examining the production, i.e. writing, revision, collection of approbations and money, ordering, and printing of three commentaries written by R. Yitzḥak Isaac Safrin from Komarno on Seder Kodashim. During the 30’s of the 19th centur, after his Rabbi’s – R. Tzvi Hirsh of Zhidachov (Żydaczów) – death,  R. Yitzḥak Isaac left Galicia and toured the lowlands of Hungary. During those years he was writing Asirit HaEifa (Lvov, 1849), his commentary on the Sifra, and a few years after that his commentary on Tractate Shekalim known as Penei Zaken (Lvov, 1851) and a commentary on Mishna Kinnim he titled Nidvat Pi (Lvov, 1853) which marks the end of an exegetical trilogy devoted to sacrificial laws. The commentaries are polemical: R. Yitzḥak Isaac deals and critics the Korban Aharon commentary of the Sifra and the Gaon from Vilna‘s hagahot on Yerushalmi Shekalim. The polemic statement is not the only goal of the works, rather, there is a biographical one as well. R. Yitzḥak Isaac describes his trilogy as a series of writings that are “necessary for my soul.”  The analysis of these works will teach about the development of R. Yitzḥak Isaac’s scholastic method, about his “commentaric indentity”, and about the numerous and varied ways in which this process fits into his biography.

English, Postscripts

Postscript: Jonah Frankel, 1928-2012

The world of Jewish Studies and the Talmud Blog mourn the passing of Prof. Jonah Frankel, teacher, pioneer, scholar and Israel prize laureate. Frankel was born in Munich in 1928 and arrived in Palestine when the Nazis came to power. His doctoral dissertation, the first and actually only scholarly treatment of Rashi’s commentary on the Babylonian Talmud to date, remains the standard work of reference on this ubiquitous commentary. It was quoted extensively, thirty years later, by Prof. Israel Ta-Shma in his Sifrut ha-parshanit la-talmud. Frankel also collaborated with his father-in-law, Daniel Goldschmidt, on his editions of Jewish liturgical texts, and was working on an edition of the Ashkenazi Siddur for weekdays. He kept working on the latter project until very close to his death (I regret that I turned down the opportunity to work as his mouse-manipulator when he could not longer get it to do what he wanted); I understand the project is in good hands.

His greatest and lasting contribution to scholarship, however, was his introduction of methods taken from the study of literature to reading rabbinic stories. In many articles and then later, in books, Frankel applied the methods of New Criticism to stories that were supposed to be “history” or at best “folklore”. He insisted that they were nothing but “high literature” and that they deserved the best tools the discipline could give them. As such, he is the intellectual grandfather of almost every innovation in rabbinics since. Although New Criticism fell out of fashion and other methods took over, Frankel got his wish: rabbinic literature is recognized as “literature,” studied in university departments of Hebrew literature, and by literary scholars who do not specialize in Jewish Studies. ‘The Oven of Akhnai’, Rabbi Johanan and Resh Laqish, and Honi the Roofer (not circle-drawer) are household names not merely in academic circles, but also in almost every synagogue, study circle, adult education curriculum and beit midrash. Frankel’s work endures, and so his lips truly are speaking in the grave at this very moment. We hope to be able to host a “yeshivah on his grave,” here at the Talmud blog, in the future.

(The funeral was today, on Har Hamenuhot, in Jerusalem, at 4:30 PM).