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


A. Gvaryahu on A. Yadin-Israel ‘Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash’

Azzan Yadin-Israel, Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 308+vii pages. $75.

Reviewed by Amit Gvaryahu

Azzan Yadin-Israel has presented us with a detailed and meticulous study of Sifra. This is a wonderful thing. There is to date no other such study of the midrashic methodology of any work from the school of Rabbi Akiva. There is also no critical academic commentary on all of Sifra nor a full critical edition. Though Sifra was the most widely studied Tannaitic Midrash both in late antiquity and in the middle ages–there are more manuscripts, whole and fragmented, of Sifra and medieval commentaries on it than any of its counterparts – it was neglected in modern scholarship. Yadin-Israel’s willingness to undertake this project is laudable.

Sifra is a running commentary on Leviticus. For the most part it is associated with the School of Rabbi Akiva. (Several segments of Ishmaelian Midrash, most importantly the Mekhilta de-Arayot, were incorporated into some Sifra manuscripts in the Middle Ages from the now lost Ishmaelian Midrash to Leviticus). Sifra is generally accepted to be a Tannaitic work, and its redaction predates the Talmud (Kahana; but cf. Stemberger). Some have claimed that it predates the Mishnah (Reichman).

In a Hebrew University dissertation which stands in the background of Yadin-Israel’s work, Yonatan Sagiv mapped out the exegetical methods of attributed statements in Sifra and noticed that they tended to “clump” around problematic verses and did not cover all of Leviticus. Yadin-Israel acknowledges his reliance on Sagiv’s work at the beginning of the book. He restates Sagiv thus: “The Sifra  is made up of a relatively small number of Tannaitic interpretations [i.e. attributed to named tannaim], concentrated around a limited group of verses, embedded in a much larger and more uniformly distributed set of anonymous derashot.”

The book is made up of three parts. The first (caps. 1-4) attempts to characterize the exegetical methods of the unattributed Sifra. The second (caps. 5-7) is dedicated to the character of Rabbi Akiva in rabbinic literature and the statements attributed to him in Sifra. The third (caps. 8-9) is somewhat of a postscript, offering a comparative survey of other methods of interpretation in the Judaeo-Christian/late Roman orbit and situating Yadin-Israel’s work in the context of previous scholarship.


Parts 1 and 2 of the book make bold claims. In the first part of the book, “A Hermeneutic of Camouflage,” Yadin-Israel sets out to find the hermeneutic assumptions and exegetical method of Sifra, only to discover that there is none. He reads through various homilies grouped by terms: words marked as redundant, the particle את, possessive pronouns, ribbui and mi’ut, and the tying of Mishnah to verse with the term mikan amru. He also devotes considerable space to finding consistency in the reading of certain words. Chapter 2, “The Sifra as Midrash,” is devoted to what Yadin-Israel terms “vacuity” and “semantic discontinuity,” which are, respectively, charging innocent words with midrashic meaning, and creating a derasha that does not flow logically from the verse. The conclusion of this survey is that though the anonymous Sifra might sound like Midrash – by going through the motions of marking words as redundant and inviting interpretation, by noticing various phonetic peculiarities and grammatical inconsistencies and so forth – it only employs midrashic rhetoric in “ex post facto constructions” to rework oral traditions into “Midrash.” Since the project is to find Mishnah in scripture – at all costs – it is no surprise that the anonymous Sifra throws consistency and even coherence to the wind, and engages in “tautological, solipsistic, or otherwise empty arguments” (p. 100).

But wait, you say, isn’t Sifra associated with Rabbi Akiva, the man who in popular imagination could pile heaps and heaps of interpretations on the tip of one letter? Should we expect any less than that from a work associated with him? In part 2, “A Curious Career,” Yadin-Israel unequivocally says that this is not the Rabbi Akiva presented in the attributed Tannaitic material. In fact, claims Yadin-Israel, after examining the traditions attributed to Rabbi Akiva in Sifra (in Chapter 6) his homilies are more similar in terminology and method to the ones found in the Ishmaelian Midrashim (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael and Sifre Numbers) than to the anonymous Sifra. Even an examination of the biographical traditions about Rabbi Akiva in Tannaitic literature shows him to be a product of the rabbinic academy from childhood, not at all the revolutionary outsider we know and love from the Babylonian Talmud (Chapters 5 and 7).

Yadin-Israel’s claims are not abstract or ungrounded. To buttress them, he offers a large textual corpus in translation, helpfully reproduced in Hebrew from MS Kaufmann A 50 (for Mishnah) and MS Vatican Ebr. 66 (For Sifra, all on pp. 213-229). It is a richly documented book, which offers thoughtful textual analysis on every page. Yadin-Israel engages refreshingly in textual scholarship. In lucid and beautiful prose he takes the reader along with him on what is (for Yadin-Israel) an ultimately futile quest for meaning in the anonymous Sifra. I enjoyed engaging with each source immensely, even where I did not agree with the conclusions. It is this disagreement that I will lay down below.

In Chapter 9, Yadin-Israel notes that his claim – that Sifra does not engage in creative legal hermeneutics, but in some other project – is not new. The main stream of rabbinic scholarship in the early twentieth century was of the opinion that halakhah is “Oral Law,” what Josephus called paradôsis, “tradition.” Perhaps at some point in time rabbis shifted from “tradition to commentary,” and perhaps not, but the creation of the bulk of rabbinic law was grounded in the former, not the latter. Yadin-Israel’s innovative claim here is that both tradition and commentary were appealed to as sources of authority at the same time, but in different Tannaitic schools: Rabbi Akiva was grounded in tradition, Rabbi Ishmael in commentary. Notwithstanding Yadin-Israel’s modifications of the basic thesis of midrash mekayyem or, in his terms, midrash somekh, he is (in my opinion) coming almost full circle, upending several decades of the study of Midrash. Daniel Boyarin in his Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash tentatively suggested that Midrash should be read as commentary on scripture. His suggestion became so successful that, against this backdrop, Yadin-Israel can qualify and hedge: Midrash is not always commentary and works that call themselves “Midrash” are sometimes something else. Like a front for connecting oral traditions to scripture.

And herein lies the rub. Maybe – just maybe – If the anonymous Sifra rhetorically presents itself as Midrash, its claims should be taken seriously. I would like to take up a few of Yadin-Israel’s examples in the first part of the book and see whether they have exegetical ground after all (I will use Yadin-Israel’s numbering scheme for the quotations, preceded by a §).

A.    Rashes

Leviticus 13:38-39 reads:

וְאִישׁ֙ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֔ה כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרָ֖ם בֶּהָרֹ֑ת בֶּהָרֹ֖ת לְבָנֹֽת׃  וְרָאָ֣ה הַכֹּהֵ֗ן וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרָ֛ם בֶּהָרֹ֖ת כֵּה֣וֹת לְבָנֹ֑ת בֹּ֥הַק ה֛וּא פָּרַ֥ח בָּע֖וֹר טָה֥וֹר הֽוּא׃

When a man or a woman has spots on the skin of the body, white spots, the priest shall make an examination, and if the spots on the skin of the body are of a dull white, it is a rash that has broken out on the skin; it is pure.

Yadin-Israel quotes the homily on verse 39 (§2.1):

בוהק טהור. מלמד שהבוהק טהור.

A rash is pure – this teaches that a rash is pure.

This, says Yadin-Israel (p. 27), is a tautological gloss, a homily with no meaning. And if this were the verse, then it would certainly be. Zooming out and reading the homily in context shows otherwise:

“בוהק” “טהור”. מלמד שהבוהק טהור.יכול לא יטמא משם אום. אבל יטמא משם פיסיון. תל’-לו’. ”הפורח טהור”.יכול יטהר את הבהרת שיצאת ממנו. תל’-לו’. “הוא”.

יכול לא יטהר את הבהרת שיצאת ממנו. אבל יטהר את הבהרת שניסמך לה.

תל’-לו’. “בוהק הוא”. “טהור הוא”.

הוא טהור. אין הבהרת שיצאת ממנו ושניסמך לה טהורה. אילא טמאה.

“Rash” “pure” – this teaches that a rash is pure.Could it perhaps not cause impurity in itself, but cause impurity if it is an extension of an existing leprosy? It teaches, saying: “that has broken out is pure.”Could it cause purity to the leprosy which protrudes from it? It teaches, saying “it.”

Could it not cause purity to the leprosy (בהרת) which protrudes from it, but cause purity to the leprosy that it spreads to? It teaches, saying “it is a rash” “it is pure.” It is pure, but the leprosy that protrudes from it and that it spreads to are not pure but impure (Negaim, ed. Weiss 67a).

Read in entirety, the homily is parsing the verse, dividing it up into small units, each with its own meaning: “the rash is pure,” “that has broken out is pure,” and then the two occurrences of הוא, which are read as limiting the purity of the rash to the rash itself and leprosy which protruded from it or which it might have touched.

None of these readings is self-evident, and other readings of the verse are possible. Who is the referent of the second הוא: the person (see e.g. Vulgate) or the rash? Is the rash pure, or is it only pure if it breaks out in the skin, but not otherwise (see the insistence of the Septuagint on the former). Reading the verse requires parsing it into constituent parts and explaining them, which is what hermeneutics is by definition. Yadin-Israel (p. 22, quoting a different part of the homily as §1.14), claims that the “phrase tahor hu is a necessary component of the verse because it identifies the referent of ‘pure.’” In this, Sifra also clearly disagrees with him: It clearly states: ‘“Rash” “pure” – this teaches that a rash is pure.’ The homily explains that (1) it is the rash, not the person, that is pure, and (2) that the rash is ipso facto pure, not just if it spreads. The details derived from the components of the verse now make sense as well (cf. p. 55): only the rash is pure (בהק – טהור הוא), but its spreading does not cause purity to leprosy (פרח בעור – טהור הוא). Parsing it this way, Sifra’s reading method makes many of the incongruities Yadin-Israel points out, well, congruent.

Also, even if the derasha were tautological and meaningless, Yadin-Israel does not explain to what end. There is no Mishnah or Tosefta that could be the source for this homily.

B.    Blood

Parsing the verse into constituent sentences explains what Yadin-Israel calls fort-da derashot, in which the homily: “hurls an element of the verse out of sight…and then examines the situation. …The Sifra then reels the word back in and uses it as a prooftext” (p. 30).  Leviticus 3:2 reads:

וְסָמַ֤ךְ יָדוֹ֙ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ קָרְבָּנ֔וֹ וּשְׁחָט֕וֹ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וְזָרְק֡וּ בְּנֵי֩ אַהֲרֹ֨ן הַכֹּהֲנִ֧ים אֶת־הַדָּ֛ם עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ סָבִֽיב׃

You shall lay your hand on the head of the offering and slaughter it at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall dash the blood against all sides of the altar.

Sifra comments (§2.6):

“בני אהרן”. יכול חללים. תלמוד לומר. “הכהנים” יצאו חללים.ואוציא חללים ולא אוציא בעלי מומין?תלמוד לומר. “בני אהרן”. מה  אהרן כשר. אף בניו כשרין.

יצאו חללין ובעלי מומין.

“Aaron’s Sons.” Could this refer to disqualified priests (halalim)? It teaches saying: “the priests,” to the exclusion of disqualified priests.Might I exclude disqualified priests, and not exclude handicapped priests? It teaches, saying: “the sons of Aaron.” Just as Aaron is qualified, so his sons are qualified.Thus disqualified and handicapped priests are excluded (Nedavah, ed. Weiss 6b).

Note that I modified Yadin-Israel’s translation here: halalim are definitely not “laypersons”(p. 29). They are disqualified priests, the masculine plural form of חללה in Lev 21:7 and 21:14 (see Jastrow).

Yadin-Israel says the derasha “merely cites the word ‘priests’ and asserts the analytically true fact that priests are not laypersons” (p. 29). But it is not so: the derasha wants to account for the verbosity of the verse. Why say “Aaron’s sons the priests” and not one or the other? The answer is that each name accounts for a different group of marginal priests or Aaronides who are excluded: the halalim, Aaron’s sons but not priests, and the handicapped, priests but not Aaron’s sons.

Yadin-Israel again says that this reading is “plainly opposed to the Ishmaelian notion of hermeneutic markedness” (p. 31), but this does not mean Sifra does not have its own notions of markedness or of hermeneutics which it is trying to convey through its homilies. Sagiv’s findings that Tannaitic statements in Sifra tend to clump around problematic verses do not show that the anonymous Sifra is not interested of making sense of each and every redundancy in all of Leviticus.

In Chapter 4 (p. 99) Yadin-Israel asks about the same homily: why does Sifra not simply cite Leviticus 21:21 to show that handicapped priests are disqualified? That would be an appropriate question if Sifra were attempting to prove that handicapped priests are disqualified, i.e. if Sifra was merely a cover for extra-scriptural traditions. However, if Sifra is interested in responding to the redundancy, citing Leviticus 21:21 would not help at all. (The homily might also be responding to an anomaly in Lev 21:21 which refers to “men who have blemishes from the seed of Aaron” rather than the standard “sons of Aaron,” pointing to the fact that the latter phrase denotes non-handicapped priests).

The same reading technique can solve Yadin-Israel’s issue with homilies that employ the terms yakhol and minayin together with Talmud lomar which return to the same verse (Many, even most yakhol and minayin derashot, do not return to the same verse. In chapter 2, Yadin-Israel is careful to say that not all homilies do; but cf. p. 206.) While Yadin-Israel says they are “empty,” these terms establish the “hermeneutic markedness,” i.e. the redundancy, of one or another of the elements in the verse, setting it up for the interpretation at the end.

Yadin-Israel has the same issue with din (i.e. kol va-homer) arguments which conclude with the same glossed prooftexts that preceded them (e.g. p. 63, §3.12 and pp. 64-67, §3.13). Here too Sifra is working to establish markedness. In these cases, the homily points to a redundant grammatical element (e.g. אתו) and glosses it with a halakhah. Then it introduces a din argument for the opposite of the halakhah. Then it concludes (talmud lomar) that the redundant element was required to negate the din. The fact that the formulae do not distinguish between the same verse and different verses might show that for the Sifra, redundancy is an issue whether it manifests itself in the same verse or in different verses.

C.   From Tradition to Commentary

Beyond that, however, Yadin-Israel seems to be setting up a dichotomy between “tradition” and “commentary” which seems to me unhelpful. Many mishnayot are based not on “tradition” but on “commentary.” Yadin-Israel’s example §4.18 is a case in point. On p. 94 he compares Mishnah Shevu’ot 3:5 to Sifra Hovah (Weiss 23c) and tries to determine the relationship between them. This is a tricky relationship indeed (it would have been better if Yadin-Israel had offered readers more of the Mishnah in context). But Mishnah Shevu’ot here is anything but an “extra-scriptural tradition.” The Mishnah presents a debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael regarding scriptural interpretation. They both employ the term ribbuy ha-katuv, “the inclusive language in the verse.” Many other mishnayot are based on scriptural interpretation as well (as Ch. Albeck notes sometimes in the addenda to his Mishnah commentary). Even if the Sifra here post-dates the Mishnah, and is (as Yadin-Israel explains) attempting to solve an apparent problem in the Mishnah, it does not follow that the Sifra is a mere foil for grounding extra-scriptural traditions in scripture. Quite the opposite: the Mishnah here is engaging in Midrash as well. A similar approach can resolve Yadin-Israel’s issue with Menachem Kahana’s reading of Mishnah Gittin 9:10, Sanhedrin 3:4 and Sifra Metzora (Weiss, 79c), on pp. 209-210.

There are, to be sure, homilies in Sifra which serve to “unite the Dual Torah,” to use Jacob Neusner’s turn of phrase, by coupling mishnayot with homilies (e.g. §2.19, §2.20, §3.4 and many more). But even these have an interpretive effect on scripture. For example, the list of blemishes in persons in Mishnah Bekhorot 7:6 (p. 98; on the list see Rosen-Zvi) is cast in Sifra (§2.21) as a homily on Leviticus 21:21. The contents of the list are clearly not derived from scripture. But claiming that they are anchored in a ribbuy, איש איש, is in itself an interpretation of the verse which makes the verse speak the language of the rabbis. It is not the kind of self-referential hermeneutic that Yadin-Israel attributes to the school of Rabbi Ishmael, but it is a hermeneutic nonetheless. It is the same kind of hermeneutic that fuels, for example, the Palestinian Targumim, which can go on a homiletic tangent while reading a verse. To those who have the Oral Torah, it can be found everywhere, not least in the Written Torah. (I would also add that in Leviticus 10:9 drunken priests are only forbidden from entering the tent of meeting – not officiating at the altar, and so the Mishnah here is not circumventing scripture). I think the examples here are sufficient to prompt readers to check the evidence for themselves and engage with the examples, as Yadin-Israel has so generously invited us to do. Yadin-Israel’s general theory is an impressive and beautifully argued paradigm, but it is based on the cumulative textual evidence and must be examined against a careful reading of the original texts in context.

D. A Curious Career

As for the second part of the book, Chapter 5, Yadin-Israel’s intertextual reading of the Akiva and Moses encounter in Bavli Menahot 29b is innovative and thought-provoking. It would be better for Yadin-Israel’s paradigm of the Sifra, however, to adopt Shlomo Naeh’s suggestion that Rabbi Akiva sat and “expounded heaps and heaps of halakhot on each pericope (קוצה) of the Torah.” This sounds much like Yadin-Israel’s description of the anonymous Sifra: a work intent on pairing up extra-scriptural traditions with verses. Interestingly, Moses did not understand this endeavor at all, and was only satisfied when he was informed that an extra-scriptural law was just that: “a tradition to Moses from Sinai.” (For another use of כתב in this context, see Sifre Dueteronomy 26, ed. Finkelstein, 65).

Chapter 6, on the relationship between Rabbi Akiva’s homilies and the anonymous Sifra is important in that is highlights the differences between named and anonymous homilies in Sifra in a systematic way. It is a good starting point for sustained and systematic inquiry on this relationship, although Yadin-Israel sometimes goes too far in differentiating named Rabbi Akiva homilies from those of the anonymous Sifra. I would add that though Yadin-Israel is noncommittal on the date and provenance of this layer, it is clearly cited in the Talmuds. Sifra is also “Tannaitic” in both language and content. The existence of multiple strata in Sifra (as in any Tannaitic work) does not make any of them less “Tannaitic” than the other. It shows quite nicely that there were programmatic and hermeneutic developments in the school of Rabbi Akiva.

Chapter 7, sadly, leaves me unconvinced on philological grounds. Yadin-Israel successfully shows that there are traditions that make Rabbi Akiva a member of the rabbinic community from childhood, but works unsuccessfully to discredit the Tannaitic tradition, in Sifre Deuteronomy (with a parallel in Genesis Rabbah), that casts him as someone who was an ignoramus until forty.

Sifre Deut 357: “Rabbi Akiva began to study Torah when he was forty”:

ר’ עקיבה למד תורה בן ארבעים שנה.

Genesis Rabbah 100 (p. 1295): “Rabbi Akiva was an ignoramus for forty years”:

ר’ עקיבא עשה בור ארבעים שנה.

(1) Yadin-Israel tries to cast doubt on the reading of Genesis Rabbah 100 that Rabbi Akiva עשה בור for forty years, and claim that it is a correction of Sifre Deuteronomy. On p. 152 he says it is “very odd,” but it is really not: as Yadin-Israel notes on p. 143, עשה is good Rabbinic Hebrew for “spent time.” He “was an ignoramus.”

(2) The reading of MS London of Sifre Deuteronomy, that Rabbi Akiva learned Torah for forty years (למד תורה ארבעים שנה), waited on the sages for forty years and then led Israel for forty years, leaving him no time to be an ignoramus, is not corroborated by any other manuscript evidence.

(3) The Sifre Deuteronomy fragment Yadin-Israel cites, (MS Holon 242 ה) is not a Genizah fragment but a late medieval Sephardi Fragment of Sifre Deuteronomy brought to Israel from Yemen. Its reading, עסק בעולם, is a reworking of the Genesis Rabbah tradition, perhaps even a graphic corruption (עסה>עסק and בור>בע’>בעולם).

(4) Yadin-Israel cites Midrash Hagadol to Genesis which reads that R. Akiva עשה בלא תורה for forty years, but this is a reworking, again, of Genesis Rabbah (with בלא תורה replacing the disrespectful בור, perhaps another graphic corruption of בור>ב’ ת’>בלא תורה). Midrash Hagadol on Deuteronomy 34:7 has the same reading as all the other Sifre Deuteronomy manuscripts.

(5) More importantly, the other three characters who died at 120 listed in the tradition in Sifre and Genesis Rabbah all spent forty years outside of the world of Torah. Moses was in Egypt, Hillel the Elder came from Babylonia and Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai was a merchant. To fit this pattern, Rabbi Akiva must have started learning at forty.

I am interested to know why the existence of this tradition is so troubling to Yadin-Israel’s thesis. Could there not simply be two traditions about the early career of Rabbi Akiva? This however does not diminish from the importance of Yadin-Israel’s effort to reintroduce rabbinic biography back into the study of the Tannaitic traditions themselves.

E. Editing

The derashot are supplied in translation (and sometimes in the original) without their original lemmata. This decision caused a blatant error on p. 56 (§3.2), in which Leviticus 11:2-3 is supplied as a lemma for an excerpt from a complex and difficult homily on Leviticus 11:24 which happens to cite Leviticus 11:2-3. Yadin-Israel points to this homily as an example of “extreme semantic discontinuity,” but this is alleviated if read in context and in conjunction with the correct verses. Similar but less severe problems can be found in §2.10; §2.17-18 (in §2.17 the verse is Lev 15:18, not 19); §2.38; §2.37 (Lev 15:25 is quoted erroneously, skewing the entire homily). It also blurs the choices Sifra makes out in delimiting the lemma, as I pointed out above. Sources are sometimes truncated, leading to problematic conclusions and impressions (e.g. §3.2, §3.14, §4.18, §10.1, as well as the motto at the beginning of chapter 8).

Some of the translations are inaccurate and need revising (e.g. sources §2.6; §2.14; §2.32; §3.7; §3.16; §4.18; §6.6; §6.9; §6.15; as well as on p. 106, 130, 175, 184, 193, 197-8). Sometimes the English translations do not reflect the language of MS Vat. Ebr. 66 reproduced in the back of the book and are based on the vulgate editions (e.g. §2.21; §2.31; §2.35; §4.11; §6.23). The quotation of Sifre Numbers on p. 173 is not based on MS Vat. Ebr. 32 which reads אין “חלום” אלא שיש לו פתרון, which reading solves the discontinuity Yadin-Israel found there. The Hebrew of §2.34 is copied from the vulgate editions, not MS New York. All these should be corrected in a future edition. Other than that, the book is beautifully laid out, copyedited and indexed (On p. 188: committed should be commitment; the author of the MA thesis on Sifre Zutta Numbers is not Hillel, but Hallel Baitner).

When all is said and done, I had a wonderful time reading this book, marking it up and arguing with it. It goes back to basics and offers a comprehensive statement about those basics. Let the conversation begin.

English, Reviews

Straight-up Philology, Served Cold

Robert Brody, Mishnah and Tosefta Studies, (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2014)

The “Jerusalem school” of rabbinics has traditionally avoided writing in any language other than Hebrew. In his introduction to the collected works of J. N. Epstein, Ezra Zion Melammed wrote that his teacher, J. N. Epstein “while living in the exile of Europe, wrote most of his studies in foreign languages, and from the day he ascended to Jerusalem, to teach at the Hebrew University, wrote all his studies in Hebrew […]. He also rewrote his opus magnum, Introduction to the Mishnaic Text, which was written in German and ready for the press, in his clear Hebrew […].” Even in the United States, students of this school published mainly in Hebrew: Saul Lieberman, Israel Francus, Abraham Goldberg, and Shamma Friedman wrote most of their enduring and important works in Hebrew (David Weiss-Halivni is somewhat of an exception to this rule, but the bulk of his scholarship, too, is written in Hebrew). One of Jacob Neusner’s standard complaints was the lack of scholarship in “a European language” –  and the field has seen a sea change in this regard. Most scholars of rabbinics now publish extensively if not exclusively in “European languages,” especially English.


Except, of course, in Jerusalem. Here, Robert Brody is somewhat of an exception. He is the only Hebrew University professor of Talmud who published an important monograph in a language other than Hebrew. Mishnah and Tosefta Studies now joins his The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture as an important addition to Brody’s English oeuvre. It is part of a long-term project, which Brody describes in his introduction, of a commentary on Bavli Ketubot out of which grew a commentary on Mishnah and Tosefta Ketubot. In the course of that work, Brody understood that he wanted to “tackle in a more systematic way several topics about which I had thought, and sometimes lectured, over a period of years.” And he wanted to do it in English. The language shouldn’t fool you, thought: Brody might be writing in English, but the book is decidedly Jerusalemite: a crash-course in straight-up philology, clearheaded and free of jargon, served cold.

Brody takes us back to basics: examining all the evidence, sometimes offering simple solutions for complex problems, and sometimes admitting cheerfully that he has none. He moves abruptly from example to example – it seems that he is really interested in presenting examples, and that the niceties of introductions and conclusions are so burdensome that he sometimes does away with them – stopping to point out how they refute this or that scholarly consensus that has solidified over the years.

In the four parts of the book, Brody discusses four scholarly paradigms that have become dominant over the last decades in the field of Mishnah/Tosefta studies. He discusses each one with a series of test cases, through which the reader can grasp Brody’s guiding principle: the evidence is always prime, each case is different, and scholarly paradigms are only as useful as the answers they provide. Each of these paradigms is associated with a scholar or several scholars who introduced them to the scholarly community. In each case Brody discusses the work of those scholars, often pointing out that the paradigms which are named for them are far from their original intent. The four paradigms are:

1. There are two distinct versions of the Mishnah, one influenced by the Bavli and transmitted with the Bavli, the other influenced by the Yerushalmi and transmitted alone. An outgrowth of this paradigm is that the MSS of the Mishnah are considered more “Palestinian” and thus more “authentic” than the Mishnah in the Bavli. This paradigm was developed by Jacob Sussman and David Rosenthal, and is discussed little beyond Jerusalem and its satellites (e.g. Christine Hayes’s Between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, which problematizes this thesis as well). While this thesis seems simple enough – and of little importance to non-philologists – it has important implications for the history of the redaction and transmission of the text of the Mishnah, and also emphasizes the fuzziness between redaction and transmission in the first place. As Ishay Rosen-Zvi notes, studies of the orality of the Mishnah, for example, would do well to think of the Sussmanian assertion that the Mishnah was a completely oral text in the formative stages of its creation, as well as note the scholastic changes that the Mishnah underwent while it was being studied in the Talmudic academies which placed it at the center of their curriculum. Or did they? Brody tests Sussman-Rosenthal’s thesis of Talmuds influencing Mishnah text by examining several examples of discrepancies between the two versions of Mishnah which do not match this model. For example, there is no Babylonian Talmud on tractate Shekalim, but the distinction between the two strands of transmission  -independent manuscripts versus Bavli manuscripts – still exists. Additionally, there is no Palestinian Talmud on the order Kodashim, but the distinction still stands. Brody discusses the ways in which we could account for these differences in the absence of a simple model like the one suggested by Sussman and Rosenthal.

2. The Tosefta predates the Mishnah. This paradigm is often attributed to a series of articles which culminated in Shamma Friedman’s Tosefta Atikta (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan Universtiy Press, 2003). Brody agrees that “there is no doubt that Friedman is correct in claiming that the Tosefta sometimes preserves sources which are identical or very similar to those underlying specific passages of the Mishnah.” In Brody’s opinion, however, the operative word is sometimes. Since he has no general preference for one option over the other, he presents himself as an impartial observer, in each case trying to point out which option makes more sense (his treatment of Judith Hauptman’s Rereading the Mishnah, which espouses a similar point of view but makes more far-reaching claims, is somewhat less deferential).

3. The two MSS of the Tosefta present versions of the Tosefta which are independent of each other, and which have their origins in the distant past of the redaction and early oral transmission of the Tosefta. Here Brody really shines as a master philologist. In  his opus magnum, a slim Hebrew book called The Textual History of the Sheiltot (New York and Jerusalem: AAJR, 1991) Brody offers his stemmatic analysis of the relationship between all known textual witnesses of the Geonic work Sheiltot, a compendium of sermons on the weekly Torah reading, based mainly on the Babylonian Talmud. While Sheiltot has nine full MSS and countless more textual witnesses, Tosefta has between three full witnesses and some additional partial ones. Brody transferred his philological acumen from one work to the other to point out some facts that have the potential to revolutionize the textual study of the Tosefta.

First, Brody asserts that all the witnesses of the Tosefta are descended from one single written exemplar. Even the major discrepancies between the manuscripts can be explained according to this model. Thus, unlike the Babylonian Talmud, the Tosefta is best analyzed as a written text, and the variant readings as errors or corrections in the transmission of a written text. Most intriguing is his discussion of what Yoav Rosenthal has termed “changes of place,” when one segment appears in different places in two witnesses not as a part of a list with an interchanging order of segments, but simply on its own. While Rosenthal in a recent article uses these changes to reconstruct a complex redactional history of the Tosefta, Brody is – as usual – skeptical. He prefers to ascribe these changes to insertion of marginal glosses in the wrong column, noting that the gap between the two places where these kinds of segments are located in the two MSS tends to be roughly the size of one column of text or its multiples – 140 words or so (pp. 50-51).

4. Rabbinic texts are best presented in diplomatic editions, according to the “best manuscript” available. Brody “passionately” disagrees, and thus the book ends with an “impassioned plea” to change the dominant practice of printing rabbinic texts as diplomatic editions of one manuscript, rather than making educated editorial statements as to the wording of the original text itself. Two recent editions come to mind – Kahana’s diplomatic edition of Sifre Numbers, as opposed to Milikowsky’s eclectic edition of Seder Olam, which is closer to Brody’s plea.

The plea itself is in fact somewhat less than “impassioned,” as is the rest of the book: Brody is direct and curt. This book has no funny anecdotes about renaissance scholars , no apologies for the relevance of scholarship, and definitely no cultural criticism. In a field that constantly says its texts are indeterminate and fluid while adhering for the most part to whatever can be found in the canonized translations and computerized databases, Brody refreshingly lacks any desire to self-reflect. Words stand in the center of this book, and perhaps out of respect for those same words, they are used sparingly.

The book is generally well-edited, except for the too-common passive constructs and several copyediting glitches – for example, the name Lieberman (as in Saul) is sometimes spelled Liebermann and sometimes not. This could have easily been corrected. I would have also appreciated Hebrew texts as well as the translations Brody provides, but they will probably be in the Hebrew book slated for publication soon. This book is an important contribution to the textual study of Mishnah and Tosefta, an important corrective to comfortable paradigms and rules-of-thumb that dominate rabbinics, and for the first time all of this is available in English. Ignore it at your peril, and assign it to your graduate students.

English, Texts

Blessing Beaujolais

(A special Haggadah Supplement from the Talmud Blog)

Why is this night different from all the other nights? Well, it really isn’t. What makes it different are the words. On all nights, we just eat, and don’t talk, and on this night, we ask questions about eating. On all nights, we mumble blessings before and after our food – quickly – and on this night we embellish our food with explanations and narratives. It’s not that the food is symbolic but rather that we take care and time to point out that the food has a story. Any food would have sufficed – “for on all nights we eat mac and cheese, but this night we eat caviar and steak,” – a would-be son could have asked, and might have been right. Continue reading

English, Reviews

A Collector’s Item: Shamma Friedman’s Le-Toratam Shel Tannaim

friedman20tannaitic0011[1]Shamma Friedman, Studies in Tannaitic Literature: Methodology, Terminology and Content. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2013. Hebrew. XVII+534 pp. NIS 111.

Shamma Friedman is a didactic master. His aptitude for explaining and teaching complex matters in simple and concise language is impressive -and useful. His articles were the first ones I read in Talmudics and they were accessible enough for me to say, “I could probably do that.” (I have since learned that I probably cannot, at least not with Friedman’s panache). It is thus no surprise that many of his models have become the new standard in the field and were adopted (sometimes overzealously) by both his students and his wider readership. Continue reading

English, Reviews

Seek and Ye Shall Find: On Federico Dal Bo’s Feminist Commentary on Karetot

Federico Dal Bo, Massekhet Keritot. A Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud V/7. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013. IX+487 pp. €129

Massekhet KeritotFederico Dal Bo is a very talented individual. This is the impression the reader gets not only from his unassuming biography on page II (two PhDs in unrelated disciplines awarded four years apart!), but also from even a cursory perusal of his new commentary on one of the most neglected corners of the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Karetot. It takes talent, and courage, to undertake a project as audacious and comprehensive as the title promises. Continue reading

English, Texts

A Kalirian Wedding Rahit (Oxford Heb c. 20.46; Cowley 2736)

For Yitz and Daphi, on their wedding day, בהטפת עסיס כעגור וסיס

This Kalirian rahit, a tentative translation of which is offered here, follows the piyyut which our very own Yitz Landes and Daphi Ezrachi chose to quote on their wedding invitation. The entire Kalirian cycle is based on the haftarah reading for the Shabbat before a wedding, Isaiah 61:9-62:9. As can be seen in Daniel Stökel Ben-Ezra’s new THALES project (registration required), this haftarah is read in the Italian rite to this day (See also Encyclopaedia Talmudica s.v. הפטרה, and Shulamit Elizur, “‘al piyyutei hatanim ve-haftarat hatanim,” Massekhet 1 (2002): 64-75, also found here). Following the verse in Isaiah (62:5), it presents pairs of biblical bridegrooms and brides. Some of the verbs used to bless the bride and bridegroom are also taken from the haftarah, Isaiah 61:10, “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for He hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, He hath covered me with the robe of justice, as a bridegroom putteth on a priestly diadem, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.” The many plant metaphors may resonate with Isaiah 61:11. Letter ז echoes the first verse of the haftarah, Isa 61:9.

The brides are often praised for their children. Some notable exceptions are:

  1. Zipporah is mentioned as “wise and intelligent in all knowledge.”
  2. Elisheva, the sister of Nahson, who married Aaron is portrayed as wearing “the cloak of justice.”
  3. Hannah, who is styled “the Prayer at Shiloh,” wears “justice and fame.”
  4. Esther, of course, has “fame, grace, favor and mercy.”

Hannah is paired with her husband, Elkana; Samuel, who had no wife, is not mentioned. Other interesting pairs (from a total of 11) are: Judah and Tamar (letters ז, ח), Joseph and Potiphar’s daughter (ט, י), David and Bathsheba (ק, ר) and Mordechai and Esther (ש, ת), most likely in keeping with the tradition that Mordecai was Esther’s lover, not uncle (b. Meg. 13a). Epithets are used sparingly – the payytan mentions some heroes by name: Potiphar’s daughter, Amram, Yocheved, Aaron, Zipporah, David and Moses (who is mentioned only through the wish that the bridegroom be diligent in studying Torah).

The text, with some minor corrections, is taken from Maagarim. A short commentary can be found in Ezra Fleischer, Shirat ha-qodesh ha-ivrit bi-yeme ha-benayyim, Jerusalem 1975, 161. I tried to mimic the prosody of the piyyut in the translation, with some success.

ובכן “ומשוש חתן על כלה”.

And so, “and as the bridegroom rejoiceth over the bride”

אדרת מעטה הוד והדר כאיתן יאופד חתן.,

בנים ובנות בילדות ובזוקן כעדנה תחבק כלה.,

גיל ומשוש כיצא לשוח בשדה יעוטר חתן.,

דרך ישר וטוב כניתרוצצה בבנים תונהג כלה.

A mantle, a robe of glory and splendor, as the Strong one, will be girded on the Bridegroom

Boys and Girls, in youth and age, as the Young one, shall be embraced by the Bride

Cheerfulness and mirth, as the one who Went out to Meditate in the Field, will adorn the Bridgroom

Down the road of the one who is Straight and Good, as the one who Was Struggled in by Children, shall go the Bride

הון ועושר ומקנה כאיש תם ינתן לחתן

וכרחל ולאה אשר בנו ביית תבורך כלה

זרע ברכה ומלוכה כגור אריה יגזיע חתן

חניטים תאומים כפרץ וזרח ייחם כלה.

Endowments and Riches and Acquisitions, like the Plain Man, will be given to the Bridegroom

For as Rachel and Leah who built a Home will be blessed the Bride

Generation of blessing and kingdom like the Lion Cub will be sprouted by the Bridegroom

Identical offshoots as Peretz and Zerah will be sired by the Bride

טוב חן וחסד ורחמים כפורת ינתן לחתן.,

ילדי אהבה וחיבה כבת פוטיפרע תוחנן כלה.,

כבוד ויקר ומלכות וחוסן כעמרם תן לחתן.,

לולבי נבואה וסיגני כהונה כיוכבד תעמיד כלה.

Jolly-goodness, grace, and favor and mercy, like the Fruitful Bough, will be given to the Bridegroom

Kids of love and affection, like the Daughter of Potiphar’s, will grace the Bride

Honor and laud, kingdom and strength like Amram, give the Bridegroom

Lulavim of prophecy and princes of priesthood, as Yocheved, will be brought up by the Bride

משתעשע יום ולילה בתורת משה יהי חתן.,

נבונה וחכמה בכל מדע כציפורה תהא כלה.,

שרים עובדים ביראה כאהרן הכהן יצא מחתן.,

עדיים מעטה צדקה כאחות נחשון תילבש כלה.

May merry be made in the Torah of Moses day and night by the Bridegroom

Nimble-witted and wise in all knowledge as Zipporah shall be the Bride

Officers, who serve in awe, as Aaron the Priest, will come from the Bridegroom

Ornaments, the robe of justice, as the sister of Nahshon, will be worn by the Bride

פקוד וחון ברחמיך כאיש הרמתים בחדותו חתן.,

צדקה ותהילה תעט כמיתפללת בשילה תעדה כלה.,

קצינים עושה משפט וצדקה כדוד יעמיד חתן.,

רצוים ומרצים אהובים וידידים כבת-שבע תחניט כלה.

Put favor and visit in your mercy, as you did the man from Ramatayyim, the Bridegroom

Righteousness and Glory like the Prayer at Shiloh shall cover the Bride

Sergeants, who produce justice and charity, shall be brought up like David by the Bridegroom

Treasured and gladdening, loved and friendly, shall be ripened as Bat Sheva by the Bride

שם ויד ועטרת כאיש ימיני יתעטר חתן.,

תהילה וחן וחסד ורחמים כהדסה ינתן לכלה

Unending Fame, and a place, and a diadem as the Man of Jemin shall be put on by  the Bridegroom

Valor and grace, favour and mercy, shall be given, as Hadassah, to the Bride

English, Texts

A Quotation of Yerushalmi in a Judaeo-Arabic Manuscript

Few textual witnesses of the Palestinian Talmud exist. There is only one complete manuscript (MS Leiden Scaliger 3), and then another exemplar which includes order Zeraim (and tractate Sotah; MS Vatican Heb. 133), plus an assortment of fragments (now collated and described in Sussman, Otzar Kitvei Yad Talmudiyyim [Review Pending]). Quotations of Yerushalmi in medieval literature  are thus helpful in determining the original text of the Yerushalmi and in pointing out where early readers of the text thought an emendation or a paraphrase were in order. Most medieval quotations tend to be lifted verbatim from earlier quotations, mostly the commentary of R. Hananel and the code of R. Isaac Alfasi, and so any quotation not taken from these sources is especially valuable, as are quotations from Eastern works. The earlier, of course, the better.

Looking for midrashic material in a manuscript of Judaeo-Arabic sermons on the Torah, MS JTS 1803, I found a quotation of Yerushalmi, that I offer here for the first time (PDF). The manuscript (dated by the IMHM to the “12th-13th century”) is fragmented, and was obviously part of a larger compendium of sermons, similar to the Sheiltot, but in Arabic rather than Aramaic. Each sermon begins with a quotation from the Babylonian Talmud, and one, on Parshat Vayakhel, begins with a quotation from the Yerushalmi, clearly marked “Yerushalmi,” in large letters. Most of the material is not found in the medieval quotations I know of (which I found by using Moshe Pinchuk’s wonderful Yerushalmi Database), and there are no known genizah fragments of this sugiya. This quotation is 376 words long, and includes both Mishnah Shabbat 7:2 and some of the Yerushalmi ad loc (Ed. Jerusalem, p. 404, ll. 25-50).

The Mishnah in the quotation displays a “mixed” text type.  That the text type of the Mishnah here is not purely Palestinian shows that it was not originally part of a Yerushalmi manuscript, but was supplied later – either by the person who compiled the homilies in MS New York or by the copyist of the Yerushalmi MS used by the compiler. A similar phenomenon is apparent in MS Leiden itself, whose Mishnah may have been copied from MS Parma, as demonstrated by I. Z. Feintuch in 1976.

Like all other known Yerushalmi texts, the quotation offers essentially the same text found in MS Leiden as well as all the medieval authors who quote this text. Its value is in supplying corrections for the text found in MS Leiden, pointing out slight dialectical differences, and corroborating several readings added to MS Leiden by later readers. It also displays two corrupt readings which reflect a lack of knowledge with the Yerushalmi’s terminology and dialect. For example, where MS Leiden (p. 404, l. 25) explains that R. Ashian reported “the eyes of R. Aha went through the entire Torah and did not find that this thing was written” (אשגרת עיינה דר’ אחא בכל אוריתא ולא אשכח כת’ דא מילתא), the quotation reads that R. Ashian claims to have “closed the eyes of R. Aha every night” (אסגרת עיניה דר’ אחא בכל אורתא) and that he did not find this thing written. This reading makes little grammatical sense, and there is little apparent connection between the first and last clauses of the sentence. But the form אשגר עיניה was unfamiliar to a copyist, who emended it to something he understood (on this sentence, see Lieberman, Hayerushalmi Ki-fshuto, p. 128; Sokoloff, Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, p. 538a; Assis, Otzar Leshonot Yerushalmiyim, p. 170).

An interesting feature of the Yerushalmi text in the quotation is its agreement with emendations to MS Leiden. These agreements show us that at least some emendations to tractate Shabbat were based on other Manuscripts of Yerushalmi which we no longer have, and not on scholarly conjectures. This situation is similar to that of Order Zeraim which was emended according to MS Vatican 133, as demonstrated by E. Z. Melammed in 1981, and in accordance with the claims of the printers in the colophon to ed. Vienna.

For those interested, a longer form of this blog post is in the works.

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.

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).