Announcements, English

The Book Club

Over the next few weeks the Talmud Blog will be launching some exciting new ventures.  One of these is “The Book Club” – a space where a recent and significant book in the field will be discussed by readers of the Talmud Blog. Each Book Club discussion will be lead by a different discussion leader, and later on in the discussion the book’s author will have an opportunity to weigh in as well.  We will announce the name of the book six weeks in advance in order to give people time to read the book carefully.  When possible, we will try to arrange a discount to purchase the book (though often the most affordable way to read academic books is at your local academic library).  The only rules for participation are reading the book before commenting and observing the Talmud Blog’s normal commenting etiquette.

The first Book Club meeting at the Talmud Blog will discuss Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Demonic Desires: “Yetzer Hara” and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity (Philadelphia, 2011).  Readers receive a 20% discount by using the code P2B8 when shopping at the UPenn website.  We hope to open space for discussion on December 15, 2011, which will be accessible as a tab on the main menu.

Looking forward to this exciting endeavor!

English, Guest Posts, Ruminations

A Moving Target- Guest Post by Chaim Saiman

The View from There

As part of the Talmud Blog’s efforts to foster dialogue between and beyond the various academic fields in which rabbinic literature is studied, we present to you “The View from There” a series by scholars from beyond classic academic talmud study.  The following explanation of the legal-theoretical approach to halakha (and the legal nature of rabbinic literature) grew out of a recent conversation between Shai and Chaim Saiman.

The old saw is that in the academy they tell you what Abayye wore while in yeshiva they tell you what he said. There is no doubt that what he wore and what he said are related and influence each other—they must. Indeed, to a large extent you can’t really understand what he said without understanding the world in which he said it, especially if what Abayye “wore” includes the entire social and intellectual world that he lived in.

Here is the issue: Most people are not interested in what Abayye the man said. The more sophisticated you are about the composition of the Bavli, the harder it is to sustain that notion anyway. My academic Talmudist friends tell me that we know very little about the chain of events from Abayye the man and his words to the text that made its way into the Bavli. As a lawyer and legal scholar interested in halakha and the cultural/intellectual world it reflects and produces, I tend to study what he said (if there was a “he”) as filtered through a tradition of interpretation, mediated through the stam/savoraim/rishonim/aharonim, as well as academic Talmudists. Each of these abstractions in turn simply masks thousands of other personalities with specific localized histories, influences and agendas. Thus to make any sense of halakha and its protracted development we would have to understand not only what Abayye wore, but what Rashi, Tosafot etc., “wore” as well. Such a project is not only nearly impossible, I am not even sure it is desirable. Besides, at some point don’t all these influences and counter-influences, histories, and counter-histories, agendas and counter agendas regress towards some kind of mean?

In the end, most of us study something like “the moving average” of the interpretation of particular statements. Now it is true that some scholars (generally historians) are more interested in examining the inflection points of that trend, and others (traditional conceptual readers, i.e. lamdanim, and legal theorists) are more interested in analyzing the broad sweep, each with their own set of conceptual categories. Further, while legal theorists acknowledge that taking note of and recovering past inflection points can be influential in shaping present ones—this is true precisely because we assign normative weight to materials of the past. But it is a long step from here to the claim that one can recover the true social meaning of any of these texts in their “native” context—especially since this is invariably done with an eye to the present.

The process of law involves making normative arguments about the present by appeal to sources of authority from the past. While we allow rules of the past to make normative claims on the present, the price they pay for this honor is that they are filtered though the present interpretive assumptions. True, present assumptions can and often do contain contain a healthy dose of historicism, but since law incurs normative demands, the history will always be infused by the normative needs of the now. Hence a standard legal argument for position “X” would be that X is superior to Y because (i) its normatively superior; (ii) is produces better results; (iii) it represents a more coherent understanding of the governing legal materials; and (iv) X was classically understood to be the correct answer in the period A before the Z’s (influenced by B) shifted the understanding to Y. A lawyer has no qualms making the historicist argument of number (iv), but in conjunction with other forms of argument, and always with an eye to the present normative question. “History” is simply another form of normative legal argument, and its salience is in part determined by how well it fits into the tradition of interpretation.

Perhaps another way to think about this is to bracket the “history” part of this question entirely. Take the very clear and important shift in interpretive assumptions that has taken place in US law before our very eyes: from the liberal purposivist method of statutory interpretation of the 60’s and 70’s, to the conservative textualism that now reigns supreme.

Even living in this culture, and being well-positioned to understand its legal and political dynamics, we can tell at least 10 different stories about why this took place, from the reductively materialist, to the wildly idealist; from returning to the Founder’s view of separation of powers, to the takeover of the judiciary by conservative ideologues determined to entrench the interests of the propertied elite. And each of these narratives will be shaped in part by whether we think the shift from purposivism to textualism is a good or bad thing, and as part of an overall argument of whether we should continue or abandon the current interpretive modality. The question of what motivates legal and political decision-making is hotly contested even when all the “facts” are known: why then, do we think that we can find a few lines from the Bavli, a few from the Digest, and tell a story about what is “really” happening underneath?

I am writing this in stronger terms than I actually believe, but I think it’s worth putting front and center when we consider the interrelationship between legal theory, traditional conceptual and source critical approaches to the Talmud. Thoughts?

Chaim Saiman teaches contracts, statutory interpretation and Jewish law at Villanova  Law School.  He is currently at work on a book tentatively titled Halakhah: The Rabbinic Idea of Law.

English, Guest Posts, Readings

Medicine and the Redaction of the Talmud- Guest Post by Michael Satlow

Ancient forms of pain "relief".

One of The Talmud Blog’s goals is to create a forum for scholarly discussion. This guest post by Michael Satlow is an attempt to start a conversation. Readers are invited to engage in it by writing in the comments section below.

Have gum disease? Boils? Abscesses? Anal  sores? An ear ache? A swollen eye? Insect stings? Check out the Bavli for a remedy.

The Babylonian Talmud is full of medical advice. Enough advice, in fact, for Julius Preuss to fill a fat tome entitled Biblisch-Talmudische Medizin that he published in 1911 (translated by Fred Rosner as Biblical and Talmudic Medicine. Rosner has several other books on the topic as well). The advice frequently strikes us as suspect. Is it really true that burning a century old reed tube (hardly easy to come by as it is) filled with salt in one’s ear is the best and most efficient cure? Where can I get the fat of a goat that has never given birth? Will my insurance cover it?

Joking aside, I recently stumbled on one of the longer extended discussions of medicine in the Bavli, at Avodah Zarah 28a29a (where all the examples cited above can be found). The passage is as fascinating as it is tedious, and despite Preuss’s magnum opus – itself also both fascinating and tedious – I am sure that there is much more scholarly work to be done on this passage and those like it. Where did they get this information? What was their understanding of medicine? What did they do when the cures failed to work?

On this reading of the passage, though, I was struck by a much more technical and abstruse question: How can it be reconciled with contemporary theories of the redaction of the Talmud? Nearly all scholars today agree that there was at least one – and perhaps more – stages of redaction of the Bavli. The redactors, the theory goes, worked from collections of tannatic and amoraic sayings, the latter usually conveyed in pithy sentences.  The redactor(s) pieced these sayings together and connected them with the distinctive argumentative style known as stam. These redactors, the stammaim, added additional material as well, such as aggadah.

My question, in short, was how such a theory – and especially the theory of transmission – can account for a passage such as Avodah Zarah 28a-29a. Many of the cures are attributed to amoraim, predominantly Babylonian. Were these cures transmitted along with the amora’s short statements, to be reconstituted by a redactor in the form of this sugya? If so, what would these (hypothetical) transmission booklets have looked like?

To further complicate matters, there are two traditions in the sugya that record an amora saying, “I did all [of these cures], and I wasn’t healed until a certain merchant told me….”  In the first case, Abaye seems to respond to cures reported in the names of Rav Aha the son of Rava and Mar bar Rav Ashi. In the second, Rav Pappa seems to respond to cures reported by Rav Aha the son of Rava (again) and Rav Ashi. Could Rav Pappa really be responding to Rav Ashi? The same literary form of the two comments suggests the work of a redactor, but how extensive was the intervention?

How might we explain the redaction history of the passage?

Michael Satlow is a professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University. In addition to writing for his own blog, Then and Now, Prof. Satlow is an adviser to The Talmud Blog. 

English, Events, Guest Posts

The Burning of the Talmud in Rome on Rosh Hashanah, 1553- Guest Post by Menachem Butler

Last Monday I received a most fascinating email from Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni, MD, of Rome, with a picture of a plaque unveiled just the previous afternoon in the market place of Rome to commemorate when, in 1553, the Inquisitors confiscated every copy of the Talmud in Italy; the search took about nine days. On Rosh Hashanah 5314 (9 September 1553), the Talmud and many other Jewish books were burnt in the Campo dei Fiori. Throughout the remainder of the sixteenth-century, a complete edition of the Talmud could not be found anywhere in Italy. Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni described this event as “the beginning of the persecution of the Jewish printed book, after that of manuscripts.”

The idea for this plaque placement came after the Boyarin family of Berkeley, California, toured Italy a half-dozen years ago. As Prof. Daniel Boyarin described in remarks delivered at an event celebrating the completion of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz’ Talmud translation into Italian at the Campo dei Fiori in November 2010, the idea was conceived “[f]ive years ago when we walked in this beautiful place, [and Chava Boyarin] observed the statue in memory of Giordano Bruno’s martyrdom here, and remarked that there was no memorial for the wagon-loads of Talmud manuscripts and books burnt here in 1553.”

Professor Daniel Boyarin’s entire remarks are transcribed below and a recording is available here. At the event last year, it was announced that a permanent plaque would be affixed at that location in time for this year’s Rosh Hashanah, 458 years after the Talmud was burnt at that very location. Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni sent me the picture below of the plaque that now rests on the street of the marketplace in the Campo dei Fiori.

Chief Rabbi Riccardo di Segni told me that in the week since the plaque has been affixed, many tourists and local residents have passed through the marketplace and have stopped to learn about the event that took place at that very location in 1553. “Many tourists who casually crossed the square yesterday were Jewish,” he wrote to me. “One of them told me that he was a young boy who escaped from Berlin in 1938, so he knew what burning of books means, and he was deeply moved by this commemoration. After 458 years, we remember.”

As you can see in the picture, the text of the plaque is in Italian, with two quotations in Hebrew. The first is a quote from the Talmud (Avodah Zarah 18a), which offers the Talmudic account of the martyrdom of R. Hannaniah b. Teradyon. The second passage is from the elegy, Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh, composed by Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, Maharam of Rothenburg, upon seeing the wagons of Talmudic manuscripts and commentaries burnt in a Paris marketplace in 1242. Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh is among the most powerful elegies read on Tisha be-Av within Ashkenazic communities worldwide.

The Talmudic account of the martyrdom of R. Hannaniah b. Teradyon, who was burnt alive while wrapped in a Torah scroll, has been described by Moshe David Herr, “Persecutions and Martyrdom in Hadrian’s Days,” Scripta Hierosolymitana 23 (1972): 85-125, esp. 110-119 (Hebrew); Gerald J. Blidstein, “Rabbis, Romans, and Martyrdom: Three Views,” Tradition 21:3 (Fall 1984): 54-62; Daniel Boyarin, Dying for God: Martyrdom and the Making of Christianity and Judaism (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1999); and Daniel Boyarin, “A Contribution to the History of Martyrdom in Israel,” in Daniel Boyarin, Menachem Hershman, Shamma Friedman, Menahem Schmelzer, and Israel M. Ta-Shma, eds., Atarah Le-Hayim: Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky Jubilee Volume (Jerusalem: Hebrew University Magnes Press, 1999), 3-27 (Hebrew); Joseph Dan, “Narrative of the Ten Martyrs: Mysticism and Martyology,” in Hana Amit, Aviad Hacohen, and Haim Beer, eds., Mincha le-Menachem: A Collection of Essays in Honor of Rabbi Menachem Hacohen (Tel-Aviv: haKibbutz haMeuchad, 2007), 367-390 (Hebrew), and broader on The Ten Martyrs, see Jan Wilhelm van Henten, “Jewish and Christian Martyrs,” in Marcel Poorthuis and Joshua Schwartz, eds., Saints and Role Models in Judaism and Christianity (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2004), 163-181; and Ra’anan S. Boustan, “The Hagiographic Vita of a Priestly Rabbinic Martyr: The Figure of Rabbi Ishmael in The Story of the Ten Martyrs,” in Martyr to Mystic: Rabbinic Martyrology and the Making of Merkavah Mysticism (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2005), 99-148.

For scholarly discussions on the 1553 burning of the Talmud in Campo dei Fiori, see Avraham Yaari, The Burning of the Talmud in Italy (Tel-Aviv: Abraham Zioni, 1954; Hebrew), reprinted in Studies in Hebrew Booklore (Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1958), 198–234 (Hebrew); Kenneth R. Stow, “The Burning of the Talmud in 1553, in Light of Sixteenth-Century Catholic Attitudes Toward the Talmud,” Bibliothèque d’Humanisme et Renaissance 34:3 (September 1972): 435-449; Kenneth R. Stow, Catholic Thought and Papal Jewry Policy 1555-1593, Moreshet Series, vol. 5 (New York: Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 1977), 49-50, 54-59; as well as the more-recent scholarship by Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “Censorship, Editing and the Reshaping of Jewish Identity: The Catholic Church and Hebrew Literature in the Sixteenth Century,” in Allison Coudert and Jeffrey S. Shoulson, eds., Hebraica Veritas?: Christian Hebraists and the Study of Judaism in Early Modern Europe (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2004), 125-155; Amnon Raz-Krakotzkin, “The Burning of the Talmud,” in The Censor, the Editor, and the Text: The Catholic Church and the Shaping of the Jewish Canon in the Sixteenth Century, trans. Jackie Feldman (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2007), 32-56, 211-222; Fausto Parente, “The Index, the Holy Office, the Condemnation of the Talmud and Publication of Clement VIII’s Index,” in Gigliola Fragnito, ed., Church, Censorship and Culture in Early Modern Italy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 163-193, which was drawn to my attention by Prof. Ariel Toaff; and most-recently (in a volume just published last week), in Piet van Boxel, “Robert Bellarmine Reads Rashi: Rabbinic Bible Commentaries and the Burning of the Talmud,” in Joseph Hacker and Adam Shear, eds., The Hebrew Book in Early Modern Italy (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2011), 121-132 (chapter six), available here.

About the burning of the Talmud during June 1242, see Susan L. Einbinder, Beautiful Death: Jewish Poetry and Martyrdom in Medieval France (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2002), 70-99 (Chapter three: “Burning Jewish Books”), and for the text of Maharam mi-Rothenberg’s Sha’ali Serufah ba-Esh, see Daniel Goldschmidt, ed., Seder ha‐Kinot le‐Tisha be‐Av (Jerusalem: Mosad ha-Rav Kook, 1972), 135-137 (no. 42) (Hebrew), which appears in English translation in Robert Chazan, ed., Church, State, and Jew in the Middle Ages (New York: Behrman House, Inc., 1980), 229-231, and in slightly modified form in Susan L. Einbinder, Beautiful Death, 76-78. The complete entire audio recording of Professor Daniel Boyarin’s remarks at the Campo dei Fiori is available here, and Rabbi Steinsaltz’ remarks are available here.

Five years ago when we walked in this beautiful place, [Chava Boyarin] observed the statue in memory of Giordano Bruno’s martyrdom here, and remarked that there was no memorial for the wagonloads of Talmud manuscripts and books burnt here in 1553.

‘Once these books are removed,’ an advisor to the Roman Inquisition had written, ‘it will soon result that the more that they are without the wisdom of their rabbis, so much more will they be prepared and disposed to receive the Christian faith and,’ what he calls, ‘the wisdom of the word of God.’ This Inquisitor well understood one thing. He understood that the Talmud and the study of Talmud are what have sustained the Jewish People and kept us against all odds alive and thriving. The wisdom of our rabbis is the word of God, and it this that has kept us faithful to the word of God ’till this day.

In Rome, the Inquisition raged while in the Benedictine monastery at Camaldoli near Arezzo, sat the Florentine humanists who studied the Talmud and Kabbalah together with rabbis. Giordano Bruno, whose own martyrdom, some 20 years after that of the Talmud here, was in large part owing to his having been influenced by those humanists and their interest in Jewish holy books. The placing of this plaque today thus closes the circle and indicates to us that it is not the Inquisition that has won the day, but the spirit of Camaldoli. Today in Rome, Jews and Christians study the Talmud and others of our shared holy books, not only with each other but with Muslims as well. Bruno might have dreamed that this would happen.

Daya le-Chakimah be-Ramiza, “a hint to a Sage is sufficient.” I only had to make the suggestion to the Rabbi of Rome, Rav Riccardo di Segni, and the process was set in motion that has brought us here today. Chazak u-Varukh!

Not only is this a day of mourning; however, it is also a day of celebration. Safadnu Et ha-Talmud Kan, ve-ha-Yom hi-Kimu Yeshiva al-Kivro. We have mourned and memorialized the Talmud in this place, and Rabbi Steinsaltz, shlita, has built a yeshiva on what was intended to be its grave.

The spirit of Bruno has been vindicated, but also the Talmud itself. For while the Inquisition sought to end all Talmud and Talmudic study, more people study the Talmud today than ever before in history, in large part due because of the great, and now completed, Baruch Hashem, project of Rabbi Steinsaltz, shlita.

We mourn the burnt holy books and rejoice together on the completion of this commentary on the Talmud.

Menachem Butler is the co-editor of the Seforim blog. This is his first contribution to the Talmud blog. 

English, Guest Posts

Thoughts on Near Eastern Legal Culture- Guest Post by Lena Salaymeh

This post is the first in what will be an ongoing series introducing our readers to the work of young scholars engaged in new and interesting research. 

I usually describe my research interests as being comparative Jewish and Islamic law (or legal history), but that depiction is often misleading.  The term “comparative” assumes two distinct legal traditions that interact in discernible ways.  But in the context of Jewish and Islamic legal history, my conception and implementation of “comparative” is more akin to thinking and to speaking in “proto-Semitic.”  As a metaphor, “proto-Semitic” offers a useful heuristic for thinking through how we approach the study of Jewish and Islamic law.  If you imagine scholars of Jewish law articulating their ideas in Hebrew and Aramaic, while scholars of Islamic law articulate their ideas in Arabic, then my objective is to converse with both groups of scholars in a meta-language (proto-Semitic) that engages both legal traditions.  Just as “proto-Semitic” is the common ancestor of the Semitic language family, Near Eastern legal culture is the shared antecedent of Jewish and Islamic legal systems. Undeniably, the challenge is that proto-Semitic no longer exists as a spoken language and is instead a scholarly reconstruction of a language that may have existed.  Similarly, I am interested in recreating the discourse of Near Eastern legal culture in the late antique and medieval periods using terminology and ideas from law, history, and critical theory.  While diglossia (in this case, speaking both in a Semitic dialect and in proto-Semitic) is inevitable, my objective is to transcend disciplinary boundaries.

My “proto-Semitic” perspective on the subject of my research differs considerably from the viewpoint of colleagues who assume that my research interest is “religious law.”  However, there are several interrelated problems in “religious law” as a category.  In contemporary discourse, the modern bifurcation between “secular” and “religious” law is taken for granted, but it lacks historical resonance.  There is a common presumption that the “essence” of religions is their laws, but this oversimplifies the multi-dimensional nature of religious groups and movements.  Instead of “religion,” I prefer more precise terminology in scholarship and in public discourse: theology, spirituality, ritual, belief, ideology, orthodoxy, orthopraxy, customary practice, local culture, and identity.  In focusing on the syncretic and dialectical relationships within Jewish and Islamic legal history, I am also mindful of Roman provincial, Sasanian, and Near Eastern tribal legal traditions.  In so doing, I seek to contextualize (and to broaden) the study of Islamic and Jewish legal history within a shared “proto-Semitic” legal culture.  I often invoke historical evidence from other (i.e, other than Islamic or Jewish) Near Eastern legal traditions precisely in order to substantiate the existence of Near Eastern legal culture.  Legal culture, based in a specific social space and time, is a more effective category of analysis for my work than “religious law.”

Relatedly, the word “religion” does not have a Semitic (and possibly proto-Semitic) equivalent.  “Religion” is a perplexingly problematic term for my research because it is both anachronistic and untranslatable.  In Arabic, the term “din” is translated as “religion,” but the root means “to profess.”  Likewise, in Hebrew, the term “dat” is translated as “religion,” but it means “law.”  The historical usage of both terms does not correspond to modern understandings of religion. This is not mere philological pickiness: if we insist on translating what we observe in Jewish and Islamic historical texts into a discourse about religion (with its modern, Western genealogy), we will stifle more imaginative and unexpected possibilities and interpretations of these texts and their socio-historical contexts.  Historical expressions of Judaism and Islam do not easily correspond to contemporary conventions about religion and it is precisely this complexity that is the basis of my research pursuits.

My commitment to “proto-Semitic” research includes exploring the Islamic legal-intellectual milieu of rabbinic jurists who wrote in Arabic (such as Alfasi and the Rambam) and studying Gaonic legal manuals.  I am working on an article that explores medieval Islamic juristic texts that discuss the possibility of using Jewish law as a source of legal authority.  I plan to contrast these Islamic legal discussions of the ‘other’ with references to Islamic law in Gaonic texts.  In another article, I expect to situate Karaite attacks on rabbinic oral law within debates about the authoritative significance of the legal opinions of late antique Muslim jurists.  As part of my broader endeavor to collaborate with colleagues, Zvi Septimus (Stroock Fellow, Harvard Center for Jewish Studies) and I are formulating a project to explore the intersections between some medieval commentaries of the Bavli and contemporaneous Islamic legal literature.

Recreating “proto-Semitic” is a wide-ranging endeavor that needs institutional groundwork; this is why I complement my research with administrative projects as a coordinator for the Initiative on Muslim-Jewish relations at UC Berkeley’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies.  I am interested in creating a network of scholars and of supporting unrecognized scholarly endeavors.  For example, we are currently trying to find funding to publish an Arabic translation of the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah in order to make this seminal Jewish legal text accessible to scholars of Islamic law who do not read Hebrew.  We are also raising funds to acquire an important collection of Judeo-Arabic midrashic literature from 19th/20th century Morocco, which would supplement UC Berkeley’s previous acquisitions of similar materials from Iraq and Tunisia.  There is much work to be done in the field of Judeo-Islamic legal studies and I have many more ideas and plans for how we can more deeply explore the interconnectedness of Jewish and Islamic legal systems.  I hope we will have opportunities to implement them and to continue rediscovering “proto-Semitic,” as a means of deepening our understandings of Jewish and Islamic legal history.  I invite readers to join me in reconstructing “proto-Semitic.”

Lena Salaymeh is a PhD candidate at UC Berkeley. Her dissertation is titled Late Antique and Medieval Islamic Legal Histories: Contextual Changes and Comparative (re)Considerations.

[Cross-posted at the Immanent Frame]

Around the Web, English, Guest Posts, Technology

Some Less-Well-Known-but-Useful Electronic Resources- Guest Post by Richard Hidary

iPad Screenshot 2

Screenshot of the Accordance app for iPad.

This guest post is by Talmudblog friend Richard Hidary, who runs the extremely helpful website

1. ובלכתך בדרך is a free iPad and iPhone app with lots of rabbinic and halakhic works and much more, just search for “onyourway” in the app store.

2. Accordance is not only a fantastic Bible program, and probably the best Dead Sea Scrolls program, but also has some useful rabbinic texts. It runs on Mac and now has a fantastic iPhone and iPad app. It runs suitably on a PC with a Mac emulator. It includes all the scrolls in Hebrew and English and all of the Biblical scrolls in order of Tanakh or in manuscript order (you can pull up the MT and Dead Sea Bible side by side and scroll them together). Modules are also available for the Mishnah according to printed editions, Neusner’s translation of Mishnah, and Kaufman ms. with all punctuation. The best feature is that all these texts are grammatically tagged – useful for easy grammatical analysis and sophisticated searching.

3. Neusner’s translation of the Yerushalmi is available on CD-ROM. It is available at SBL for a discounted price. You can copy it to your hard drive – it’s just a pdf and is very easy to use.

4. Mikraot Gedolot Haketer, which has published only a few books, has made available all of Tanakh and all of the included commentaries on CD-ROM. The software is only for sale at their office in Bar-Ilan and they only accept cash and do not ship. However, if you can get there or send someone, this fine collection of texts is well worth the 490NIS.

5. Jastrow’s dictionary is available on HebrewBooks but also in an easy to use interactive format here. The dictionary is also available as an add in on the iPad app iTalmud where you can touch any word of the Bavli and jump instantly to the dictionary. Unfortunately, the program doesn’t know the root of the word and so usually takes you to the wrong place.

6. Saul Lieberman’s works are available here: Tosefta Kifshuta/Tosefet Rishonim/ Al HaYerushalmi

8. The Steinsaltz Talmud of the daf yomi is posted daily here. You can also go back a few hundred days to get previous dapim from Yevamot and on. There did once exist a CD-ROM of the entire Steinsaltz Talmud but I haven’t been able to locate a copy in any library or in any store (this site advertizes it but doesn’t sell it – I already checked). Does anybody know more about this?

10. On one can find my Version Editor macro for lining up manuscripts, perfect to use in conjunction with the new The Macro is free, but please share your charts so that we can together create a database of texts for use of the general community.

Also on the site, I have begun to post Hebrew dissertations. Many people at Israeli Universities have fantastic research hidden in master’s and PhD theses that never get published. If you fit into that category, or know someone who does, and would like to make your work available, please send a pdf to me at rhidary [at]

Rabbi Dr. Richard Hidary is an assistant professor of Judaic Studies at Yeshiva University, Stern College for Women and an assistant Rabbi at Sephardic Synagogue in Brooklyn.

Conferences, English, Guest Posts

SBL Conference, Day 2 Part 2- Guest Post by Ari Lamm

This is the last post in a three part series of guest posts by Ari Lamm. For prior installments see the Guest Contributors page.

During my back-and-forth with Paul Heger I had to make the trek from the back of the room, near the outlets sustaining my laptop, to the front where I could be better heard by my interlocutor. On my way back to my seat I passed Dr. Shani Tzoref (Israel Antiquities Authority), on account of whose upcoming presentation I had attended this section (“Nonbiblical Dead Sea Scrolls: Themes and Perspectives Consultation”) in the first place. Dr. Tzoref’s paper was absolutely fascinating, and I more than suspect that the following summary will not do it justice. In lieu of a proper report, in fact, I will simply point to what I considered to be the paper’s highlights.

Dr. Tzoref began by referring to Daniel Schwartz’s famous heuristic regarding early Jewish law, classifying the Qumranic approach as “realist” and the rabbinic approach as “nominalist.” Adding a further wrinkle to this distinction, Tzoref categorized the Josephan approach as “subjectivist.” In distinguishing between the three, Tzoref provided a helpful analogy to baseball umpiring (for those foreigners not familiar with the intricacies of America’s beloved national pastime, I’m sure the analogy works equally well for whatever heathen contest you happen to fancy…): a realist umpire says, “I call it like it is”; a subjectivist umpire says, “I call it like I see ‘em”; a nominalist umpire says, “They ain’t balls and strikes ‘till I say they are!”

A realist umpire says, “I call it like it is”; a subjectivist umpire says, “I call it like I see ‘em”; a nominalist umpire says, “They ain’t balls and strikes ‘till I say they are!”

Tzoref focused specifically on marriage at Qumran as a focal point for fine-tuning our conception of ancient Jewish perspectives on the operating structures of Biblical rules in a broader sense. According to Eyal Regev, Tzoref explained, CD’s view of marriage is highly idealized – and I would note, in addition, that Schwartz himself attempted to articulate the Qumran community’s “realist” construction of marriage, based on the principle of “yesod ha-beriah” – and is in fact diametrically opposed to the idea of celibate Essenes that we encounter in Josephus’ portrayal of the group. However, Joan Taylor’s recent re-reading of War 2 – containing Josephus’ seemingly contradictory reports of the Essenes as, on the one hand, disdainful of marriage (War 2.119), and, on the other, as valuing marriage and developing special rules to ensure its sanctity (War 2.160) – yields the conclusion that Josephus has two kinds of Essenes in mind all along. He certainly knows that not all do away with marriage, but he also knows of the popular conception (found in Philo as well) that the Essenes did away with marriage entirely. He thus employed this popular (but mistaken) view to make a general point about lust, faithfulness, and the basic unreliability of women in the sexual realm. (Tzoref did not cite Taylor’s essay – or if she did, I missed it – but I recall her making this point as early as 2007, in an article in Studia Philonica Annual; I’d appreciate anyone correcting the reference).

This fascinating reading is complicated somewhat by 4Q271, in which we read the instruction that a cadre of experienced, trustworthy women should examine a woman prior to marriage (rather than in the event of an accusation, as per Deuteronomy) to verify her virginity. Even given Taylor’s distinction between the various potential goals of Josephus’ presentation of the Essene view of women and marriage, we are still left to reconcile Josephus’ invocation of the Essene community as a model for his point about the untrustworthiness of women with 4Q271’s explicit reliance on female evaluations of an urgent matter of sexual purity.

In due course, Tzoref argued that while Qumran and Josephus are consistent in maintaining a general mistrust of women – manifested, in this instance, in a fear that a woman will sleep with someone else before marriage – this mistrust rises merely to the level of presumption. As such, it may be rebutted where and when appropriate. Indeed, in this case the Mevaqer selects specific women whom he knows to be trustworthy, and relies upon them for the inspection.

Tzoref’s resolution of this problem pointed eventually to a more general point about Josephus’ “subjectivist” perspective. Indeed, Josephus’ general mistrust of women is reflected in his subjectivist explication of the core issue at stake in this case, namely, marriage to a virgin. For Josephus, this is simply a good policy, as he writes, “men should be wise in the affairs of wedlock; and that it was profitable both to cities and families that children should be known to be genuine” (Ant. 3.276).

Over the course of the rest of her presentation, Tzoref identified a variety of realist-subjectivist-nominalist differences in perspective between Qumran, Josephus and the rabbis. She pointed specifically to priest-captive marriage, and the various rationales for the prohibition of mixed kinds.

In the discussion period I pointed to Jeffrey Rubenstein’s substantial critique of Schwartz’s position, wherein he notes several instances in which the bifurcation between Qumran realism and rabbinic nominalism does not withstand scrutiny. I conceded, however, that Rubenstein himself admits that Schwartz’s case is strongest with regard to marriage (although not uncle-niece marriage, where Rubenstein quite convincingly rebuts Schwartz’s claim).

As the section participants began to file out of the room with the conclusion of Tzoref’s presentation, a fire alarm began to sound. As King’s College staff began unceremoniously dumping various and sundry distinguished historians on the sidewalk in the back of the building, I somehow found myself conversing with Bernard Jackson (Liverpool Hope University). We just had time to set a date for tea (we were in England, after all) before I set out on an immensely enjoyable walk to Westminster station with a former teacher of mine (during which we discussed the relative merits and faults of the present British monarchy).

Upon my return to the conference building, I set out for the “Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern Law Section.” Yuval Sinai (Netanya Academic College School of Law) led off the section with a survey of ancient and medieval Jewish sources dealing with collective punishment. Sinai noted the tendency of some Israeli Supreme Court justices (especially Mishael Heshin) to invoke “the law of Moses, and…what is written in the Bible” in support of rejecting wholesale the legitimacy of the strategy of collective punishment. Sinai argued that Heshin has failed in this regard to take stock of the breadth and depth of Jewish tradition. Noting both counterexamples, and Jewish authorities from the medieval period onwards who have attempted to reconcile this data, Sinai hypothesized that, in the main, Jewish tradition has seen the prohibition on collective punishment as an ideal law, but one that either cannot be, or is not, always put into practice.

Commending Sinai on an extensive and erudite presentation, Bernard Jackson suggested that we delineate two separate issues addressed by Sinai: the internal tension within Biblical sources, and the use to which these (and other) sources have been put within the modern State of Israel. Jackson guessed that Heshin is not concerned with halakhahper se, but with establishing a general “moreshet Yisrael” (“Jewish tradition”) approach to (re)constructing Jewish values – what Jackson called the “Ahad Ha’am approach” after the great Hebrew essayist and founder of cultural Zionism. While expressing general agreement, Sinai cautioned that in endeavoring to build a tradition from scratch, one runs the risk of cherry-picking sources to fit an agenda.

After taking a break for tea (in my case, Diet Coke) with Drs. Bernard Jackson and Yuval Sinai, I returned for one more presentation in this section – by Andreas Kunz-Lubcke (Univeristy of Leipzig) on legal resonances within the Rape of Tamar narrative – before hurrying off to the Hellenistic Judaism Section just in time for Vincent Skemp’s (St. Catherine University) presentation entitled, “The Alleged Prohibtion on Pronouncing the Tetragrammaton, an Assessment of the Evidence in Second Temple Judaism.”

Skemp set out as his task to explore the available evidence concerning whether the Tetragrammaton could or should be pronounced, and by whom. Complicating this question is the matter of determining its spelling in antiquity. Indeed, sometimes it is spelled as a trigrammaton (as at Elephantine and in some of the Dead Sea Scrolls) or bigrammaton. Related to this issue is the question of how many letters or sounds composing the Divine Name constituted an utterance. With regard to its actual deployment in ancient sources, we find that it is at times written in paleo-Hebrew – even, on occasion, in Greek texts. Sometimes ancient sources record the Name in Assyrian text; sometimes it is written with different ink; sometimes with dots to mark it out; in one case it is written with an extrayod at the end. In any event, while rabbinic literature ends up prohibiting pronouncing the Name, some scholars argue that this represents a minority opinion and that the popular practice to pronounce the Name was dominant. In fact, there are some late rabbinic texts that seek historical explanations for the ban (see e.g. bR.H. 18b).

After surveying a variety of Biblical and post-Biblical (including rabbinic) sources that touch on the matter, Skemp concluded with an interesting note on contemporary scholarly practice. He specifically mentioned Emanuel Tov’s policy of refraining from writing the full Tetragrammaton, as well as Louis Feldman’s practice to omit the “O” of the word “God.”

During Skemp’s lecture I experienced a nagging feeling in the back of my head that a reference was missing from the presentation. By the time the discussion period arrived I finally recalled the source I was searching for: Ruth 2:4. As a sophomore in Yeshiva University I remember Professor Moshe Bernstein marveling at the stark employment of the Tetragrammaton in this verse; for some reason this observation always stuck with me, and I managed to put it to good use in the discussion period following Skemp’s lecture. I pointed out that Ruth 2:4 (which actually serves as the basis for mBer 9:5, a source Skemp cited) is actually an example of non-elites employing the Tetragrammaton as part of an everyday, non-Temple-related, greeting formula.

Ari Lamm is concluding a year as a Fulbright scholar based at University College, London and the School of Oriental and African Studies. 

English, Guest Posts, Postscripts

Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky ז”ל- Guest Post by Prof. Shamma Friedman

Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky ז”ל

Shamma Friedman

Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky (1920-2011) belonged to the first generation of academic Talmud scholars born and educated in Israel, and certainly one of the outstanding among them. His personality encompassed a unique blend of knowledge, talent, and devotion, a combination that was all his own.

A graduate of the prestigious Yeshivat Merkaz Ha-Rav, and before that Talmud Torah Etz Haim in Jerusalem, Dimitrovsky was loyally committed to the State of Israel in the making, and as a young man took up arms and served in the Hagana during the War of Independence. He was trained in the scholarly methods and high standards of the Talmud Department of the Hebrew University at the feet of J.N Epstein and Simha Asaf, whose methods he combined with the traditional learning and orientation he received through the tutelage of his father, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Dimitrovsky.

His spoken Hebrew was that of a native speaker, and at the same time rich and flowing naturally out of the Talmudic sources. His written Hebrew style, was likewise enriched in both these directions: from his absolute mastery of the wealth of all strata of Hebrew, stemming from his command of Talmudic and other sources, and the natural control of a native speaker, it emerged as a creation of stylistic beauty few could match.

Similarly, his research and studies, in all the various fields he addressed, all reflect this one of a kind combination of Torah scholarship, scientific methods, and religious-Zionist conviction.

Professor Dimitrovsky’s profound understanding of the complexities of the vast Talmudic corpus, down to the most minute detail, cannot be acquired except by arduous devotion to Torah study from an early age. With these strengths, Dimitrovsky created a unique scholarly profile, based on a meticulous scientific method founded on the peshat of the text, accurate historical understanding, and overall – sound common sense. He integrated a deep-seated, natural grasp of the material with fierce devotion to the beauty of Jewish tradition, even when working in the broader, secular reality of the academic setting.

These were the same qualities that led to the dialogue of love between him and his students, all during his teaching career, and above all, his inherent modesty – genuine, personal, and special to Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky. Through his years as Professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and later at the Hebrew University, Dimitrovsky trained generations of scholars of Talmud and Midrash.

These strengths mark his scholarship also: scholarly precision with loving mastery of his material persisted in his ongoing project of putting order into the texts and uncovering the depth level of correct meaning: “nahara nahara ufashtei“.

It is therefore not surprising that he gave preference to the literature of the rishonim – its profound depths require scholarly expertise as a sub-discipline in itself: “tzvat bi-tzvat asuya“. For example, Rashba, the chief disciple of the Nahmanidean school, as well as a decisor who wrote thousands of responsa – only a true scholar – astute, with the entire rabbinic corpus at his fingertips – is equal to the task of transmitting the Rashba to future generations. Dimitrovsky did so, from editing the Rashba’s novellae to compiling his responsa, with all their fragments. Every conversation with Prof. Dimitrovsky demonstrated that this was a labor of love.

Consider also the neglected, abstruse discipline of elucidating the writings of the early aharonim, namely, the masters of pilpul, who formed the link to the following generations while their own teachings were nearly forgotten, overshadowed by both rishonim and aharonim. Dimitrovsky stepped in, shed light, analyzed, and breathed new life into their words. His illumination of the semikha controversy likewise typifies his work which was devoted to the intermediate generation.

Another lost corpus restored by Dimitrovsky was the editions of the Talmud printed in Spain and Portugal before the expulsion. These disconnected dry bones were restored to their grandeur and provided with his fully innovative history of these little known prints.

Thus he was able to direct a concentrated in-depth focus to the commentarial and halakhic works of the Rashba; the printers of the forgotten edition of the Talmud dating from before the expulsion from Spain; of Y. Berav and Joseph Karo in the context the semikha controversy; and the entire genre of pilpul. Armed with profound powers of analysis on the one hand, and a restrained style, on the other, he has thereby enabled us to restore our own link to this almost-forgotten generation, and to hear – through his words – their muted majesty.

We were deeply gratified in 1994, when the unique achievements of our teacher, so well know to us, his students, were publicly recognized with the award of an Israel Prize in an official ceremony.

Shamma Friedman is the Benjamin and Minna Reeves Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary teaching at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and Adjunct Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University.

Conferences, English, Guest Posts

SBL Conference Day 2 – Guest Post by Ari Lamm

  continued from day 1

I got a bit of a later start on Tuesday than I had on Monday.  Busy packing up our London apartment for our move back to New York – my wife and daughter had already made their way home a week earlier – I ended up missing the first two lectures of Tuesday’s initial block of sessions.  Fortunately, I managed to attend several fantastic lectures over the course of the day.

As soon as my Northern Line train pulled into Waterloo Station I navigated my way through the complex maze of underpasses leading to the King’s College campus, and dashed upstairs to the “Non-biblical Dead Sea Scrolls: Themes and Perspectives” section. This session was convened specifically to address the topic, “Images of the Feminine in the Dead Sea Scrolls.” I arrived just in time to get my laptop ready for Claire Ruth Pfann’ (University of the Holy Land) presentation entitled, “Women at Qumran: Fact or Fiction?” Making use of what she referred to as a revised version of De Vaux’s chronology of the site, Pfann concluded that throughout the history of habitation at Qumran, finds that might indicate the presence of women (e.g. hairnets, feminine fabric patterns, jewelry, spindle whorls, etc.) are absent. During the period Pfann has designated IIb (66-68 CE), however, we begin to find in sealed loci possible indicators of female habitation of the site. These finds continue to appear in layer III (post-73 CE). Pfann thus sees evidence for Revolt-related female habitation at Qumran just prior to the revolt (during a period beginning in 66 CE), but not beforehand.

The discussion period following Pfann’s presentation produced the most heated exchange that I had seen at SBL to that point. Jodi Magness (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) questioned Pfann’s decision to posit a separate stage of habitation commencing in 66 CE, rather than a single period beginning some time early in the reign of Herod Archelaus (i.e. around 4 BCE). Pfann’s view, doggedly defended during the subsequent session break by Stephen Pfann (University of the Holy Land), is that an observable change in material culture before and after 66 CE – as well as the eventual presence at the site of Revolt-era coins (97 from Year 2, and 3 from Year 3) – is sufficient to suggest a separate habitation, which may be dated to 66 CE. Magness countered – as far as I could understand (and hear…things got pretty tense!) – that no “change in material culture” in fact occurred. Instead, the original inhabitants from approximately 4 BCE simply adapted to evolving tastes in dishware and the like. In other words, Magness strenuously insisted, no evidence exists that should force us to suggest a fresh habitation of the site in 66 CE.

Once presentations resumed following the break, I returned to the same section only to encounter my least favorite presentation of the conference: Paul Heger’s (University of Toronto) paper entitled, “The Status of Women in Scripture, Rabbinic and Qumran Literatures.” At the risk of oversimplifying things (although this tendency was precisely my problem with the paper itself), Heger argued that while the Bible, the Dead Sea Scrolls and rabbinic literature all more or less agree that women possess a subordinate legal status, the Rabbis venture even further in saddling women with a subordinate social status as well.

Paul Gaugin, "Eve - Don't Listen to the Liar.' 1889. Watecolor and paste. Marion Koogler McNay Art Museum, San Antonio, TX. courtesy of wikicommons.

Heger introduced his lecture by presenting what he saw as a simple, unbiased reading of the Fall from Eden narrative. In Heger’s view, the text does not fault Eden any more so than Adam for sinning against God; in fact, as Heger implied at several points during his talk, the biblical narrative may even skew against Adam on occasion.

Heger then seemed to assume that the soundness of his reading should be readily apparent to most, perhaps all those who engage the text. Given this, Heger employed his reading as the standard against which both Qumranic and rabbinic  interpretations should be measured. Heger then proceeded to highlight commentary on this narrative from various Dead Sea Scroll sources, which he noted tended to see this episode as a cautionary tale against man’s lustful and generally sinful nature. Eve, he noted, is not implicated as a villain in these readings.

In contrast, Heger pointed to a slew of rabbinic texts, culled from sources as diverse as the Tosefta, Genesis Rabbah, and the Bavli, that cast Eve, especially her feminine sexuality, as the primary culprit in humankind’s Fall. Although noting that exceptions exist, Heger viewed this as the dominant depiction of Eve within rabbinic literature, and as such an indicator that the Rabbis went further than other erstwhile Biblical interpreters in marginalizing women. Heger noted, however, that the Rabbis may not have been directly concerned – at least in this context – with women’s social status per se. Their excessive social demotion of women, therefore, may have been a mere byproduct of an earnest inquiry into the dangers of sexual temptation for males concerned to avoid transgression.

I found Heger’s paper deeply unsatisfying from both a methodological and interpretative perspective. During the discussion period I raised several points with respect to the former. First, I asked that we consider the hazards of attempting to create a coherent programmatic statement out of rabbinic texts drawn from a variety of disparate geographical and chronological contexts. On a related note, I pointed out the problematic nature of referring to “the Rabbis” – as if reducing several hundred years of complex and multivalent development into a single corporate identity somehow makes things simpler instead of vastly more complicated. Finally, I commented that some of the texts to which Heger pointed over the course of his analysis (BT Yoma 18b, in particular) have actually been noted for their reflection of a specifically Sasanian milieu, rather than as merely several points on a broad, rabbinic continuum.

Heger responded rather forcefully that by no means had he suggested that “the Rabbis” only had negative things to say about women. The denigration of Eve, however, is so pervasive throughout rabbinic thought that, in Heger’s view, we may deduce the rabbinic view of women (or some part of it) from the texts in which it appears as a theme. I did not feel at all that this answer addressed my question.

Following Heger’s paper, those who stayed until the end of the morning session were treated to a phenomenal paper by Shani Tzoref (listed as University of Sydney, but announced beforehand as affiliated with the Israel Antiquities Authority). This paper remained my favorite of the conference. Hopefully I’ll have a chance to cover this paper, along with the rest of the lectures I attended throughout the remainder of Day 2, in a subsequent post.

Ari Lamm is concluding a year as a Fulbright scholar based at University College, London and the School of Oriental and African Studies.

Conferences, English, Guest Posts

SBL Conference Day 1- Guest Post by Ari Lamm

1)     Given the quick-draw character of my notes upon which the following is based, I obviously do not claim to have represented accurately the views of the presenters or session participants themselves. These are merely my impressions of what was said. I have, on occasion, inserted my own views on various issues relating either directly or indirectly to the topic at hand. These instances have been noted.

2)     On a related front, my notes are intended primarily for my personal records. I therefore focused, for the most part, on the portions of the presentations that most interested me. If something crucial seems to be missing from my summary of given lecture, please bear in mind that this may simply reflect my lack of interest rather than the speaker’s rank incompetence, or some such.

3)     If anyone has any questions, please do not hesitate to get in touch. My email is

4)     As noted, the views contained herein do not represent the views of the seminar participants, nor do they represent those of the Society of Biblical Literature. All errors are, of course, society’s fault.

Immediately upon entering the Franklin-Wilkins Building of the King’s College London Waterloo campus, I remembered that I left my Tanakh at home. Serves me right, I thought, for leaving minyan a bit early to get downtown in time for the first session. Fortunately, however, we live in a digitized age, and I have the Mechon Mamre software on my computer. As the day wore on, my trusty ol’ laptop would prove crucial in providing me with the tools to follow the wide variety of (usually) excellent presentations at this year’s International Meeting of S.B.L. Incidentally, it would also allow me to take copious notes on each and every lecture I attended. These notes, I have been informed, are too lengthy for the format of this blog, so they have been substantially distilled in what follows. For those interested in the full version, stay tuned. Information on accessing them will be forthcoming.

Initially I had planned only to attend sessions related as closely as possible to my discipline (Second Temple Judaism, Rabbinics, Talmud studies, Sasanian Iran, etc.). But as soon as I set foot in the King’s College lobby and had a chance to survey the spectrum of scholars that had converged on my adopted (at least for the year) hometown, I decided to indulge my curiosity by attending as broad a variety of sessions as time and energy allowed. Not every session I visited, therefore, related strictly to the ostensible interests of this blog’s readers. I have been instructed, accordingly, to confine my remarks as much as possible to those interests. Again, those interested in the other sessions I attended should await the posting (either here or elsewhere) of the full version of my notes.

I began my day in the “Bible and Empire Consultation.” I heard several excellent presentations, including a scintillating exegesis of Isaiah 31 by a former professor of mine, Yeshiva University’s Shawn Zelig Aster, and a fascinating reinterpretation of the talion laws in Exodus 21 by Sandra Jacobs, a student of Bernard Jackson (formerly of Manchester University).

After Aster’s talk, I made my way down the hall to the “Hellenistic Judaism Section” just in time for Daniel Barbu’s (Universite de Geneve) paper, “The Invention of Idolatry.” Barbu examined LXX’s employment of the term eidolon to translate a wide variety of terms relating to foreign cultic items and ideas. Barbu traced the history of the word, noting its evolution from a term denoting an illusory image (e.g. the vision of a goddess in a dream) in Homeric Greek, to a byword for useless delusions, including false sciences and false pleasures, in the Platonic dialogues. After surveying its appearances in the LXX, Barbu noted that while Hellenistic readers would certainly have understood eidolon as a reference to cult images or false divinities, the term would have sounded slightly awkward. Barbu concluded that while eidolon is not always used uniformly to translate a given word, the fact remains that in developing a lexicon of sorts for referring to prohibited images, the LXX used eidolon to refer specifically to images of false divinities. It does not, on the other hand, use the term to refer to images of the true God (the crafting of which are themselves prohibited). This may sharpen our sense of the Biblical distinction between images of false gods on the one hand, and images of the true God on the other that some have seen as latent in the Second Commandment.

As soon as Barbu finished up, I dashed back up the hall to the “Epigraphical and Paleological Studies Pertaining to the Biblical World Section.” I had intended to catch Meir Lubetski’s (Baruch College) paper seeking to adduce fresh perspectives on the name Dmlyhw. It seems, however, that the schedule for this section had been re-shuffled. I was treated instead to a lecture by the indomitable Wilfred Lambert (University of Birmingham) on Babylonian demons in the Moussaief Collection (MC).

The first thing I noticed about Lambert was his absolutely stellar accent – I imagine Sideshow Bob would sound like this had he been born in Britain – and the age-defying sense of excitement and energy with which this near-nonagenarian delivered his talk.

The Goddess Lamashtu, from Black and Green's Gods, Demons, and Symbols of Ancient Mesopotamia

The talk itself was, in fact, brilliant. He explored the variegated methods of depicting the demoness Lamashtu in ancient Babylonia, as exemplified by a slew of items from the MC. After explaining her identifying features – animal head, snakes held in hand, an accompanying dog and pig (whom she is sometimes suckling), etc. – Lambert pointed to what seems to be a very early depiction of Lamashtu from the 4th millennium BCE. Given that our knowledge of Lamashtu’s features are from the 1st millennium BCE, the fact that we might identify her via (some of) these very same features several thousand years earlier is quite remarkable. Lambert utilized this data to point to the Babylonian conservatism in preserving its demonological tradition. Later that day, however, one scholar at Lambert’s lecture expressed concern – apparently shared by some others at the session – over the provenance of the MC. There is much about the MC that we don’t know, he cautioned, and we should bear this in mind when discussing finds from its contents.

As the first session block came to a close, I trundled downstairs to pick up the kosher meal I had ordered when signing up for the conference, only to find that no such meals were being offered (at least at lunch). I never did find that kosher meal…

In any event, after a pleasant, if cibariously uninteresting lunch – during which I had the opportunity to meet Noah Hacham (and let him know that I used his article on III Maccabees and the Greek Additions to Esther as the basis for my dvar Torah at last year’s family Purim se’udah…) – I made my way to the “Qumran and the Dead Sea Scrolls Section.”

I only stayed for one talk: Hans Debel’s musings on the contributions of the Genesis Apocryphon and Joshua Apocryphon to our understanding of textual traditions in the Second Temple period. Debel made the point that even using the term “Apocryphon” to refer to these texts prejudices us in favor of what someone or other (I can’t recall his reference) called “the tyranny of canonical assumptions.” The rest of the lecture continued in this vein. His point struck me as either somewhat obvious, or exceedingly “meh”…depending on where you fall on the spectrum of scholars examining the role of canonicity in the Jewish textual tradition.

In any case, I took the opportunity of a five minute discussion period following Debel’s paper to hightail it for the “Assyriology and the Bible Consultation” – the first of its kind in the history of S.B.L. Space does not permit me to synopsize the many intriguing presentations delivered throughout this session, including a wonderful paper by another Yeshiva University faculty member, Shalom Holtz. Of greatest interest to me, however, was Sacha Stern’s (University College London) “bomb kashya” during the concluding discussion period.

After quietly imbibing the conclusions of a whole host of scholars seeking to explain the implications of Mesopotamian influence on Biblical traditions, Stern questioned the underlying narrative pervading these presentations, namely, that it makes sense to speak of influence between disparate ethno-cultural groups within some sort of area that we have termed “the Ancient Near East.” It is especially important, observed Stern, to be methodologically meticulous in this regard when one seeks – on the basis of some notion of “influence” – to establish a relative chronology for entire chunks of Biblical tradition, ranging from Leviticus, to Deuteronomy, to Ezekiel, and so on.

Chaos ensued as the room basically divided into two groups: those who thought that it’s, like, totally insane not to take “influence” for granted in the Biblical period (‘amiright folks?!’), and those who took the question a bit more seriously even if ultimately disagreeing. Among the latter group, Lester Grabbe led the charge in arguing that 1) there is nothing wrong with at least asking questions about similar phenomena that appear in different contexts, and 2) a sufficient number of parallels eventually make it appropriate to talk about “influence” even if we can’t show how it happened.

Stern responded by agreeing that, obviously, there is nothing wrong with asking questions. He noted, notwithstanding, that Grabbe’s criteria for positing a concept as methodologically fraught as “influence” seem particularly prone to abuse (e.g. parallelomania). My own sense is that while some scholars at this specific session – Holtz in particular – engaged admirably with the cross-cultural implications of his data set, scholars studying Rabbinics (understood broadly) have progressed way beyond Assyriologists in developing methodological safeguards for studying these sort of phenomena. And again, as far as this specific session was concerned, I had hoped – probably much like Sacha Stern – that at its inaugural event, participants would have spent at least a tiny portion of their time engaging these issues.

Eventually, we all began to shuffle out of the day’s final session. As I made my way up the Northern Line back to my apartment in Hendon, I could only smile in anticipation of tomorrow’s lectures, which promised to be even more exciting than those I attended today. On that note: stay tuned!

Ari Lamm is concluding a year as a Fulbright scholar based at University College, London and the School of Oriental and African Studies.