English, Recent Publications, Reviews

Right of Reply: Azzan Yadin-Israel Responds to Amit Gvaryahu’s review

My thanks to The Talmud Blog for inviting me to respond to Amit Gvaryahu’s review of Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash. I find myself in the odd position of responding to a review that is generally positive and in certain passages very generous in its praise. Nonetheless, in what follows I will address some of the points Gvaryahu raises in his review, and, more importantly, those that he does not. (Due to space considerations, I have abbreviated some of the Sifra passages I cite).

In his introductory comments Gvaryahu praises me for engaging “refreshingly in textual scholarship” (his italics), so it is no surprise that most of his comments involve close readings of individual passages. Some of his comments merit, I think, response of one kind only: thank you. Gvaryahu is absolutely correct about the translation (read: my mistranslation) of halalim in §2.6, and he has also found a number of textual errata that I hope to have the opportunity to correct in a future revision. However, other of his comments leave me less convinced. Thus, I cite as §2.1 the opening gloss of a derashah:

“בוהק … טהור” מלמד שהבוהק טהור.

“a rash … is pure”—this teaches that a rash is pure.
Gvaryahu contends that we ought examine the entirety of the derashah, which “is parsing the verse, dividing it up into small units, each with its own meaning.” To this I would respond in two ways. First, the opening gloss should stand on its own merits, especially as it uses the term melammed to link the biblical terms to their conclusion, though it is not clear how the gloss does what it claims to do. As it stands, it extracts two words from the verse to create a brief phrase, then glosses with the identical phrase: read innocently, it is a tautology; read in light of the interpretive issues Gvaryahu raises (e.g., the ambiguous referent of the second הוא in the verse), it is a midrash that suppresses its own interpretive arguments, with the result a tautological gloss. Second, Gvaryahu’s elaboration of the full derashah merely rehearses the claims of the Sifra. Thus, Gvaryahu writes of “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”—all this from בהק הוא (“it is a rash”) and טהור הוא (“it is pure”). But why does the word הוא function in this manner; why does is limit these legal cases and not others, etc. This may be a cogent argument in Gvaryahu’s eyes, but I suspect we have simply grown accustomed to the Sifra’s (more accurately: the anonymous Sifra’s) hermeneutic caprice.Finally, I wonder what the force of Gvaryahu’s claim is. After all, §2.1 is followed by other examples:

  • 2.2 “Raven”—this refers to the raven. (Shemini pereq 5.4)
  • 2.3 “Large lizards”—these are the large lizards. (Shemini parashah 5.7)
  • 2.4 “… all living creatures that move in the water”—to introduce (lehaviʾ) the fish. (Shemini pereq 12.6)

The first two are literal restatements of the language of Scripture; the third a midrashic expansion that “introduces” the most self-evident conclusion—that “all living creatures that move in the water” includes fish. Setting §2.1 alongside these derashot lessens the burden placed on it (calling one derashah into question does not do invalidate the broader point), and also makes the “tautology” reading more compelling (it is one of several Sifra glosses that, literally or substantively, merely restate the language of the verse).

The same holds for Gvaryahu’s response to §2.6. While I, again, gratefully acknowledge his correction regarding halalim, the point of my analysis there is the odd structure of the Sifra’s reading of בני אהרן הכהנים: it first proposes a reading (yakhol) concerning בני אהרן as though הכהנים were not stated right there, and rejects it due to the presence of הכהנים; then proposes a reading concerning הכהנים but rejects it due to the presence of בני אהרן. Why raise a possibility excluded by הכהנים to begin with, when the word is modifying בני אהרן? And why repeat the procedure, artificially ignoring the presence of בני אהרן only to then draw the phrase back into the conversation as a foil to the proposed reading? Even if the Sifra is concerned with redundancy, why address it in such a convoluted manner?

But it is unlikely that the Sifra is concerned with redundancy at all, since §2.6 is not the only place this commentary “hides” one of the words in the verse only to “rediscover” it later (what I call a fort-da derashah):

  • 2.7 “… the anointed priest …”: “Anointed”—might this refer to the king? Scripture teaches, saying “priest.” (Hovah parashah 2.6)
  • 2.8 “And if anyone … hunts down an animal or a bird that may be eaten”: I know only regarding a bird that may be eaten, whence regarding an animal that may be eaten? Scripture teaches saying “an animal or a bird that may be eaten” (Ahare pereq 11.4)
  • 3.1 “The elders of the community …”: “The elders”—might this refer to elders of the marketplace? Scripture teaches, saying “the elders of the community.” (Hovah pereq 6.1)

Here too, the additional examples buttress the claim that §2.6 is a fort-da derashah, even as they lower stakes if any one derashah is excluded from this set.

There are other nits to be picked in the review (section D ignores the structural issues with Sifre Deuteronomy §357 and the cultural dependence of lectio dificilior as I argue in Chapter 7, and more), but my main concern is with what Gvaryahu does not touch on. As it stands, the review suggests that I am not convinced by certain Sifra arguments and so cast the work as engaged in ex post facto reconstructions. This omits, rather unfairly, the philological core of the book: the claim that there is a semantic incongruity in the hermeneutic terms of the Rabbi Ishmael midrashim and the named Rabbi Akiva sources, on the one hand, and the anonymous Sifra, on the other:

1. Perhaps the most dramatic shift is evident in the phrases ribbah ha-katuv and miʿet ha-katuv. In the Mekhilta to Exodus 12:45 we read: “Miʿet ha-katuv the time of eating [the paschal lamb] … But will you argue thus about the contribution offering concerning which ribbah ha-katuv the time of eating …?” (Pisha 15). If we bracket for a moment our familiarity with the dominant sense of these phrases in the Sifra, it is evident that the Mekhilta is contrasting the relatively narrow timeframe the Torah allots the consumption of the paschal offering and the relatively wide timeframe it allots the contribution offering. Here ribbah ha-katuv and miʿet ha-katuv, then, refer to the relative breadth and narrowness of biblical categories, respectively; they do not midrashically derive them. This sense is preserved in a number of Sifra derashot, as when we are told that “Scripture has multiplied copious commandments [ריבה הכתוב מצוות יתרות]” with regard to priests, but has not done so with regard to Israelites (§2.35, ʾEmor pereq 1.1-3). What this means is nothing more (and nothing less) than that the Torah contains many more commands concerning priests than non-priests—it is not a midrashic interpretation. In the anonymous Sifra more broadly, however, ribbah ha-katuv and miʿet ha-katuv indicate an interpretive move that introduces or excludes, respectively, legal elements not found in Scripture. That these formulas, the interpretive core of the anonymous Sifra, represent a subtle but profound revision of an established tannaitic usage, is very significant, but goes unnoted in the review. (Indeed, Gevryahu’s criticism that I do not recognize [in §4.18] that both Sifra Hovah 9.8 and Mishnah Shevuʿot 3.5 employ the phrase ribbui ha-katuv misses the point entirely: they do use the same phrase but it means something different.)

2. The yakhol and minayin derashot also undergo a dramatic shift. First, note that the proliferation of ribbui and miʾut in the now-standard sense (“to introduce,” “to exclude”) disrupts the hermeneutic system of the Sifra, since ribbui arguments are now pragmatically identical with minayin derashot, and miʿut arguments with yakhol derashot:

  • 3.9 “On the seventh day”: Might this mean (yakhol) either in the daytime or at night? Scripture teaches, saying “day”—not at night. (Metzoraʿ pereq 2.1)
  • 3.10 “On the first day”: In the day, not at night. (ʾEmor pereq 16.3)

The above derashot differ rhetorically—§3.9 is a yakhol … talmud lomar argument, while §3.10 a miʿut gloss—but are pragmatically identical: the word “day” precludes the broader reading that includes nighttime. Pragmatic redundancy is a strong indication that a “non-native” element has been introduced into the hermeneutic system.

More importantly, the yakhol and minayin derashot in the anonymous Sifra (broadly speaking—I note exceptions) differ from the Rabbi Ishmael midrashim and most named tannaitic derashot in that they conclude with the same verse that initiates the discussion. This is a deeply problematic issue: if verse X legitimately raises the possibility of interpretation P, how can the same verse then exclude P (“X” yakhol P … talmud lomar “X”)? Or, vice versa, if verse X excludes reading P, how can it be the verse that raises the possibility of that very reading? (Gvaryahu’s  suggestion that yakhol and minayin derashot establish the hermeneutic markedness of a term is incorrect: hermeneutic markedness precedes and legitimizes derashot; where it is employed, it is a condition of legitimate interpretation not a conclusion).

3. Mikan ʾamru: in the Rabbi Ishmael midrashim, the phrase generally refers to derashot whose conclusion is explicitly identified by the Mishnah as a derashah, or can plausibly be construed as one. In the Sifra, mikan ʾamru often claims midrashic basis for teachings that the Mishnah characterizes as non-midrashic (testimony, “they said,” etc.).

I cannot, of course, go into detail here. However, it is important to introduce these arguments because they are the philological core of Scripture and Tradition’s first section, and, moreover, because they speak directly to some of the issues Geveryahu raises in his review. To wit, my claim that the (anonymous) Sifra reworks extra-scriptural halakhot into a midrashic form is supported by a series of arguments regarding the interpretive techniques of this collection. It is not a sense of aporia that leads me to adopt this conclusion, but rather a positive, philological thesis concerning the workings of the Sifra. Like all critical scholarship, my thesis is subject to debate and criticism (“Let the conversation begin”), but for that to happen the review needs, at a minimum, to present the book’s thesis.

The same problem attends the review’s treatment of Scripture and Tradition’s concluding chapters. The argument, in brief, is that rabbinic scholarship has failed to offer a satisfactory account of the relationship between midrash and halakhot because it has consistently sought diachronic models, when a synchronic one is more appropriate to the sources. I cannot go into a detailed justification of this thesis, nor of its ramifications, but at least as far as my intent is concerned (Nota bene: everyone is a skeptic about authorial intent until it comes to their book…), it was not offer “somewhat of a postscript.”

It is evident that Amit Gvaryahu has read Scripture and Tradition with care and has offered me some important correctives and points of consideration. Any scholar worth his salt wants readers of this sort. My sense that some of the book’s core arguments were not properly represented in the review, does not diminish my gratitude to Amit for his engagement of my book, and to The Talmud Blog for affording me the opportunity to respond.

English, Guest Posts, Recent Publications

On Paul Mandel’s ‘Was Rabbi Akiva a Martyr?’- Daniel Boyarin

Daniel Boyarin’s study of martryology in late antique Judaism and Christianity has been one of the most enduring legacies of his scholarship. A recently published study by Paul Mandel on the martyrdom of R. Akiva in rabbinic texts raises some questions about Boyarin’s readings, and it is accompanied by a lengthy Appendix  on the matter (available here with permission from the author and publisher). The Talmud blog is honored to provide a space for Professor Boyarin to respond.

My teacher, Prof. Saul Lieberman, May the Memory of the Righteous be for a Blessing, used to say that the proper Festchrift for a senior scholar was one in which his students and colleagues corrected all of the errors he or she had made in his work over the decades. I begin, then, by thanking Prof. Paul Mandel for catching and correcting an important error in my work, one that was, moreover, compounded by successive revisions of the argument in which the initial error was never corrected until quite recently. I also wish to congratulate him on a very important and largely compelling article. Let me step back a moment and fill in the background here for those who might not know of what I speak.

Mandel recently published an important article (“Was Rabbi Aqiva a Martyr? Palestinian and Babylonian Influences in the Development of a Legend,” in Ronit Nikolsky, Tal Ilan  eds, Rabbinic Traditions between Palestine and Babylonia (Brill 2014))  in which he argued that in the Yerushalmi and in the earlier stages of the Bavli’s transmission, the story of Rabbi Akiva’s death [Berakhot 61b] is not portrayed as a martyrdom but as something he calls a “political drama” (It’s not clear to me how a martyrology is ever not a political drama, but nonetheless). The important evidence is that in the earliest forms of the text as preserved in one family of Bavli MSS, significant markers of the martyrological character of the story are missing, only to be added in later families of manuscripts to Massekhet Berakhot. The argument, and it is a quite compelling one, leads to the conclusion that the martyrological elements in the story are a later addition, perhaps—even probably—is added to the story in the Byzantine era and under the impact of Christian martyrological literature. As I’ve said already, by and large, I find this article convincing. The conclusion, of course, invalidates my own interpretations of this story in its form as a martyrology as late-ancient and intimately bound up with the formation of the very notion of martyrology as a Jewish/Christian co-invention in the third and fourth centuries. One is always sorry to lose a treasured reading, but זה בונה וזה סותר,כך דרכה של תורה. The work lines up with other analyses of this type (including at least one of my own) in which we see that notions that we ascribe to the Bavli are really the product of late stages of transmission of the text and the earliest forms of the Bavli-text as found in manuscripts line up much more closely with the Yerushalmi. Indeed, Rabbi Akiva may not have been fully understood as a martyr until some time later than we thought, although it may not be gainsaid that there are martyrological moments even in the earliest Bavli transmissions of the story.

As said, Mandel is to be congratulated on this achievement. He, however, devotes quite a bit of time in the article, and especially in an appendix, discussing an egregious error that I made in doing my own work on this topic, and it is this aspect that I would like to take up here. First off, as said, of course he is right. When I originally translated this text, I simply skipped an entire line in transcribing from the Vilna edition of Berakhot, a regrettable error in its own right, especially since the line that I skipped strongly supported my interpretation of the story.

Here is the bit of text, as I wrote it and as it ought to have been transcribed. I wrote:

In the hour that they took R. Aqiva out [to be executed], his disciples said to him, “Our master, so far? [i.e., is this necessary].

I should have written:

At the hour that they were bringing out Rabbi Aqiva for execution, it was the time of the reciting of the Shema, and they were flaying his flesh with iron combs; and he was accepting upon himself the yoke of the heavenly kingdom. His students said to him: Our master, so far? [i.e., is this necessary?]

Mandel makes much depend on this missing line of text:

What is particularly significant in this text [i.e., Boyarin’s mistaken text] is the fact that the query of the disciples to Rabbi Aqiva appears directly after the exposition declaring his being taken out for execution; there is no mention of the torture or of Rabbi Aqiva’s recital of the Shema at this time. This means that the disciples’ alarmed question, “Our teacher, so far?,” must be taken to be a challenge to the very act of his impending death, as Boyarin indeed explains in a bracketed addition: [“i.e., is this necessary?”], meaning “is this [acquiescence to your] execution necessary?” Rabbi Aqiva’s answer, based upon his midrashic comment to Deut 6:5, thus becomes a forceful argument for the “joining of Eros and Thanatos”; Rabbi Aqiva’s message to his students is: “Death is not only required of me at this time [“it is necessary”], but all the more: I have actively sought out just this martyrdom all my life as a fulfillment of the commandment to love God.”

I cannot, for the life of me, see how the addition of the elements of Rabbi Akiva being flayed alive, nor that the moment was the time of the reading of the Shema, detract one iota from the martryological interpretation of the story as it appears in the textus receptus. The students, nonetheless, see their teacher being flayed, a grisly form of execution, and ask whether it is necessary that this awful thing happens, to which he answers, yes. Rabbi Akiva, moreover, prepares to accept the yoke of the kingdom, i.e., his tormented death, at this very moment by reciting the Shema, as it happens. It is trivializing of the story in the extreme to make the disciples question a merely halakhic one: Is it necessary to read the Shema at such a time? Their question remains directed at the master’s impending death as well as present pain. His answer is precisely that through the recitation of the Shema at the time of being tortured and killed, he fulfills the mitzva of “with all your soul.” Had the addition of the line I inadvertently skipped been lethal for my reading, this would have been a much more important error than it is. I cannot see, however, how adding the detail of Rabbi Akiva being flayed alive (certainly a martyrological trope) or the moment being the time for the reading of the Shema detracts from the martyrological reading of the textus receptus. If anything it surely enhances that character.

אמר להם: כל ימי הייתי מצטער על פסוק זה:
‘בכל נפשך’ (דברים ו ה)  אפילו נוטל את נשמתך. –
אמרתי: מתי יבא לידי ואקיימנו?

Any way that it is construed then, the textus receptus surely describes a desire for martyrdom on the part of its hero protagonist, with or without missing lines of text. Despite having little effect on the interpretation of the passage in the textus receptus, it remains a regrettable error nonetheless. The same error was repeated, moreover, in three other publications about this narrative both in Hebrew and in English over the years. I am chastened and embarrassed.

More egregious than that is the evident fact that even when I claimed later on in one of the publications to be citing from a manuscript, the error persisted, so once again the work was sloppy at this point. I had clearly been reading the MS at the time of the later work, as a large new chunk of text considered there was copied from the MS. At that time, moreover, some elements of the variant readings of the Oxford MS did enter my translation (interestingly the variant that Mandel considers “most significant,” the repetition of אמרו, is represented in my revised text!) of this story then. The haplography (if that be the right term for a skipped line) remained in place, although, to be sure, the flaying is indeed absent in the Oxford text, and that is an important part of Mandel’s argument as well. The repetition of the error is, to me, unaccountable. I hope that there are few errors of such a nature in others of my works but hardly imagine that none exist, much as I have tried to be careful over the years both with copying, translating, and checking manuscript variants. It is necessary to restate, however, that the skipped line does not affect my original interpretation of the text; as said above, putting it back in only enhances my reading. In the latest version of the text (the recent Hebrew translation of Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash), the line is restored with only positive effect). The error itself is, therefore, regrettable and mortifying but not, in itself, of great interpretative significance.

The argument of my various readings of this narrative (and they are in different discursive contexts and themes) stands even better once the text of the textus receptus is restored. Much of this is, therefore, a red herring that detracts from the genuine innovation of Mandel’s own case which I would now quickly lay out. Where earlier scholars in general read the story in the Bavli as we have it as representing an early (at least ideological) reality, Mandel shows that it reflects rather a later ideological reality. He does so by demonstrating that the earliest witnesses to the Bavli text read quite differently: in them, the disciples’ question is not: Is it necessary to suffer and die, Master, but rather is it necessary to read the Shema in such a condition of danger. Where some—not Boyarin as Mandel himself remarks—would have read the text as representing something about the actual death of R. Akiva and some, Boyarin, as representing fairly early rabbinic representations of that death, Mandel thus shows that in its earliest form it is considerably less martyrological in its import and that the strongly martyrological elements are later additions to the text during its transmission. Where, then, I had thought it to be evidence of a third or fourth century rabbinic contribution to a developing shared discourse of martyrology, Mandel shows, I think, that it is rather evidence for continuing later influence of Christian martyrologies on the developing talmudic text. I by and large accept this conclusion which takes Prof. Lieberman’s point from The Martyrs of Caesarea and expands it. The story of R. Akiva’s martyrdom is thus a much less apt example for an early, common, discourse shared by Rabbis and Christians in Caesarea. So be it; a fine and important conclusion. It is curious, however, that Mandel in treating only the fate of this story, completely ignores the rather significant other evidence that I have cited for early rabbinic martyrological discourse defined exactly as I have done as eroticized and even desired death for God. Within the mini-corpus of my texts on this subject, there are citations and discussions of Sifra Ahare Mot 8,3, on the “three boys,” Sifre Devarim on the death of Rabbi Hananiah ben Tradyon, and especially the Mekhilta Shirata 3 on Rabbi Akiva’s own drasha: We have loved you until death. Even without the story in the Bavli, the inference that eroticized death, a conflated eros and thanatos, was quite early found in rabbinic literature seems quite sound. (And, this, it should not be necessary to add, even without accepting ascriptions of tannaitic sayings to their alleged authors or imagining that the tannaitic midrash took shape before the late third or even early fourth century).

Such deliberate, not accidental, elision of evidence is evidence of Tendenz. Mandel shows his hand when he claims that his refutation of my historical interpretation of the Bavli text destroys entire the thesis that I have developed in Dying for God and even more so in Border Lines of ongoing blurred borders between nascent Christianity and rabbinic Jews. This, I suspect, is his real target, and it is arrant nonsense. The argument about Rabbi Akiva’s alleged martyrdom is only one chapter out of four in the former book and not even mentioned (as Mandel concedes) in the latter one, in which there are a couple of hundred pages of textual evidence, analysis, and reasoning that have nothing to do with martyrology at all. Moreover, in the Hebrew publication in the Dimitrovsky volume, there is an extensive discussion of other martyrological tales from the Talmud, as well from Tractate Avoda Zara and translated from the universally acknowledged best MS of that text, in addition to the discussions of tannaitic midrash as mentioned above. There may very well be other textual errors lurking in both books, and surely other ways of construing the evidence, ones that might even convince me, as Mandel has here, that I need to revise my thesis, but invalidating one important and highly evocative piece of evidence does not go far in challenging a thesis that is argued on a much much broader evidentiary base. Mandel’s argument on this score, then, is an argumentum ad hominem (by discrediting the author of the argument and not the evidence or reasoning) and as such simply and plainly invalid.

Daniel Boyarin is Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture at the University of California, Berkeley.

English, Recent Publications, Reviews

Naftali Cohn’s “The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis”

In an attempt at remaining sane during the present Israeli election cycle, I found myself reading Naftali Cohn‘s The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis (although given some of the rhetoric voiced here by wannabe politicians over the past few days, one could argue that a book about the Temple is actually quite relevant to Israeli politics). The book, published in Penn Press’ “Divinations” series, attempts to tackle a rather large topic that has been growing in popularity in recent years: the place of the Temple in rabbinic thought.

Whereas author scholars like Ishay Rosen-Zvi‘s or Daniel Stoekl-Ben-Ezra have devoted studies to specific topics within Temple-related tractates, Cohn devotes his to the Mishnah’s Temple discourse as a whole; reaching the conclusion that the Mishnaic portrayal of the way in which the rituals were performed at the Temple comes to “claim authority for the rabbis” (pg. 120). Claiming authority over the Temple by depicting it as functioning in a rabbinic fashion is essentially a way for the Rabbis of the Mishnah to gain authority over their fellow Judaeans. Cohn explains that the authors of the Mishnah work on multiple fronts, chief among them being the insertion of the Great Court, the Sanhedrin, into the Temple complex, along with its proto-Rabbinic sages who are depicted as the ultimate deciders of Temple practice. Cohn also argues that the manner in which the Mishnah discusses how and where rituals were performed in the Temple is geared at giving authority to the Rabbis. I admit, I’m not well read in ritual theory, but I’ll note that Cohn’s use of it in his analysis of Temple practice may fill in some of what Meir Bar-Ilan missed in Rosen-Zvi’s monograph.

The last chapter of Memory is dedicated to a comparative study of the Mishnah’s Temple, and is entitled “The Mishnah in the Context of a Wider Judaean, Christian, and Roman Temple Discourse.” Cohn combs through a dazzling array of different of sources, such as Pseudepigraphic works, Christian literature, archaeological findings (specifically synagogues and coins), and Hellenistic sources in order to contextualize the Mishnah’s picture of the Temple. Such an attempt should be commended. It is no doubt important, and as Cohn shows, fruitful, to understand the Rabbis’ Temple discourse in such a way. For him, such an analysis proves that the memory of the Temple was a point of contention, and that it was exploited by different communities in their attempts at achieving authority during the Tannaitic period.

As noted, Cohn stresses throughout the book the place of authority in Rabbinic depictions of the Temple, but I’m not so sure a) how Temple discourse in the Mishnah really gives them more authority over their fellow Judaeans, and b) if this is really why the Mishnah (and rabbinic literature more generally) spends so much time discussing the Temple.

Beyond that, I think that before we can really even compare the rabbinic Temple discourse to that of other communities, the Mishnaic Temple narratives must first be understood in their more local context of Tannaitic literature. Such a contextualization should begin with an understanding of the how the narratives concerning the Temple found in the Mishnah relate to the Mishnah’s non-narrative sections. The vast majority of the Mishnah, including its discussion of the Temple, is not what most scholars define as “narrative.” Additionally, recent attempts at analyzing the Mishnah with an eye for genre have yielded interesting results, at times even pointing out that different layers of genre may contain various Mishnaic conceptions of a given set of laws. Maybe the hundreds of non-narrative sections of the Mishnah paint a very different image of the Temple than the narrative ones do? The inclusion of such information would also change how the comparison between the Mishnah and non-Rabbinic works would be performed: the very fact that Temple is discussed by these different groups would not be the only point of comparison, but rather, the differences in the details of the practices themselves (specifically in the earlier Qumranic material) would also need to be unpacked in order to shed light on alternative conceptions of the Temple.

Second, it is very possible that the image of the Temple found in the Mishnah differs from that of the Tosefta or Midrash Halakha. The Mishnah is not the sole Tannaitic text, and, therefore, the “Rabbinic” view of that period probably cannot be deduced from it alone. To be sure, Cohn often uses the Tosefta to better understand Mishnaic passages. At one point, he does more than that, accurately noting a few telling differences between the Mishnah and the Tosefta (pg. 47): the Mishnah never depicts sectarians as actually having the power to perform the ritual as they please, while the Tosefta does so on at least three occasions. Cohn ties this to the Mishnah’s depiction of a “powerful Court that has fully suppressed the sectarians,” a depiction that is absent from the Tosefta. It is very possible that Cohn is on to something here. Scholarship concerning the relationship between the Mishnah and Tosefta has slowly been moving from issues of relative chronology to issues of what may be termed ideology or outlook. This example may be added to the list, and there is a need to further tease out the differences between the idea of the Temple present in these two intertwined Tannaitic works. Similarly, it is very probable that treatment of works of Halakhic Midrash, which to the best of my knowledge are not used in the book at all, would further nuance the position of the Temple in Tannaitic thought.

More can be said, and no doubt will be. I don’t think that I have a better answer to questions like “why the Rabbis spend so much time discussing the Temple?” than Cohn does, although I do think that we have to work a little differently in order to respond to them more fully. Nonetheless, Memory marks a significant step in furthering the research into rabbinic conceptions of the Temple in that it forces us to evaluate the Rabbi’s discourse in the context of post-destruction Judaean society.

English, Recent Publications, Talk of the Town

A Trip to the Bookstore

After holding back for a longtime, I caved in last friday and made a trip to my local ultra-Orthodox bookstore, Girsa. As one can imagine, there were even more options than ever for someone coming to do some daf yomi shopping. I lamented that they weren’t all on display together, making it difficult to photograph, but there must have been at least five or so paperback pamphlet versions of Massekhet Berakhot specially designed for the learning of daf yomi, alongside the popular hardcover Artscroll edition. I asked the guy working at the store what the difference is between all of them and he told me that it seems to him to be a matter of personal preference, but that it might be interesting for me to buy all of them and learn from them side by side to see how they really differ from one another (it was unclear whether his suggestion was based on his looking out for my genuine curiosity or just capitalizing on it).

I’m always amazed by how many new books are constantly coming out in this country, with an ever-growing level of specificity. By way of example, here are some titles which caught my eye:

Sefer Rosh Bashamayim (“Head in the Sky”) doesn’t interest me too much- it deals with the halakhic intricacies of under-age and sick people who want to fast on Yom Kippur despite being exempt- but I thought that the title was pretty funny, given its frequent use in Israeli slang [UPDATE: for an alternative, more probable understanding of the title, see the comments section below].

Another book surprised me less by its clever title than its esoteric topic. Its title is actually pretty straightforward: “HaCheck baHalakha“. The book, which spans two volumes, also includes discussions of laws pertaining to the use םכ credit cards and bank transactions more generally (okay, I guess this actually is a very complicated topic).

I also saw a few books that might be of interest to our readers. Two of them are a little beyond my realm of expertise so I will just mention them briefly: Mosad haRav Kook has published a new two-volume edition of  the responsa of Rav Sherira Gaon, edited by R. Nathan David Rabinovitz, and another volume of Peirush Rabeinu Hananel, on Bava Metsia, is out, edited by Yisrael Soloveitchik.

Another interesting title is Yaakov Laufer’s MeSoncino vi’ad Vilna (“From Soncino to Vilna”), which tries to answer questions such as: “What happened to the word ‘Talmud’?”, “Who decided that the Tosafot will be placed on the Gemara page?”, and, most interestingly, “Who set the page layout (tsuras hadaf) for coming generations?”. The book answers much more than that, building off of R.N.N. Rabinowitz‘s monumental essay on the printing of the Talmud to provide a lot of information on the many different editions of the Talmud, their publishers, their innovations, their mistakes, and more, ending even later than Vilna with descriptions of recent digitally printed editions such as Oz veHadar.

Laufer also provides some quasi-philological examples of what has changed over the generations in the text of the Talmud. While he makes extensive use of important academic tools like The Lieberman Institute’s Talmudic manuscripts Database (although in its older version; stay tuned for a post in the coming days on updates to the newer version of the database), his use of textual witnesses often lacks sound methodology. For example, in his chapter on the first Venice Printing, Laufer brings an example of what might be considered mistake in Yerushalmi Megillah, where we read “רב אמר צריך לאמר ארור המן ארורים בניו”. According to Laufer, this version might be a “correction” made by the non-Jewish printer, Daniel Bomberg, of the less politically correct “ארורים כל הרשעים ברוכים כל הצדיקים” which is said in the prayer “Shoshanat Yaakov“, recited on Purim. It seems to me that Laufer has come across an interesting case in which the halakha eventually brought in such codes as the Tur and Shulchan Aruch is influenced heavily by the version of an Ashkenazi Sefer Yerushalmi like text, and he seems to favor it over the version that appears in our Yerushalmi (MS Leiden). Eliezer Brodt, who let us know about MeSoncino vi’ad Vilna, also informed us that he plans on writing more about Laufer’s book over at the Seforim Blog soon (another review can be found here).

Halakhah: Explicit and Implied Theoretical and Ideological AspectsTwo more recent publications are David Weiss Halivni’s new volume of Mekorot uMesorot, which completes Seder Nezikin, and another volume in the joint Van-Leer and Magnes series on the Philosophy of Halakha. This volume, partially based on a 2006 conference on Halakha and ideology and bearing the title “Halakha: Explicit and Implied Theoretical and Ideological Aspects”, contains contributions from Yair Furstenburg and David J. Landes, both of whom have guest-blogged for the Talmud Blog.

English, Recent Publications

Shavua haSefer 2012

With the heat intensifying, the first of the summer groups arriving, and the stirrings of social-protest demonstrations, there is no question that the Israeli June is here. For this writer, and I imagine for many readers of the blog, the most exciting part of the month is the multi-week long “Shavua haSefer” (granted, it’s also known as “Hebrew Book month”)Here’s a list, organized according to publisher, of some of the academic books that will be on sale this month at reduced prices, along with other tips about making the rounds at the various fairs to take place around the country. Many of the books are also available at reduced prices through the websites of the publishers, but there is nothing quite like jostling for new books under a bloated Jerusalem moon suspended in the starry summer night sky:


Magnes Press publishes dozens of books related to Rabbinics. Unfortunately, especially now that they are pushing e-book sales, they rarely reprint their older books. One has to be careful to purchase them before they run out.

Some books that will probably run out soon include:

  • Daniel Boyarin et. al, Atara L’Haim (עטרה לחיים). I found this festchrift for Prof. Dimitrovsky in the press’ catalogue and was pretty surprised to see that it was still available. When I went to their offices to pick it up, so were they.
  • David Weiss Halivni’s Sources and Traditions: Bava Metzia (מקורות ומסורות בבא מציעא).
  • Abraham Goldberg’s Tosefta Bava Kamma: A Structural and Analytic Commentary with a Mishnah-Tosefta Synopsis (תוספתא בבא קמא: פירוש מבני ואנליטי). 
  • Ta-Shma’s The Old Ashkenazi Custom (מנהג אשכנז הקדמון), although they’ve been pretty good about reprinting his books.

During Book Month Magnes is running a few different sale models, depending on the book. New books only get 20% off, meaning that some of their books most relevant to Talmud are still pretty pricey. These books include:

These are just some pointers. Magnes has many other volumes, both new and old, that should be of interest to our readers. They also distribute books published by the World Union for Jewish Studies, meaning that, although they have yet to add it to their online catalogue, they may be selling Emmanuel’s Responsa of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (reviewed here by Pinchas Roth) at their stands.


Besides the recently reviewed Sperber volumeGreek in Talmudic Palestine, Bar-Ilan’s catalogue is mainly filled with older volumes, such as:

Yad Yitzchak Ben-Zvi

  • Sussman’s Thesaurus of Talmudic Manuscripts (אוצר כתבי-היד התלמודיים) is without a doubt the most important book for talmudists on sale this Shavua haSefer. While I hope that we can fully discuss the book in a later post, here’s a brief description. The first two volumes list, alphabetically according to library, all of the manuscripts and manuscript fragments in the world of the Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, Bavli and Ri”f. The entries are numbered, and contain a description including the exact contents, and references to secondary literature which may have dealt with them. The third volume contains a few introductory essays- mainly previously published articles of Sussman- and multiple indices. The most important indices, of course, are those that are organized by work. For example: if one is studying m. Bava Bathra 2:7, one can look up the mishnah in the proper index and see the numbers of all of the entries of manuscripts or fragments that transmit that mishnah. One can then look up the entries in the first two volumes, and then look up the manuscripts or fragments themselves. The same is true for halakhot in the Tosefta, and folios of the Yerushalmi, Bavli, and Ri”f.
  • In the field of Geonica, YBZ recently published Shraga Abramson’s edition of Rav Hai’s Mishpatei Shavuot, brought to press by Robert Brody and David Sklare (see here for the table of contents and Brody’s introduction).


Mosad Bialik, publisher of classics like Albeck’s Mishnah, Zunz’s Derashot biYisrael, and Urbach’s The Tosaphists, has some new books that may be worthwhile purchases:

Bialik also has a number of volumes of collected essays, such as those of Ta-Shma (Studies in Medieval Rabbinic Literature, in four volumes), and Moshe Bar-Asher’s essays on Rabbinic Hebrew.


Schocken distributes JTS’ books in Israel, and is probably the easiest and cheapest place to buy their books anywhere. Here too, one can find a nice mix of new and old books. Besides the classics (Lieberman’s books, the various editions put out by JTS, etc.), one should look out for:

Over a year ago at the International Book Fair, the Schocken stand had a few copies of Abraham Goldberg’s commentary to Mishnah Shabbat. Apparently, they had found some box of them after thinking that they were long sold out. A few months later they were still selling copies during Shavua haSefer and it still appears in their catalogue. To be honest, this saddens me a bit. The commentary, the work of an important teacher and scholar, should be in the library of all those who dabble in academic Talmud.


This list is not meant to be exhaustive. Anyone who knows of any other academic books that should be on our radar is invited to write about them in the comments sections below.

English, Readings, Recent Publications

Iranica Antiqua 47: More on the Hebrew inscription on Ardashir’s Tunic

Relief of Ardashir I’s Investiture at Naqsh-i Rustam

The latest Iranica Antiqua has just been published online.  The Talmud Blog generally does not announce the publication of every journal from the field of Iranian Studies (or Late Antiquity, Early Christianity, etc etc), even though this might be of use to Talmudists.  But particularly in light of our previous treatment of the last Iranica Antiqua volume, the current issue deserves mention.  In this issue, T. Kwasman offers readings of the Hebrew graffiti inscribed on Ardashir’s tunic at Naqsh-i Rustam that differ significantly from those previously suggested on this blog by Shaul Shaked.  Now Shaked’s readings were extremely tentative, particularly given the fact that he was working from a poor photograph of the graffiti and that it was not for a scientific publication. But a number of Shaked’s point are worthy of serious consideration, and it is a shame that Kwasman did not mention them. Apparently, he does not count himself among the hundreds of regular readers of this blog (or 611 readers of that post); he did not discover Shaked’s readings through a Google search; or more likely, current academic discourse has yet figure out a way to include discussions from sources like blogs in scientific journal articles.

In any case, here is the way Kwasman read the graffiti (I was unable to provide some of the markings due to the limitations of WordPress):


1. [ז]כר[י]ה שמואל הכהן

2. בן | זכרי[ה]


1.  X X רברבה חסן בן סהל בן חסן מן אד\ר

2.                        שנת

3.                       אל שד{ג} סמן

4.                           טוב

5.                         מרחשון

Some of the major differences in Kwasman’s rendition include his adoption of a different calendar that results in a 1741 CE  as opposed to a 992 CE dating; his reading מן אד\ר rather than Shaked’s מזאר (Persian; ‘visit’); and the month מרחשון as opposed to Shaked’s מן חלון (from Hulwan). Kwasman seems to acknowledge the difficulty of the opening term רברבה, which Shaked rather brilliantly suggested should be jointed to the prior characters and read as הזר ברכה (a thousand – Persian hazar – blessings) – while still acknowledging the problematic final ב as opposed to כ.  I would have loved to see some imaginative treatment of what it might mean for a Jewish Persian to visit Naqsh-i Rustam and carve his name on Ardashir’s tunic. Oh well, I suppose there’s little place for that in philological articles.

In the same issue, I also published an article that was written during the hot Israeli summer of 2010.  It patiently (and rather boringly) attempts to date the named authorities in Zoroastrian Middle Persian writings on the basis of some stray historical references; rather problematic epigraphical data, and charting teacher-student relationships.  It is interesting that to my knowledge, it is the first full treatment of the issue, and it took a foolhardy Talmudist like myself, informed by the way things are done in Rabbinics, to attempt it.

English, Recent Publications

The Babylonian Talmud, Now in Arabic

As reported in such news outlets as the Jerusalem Post, Yeshiva World News, and PaleoJudaica, a new translation of the Babylonian Talmud into Arabic has just been published in Jordan and is on sale for $750. Veteran readers of the Talmud Blog may recall Jonathan Marc Gribetz’s article on past attempts at translating the Bavli into Arabic. Various friends of ours have been keeping us up-to-date on this seemingly succesful publication, one of whom tracked down this advertisement promoting the Sha”s:

Translation (based on that of blog-reader Yedidya Schwartz):

 The Babylonian Talmud (In Arabic)

The translation of the Babylonian Talmud is historically unprecedented, entailing a six-year effort of more than 95 translators, researchers, and language editors under the supervision and leadership of the Middle East Studies Center – Jordan.

Hurry to buy the first copy translated into Arabic (20 Volumes).

The Babylonian Talmud is considered the most important product of historical Judaism and theoretical religious teaching for Jewish communities.

The translation of the Babylonian Talmud into Arabic represents a fundamental shift in the perception of the religious and intellectual foundations of Orthodox Jewish thinking.

This translation opens up a wide horizon for academic studies in understanding Jewish religious thought and in recognizing its various manifestations throughout history.

Stay tuned for a full review of the edition in the coming months.

English, Recent Publications, Reviews

Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash- Review by Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick

Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash, Ed. R. Brody with C. Cohen and Y.Z. Stampfer (Jerusalem: Ofeq Institute, 5772).

Review by Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick

Towards the end of the sixth century, the torch of rabbinic leadership passed from the Amoraim to leaders referred to in Geonic literature as the Savoraim. Their successors, the Geonim of the Babylonian Yeshivot of Pumbedita and Sura, saw themselves as the logical heirs of Talmudic interpretation and Halakhic ruling. For a period of close to 600 years, the Geonim, through their teachings, responsa and halakhic writings (and those of their students) helped to cement the Bavli’s form. Talmud study that considers the perspective of Geonic (and Geonic-era) literature is invaluable for tracing the redaction of the text and the history and formulation of Halakha; and for understanding many subsequent medieval commentaries as well.

In practice however, using these texts for Talmud study is a daunting task. Geonic responsa have survived in numerous collections but many of them have not been properly indexed; Many Halachic codes and legal monographs shared the same fate. Despite the state of disarray of Geonic literature, from 1928 to 1942, Dr. Benjamin M. Lewin self-published – on his own printing press – 12 volumes of Otzar Ha-Geonim, which he sub-titled “Thesaurus of the Geonic Responsa and Commentaries following the order of the Talmudic Tractates”. Beginning with Berachot and ending – due to his untimely passing – with Bava Kamma, Lewin managed to achieve the impossible. His work did not end with his death: A partial volume to Bava Metsia was published posthumously and his personal hand-lists to tractates Bava Batra and Hullin were included in A. Kimmelman’s index to Geonic literature.

Lewin, working alone and under financial stress, gleaned Geonic material from responsa collections, Geonic halachic works as well as newly published Genizah fragments. He divided (in most volumes) his compilations into two sections; ‘Responsa’ and ‘Commentary’, published parallel sources alongside one another in synoptic fashion, included footnotes of his own and from other scholars of his generation (e.g. Professors J.N. Epstein, S. Assaf, S. Lieberman and S. Abramson) and added detailed indices.

Later attempts to replicate Lewin’s methods are few and far in between. Aside from Kimmelman’s aforementioned list in Shnaton Mishpat haIvri 11-12, we have H. T. Taubes’ compilation to Sanhedrin (1967) and Y. Cohen’s Ginzei Geonim on the first three chapters of Bava Batra (1995).

This is the current literary backdrop against which we eagerly greet Prof. R. Brody’s latest work, Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash. To say that this volume takes up where Lewin left off would be a discredit to the effort and scholarship invested in it. The reader should not expect to find a continuation of Lewin’s oeuvre nor even a revised edition of the older material. Rather, we have before us a fresh volume, meticulously planned from its inception.

Each section has been handpicked by the discerning eye of a master of Geonic literature. This task, daunting in itself, required the editor to decide which sources to include, which are merely repetitions and may be relegated to the notes, and which sources, although related to the sugya, are not truly native to Bava Metsia and should be merely cited but not quoted. Gone is Lewin’s partition between responsa and commentary and the reader is no longer required to alternate between different sections of the work.

All previously published material has been re-edited against the original manuscripts, alongside of which we encounter much ‘new’ responsa and commentary. Specifically, we are made privy to parts of a soon-to-be-published edition of Rav Hai Gaon’s Mishpatei Shavuot. This edition was originally under preparation by the late Prof. S. Abramson. According to the introduction and bibliography in Brody’s new book, it is slated for publication this year. Along with commentaries to Bava Metsia used as source material, Brody’s notes also reference a section in the introduction, written by Abramson, dealing with Rav Hai’s retractions in halachic decisions (p. 24 no 1). And beyond this exciting news, we are provided with newly discovered sources from texts penned by Rav Shmuel b. Hofni. These include Sefer Hamashkon, Sefer Hat’naim, Sefer Hakinyanim and chapter 74 from his “Introduction to the Mishnah and the Talmud”. The great Geonic innovator also makes an appearance – parts of Rav Se’adyah Gaon’s Sefer Hapikadon and his Sefer Hashtarot are represented in Brody’s volume. These works too are being readied for publication, and we look forward to welcoming their arrival in print.

Other novellea await the reader. In Brody’s minimalistic notes, we learn of Rav Sherira Gaon’s knowledge of Greek (p. 152 no. 2 – possible) as opposed to his son Rav Hai’s certain lack of knowledge in this field (p. 120 no. 7). Philological information abounds: Persian loan-words are discussed (see p. 32 no. 8) and the editors, experts in Judeo-Arabic, trace the Arabic etymologies of many words and phrases in Geonic literature (p. 31 n. 7; p. 34 no. 4; p. 215 no. 8; p. 216 no. 1; p. 217 no. 1).

Preserved in the notes as well are vignettes from Abramson’s unpublished discourses, a sort of academic “torah she-be’al peh”. Hinted at is his understanding of the phrase “tartei mativta” to mean the Yeshiva of Sura and the parallel yeshiva of the Resh Galuta (Exilarch), contrary to popular convention that this refers to the yeshivot of Sura and Pumbedita (see p. 80 no. 13). Further such gems include one of Abramson’s notes to the text of Mishpatei Shavuot (p. 316 no. 5) and a discussion of an attribution issue related to a particular work (p. 51 no. 8).

The following Geonic comments provide a sampling of some of the fair: Rav Hai seemed to have understood the sobriquet “Paponai” to mean “followers of Rav Papa”, contrary to the now conventional definition “those of the city of Paponia” (p. 176 no. 5). From a citation in a responsa attributed to Rav Zemah b. Paltoi Gaon (Pumbedita 872) it is apparent that this Gaon viewed the three “Bavot” as one tractate (p. 212 no. 9). This datum adds to our knowledge of the literary structure of Talmudic corpus as understood in the middle Geonic Era.

Those who have studied Bava Metsia are aware that many of the tractate’s passages are attributed by the Rishonim to Geonim or Savoraim. The current volume makes note of this (pp. 25, 72, and 102) and the editor is of the opinion that these attributions are not to be viewed as authentic – providing another viewpoint to the debate as to how the Savoraim and Geonim added to the Talmudic text (if at all). In contrast, see p. 26 no. 2 for a Geonic reading of the sugya, which relegates a part of the text to the “stam”.

The editor informs us in his English preface that three more volumes are planned, thereby completing “Otzar Ha-Geonim” on all of Bavli, after which he hopes to “prepare a corrected and updated version of his [Lewin’s] work”. The volume on Bava Batra is cited extensively (18 times), as well as a volume containing Shavuot (pp. 10, 63, 284). Citations to Otzar Ha-Geonim on Sanhedrin are to Taubes’ edition; and no hint is given of whether the remaining three volumes will include Sanhedrin as well. Interestingly, the editor also cites material from the forthcoming volumes to the following mesechtot: Hullin (p. 70), Bechorot (p. 138) and Erachin (p. 131).

Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash on Bava Metsia innagurates a new page in Geonic studies. Bava Metsia is a widely studied tractate, from both a textual as well as an halachic perspective. This volume displays a superb blend of academic and traditional Talmud study. Those with an interest in Geonic Talmud commentary would do well to avail themselves of this literary treasure. We wish to offer our thanks to Prof. Brody for undertaking this vast endeavor, and we eagerly await its succeeding volumes on all of the Talmud Bavli.

Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick is currently writing a PhD dissertation on Rabenu Hananel at Bar-Ilan University. His publications include “Rabenu Hananel on Tractate Bava Kamma” (Jerusalem, 2011).