English, Reviews, Ruminations, Technology

Between Words and Ideas in the Reading of The Bavli

Amidst much fanfare, immigration lawyer and daf-yomi class teacher Daniel Retter published his index of the Babylonian Talmud, dubbed HaMafteach in both Hebrew and in English. As someone who often studies Talmud on the Sabbath and misses the various digital search engines while doing so, I fit the New York Times’ profile of someone who may want to purchase a copy. At 65 NIS, the price was right, but I would have to wait for the book’s second printing until I managed to get a copy from my local seforim store.

Despite the fact that the book overlooks its predecessors, the volume is indeed impressive, and the author is clearly a talmid chacham who put countless hours into it. When reading the introduction I was particularly struck by one aspect of the book that I don’t think has received that much attention so far. Retter writes that the index is not one of words, but of ideas. In order to explain the importance of sifting through Talmudic sugyot thusly, the indexer cites the example of “pidyon haben“- which in one important discussion in the Talmud is refered to as “yeshua haben” (BK 80a). Needless to say, a casual search via an electronic database for “pidyon haben” would fail to turn up this source, and the importance of organizing the index by ideas is felt.

In some- if not all- cases, this organizing principle can get rather subjective and even problematic. For example, the phrase “mitzvah haba’ah b’aveirah” comes up three times in the Vilna edition of the Bavli, at Ber. 47b, Suk. 30a and BK 94a (certain MSS also have it at Suk. 35a), yet the Mafteach cites five sugyot: the three sugyot in which the phrase occurs, and then two sugyot in which a similar concept is supposed to emerge – San. 6b and Meg. 32a.

In actuality, these cases are cited because they are parallels. The Sugya at San. 6b parallels the BK sugya- both discuss one who “steals a seah of wheat, grinds, bakes it, and separates from it hallah“. Part of Meg. 32a is indeed paralleled in the sugya at Ber. 47b, but not in a way that seems particularly relevant to mitzvah haba’ah b’aveira (based on the Soncino translation):

BT Ber. 47b

BT Meg. 32a

…But this is a religious act which is carried out by means of a transgression? — A religious act which affects a whole company is different. R. Joshua b. Levi also said: A man should always rise early to go to synagogue so that he may have the merit of being counted in the first ten; since if even a hundred come after him he receives the reward of all of them. ‘The reward of all of them’, think you? — Say rather: He is given a reward equal to that of all of them. R. Huna said: Nine and the Ark join together [to be counted as ten]… …R. Shefatiah further said in thename of R. Johanan: If ten have had a reading of the Torah, the senior among them rolls up the sefer torah. He who rolls it up receives the reward of all of them, since R. Joshua b. Levi said: If ten have had a reading of the Torah, the one who rolls it up receives the reward of all of them. The reward of all of them, think you? Say rather, he receives a reward equal to that of all of them. R. Shefatiah further said in the name of R. Johanan: Whence do we know that we may avail ourselves of a chance utterance [as an omen]?…

The bold lines show why these sugyot were brought together. Both deal with why “someone receives the reward of all of them”, but only the one in Berakhot includes a discussion of mitzvah haba’ah b’aveirah. My guess is that the sugya from Megillah was cited not because of its direct relevance to our topic, but rather, because of a somewhat cluttered reference area in the Mesorat haSha”s on our page from Berakhot:

The indexer seems to have relied, at least in this case, on the references found in the Mesorat haSha”s. Working with “ideas” can be tricky business…

My immediate reaction to Retter’s organizing principles was one of surprise. While reflecting on that reaction of mine, I came to consider the rules that govern my own decisions with regards to which sugyot of the Bavli I choose to bring into discussion with one another. Philology, the love of words, has a tough time utilizing ideas, often deemed too subjective, in study and in text-editing. From the other end of the toolbox, one could argue that at least since De Saussure language has often been the grounding for Theory, leading, therefore, to an emphasis on words.

Both the philological and theoretical modes of reading may have instilled a stronger focus on words, but more importantly, current search-engines are really what have been changing the way we approach the bavli. “Change”, because whereas Bar-Ilan, Ma’agarim, the Lieberman database (and still other computer programs) use words, generations of Talmud readers, have, like Retter, used other aspects of the Talmud to decide which sugyot are speaking to one another. To be sure, the virtues of the electronic revolution are numerous. Search engines have allowed corpora like the Tosefta, Midrash Halakha, and the Yerushalmi to enter into discussion with greater ease. But which sources have we lost along the way?


13 thoughts on “Between Words and Ideas in the Reading of The Bavli

  1. This reminds me of an earlier discussion that we had on this blog about tagging the Bavli for ideas (not to mention strata and other things that probably cannot be automated). I wonder if such a task could be crowdsourced – a digital Bavli to which visitors can come and tag, perhaps according to some controlled vocabulary. Could that possibly work, or would it generate a big mess?

    • Michael-
      I do think that such a database could be made, although I’m not so sure how “crowdsourcing” can be done. I try and catalog phenemona that I come across while studying (and “learning”) the Bavli, and I would be willing to just punch in my information into some online system.
      A friend of mine is doing something similar with chassidic works. He and a few others are putting together an online index of the writings of the students of the Besh”t, and the system is not too complicated.

      One reader emailed me a link to this growing online index of the Bavli that you might find interesting: http://www.webshas.org/main.htm.

      It’s important to remember that some information is already out there and just needs to be harnassed properly. The website of the Academy of the Hebrew Language already has all of the Hebrew parts of the Bavli linguistically tagged, and the Aramaic parts marked off- has anyone asked them how much of the Bavli is actually in Aramaic?

  2. Zohar says:

    Great post! As one of the guys with the laptop in the beis midrash, I’m often asked to run searches for concepts and can have a very difficult time with those. Sometimes you just need someone who knows shas — and he’s available on Shabbat as well. 🙂

    • Agreed. That’s how I work. Also, teshuvot from various Acharonim that are known to bring all the relevant sugyot on one topic and weave them together.

  3. After doing research for over two years for my new novel, RAV HISDA’S DAUGHTER, I greatly looked forward to Retter’s book. Now that I have it I know it will be a great help, but I must admit to disappointment with his focus. Considering that Rava is mentioned 4000 times in the Bavli, I would have thought there would be more than 1 page on entries on him, that Rav Hisda would rate more than half a page, and that there would at least be a listing for his daughter [who is mentioned more in the Bavli than any other woman].

  4. This calls to mind a comment I once heard from a prominent Rosh Yeshiva (do not remember exactly who) to the effect that modern seforim make it easy to be a talmid chacham, given all of the footnotes and indices and the like. But – lo and behold – we do not actually have more talmidei chachamim as a result. Those who make it there tend to do so the old fashioned way – by doing the hard work of learning. In other words, they are the ones capable of producing all of the indices and footnotes.

  5. Elisha says:

    Almost twenty years ago, I recall a conversation with a well known Jewish studies professor who claimed bekiut was no longer necessary in light of the buddingly popular bar-ilan software. At first I was dumbfounded until i realized that I actually had to explain to him that topics find expression in varying terminology.

  6. Yehoshua says:

    I remember reading that the late R. Menachem Kasher was working on a “conceptual” Mesorat Hashas for the Bavli based on the works of the Rogotchover before he passed away.

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