The past few years have seen an abundance of new Mishnah scholarship. Between the literary turn exemplified by Avraham Walfish’s dissertation; the Cover–Bakhtin moment in Moshe Simon-Shoshan’s monograph; and the ritual and Temple focus of the work of Berkowitz, Stoekl Ben-Ezra, Rosen-Zvi, and, most recently, Naftali Cohn, the Mishnah remains at the nexus of exciting academic output where new questions, methodologies, and insights come to test.
In this context, Yair Furstenberg, whose dissertation on Tractate Taharot can be included in the above list, delivered a class on Mishnah Pesahim here in the HUJI Talmud department last semester. At the end of the course, I, along with a friend, penned a paper on Mishnah Hallah. Studying and writing on this short tractate raised some methodological issues that I have been pondering for quite some time and would like to share here.
To what extent can we read polemics into the Mishnah? To be sure, there is no question that the Mishnah engages in some sort of polemics. At times, it claims to record the opinions of what we now term Second Temple sects, going so far as to even bring relatively complex arguments against them. As has been shown, some of these rejected opinions recorded in the Mishnah parallel those found in actual Second Temple literature. One the face of it, tractate Hallah itself doesn’t seem to record any sectarian opinion that differs from that of the Rabbis, but such a view might be found elsewhere in rabbinic literature. Indeed, hints of polemics are found in section 110 of the Sifre Bamidbar. On the verse “מֵרֵאשִׁית עֲרִסֹתֵיכֶם תִּתְּנוּ לַיקֹוָק תְּרוּמָה לְדֹרֹתֵיכֶם” (Numbers 15:21), the Midrash states (Horovitz pg. 114, Kahana lines 34-37):
מראש’ עריסת’- למה נא’. לפי שהוא או’ ראשית עריס’, שומע אני את הראשונה שבעיסות. ת”ל מראשית עריס’. מראש’
As noted by Menahem Kahana in his dissertation (“Prolegomena to a New Edition of the Sifre on Numbers”, Jerusalem, 1982), it appears that the Midrash here is rejecting an opinion that identifies Hallah with the commandments of Bikkurim and Omer. Such an opinion would understand the word “ראשית” as it appears in other parts of the Torah in relation to first fruits, practically meaning here that Hallah should be separated only once at the beginning of the year and not from each batch of dough.
Unbeknownst to Kahana, this deferred opinion indeed was a sectarian one, as became clear in a section of The Damascus Document published years after he finished his dissertation. The CD states (according to Shemesh’s reconstruction):
על] חלות התרומה לכל בתי ישראל אוכלי לחם [הארץ ל]הרים אחת בשנה עשרון אחד תהיה האחת [ לפני] השלמו לישראל אל [י]רים איש
and Baumgarten comments: “Our text identifies this חלה with the two loaves (לחם תנופה שתים) to be offered on the Festival of Weeks in accordance with Lev 23:17… The text interprets this to refer to an annual terumah, presumably on the basis of the term ראשית (Num 15:20), which is elsewhere applied to first fruits…”.
In our paper, we attempted to use this argument as a backdrop for better understanding some of the rather odd structural phenomena of tractate Hallah. In its first chapter, for example, the Mishnah devotes a relatively large amount of time to the comparison between Hallah, Terumah and Ma’aser. Likewise, in the third chapter, the discussion of Hallah is interrupted in Mishnahs 4 and 9 by comparisons to these tithes. By developing the tractate thusly, the editor succeeds in introducing the basic laws of Hallah while at the same time firmly placing the commandment outside of the category of “first fruits”. The method is subterfugal: The Mishnah doesn’t even mention the sectarian opinion as an option. Instead, it emphasizes the aspects of Hallah that are unlike Bikkurim and more like Terumah and Ma’aser: That the requirement to separate it is not a function of time per se, but of the produce or dough’s entering into a state of obligation through its physical state.
But are we overreading here? Can polemics be found here even though they aren’t brought up explicitly? Can the structural choices of the Mishnah’s editor(s) speak of points of conflict between the rabbis and other Jews? I’m not sure if the Mishnah works this way, and I’m wondering what other people have to say.