English, Talk of the Town

Coverup: Two Examples of Censorship, Then and Now

Censorship, which is supposed to conceal, has the habit of doing just the opposite: To censor is to cover up, and covering up is conspicuous. Here are two cases in point that I recently stumbled upon:

(1) I’ve been lucky enough to spend a few early mornings a week studying at Havruta, a unique Beit Midrash located on Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus. A few days ago a student came over and pointed to a strange formulation at bPes 113a:

שבעה מנודין לשמים ואלו הן: יהודי שאין לא אשה, ושיש לא אשה ואין לא בנים, ומי שיש לא בנים ואין מגדלין לתלמוד תורה ומי שאין לא תפילין בראשו ותפילין בזרועו וציצית בבגדו ומזוזה בפתחו והמונע מנעלים מרגליו וי’א אף מי שאין מיסב בחבורה של מצוה

According to this passage, which is reproduced above from the Vilna edition, the first in the list of people divinely excommunicated is ‘a Jew who does not have a wife’. Since it is more than clear that the Talmud’s target audience is made up of (rabbinic) Jews, the emphasis on the lifelong bachelor’s Jewish identity is strange. Note also that this marker does not appear in the rest of the passage, which goes on to list the other offenders without noting their religious persuasion. A look at the manuscripts reveals that none record the reading “a Jew”, and even early prints omit it as well. Dikdukei Sofrim points out that the first printed edition that contains this ’emendation’ is the Basil ed. and that it reflects an act of censorship.

Some scholars might say that this reading has no real philological value, but surely it is still useful for understanding the habits of early modern censors. In this case, the change is more than the usual fare. It does not respond to an unflattering portrayal of Christians or Jesus. Rather, it reveals someone troubled by the Talmud’s internal discourse. Here, the very assertion that not getting married is grounds for divine excommunication is seen as a threat to Christianity. Clearly, the passage negates the view that the celibate life is the good life, yet I doubt that it was directed at Christians. By adding the word “a Jew”, the censor attempts to limit the scope of the talmudic statement to the Jewish community, and the lady doth protest too much, methinks.

In his Demonstrations, the fourth century church father Aphrahat felt the need to respond to Jewish views about virginity that irked some Christians (His second, carefully argued demonstration on the topic is worth reading in full, and should be compared with early Jewish biblical traditions, as Naomi Koltun-Fromm has recently done). Apparently, what Jews said about celibacy bothered at least one censor, over a millennium later. And the evidence remains in a variant in the classic, Vilna edition.

(2) On a dark, misty, and rainy day the other week, I participated in what could only be described as a Gothic tour of Beit She’arim together with my home institute. Beit She’arim was the place to be buried in ‘early’ late antiquity, whether you were of rabbinical or non-rabbinical bent, a Jew who heartily embraced figural art, or one who was less than enthusiastic about it. On the way out of the site, I came across a sign whose top, Hebrew half had been skillfully covered by a shiny, screwed-in piece of plastic:

beitshearim censorship

One can still easily read the English text, which nicely highlights the mixing of Jewish and pagan themes in the funerary art. The fact that the English text remained undisturbed means that the censor, whoever he is, was only concerned with the ‘purity’ of (mono-lingual) Hebrew speakers. It was a cold day to begin with, but seeing this act of censorship, not in premodern Basil, but here in contemporary Israel, was chilling. Unlike Ophir’s example of ad-hoc censorship described in an earlier post, at Beit She’arim the censor’s perfectly cut, shiny piece of plastic screwed into an official sign had a certain authoritative feel. Apparently, someone at the parks authority permitted the censor to commit his sorry act. But what exactly the censorship reveals about the place of critical observations at Israeli historical sites – or lack thereof – I cannot know…


6 thoughts on “Coverup: Two Examples of Censorship, Then and Now

  1. Simon Holloway says:

    I have heard it said, and perhaps you can confirm, that there are instances in which mediaeval censors drew lines through the Talmudic text, but that the ink they used was of less durable a material than the ink in which the text was printed. As a result, the lines have faded and now serve to highlight the text that the censor found offensive, drawing the eye to it immediately.

    (Also, I have to ask: did you mean Pesachim 113b?)

  2. Isn’t it also possible that, rather than saying “He who…”, the list specifies “A Jew” to indicate that one who practices Judaism yet remains celibate invites suspicion as a secret Christian who professes Jewishness, similar to one who recites the Amidah but leaves out the ’19th’ brakhah (birkat haminim). Hence the condemnation is not celibacy as a way of life but celibacy as a Jewish way of life (think of the guidelines for choosing a shaliach tzibbur.)

  3. IH says:

    It is 113b. The Venezia Bomberg text is שבעה מנודין לשמים אלו הן מי שאין לו אשה ומי שיש לו אשה ואין לו בנים.


    I saw an example of the censor’s ink phenomenon Simon Holloway describes at the Valmadonna collection when it was shown in Sothebys New York in 2009. Sharon Mintz pointed it out and if memory serves it was a strikeout of a polemical passage of the RaDaK.


    On Beit She’arim, it’s not just the signage. The Hebrew version of the brochure whitewashes what is apparent to the eye: http://www.parks.org.il/ParksAndReserves/betShearim/Documents/beitShearim.pdf. See for example the Hebrew text for Cave 20. By contrast, the English version of the same brochure includes slightly varying text, including an additional sentence that I have highlighted:

    “Cave of the Coffins” (20) – The largest and most interesting of the caves so far unearthed in Bet Shearim. Seventy-five meters in both length and width, it includes two long corridors from which many rooms branch off. In the cave, 135 coffins were found. Twenty of them bear remarkable decorations, mostly taken from the living world: bull heads, eagles, lions, birds, fish and more. On one of the coffins – surprisingly – two figures of Nike, Greek goddess of victory. Some call this the “Cave of the Rabbis” because of the many inscriptions recalling the names of Rabbis.”

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