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Between Furniture in the Mishnah and the Mishnah on Furniture

Between Furniture in the Mishnah and the Mishnah on Furniture: On Karen Kirshenbaum, Furniture of the Home in the Mishnah (Hebrew; Bar Ilan University Press, 2013)- by Yair Furstenberg

It has recently become quite common to find families moving their Pesach Seder from the dining room table to the living room couches. At least in part this step is motivated by a keen interest in conducting what seems to be a more authentic Seder, as shaped by the rabbis two millennia ago along the lines of the Greco Roman symposium. Consequently, the stiff seating arrangement around the alter-like table is replaced by a more liberated recline at small personal ones. It seems that not only have celebrants become more aware of the original meaning of the word “table” in rabbinic language, brought in and out of the triclinium to fit the needs of the convention, but they have also come to rethink rabbinic — and by extension their own — ritual and performance accordingly. As this case demonstrates, any such investigation into the ancients’ most mundane aspects of daily life and its constitutive role in shaping rabbinic culture requires no justification, even for those who do not possess an antiquarian’s passion.

What then were the rabbis referring to when discussing the all too familiar tables, chairs, beds chests and cabinets, and what do the corresponding Greek and Latin loan-words, such as delphike, kathedra or subsellum, denote? Can we describe the items that furnished the rabbis’ domestic space without relying too heavily on our own experiences? And finally, how does the precise interpretation of these terms contribute to our understanding of rabbinic sources? These questions guide Karen Kirshenbaum in her book, Furniture of the Home in the Mishnah [Hebrew], which is essentially a lexicographical endeavor – a dictionary of furniture terminology in rabbinic literature. In this respect, Kirshenbaum follows in the footsteps of her supervisor, Prof. Daniel Sperber, who has contributed more than anyone else to the development of rabbinic lexicography through the systematic incorporation of classical dictionaries and archeological datum.


The book’s lexicographical orientation is manifest in the choice of arrangement according to entries. Each chapter, dedicated to one group of fixtures, is divided into terms; with regards to each of them Kirshenbuam offers a survey of previous definitions suggested by the major Talmudic dictionaries, followed by a discussion of the relevant sources and a re-evaluation of the definitions The basic method is quite traditional though occasionally very challenging as the exact definition of each term is based on an integration of variegated data: Rabbinic law, Greek and Roman literature and classical archeology. Halakhic statements, especially those dealing with the laws of purity, often describe the structure and function of these pieces of furniture; these at turn may also be found in archeological finds, such as the ruins of Pompey or more often depicted on stone carvings. Finally, in case of Greek and Roman loan words, literary sources supply additional information concerning the function of these objects through which the terms may be identified.

However, in one major aspect Kirshenbaum’s work has progressed beyond the model set by Sperber and other earlier scholars. Regularly one would be satisfied to identify the rabbinic loan word with its Greek or Roman cognate. Once the lexicographic link has been created, we might have assumed that the different literary corpora are referring to the same object and integrate them both into one description. This assumption, Kirshenbuam repeatedly claims, is unwarranted. The rabbis may be using the foreign word to denote a different object than that recorded in Greek and Roman sources. The same terms may be used within an alternative system of classifying furniture. Thus, the kathedra is any chair with a rounded back rest, and the delphike, assumed to be a tripod in classical literary sources, in rabbinic literature denotes any kind of service table, three-legged or otherwise. This claim serves Kirshenbaum, for example, in her fascinating interpretation of the following midrash concerning the golden calf (Exodus Rabba 43.7):

“Why does your wrath wax hot against your people” (Ex. 32.11). It can be compared to a royal dignitary who on entering the house discovered his wife embracing the delphike, and he became angry. Whereupon his friend said to him: “if it could give birth you would have every right to be angry,” to which he replied: “I know that it has no power whatsoever, but this is in order to teach her not to act this way.” This is also what God said: “I know that there is no reality in it, but so they may not indulge in idolatry,” whereupon Moses replied: “Since there is nothing in it why are you angry with your children.”

The parallel version in Numbers Rabba (2.15) replaces the delphike by a eunuch, who cannot have children, but this emendation clearly misses the point. The midrash refers to a human size statue who holds a service tray, such as described in the Tosefta (Kelim BM 4.8): “An andreias (a male image) made for the sake of holding cups and bowls is susceptible to impurity, since it is like a delphike.” According to this tosefta, the two kinds of service tables share the same function and are therefore identified within one halakhic category. The woman who has a delphike in her house finds sexual satisfaction in a human size statue, similar to Israel’s lust for the golden calf. R. Yohanan in the Yerushalmi (y. AZ 3.2, 42b) rules that the delphike is not considered idolatry and is therefore permitted. Consequently, one may find himself in a situation in which he brings such an image into his house, believing its function as a service table neutralizes its danger, but then he returns to discover the power of its temptation.

Halakhic categories may thus create a set of terms which appear exclusively in rabbinic literature Yet, there is much more to rabbinic classification than an occasional shift in terminology. Identifying and describing the furniture mentioned in rabbinic literature successfully as undertaken by Kirshenbaum, is not identical with understanding the rabbinic activity of classifying and organizing the “furniture of the home in the Mishnah” as the name of the book would imply. Besides the minor fact that the book employs all (Palestinian) rabbinic sources indiscriminately for uncovering the relevant terms and does not devote a separate discussion to the mishnah, there is no consideration of the manifold ways by which halakhic and scholarly activity (such as reflected in the Mishnah) serves to shape one’s environs, both practically and conceptually. In other words, the rabbis not only point towards familiar objects and consider their status- they also seek to subsequently organize their surroundings on the basis of halakhic policy, economic standard and cultural assumptions.

By way of illustration, any discussion of domestic space in contemporary halakhic discourse would inevitably take into account the well-known fact that halakhic considerations combined with modern technology and western standards of living created distinctively halakhic kitchens (as well as bedrooms). We thus expect a halakhic household to look different, and to embody an inseparable amalgamation of western and halakhic patterns. All the more so with regards to the Mishnah, which expressly seeks to organize ones domestic surroundings as a manageable pure space. To this end Mishnah Kelim surveys an enormous number of different kinds of implements and furniture through which one may delineate pure surroundings. Although not displayed in such terms, the Mishnah assumes the role of an interior designer.

The first question thus worth asking, and which may be pursued on the basis of Kirshenbaum’s work, is what standard of living do these items represent? Does the management of purity require some minimal level of economic capacity, and a separate set of beds and chairs? Otherwise, how is one expected to accommodate such scrupulous halakhic norms? This is not only a question of rabbinic social background, but it pertains to the very nature of the halakhic discourse, which was designed by Roman standard.

A second issue concerns the way the rabbis conceptually dismantled their furniture and literally rebuilt them, as famously demonstrated in the dispute between R. Eliezer and the sages over the Oven of Achnai (b. BM 59b). This famous oven was cut into rings and reconnected with sand between each of the rings (m. Kelim 5.10). Through this artificial split the oven was protected from impurity. Apparently, oven-makers such as Achnai were ingeniously creating new products to serve the needs of the substantial market segment of those eating their food in purity, no different than modern manufacturers of double ovens. In fact, this method of breaking down implements into smaller pieces and distinguishing different parts of the same object is the hallmark of rabbinic purity policy. It therefore comes as no surprise that Kirshenbaum dedicates a long chapter to the many bed-parts mentioned in the Mishnah, such as the square of the bed, the naklitim or the samokhot. With regard to each of these components, the Mishnah considers whether to consider it as part of the bed and whether it defiles with it.

Much effort is invested by Kirshenbaum in identifying these components, and transforming the details of purity laws into a concrete daily reality surrounding the actual bed. While fascinating in and by itself, such an endeavor is first and foremost a necessary condition for understanding the mishnaic project concerning the bedroom furniture (very much like the rabbinic reshaping of the Seder through the setting of living room space). The bed is undoubtedly the locus of impurity, and such impurity must be carefully controlled in order to restrict its dissemination within the house. In such conditions, there is nothing more important than dismantling the real tangible bed built according to Roman standards into its discrete parts and rebuilding it as a manageable halakhic object, which (very much like the Oven of Achnai) only superficially resembles the similar object known to us from the Roman surroundings  Only through the patient and caring treatment of the each and every item such as meticulously surveyed by Kirshenbaum, is the rabbinic project comprehendible.

Yair Furstenberg is an assistant Professor in the Jewish History department at Ben-Gurion University. He is currently working on reading the development of early Rabbinic law within its Roman provincial context


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