As a Talmudist at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, I have long been accustomed to fantastical tales about the discovery of ancient manuscripts of the Babylonian Talmud. That famous picture of Schechter in the Geniza hangs everywhere in our halls. We are taught from the beginning not only to read Raphael Nathan Rabinovitch’s Dikdukei Soferim, but to imagine him on some Sunday morning in Rome, unlocking the Vatican Apostolic Library with his own set of keys, sitting down to transcribe Vatican 109 by candlelight. We hear of our own Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky, who supervised the doctorates of so many of our own teachers (Shamma Friedman, Mayer Rabinowitz, Joel Roth, and Burton L. Visotzky among countless others), roaming the monasteries of Italy, excato knife in hand, no binding safe from the search for more Seridei Bavli. And yet, we are accustomed to thinking that the time for these kinds of monumental discoveries, of even a few leaves of a Tractate stuffed into the binding of a 16th century print, has long past, and that only European libraries and monasteries might hold more finds. You can imagine my surprise when I found myself staring at an image in a Facebook message of what looked to my own eyes as an early European manuscript of the Bavli, apparently having formed the cover of a book of Church Music published in Prague in 1604, now housed in Fales Library at New York University.
A young scholar of musicology, Sam Zerin, who happens to be married to a former student of mine, Rachel Dudley Zerin, is pursuing a doctorate under Professor Stanley Boorman at NYU. Dr. Boorman, with his students, is now working on this collection, comprising about a dozen volumes, all of which are bound in Vellum manuscripts, mostly Latin music texts. Yet three volumes are bound in parchment from a single manuscript in a language Dr. Boorman didn’t read. Sam, his student, immediately recognized the script as Hebrew, and offered to ask his wife Rachel if she knew anyone at JTS who might be able to identify the text. Having been subjected to my (in)famous synopses in a class she took with me on Aggadah in Seder Nashim some years ago, Rachel had Sam send me some pictures of these bindings.
When I saw the first picture, it became clear that this might actually be a major discovery. The topic was Temura (הוא לה’ קריבה ואין תמורתו לה’ קריבה) and featured a dispute between Rava and Abaye, meaning that what I was looking at was either the Babylonian Talmud or some text which quoted or paraphrased it. Some brief searching in the Bar Ilan Responsa database led me to assume that this might be a section of Yalkut Shimoni‘s version of Temura 3b, which more closely matched this MS than did the printed texts of the Bavli, yet searching in the Lieberman database of Talmudic manuscripts revealed that indeed this was a manuscript of Temura. At this point I called Professor Neil Danzig and sent him the pictures. The questions were broad: might this text hold the key to resolving the dispute between Y.N. Epstein and E.S. Rosenthal on the relative age and provenance of the “Lishna Aharina” sections of Temura? How does this version of Temura compare to the fragments of this chapter found in the Geniza? Neither of us slept. I spent the night immersed in Temura.
When we spoke in the morning, we were both convinced that the covers from these three books were fashioned from a single manuscript of (or at least the first chapter of) Temura, written somewhere in Europe in the 12th or 13th century. Professor Danzing noted three features which pointed to an early date and “Proto-Ashkenazi” provenance for this text. First, the divine name is represented by three and not two letters “yod.” Second, the manuscript shows clear signs of striation. Third, the letters, “gimel” are elongated. We made an appointment to visit Dr. Boorman and these books at Fales Library.
The meeting between Drs. Boorman and Danzig was a beautiful example of everything that is right in the academy. Two scholars whose fields almost never overlap were brought together by a single artifact. Each scholar was able to explain in detail various but not overlapping aspects of this object, and each was able to convince the other of the worth of this object for his respective field. It was Professor Boorman who made the case to the conservator on duty that the bindings really needed to be opened, that the worth of this text to our field was worth potentially damaging his book.
Needless to say, I plan on transcribing this fragment in the coming months, comparing its readings to all the extant witnesses of the tractate as well as other variants recorded in the Shita Mequbetzet, and related works, with the aim of publishing an article on the fragment and its textual tradition. In the meantime, if any of the readers of the blog have any insights or thoughts about how to proceed, or know of any witnesses to Temura not listed in the Sussman catalog, I would love to hear about them.
Noah B. Bickart is an an adjunct instructor in Talmud & Rabbinics at JTS where he also serves as the Principal of the Rebecca and Israel Ivry Prozdor High School Program and is completing a PhD on scholastic terminology in the Babylonian Talmud and parallels to Syriac Christian literature.