English, Piyut, Readings

A Sign of Confusion? The Hometown of Elazar Birabi Qilir

Archeological sites in Israel feature signs that explain the findings and elaborate on their historical context. Many of these signs quote texts that are relevant to the site in most cases from the Bible and rabbinic literature. To my joy, while hiking in the ancient synagogue at Arbel in the Galilee last week, I came across the following sign that quotes from a liturgical poem by Elazar Birabi Qilir, one of the prominent payytanim of the late ancient school of Hebrew liturgical poetry.

The first thing that drew my attention was the partial defacement of the sign; while I could not explain the erasure of the ר from the word הקליר, the damage to the acronym לסה”נ (literally, according to the Christian calendar) suggests that someone thought that it is improper to mention the Christian calendar in the context of an ancient synagogue. Such a purist practice is not unusual in some nationalistic circles, which reminded me the outrageous phenomenon of defacing Arabic names from street and highways signs around the country (but this is a matter for another post on another blog).

But then I noticed another thing; according to the sign the Qiliri was a resident of Tiberias in the seventh century. That the Qiliri lived during the seventh century can be deduced with reasonable certainty from his mention of the Muslim conquest of Palestine in that century. However the only clue we have concerning his hometown is the ambiguous mention of קרית ספר in the acrostic of several of his poems. קרית ספר, to be sure, is mentioned in the Bible (Joshua 15:15) as the ancient name of דביר in the southern part of the country (not to be confused with the modern ultra orthodox west-bank settlement מודיעין עילית, also known as קרית ספר). At any rate scholars agree that קרית ספר is a generic name for a central Jewish town in late antique Palestine. It is true that Tiberias falls under that category but other places qualify as well – most notably Sepphoris – and in fact it was suggested by several scholars (including the late Ezra Fleischer) that the latter was the hometown of the Qiliri.  It was a real pleasure to find a mention of the Qiliri at this ancient synagogue but it would have been nicer if the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority would be more modest in its attempts to revive the past.

Did you come across similar inaccuracies in other archeological sites? Tell us about it…

English, Readings

Sins Without Borders

The confession of sins is a key feature in the classical Jewish process of atonement in general and in the Yom Kippur liturgy in particular. The obligation to confess during Yom Kippur appears already in the Tosefta (Kippurim 4:14) where we also find, in the words of Rabbi Yehuda son of Patera, that one has to specify each individual sin. Rabbi Aqiva disagrees with that opinion but R. Yehudah’s opinion was codified and made part of the liturgy. See for example the following passage from Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, Hilkhot Teshuva:

How does one confess? He says: ‘Please God! I have intentionally sinned, I have sinned out of lust and emotion, and I have sinned unintentionally. I have done such-and-such and I regret it, and I am ashamed of my deeds, and I shall never return to such a deed.’ That is the essence of confession, and all who are frequent in confessing and take great value in this matter, indeed is praiseworthy (chapter 1).

The list of sins that appears in almost every medieval prayer books consists of forty four sins, two for each letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Every line opens with the formula על חטא שחטאנו לפניך (for a sin that we have sinned before you) followed by the individual sin. The list had become so standard that it can be hardly regarded as authentic or personal in any way. Interestingly in a few medieval manuscripts we find unique lists of sins. Many of the sins in such lists are quite obvious, such as בביטול תורה (in not studying Torah) or בחילול שבת (profaning the Sabbath). However frequently we find very innovative sins such as בגילוח זקן and בגידול בלורית (shaving the beard and growing forelock) or בחימוד בגדים and בחימוד נשים (desire for cloths and desire for women).  Below is a list of the most unusual sins I found in these sources: ביין נסך (in non kosher wine), בהילוך על גבי עשבים בשבת (in walking on grass on the Sabbath), בהריגת בריה בשבת (in killing a creature [e.g., insect] on a Sabbath), בלימוד שלא לשמה (in studying the Torah not for its own sake), בקטטה בבית (in a quarrel at home), בתפלה שלא בכוונה (in prayer without the proper intention),  בתרדמה בבית התפלה (in falling asleep in synagogue), בצער בעלי חיים (in causing animals to suffer), בתשמיש (in having sex), לגרום רעה בזרעינו (in wrongdoing with our sperm), בפנות לאלילים (in worshiping idols) and בעובדינו בקרוב להם (in worshiping near them). Such lists of sins are not only very interesting but also very useful for socio-historical studies that seek to explore the everyday practices and beliefs of medieval Jewish societies, a task that I hope to embark on in the near future.

Perhaps the most unusual sin, or at the very least the most awkward formulation, I came across is found in a prayer book according to the Fez (a city in Morocco) rite, in which the confession open with the following sin על חטא שחטאנו לפניך באהבת אדם (for a sin that we have sinned before you in the love of a person). Suggestions for what that sin might be would be greatly appreciated.

And an easy fast (צום קל) for those observing.

English, General Culture

Mr. T

T. Carmi (ט. כרמי) was a prolific Israeli poet and translator. He was also a learned person who was fond of ancient Jewish literature (including rabbinic texts) and his poetry is embellished with numerous allusions to this rich corpus. One of his books, for example, bares the title “Near the Stone of Strayers” (ליד אבן הטועים) following the story in Bavli Bava Metziah 28b.  In another book a cycle of poems is entitled “Which way to Lod?” (?באיזה ללוד) and builds upon the story of Beruriah and Rabbi Yossi in Bavli Eruvin 53b. In academic circles Carmi is often cited, thanks to his English anthology of Hebrew poetry (ancient and modern) that was published by Penguin Press.

This post is not about rabbinic intertextuality in Carmi’s poetry, rather it concerns a curiosity relating to Carmi’s name or more precisely, to the meaning of the letter T.  At first sight it seems that Carmi is a last name and T stands for the first. However there is a tendency among Israeli writers to use a sort of pseudonym in which the first letter of their last name appears at the beginning of their literary name. Hence the novelist Yizhar Smilansky (יזהר סמילנסקי) is known as S. Izhar (ס. יזהר),  and the poet Sh. Shifra (ש. שפרה) is in fact Shifra Schifmann (שפרה שיפמן). This habit confused many scholars who sought (for some reason) to decipher what the T stands for and came up with peculiar suggestions. In a recent article published in Hebrew the reference to Carmi’s anthology gave credit to Tuvia Carmi (טוביה כרמי), while in  another article written in English he becomes no less than Ted Carmi. There are other examples of this trend including what might be the funniest examples of them all –  Todros Carmi (טדרוס כרמי), probably after the medieval Hebrew poet Todros Abulafia.

So what is the correct answer? Well, T. Carmi was born in New York in 1925 as Carmi Tscharney (כרמי טשרני), and the T stands for his last name. It is true, though, that Carmi is a very unusual first name, a fact that undoubtedly contributed to the (ongoing) confusion. But apparently, what’s in a(n abbreviated) name is nothing more than Tscharney.

English, Piyut, Recent Publications

Palestinian Vs. Babylonian Sources from an Unusual Angle

Scholars of Hekhalot literature, much like Talmudists, distinguish between Palestinian and Babylonian layers in the texts they study. The following post is about a rare occasion in which a newly discovered text from the Cairo Genizah potentially changes dramatically what we know about the provenance of ideas, motifs and texts.

Earlier this month another Festschrift was published (yet again by Brill), this time in honor of Menahem Schmelzer from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York. Everyone interested in late antique and medieval liturgy, piyyut and theology can find many interesting articles in the volume.  Most interesting for the readers of this blog is Michael Swartz‘s piece on Ancient Jewish Liturgy and Mysticism. In a nutshell, Swartz shows that the author of a fifth or sixth century Palestinian piyyut (published a few years ago in Jewish Studies Quarterly by Michael Rand) was acquainted with the ascent narrative pattern in Hekhalot literature . Swartz then singles out the importance of this newly discovered piyyut:

This finding is significant because of how components of the Heikhalot corpus have been dated by several students of this literature, including this writer. The hymnic element, consisting of compositions praising God on his throne and abounding in elaborate descriptions of the angels, has been traced to Palestine in late antiquity. However, it has been argued that the ascent narratives developed in Babylonia and were used to frame these hymns. This source now serves as strong evidence for placing the element of ascent in amoraic and early post-amoraic Palestine, at least for the narratives of Heikhalot rabati and parts of Heikhalot zutrati. (p. 278).

Swartz’s findings not only affect the study of Hekhalot literature but also that of piyyut. We now know that at least some early payytanim were familiar with Hekhalot notions and perhaps more interestingely, that they felt free to include such materials in compositions that were performed in public. Hopefully Swartz’s contribution will provoke interesting reactions from scholars of Jewish mysticism, rabbinic Judaism and Hebrew liturgical poetry from Late Antiquity.

English, Recent Publications

A New Hebrew Fragment of the Book of Ben Sira

TS AS 118.78

There are numerous citations of the Book of Ben Sira in Talmudic literature. And so, it is always nice to learn of new discoveries…

“As is well known, the discovery of the Book of Ben Sira is intimately tied to the discovery of the Cairo Genizah”; with these words Shulamit Elizur and Michael Rand open their recent Dead Sea Discoveries article, in which they publish a new Hebrew fragment of Ben Sira, chapters seven and eight. The new fragment is found in the Additional Series (AS) of the Taylor-Schechter Genizah collection at the University of Cambridge and was identified at the  Ezra Fleischer Institute for the Research of Hebrew Poetry in the Genizah of the Israel Academy of Sciences and Humanities. These chapters of the Hebrew version are known from other fragments, hence the new text does not substantially change our knowledge of Ben Sira but rather supplements it with new and sometimes important pieces of evidence.

The readers of The Talmud Blog are the first to learn about two typos in the text (this report is based on “inside-information”). In the apparatus to 7:20, the reading should be שכיר]; and in 8:2 the reading should be לו ק’.

English, Recent Publications

An Unusual Ashkenazi Qina for the Ninth of Av

Nuremberg Mahzor, 1331

The Ninth of Av is around the corner; here is a short post on an unusual qina (lament) from medieval Ashkenaz…

The Nuremberg Mahzor is a fourteenth century prayer-book according to the eastern Ashkenazi rite. The illuminated manuscript contains not only breathtaking artwork but also important payytanic texts, some of them unattested anywhere else in medieval manuscripts. Among these piyyutim is an unusual qina for the Ninth of Av that relates an imaginative dialogue between the Crusaders and the Jewish people.

The qina opens in medias res with the following verses:

“Come with us, you of smitten cheeks,”                                                                                           Say the uncircumcised and the unclean, my smooth-tongued enemies.                                     “We  are on our way to the land of the lovely diadem, the radiant land.                                   We  shall attack and plunder the spoil of the fortified cities,                                                       There we shall take our share, to each man two lengths of dyed cloth.”                                                                   (Translation by T. Carmi, in his The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse)

The awkwardness of this call had led Haim Hillel Ben-Sasson many years ago to explain that “the impact of the crusader climate opinion was so widespread that during one of the crusades the writer of a lament wrote as though crusader excitatoria (propaganda letters) were addressing the Jews” (A History of the Jewish People, p. 416). More recently, Elisabeth Hollender discussed the qina and wrote: “it is startling to see that here even the liturgical space, the communication with God, is not free from the fear of Christian attractivity… Israel cannot accept this offer, and it is exactly this refusal that shows the Jewish devotion to their religion, their God, as can be seen in the next passage of the qina”. Indeed the qina continues with harsh criticism of Christianity but also with a bitter sense of desperation from the absence of God and the past leaders of Israel.               This intriguing qina (and other qinot from the Nuremberg Mahzor) is discussed in Hollender’s article that was published recently in Giving a Diamond – Essays in Honor of Jospeh Yahalom on the Occasion of His Seventieth Birthday. The volume (edited by Wout Van Bekkum  and Naoya Katsumata ) was published by Brill and features fifteen essays that deal with various aspects of Hebrew verse and prose compositions from Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.