Dissertations, English

Dissertations and Theses, 2015

In keeping with The Talmud Blog tradition, here’s our fifth (!) annual Dissertations and Theses listing. If you know of anything that should be added, please email the reference, preferably along with an English abstract, to thetalmudblog [at] gmail [dot] com. We apologize for only getting it up now. Things have been a bit busy for the editors here at The Talmud Blog, but we hope to get more content to you soon enough. Until then, congrats to all the recent graduates – Talmud Blog editors included! 

Ilaria Briata, “Derek Ereṣ Rabbah and Derekh Ereṣ Zuṭa: Two Deuterotalmudic tractates on savoir-vivre,” Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, 2015 (Italian)

The dissertation concerns the Rabbinic tractates Derek Ereṣ Rabbah (DER) and Derekh Ereṣ Zuṭa (DEZ). These two late compilations are traditionally included among the Minor Tractates of the Babylonian Talmud and deal with etiquette and ethical instruction. The term derek ereṣ, as understood in the texts themselves, can be translated as manners or courtesy – in other words, the behavioral features that most immediately and evidently distinguish a member of the Rabbinic élite conducting a sage-like way of life. Etiquette prescriptions in DER and DEZ address various areas of everyday life, such as table manners and hospitality, but also cover apparently more trivial matters such as behavior in toilet and public baths. Both the tractates collect gnomic maxims, practical prescriptions and exempla that are partly original and partly excerpted from Talmudic and Midrashic sources. The Derek Ereṣ corpus underwent a complex textual history, so that it is impossible to date precisely its composition. However, the main stages of redaction have probably occurred during the 7th – 10th centuries.

The redactional issues of DER and DEZ are exposed in Part II of the dissertation. The basis for the textual inquiry is the only critical edition of the two tractates, prepared in the ’30s by Michael Higger. Higger’s hypothesis regarding subdivision of the materials into earlier independent literary blocks and regarding different lines of transmission and versions of the texts is discussed in detail.

Although it is impossibile to draw certain conclusions about date and place of redaction of the tractates, studying the transmission of the texts in manuscripts and in indirect quotations from later literary sources has been a productive tool in order to understand the significance of reception of DER and DEZ by Rabbinic Judaism in Medieval Europe. Part III tries to frame the Derek Ereṣ corpus into the context of etiquette literature developing in Christian Europe in late Middle Ages. My investigation presents the state of art of current scholarship on savoir-vivre manuals and suggests a theoretical structure which could take into account and explain otherwise merely exotic documents as the Rabbinic works DER and DEZ. In this sense, the concept of derek ereṣ itself is illuminating, as it seems partially to overlap to Pierre Bourdieu’s notion of habitus, i. e. the peculiar style, learned through practise, that distinguish a social group. The literary reception of the  Derek Ereṣ corpus attests the need for codification of a socially distinctive lifestyle – a need shared by both Christian and Judaic élites during the historical phase of cultural textualization in Europe (11th – 13th centuries).

The main bulk of the research is devoted to the Derek Ereṣ texts themselves (Part IV). DER and DEZ have been translated into Italian for the first time. The Italian version is completed by a commentary comprehending linguistic and philological annotations, analysis of parallels in Rabbinic literature, explanations on particular ideas and concepts raised by the texts. When pertinent, considerations extend also to a comparison with sorrounding cultures, such as Graeco-Roman world, Christian Late Antiquity and Middle Ages. The translation is based on manuscript JTS 2237 (Provence, 1271) for DER and DEZ 10 – 11 and manuscript Oxford 896 (Lybia, 1203) for DEZ 1 – 9. The Hebrew text is transcribed in Part V.  A  list of all the manuscripts attesting the Derek Ereṣ corpus is also compiled (Part VI).

As appendix (Part VII), I present a comparative examination of a set of narrative passages on the topic of good manners taken from DER and from the Christian compilation Apophthegmata Patrum (Egypt, 5th – 6th centuries). Even though belonging to distant cultural settings, the selected stories represent late literary developments of the chreia, a widespread Hellenistic narrative model which was adopted in Late Atiquity by various intellectual or religious élites (such as the rabbis and the Egyptian monks) as a rhetoric instrument for self-representation and instruction.

Noah Bickart, “Tistayem: An Investigation into the Scholastic Culture of the Bavli,” The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2015

This dissertation investigates the meaning and usage of a particular set of linguistically related Talmudic terms in order to show how and in what cultural context the Talmud began to take shape in the emerging scholastic centers of rabbinic learning in late Sassanian Babylonia. The term tistayem is here defined as meaning, “let it be promulgated” and is thus shown to be inherently redactional in nature. By its very meaning and the way it is employed it speaks to the ordering of extant traditions in new literary frameworks. This term has analogs both in early sources dating from Amoraic disciple circles, in which an analogous term was used to indicate the process by which different reports of statements could be combined to achieve a more authoritative version of a tradition, and in later texts from Geonic times in which the term comes to denote a specific kind of scholastic practice in which traditions were ordered for easy memorization and promulgation. Additionally, parallels to these terms are found in the literatures of Syriac speaking Christians providing avenues for comparisons between these scholastic cultures which shared scripture, language and similar modes of study as worship. Finally, this study demonstrates the ways in which increasing sophistication in usage of these terms mirrors increasing academization during the Talmudic period. As such, evidence is marshalled in support of a more gradual model of the redaction of the Talmud.

Shmuel Fink, “The Impact of Technology on the Study of Talmud,” Nova Southeastern University, 2014

The study of Talmud has experienced a virtual explosion. Aside from many benefits that can be gained from the daily study of Talmud,it facilitates life-long learning behaviors. The creation of life-long learners is especially crucial in today’s job market, where the introduction of new technologies makes it essential for employees to constantly update their skills.

In particular, the idea of studying a page of Talmud a day, known as Daf Yomi, conceived in 1923 by Rabbi Meir Shapiro, has become common practice. Although once the purview of Orthodox males, it has been proposed this practice has extended to females, Jews of all denominations, and even some non-Jews. Paralleling this practice, there has been an explosion of technology based resources created for the Daf Yomi student. The last known study of these resources was in 1990 and focused exclusively on the one resource available, a telephone call-in system.

Based upon the many developments in computing technologies in the past 25 years, the time has arrived to determine what types of additional resources currently exist, how they are being used, and who is using them. These methods were documented in a single, current resource to enable both people who learn Daf Yomi to easily determine what resources are available, and those designing the programs to better take the needs of the customer into account.

In addition, the demographic of those using these resources is largely undocumented. The study attempted to discover if the increase in technological tools has caused the study of Talmud to expand to a much larger segment. It was found that many people are currently studying Daf Yomi for the first time. Woman, Conservative Jews, and non-Jews are involved in Talmud study; many for the first time ever. Many attributed the technological tools available to them as the reason for their study.

Shimon Fogel, “The Orders of Discourse in The House of Study (beit midrash) in Palestinian Rabbinic Literature: Organizing Space, Ritual and Discipline,” Ben-Gurion University, 2014 (Hebrew)

My study is a delineation of the “Map” of the study hall (Beit Midrash), as it is revealed in the discourse of the early rabbinic sources. This “map” shows the conventions, hierarchies, ideologies and conflicts of the study hall.

The first discussion deals the rabbinic arrangements regarding entrance into the study hall, using the tools provided by the field of “ritual studies”. These texts, and the discourse surrounding them, shape the image of the learning space, separate it from the outside and define the various roles of its inhabitants, as well as the relationships between them.

The second issue is the connections between the way in which study hall participants sit in its space, the discourse which takes place within its walls and the statuses and hierarchies which combine and collide in it. Thus, as part of the developing trend of studying rabbinic literature from the perspective of spatial studies. Alongside tools whose origin is in the study of architecture and geographical studies and the idea of ‘Heterotopia” (Termin coined by Foucault). The resulting picture is one of a system which aims to impose an order based on Torah knowledge, although it is not completely devoid of the influence of political and economical systems.

The third discussion relates to exiting the study hall and the issue of expulsion of participants. Excommunication, particularly in its study hall context, is examined from a perspective of the theory of punishment, and its roles in shaping the boundaries of society and of its discourse. I suggest an understanding of banishment as a practice whose boundaries are not clear or organized. Similarly, it is unclear who holds the authority to use banishment in the study hall. This lack of clarity regarding the boundaries of the study hall discourse can create a constant feeling of threat and supervision.

Eliashiv Fraenkel, “Meetings and Conversations of Sages in Stories Regarding Halakhic Background in the Babylonian Talmud,” Bar-Ilan University, 2015 (Hebrew)

This thesis discusses a literary genre within the Babylonian Talmud—the halakhic tales, and the halakha-based tales. Over the past two generations, beginning in the late twentieth century, dramatic advances have been made in the study of aggadic tales. In contrast, the halakhic tales “fell between two stools”, as the aggada scholars identified them (justifiably, to an extent) as “halakha”, whereas the halakha scholars classified them as stories (equally justifiably), thus the discussion and the literary analysis remained neglected by both sides. As a result, we see only a few tales of this genre having received the appropriate attention and an actual scholarly literary analysis.

The halakhic tales discussed in this thesis are examples of artistic storytelling and, as such, display these three characteristics: concise language, literary devices and, especially, dramatic tension. This dramatic tension is characteristic of each and every one of these tales, and is the most prominent indication that these are indeed stories worthy of literary analysis. Our greatest challenge in this thesis was pinpointing and describing the dramatic tension, similar to the dramatic tension in the aggadic tales. Concise language is used in these tales, especially in conversations between sages, as this conciseness is often found as well in amoraic dicta and in give and take that take place in “regular” halakhic discussions that are not dramatic tales. In some of the tales we found literary devices, thus we may define them as literary narratives. However, the great brevity found in some of the stories does not always make it possible to clearly define the devices, beyond a mere general structure of the tale indicated.

The halakhic component that exists in these tales is borne out mainly through the conversation between sages appearing in them, a conversation that either stems from a situation in which the sages find themselves, or within the context of a specific halakhic discussion.

The concept bet midrash (study hall) has a rather broad sense in the Babylonian Talmud–and in this thesis as well–and is not confined to any concrete structure. A bet midrash is defined as the place in which study takes place, and this can be a lone individual reflecting on his studies while travelling, or any place where a group of scholars sit around their teacher in joint study. Subsequently, such conversations, just as any halakhic discussion, may take place “in” the bet midrash (where one exists) or outside of it—e.g. in a doorway, on the road, or even in the course of visiting another town, and so on and so forth.

What do these description of halakhic conversations propose to transmit, stories or law? It is our contention that whatever halakha is present in the halakhic tales, this halakha is, in effect, the platform and the foundation for the story. In the absence of any particular halakhic theme, and without the sages discussing halakha, usually there would be no cause for any discussion to develop or be reported. We stress, however, that contrary to the halakhic sugya, where the halakhic give and take is the main focus, in the tales—halakha is the matter from which the story was created, but is not its primary objective. Without exception, in all of these tales, the halakha could have been removed from the story and presented independently, devoid of the dramatic events surrounding it. Having fully comprehended the halakhic theme, and after we exhausted the halakhic queries and the halakhic backdrop for the discussion, we focused on the dramatic components of the story, which, we contend, are the primary element of the tale and are not halakhic (in the common sense of the word) at all.

The central foundation for this study is the recognition of Torah-study as a supreme value in the world of the sages. The value, which is that very core of the spiritual world of our sages, is for us an Archimedean point in the analysis of the conversations contained in the halakhic tales. Any action, or inaction, that contributes to the study of Torah, will be evaluated in Talmudic literature (either by the sages themselves or by narrators) favorably. Conversely, anything that prevents the development of Torah study, and intentionally or unintentionally hinders it, will be evaluated critically. This criticism may be harsh or mild, direct or indirect, but it is always present.

We did not resolve conclusively whether or not the halakhic tales did in fact occur as described in the Talmud. On the one hand, we have the argument that there is an inverse relation between art and “artistic”, verses realistic and historic. The halakhic concepts in these tales are consistent with normal halakhic discourse, and the scenario discussed is realistic. On the other hand, the more artistic a tale is, so too does it distance itself from the rules of a bona fide presentation of the historical reality. In this thesis we have shown time and again that the moral values permeating in the halakhic tales are very similar to those which we discussed in aggadic tales, especially the genre referred to as “The Tales of Our Sages” (ma’asei chachamim). And, like any artistic text, the tales are even analyzed in a manner familiar to us from the analysis of aggadic tales. At the same time, it is evident that these are not imaginary mythical legends about which scholars are in consensus that they are not historic. The halakhic tale genre (which is the subject of this thesis) stands in between hundreds of bet midrash events recounted in the Talmud, for which there is no compelling reason to argue that they did not occur exactly as told, and aggadic tales, where the opposite should be assumed. In other words, the question remains, whether the halakhic treatment of the tales, and the sense one gets that these tales were the product of actual bet midrash events, detracts in any way from their being literary or artistic.

The chapters of this thesis

In the introduction, we discussed at length the topics presented above, as well as further questions relating to the degree to which the halakhic tales remain independent of the halakhic discussion in which they appear. We set an exact definition of a halakhic tale and the distinction between these and halakhic events, of which thousands appear throughout the Talmud. We presented a structural outline for these tales, as well as addressing the question, when were they composed, which relates to the realism question mentioned above. In the introduction we also recorded the history of the research. We presented in brief the major change that took place in the latter half of the twentieth century with regards to the Talmudic tales—both aggadic tales and halakhic tales. We found only a few scholars who treated the halakhic tale genre as literature, and we compared their work. Amongst the scholars cited in the introduction were Urbach, my late father and mentor Jonah Fraenkel, and Ofra Meir—of blessed memory— as well as my mentor Prof. Shamma Friedman, Rubenstein, Kalmin, and Ruhama Weiss. My own thesis, which discussed “Ishtik” sugyot in the Babylonian Talmud, was also cited in this section.

In the first chapter of the analysis of the tales, we discussed tales dealing with remaining silent in the study hall. I discussed silence at length in my thesis, and in this chapter I selected several oft-recurring devices mentioning a sage remaining silent. We also interpreted several slightly longer tales in which silence is mentioned, either explicitly or surreptitiously within the discourse among sages. Silence does on occasion reflect a crisis in the relationship between sages studying with one another in the bet midrash. This outcome is actually a type of death. Conversely, in other instances, silence leads to the reorganization and rehabilitation of the relationship between the sages, all in the interest of preserving the bet midrash situation.

In the second chapter we discussed tales of encounters between sages and figures that we labeled as “other”, that is to say figures who are not a part of the regular milieu of the bet midrash scholars. Such an “other” figure may be an unfamiliar sage from another town, and agent who is not part of any group of sages, or one of the sages from whom we understand—as we conclude from the tale—that we ought to distance ourselves because he is in effect an “other”.

In the third chapter we discussed halakhic tales of sages on the road. Certain situations and occurrences create dramatic tension in the relationship between the sages, which affects their ability to study together. An error in behavior—deliberate or not–by one of the sages, may also damage the relationship between the sages, and this in turn damages their ability to study together and jeopardizes the survival of the bet midrash institution.

In the fourth chapter we discussed tales that take place at the dinner table. We showed that these tales, and the conclusion we reached in discussing them, are not essentially different from the other halakhic tales cited in the other sections of this thesis. The drama that at unfolds around the dinner table, which is expressed in the halakhic tales, is yet one more facet of the drama existing in other encounters between sages, and the deliberations as to how one should conduct oneself during the meal are among the dilemmas that beleaguer the sages in other situations as well.

In the fifth and final chapter, we collected all of the pirka tales in the Babylonian Talmud. One of the first challenges was to ascertain the proper wording of each and every tale; this due to grave discrepancies found in several of the tales in the various manuscripts and printed edition. For each tale we proposed the optimal wording, and then we analyzed the purpose of each tale, and showed where they differ and what they have in common. In addition to the pirka tales, we further included several accounts of sages who decided to leave the bet midrash and their studies within it (usually temporarily) and we showed the reaction of the narrator to these decisions.

Throughout all the chapters, for those tales for which we found a parallel in the Jerusalem Talmud, we cited and analyzed it. We found that at times the account in the Jerusalem Talmud was less developed, and the tale less dramatic, than in its Babylonian parallel. On the other hand, in quite a few instances we saw that the Babylonian account showed a decline in the literary value of the tale. We refrained from any bias, as one never knows a priori which account will be better from a literary standpoint, the one in the Jerusalem Talmud or the one in the Babylonian, not until we examine each case individually and arrive at informed conclusions for each case.

Having analyzed scores of accounts of halakha-based conversations within the Talmud, we have proven the existence of this genre, which is, on the one hand, an additional (but distinct) division of tales in the Babylonian Talmud and, on the other hand and at the same time, part and parcel of halakhic literature.

David Grossberg, “The Meaning and End of Heresy in Rabbinic Literature,” Princeton University, 2014

In this dissertation, I critically reexamine the category of heresy as scholars have applied it to the study of rabbinic literature, and I propose an alternative approach to rabbinic polemic and rhetoric of exclusion and inclusion. I suggest that the category of heresy is too multivalent and imprecise to allow for a rigorous historically-contextualized study of the rabbis and is best considered to be just one species of a broader phenomenon of polemical exclusion or boundary-drawing between communities in antiquity. Heresy and heretics are, properly considered, elements of a narrow technical lexicon that functions in the context of heresiology as an early-Christian literary genre rather than trans-historical archetypes for the entire endeavor of rhetorically delegitimizing those perceived as outsiders.

Approaching the rabbis in this way reveals significant diachronic shifts in the predominant rhetorical strategies that characterize various texts or textual strata of the classical rabbinic corpus. I argue that earlier rabbinic texts and textual strata tend to deploy a type of exclusionary polemic that aims to represent its targets as in some significant sense illegitimate and therefore rhetorically excluded from the Jewish community. This type of exclusion is typical both of polemic generally and of early Christian heresiology specifically and for this reason has been the primary focus of scholarly interest in this subject. However, a close analysis reveals that later rabbinic texts and textual strata tend to deploy an innovative type of polemic that is actually inclusionary in its immediate effect, rhetorically including even sinners and recreants within the Jewish community, but polemical in its implications, targeting those with different conceptions of the Torah by which this community is bound than that promulgated by the rabbis. I argue that this shift from exclusionary to inclusionary polemic reflects developments in the rabbinic movement’s social structure between second century Roman Palestine and seventh century Sassanid Persia. Although earlier scholarship tended to presume a unified and authoritative rabbinic community throughout this period, my dissertation supports the growing scholarly consensus that the development of a unified rabbinic self-conception and the achievement of practical judicial authority actually occurred gradually over the classical rabbinic period.

Ruth Haber, “Rabbis on the Road: Exposition En Route in Classical Rabbinic Texts,” The University of California, Berkeley, 2014

Throughout classical rabbinic texts, we find accounts of sages expounding Scripture or law, while “walking on the road.” We may well wonder why we find these sages in transit, rather than in the usual sites of Torah study, such as the bet midrash (study house) or `aliyah (upper story of a home). Indeed, in this corpus of texts, sages normally sit to study; the two acts are so closely associated, that the very word “sitting” is synonymous with a study session or academy. Moreover, throughout the corpus, “the road” is marked as the site of danger, disruption and death. Why then do these texts tell stories of sages expounding en route?

In seeking out the rabbinic road, I find that, against these texts’ pervasive notion of travel danger runs another, competing motif: the road as the proper – even necessary – site of Torah study. Tracing the genealogy of the road exposition (or “road derasha “), I find it rooted in traditional Wisdom texts, which have been adapted to form a new, “literal” metaphor. The motif of sages expounding en route actualizes the Proverbial “Way of Wisdom” making it a real road upon which sages tread. That way is paved by a (literalized) reading of the Shema’s command, “speak [these words] as you walk on the road…”

In the first part of my study, I consider the motif’s setting, asking what rabbinic texts tell us about this site. I find that danger is the keynote of discourse about the road; indeed the multitude of dangers and risks indicate that this is a far from suitable place for Torah study. Rabbinic discourse about the road seems to preclude discourse while on the road. The second part of my work focuses on teachings that (in spite of this pervasive sense of road danger) actually adjure travelers to study en route, declaring that Torah study protects travelers on the way. Not only do these teachings seem to justify the accounts of road exposition, but they also point the way to the roots of the motif; by closely reading each teaching and its links to the larger corpus, I mark the way to the Wisdom tradition in which the motif is grounded, and which it transforms. Finally, in the last part of my study, I consider a text containing many road derashot – and of which the main theme is the journey. This text, which concerns esoteric wisdom, complicates our motif, for here (instead of guiding and protecting us on the way), Wisdom is considered a dangerous path, from which we are warned away. And yet, even against warning and prohibition, it seems that the imperative to “speak [these words] on the way” is still in force. For here too, we find sages expounding on the way – accounts that are emblematic of the text’s larger discursive journey towards this dangerous wisdom.

Katharina Esther Keim, “Pirqei deRabbi Eliezer: Structure, Coherence, Intertextuality, and Historical Context,” The University of Manchester, 2015

The present dissertation offers a literary profile of the enigmatic Gaonic era work known as Pirqei deRabbi Eliezer (PRE). This profile is based on an approach informed by the methodology theorized in the Manchester-Durham Typology of Anonymous and Pseudepigraphic Jewish Literature, c.200 BCE to c.700 CE, Project (TAPJLA). It is offered as a necessary prolegomenon to further research on contextualising PRE in relation to earlier Jewish tradition (both rabbinic and non-rabbinic), in relation to Jewish literature of the Gaonic period, and in relation to the historical development of Judaism in the early centuries of Islam. Chapter 1 sets out the research question, surveys, and critiques existing work on PRE, and outlines the methodology. Chapter 2 provides necessary background to the study of PRE, setting out the evidence with regard to its manuscripts and editions, its recensional and redactional history, its reception, and its language, content, dating, and provenance. Chapters 3 and 4 are the core of the dissertation and contain the literary profile of PRE. Chapter 3 offers an essentially synchronic text-linguistic description of the work under the following headings: Perspective; PRE as Narrative; PRE as Commentary; PRE as Thematic Discourse; and Coherence. Chapter 4 offers an essentially diachronic discussion of PRE’s intertexts, that is to say, other texts with which it has, or is alleged to have, a relationship. The texts selected for discussion are: the Hebrew Bible, Rabbinic Literature (both the classic rabbinic “canon” and “late midrash”), the Targum, the Pseudepigrapha, Piyyut, and certain Christian and Islamic traditions. Chapter 5 offers conclusions in the form of a discussion of the implications of the literary profile presented in chapters 3-4 for the methodology of the TAPJLA Project, for the problem of the genre of PRE, and for the question of PRE’s literary and historical context. The substantial Appendix is integral to the argument. It sets out much of the raw data on which the argument is based. I have removed this data to an appendix so as not to impede the flow of the discussion in the main text. The Appendix also contains my entry for the TAPJLA database, to help illuminate the discussion of my methodology, and a copy of my published article on the cosmology of PRE, to provide further support for my analysis of this theme in PRE.

Andrea Lobel, “Under a Censored Sky: Astronomy and Rabbinic Authority in the Talmud Bavli and Related Literature,” Concordia University, 2015

Until the last few decades of the twentieth century, research on Judaism and astronomy and related celestial sciences tended to emphasize the medieval and Second Temple periods. To date, with the exception of analyses of the Jewish calendar and its development, few studies in the history of science have focused upon the rabbinic period, although a growing number of scholars, including Annette Yoshiko Reed, Noah Efron, and Menachem Fisch, have begun to address this gap.
The emerging sub-field of the history of rabbinic science ca. 70-750 C.E., spans the fields of both Jewish studies and the history of science. This dissertation represents an original contribution to knowledge, demonstrating both the richness of celestial discourse in the Babylonian Talmud and the nuanced play of differing typologies of rabbinic authority articulated by Avi Sagi, Michael S. Berger, and other scholars, particularly epistemic and deontic authority. These are shown to interact strongly with rabbinic discourses addressing the overlapping celestial concerns of astronomy, astrology, astral magic, astrolatry, and cosmogony. By examining these astronomical topics together in a study of this kind for the first time, I demonstrate a recurrent pattern of tight rabbinic controls over the celestial sciences preserved in the Babylonian Talmud. This is of importance to the trajectory of Jewish scientific thought due to the enduring centrality of the Bavli.
I also underscore an idealized portrayal of rabbinic legal deontic authority over these sciences, and a focus upon shows of honour and prestige associated with the rabbinic station itself in the Bavli. Further, I highlight the ways in which these preserved talmudic portrayals also serve to illuminate the self-presentation of the rabbis as inheritors of the interpretive and legislative powers bequeathed to them by God, the cosmic lawgiver, at the time of creation and at the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai.

Yoel Kretzmer-Raziel, “The Category Muqse and its Development in Amoraic Literature,” Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 2015 (Hebrew)

This dissertation follows the development and categorization in the halakhic field of handling and consumption of objects on Sabbath and festivals, including the evolution the concept muqṣe (set aside) in Amoraic Literature.

The dissertation is comprised of three sections: Chapters 1-2 deal with the pre-amoraic base of the prohibitions of handling and consumption on Sabbath and festivals, in the Hebrew Bible, in works from Second Temple times and in Tannaitic Literature. Chapters 3-6 discuss the hermeneutic, conceptual and perceptual developments in this field in the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds (Hereafter: Yerushalmi and Bavli). Chapters 7-9 analyze the crystallization of the concept muqṣe itself from the Mishnah and Tosefta, through the Yerusahlmi and primarily in the Bavli.

The Dissertation follows five major routes:

1. Textual and Hermeneutic Development: The biblical instruction, ‘they shall prepare that which they bring in’ (Ex. 16:5) and the prohibition to carry burdens (Jer. 17) provided formative conditions for the creation of norms that restrict the consumption of foods and the carrying of objects on Sabbath and festivals. These can first be traced in the Damascus Document and in fragments from Qumran. In Tannaitic Literature there are detailed proscriptions against consuming and carrying, however an overt effort to link them to Scripture is lacking. The affinity to Scripture may be traced in the tannaitic usage of the term mukhan (prepared), echoing the verb ve-hekhinu (they shall prepare). The Amoraim deal extensively with the laws of consuming and carrying, with a seemingly hermeneutic focus, attended at the interpretation of tannaitic sources, rather than at new cases arising from reality. Even when it seems that the Amoraim are discussing a new case, often it can be shown that the cases at hand have been imported from texts in other fields of law, chiefly Purity law. Close affinity may be found between the two Talmuds and repeatedly it seems that the Babylonian Sugya, with its concepts and principles, is a processed form of the Palestinian one.

2. Regulating the Chaos: The laws of consuming and carrying on the Sabbath in the Mishnah and Tosefta seem textually and conceptually chaotic. The primary strategy of the Bavli in coping with this chaos is to analyze the sources according to their acceptance of the principle of muqṣe and to divide them into two groups – those that accept the principle are ascribed to the tana R. Judah and those that reject it are ascribed to R. Shimon. This procedure generates a polarization of the views at hand, as the tannaitic consensus regarding the notion that there are objects that may not be handled or consumed on the Sabbath, the Bavli portrays a dispute on this very idea.

3. Categorization: Selection, Branching out and Specification: The term mukhan which appears in the Damascus Document plays a central role in Tannaitic Sabbath law, despite its foreignness to Mishnaic Hebrew. This “frozen” term receives a new sense, relating to the status of an object at the commencement of the Sabbath. Albeit its centrality, the concept mukhan is not and underlying principle for all tannaitic restrictions on handling and consumption on the Sabbath. In Amoraic Literature two processes occour parallel. On the one hand, tannaitic concepts are widely developed (e.g.: mukhan > hakhana, keli > keli she-melakhto le-issur). On the other hand, a marginal term in Tannaitic Literature (muqṣe) assumes a central role and branches out in several directions. In some cases it seems that muqṣe replaced lengthier terms, due to ‘word ecology’, driving to selection of concise forms. However, muqṣe does not replace other terms exclusively. The abstraction of muqṣe commences in the Yerushalmi and does not culminate in the Bavli, in which the term muqṣe relates primarily to consumption of goods and hardly ever to handling. The only utensil that the Bavli applies the term muqṣe to is the oil lamp.

4. The Influence of Purity Laws: Amoraic discourse regarding the laws of muqṣe is heavily influenced by tannaitic purity laws. Talmudic discussions in this field widely borrow cases (e.g.: ‘heads of beams’), linguistic forms (‘a base [for a forbidden object]’, ‘prepared for-‘, ‘[muqṣe] on the acoount of-‘) and distinctions (‘placed/forgot’) from the order of Purities. The deepest influence appears in the form of the ‘mental turn’. While tannaitic law takes account of physical criteria in determining whether objects may be handled on the Sabbath, in both Talmuds there is a tendency to examine objects according to one’s thought or awareness towards it. Casuistic rulings are worded utilizing mental criteria and in the same manner earlier sources are interpreted or rephrased. The vocabulary of these mental criteria as well as their ritual function point directly to tannaitic purity laws.

5. Function and Significance: The term muqṣe is elusive and analysis of all its occurrences in the Bavli does not easily produce one simple definition thereof. On the one hand, it is clear that muqṣe is not merely a paradigmatic case, useful for legal analogy. On the other hand, in contrast to post-Talmudic sources, in the Bavli muqṣe is not a code for all prohibitions of handling and consuming on the Sabbath, nor is it synonymous to ‘set aside from one’s mind’. We could view muqṣe as a “family-resemblance concept” or more accurately as a “prototype concept”, with a dominant sense, as well as marginal meanings. Instead of defining the concept, it seems useful to describe its function. Lexically, muqṣe often replaces eino min ha-mukhan as the antonym for mukhan. Therefore, we cannot talk of a conceptual revolution replacing the notion of preparedness with that of setting aside. From a discursive perspective, muqṣe functions in the Bavli chiefly as a tool for taxonomy of texts – determining whether a text adheres to the principle of prohibition of consuming or handling of unprepared goods on the Sabbath and festivals or not.

Daniel Reifman, “​The Role of Rationales in Halakhic Adjudication: A Semiotic Approach,” Bar-Ilan University, 2015

This dissertation seeks to address three fundamental questions regarding the use of rationales in halakhic discourse: 1) What types of statements do we expect and/or accept as rationales for halakhic rules or rulings?  2) Do halakhic adjudication and interpretation necessarily mandate the formulation of a rationale for a given rule?  3) To what extent does the rationale for a halakhic rule determine its range of application?  We approach this topic through a series of typological examples, longitudinal analyses of the development of specific laws and their rationales from the rabbinic period through the modern era.

We use semiotic theory to argue for a distinction between analogies and rationales as the two fundamental axes of halakhic reasoning.  Analogical reasoning is central to the interpretation of most rabbinic texts, where casuistic laws – laws formulated in terms that are sufficiently specific and concrete to serve as a practical guide for popular (i.e., non-professional) legal behavior – are juxtaposed with little or no conceptual explanation.  In Saussurian terms, analogical reasoning is the process of determining the value, or semantic range, of a given legal formulation, which by definition involves comparison and contrast with other similar legal formulae.  From a semiotic perspective, legal analogy is not merely a tool for adjudication and legal reasoning; rather, it is the essential means of constituting a cohesive discourse out of disparate legal formulations.

However, value is only one dimension of meaning, that aspect which is generated internally within a system of signs, based on the patterns of similarity and difference between the sign-units of that system.  A semiotic model also posits a second aspect of meaning which is generated by our ability to substitute any sign in the system with a different sign from outside the system (e.g., a translation into another language), referred to as the interpretant.  This is the dimension of meaning that is established by providing a rationale or explanation for a given casuistic law: fundamentally, what enables a statement to serve as a rationale is not that it is more general or abstract than the law it is invoked to explain, but rather that it comes from an external source or discourse.  We may define a legal rationale as a signifier that is not part of a system of casuistic laws which serves as an interpretant for one or more casuistic laws within that system.  Every statement that serves as a legal rationale must have one or more form features that mark it as not belonging to the semiotic network of casuistic laws: its form must be either non-legal (e.g., moral precepts, descriptions of fact, consequentialist concerns), non-casuistic (e.g., legal principles or other conceptual formulations) or non-tannaitic (citations from biblical law codes). 

This definition has numerous implications for the use of rationales in halakhic reasoning. For example, the fact that there can be any number of interpretants for a given sign determines that no single explanation can be the exclusive or authoritative rationale of a given casuistic law, and hence that no rationale is essential to that casuistic law’s functioning as a unit of legal discourse.  When rationales are invoked within halakhic discourse, their function is almost always to justify distinctions within the law: to account for a difference between two casuistic rulings (or a debate between two authorities about a certain case), to explain why a broadly formulated law does not apply to a specific case, or to rationalize a ruling that breaks with established practice. On the other hand, a judge will rarely invoke a rationale when she is merely extending an established precedent or practice to a new case; in such instances, the analogy between the precedent and the target case is typically considered sufficient basis for the decision.  Moreover, the meaning of the rationale is not fixed, and may evolve over time, either in concert with the law or in divergence from it.  We demonstrate these points through a close analysis of the laws of shehiyah – leaving food on a heat source from before Shabbat – in Shabbat, chapters 1 & 3, and their subsequent development in the post-talmudic period, up until their application to contemporary stovetops.

The latter chapters of the thesis apply this model to two types of rationales which feature prominently in contemporary halakhic discourse: moral precepts and scientific propositions.   We again use typological examples of sugyot which contain moral and science-based rationales to draw out some of the fundamental differences between legal semiotic systems on the one hand and moral and scientific semiotic systems on the other.

Yakir Paz, “From Scribes to Scholars: Rabbinic Exegesis in Light of the Homeric Commentaries,” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2014 (Hebrew)

The main argument of this research is that the Homeric commentaries, as representatives of Hellenistic scholarship, had a major impact on the formation of rabbinic biblical commentaries and their modes of exegesis. This impact is discernible not only in the terminology and hermeneutical techniques used by the Rabbis, but also in their perception of their canonical text as a literary product, their learning methods, editorial principles and aesthetic sensitivities. In fact, it is the influence of Greek scholarship which can help explain the drastic difference between earlier biblical commentaries from Palestine, such as the Pesharim, and the rabbinic scholastic Halakhic midrashim (from the 3rd century AD). Yet, as I point out in the first chapter (introduction), the vast corpora of Homeric commentaries has to date received very limited attention by scholars of rabbinic literature.

The second chapter discusses the various ways the commentators implemented their concept of the canonical text as the source of all knowledge. Thus, both Aristarchus and R. Yishmael assume that the text itself teaches the commentator how to clarify obscure words. There is also a significant resemblance in the didactic lessons drawn by the Homeric commentators (of the bT scholia) and the Rabbis. The second part of the chapter is dedicated to the way the commentators from both communities rescripturize traditions, that is, they wish to prove that a word or verse in the canonical text triggered later traditions.

The difference between extracting lessons from and returning traditions to the text is essentially rhetorical, since the goal of both exegetical efforts is to bind knowledge to the canonical text through identical fixed terms (διδάσκει, מלמד ; ἐντεῦθεν PN φησι/φασι, מכאן היה ר’ פלוני אומר/מכאן אמרו ). This scholarly practice marks a significant change in the role of the commentator (or editor) in the rabbinic literature in comparison to earlier biblical commentaries.

The third chapter deals with approaches to various redundancies in the canonical texts: repetitions, synonyms, resumptive formulae and conjunctions. The school or R. Yishmael usually views redundancies as stylistic features whereas the school of R. Akiva strives to prove that what seem to be redundancies actually convey new content. I argue that one should regard this dispute between the two schools as part of a contemporary aesthetic dispute documented also among Homeric scholars and Jewish Hellenistic commentators. Furthermore, the Rabbis deal with the same biblical redundancies as Alexandrian Jewish commentators. This might indicate that the Rabbis were exposed to these scholarly practices through the mediation of Hellenistic-Jewish scholars.

In the final section of this chapter, I argue that the rabbinic focus on conjunctions as self-standing semantic entities should be viewed in light the rise of grammar as an independent science in the first centuries CE and the systematic efforts to classify conjunctions.

The fourth chapter focuses on the use of questions and answers in an exegetical context. Question and answers are ubiquitous in the Midrash, as well as in the Greek commentaries and Jewish-Hellenistic authors, but are not at all documented in the Dead Sea scrolls. The many similarities between the Homeric commentaries and Midrash are highlighted through a wide range of questions such as “Whence did he know (πόθεν οἶδεν? מנין היה יודע?) and “Whence did he have?” (πόθεν αὐτῷ? מנין היה לו?) alongside questions dealing with contradictions and verisimilitude. Both the rabbinic and the Homeric scholars also present very similar answers, reflecting common reading strategies. These similarities point to an impact of the Greek scholarship on the Rabbis most probably through the mediation of Jewish-Hellenistic commentators.

In the fifth chapter the various ways in which the commentators deal with ambiguity are discussed. Both the Rabbis and the Homeric scholars often present explicitly their dilemmas between two possible readings. The first part of the chapter demonstrates how both deal explicitly with the same three kinds of syntactical ambiguities: homonyms; uncertainty as to the subject of the verb, or to which noun the adjective refers. Not only do the commentators recognize the same ambiguities but they also tend to solve them in similar ways: either by the immediate context or by using another verse. The second part of the chapter compares two scholars of the second century CE, Nicanor and Issi Ben Yehuda, both of whom assume that there are cases where one cannot adjudicate between two possibilities of punctuation and hence one should present both alternatives as grammatically valid. The striking similarities between the Rabbis and the Homeric scholars in both identifying and resolving the ambiguities seem to point to a shared grammatical discourse.

The main part of the sixth and final chapter is dedicated to word-transpositions as an exegetical method. I demonstrate how the rabbinic method of seres is borrowed from the Greek rhetorical tropes of hyperbaton and reversal of the natural order of events (τάξις). The Greek commentators assumed that in a literary text the author might change the order of the words or events for rhetorical purposes. Therefore, one can use such methods also exegetically in order to solve various problems in the text. Similarly, I argue that the assumption underlying the use of seres by the Rabbis is not that the text is divine and hence it could be read in various word orders. On the contrary, the rabbis assume that the Torah is written as a literary text using various rhetorical tropes, one of which is word-transpositions.

The second part argues that the Rabbis formulated their rhetorical maxim  ראשון ראשון ואחרון אחרון  (“first, first and last, last”), i.e. that one should answer the first question first, as a polemical response to the Aristarchian principle of reversed order, later known as ὕστερον πρότερον Ὁμηρικῶς (“last first in the Homeric style”). Finally, I suggest that the common maxim among the Homeric commentators dealing with simultaneity – ἅμα πάντα λέγειν ἀδύνατον (“it is impossible to say everything at once”) – stands in background of the rabbinic interpretation that the ten commandment were said simultaneously (בדיבור אחד) by God. But whereas for the Homeric scholars this maxim described the limits of the narrator (unlike the painter), the Rabbis reinterpreted it as pointing to the essential difference between the divine and human narrators.

Sara Ronis, “‘Do Not Go Out Alone at Night’: Law and Demonic Discourse in the Babylonian Talmud,” Yale University, 2015

This dissertation focuses on the modes of controlling, avoiding, and appropriating demons in the Babylonian Talmud, with particular attention to rabbinic legal discourse. Though scholars have largely overlooked demons as a source of information about rabbinic legal discourse, cross-cultural interaction, and theology, this dissertation has asked how the inclusion of rabbinic demonology enriches our picture of rabbinic discourse and thought in Late Antique Sasanian Babylonia.

I analyze rabbinic legal passages relating to demons within their larger textual, redactional, and cultural – Zoroastrian, Christian, and ancient Near Eastern – contexts, in order to uncover and highlight the discursive choices made by Babylonian rabbis in their legislation regarding demons, and in their constructions of the demonic. I argue that the rabbis constructed demons as subjects of rabbinic law in ways that adopt, adapt, and reject particular cultural options available to them. This act of cultural bricolage results in the creation of a uniquely rabbinic perspective.

The first chapter reviews previous scholarship on demons in ancient Judaism and religious studies more broadly and lays out the theoretical model for my study of those ancient texts which deal with demons. The second chapter examines one extended passage in the Babylonian Talmud (b. Pesahim 109b-112a) using source criticism, form criticism, and redaction criticism, in order to create a basic model of Babylonian rabbinic demonic discourse. I argue that the Babylonian rabbis neutralize demons by turning them into subjects, informants, and teachers of rabbinic law, thus subjugating them to the legal system. The third chapter highlights those areas where the Babylonian rabbis differed from the Jewish traditions they inherited, by comparing demonic discourse in the law and narratives of the Babylonian Talmud with those of Second Temple literature and the Palestinian Talmud. I suggest that this differentiation was a crucial element of Babylonian rabbinic self-formation as an elite distinct from their Palestinian confreres. The fourth chapter contextualizes Babylonian rabbinic demonic discourse within early Mesopotamian, Ugaritic, Zoroastrian, Armenian, and Syriac Christian literatures, as well as the Babylonian incantation bowls. I show that Babylonian rabbinic demonic discourse aligns in content with ancient Sumerian and Akkadian understandings of the demonic, and adopts only the form of legal discourse from the contemporaneous Zoroastrian elite. My conclusion advocates for a more nuanced understanding of rabbinic interaction with non-Jews and non-rabbinic Jews which takes into account both past and present cultural traditions, as part of the construction of rabbinic identity as an elite group empowered over and against other Jews.

My understanding of the role of demons in Talmudic law also suggests one way for scholars of monotheistic religion more generally to understand the historical attitude towards and construction of semi-divine beings within monotheistic systems as part of a broader holistic theological and legal worldview. My work also contributes to a refinement of broader theories of demons, magic, and religion by situating demonological concerns within the realm of normative religion and not that of non-normative magic.

Daniel Rosenberg, “Short(hand) Stories: Unexplicated Story Cues in the Babylonian Talmud,” New York University, 2014

There is an uncommon phenomenon in the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli) of stories that are referred-to, but are not told. The phenomenon has been noted beginning in the medieval period, and explained using various justifications: that the stories were censored (because of gender bias against women subjects or because of externally-objectionable content), that they were too common to need explication, or that they were forgotten. However, these arguments seem inconsistent in comparison with the rest of the Bavli, and they are made on the basis of only a few stories in each case.

This dissertation systematically examines all fourteen unexplicated cues in the Bavli. It uses redaction criticism tools developed by David Weiss-Halivni and Shamma Friedman, together with thorough “horizontal” philological analysis, to identify the historical provenance of each cue within its Babylonian sugya context. It examines manuscript and medieval commentarial witnesses to the state of the Bavli text, and confirms that explicated solutions to these cues were never in the text of the Bavli. The manuscript examination also attests to general textual stability of the sugyot, an established indicator for text dating and demonstration of textual non-interference by later authorities.

Once it has been established that the cues were never in the written Bavli text, the dissertation discusses scholarly work on geonic history and relationship to the Bavli text. In light of the pervasive orality that typifies geonic academic learning prior to the shift to writing, the partially-inscribed text is also examined with the contributions of theories of oral performative cultures and their relationships to writing. The amoraic and geonic academic cultures were less fundamentally opposed to writing than popularly depicted. The act of partial inscription makes sense within a primarily oral culture that utilizes secondary written adjuncts (in non-declamatory settings). Unexplicated cues appear to preserve an early stage of the writing of highly-condensed oral structures, and their solutions (contrary to most such cases in the Bavli) were never inscribed – and were either kept as solely oral geonic traditions or lost.

Avram Shannon, “Other Peoples’ Rituals: Tannaitic Portrayals of Graeco-Roman Ritual,” The Ohio State University, 2015

This dissertation looks at the ways in which the Tannaitic Sages portrayed and discussed non-Jewish ritual. Although this has been traditionally characterized as “idolatry,” this dissertation argues that that is not a category which would have been applied by the Sages of the Mishnah, Tosefta and the Tannaitic Midrashim. In fact, the Sages did not consider worship of avodah zarah, as it is called in this text, as something which was wholly different from their own ritual. The Tannaitic Sages conceived of non-Jewish ritual and Jewish ritual to be part of a single category of ritual. This category ultimately derived from the ritual practices of the Jerusalem Temple, which meant that rituals which were performed outside of that context were sacrilege and an affront to the God of Israel. It was precisely the similarities, rather than the differences, between Jewish and non-Jewish ritual which gave the Tannaitic Sages pause. These similarities, however, also gave the Sages tools for controlling non-Jewish ritual. They did this through a quest for plausible contexts for non-Jewish ritual behavior. Through establishing these contexts, the Tannaitic Sages are able to control what does and does not qualify as the worship of avodah zarah.

Peri Danit Sinclair, “When Rabbis Conceive Women: Physiology and Gestation in Leviticus Rabbah Chapter 14,” The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2014

This dissertation explores the language employed by the editor(s) of Leviticus Rabbah in their articulation of women’s physiology and gestation in chapter 14. Established as a compilation of aggadic literature from 4 th and 5th century Palestine, Leviticus Rabbah reflects the social construction of the community of that geo-cultural setting. Divorced from the halakhic -legal strata, Leviticus Rabbah presents us with a glimpse of rabbinic community and gender construction that substantially differ from the picture painted in the legal corpus.

This thesis analyzes the rabbis’ choice of language and construction of metaphors relating to female physiology and procreation. These lexical preferences are compared to other recurring metaphors within the rabbinic corpus, as well as with appearances of the same metaphors in rabbinic, Greco-Roman and Early Christian traditions. The overall conception of women emanating from chapter 14 of Leviticus Rabbah, as interpreted by the author, expresses rabbinic wonder and marvel at the woman’s ability to actively engage in creation through gestation and birth.

Reading rabbinic literature as the interaction of the rabbis with the Biblical text in light of their individual experiences, we expose Leviticus Rabbah as a porthole through which we might glimpse the views of a particular community at a given historical era, conveying a rhetorical reality and socio-cultural ideologies rather than traditional historical fact.

A close reading of chapter 14 deconstructs the workings of rabbinic ideology, revealing the prevailing cultural assumptions while shedding light on tensions and struggles regarding concepts of gender within rabbinic society as it encountered its broader milieu. This reading sheds light on competing discourse regarding the female body which existed within rabbinic thought.

Agnes Veto, “Rabbinic Conceptualization of the Male Body as Reflected in the Halakhic System of Male Genital Emissions,” New York University, 2015

This project seeks to understand how the rabbinic impurity legislation of the male genital emissions of shikhvat zera (mildly-defiling, potentially-procreative emission) and zivah (strongly defiling non-procreative emission) contribute to the construction of gender. The work begins by delineating how Leviticus 15 describes these two male genital emissions in terms of their definition and defilement properties: they seem to be categorized by two different taxonomies. One of these taxonomies focuses upon the manner in which each emission is exuded and its concomitant impurity level. The other taxonomy involves the ability (or lack of ability) of each emission to facilitate procreation. While both shikhvat zera and zivah were ritual impurities, zivah, the stronger defiler, shared a particular characteristic with moral impurities—the ability to defile the Temple from afar. The study next examines whether rabbinic legislation maintained or departed from biblical legislation. It concludes that although the rabbinic impurity laws use the same taxonomies as the biblical ones, they redefine the emissions and the ways in which the emissions are understood to defile. On the one hand, in rabbinic legislation the distinctly separate characters of shikhvat zera and zivah show signs of blurring; on the other hand, each category itself is more thoroughly elaborated. The importance of shikhvat zera—the mildly-defiling, potentially-procreative emission—increases as its relationship to sexuality is increasingly emphasized. As part of this process the emission acquires a new type of impurity that is moral. These developments are evident in the representation of semen in metaphors that illuminate or complement legal discussions. In a parallel development, zivah—the strongly-defiling, non-procreative emission—is understood as not precipitated by stimuli that usually impact the body, such as food or drink, physical exertion or sexual thoughts or visual experiences. Zivah will be used as a least common denominator of maleness: even a questionably male person is marked by his ability to be subject to zivah. A complementary part of the project demonstrates that female emissions and their power of defilement were not necessarily sites of more rabbinic legal innovation than male emissions and their power of defilement. It acknowledges that distinct hierarchies of male and female prerogative and privilege undoubtedly existed in terms of the practical implications of the purity laws, hierarchies that advantaged men and excluded women. However, contrary to previous scholarship—which asserts that rabbinic use of metaphors to describe female impurity and rabbinic law concerning female impurity were motivated by a desire to objectify and exclude women—this study proposes that metaphorization, objectification, and the introduction of some external supervision served to further nuance the laws and thus consolidate the power of the rabbis. The study reveals that male emissions were also metaphorized, and that the male body was also objectified as a consequence. Rabbinic treatment of emissions reveals a gender bias only in that men were less subject to supervision than were women. This lesser degree of supervision elicited some resistance from men, here interpreted with reference to Foucault’s idea of subject constitution via subjugation by power and the responses to that conceptualization by Butler and Mahmood.

Rebecca Wollenberg, “The People of the Book Without the Book: Jewish Ambivalence Towards Biblical Text After the Rise of Christianity,” The University of Chicago, 2015

This dissertation argues that, contrary to popular conceptions and the current scholarly consensus, rabbinic Jewry did not become a people of the book, or even the people of the Book, until the high middle ages. For in the classical rabbinic period, many rabbinic authorities appear to have been suspicious of reading as a source of information and ambivalent about the written text of the Hebrew Bible, a document that had proven a problematic manifestation of God’s covenant when it made possible the growth of a rival biblical religion in Christianity. In place of this promiscuous and easily misunderstood written record of the covenant, a less threatening iteration of the biblical tradition took on the mantle of revelation in many early rabbinic circles, a memorized oral formula of the Hebrew Bible–to which intangible object rabbinic thinkers attributed all the qualities of transcendence, comprehensiveness, and multiplicity that they associated with the divine and found lacking in the bald written transcript of revelation.

Chapter 1 examines early rabbinic descriptions of late antique literacy practices and concludes that many rabbinic authorities viewed sight reading for information as an alien mode of engaging with written signs practiced by non-Jews and heretics. Rabbinic practitioners, in contrast, ‘read’ the Bible by reciting memorized oral formulas from memory with (or more often without) reference to a written text. This mode of engaging with the biblical text required two distinct transcripts of the biblical tradition to circulate in classical rabbinic circles: a memorized oral formula and a written consonantal transcript. Chapter 2 argues that classical rabbinic thinkers came to conceive of these two transcripts as independent, and even conflicting, witnesses to the biblical revelation. This chapter suggests that many early rabbinic authorities came to see the memorized oral transcript of the Hebrew Bible as a more authentic record of the biblical revelation than the written consonantal text. Chapters 3 and 4 compare rabbinic descriptions of childhood literacy education with narrative and material evidence concerning late antique reading education in the Greek and Roman Mediterranean. These chapters argue that rabbinic practitioners were taught to engage with the written text of the Bible using a cross-cultural pedagogical system that cultivated a combination of highly circumscribed phonetic literacy and extensive literary memorization. Chapters 5 and 6 track the growth of classical rabbinic ambivalence towards the biblical text as a reaction to Christian claims on that document.

Jael Yaffe, “The Relevance of Text Structure Instruction for Talmud Study: The Effects of Reading a Talmudic Passage with a Road-Map of its Text Structure,” Columbia University, 2016

This study investigates the effect of access to a visual outline of the text structure of a Talmudic passage on comprehension of that passage. A system for defining the text structure of Talmudic passages was designed by merging and simplifying earlier text structure systems described for Talmudic passages, following principles taken from research on text structure. Comprehension of two passages were compared for students who did traditional reading of a Talmudic passage (the passages had punctuation added, and a list of difficult words and their meanings was appended) (the control condition), and students who read the passage with these same materials as well as with an outline of the text structure of that passage (the experimental condition). Seventy-two 10th and 11th graders participated. After a brief training on text structure, students were randomly assigned to the control or experimental condition for Passage 1. All students took a comprehension exam on Passage 1. In the next session, all students who read Passage 1 in the control condition read Passage 2 in the experimental condition, and all students who read Passage 2 in the experimental condition read Passage 2 in the control condition. Students then took a comprehension exam for Passage 2.

The text structure outline improved students’ ability to comprehend Passage 2, but no benefits were seen on Passage 1. The results provide evidence that awareness of the text structure of a Talmudic passage helps readers when the passage is concrete and somewhat well organized.

MA Theses

Hillel Gershuni, “Early Anonymous Material in The Babylonian Talmud, Tractates Sotah and Avodah Zarah,” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2015 (Hebrew)

Yitz Landes, “Studies in the Development of Birkat ha-Avodah,” The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2015 (Hebrew)

Shira Shmidman, “The Levirate Bond and Levirate Betrothal in Rabbinic Literature,” Bar-Ilan University, 2015 (Hebrew)

Dissertations, English

Daniel Boyarin’s Dissertation on b. Nazir

The field of academic Talmud study has its share of myths and legends, including works of research that were thought lost to the world. One of these is Daniel Boyarin’s Jewish Theological Seminary of America dissertation on tractate Nazir, which to our knowledge is not available in any public or university library. To that end – and in honor of the daf yomi cycle again reaching Nazir – we are happy to present a pdf of the dissertation, along with some reflections by the dissertation-writer himself. We thank Prof. Boyarin for allowing us to make the dissertation available here and for sharing with us a few words of introduction:

Nazir, which is in many ways an atypical tractate in its literary form as well as its transmission, since it was not studied during the period of the Geonim, as is well known, presents particular textual problems. The text, along with several other Tractates, called the Special Tractates, evince a different dialect of literary Babylonian Aramaic, as well as a different set of technical terms, such as תיבעי for תיקו. The latter and more usual term means, “Let it stand,” i.e., the question stands open, while the term used in Nazir means, “Let it [remain] a question.” The import is the same but the words are different. The Aramaic of Nazir and its fellows is a more literary Aramaic, apparently less close to the spoken forms of Babylonian Aramaic that we find in the other Tractates. All this suggests that the Stamma of Nazir and its fellow tractates belong to a different redactorial group (set of stammaim??) than the main body of the Talmud.

What is most fascinating, however, and what animated the dissertation that you can read here (desperately needing updating after forty years! – I have begun updating it, with some recently published – an currently accessible at Google Books – in the Yaakov Elman Festschrift) is how much the text was liquid well into the period of the Rishonim, or perhaps, better put, how much the Rishonim were active in forming the text that we see in front of us. This is, of course, true to a certain extent with all the Talmud but with Nazir we palpably see the text being formed before our eyes, as it were; that is, I suggest that we see with Nazir something like the textual processes that formed the main body of the talmudic text hundreds of years earlier, of the final form, so to speak, of the text being formed in the discussions of commentators. It was the discovery of this aspect of the text, aside from the fascinating content of the Tractate and the excitement of studying a new dialect of Aramaic that animated my work on the dissertation, lo those decades ago. I hope that the learners can find something of value in this גולם.

Dissertations, English

Dissertations and Thesis, 2014

With another December upon us and another calendar year almost through, as usual we have put together a list of recent dissertations with relevance for Talmud. It is always nice to see projects that we have followed over the years come to fruition, and even offer promise of further interesting research in years ahead. Should auld acquaintance be forgot and never brought to mind, please do drop us a line and we will be happy to add dissertations and theses that we missed. And to all the recent graduates: we’ll tak’ a right gude-willie waught, for auld lang syne.


Mika Ahuvia, Israel Among the Angels—Angels and Authority in Late Antique Jewish Texts, Princeton University, 2014.

This dissertation examines how Jews conceptualized angels in rabbinic, liturgical, ritual, and early mystical sources from the fourth through the eighth century C.E. in Palestine and Babylonia. While some rabbinic traditions uphold the angels as messengers of God, others were more ambivalent toward them, discouraging attention to angels and privileging the close relationship between Israel and God instead. Chapter two centers on the liturgical works of the sixth century poet Yannai and his synthesis of diverse Jewish traditions about angels in his liturgical texts. This chapter contextualizes Yannai’s encouragement of his audience to think of themselves as praying with the angels, and examines how Yannai singles out certain authorities within the synagogue for comparison with the angels. Chapter three highlights the variety of ways in which Jews invoked angels and other authorities for assistance in so-called “magical” or ritual bowls, amulets, and manuals from Babylonia and Palestine. Ritual texts in particular show that named and unnamed angels were part of a spectrum of authority figures to which ancient Jews appealed in their times of need. Alongside angels, Jews turned to ritual practitioners, folk heroes, and rabbis for guidance and intercession with God. Chapter four investigates the early mystical treatise Hekhalot Rabbati, which captures the worldview of those Jews most preoccupied with angels. Jewish mystics strove to live in synchronicity with the angels, to achieve angelic status, and even to command the angels. As each chapter demonstrates, no systematic angelology predominated among Jews in late antiquity. Rather, different circles of Jews upheld different traditions about angels. Ancient Jewish texts on angels reveal a diverse and dynamic society, where many mediating figures bridged the gap between Israel and God and served a variety of functions for individuals and communities.

Ari Bergmann, “Halevy, Halivni and the Oral Formation of the Babylonian Talmud,” Columbia University, 2014.

This dissertation is dedicated to a detailed analysis and comparison of the theories on the process of the formation of the Babylonian Talmud by Yitzhak Isaac Halevy and David Weiss Halivni. These two scholars exhibited a similar mastery of the talmudic corpus and were able to combine the roles of historian and literary critic to provide a full construct of the formation of the Bavli with supporting internal evidence to support their claims. However, their historical construct and findings are diametrically opposed.

Yitzhak Isaac Halevy presented a comprehensive theory of the process of the formation of the Talmud in his magnum opus Dorot Harishonim. The scope of his work was unprecedented and his construct on the formation of the Talmud encompassed the entire process of the formation of the Bavli, from the Amoraim in the 4th century to the end of the saboraic era (which he argued closed in the end of the 6th century). Halevy was the ultimate guardian of tradition and argued that the process of the formation of the Bavli took place entirely within the amoraic academy by a highly structured and coordinated process and was sealed by an international rabbinical assembly. While Halevy was primarily a historian, David Weiss Halivni is primarily a talmudist and commentator on the Talmud itself. Halivni offers his bold construct of the history of the formation of the Bavli in the context of his commentary Meqorot Umesorot, which spans almost the entire Babylonian Talmud. Halivni explains the process of the formation of the Bavli as taking place well after amoraic times in a massive unstructured process of reconstruction. This dissertation will demonstrate that both of the theories of Halevy and Halivni are in need of careful analysis and revision. Halevy’s construct despite providing valuable scholarly insights is tainted by a strong ideological agenda. On the other hand, Halivni, as a literary critic, provides insightful literary analysis and his conclusions on the uniqueness of the stam have been firmly established in contemporary scholarship. However, when analyzing Halivni’s theory one must distinguish between his literary conclusions and his historical construct. The later is a constantly evolving theory, and it has presented numerous problems as it has developed over time, mainly in the introductions to Meqorot Umesorot.

The body of this dissertation consists of three chapters, each focusing on a different model for the formation of the Bavli. Chapter One focuses on Halevy, beginning with his biography and continuing with an in-depth analysis of the scope and purpose of his Dorot Harishonim and the ideological import of his research. The second chapter addresses the theory of Halivni on the formation of the Bavli. After a biographical sketch of Halivni’s life, I review the scope and purpose of Meqorot Umesorot with a special emphasis on his scholarship ki’peshuto, followed by a detailed analysis of his model and the evidence he offers in support of it. The third chapter proposes an alternative model for the formation of the Talmud which combines aspects of Halevy’s and Halivni’s theories. I propose a model that includes a fixed oral text, accompanied by an oral fluid commentary. This dual form of transmission accounts for the diverse structure and style of the apodictic material and the dialectical interpretative argumentation of the stam. The fixed apodictic text, the proto-Talmud follows the basic contour of Halevy’s model, while the understanding of the stam follows many aspects of Halivni’s description of the reconstruction of the dialectical argumentation by the Stammaim. By applying form criticism to determine the Sitz im Leben of talmudic transmission and teaching, combined with recent scholarship on the various forms of oral transmission, I propose a framework which allows for a developmental model which integrates the perceptive historical insights of Halevy with Halivni’s literary findings.

Amy Birkan, “The Limited Scope of Victimhood in Rabbinic Law: ‘The Plaintiff Must Distance Himself from Harm,”  The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2014.

A fundamental precept in Rabbinic law is that greater responsibility falls on the plaintiff to avert her harm than on the defendant not to cause it. This work is comprised of six chapters each of which presents a different facet of plaintiff-responsibility. The first chapter, dealing with Tort,
exposes the substantive responsibility legislation places on the plaintiff to be vigilant in the public sector in order to avoid obstacles created by the tortfeasor. The second chapter analyzes the Rabbinic approach to psycho-emotional harm, which centers on the notion that the דעת בר is the exclusive master of her mind and is therefore singularly responsible for any damage generated therein. The third chapter looks at the scope of the responsibility placed on the plaintiff to be self-determining by examining rulings in cases of enticement. Here legislation is required to choose whether or not an agent is accountable for breaking law when she does so as a result of the defendant’s influence. The forms of enticement dealt with include bribery, authoritative coercion, and seduction. The fourth chapter looks at the same concept, an agent’s responsibility to be self-determining, but through the category Acts Done under Provocation. The rulings for these cases are used to demonstrate the extent to which legislation requires the plaintiff to select a response to the defendant’s inciting act. It also examines whether or not legislation ever considers provocation a valid excuse for a harmful reaction it triggers. The rulings for this class of cases have strong implications on legislation’s notion of involuntary acts. The fifth chapter examines plaintiff-responsibility in the context of capital crime. It is shown that the factor of whether or not the plaintiff could have evaded lethal conditions created by the defendant is critical for determining the latter’s culpability. The material also presents the Bavli’s extension of the doctrine that foremost responsibility falls on the plaintiff to save her life to a legal imperative for the plaintiff to heal herself following the defendant’s attack. The sixth chapter looks at a policy created in the Bavli in the branch of נזקי the plaintiff must distance himself from’) על הניזק להרחיק את עצמו מן הנזק termed שכנים harm’). In place of requiring the tortfeasor to desist from common activities on her land that generate harm to the plaintiff’s property, the Bavli requires the plaintiff at all times to take measures to avoid the harm. The broad picture that emerges through the legalities addressed
in this work is that Rabbinic legislation accentuates the plaintiff’s responsibility to actively ensure her wellbeing through vigilance and self-determination.

Aaron Glaim, “Reciprocity, Sacrifice and Salvation in Judean Religion at the Turn of the Era,” Brown University, 2014.

Joshua Gutoff, “Talmud Study and the Development of the Moral Imagination: A Theoretical Framework,” The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2013.

This dissertation in Talmud pedagogy presents an approach designed to help nurture the moral imagination of students. Influenced by the work of literary scholars such as Wayne C. Booth and Martha Nussbaum, and Talmudists including David Kraemer, Daniel Boyarin, and Marjorie Lehman, this work is based on the hypothesis that particular reading strategies can help develop both empathy and a creative ethical vision, and that the nature of Talmud makes it particularly useful for such an approach.

Following Bakhtin, three levels of Talmudic discourse are identified: one concerned with a teaching addressed to an audience; one in which two or more characters interact directly; and one in which the redactor brings various texts and voices into conversation with each other. These levels are mapped against the kinds of moral concerns each presents, and then examined individually.

I first address how students might read normative statements of law, ethics, or theology in such a way that the reading itself contributes to their moral development, independent of the wisdom or utility of the specific teachings. I identify the different imaginative skills demanded by such a reading and their moral significance, and illustrate ways in which teachers who are focusing on the propositional content of the Talmud can make the achievement of their curricular goals an opportunity for practicing those skills.

Turning to interactions between characters or voices, I discuss how, by attending to the nuances of the language and behavior between the characters, students can arrive at ethically compelling readings of passages without committing to either the reality of the events described or the righteousness of any of the characters.

Lastly, I look at teaching that highlights the activity of the Stam , the anonymous redactor of the Talmud. I demonstrate that the student’s awareness of the Stam ‘s creative work can lead to an understanding of theStam as an independent moral agent, and then to an exploration of meaning and import of his choices.

In the concluding chapter I discuss some the implications of this dissertation, both for education, and for the role Talmud plays in broader Jewish culture, and close by reflecting on the relationship between the imagination and play in regard to religion and religious texts.

Margaret Jacobi, “Literary Construction in the Babylonian Talmud: A Case Study from Perek Helek,” University of Birmingham, 2014.

Perek Helek, the last chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin in the Babylonian Talmud (BT), is unusual in consisting almost entirely of aggadah (non-legal material). The present study is a source and literary analysis of six units (sugyot) from the chapter, which are almost continuous over ten pages of Talmud.

The sugyot relate to specific groups and individuals who, according to the Mishnah, are denied a place in the World to Come. They cover subjects in the books of Genesis, Numbers and Samuel.

Comparisons with the Tosefta, Palestinian Talmud and midrashim suggest that the BT is less concerned with the World to Come than Palestinian sources are. Rather, it focuses on the wrong-doing of the groups and individuals and issues of justice and authority. The BT also includes vivid stories which appear to be Babylonian in origin and are often self-mocking.

My findings also suggest that the sugyot based on passages in a given biblical book (Genesis or Numbers) have more elements in common than sugyot based on the same mishnah but derived from a different biblical book. In conclusion I discuss the possible implications of my findings for the more general question of how the chapter was edited.

Ayelet Libson, “Radical Subjectivity: Law and Self-Knowledge in the Babylonian Talmud,” New York University, 2014.

This dissertation examines the emergence of self-knowledge as a determining legal consideration among the rabbis of late antiquity, from the second to the seventh centuries C.E. Based on close readings of rabbinic texts from Palestine and Babylonia, the dissertation analyzes the central legal role accorded to individuals’ knowledge of their bodies and mental states in areas of law such as menstrual purity laws, family law and the laws of the Sabbath.

Legal systems generally aim to structure their statutes in a form as objective as possible, in an attempt to transcend the personal viewpoints of the parties involved. One way in which law treats people objectively is by regulating behavior; it does not seek to coerce feelings or attitudes, and it does not investigate feelings or attitudes unless wrongful behavior has been previously established. While the rule of law is usually upheld by focusing on external, objective standards, I highlight a unique phenomenon which develops in the Babylonian Talmud, in which legal decision making is based on personal knowledge, experience and intuition–which are by definition subjective. Although rabbinic culture is highly legalistic, I demonstrate that the later rabbis were themselves concerned with the reaches of their own legal authority, and therefore carved out an unexpected space for the experience of individuals, not only as an extra-legal factor, but as constituting law itself. I argue that the ancient rabbis came to recognize that certain kinds of knowledge–especially knowledge of the body–could only be mediated through an individual’s own experience, thereby allowing for an unprecedented degree of personal autonomy.

Scholars have demonstrated that the period of late antiquity saw the emergence of a sophisticated conception of the inner self. I locate talmudic discourse within this culture, and demonstrate how the rabbis incorporated the innovative notions of selfhood and an inner world specifically into the legal realm. The dissertation combines philological-historical investigation with the tools of legal and philosophical analysis to produce a study which contributes to a better understanding of talmudic law and ethics. The fruits of this inquiry will be of interest not only to scholars of ancient law, but also to those considering questions of jurisprudence, gender, and the nature of the self.

John Mandsager, “To Stake a Claim: The Making of Rabbinic Agricultural Spaces in the Roman Countryside,” Stanford University, 2014.

This dissertation argues that the prescriptions for Jewish practice and the boundaries of Jewish space in the Late Antique countryside may be considered a call by the rabbis for the transformation of a landscape filled with many different neighbors, from non-rabbinic Jews to Roman conquerors. The rabbinic sources set forth the vision for an idealized Jewish landscape filled with rabbinic Jews who manage their estates in accordance with God’s will. In modern scholarship, agricultural rituals and spaces in the Mishnah and the Tosefta are often set aside in favor of consideration of urban life and society. By interrogating the importance of these spaces and their rituals, this dissertation shows that the authors of Jewish literature adopt Roman ideals of rural life but subvert those ideals to impose a specifically Jewish vernacular upon the landscape. The commitment to Biblical laws of agriculture, even in light of profound changes to the landscape wrought by Roman imperial domination, serves to challenge that domination through the assertion of distinctly Jewish agricultural spaces. In this dissertation, the halakhic reasoning and argumentation found in early rabbinic literature is analyzed through textual, literary, and spatial analysis to reveal the cultural and spatial ideals of the creators of these texts. These legal texts describe a world filled with outsiders, from Roman conquerors to Jews with different interpretations of scripture and practice: the laws of Jewish farming serve to differentiate normative Jewish practice and social structures from those others. It is the spatial aspect of agricultural life, from its fences to its regimented rows of crops that serve to physically and visually mark a Jewish space as distinct. This dissertation offers tools for spatial analysis of legal texts in rabbinic Judaism specifically and imperial spaces more broadly.

Elana Stein-Hein, “Rabbinic Legal Loopholes: Formalism, Equity and Subjectivity,Columbia University, 2014.

Rabbinic law is particularly well known for its use of legal dodges and technical circumventions. This dissertation focuses on three main questions about such loopholes: 1) Why is rabbinic law so replete with them? 2) Are they always permitted, and if not, what are the parameters of their use? 3) What does the use of legal loopholes reveal about rabbinic views of the relationship between intention and action? We attempt to answer these questions by analyzing a particular subset of rabbinic legal loopholes known as ha‘arama (cunning). Tracing the history and use of ha‘arama from tannaitic to amoraic sources, this work places rabbinic legal loopholes in context of Biblical and Ancient Near Eastern worldviews, Greco-Roman perspectives, and later contemporaneous Zoroastrian approaches. Working with both tannaitic and amoraic materials, with Palestinian and Babylonian sources, we observe a progression within rabbinic thinking on this front: from rigid legal formalism to a concern for the inner spirit of the law, and from emphasis on the inner spirit of the law to an interest in the inner spirit of the individual legal agent.

Mira Wasserman, “The Humanity of the Talmud: Reading for Ethics in Bavli Avoda Zara,” University of California, Berkeley, 2014.

In this dissertation, I argue that there is an ethical dimension to the Babylonian Talmud, and that literary analysis is the approach best suited to uncover it. Paying special attention to the discursive forms of the Talmud, I show how juxtapositions of narrative and legal dialectics cooperate in generating the Talmud’s distinctive ethics, which I characterize as an attentiveness to the “exceptional particulars” of life.

To demonstrate the features and rewards of a literary approach, I offer a sustained reading of a single tractate from the Babylonian Talmud, ‘Avoda Zara (AZ). AZ and other talmudic discussions about non-Jews offer a rich resource for considerations of ethics because they are centrally concerned with constituting social relationships and with examining aspects of human experience that exceed the domain of Jewish law. AZ investigates what distinguishes Jews from non-Jews, what Jews and non-Jews share in common, and what it means to be a human being.

I read AZ as a cohesive literary work unified by the overarching project of examining the place of humanity in the cosmos. The talmudic materials are organized as a journey down the cosmic chain of being, from the supernal realm of souls and spirit, to the material world of embodied, animal existence, to the inanimate domain of physical objects. In tracing this descent, I discover in AZ the outlines of a rabbinic anthropology that affirms the common humanity of Jews and non-Jews, and highlights the role of Jewish law in constituting Jewish difference.

As I make my way through AZ, I bring the talmudic text into dialogue with critical insights and issues from philosophy and literary theory. Pointing to ways that the editors of AZ engage the philosophic currents of their time, I challenge the prevailing characterization of the Bavli editors as inwardly focused. Even more important, I explore how AZ engages the critical questions of our time–questions of identity and alterity, of universalism and particularism, of justice and community.


יהושפט הראל, ‘סוגיות ארץ ישראליות לסדר קדשים’, האוניברסיטה העברית בירושלים, תשע”ד.
אסתר פישר. זה יצרו מבחוץ וזו יצרה בפנים – היבטים מגדריים של המיניות בספרות חז”ל, אונ’ בר אילן, 2014
עבודה זו עוסקת בשיח של חז”ל על מיניות נשים מתוך השוואתה לשיח המקביל על מיניות גברים. העבודה בוחנת את מאפייני המיניות הנשית העולים מתוך ספרות חז”ל: מהן הנחות היסוד העומדות בבסיס מאפיינים אלו; באילו אופנים דומה המיניות הנשית למיניות הגברית ובאילו אופנים היא שונה ממנה; מה היחס בין המקורות האגדיים למקורות ההלכתיים העוסקים בהיבטים המגדריים של המין והמיניות בספרות חז”ל. הנחת המוצא של העבודה היא שספרות חז”ל היא ספרות פטריארכלית; היא נכתבה על ידי גברים עבור קהל קוראים גברי, ולכן עוסקת לרוב בגברים. משום כך ההבניה המגדרית הרווחת אצל חז”ל רואה בגבר סובייקט בעל צרכים, רצונות ותשוקות, ואילו באישה היא רואה אובייקט שייעודו למלא את צרכי הסובייקט ואת תשוקותיו. עם זאת לטענתי מאפיין זה אינו מוחלט בתרבויות פטריארכליות בכלל ובתרבות חז”ל בפרט. כיוון שספרות חז”ל היא רב-רובדית ופוליפונית, היא טומנת בחובה יותר מאשר צורה אחת להבניה מגדרית. מתוך הבנת הפוטנציאל הטמון בריבוי הקולות בספרות חז”ל, המחקר הנוכחי בוחן את ההבניות המגדריות של המיניות בספרות זו. המחקר מתמקד בטקסטים המרכזיים והקנוניים של תקופת חז”ל, דהיינו החיבורים שנוצרו ונערכו בין המאה הראשונה לספירה למאה השביעית לספירה בארץ-ישראל ובבבל. ההנחה היא שהדיונים המתועדים בספרות זו היו בעלי תפקיד כפול בעולמם של חז”ל: הם ביטאו את הקודים התרבותיים על אודות מגדר שרווחו בתקופתם, אך בה בעת גם לימדו גברים ונשים מי הם, מה טיבם וכיצד עליהם לנהוג; הם שיקפו תפיסות על אודות המציאות אך גם יצרו מציאות. עבודה זו מפגישה בין שני תחומי מחקר: האחד הוא מחקר ספרות חז”ל והשני – ביקורת מגדר, אשר אחד מענפיה המרכזיים הוא חקר הגוף והמיניות. המפגש בין תחומים אלה הוביל בשנים האחרונות לפיתוח מחקר מגדרי בספרות חז”ל, שבו נטועה עבודה זו.



Yehudah Huberman, “‘Because of the Sight of the Eye’: An Historical Philological Inquiry of the Term and Halakhic Category,” Bar-Ilan University, 2013.


יש”י גזונדהייט, “מאבקי סמכות בין חכמים בבבל במאה הרביעית והשתקפותם בשתי תבניות דיאלוג ייחודיות”, אוניברסטית בן גוריון בנגב, 2014.
רון נחמיה לסרי, “‘מי שאחזו בולמוס’: קריאה ספרותית ותרבותית בתופעת הבולמוס בספרות החכמים”, אוניברסטית בן גוריון בנגב, 2014.
דוד סבתו, “מצוות בני נוח בספרות התנאית”, האוניברסיטה העברית, תשע”ד.
איתן פינסקי, “הגרמטיקליזציה של הפועל הוה בצירוף הוה+בינוני בארמית של התלמוד הבבלי”, האוניברסיטה העברית, 2013.
ידידה קורן, “הערלה והערלים בספרות היהודית העתיקה ויצירת היהודי הערל”, אוניברסיטת תל-אביב, תשע”ד.
Dissertations, English

Recent Dissertations and Theses

Even in Israel, the new academic year is now in full swing. So this is a good time to look back at 2012-2013 dissertations and these that have been defended. Here at The Talmud Blog we’ll do our best to list the recently submitted ones that may be of interest to our readers. Please feel free to forward to us anything that we may have left out. We hope to update this post as we receive more material. Continue reading

Dissertations, English

Recent Dissertations and Theses

Even if papers remain ‘owed’ and exams still need to be graded, by most accounts the 2011-2 academic year is through. Below we have posted the most recent yield of dissertations and theses that deal with rabbinic literature. Please, if you are so inclined, use the comments section to discuss the dissertations.  And if you wish your thesis to appear here, send an email to the Talmud Blog. The list will be updated over the next few days.  

Stephen Hazan Arnoff, Memory, Rhetoric, and Oral-performance in Leviticus Rabbah, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2011.

Oral-performance represents the pedagogical experience of the rabbinic class in the period in which Leviticus Rabbah takes shape. While written materials within this oral matrix are essential cogs in the wheel of rabbinic cultural production, contemporary scholarly assumptions concerning the balance of written and oral influences underestimate the oral practices crucial for the composition of LR and similar rabbinic endeavors as well the ways that orality defines and is embedded within surviving rabbinic written texts themselves. Performance, artificial memory systems, and writing all participate in the reception, storage, transmission, and meaning-making natural to the milieu of LR. Analyzing LR through the multilayered lens of these oral-memorial technologies and in context of contemporaneous patristic and pagan rhetorical pedagogical systems sharpens understanding of its mechanics and meaning, while also highlighting the core pedagogical systems and structure of the rabbinic movement of Late Antiquity as a whole.

Meir Ben-Shachar, Biblical and Post-Biblical History in Rabbinic Literature: Between the First and Second Destruction, Hebrew University 2011.

Eszter Katalin Fuzessy, Dialogues Between Sages and Outsiders to the Tradition”: Creation of Difference as a Literary Method of Religious Polemics in Rabbinic Literature, The University of Chicago, 2011.

My dissertation addresses the “historical” problem of the emergence of “rabbinic” Judaism out of the many post-biblical Judaisms. It studies, on the example of a specific group of texts, the portrayal of this “historical” transformation on the literary, discursive level of the text in rabbinic literature. The argument throughout the dissertation is principally literary; however, through analysis of literary texts I strive to give answers to basically “historical” questions.

Texts found in abundance in rabbinic literature in which a dialogue is portrayed between a Rabbi and an “Outsider to the tradition” can, if studied collectively as texts belonging to a specific literary genre, be considered as reflecting the discursive transfer in rabbinic literature from a world of different Hellenistic Judaisms to the world of rabbinic Judaism that considers and portrays itself as the sole, “normative” form of Judaism. These texts, among many others, attest to the process of creating “rabbinic” identity in the cultural discourse of rabbinic literature. Thus, the main concern of the dissertation is to study this process of transformation; the main literary question of the dissertation is concerned with the way this transformation is accomplished and portrayed in the discourse of rabbinic literature.

In reading specific texts in rabbinic literature I try to trace the vestiges of the creation of “rabbinic” identity in the literary discourse; thus I go against the presupposition that such an identity already existed and the texts only mirror it. On the contrary, the texts are proof to the process, not the end result of, this transformation.

The main “historical” question the dissertation strives to give an answer to concerns the point in history after which we can speak of rabbinic Judaism. In the dissertation I hope to find an answer to the how and the why the change from a “pluralism of Judaisms” to a “Judaism of pluralism” happened at that specific point in “historical” time.

Chayuta Deutsch, Encounters between Sages and Matrons: Fixed Patterns and Variations, Bar-Ilan University, 2011.

Ryan Dulkin, The Rabbis Reading Eden: A Traditions-Historic Study of Exegetical Motifs in the Classical and Selected Post-classical Rabbinic Sources on Genesis 1-3, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2011

This dissertation establishes an in-depth traditions-history of a representative sample of major themes in the Eden traditions of rabbinic literature, paying special attention to its development throughout the major corpora of the classical rabbinic sources. This study demonstrates that rabbinic literature on the Eden narrative cannot be perceived as an undifferentiated monolith, but must be understood as a dynamic process which developed over the course of many centuries. It shows that a core of Adam traditions crystallized in the period of the redaction of the major Palestinian amoraic corpora and were recycled and/or expanded in later sources. Using Genesis Rabbah as a base source, this study focuses on five key sets of scriptural verses in the Eden narrative which comprise the arc of the biblical story, from the events that lead to humanity’s creation to the judgment and punishment of Adam and Eve: the creation of humanity (Gen 1:26-28; 2:7, 21), Adam’s exalted stature in prelapsarian Eden (2:8, 15–17), the description of the serpent as the craftiest of creatures (3:1a), the transgression sequence (3:1b-7), and the enumeration of the punishments inflicted upon the progenitors (3:16-19). These themes are chosen for their centrality to the Eden narrative and for their evidence of significant development in the classical sources.

These themes are analyzed diachronically in the following strata of rabbinic literature: tannaitic literature (ca. second-third c. C.E.); Palestinian amoraic midrashim (primarily Genesis Rabbah , Leviticus Rabbah , and the Palestinian Talmud) [ca. fifth c.], the Babylonian Talmud (ca. sixth-seventh c.), and the gaonic collections Tanhuma (both the Warsaw and Buber editions), ‘Abot de-Rabbi Nathan , and Pirqe Rabbi Eliezer (ca. eighth-ninth c.).

This dissertation focuses primarily on the intra-rabbinic development of these themes, yet recognizes that rabbinic literature did not develop in a cultural vacuum. Where necessary, it address outside influence, e.g. Christianity and/or Islam, especially with respect to the later strata of the selected rabbinic sources. This dissertation employs literary, redactional, and traditions-history criticisms as its major methodological tools.

Jason Mokhtarian, Rabbinic Portrayals of Persia: A Study of Babylonian Rabbinic Culture in its Sasanian Context, University of California, 2011

This dissertation examines the ancient Iranian context of the Babylonian Talmud, the vast compendium of Jewish law and lore that the rabbis produced while living under the Persian Sasanian Empire (224-651 C.E. ) whose official religion was Zoroastrianism. While for decades scholars in Rabbinics have written prolifically on the Greco-Roman and early Christian contexts of Palestinian Rabbinic Literature, by comparison the study of the Persian context of the Babylonian Talmud has been relatively understudied. My dissertation contributes to Talmudic Studies by exploring aspects of Babylonian rabbinic culture from a comparative perspective that draws heavily from primary and secondary sources in Ancient Iranian Studies. The overarching question that I explore in this work is what role the ancient Persian Empire, as both a real socio-historical force and imaginary literary interlocutor, played on the Babylonian sages’ constructions of a group identity and authority vis-à-vis “Persian others.” With this basic problem permeating my dissertation, each chapter explores the representations of a different “Persian other” in the Talmud–namely, the Persians as an imperial ethno-class, the Sasanian kings Shapur I and II, and the Zoroastrian priests.

Chapter one in this dissertation outlines the methodology that I employ in the study of the Sasanian context of the Talmud. In this chapter, I situate my dissertation within the field of Rabbinics and describe both the prospects and inherent limitations in the integration of Ancient Iranian Studies into Talmudic Studies. Chapter two of this dissertation analyzes the generic representations of “Persia” or “Persians” in the Talmud in light of the question of to what extent the Babylonian sages possessed knowledge of Persian culture. After giving an overview of the Talmud’s images of Persians as an imperial ethno-class, as well as the Middle Persian loanwords in the corpus, I evaluate three talmudic texts that shed light on the complex ways in which the rabbis discussed and absorbed Persian civilization. In chapter three of this work, I examine the ways in which the Talmud’s depictions of the Sasanian kings Shapur I and II relate to Sasanian royal narratives and Zoroastrian historiographical trends that viewed the kings as icons of authority. In the final chapter of this dissertation, I explore the socio-cultural interface between the Babylonian sages and Zoroastrian priests. Through a detailed analysis of the administrative and religious functions of the Zoroastrian priesthood, I delineate the ways in which the Sasanian world impacted the Talmud’s portrayals of Zoroastrian priests.

Yael Wilfand Ben Shalom, Poverty, Charity and the Image of the Poor in Rabbinic Texts from the Land of Israel, Duke University, 2011.

This study examines how rabbinic texts from the land of Israel explain and respond to poverty. Through this investigation, I also analyze images of the poor in this literature, asking whether the rabbis considered poor persons to be full participants in communal religious life. Within the context of rabbinic almsgiving, this study describes how Palestinian rabbis negotiated both the biblical commands to care for the poor and Greco-Roman notions of hierarchy, benefaction and patronage.

The sources at the heart of this study are Tannaitic texts: the Mishnah, the Tosefta and Tannaitic midrashim; and Amoraic texts: the Yerushalmi (Palestinian Talmud) and the classical Amoraic Midrashim – Genesis Rabbah, Leviticus Rabbah and Pesiqta de Rab Kahana. Other texts such as Babylonian Talmud, non-rabbinic and non- Jewish texts are included in this study only when they are able to shed light on the texts mentioned above. In reading rabbinic texts, I pay close attention to several textual features: distinctions between Tannaitic and Amoraic compositions, as well as between rabbinic texts from the land of Israel and the Babylonian Talmud, and evidence of texts that were influenced by the Babylonian Talmud. This method of careful assessment of texts according to their time of composition and geographic origin forms the basis of this investigation.

The investigation yields several key findings: I suggest various factors that shaped Palestinian rabbinic approaches to poverty and almsgiving, including: the biblical heritage, the Greco-Roman and Byzantine environments, the diverse socio-economic status of the rabbis, and their adherence to “measure for measure” as a key hermeneutic principle.

The study also portrays how the rabbinic charitable system evolved as an expansion of the biblical framework and through engagement with Greco-Roman notions and practices. This unique system for supporting the poor shows evidence of the adoption of select Greco-Roman customs and views, as well as the rejection of other aspects of its hegemonic patterns. We have seen that the language of patronage is absent from the Mishnah’s articulation of the rabbinic charitable model.

Several of the texts analyzed in this study indicate that, for the rabbis, the poor were not necessarily outsiders. Following the main stream of biblical thinking, where the ordinary poor are rarely considered sinners who bear responsibility for their abject situation, Palestinian rabbinic texts seldom link ordinary poverty to sinful behavior. In these texts, the poor are not presented as passive recipients of gifts and support, but as independent agents who are responsible for their conduct. Moreover, rabbinic teachings about support for the poor reveal not only provisions for basic needs such as food, clothing and shelter but also attention to the dignity and the feelings of the poor, as well as their physical safety and the value of their time.

Pinchas Roth, Later Provençal Sages – Jewish Law (Halakhah) and Rabbis  in Southern France, 1215-1348, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012.

The South of France had a strong and significant Jewish presence in the Middle Ages. This area, often known as ‘Provence’ though it contains several political units besides the County of Provence, had been a part of the Roman Empire. The Jewish presence in the South of France began in the Roman period, and Jewish settlement in the area reached its peak in the 12th and 13th centuries. Important Jewish figures that emerged from this area include philosophers, scientists, physicians and poets.  At the same time, many local sages devoted their efforts to the more traditional fields of Talmudic exegesis and legal decision-making (Halakhah).

In the academic field of History of Halakhah, the Halakhic works of Southern French sages play a minor role. For the most part, scholars have focused on the sages of Ashkenaz (Germany) and the Tosafists of Northern France, and to a lesser degree, on the rabbis of Andalusia and Christian Spain, while Provençal figures are usually mentioned only in passing. When they are actually mentioned, it is usually 12th century sages that receive attention. The only sage from a later period who is routinely mentioned in modern scholarship is Menahem ha-Meiri, who lived in Perpignan in the second half of the 13th century.

This dissertation is devoted to shedding light on the Halakhic community of Southern France in the 13th-14th centuries, to adding to the historical knowledge available about the sages of this community, and to identifying the characteristics of their approach to Halakhah. The dissertation focuses on practical law (applied law, as found in responsa, or legal codes), as opposed to exegetical works on the Talmud, and it deals with the areas of Languedoc and Provence, from 1215 until the arrival of the Black Death in 1348.

Samuel Frank Thrope, Contradictions and Vile Utterances: The Zoroastrian Critique of Judaism in the Škand Gumānīg Wizār, Graduate Theological Union and University of California, Berkeley, 2012.

My dissertation examines the critique of Judaism in chapters Thirteen and Fourteen of the Škand Gumanig Wizar. The Škand Gumanig Wizar is a ninth century CE Zoroastrian theological work that contains polemics against Islam, Christianity, and Manichaeism, as well as Judaism. The chapters on Judasim include citations of a Jewish sacred text referred to as the “First Scripture” and critiques of these citations for their contradictory and illogical portrayals of the divine. This dissertation comprises two parts. The first part consists of an introductory chapter, four interpretative essays, and a conclusion. The second part consists of a text and new English translation of Škand Gumanig Wizar Chapters Thirteen and Fourteen.

My first essay presents a new approach to the relation between the citations from the First Scripture in the Škand Gumanig Wizar and Jewish literature. Previous scholars have tried to identify a single parallel text in the Hebrew Bible or rabbinic literature as the origin for each of citation. Borrowing approaches developed by scholars of the Qur’an and early Islamic literature, I argue that the Škand Gumanig Wizar’s critique draws on a more diverse and, likely, oral network of traditions about the biblical patriarchs and prophets.

My second essay contains a close reading of three linked passages concerning angels in Škand Gumanig Wizar Chapter Fourteen. I argue that the depiction of angels in these passages responds to a widespread Jewish belief in Metatron, an angelic co-regent whose power equals God’s. This essay analyzes these angelic passages in light of the traces of this belief that can be found in the Babylonian Talmud, Jewish mystical literature, and other texts.

My third essay concerns one of the longest citations in the critique of Judaism, a version of the story of the Garden of Eden from the first three chapters of the Book of Genesis. This essay demonstrates that this citation is one of a motif of connected and mutually illuminating garden passages found throughout the apologetic and polemical chapters of the Škand Gumānīg Wizār. I argue that gardens’ prominence in the critique of Judaism, and the Škand Gumānīg Wizār as a whole, derives from gardens’ symbolic role in Iranian culture.

My final essay compares the critique of Judaism in the Škand Gumānīg Wizār to a Zoroastrian anti-Jewish text from another Middle Persian work, the Dēnkard. Whereas the earlier Dēnkard depicts Judaism mythically, relating the story of Judaism’s creation by an evil demon, the Škand Gumānīg Wizār depicts Judaism textually, as citations from the First Scripture. I argue that the Škand Gumānīg Wizār’s presentation of Judaism as a text is an interpretative key for understanding the Zoroastrian work as a whole.

MA Theses

Neri Yeshayahu Ariel, The Case of a Genizah Monograph: Towards a Methodology of Identification, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2011.

During the late Geonic period, commentaries appeared in Judeo-Arabic on halakhic topics concerning formal and informal duties of the judges. In this thesis I challenge the attribution of several Genizah fragments of these documents made by prominent modern scholars and contend that the inaccuracy of their conclusions stems from inadequate standards and lack of clear-cut criteria in modern research. I analyze the aforementioned fragments in light of a methodological framework which has been developed for this purpose, but which can be applied to the study of Medieval Judeo-Arabic halakhic literature written in Muslim environments in general. Thus, the contribution of the present work to this area of knowledge far exceeds the analysis of the texts under discussion, in that the theoretical model proposed in it has ramifications for future research, in particular in the setting of standards and criteria.

It is far from my intention to claim that this study has made it possible to attribute henceforth every single fragment to a specific author or commentary, or even to identify it as belonging to the genre of “Judges’ Duties.” Rather, it points to a need for a fundamental inquiry and puts forward a number of guidelines upon which such an inquiry should be based. I have endeavored here to publish one single Genizah fragment and to identify it unequivocally, based on a clearly circumscribed set of criteria. The substantial difficulties encountered in identifying the document in question indicate that further research is required and that the standards outlined in this thesis need to be refined.

Hallel Baitner, Sifre Zutah on Parshat Parah – Studies in Text, Exegesis, Language and Structure, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012.

In my MA Thesis, Sifre Zutah on Parshat Parah – Studies in Text, Exegesis, Language and Structure (under the supervision of Prof. Menahem Kahana), I dealt with one section of the Midrashic work “Sifre Zutah” to Numbers – a Tannaitic Midrash from the Midrashic school of the students of Rabbi Akiva. Although this Midrash was known to medieval sages, the success of its “big brother” – Sifre to Numbers – led to its rejection and eventual disappearance at some point during the Middle Ages. Various testimonia of this Midrash have reached us via the “Yalkut Shimoni”, penned by Rabbi Shimon haDarshan of Frankfurt (13th cent.), and the “Midrash haGadol” of the Yemenite Rabbi David Adani (14th cent.).

Only two original fragments of this Midrash survived in the Cairo Genizah. The larger fragment, which I dealt with extensively, is located in the Firkowitz collection in St. Petersburg and includes most of the Midrash’s commentary on the portion “Hukkat”, which discusses the laws of the Red Heifer and corpse-impurity. This fragment was already published, along with an introduction and commentary, by Yaakov Nahum Epstein in 1930. I attempted in my thesis, to the best of my abilities, to reach an additional level of understanding of this Midrash in the subjects of textual versions, language, content and structure.

Avigail Bamberger (Manekin), Parallels between Aramaic Incantation Bowls and Rabbinic Texts, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012.

The texts written upon the Aramaic incantation bowls are of considerable importance to rabbinic studies as they constitute the only Jewish epigraphic material that exists from Babylonia at the time of the editing of the Talmud. Despite this fact, there is no comprehensive study on the many parallels between these bowls and the Talmud. Rabbinic elements in the bowls have been discussed only briefly by various scholars. Recently this trend seems to be changing, with the recent publication of various editions of newly discovered bowls and with the future publication of hundreds of new bowls by Prof. Shaul Shaked and others.

In my thesis I discussed the nature of these parallels, which, I argued, occur mainly in three areas: magic, liturgy and legal terminology. My thesis focuses on the third area, demonstrating many verbal parallels between the divorce formula in the Talmud and bowls that contain formulas to divorce demons. The study of these parallels is significant as it sheds light on the diffusion of rabbinic teachings beyond the beit-midrash and teaches us firsthand about the beliefs and practices of the non-rabbinical Jewish population at the time of the Talmud.

Amit Gvaryahu, Tannaitic Laws of Bodily Damages, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (completed, not yet submitted).

Almost as  famous than the dictum “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” is the apologetic that the rabbis were appalled by this “barbaric” law and circumvented it. This thesis examines the rabbis’ approach to the seemingly unequivocal biblical texts that prescribe the laws of bodily damages. The thesis concludes that not only did the rabbis continue to engage with these verses well into the late tannaitic period, but that they were a point of contention between the school of Rabbi Ishmael and Rabbi Akiva, with practical ramifications. The thesis then examines the process by which “an eye for an eye”  was supplanted by pecuniary damages, and concludes that this process preceded the rabbis by many generations, and was perhaps supported by a homiletical reading that can be reconstructed through a careful reading of the pertinent halakhic midrashim.

Yakov Meir, The Creation of a Hasidic Way of Study – A Bio-Bibliography of R. Yitzḥak Isaac Safrin from Komarno between 1832 and 1853, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2012.

This work is devoted to examining the production, i.e. writing, revision, collection of approbations and money, ordering, and printing of three commentaries written by R. Yitzḥak Isaac Safrin from Komarno on Seder Kodashim. During the 30’s of the 19th centur, after his Rabbi’s – R. Tzvi Hirsh of Zhidachov (Żydaczów) – death,  R. Yitzḥak Isaac left Galicia and toured the lowlands of Hungary. During those years he was writing Asirit HaEifa (Lvov, 1849), his commentary on the Sifra, and a few years after that his commentary on Tractate Shekalim known as Penei Zaken (Lvov, 1851) and a commentary on Mishna Kinnim he titled Nidvat Pi (Lvov, 1853) which marks the end of an exegetical trilogy devoted to sacrificial laws. The commentaries are polemical: R. Yitzḥak Isaac deals and critics the Korban Aharon commentary of the Sifra and the Gaon from Vilna‘s hagahot on Yerushalmi Shekalim. The polemic statement is not the only goal of the works, rather, there is a biographical one as well. R. Yitzḥak Isaac describes his trilogy as a series of writings that are “necessary for my soul.”  The analysis of these works will teach about the development of R. Yitzḥak Isaac’s scholastic method, about his “commentaric indentity”, and about the numerous and varied ways in which this process fits into his biography.

Dissertations, English, Reviews

Karaite Mishnah (and other friends too)

Ofra Tirosh-Becker, Rabbinic Excerpts in Medieval Karaite Literature, 2 Vols. Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 2012, 1219 pp., NIS 111.

Everyone knows about the Karaites. They need little introduction: Ninth century Jews tired of geonic hegemony, going back to scripture to find law and independence. But there is very little beyond that which has trickled outside of the academic circles that busy themselves with the Karaite movement, despite its great importance to the study of rabbinic Judaism.

There is much Karaite material waiting to be read. Simply read.  The great age of Karaite scholarship – in Jerusalem and its environs in the tenth-eleventh centuries – produced a great mass of work, fascinating and useful not only for students of Karaism. However, most Karaite commentaries lack editions of any kind; the Karaite communities have little interest in their own literature, and not much of it was published, while even less is in print today.

“It is one of the ironies of fate […] that the Karaites, the great fighters against the oral Torah, allowed me, with the grace of God, to reconstruct a new segment of the literature of the oral law.” Thus Menahem Kahana in his introduction to Sifre Zutta Deuteronomy (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2003). Kahana discovered this midrash by mistake in a survey of Hebrew manuscripts in Russian libraries, during the first days of Soivet perestroika. Kahana identified fragments catalogued as “Midrash on Deuteronomy,” as belonging to the commentary on Deuteronomy by the Karaite Yeshuah b. Yehudah. But he also discovered a long-lost tannaitic midrash quoted in them as well: Sifre Zutta Deuteronomy, which he proceeded to publish, with an extensive commentary and study.

This is just one dark corner of the Karaite world that Kahana helped expose. But he was not alone in this enterprise. Ofra Tirosh-Becker, a linguist by training, has been working on one aspect of this Karaite material for many years. Her doctoral dissertation – under the same name – was approved in 2000.  In it, she discusses as many quotations of rabbinic works in Karaite literature as she could find.

Our book is an expansion of this dissertation, both in terms of the breadth of the corpus of quotations in vol. 2 and in terms of the “philological and linguistic discussions,” in vol. 1. Tirosh-Becker discusses such questions as the ways in which Karaite scholars treated rabbinic material, whether or not they forged it for their own purposes (usually not, but there is one fake barayta forged by Sahel b. Masliah, mentioned on p. 106-107), and what they called it when they quoted it (usually, “the first ones said”, qâl âlâwalûn). She also devotes an extensive chapter to the question of the script employed in Karaite works: Karaite writers used both Hebrew and Arabic scripts, and wrote both languages in both scripts. This is of importance to the linguist, as many rabbinic sources are transliterated into Arabic script, allowing for the reconstruction of the reading tradition of certain words (e.g.: the reading ribbi is attested, as in all other rabbinic sources – and not rabbi; the letter ג is transliterated as jim and as ghain, depending on its positon in the word: gevul but reghilim).

Additionally, the Karaites employed some Hebrew diacritics in their Arabic to signify phonemes that do no exist in Arabic, like Hebrew vowels, and the rafe sign over the Arabic bah. But this is of importance to the cultural historian, too: why did Rabbinites use only Hebrew script, and Karaites Arabic? Was it an economic divide, or an ideological one? Tirosh-Becker discusses some previous research cursorily, but essentially leaves the field for others to till. She makes that work easier, too: a description of all the manuscripts employed is appended to vol. 1 (chapter 14), and it allows for a survey of material where interesting discussions of rabbinic material might show up. More such discussions abound – the chapters on nikkud (10) and cantillation marks (9) are fascinating as well. Tirosh-Becker also identifies errors that testify both to the oral recitation of the texts, as well as some errors that clearly point to a written provenance of the same texts (I wonder if Karaites stopped copying from the rabbinic texts themselves at some point and started copying from each other; we do know that many rabbinic texts were owned by the Karaite synagogue in Cairo – but the fake barayta was copied over and over as well).

But the great treasure of the book is vol. 2. Spanning over 800 pages, this volume  includes all the quotations of rabbinic literature in Karaite works Tirosh-Becker was able to find.  She was careful to leave the script as she found it – no transliterations for you! – with or without all the diacritics. In a feat of typesetting (it seems the book was created entirely on MS Word), she was able to reproduce the Hebrew diacritics, Arabic diacritics, and scripts accurately and precisely. She also points out where the quotations diverge from the MS chosen by “Maagarim” to represent the work. This is another area where a Talmudist should intervene, and check the quotations to see if they match any one text-type of the Mishnah.

Tirosh-Becker also publishes a large number of quotations from the previously-lost Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai. This is a real find, and the author promises an article soon with Menahem Kahana on their value (see pp. 112-115 for a discussion, and pp. 856-882 for the quotations). There is a disproportionately large amount of quotations from this Mekhilta in the corpus, pointing to its prominence in Babylonia (indeed, the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael was sometimes called “the Palestinian Mekhilta”). Many of these quotations are from parts of the Mekhilta not attested in known Genizah fragments, and were reconstructed from the fourteenth century Yemenite Midrash Hagadol twice: by D. Z. Hoffmann, and by J. N. Epstein. The latter was more conservative in his reconstructions, but several quotations discovered by Tirosh-Becker actually support Hoffmann’s more extensive reconstructions. However, these quotations, as far as I could see, are not marked in any way as derived from the Mekhilta, and in some cases (see e.g. pp. 859, 860-862) I’m curious why the author thinks they are from this work and not simply from one of the Talmuds, which contain similar material.

There is also one quotation from the lost Mekhilta to Deuteronomy (1124), a handful of quotations from the Palestinian Talmud (Talmud llshâm), and a long quotation with the story of the Oven of Aknai – a rallying point for laughing Karaites everywhere (1172-1175). The rest of the rabbinic library is proportionately represented too: Mishnah, Sifra, Sifre (Num and Deut), Bavli, Midrash Agada and even some Tosefta.

The unimaginatively named Rabbinic Excerpts in Medieval Karaite Literature is now another resource scholars of rabbinics must consult on matters of text, readings and reception history of the rabbinic text. But it is also a repository of a culture negotiating its relationship with revered predecessors represented in this world by bitter enemies; a story of cultural appropriation and literary positioning. In that sense, Tirosh-Becker’s book is a collection of artifacts still waiting to be read.

Dissertations, English, Recent Publications

New Dissertations in the Field

Each year, numerous dissertations are defended on various aspects relating to rabbinic literature. And each year, the variety of angles and approaches to this literature only increases. The most recent crop nicely reflects the participation of women in the study of rabbinic literature, which though certainly higher than decades prior, still seems to lag behind the rest of the human sciences.  There are other things to note. More and more theses are grappling seriously with theory.  Editions of rabbinic texts continue to be produced, though perhaps not at the level that they should be.  New areas of research, like Talmudo-Iranica, are well represented in this list.  And gender remains a focus. Below is a list of recent dissertations (from 2011 and some from 2010) with abstracts, where available. Readers aware of other dissertations of interest to this blog should contact us. 

NOTE: The list will be updated over the next few days.

Yonatan Adler, “Archaeological Evidence for the Observance of Ritual Purity in Erez-Israel from the Hasmonean Period until the End of the Talmudic Era (164 BCE – 400 CE),” (PhD Dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2011).

The ancient literary sources indicate that the laws of ritual purity played a crucial role in the halakhic discourse of the late Second Temple period. Intensive discussion of this issue is found in the books of the Apocrypha, in the works of Philo and Josephus Flavius, in the documents from the Judean desert, in the books of the New Testament and in the early strata of the Tannaitic literature. The laws of purity continued to remain in the center of halakhic debates even after the destruction of the Jerusalem temple in 70 C.E., at least within the circles of the sages from whom we have inherited the early rabbinic literature.

These literary sources present us with a number of fundamental questions: To what extent were the laws of ritual purity observed amongst the greater Jewish population of Ereẓ-Israel? What place did these laws occupy in the daily lives of those who observed them? Were there differences in the level of observance of these laws between various segments within contemporary Jewish society? Were there regional differences with regard to the observance of these laws? What kind of developments and changes occurred over time in the field of ritual purity observance? These research questions, which are of utmost importance in any attempt to understand the religious and social histories of Jewish society in Ereẓ-Israel during the late Second Temple era and during the period of the Mishnah and Talmud, are the focus of the present study.

There are three major types of archaeological finds that reflect on the scope and the nature of ritual purity observance during the historical periods under discussion. The first is stepped water installations, which should be identified as the “miqwa’ot” mentioned in early rabbinic sources, ritual baths that were used for ablutions. Another type of archaeological find that evidences the observance of purity laws is chalk-stone vessels, used especially by those who kept the purity laws due to the insusceptibility of these vessels to ritual impurity. Important additional data may be culled from a study of the distribution of imported pottery as these vessels were considered inherently impure, and as such we may learn about the observance of purity law by examining the extent to which these vessels were either used or avoided.

Tali Artman-Partock, “Dialogue and Dialogism in Rabbinic Literature: Parrhesia in Theory and in Practice in Rabbinic Literature and in Contemporary Christian literature,” (PhD dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2010).

Mira Balberg, “Recomposed Corporealities: Purity, Body, and Self in the Mishnah” (PhD dissertation, Stanford University, 2011).

The purpose of this dissertation is to trace and analyze the ways in which the rabbis who created the Mishnah, a Palestinian rabbinic legal codex whose final compilation is dated to the first half of the third century C.E., developed a unique notion of a bodily self in their remaking of the biblical laws of purity and impurity. By examining some of the fundamental innovations that the rabbis introduced to the system of purity and impurity that they had inherited from their predecessors, I show that questions of subjectivity and consciousness profoundly shape the concepts of purity and impurity as those are developed in the Mishnah, ultimately presenting the self as a new focal point in the discourse of ritual impurity. In particular, I emphasize the ways in which the human body, which is the main and most critical site in which the drama of purity and impurity takes place, is negotiated in the Mishnah as both subject and object, both as identical to the self and as disparate from it. Through my analysis of various themes in the mishnaic discourse of purity and impurity, I demonstrate that the rabbis constructed the daily engagement with impurity and the ongoing pursuit of ritual purity as closely reflective of one’s relations with one’s self, with one’s human and non-human environment, and with one’s body.

The rabbis of the Mishnah radically expanded the realm and repercussions of impurity, thus shaping the most mundane daily interactions, encounters, and activities that constitute one’s physical presence the world as situations in which one is constantly confronted with the possibility of contracting impurity. In the Mishnah, being in a body means being vulnerable to impurity, in such way that the management of impurity and the incessant awareness of it are defining aspects of the self’s relations with his material surroundings and with his own body. The mishnaic subject, however, does more than simply respond to the world of impurity and attempt to manage his precarious state in it; he is also the one who is shaping this world through his consciousness and deliberation. The rabbis introduce a surprising conceptual innovation, according to which only objects – and persons – that harbor significance have any consequences in terms of impurity. In other words, only things that matter to someone, and in which one has presumably invested some sort of subjective thought, intention, or deliberation, can affect one in terms of impurity.

The notion that the mishnaic self is capable both of being pure and of being impure is what inscribes this self’s activities and encounters in a world pervaded with impurity with a constant quest for the attainment of purity. The quest for purity is manifested in a series of practices, most notably practices of self-examination and self-reflection, and in an unrelenting awareness of the possibility of impurity and of the commitment to maintain a state of purity, in such way that the attainment of a status of purity profoundly depends on one’s relations with oneself. Only one who is capable of mastering himself and being held accountable to oneself, and one who is deeply dedicated to purity and willfully nurtures this dedication, can attain a status of purity. The pursuit of purity is thus constructed in the Mishnah as a process in which the self both exhibits the desired character traits of self-knowledge and self-control and cultivates these qualities. Thereby, the very effort to be pure acquires cultural value in and of itself.

The self, that is, the human subject who is capable of reflection on himself and on his surroundings, is thus in many ways the ultimate point of reference of the discourse of purity and impurity in the Mishnah. Impurity is constructed as shaped by subjective processes, whereas purity is constructed as attained through the development of one’s religious commitments and mental capacities. All this by no means does away with the physical-like and even mechanical way in which the rabbis understand the workings of impurity; however, this does allow the system of purity and impurity to acquire a new and central dimension in the rabbinic discourse, a dimension which, I propose, made this system more meaningful and more relevant in a world in which it was likely to become more and more obsolete.

Meir Ben-Shahar, “Biblical and Post-Biblical History in Rabbinic Literature: Between the First and Second Destruction,” (PhD dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2010).

Itamar Brenner, “A Hermeneutic Study of the Interpretive Aspect in the Babylonian Talmud (PhD dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2010).

Binyamin Elbaum, “Midrash Abba Gurion on Esther: The Version and its Redactions,” (PhD dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2011).

Shmuel Faust, “Criticism in Sage Stories from the Babylonian Talmud,” (PhD dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2010).

David Flatto, “Between Royal Absolutism and and Independent Judiciary: The Evolution of Separation of Powers in Biblical, Second Temple and Rabbinic Texts,” (PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 2010).

Even as Jewish political sovereignty waned during Late Antiquity, Judaism experienced a profound flourishing in the legal sphere. Confronting a changing political landscape, while encountering distinctive Greco-Roman power structures, Jewish thinkers and exegetes responded by developing bold and novel juristic conceptions. While much scholarship has examined the loss of Jewish power, this study shifts the focus to a crucial question which has been largely ignored: how did Jews think about power and authority in the absence of power, and how did this inform the nature of the societies they constructed in the absence of power? My essential answer is that they drew on their rich legal tradition to focus on law and legal authority as a unique political alternative to traditional rule. This thesis offers a wide-ranging exploration of this crucial dimension of the Jewish legalimagination in its formative stages.

In particular, this study examines representations of legal authority in seminal Jewish texts from the Second Temple and rabbinic periods. Given the primacy of law within Judaism, Jewish sages, thinkers, interpreters, transmitters and jurists from this era grappled with the ideal nature of the administration of justice and produced an impressive array of juristic schemes. Nevertheless, certain essential overriding themes pervade this diverse body of material.

Whereas ancient jurisprudence presumes that law emanates from the seat of power–with an absolutist king or emperor commanding authority in all realms, including the legal domain–a distinctive strand within Jewish jurisprudence advances a different paradigm. Although Ancient Near Eastern and much biblical literature project the king as the supreme judge, Deuteronomy 17 (the primary normative text about kingship and legal authority) dramatically revises this approach by establishing independent judicial officials operating beyond the reach of the king. This seminal, if anomalous, text assumes heightened significance in post-biblical literature.

Elaborating on Deuteronomy 17, post-biblical commentators present a variety of models of judicial administration. Philo attempts to harmonize Deuteronomy with the dominant biblical attitude toward kingship by restoring the monarch’s judicial role. Various Qumran texts seek to circumscribe the sovereign, and largely locate justice outside of the royal domain in priestly quorums. Moreover, certain writings build upon the Deuteronomic foundation in striking ways. A leading voice within tannaitic literature extends and institutionalizes the role of the judiciary and seeks to purge the legal edifice from additional influences of power (beyond royal intervention). At the same time, tannaitic writings elevate the distinct political responsibilities of a sovereign. A very different voice in early Jewish jurisprudence, especially manifest in Josephus’s writings, aims to eliminate political authority altogether and reconstitute the ideal polity upon the foundation of the rule of law. Abandoning the regnant notion of imperial law, such writings advance robust visions of law’s empire.

Proclaiming the supremacy of law and widening its scope, post-biblical writers insist that a legal system must operate independently of powerful political rulers. Without a land, sovereign authority, or coercive powers, and with restricted legal jurisdiction, leading Late Antique Jewish writers promote legal constructs which diverge from the surrounding cultures, and in certain remarkable ways prefigure–or even eclipse–ideas that only enter into Western political and legal tradition centuries later. This dissertation demonstrates that Jewish legalism is not an inevitable, or even a reluctant response to disempowerment, but rather a deeply-rooted ideology revolving around the centrality of law and its profound potential to structure a society and a polity.

Yair Furstenberg, “Eating in a State of Purity during the Tannaitic Period: Tractate Teharot  and its Historical and Cultural Contexts,” (PhD dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2010).

No other religious phenomenon shaped the daily conduct of many during the latter part of the Second Temple period such as eating in the state of purity. Purity, as a way of life, was shared by most groups and, at the same time, marked the discursive dividing lines between parties and sects. In Rabbinic circles, these purity regulations continued also after the Temple destruction. However, fundamental  changes took place during next two centuries. Whereas in early generations “purity burst”, as time went on the practice of eating in purity decreased until it practically disappeared during the third century. Indeed, eating in the state of purity played a central role in fashioning contemporary world view, including notions of contamination and danger within the private sphere and social status and structure in the public domain. Therefore, examining the factors which shaped and reshaped purity practices during the Talmudic period is of utmost importance for pursuing a clearer view of the rabbinic religious and cultural world and the transformations it went through. Much scholarly progress was made in the last years in the field of purity in antiquity. This was enhanced by the publication of Qumran texts, the reinterpretation of early Christian sources, and new archaeological finds. Also anthropological theories devoted to social aspects of purity regulations enriched the historical endeavor. However, the largest source which systematically surveys all levels of purity laws and includes most of our knowledge of contemporary purity customs has not received the proper scholarly treatment, this is the tannaitic corpus.

This dissertation examines central aspects involved in the reshaping of the field of purities during the tannaitic period, as they are reflected in Tractate Teharot of the Mishna, devoted to food purity. This and other texts offer a novel view of the subject, which stand in contrast to biblical and Second Temple concepts of impurity and contamination. Through careful examination of this literature we can track a trajectory of purity in the rabbinic circles.  The systematic study of the tractate includes four levels of examination, corresponding to the four parts of the dissertation. (I)  The textual framework: How the varying methods of subject arrangement reflect the ways the topic of purity was learned and its sitz im leben (II) Purity management in an impure environment: What are the differences between the various devices for managing purity in  the shadow of impurity which are found in Second Temple and tannaitic sources, and how they uncover different perceptions of impurity and its threat.  (III) Purity laws as social markers: In Second Temple period purity laws were clearly designed to  differentiate social groups and create a clear hierarchy:  haver and  am-ha’aretz, priest and layman. Thus we ask, how did purity function as a social marker as the extent of the phenomenon decreased. (IV) Conceptual development: How the ongoing development of food purity laws and the creation of the ‘grades of impurity’ system by the Tannaim contributed to the evolution of a new concept of impurity and contagion.

Thus we encounter a living process, in which conceptual structures and social relations intertwine and transform drastically, imprinting their influence on the emerging sources.

Tamar Jacobowitz, “Leviticus Rabbah and the Spiritualization of the Laws of Impurity,” (PhD dissertation, University of Pennsylvania, 2010).

This dissertation is a literary analysis of three sections in Leviticus Rabbah (LR), an aggadic compendium of midrash on the book of Leviticus, compiled in the Amoraic period. The study demonstrates that the rabbinic authors of LR transformed the levitical laws of purity into a set of exegetically generated reflections on God, the people Israel, and ethical relations. In the first chapter, I explore how LR parashah 14 injects theology into Leviticus 12’s purification ritual for a woman who has given birth. I consider the ways in which the rabbis’ theologizing discourse intersects with a discourse about gender, amplifying God’s role in childbirth at the expense of the mother. In the second chapter on LR parashah 16, I show that the rabbinic composers bring a concern for proper speech and ethical behavior to their reading of Leviticus 13-14’s ritual for the metsora (leper). In this parashah, the rabbis deepen and extend a tenuous biblical link between tsara’at (leprosy) and lashon hara (evil speech), substituting the ritual trappings of the notorious condition with a concern for building an ethical community. In the final chapter on LR 17, I study a related levitical topic, that of house diseases, and argue that the rabbis utilize the Leviticus verses to affirm the ongoing election of Israel from among the nations. Taken together, these three LR parshiyot suggest that the LR composers were engaged in an elaborate project of allegorization. Without undermining the Leviticus verses or contravening their legal import, the LR rabbis launched a way to read levitical purity so that it yielded contemporary meaning.

David Chaim Kalir, “An Edition and Comprehensive Commentary on Chapter II of Tractate Rosh-Hashana in the Babylonian Talmud,” (Hebrew; PhD dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2011).

Jonathan Kaplan, “A Divine Love Song the Emergence of the Theo-erotic Interpretation of the Song of Songs in Ancient Judaism and Early Christianity,” (PhD dissertation, Harvard University, 2010).

Jewish and Christian communities have classically understood the Song of Songs as a statement of divine love for God’s chosen people: Israel or the church, respectively. I adopt the term “theo-erotic” (in contrast to the more commonly used term “allegorical”) to describe this interpretive mode and then chart the hermeneutical and rhetorical shape of Jewish and Christian interpretations of the Song in the first centuries of the common era. The Song portrays an ideal world in which the lovers can be understood as archetypes with which other lovers can be identified, thus enabling theo-erotic interpretation. I argue that the Song’s transmission and translation in the Septuagint, the Qumran manuscripts, references to the Song’s use in Josephus’s Against Apion , 4 Ezra , Mishnah, and Tosefta, and purported allusions to the Song in numerous works from the Second Temple period provide limited evidence for the theo-erotic interpretation of the Song. The first verifiable allusions to and echoes of the Song appear in 4 Ezra and Revelation. I argue that these texts make use of a theo-erotic reading of the Song (as part of a complex of allusions) that recasts the Song into eschatological time and apocalyptic space in describing the community’s ideal and affective relationship with God. Rabbinic texts that record traditions from the Tannaitic Period (ca. 70-200 C.E.) interpret the utterances of the Song typologically as prefigurations of ideals in Israel’s relationship with God. The twenty-five passages that contain interpretations of the Song in Mekilta de-Rabbi Yishmael exemplify this mode of interpretation. In Mekilta the sages historicize and connect many of the Song’s verses with the period of Israel’s exodus from Egypt and the divine revelation at Sinai, understood in ideal terms as the period of Israel’s betrothal to God.

In this reading, Israel adopts the woman’s praises for her lover and reciprocates God’s fidelity through acts of devotion, expressed in characteristically rabbinic ways as the mitzvot , or divine commandments.

Baruch Kehat, “‘The Burden of Proof Lies with the Claimant'” in Rabbinic Literature,” (PhD dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2010).

Yishai Kiel, “Selected Topics in Laws of Ritual Defilement: Between the Babylonian Talmud and Pahlavi Literature” (English; PhD dissertation, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2011).

One of the most promising and intriguing areas in the emerging interdisciplinary interest in Sasanian literature concerns the contextualized study of the Babylonian Talmud and Zoroastrian literature in Middle Persian. As it stands, Pahlavi literature has proven to be an indispensible source for the study of the Babylonian Talmud, and the Babylonian Talmud in turn has proven to be no less of an illuminating and insightful tool for the study of Pahlavi literature.

In this study I hope to have contributed to the scholarly efforts invested in the exploration and elucidation of Irano-Talmudic connections. On the first level, situated in the broader field of comparative culture, this study attempts to reveal the similarities and differences between the rabbinic and Zoroastrian legal systems. On the second level, situated in the realm of developmental intellectual history, the study engages in a more specific attempt to unearth interreligious connections that may have taken place in the Sasanian period – whether stemming from a more direct discourse or from coexistence in the same cultural milieu.

The study focuses on several legal topics relating to ritual defilement, which reveal intriguing examples of similarity and affinity. Not only the contents of rabbinic and Zoroastrian ritual instructions are addressed, but also the analytical and methodological tools, and the philosophical, legal and anthropological theoretical constructs that are displayed in the detailed discussions of the Babylonian Talmud and Pahlavi literature.

The introductory chapter includes a detailed survey of previous scholarship pertaining to Irano-Talmudic research and the study of ritual purity in rabbinic and Zoroastrian cultures. A detailed account is given regarding the philological tools that are utilized throughout the study, concerning the study of the Babylonian Talmud on the one hand and Pahlavi literature on the other. This chapter also includes a discussion of the comparative methodology that underlies the philological work that is carried out throughout the study.

Chapter one includes a critical edition and comprehensive commentary on Pahlavi Vīdēvdād 3.14. The chapter explores the relations between ritual impurity, religious liability and punitive consequences in Zoroastrian law; the role of knowledge and intention in establishing religious liability; the question of constraint while performing a religious transgression; the categories of carrying, shaking and touching dead matter; doubts that arose with regard to ritual defilement; and the question of aggregation and separation of consecutive sins. Chapter two is devoted to several rabbinic parallels relating to Zoroastrian material addressed in chapter one. The chapter explores the legal categories of carrying, shaking and touching impurity; shared responsibility in the case of transgressions that were performed by two persons; the role of cognition of sin and punishment in establishing legal liability; and doubts that arose with regard to impurity and sin.

Chapter three is devoted to the defilement of implements in Zoroastrian and rabbinic law from a comparative perspective. The chapter focuses on the legal classification of various materials in terms of their susceptibility to ritual impurity, and particularly the classification of glassware and bone implements. The chapter also considers the role of preparedness of articles for use in determining their level of susceptibility to ritual impurity. Chapter four, also devoted to the defilement of implements, focuses on the issue of internal and external contamination of vessels as discussed in rabbinic and Zoroastrian law. The unique legal position which distinguishes the defilement of the exterior from that of the interior is rigorously analyzed and contextualized within a broader discursive framework.

Chapter five is devoted to the matter of legal connectedness and the spread of impurity in Pahlavi literature. The chapter discusses the connectedness of articles and substances to the ground; the inner connectedness of various materials; a legal distinction between solid and powdery substances; and the connectedness of different parts of agricultural produce. Chapter six provides the rabbinic counterpart on the matters of legal connectedness and the spread of ritual defilement and engages in a systematic comparison of rabbinic and Zoroastrian texts pertaining to this matter.

Jenny R. Labendz, “Socratic Torah: Non-Jews in Rabbinic Intellectual Culture,” (PhD dissertation, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, May 2011).

Yifat Monnickendam: “Halakhic Issues in the Writings of the Syriac Church Fathers Ephrem and Aphrahat” (PhD dissertation, Bar Ilan University, 2011)

Michael Pitkowsky, “‘Mipenei Darkhei Shalom’ (Because of the Paths of Peace) and Related Terms: A Case Study of How Early Concepts and Terminology Developed From Tannaitic to Talmudic Literature,” (PhD dissertation, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2011).

There are numerous sources within Tannaitic literature and the Talmuds that describe situations in which rabbis justified legal rules on the basis of their concern about the effect that laws might have on relations between different groups-between Jews and other Jews, and between Jews and Gentiles. The majority of the time that there was such a concern, the rabbis used one of three terms: mipenei darkhei shalom (“Because of the paths of peace”), meshumeivah (“Because of enmity”), or hillul ha-shem (“The desecration of God’s name”). By using these terms, they were acknowledging the role of extra-textual considerations in the legal decision making process.

This dissertation examines the sources within Tannaitic and Talmudic literature in which one of these terms was used. These sources have been examined by previous scholars, but most of their analyses focused on a small number of the sources, or did not subject them to the proper philological and textual analysis that is required before one makes any conclusions about rabbinic texts or terminology. I examined these texts within their textual, legal, political, and social context, before attempting to make any conclusions about their role in Tannaitic or Talmudic discourse.

It is impossible to generalize about the ways in which these terms were used. They are found in different rabbinic corpora, quoted by different authorities, and used in different ways. Sometimes they were used to justify a new law, while in other instances they were used as a justification for either overturning or modifying an existing prohibition. The common thread throughout all of these sources was the expressed desire to place a high value on the relationships that existed between different groups of people and the potentially negative effect that Jewish law and practice might have on these relationships.

Michael Rosenberg, “‘I am Impure’/’I am Forbidden:’ Purity and Prohibition as Distinct Formal Categories in the Laws of Niddah” (PhD dissertation, The Jewish Theological Seminary of America, 2011).

This dissertation uses the menstrual laws (laws of “niddah”) in the Bible and Rabbinic literature as a lens for thinking about the relationship between the legal categories of impurity and prohibition. The menstrual laws, it is argued, are a particularly
beneficial topic of inquiry because of their appearance both in the first half of Leviticus (Lev 12 and 15), in the context of concerns of ritual impurity, and in the second half of Leviticus (Lev 18:19 and 20:18), in the context of the Holiness Code legislation, in which the legal rhetoric is one of prohibition rather than impurity.

It is argued that a careful analysis of both the content of Rabbinic rulings regarding the laws of niddah as well as the language used to express these rulings reveals a change over time in Rabbinic thinking. Whereas Tannaitic and early Amoraic Rabbis rarely if ever express awareness of a hard-and-fast formal distinction between categories of impurity-law and of law-framed-as-prohibition, later Babylonian Amoraic Rabbis as well as anonymous editors make use, explicitly and implicitly, of these formal categories. At the same time, however, the content of Rabbinic rulings is not necessarily constrained by awareness or lack of awareness of such a clear conceptual distinction.

Chapter One considers the situation in the Pentateuch and argues that the Bible has two different models of the relationship between impurity-law and prohibition-based-law vis-à-vis niddah. Lev 15 and Lev 20:18, when read together, treat impurity and prohibition as separate categories of law; that is to say, Lev 15 makes no mention of prohibition and Lev 20:18 makes no mention of impurity. Lev 18:19, however, conflates the two categories, defining a prohibition using purity-terminology. These two different approaches are both found in Rabbinic literature about niddah. In Chapter Two, we treat Rabbinic rulings about immersion and show that while Tannaitic and early Amoraic Rabbis express no explicit awareness of a clear divide between impurity and prohibition-related consequences of immersion, late Babylonia editing of earlier sources reveals both an awareness of such a divide as well as anxiety about it. Chapter Three considers the topic of internal inspections performed to determine a woman‟s menstrual state. Here we see that although Tannaitic and early Amoraic Rabbis once again share a common discourse, insofar as they do not generally distinguish between impurity law and prohibition-based law, while late Amoraic Rabbis and anonymous editors use a discourse in which purity and prohibition are clearly demarcated as separate legal categories, the actual rulings of Tannaitic Rabbis in fact have more in common with the rulings of late Amoraic Rabbis and anonymous editors than with early Amoraic Rabbis. Finally,
Chapter Four considers the topic of hymenal blood and argues that we have here a case of precisely those Rabbis most aware of conceptual distinctions between impurity and transgression conflating the two in order to achieve particular legal ends.

Michal Bar-Asher Siegal, “Literary Analogies in Rabbinic and Christian Monastic Sources,” (PhD dissertation, Yale University, 2010).

My research examines literary parallels in Christian and Jewish sources, culminating in an in-depth analysis of previously un-studied parallels between Christian monastic texts, the Apophthegmata Patrum (“The Sayings of the Desert Fathers”) and Babylonian Talmudic traditions. My findings introduce a new type of interaction of Jews and Christians in Babylonia, and suggest, contrary to prior academic views, that this interaction was direct, interdependent, non-polemic and very much literary-based. These Monastic analogies shed a new light on the surprisingly inclusive nature of the Talmudic corpus.

Chapter one recapitulates recent academic findings relating to the setting in which the Talmud was composed and surveys previous literature regarding the Christian background of the Babylonian Talmud. It also suggests a new reading of a passage in BT Avoda Zara 4a, which seems to indicate an isolation of Babylonian rabbis from the Christian population of their time. This chapter concludes with a methodological discussion of the nature of research based on parallel texts. Chapter two introduces the monastic text chosen for this parallel study, the Apophthegmata . I survey the history of the formation and early transmission of the literary traditions collected in the Sayings and then illustrate the transmission routes that would have enabled its literary connection with the Babylonian Talmud. The importance of the monastic movement in the Persian Empire during the time and geographical location of the composition and redaction of the Babylonian Talmud, makes a connection between the two religious populations a great probability. Chapter three surveys a broad list of parallels between the texts of the two religious movements and identifies points of contact and difference. Chapters four and five focus on specific detailed examples that feature a rabbinic borrowing of monastic literary elements: the BT Rashbi traditions (Shabbat 33b) and the Elazar b. Dordya story (Avoda Zara 17a).

This dissertation has the potential to change the way we look at the research of both rabbinic and monastic texts: it changes our perception of the source materials used by the redactors of the Talmud, and teaches us about the circulation of monastic traditions in eastern Syriac circles.

Zvi Septimus, “The Poetic Superstructure of the Babylonian Talmud and the Reader It Fashions,” (PhD dissertation, University of California, Berkely, 2011).

This dissertation proposes a poetics and semiotics of the Bavli (Babylonian Talmud)—how the Bavli, through a complex network of linguistic signs, acts on its implied reader’s attempt to find meaning in the text.  In doing so, I advance a new understanding of how the Bavli was composed, namely as a book written by its own readers in the act of transmission.  In the latter half of the twentieth century, Bavli scholarship focused on the role of the Stam (the collective term for those people responsible for the anonymous voice of the Bavli) in the construction of individual Bavli passages (sugyot). Stam theory details how sugyot were crafted out of pre-existing sources and how the Stam works to control those sources in the service of a particular worldview.  This dissertation locates a different force at work in the construction of the Bavli as a single unified book, an authorship that is above and against the work of the Stam—a Superstam.

By examining the effect of the Bavli’s use of rare and ambiguous terminology, I expand the unit of inquiry from the individual Bavli passage (sugya) to the Bavli in its entirety.  I argue that, for the Bavli’s implied reader, meaning is not found in the work of the Stam.  While the Stam conveys meaning for a local reader, the global reader I explore does not artificially divide the Bavli into its constituent parts.   For this reader, the Superstam acts to subvert the controlling work of the Stam through the placement of key words throughout the book.  These words, when rare or ambiguous, direct the reader to other sugyot in which they appear.  These sugyot, when read simultaneously, work to convey, for the reader, an expression of ambivalence on the part of the Superstam toward those moments of Stammaitic certainty.  I conclude that Super-stammaitic activity itself is the result and product of readers who are trained how to read by the Bavli’s own expectations.  In this way, the Bavli is a text authored by its own readers who, in transmitting the text, become writers again and again.

Shana Strauch-Schick, “Intention in the Babylonian Talmud: An Intellectual History” (PhD dissertation, Yeshiva University, 2011).

This study examines the legal concept of kavvanah, or intention”, and attempts to establish the history of how it was conceptualized and applied by the Amoraim- the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud (Bavli). Since the Bavli addresses both religious and civil law, it devotes much attention to the role of intention. However, the sources which discuss intention, both explicitly and implicitly, are scattered throughout the Bavli. Nevertheless, it is possible to construct an intellectual history of intention by considering the following: the views of the authors of relevant statements; the time in which they lived and their cultural environment; their affiliations and schools of thought. I attempt to sift through the varied material presented in the Bavli and construct an intellectual history based on each of the various sources which touch on the role and importance of intention. This work focuses primarily on the third and fourth generations of Amoraim who lived during the first half of the fourth century; a period during which it seems the Babylonian Amoraim evinced an increasing interest in the subject. The talmudic redactors who followed in the subsequent centuries continued along the lines laid out by the fourth- generation Amoraim. They addressed numerous issues pertaining to intentionality, applied existing principles to new cases, and formulated explicit principles, which perhaps lay implicit in the amoraic dicta.

Eliezer Treitl, “Pirke de-Rabbi Eliezer: Text, Redaction and a Sample Synopsis,” (PhD dissertation, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, 2010).

Dov Weiss, “Confrontations with God in Late Rabbinic Literature” (PhD dissertation, The University of Chicago, 2011).

This dissertation provides the first full-scale literary and theological treatment of the motif of humans confronting God in rabbinic literature. The sages do not challenge God directly, but indirectly by placing moral critiques of God into the mouths of various biblical heroes. These exegetical dialogues provide a safe space for the rabbis to articulate their own ethical struggles with the divine as they present themselves not as originators of the confrontation but only as their transmitters. In this way, the sages are removed from the picture as they place sole responsibility for the protest onto a particular biblical character.

While this rabbinic topos surfaces in fifth-century C.E. rabbinic texts, it reaches its zenith within the late scriptural commentaries of Tanhuma-Yelammedenu (sixth and seventh century C.E. Byzantine Palestine). Their authors not only generate a plethora of new confrontations with God, but also intensify and radicalize older ones. The ubiquity and boldness of these encounters highlight Tanhuma’s literary proclivity to produce dramatic narratives of tension and suspense. Although scholars have already noted Tanhuma’s privileging of narrativity over homily, they have ignored the content-related implications of this “genre revolution.” This study begins to fill this scholarly lacuna by demonstrating how Tanhuma’s dramatic rewriting of the scriptural narrative provides an excellent locus to extract its distinctive ethical commitments and theological presuppositions.

Beyond tracing and detailing those moral values that drove Tanhuma authors to construct a critique of God, this thesis–more significantly–uncovers a radical Byzantine theology of human power and divine fallibility. Many Tanhuma passages depict God as revising His laws, justice system or cosmic governance only after being ethically challenged by a biblical hero. Indeed, these texts accentuate how rabbinic conceptions of God can be more accurately captured by rabbinic retellings of the scriptural narrative than by their theological maxims or normative formulations.