English, Guest Posts, Reviews

David Shyovitz’s “A Remembrance of His Wonders”

David Shyovitz, A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz, reviewed by Miri Fenton


After reading David Shyovitz’s excellent article on werewolves, and attending his lecture at the World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem this summer, I was very excited to read his first book. In A Remembrance of His Wonders: Nature and the Supernatural in Medieval Ashkenaz, published earlier this year by the University of Pennsylvania Press, Shyovitz combines creative philosophical thinking and close textual reading to write a new and engaging intellectual history of medieval Ashkenaz.

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English, Guest Posts, Methodology

It Functions, and that’s (almost) All: Another Look at “Tagging the Talmud”


Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky is currently a visiting scholar at the Interdisciplinary Center for Narratology, Universität Hamburg, where he conducts his post-doc research entitled “The Rise of  Narrativity in Talmudic Literature: Computational Perspectives.” This is our third post in an ongoing series on Digital Humanities and Rabbinic Literature.

In Alfred Döblin’s famous novel Berlin, Alexanderplatz, a certain Franz Biberkopf rejoins the modern city after a prolonged incarceration, where he is astonished by the relentless, alienating pace of change. In time, Biberkopf gradually becomes entrapped in a net of forces stronger than himself, and his bewilderment is reflected in the splitting of his voice – or, maybe, the narrator’s voice – into two (if not more) contradictory points of view. Thus, the telegraph is described in one sentence as “astonishing, clever, tricky,” while in a subsequent sentence, we read: “It’s hard to get enthusiastic about all this; it functions, and that’s all” (p. 76). Continue reading

English, Guest Posts

Natural Language Processing of Rabbinic Texts: Contexts, Challenges, Opportunities

The Talmud Blog is happy to continue our series on the interface of Digital Humanities and the study of Rabbinic Literature with a post by Marton Ribary of University of Manchester.

I read Michael Satlow’s enthusiastic report on the Classical Philology Goes Digital Workshop with great pleasure. I am delighted to see how the study of Rabbinic literature moves towards the use of digital tools and especially Natural Language Processing (NLP) methods. Below I shall sketch the background of NLP methods applied to Rabbinic literature and what we can learn from projects concentrating on other classical linguistic data, notably Latin. I shall briefly discuss the enormous obstacles Rabbinic literature poses even compared to Latin, which means that our expectations to achieve meaningful results in standard 3-5 year research projects should be very moderate. Nevertheless, I shall argue that we should dream big and aim for courageous projects accompanied by an outward-looking strategy in order to attract big corporate money. Continue reading

English, Guest Posts

Digital Humanities and Rabbinic Literature

The Talmud Blog is happy to be hosting a series on the interface of Digital Humanities and the study of Rabbinic Literature. Our first post comes from Prof. Michael Satlow, of Brown University. 

The other week I attended a workshop called Classical Philology Goes Digital Workshop in Potsdam, Germany. The major goal of the workshop, which was also tied to the Humboldt Chair of Digital Humanities, was to further the work of creating and analyzing open texts of the “classics”, broadly construed. We have been thinking about adding natural language processing (including morphological and syntactic tagging – or, as I learned at the workshop, more accurately “annotation”) to the Inscriptions of Israel/Palestine project. While we learned much and are better positioned to add this functionality, I was most struck by how far the world of “digital classical philology,” focused mainly on texts, has progressed, and it got me thinking about the state of our own field. Continue reading

English, Guest Posts

E. Bar-Asher Siegal – A Response to M. Morgenstern

A Response to Matthew Morgenstern’s Review of My Book, Introduction to the Grammar of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic – Elitzur Bar-Asher Siegal

One of my philosophy professors once advised us on how to read an academic text: first, have a question in mind and try to see how each sentence in the text addresses it. When you read the text for the second time, he said, have a specific question that is based on your first reading. This, he suggested, is the beginning of your own research. I followed the professor’s advice: reading Matthew Morgenstern’s review of my Introduction to the Grammar of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic for the second time, I had formed my question: is the fact that he consistently misrepresents what I wrote the result of dishonesty or of a lack of comprehension?

Matthew Morgenstern recently published a highly critical review of my Introduction to the Grammar of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (see here for the book’s table of contents). Nobody likes their hard work criticized, but in this case it is not my hard work that was criticized; Matthew Morgenstern misrepresented what I wrote and criticized that misrepresentation. I would like here to set the record straight, and note just a few examples of this dynamic (of which, apparently, my books is not the only victim). It seems, surprisingly, that his review is a response not to my book but to another paper of mine, which raises serious methodological questions reflected in his own work. I will argue that instead of seriously grappling with these questions, Morgenstern only chooses to restate his opinion.


Examples of Misrepresentation of My Claims

Morgenstern ascribes to me the following claim: “In his view, the Talmud was written in the higher-valued language (H-language) of a diglossia, not reflecting a genuine ‘spoken’ JBA of the less-valued domain (L-language), and hence colloquial Babylonian dialectal features should not be taken as an indication of linguistic primacy.” (p.38)

Morgenstern does not give any reference to the book for the claim, and I could not find it in my book or in my articles. I refer the reader to pages 30-31 in the book or to my paper, ‘Reconsidering the Study of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic: Five Decades after E. Y. Kutscher and his Influential Methodology’, ZDMG 163 (2013), 341–64, where it is clear that this way of thinking is as distant as can be from the methodology I use throughout the book. The main point that I make throughout the book and articles (contra Morgenstern) is that it is impossible in most cases to evaluate what the origin and character of a given form is. I repeatedly emphasize that we must be careful not to make unjustified assumptions about either the text’s register or the content of the original language, since different registers and dialects can be in play from the start.

In contrast with the view that Morgenstern ascribes to me, that the Talmud was written in a high register, the model that I propound in fact suggests that, as is usually the case with old texts, we may posit two historical stages—stage A: composition of the texts in the context of diglossia, with differences between the written and spoken languages; stage B: transmission of the texts—and assume that various sorts of changes occurred in stage B during the transmission of the texts (adaptations to the spoken language; adaptations to grammars of both higher and lower registers; misunderstandings of the original language; and mistakes). I also stress that when a feature appears to reflect the spoken language, it is difficult, if not impossible, to determine whether the feature is a manifestation of diglossia in stage A, or of changes in stage B. Likewise, when there is a feature that reflects “classical” grammar, the question is whether it is an indication of the Aramaic of stage A (either in the written or the spoken register), or a later adaptation in stage B to a different grammar representing a higher register. I do not argue (strenuously or otherwise) that we must assume a higher register; I claim only that this is an option that must be considered. This is the same claim that I made in the book.

Furthermore, Morgenstern quotes from my article: “With regard to phonology, other sources are closer to the original Babylonian texts, while the E[arly] E[astern] M[anuscript]s better reflect the spoken language – as was the case with regard to the pharyngeals and the anaptyctic vowel.” His comment: “It is unclear on what basis he determines the grammatical profile of these unattested texts” (p. 39). Indeed, if this were what I was saying, Morgenstern would be completely correct. However, a few lines later I clarify: “The goal of the last few paragraphs was not to argue fiercely for the alternative picture, but only to demonstrate how different plausible explanations for the same data are possible simultaneously, and that we do not have definite criteria how to choose between them” (p.361). Morgenstern was quoting nothing more than an intellectual exercise, meant to show that two alternative solutions are possible, and thus that neither can be assumed to be true.

I have a distinct feeling that Morgenstern read little more than some of the introduction, and probably took a quick look at some tables with forms. He clearly did not even have the patience to read the notes following these tables, or to read the entire paragraph. For example in n. 23, he mentions that I note אונא as an example of the elision of /d/, whereas in fact it is an example of an assimilation. Had he continued a few lines later on page 67 in my book, he would have read the discussion as to whether it is a token of an assimilation or of an elision. Similarly, Morgenstern ridicules my claim that I find myself in agreement with the conclusions of Margolis (1910) and Levias (1930), taking this as evidence of the backwardness of my approach to manuscript variation. Had he actually read the book, he would have realized that all the topics on which I agree with Margolis and Levias deal with syntactic analysis, and specifically in cases where there are no significant variations between the manuscripts.


Possible Interpretations of Morgenstern’s Review

Morgenstern seems to be responding not to my book but to my paper (‘Reconsidering the Study of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic‘), which advances strong arguments against the methodology Morgenstern uses in his own book (M. Morgenstern, Studies in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic Based upon Early Eastern Manuscripts [Harvard Semitic Studies, 2011]). I am afraid that instead of dealing with the theoretical problems that I raised in that paper, Morgenstern chose to set up a straw man and argue against it. Morgenstern has employed similar tactics before, against authors greater than myself (see e.g. his critiques against Margolis in Studies, p.12 and Sokoloff’s Dictionary [!] ibidem, p. 36).

Yet, perhaps Morgenstern did not understand me correctly? Perhaps he actually believes that I argue for the H language, since he believes that “the Talmud was formulated in a semi-formal or informal literary register abounding in linguistic features that may be assumed to be closer to the vernacular than they are to a formal literary standard” (Review, p.39). In his mind, perhaps, whoever disagrees with him must take the other side in the dichotomy. Unfortunately for him, I have actually never participated in this debate or accepted this dichotomy. According to the methodology that I actually used, we must document all forms and try to understand their origin. Once we have a clear picture of the nature of the texts and their transmission, it is very often impossible to provide a simple answer, but we can, and should, only tell competing stories. We simply cannot be certain a priori about the nature of the text in front of us, and as noted in my paper, it is hard to even determine whether we are seeking the original language or the original text. Therefore, we do not deal with questions of the yes/no type.

Consider also this quote: “Criteria for establishing what an excellent textual witness might be have been much discussed in the literature, but Kutscher’s methodology has provided the guiding light for all subsequent research” (Review, p.38). I welcome a debate on methodology, and would be happy to participate in such a debate, but unfortunately this is not what this review offers. Instead it reasserts assumptions going back fifty years, and restates as fact what is in truth debatable: in my paper I argued that the validity of these criteria was not really discussed in the literature, casting doubt on subsequent scholarship. Noting that Kutscher’s approach has become established tradition is not much of an argument.


A Note for the Users of the Grammar

Morgenstern is worried that whoever reads my book may be misled by the forms and remain ignorant of the achievements of scholarship over the last five decades. To alleviate this concern, I hereby issue this advice: please read the book. More specifically, please read carefully the comments after the tables of forms, which include all attested forms. The subsequent discussions mention almost everything found in the secondary literature, and they often suggest alternative interpretations. Readers will of course have to exercise more caution in their methodological assumptions, and realize how very often it is hard to decide between various alternative proposals, but this is hardly a drawback. If you continue after chapter six, you will be treated to the discussions of the syntax of this dialect, an experience that, as far as we can tell from the review, Morgenstern did not avail himself of.

And, as Morgenstern says on p. 41, this book does pose a dilemma to philologists: they will have to decide between Morgenstern’s approach that considers only a simple dichotomy and a more sophisticated one. I hope the ease of the former does not overshadow the great rewards promised by the latter. I thank Morgenstern for characterizing the book as sui generis, but I wholeheartedly hope it does not remain so.

Readers who are interested in reading reviews written by scholars who have actually read the book are invited to see the review by Aaron Koller and Tzvi Novick’s review (in Hebrew).

Elitzur A. Bar-Asher Siegal holds the Sidney and Betty Sarah Berg Senior Lectureship in Hebrew Language at the School of Language Science and in The Department of the Hebrew Language at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, where he is also a member of the Language Logic Cognition Center.

Guest Posts

The ‘Status of The Talmud’ on Sefaria

Like many Jewish text geeks, I’ve been following the goings-on at Sefaria closely. Beyond providing free versions and translations of oodles of Jewish texts, Sefaria has made them available through a stunning, extremely accessible platform that allows for an expansion of the community of learners and an enrichment of the dialogue within that community. I’ve asked Sefaria’s Ari Elias-Bachrach to share his recent report on the status of the Talmud on Sefaria and to invite our readers to share what they would most like to see on the website. – Y.L.

Sefaria is a non-profit organization that is creating a massive library of interconnected Torah texts. It is all free and all in the public domain. To do this we’ve done a number of things including importing text from other open source projects on the web like WikiSource, and digitizing public domain sefarim and putting them on the web. One of the things we’re working on is building a Talmud that gives a better learning experience than anything that comes before it. Our goal is to have the standard Talmud text with not just Rashi and Tosafot, but also other major commentators all in the same place. Additionally, citations from things like the masorat hashas and ein mishpat will be linked so you can see the relevant halachot automatically.

Our Talmud text comes from WikiSouce, and we’ve been correcting it to ensure it matches the text of the Vilna shas. We realized that given the number of mefarshim we plan on having, an amud was simply too large a unit of measure to reasonably use. When we did the Tanach it was comparatively simple – the commentators usually comment on specific verses, so any given verses just needs to link to those commentaries. However, a single amud might contain 100 comments from Rashi Tosafot, the Rosh, and the other major commentators. Without breaking up the amud into smaller units, there’s no way to know which subset of those 100 commentaries to display. When you click on a pasuk in the Torah, you see all the commentaries on that pasuk in Torah. We wanted something similar here – when you click on a sentence in the Talmud, we wanted to display the relevant commentaries on that sentence. The conclusion was clear – we needed a way to break up the dapim. Thankfully Koren Publishers graciously allowed us to use their punctuation to break up the amud. Each line of the amud now corresponds to a grammatical phrase (not a line of the Vilna printing). We undertook a massive project to segment all of shas in this manner, and finished in the fall of 2014. In the process we also double checked the text we had from WikiSource to make sure it matched the Vilna shas. (As a side note, we found a significant number of errors in the WikiSource Talmud in both the Talmud text and the Rashi and Tosafot. These errors have unfortunately propagated to many sites across the web, and in many cases it is clear we’re the first people to actually check the text for accuracy).

Next up of course is the commentaries of Rashi and Tosafot. Now that the Talmud was segmented, we needed to make sure to associate each comment with the appropriate line. One of our wonderful volunteer developers Noah Santacruz made a commentary poster – a program that looks at the dibur hamatchil and tries to place the comment in the right place. Unfortunately, it cannot place every comment based solely on that information, as sometimes the text of the dibur hamatchil will appear multiple times in a daf, or it might not match at all if there are roshei teivot in use, or the commentator decides to abbreviate the text in some other fashion. To fix those, we’ve had people going through manually learning the appropriate masechtot and placing the commentaries where they belong. At the same time they’ve also been checking the contents of the comments against the Vilna shas to make sure our text is accurate. So far we’ve finished Brachot, Megillah, and Taanit. Kiddushin and Ketubot are in progress. Those of you doing Daf Yomi will be happy to know we’ll be keeping the Ketubot progress in front of the Daf Yomi cycle, so you don’t have to worry. This is still an ongoing process and while we’re looking for ways to improve our automation, we’re also looking for volunteers. If you, your chevruta, or your school group is learning Talmud and wants to help out the cause of Talmud learning on the internet, you could help by placing the missing commentaries in the right place as you learn. If you’re interested please let us know and we’ll help to get you started.

Throughout this process we’ve been checking the text of the Talmud and the commentaries. We’ve found a significant number of mistakes and typos, most of which have been copied over and over again by countless websites. One of the advantages to our system is that we’re able to spot and correct these errors quickly and easily. Sefaria currently has the most accurate Talmud text freely available on the internet today (using the Vilna shas as the standard), and when we’re done we will have the most accurate copies of Rashi and Tosafot too.

After Rashi and Tosafot of course come the other major commentaries. We’ve recently finished digitizing the Rosh and the Nosei Keilim there. We’re currently working on digitizing Maharsha, Maharal, Maharsham, the Rif, and the Nosei Keilim on the Rif. We’ve also acquired digitized versions of the Pnei Yehoshua, Yad Ramah, Ramban, Shita Mekubetzet, Rashba, and Tosafot Rid. So far we’ve done Shita Mekubetzet on Brachot. While getting these into our system is difficult for the same reasons as Rashi and Tosafot, you can expect to start seeing all these commentaries appearing on Sefaria starting in a few months.

Lastly, we’re also working on a few other features that should be helpful to people including an integrated dictionary with data from Jastrow and the Comprehensive Aramaic Lexicon, as well as a way of integrating the Mesorat Hashas and Ein Mishpat Ner Mitzvah. We’re also going to put in links to the Mishnah whenever the Gemarah quotes a Mishnah so that you can easily navigate to the Mishnah to see the various Mishnah commentaries we have. Currently that includes Ovadia M’Bartenura and the Tosafot Yom Tov, but we should be adding the Rambam this summer.

What other features would you find useful? One of the advantages to our system is that while extracting text is much more difficult than just putting images online, it also gives us a lot more flexibility and allows for the building of some features which may not have been possible before.

Guest Posts, Reviews, עברית

קולו של הבבלי: בכבלי מסורת ותמורה- איתי מרינברג-מיליקובסקי

“קולו של הבבלי: בכבלי מסורת ותמורה” – על ספרו של מולי וידס – איתי מרינברג-מיליקובסקי

Moulie Vidas, Tradition and the Formation of the Talmud, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2014.

מהו ה’בבלי’? שאלה כללית ואמורפית זו, משונה ככל שהיא עשויה אולי להיראות, ניצבת בשנים האחרונות כשאלת-יסוד עקרונית במפעלם של כמה חוקרים. הללו מבקשים לפרוץ בעבודתם את גבולותיו הצרים של בירור קונקרטי, גדוּר-היטב – ויהא זה בירור ספרותי, היסטורי, תרבותי, וכל כיוצא בו – על מנת להתחקות באמצעותו אחר מה שמוצג לעתים ברמז, אם לא במפורש, כ’מפתח’ וכ’סוד’ של הטקסט המכונן. ספרו היפה של מולי וידאס מצטרף למגמה האמורה ותורם לה תרומה חשובה. ‘שאלת הבבלי’ אמנם אינה מוצגת בו במישרין, אולם פרקי הספר מצטרפים יחד לחיפוש מרתק אחר איזו ליבה או מהות פנימית שלו. וידאס אינו מבקש אותה במרחבים רחוקים, בפינה נידחת של מושא המחקר, או בפסקה שולית שרק בגלל חולשתנו לא עמדנו עליה עדיין כראוי, אלא בתופעות מרכזיות, מוכרות היטב לכל המצוי בבבלי. הודות לכך, זווית המבט הרעננה והמסקרנת המוצעת על ידו ניתנת לשימוש חוזר ולבדיקה מתמשכת בידי לומדים וחוקרים.

שני חלקי הספר מטפלים בנושאים ידועים למדי. הראשון, צורני או ‘ספרותי’ במהותו, מוקדש לבעיית היחסים בין רבדיה השונים של הסוגיה התלמודית (פרקים 1-3); השני, תמאטי ו’אידיאולוגי’ במובהק, כרוך בנטיית הבבלי אל החידוש היצירתי (פרקים 4-6). את שניהם מחברת בהצלחה (ואולי, ליתר דיוק, הצלחה יחסית) שאלת הזיקה אל המסורת: עריכת הבבלי במבנה רב-שכבתי מורכב משקפת, לדעת וידאס, עמדה מסוימת באשר לטיבן של מסורות קדומות – והיא היא שמשתקפת גם בהעדפת ‘עוקר ההרים’ על ה’סיני’. תבנית הספר מניחה רמת הלימה גבוהה בין צורה ותוכן, ולכך אשוב בהמשך; בשני המקרים, מכל מקום, מילת המפתח היא ‘אי-המשכיות’ (discontinuity): הבבלי, וּוידאס בעקבותיו, מַבנה, מסמן, מדגיש ואף חוגג את הפער בין מקור לדיון בו, בין ידע לניתוחו, בין ‘מסורת’ ל’מוסרים’; הוא עושה זאת בהצהרות גלויות, הנדונות בחלקו השני של הספר, ובדרכים שקטות יותר, הנדונות בחלקו הראשון.

לא יפלא, אפוא, כי החיבור שלפנינו מנכיח בדרכים שונות את דמות עורכיו של הבבלי, שאת קולם – ‘קולו’ של הבבלי, מכנה אותו המחבר לפעמים– אפשר לאתר בקלות, אם רק מאזינים כראוי:

If we think of the Talmud’s creators mostly as introducing unconscious modifications, as hiding themselves behind their traditions and retrojecting their own words and ideas into them, as adapting tradition to new context and ‘improve’ it, it is because we have focused on these specific activities and not others. The Bavli’s creators themselves are not hiding: they are there in almost every sugya, structuring the discussion and leading the reader (or listener) through the sources, expressing their voice in the anonymous discussion that organizes most of the Talmud. While their choice of anonymity in itself might be seen as an act of deference toward their predecessors, their literary practice betrays a different set of priorities. (p.11)

בהעמידו בסיס קונספטואלי לפרקים הפרשניים שיבואו אחריו, סוקר המבוא לספר גישות מרכזיות בשאלת היחסים בין ‘קולו’ של הבבלי עצמו לקולות המצוטטים בו. גישות אלה נכרכות בידי וידאס בתמורות שחלו בעת החדשה בהמשגת ה’מסורת’, כמו גם בהתפתחויות בחקר התרבויות האוראליות, ובהטמעת השיח על אודות פרקטיקות של ‘מְחבּרוּת’ (authorship. * מונח עברי אלגנטי יותר יתקבל בברכה) – הן כאשר תמורות אלה מוזכרות בכתבי מקצת מן החוקרים ומשמשות להם השראה גלויה, והן, מודה וידאס, כאשר הן בבחינת ‘נוכח-נפקד’ בעבודתם של חוקרים אחרים.

moulie book

הפרק הראשון דן בסוגיית הפתיחה של מסכת בבא קמא, ומראה כיצד הבבלי אמנם מכשיר את הקרקע לשילוב עמדת אחד האמוראים (במקרה זה, רב פפא) במסגרת הדיון הסתמאי, אך בה בעת מבליט את חוסר ההלימה בין דבריו ובין העמדה המובלעת של הדיון המקדים. כך למשל מזהה וידאס בקריאתו הרגישה מתח בין עיצוב עמדת הסוגיה בגוף ראשון רבים, לעיצוב עמדת האמורא נקוב-השם בגוף שני יחיד; מתח הנתפס על ידו כביטוי סימפטומטי להתמודדות עם מסורת העבר, המוצגת ברגיל כ’אחרת’ (ולפיכך כתלויית-הקשר), בניגוד להווה ‘שלנו’ (קרי, של עורכי הסוגיה), הנהנה מזכות-היתר של קביעת ההקשר, ובכך מפקיע את עצמו מקונטקסטואליזציה מצמצמת.

בפרק השני מנווט המחבר את דרכו בזהירות במחלוקת על אודות היחסים הכרונולוגיים בין החומר הסתמאי והחומר נקוב-השם, מחלוקת שהדיה ניכרים כמעט בכל דיון משמעותי בבבלי בעשורים האחרונים. וידאס מציע לראות את ההפרדה בין חומרים משני הסוגים – כלומר, את ריבוד (layerization) הטקסט התלמודי – כקונסטרוקט ספרותי של עורכי התלמוד ויוצריו; חומרים ארץ-ישראליים (במקרה הנדון בפרק זה, ובמקרים רבים אחרים) מאורגנים מחדש בסוגיה הבבלית בשכבות האופייניות לה, תוך הפרדת המסורת מהאנליזה, או כפי שהדברים מנוסחים לקראת סוף הפרק – תוך הפרדה בין שכבה מצוּטטת לשכבה מצטטת. הפער בין השכבות, לגבי דידו, אינו משקף פער היסטורי בהתהוותן, אלא מעשה עריכה מתוחכם המתמודד באמצעים סגנוניים עם הקונפליקט בין מסירה וחידוש:

The layered structure… combined a commitment to a faithful transmission of tradition and an independent and flexible engagement with that tradition. It allowed Babylonian scholar to contrast their own approaches with the teachings of the past, whether to showcase the scholarly virtuosity of an individual scholar or more generally to mark the distance between a classical past and their own age. The adoption of this structure was a move toward a more marked distinction between tradition and innovation. (p. 78)

במקום אחר בפרק מדגיש המחבר כי התלמוד עצמו – רוצה לומר, הטקסט הערוך, הסופי, ‘קולו של הבבלי’ שכבר הוזכר לעיל – הוא שמייחד מונחי ציטוט להבאת מימרות וברייתות, ומותיר את השכבה הסתמאית בלעדיה; התלמוד עצמו הוא שמעצב לעתים, אם גם לא תמיד, הבדלי שפה (עברית-ארמית) בין החלקים נקובי-השם לחלקים הסתמאיים. טיעונים אלה מודגמים בניתוח סוגיה ממסכת פסחים: וידאס מיטיב לשכנע כי במקרה זה הבבלי והירושלמי חולקים לא רק תשתית למדנית משותפת, אלא אף אבחנה פנימית בין אלמנטים נקובי-שם לאלמנטים סתמאיים, אלא שהבבלי מארגן אותם מחדש. ברוח זו, ובניגוד לרושם העולה לעתים ממחקרים המוקדשים לתופעות אלה, מטעים המחבר כי הבבלי אינו מוסיף מסגרת ספרותית לחומרים שחסרו אותה, כי אם מחליף מסגרת ספרותית אחת – באחרת. המסגרת החדשה מבוססת על אבחנה ההולכת ומתחדדת בין מסגרת סתמאית סיפורית-עיונית, המתווה את מהלך הסוגיה, לבין החומרים הנדונים על ידה, ויהא מקורם אשר יהא.הפרק השלישי דן בסדרה של סוגיות משלהי מסכת קידושין, ומראה כיצד אותו מרחק ביקורתי שנרקם בידי עורכי התלמוד בריבוד הסוגיות לשכבה מצוטטת ושכבה מצטטת, מושג לעיתים קרובות גם באמצעים אחרים, שאינם קשורים דווקא לפעולת הריבוד במובנה הצר. עדכון ועיבוד של מסורות ספציפיות, שינויים בפונקציות של אלמנטים בודדים במארג הסוגיה, ארגון מחודש של מבנים סיפוריים, פיתוח קומפוזיציות רטוריות מורכבות – כל אלה תורמים לא רק ל’התאמה’ של חומר ישן לסדר-יום חדש, אלא גם לעיצוב מבט ביקורתי על החומרים המיוצגים בסוגיה כ’ישנים’, או באופן רחב יותר כמורשת מן העבר.

הפרק הרביעי פותח את חלקו השני של הספר, ומציע בחינה מחודשת לתמה בבלית ידועה: אהדת החידוש כפרקטיקה למדנית ראשונה במעלה, המאפילה, בלשון המעטה, על פרקטיקות אחרות, כגון שימור והעברה של מסורות. תמה זו, שנדונה רבות במחקר, זוכה כאן לפנים חדשות, כמעט כפשוטו של ביטוי: אין היא עוד בבחינת עמדה ‘אקדמית’ תיאורטית של בעלי התלמוד ועורכיו, כי אם כלי לעיצובה של זהות עצמאית ייחודית, נבדלת מזהותם של ה’תנאים’, שתורתם מתמקדת במסירה בלבד. וידאס רואה בה עדות טקסטואלית למתח תרבותי בין קבוצות דתיות שונות בחברה היהודית בבבל, קבוצות המצטיירות על ידו במלוא ממשותן (ככל שהמקורות הספרותיים מאפשרים להעריך איזו ‘ממשות’). בהתייחסו למציאות הריאלית הוא משער, וראיותיו עִמו, שהגבול בין ‘מסרנים’ לחכמים לא היה בהכרח ברור כל כך; ממילא, תודעת הזרוּת המגדירה את היחסים ביניהם בפסקאות רבות מן הבבלי ראויה לדעתו להתפרש אף היא כקונסטרוקט ספרותי שתפקידו לגלם את המתח בין שתי הקבוצות, ובמישור סימבולי מופשט יותר – בין מסירה ואנליזה. כך מתווה הייצוג הספרותי (להבדיל מן ה’מציאות’) גבולות מובהקים בין ‘אנחנו’ (בעלי התלמוד, אנשי האנליזה), ל’הם’, כלומר, למי שמסומנים מעתה כ’אחרים’ (בעלי המשנה, ה’תנאים’ המשננים).

בהמשך לכך, הפרק החמישי עוסק בויכוח על הציטוט (או השינון), וממקם את דיוניו של הבבלי בעניין זה בתוך ההקשר הרחב יותר של העולם הסאסאני. מעתה, השוואת התנא המצטט למגוש הזורואסטרי – “דאמרי אינשי: רטין מגושא ולא ידע מאי אמר, תני תנא ולא ידע מאי אמר” (בבלי סוטה כב ע”א) – אינה מתקיימת בחלל הריק; סימוּן המצטט כ’זר’, תוך הפיכת ‘בעל התלמוד’ כנגדו לנציג אותנטי-יותר (כביכול) של התרבות היהודית, מזכירה לדעת המחבר נסיונות דומים להבניה עצמית של הקול ההגמוני הדובר בטקסטים נוצריים וזורואסטריים, דמיון הניכר מבעד להבדלים בפונקציה שממלא הזכרן-המצטט בכל אחת מתרבויות אלה.

האם לסיפור זה יש צד שני? כיצד עשויה להצטייר מערכת היחסים בין המסרנים ללמדנים, מזווית המבט של הראשונים? בהיעדר עדויות מפורשות, בגוף ראשון, לפרספקטיבה של המסרנים על אודות יחסיהם עם החכמים ‘בעלי התלמוד’, חלקו השני של הספר נחתם בנסיון מאלף לאתר קצה-חוט ל’סיפור המתנגד’ (counternarrative) שלהם. דמותם של ה’אחרים’ של הבבלי, התנאים ‘מבלי העולם’ (סוטה, שם), מגיעה אפוא לשיא ממשותה בפרק השישי, בו נבחנת ספרות ההיכלות, ובעיקר מסורת ‘שר התורה’ המשולבת בה, כצוהר אפשרי לעולמם הדתי. תוך הצבעה זהירה (ושמא זהירה מדי) על נקודות השקה אפשריות בין מסורת ‘שר התורה’ ודמותם של המסרנים המתוארים בתלמוד, משרטט וידאס קווים לדמותה של קבוצה דתית המעמידה אלטרנטיבה לתרבותם של חכמי בבל. אלטרנטיבה זו מצטיינת, בין היתר, בתפיסת מעשה הזכרון והציטוט כמעשה ליטורגי יותר מאשר אינטלקטואלי; הבנה, לגבי דידה, אינה בהכרח התכלית המרכזית של העיסוק הטקסטואלי, ואפשר אף שהיא סותרת תכליות נעלות ממנה. בתקופת הגאונים, רומז המחבר בפרק המסקנות שבסוף החיבור, משהו מן הלהט היצירתי של בעלי התלמוד הולך וקופא, בשעה שהתלות בתנאים-המסרנים הולכת וגוברת; בבל, כפי שהכרנוה, משתנה מן היסוד.

הקריאה בספר מעוררת מחשבה עד מאוד; הטקסט מתוּמרר כהלכה – כבבלי עצמו – וכל אחד מחלקיו זוכה לדברי הקדמה וסיכום מועילים, התורמים יחד להעמדת משנה סדורה ומגובשת (ואולי מוטב: ‘תלמוד סדור ומגובש’?…). את הדיון בו אבקש למקם בשלושה הקשרים שונים, הנתונים בחפיפה חלקית זה עם זה: המתודולוגי, הפואטי-רטורי, והאידיאלוגי.

ראשון – ההקשר המתודולוגי. נסיונו של המחבר לטפל בשאלות ה’גדולות’ הנוגעות לאופיו היסודי של הבבלי, ושל התרבות המשתקפת ממנו, מעלה בחריפות את בעיית מגבלותיה של הקריאה הצמודה (close reading). וידאס הוא ‘קורא צמוד’ מעולה – דוגמה טובה לכוחו הפרשני מצויה בניתוחו היפה לסוגיה מפרק ‘חלק’ בסנהדין (עמ’ 132-136) – אולם הקורא עשוי לתהות באיזו מידה הסוגיות המעטות-יחסית הנדונות בספר באופן מעמיק, יכולות להעיד על הבבלי כולו. הפתרון, לעניות דעתי, אינו טמון בוויתור על התמודדות עם אותן שאלות – מה גם שלוידאס תשובות מפרות עד מאוד – אלא בפיתוח מתודולוגיה הולמת לדיון בקורפוס רחב. ברוח זו, מעניין לחשוב על תרומתה האפשרית של ‘קריאה רחוקה’ (distant reading) מבית מדרשו של פרנקו מורטי, הן להתבוננות רפלקסיבית בכבלי הקריאה הצמודה/הקרובה, הן לבחינה שיטתית של התופעות הנבחנות בספר שלפנינו (בעיקר בחלקו הראשון). דוגמא פשוטה לכך יכולה לשמש אבחנתו של וידאס, שנזכרה לעיל, בין ייצוג דברי חכם נקוב-שם בגוף שני יחיד, לייצוג ‘קולו של הבבלי’ בגוף ראשון רבים: מדובר באבחנה לשונית-סגנונית מוגדרת הניתנת למדידה, לכימוּת ולמיפוי (באמצעים ‘אנושיים’ או ‘חישוביים’), בעזרתם ניתן יהיה להציע, בשלב ראשון, תשובות חלקיות לשאלות כגון: בכמה סוגיות היא מופיעה, ומכמה היא נעדרת? מתי הסוגיה נותנת לחכמים לדבר ‘יותר’, ומתי היא נוטלת את זכות הדיבור לעצמה? האם התופעה נפוצה יותר בסוגיות פתיחה של מסכתות ופרקים? האם יש מִתאם (קורלציה) בין הופעתה בסוגיות מסוימות, לנוכחותם של מונחי משא-ומתן קבועים-פחות-או-יותר באותן סוגיות? באיזו מידה היא משקפת הרחבה של תופעות דומות בספרות הארץ-ישראלית? ומשעה שתשובות לשאלות אלה יונחו בפנינו, יגיע זמנו של המבט הרפלקטיבי, כיאה ל’קריאה רחוקה’ טובה: מה משמעותה של התופעה? מדוע היא מתנהגת כך ולא אחרת? כיצד היא מאירה את דמותו של הקול האומר ‘אנחנו’ במרקם הטקסט התלמודי, במסגרת ה’מחזה’ הלמדני שסוגיות רבות מעמידות בפנינו? בקצרה, סקירתה לאורך ולרוחב הבבלי – הבבלי כולו – עשויה להוליד טיפולוגיה עשירה של סוגיות, מתוחה על פני ספקטרום לשוני-סגנוני נרחב, ונושאת מימד תרבותי-אידיאולוגי.

שני – ההקשר הפואטי-רטורי. וידאס מייחס לסוגיה התלמודית, בצדק, איכויות פואטיות ורטוריות מובהקות (אף על פי שמונחים אלה כמעט נעדרים מן השדה הסמנטי הרגיל בספרו). איכויות אלה, על פי רוב, מבטאות לדעתו את ‘קולו של הבבלי’ – המצטייר בין השיטין כקולו של עורך רב-עוצמה, העושה בחומריו כבתוך שלו. הנחות אלה גוררות אחריהן מערך טיעונים שלם: כך, וידאס מבכר באופן שיטתי הסברים המייחסים כוונה ומודעות ליוצרי הטקסטים (ראו לדוגמא עמ’ 143, וכמותו רבים), ומצמצם למינימום הסברים ‘טכניים’ או ‘פורמליסטיים’; כך, נקודות של מתח או של אי-התאמה מתפרשות על ידו תדיר כביטוי לכוונה חתרנית של העורכים (כפי שעולה למשל מסוף הפרק הראשון), ולא, למשל, כתוצאה מקרית של התרחבות השיח הלמדני, או של כוחות צורניים אחרים הפועלים על הסוגיה (דוגמא טובה לכך היא טיפולו במסורת על שם האל בבבלי קידושין עא ע”א, הנדונה בעמ’ 99-100). כל אלה הכרעות מטא-פרשניות סבירות, מוצדקות לגמרי במסגרת הפרדיגמה העיונית של וידאס, ואפשר גם שקשה להעניק לסוגיה משמעות בלעדיהן; אך לכל הפחות יש מקום להרהר במערכת היחסים ההדוקה הנרקמת באמצעותם, כמו גם באמצעות מבנה הספר כולו, בין צורה לתוכן – צמד הראוי בעיני למבט חשדני יותר, מסוייג במידה.

שלישי ואחרון – ההקשר האידיאולוגי. בהשראת הגותם של ולטר בנימין וג’ורג’יו אגמבן, טוען וידאס כי חשיפת מנגנונים המכוננים ‘אי-המשכיות’ בין מסורת למוסריה, מעניקה לעבר קיום עצמאי, ובמשתמע – מייחסת לו משקל רב יותר מזה שניתן לו בדגמים המדמים המשכיות הרמונית יותר בין עבר להווה. על רקע טענה זו, מעניין ואף מפתיע להשוות את תפקידם של בנימין ואגמבן בספרו של וידאס, עם התפקיד ההפוך השמור להם, להבנתי, במחקר העכשווי של הספרות העברית החדשה: בשדה זה הם מוזכרים לאחרונה שוב ושוב דווקא כמי שמאפשרים לחשוב על זיקותיה הרצופות של הספרות החדשה, החילונית-לכאורה, למקורות יניקתה הקדם-מודרניים הדתיים. הנה כי כן, בחקר הספרות הרבנית, תפיסה רציפה של המסורת – תפיסה מתבקשת למדי, כשלעצמה – מוצגת (בספר שלפנינו, ולא רק בו) כ’לא-ביקורתית-מספיק’, ולפיכך מומרת בנראטיב של שבר או סדק היסטורי-תרבותי; ובחקר הספרות החדשה, לעומת זאת, דווקא תודעת משבר היסטורי-תרבותי – תודעה מתבקשת למדי, כשלעצמה – היא שמוצגת כ’לא-ביקורתית-מספיק’, ולפיכך הולכת ומומרת בנראטיב מסורתי, הרמוני לפרקים. אני מקווה שדי באנלוגיה זו כדי לשלול – בשני השדות המחקריים – התנגדות לנראטיב אחד כאילו הוא ‘מדומיין’, והערצה לאחר כאילו הוא ‘ממשי’; נדרש כיוונוּן-תדרים עדין יותר.

אך נשוב אל העיקר: חוויית הקריאה בספרו של מולי וידאס מזכירה לעתים התבוננות בצידו הפנימי של בגד יפה. לא משום שהוא מגלה את התפרים הנסתרים המחברים את חלקיו השונים של הבגד יחד – הללו, הרי, גלויים וידועים זה מכבר לכל הרגיל בבגדים (ובהתאמה: לכל מי שרגיל בקריאה ביקורתית של הטקסט התלמודי) – אלא משום שתפרים אלה עצמם זוכים רק כך לבּוֹלטוּת אסתטית (ובהתאמה: אידיאולוגית); הם אינם רק אמצעי טכני המחבר יחד, בעדינות אלגנטית או ברישוּל גס, מרכיבים שונים, אלא מנגנון אמנותי המסמן ומבליט ומעצים את שונותם של המרכיבים המצויים משני עבריו. ומן המשל אל הנמשל: חידושיו המרשימים של וידאס אינם חושפים אלמנטים לא ידועים בטקסט התלמודי, אינם מצביעים על רובד נוסף שנותר עד כה בצֵל, אלא, בפשטות, מזמינים את הקורא לשנות את הפרספקטיבה; וזו החדשה, לטעמי, ראויה ומבטיחה ביותר.

איתי מרינברג-מיליקובסקי משלים בימים אלה את עבודת הדוקטור שלו במחלקה לספרות עברית, אוניברסיטת בן-גוריון בנגב, תחת הכותרת “למעלה מן העניין: יחסי הגומלין בין סיפור והקשרו בתלמוד הבבלי – סיפורים מרובי-הופעות כמקרה מבחן” (בהנחיית ד”ר חיים וייס ופרופ’ תמר אלכסנדר).

Announcements, English, Guest Posts

A Tantalizing Tale of Temura Fragments – Guest Post by Noah Bickart

As a Talmudist at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, I have long been accustomed to fantastical tales about the discovery of ancient manuscripts of the Babylonian Talmud. That famous picture of Schechter in the Geniza hangs everywhere in our halls. We are taught from the beginning not only to read Raphael Nathan Rabinovitch’s Dikdukei Soferim, but to imagine him on some Sunday morning in Rome, unlocking the Vatican Apostolic Library with his own set of keys, sitting down to transcribe Vatican 109 by candlelight. We hear of our own Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky, who supervised the doctorates of so many of our own teachers (Shamma Friedman, Mayer Rabinowitz, Joel Roth, and Burton L. Visotzky among countless others), roaming the monasteries of Italy, excato knife in hand, no binding safe from the search for more Seridei Bavli. And yet, we are accustomed to thinking that the time for these kinds of monumental discoveries, of even a few leaves of a Tractate stuffed into the binding of a 16th century print, has long past, and that only European libraries and monasteries might hold more finds. You can imagine my surprise when I found myself staring at an image in a Facebook message of what looked to my own eyes as an early European manuscript of the Bavli, apparently having formed the cover of a book of Church Music published in Prague in 1604, now housed in Fales Library at New York University.

A young scholar of musicology, Sam Zerin, who happens to be married to a former student of mine, Rachel Dudley Zerin, is pursuing a doctorate under Professor Stanley Boorman at NYU. Dr. Boorman, with his students, is now working on this collection, comprising about a dozen volumes, all of which are bound in Vellum manuscripts, mostly Latin music texts. Yet three volumes are bound in parchment from a single manuscript in a language Dr. Boorman didn’t read. Sam, his student, immediately recognized the script as Hebrew, and offered to ask his wife Rachel if she knew anyone at JTS who might be able to identify the text. Having been subjected to my (in)famous synopses in a class she took with me on Aggadah in Seder Nashim some years ago, Rachel had Sam send me some pictures of these bindings.

When I saw the first picture, it became clear that this might actually be a major discovery. The topic was Temura (הוא לה’ קריבה ואין תמורתו לה’ קריבה) and featured a dispute between Rava and Abaye, meaning that what I was looking at was either the Babylonian Talmud or some text which quoted or paraphrased it. Some brief searching in the Bar Ilan Responsa database led me to assume that this might be a section of Yalkut Shimoni‘s version of Temura 3b, which more closely matched this MS than did the printed texts of the Bavli, yet searching in the Lieberman database of Talmudic manuscripts revealed that indeed this was a manuscript of Temura. At this point I called Professor Neil Danzig and sent him the pictures. The questions were broad: might this text hold the key to resolving the dispute between Y.N. Epstein and E.S. Rosenthal on the relative age and provenance of the “Lishna Aharina” sections of Temura? How does this version of Temura compare to the fragments of this chapter found in the Geniza? Neither of us slept. I spent the night immersed in Temura.

When we spoke in the morning, we were both convinced that the covers from these three books were fashioned from a single manuscript of (or at least the first chapter of) Temura, written somewhere in Europe in the 12th or 13th century. Professor Danzing noted three features which pointed to an early date and “Proto-Ashkenazi” provenance for this text. First, the divine name is represented by three and not two letters “yod.” Second, the manuscript shows clear signs of striation. Third, the letters, “gimel” are elongated. We made an appointment to visit Dr. Boorman and these books at Fales Library.


A picture of one of the fragments.

The meeting between Drs. Boorman and Danzig was a beautiful example of everything that is right in the academy. Two scholars whose fields almost never overlap were brought together by a single artifact. Each scholar was able to explain in detail various but not overlapping aspects of this object, and each was able to convince the other of the worth of this object for his respective field. It was Professor Boorman who made the case to the conservator on duty that the bindings really needed to be opened, that the worth of this text to our field was worth potentially damaging his book.

Needless to say, I plan on transcribing this fragment in the coming months, comparing its readings to all the extant witnesses of the tractate as well as other variants recorded in the Shita Mequbetzet, and related works, with the aim of publishing an article on the fragment and its textual tradition. In the meantime, if any of the readers of the blog have any insights or thoughts about how to proceed, or know of any witnesses to Temura not listed in the Sussman catalog, I would love to hear about them.

Noah B. Bickart is an an adjunct instructor in Talmud & Rabbinics at JTS where he also serves as the Principal of the Rebecca and Israel Ivry Prozdor High School Program and is completing a PhD on scholastic terminology in the Babylonian Talmud and parallels to Syriac Christian literature.

English, Guest Posts, Recent Publications

On Paul Mandel’s ‘Was Rabbi Akiva a Martyr?’- Daniel Boyarin

Daniel Boyarin’s study of martryology in late antique Judaism and Christianity has been one of the most enduring legacies of his scholarship. A recently published study by Paul Mandel on the martyrdom of R. Akiva in rabbinic texts raises some questions about Boyarin’s readings, and it is accompanied by a lengthy Appendix  on the matter (available here with permission from the author and publisher). The Talmud blog is honored to provide a space for Professor Boyarin to respond.

My teacher, Prof. Saul Lieberman, May the Memory of the Righteous be for a Blessing, used to say that the proper Festchrift for a senior scholar was one in which his students and colleagues corrected all of the errors he or she had made in his work over the decades. I begin, then, by thanking Prof. Paul Mandel for catching and correcting an important error in my work, one that was, moreover, compounded by successive revisions of the argument in which the initial error was never corrected until quite recently. I also wish to congratulate him on a very important and largely compelling article. Let me step back a moment and fill in the background here for those who might not know of what I speak.

Mandel recently published an important article (“Was Rabbi Aqiva a Martyr? Palestinian and Babylonian Influences in the Development of a Legend,” in Ronit Nikolsky, Tal Ilan  eds, Rabbinic Traditions between Palestine and Babylonia (Brill 2014))  in which he argued that in the Yerushalmi and in the earlier stages of the Bavli’s transmission, the story of Rabbi Akiva’s death [Berakhot 61b] is not portrayed as a martyrdom but as something he calls a “political drama” (It’s not clear to me how a martyrology is ever not a political drama, but nonetheless). The important evidence is that in the earliest forms of the text as preserved in one family of Bavli MSS, significant markers of the martyrological character of the story are missing, only to be added in later families of manuscripts to Massekhet Berakhot. The argument, and it is a quite compelling one, leads to the conclusion that the martyrological elements in the story are a later addition, perhaps—even probably—is added to the story in the Byzantine era and under the impact of Christian martyrological literature. As I’ve said already, by and large, I find this article convincing. The conclusion, of course, invalidates my own interpretations of this story in its form as a martyrology as late-ancient and intimately bound up with the formation of the very notion of martyrology as a Jewish/Christian co-invention in the third and fourth centuries. One is always sorry to lose a treasured reading, but זה בונה וזה סותר,כך דרכה של תורה. The work lines up with other analyses of this type (including at least one of my own) in which we see that notions that we ascribe to the Bavli are really the product of late stages of transmission of the text and the earliest forms of the Bavli-text as found in manuscripts line up much more closely with the Yerushalmi. Indeed, Rabbi Akiva may not have been fully understood as a martyr until some time later than we thought, although it may not be gainsaid that there are martyrological moments even in the earliest Bavli transmissions of the story.

As said, Mandel is to be congratulated on this achievement. He, however, devotes quite a bit of time in the article, and especially in an appendix, discussing an egregious error that I made in doing my own work on this topic, and it is this aspect that I would like to take up here. First off, as said, of course he is right. When I originally translated this text, I simply skipped an entire line in transcribing from the Vilna edition of Berakhot, a regrettable error in its own right, especially since the line that I skipped strongly supported my interpretation of the story.

Here is the bit of text, as I wrote it and as it ought to have been transcribed. I wrote:

In the hour that they took R. Aqiva out [to be executed], his disciples said to him, “Our master, so far? [i.e., is this necessary].

I should have written:

At the hour that they were bringing out Rabbi Aqiva for execution, it was the time of the reciting of the Shema, and they were flaying his flesh with iron combs; and he was accepting upon himself the yoke of the heavenly kingdom. His students said to him: Our master, so far? [i.e., is this necessary?]

Mandel makes much depend on this missing line of text:

What is particularly significant in this text [i.e., Boyarin’s mistaken text] is the fact that the query of the disciples to Rabbi Aqiva appears directly after the exposition declaring his being taken out for execution; there is no mention of the torture or of Rabbi Aqiva’s recital of the Shema at this time. This means that the disciples’ alarmed question, “Our teacher, so far?,” must be taken to be a challenge to the very act of his impending death, as Boyarin indeed explains in a bracketed addition: [“i.e., is this necessary?”], meaning “is this [acquiescence to your] execution necessary?” Rabbi Aqiva’s answer, based upon his midrashic comment to Deut 6:5, thus becomes a forceful argument for the “joining of Eros and Thanatos”; Rabbi Aqiva’s message to his students is: “Death is not only required of me at this time [“it is necessary”], but all the more: I have actively sought out just this martyrdom all my life as a fulfillment of the commandment to love God.”

I cannot, for the life of me, see how the addition of the elements of Rabbi Akiva being flayed alive, nor that the moment was the time of the reading of the Shema, detract one iota from the martryological interpretation of the story as it appears in the textus receptus. The students, nonetheless, see their teacher being flayed, a grisly form of execution, and ask whether it is necessary that this awful thing happens, to which he answers, yes. Rabbi Akiva, moreover, prepares to accept the yoke of the kingdom, i.e., his tormented death, at this very moment by reciting the Shema, as it happens. It is trivializing of the story in the extreme to make the disciples question a merely halakhic one: Is it necessary to read the Shema at such a time? Their question remains directed at the master’s impending death as well as present pain. His answer is precisely that through the recitation of the Shema at the time of being tortured and killed, he fulfills the mitzva of “with all your soul.” Had the addition of the line I inadvertently skipped been lethal for my reading, this would have been a much more important error than it is. I cannot see, however, how adding the detail of Rabbi Akiva being flayed alive (certainly a martyrological trope) or the moment being the time for the reading of the Shema detracts from the martyrological reading of the textus receptus. If anything it surely enhances that character.

אמר להם: כל ימי הייתי מצטער על פסוק זה:
‘בכל נפשך’ (דברים ו ה)  אפילו נוטל את נשמתך. –
אמרתי: מתי יבא לידי ואקיימנו?

Any way that it is construed then, the textus receptus surely describes a desire for martyrdom on the part of its hero protagonist, with or without missing lines of text. Despite having little effect on the interpretation of the passage in the textus receptus, it remains a regrettable error nonetheless. The same error was repeated, moreover, in three other publications about this narrative both in Hebrew and in English over the years. I am chastened and embarrassed.

More egregious than that is the evident fact that even when I claimed later on in one of the publications to be citing from a manuscript, the error persisted, so once again the work was sloppy at this point. I had clearly been reading the MS at the time of the later work, as a large new chunk of text considered there was copied from the MS. At that time, moreover, some elements of the variant readings of the Oxford MS did enter my translation (interestingly the variant that Mandel considers “most significant,” the repetition of אמרו, is represented in my revised text!) of this story then. The haplography (if that be the right term for a skipped line) remained in place, although, to be sure, the flaying is indeed absent in the Oxford text, and that is an important part of Mandel’s argument as well. The repetition of the error is, to me, unaccountable. I hope that there are few errors of such a nature in others of my works but hardly imagine that none exist, much as I have tried to be careful over the years both with copying, translating, and checking manuscript variants. It is necessary to restate, however, that the skipped line does not affect my original interpretation of the text; as said above, putting it back in only enhances my reading. In the latest version of the text (the recent Hebrew translation of Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash), the line is restored with only positive effect). The error itself is, therefore, regrettable and mortifying but not, in itself, of great interpretative significance.

The argument of my various readings of this narrative (and they are in different discursive contexts and themes) stands even better once the text of the textus receptus is restored. Much of this is, therefore, a red herring that detracts from the genuine innovation of Mandel’s own case which I would now quickly lay out. Where earlier scholars in general read the story in the Bavli as we have it as representing an early (at least ideological) reality, Mandel shows that it reflects rather a later ideological reality. He does so by demonstrating that the earliest witnesses to the Bavli text read quite differently: in them, the disciples’ question is not: Is it necessary to suffer and die, Master, but rather is it necessary to read the Shema in such a condition of danger. Where some—not Boyarin as Mandel himself remarks—would have read the text as representing something about the actual death of R. Akiva and some, Boyarin, as representing fairly early rabbinic representations of that death, Mandel thus shows that in its earliest form it is considerably less martyrological in its import and that the strongly martyrological elements are later additions to the text during its transmission. Where, then, I had thought it to be evidence of a third or fourth century rabbinic contribution to a developing shared discourse of martyrology, Mandel shows, I think, that it is rather evidence for continuing later influence of Christian martyrologies on the developing talmudic text. I by and large accept this conclusion which takes Prof. Lieberman’s point from The Martyrs of Caesarea and expands it. The story of R. Akiva’s martyrdom is thus a much less apt example for an early, common, discourse shared by Rabbis and Christians in Caesarea. So be it; a fine and important conclusion. It is curious, however, that Mandel in treating only the fate of this story, completely ignores the rather significant other evidence that I have cited for early rabbinic martyrological discourse defined exactly as I have done as eroticized and even desired death for God. Within the mini-corpus of my texts on this subject, there are citations and discussions of Sifra Ahare Mot 8,3, on the “three boys,” Sifre Devarim on the death of Rabbi Hananiah ben Tradyon, and especially the Mekhilta Shirata 3 on Rabbi Akiva’s own drasha: We have loved you until death. Even without the story in the Bavli, the inference that eroticized death, a conflated eros and thanatos, was quite early found in rabbinic literature seems quite sound. (And, this, it should not be necessary to add, even without accepting ascriptions of tannaitic sayings to their alleged authors or imagining that the tannaitic midrash took shape before the late third or even early fourth century).

Such deliberate, not accidental, elision of evidence is evidence of Tendenz. Mandel shows his hand when he claims that his refutation of my historical interpretation of the Bavli text destroys entire the thesis that I have developed in Dying for God and even more so in Border Lines of ongoing blurred borders between nascent Christianity and rabbinic Jews. This, I suspect, is his real target, and it is arrant nonsense. The argument about Rabbi Akiva’s alleged martyrdom is only one chapter out of four in the former book and not even mentioned (as Mandel concedes) in the latter one, in which there are a couple of hundred pages of textual evidence, analysis, and reasoning that have nothing to do with martyrology at all. Moreover, in the Hebrew publication in the Dimitrovsky volume, there is an extensive discussion of other martyrological tales from the Talmud, as well from Tractate Avoda Zara and translated from the universally acknowledged best MS of that text, in addition to the discussions of tannaitic midrash as mentioned above. There may very well be other textual errors lurking in both books, and surely other ways of construing the evidence, ones that might even convince me, as Mandel has here, that I need to revise my thesis, but invalidating one important and highly evocative piece of evidence does not go far in challenging a thesis that is argued on a much much broader evidentiary base. Mandel’s argument on this score, then, is an argumentum ad hominem (by discrediting the author of the argument and not the evidence or reasoning) and as such simply and plainly invalid.

Daniel Boyarin is Hermann P. and Sophia Taubman Professor of Talmudic Culture at the University of California, Berkeley.

English, Guest Posts, Reviews

‘Introduction to the Grammar of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic’- A Review

Elitzur Bar-Asher Siegal, Introduction to the Grammar of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, (Münster: Ugarit-Verlag, 2013) – Reviewed by Aaron Koller

For those interested in the grammar of the Bavli, the past few years have seen a steady stream of important new publications. The book under review here will take pride of place in any serious study of the language, as it is the only volume that presents a full picture of the language. An advanced seminar can now work through Bar-Asher Siegal’s book, pore over Sokoloff’s monumental Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2002), study Moshe Morgenstern’s Studies in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic (Winona Lake: Eisenbrauns, 2011; see my review here), and use the series of high-quality publications of magic bowls (many also with the involvement of Morgenstern),[1] and emerge with a good knowledge of the dialect.


Perhaps more, however, students in such a seminar will emerge with a deep sense of the challenges facing researchers of the dialect. Those challenges are well adumbrated in Morgenstern’s volume, and they are addressed in Bar-Asher Siegal’s book throughout. These challenges also make the notion of an introductory grammar to the dialect somewhat problematic from the outset. So while Bar-Asher Siegal’s book is excellent, as will be detailed below, it should also be said that the problems of genre and audience are serious here. The author himself notes at the outset that because of the nature of JBA and our data, it is “difficult to write an introductory grammar book of the sort available for Biblical Hebrew, Biblical Aramaic, Classical Arabic, Classical Greek, Classical Latin, etc.” (§0.8, p. 33).

One of the strengths of the book is its precision, both philological and linguistic. (There is a seven-page “glossary for linguistic terminology” at the end [251-257], apparently reflecting the author’s understanding of the demands he is making of his readers.) While there are exercises for each chapter (found, oddly, at the end of the book in a single bloc (pp. 259-286)), this can be a teaching grammar only for advanced students. But let me be clear: the rigor reflected on every page of the book is to be applauded, even if it makes things complex. The only alternatives, in the current state of our knowledge, are to forego a serious analysis of the language or to rely on the printed editions in all their glorious corruption.

Bar-Asher Siegal’s book relies on original research in the manuscripts of the Bavli and original grammatical analysis by a scholar who moves effortlessly between Semitic philology and linguistics. This is as good as an “introduction to Jewish Babylonian Aramaic” can be, and it is difficult to imagine anyone producing a better grammar of this type until there are qualitative advances in the field of JBA.

Bar-Asher Siegal argues, both in the introduction to the book (pp. 28-31) and in an article published in the same year,[2] that there are no really reliable manuscripts for the Bavli. This is against the methodology preached by Yechezkel Kutscher, which has proven so productive for the Mishnah and the Sifra, in particular. Whereas Morgenstern contends that there are such texts, but they are texts not seriously studied by Kutscher – namely, the Early Eastern manuscripts – Bar-Asher Siegal’s claim is that there are no manuscripts that can be utilized as the “primary texts” due to their exceptional reliability. What that means in practical terms is that each and every linguistic phenomenon, from orthography to morphology to syntax, has to be investigated thoroughly and independently in all of the manuscripts. And the result is that many of the paragraphs in the grammar contain references to textual readings in particular manuscripts.[3]

This position comes as something of a disappointment to textual scholars, who would like to be able to study the reliable manuscripts and be confident in the text found therein. Bar-Asher Siegal’s denial that this is the case means there is no text that can be studied to learn the grammar; there is an inescapable circle of reconstructing the grammar and ascertaining the text. If this were a pure circle, there would be no entry point, of course, and there would seemingly be no reliable criteria for determining which witness to follow on any given feature. We need some place to start. While Morgenstern looks to the EEMs, Eljakim Wajsberg has said that there are some “actually good” manuscripts of the Bavli, but apparently is confident in only two: a Yemenite manuscript in Oxford of Sukkah, and a Geniza fragment of Bava Metsia‘.[4] Even if they are not infallible, these texts give us an entry point into the grammar. Here we have mostly reliable manuscripts that provide some of the needed grammatical data. Using this foundation, Bar-Asher Siegal’s method can then be employed: each feature and phenomenon can be studied throughout all of the witnesses in an effort to write a real grammar.

One of the theoretical points made by the author which constantly accompany the analysis is that the text of the Bavli is a problematic witness for JBA. This is for two reasons. First, the Bavli seems to reflect different dialects. This is true not only in the well-known tractates with a somewhat different grammar;[5] randomly distributed throughout the Talmud are features that ought no co-exist within the same dialect. One example is found in §4.2, #6 (pp. 91-92). Here Bar-Asher Siegal discusses forms such as תלמידיך “your student,” where the singular form shows an unexpected yod before the suffixed possessive pronoun, and תלמידך “your students,” where the plural form does not have the expected yod before the suffixed possessive pronoun. He explains how each form may have developed – the former through reanalysis of the yod as part of the suffix rather than a pluralizing morpheme on the noun, and the latter through a sound change of ay > a before a word-final consonant (/_C#). Bar-Asher Siegal then comments:

If this situation reflects the actual forms of JBA, then clearly the two phenomena could not reflect one stage in one language, since either /y/ elided or its morphological role was reanalyzed. Thus, the various forms should either reflect different historical stages or two dialects. This is another example where JBA regularly reflects more than one linguistics system.

Second, however, and more fundamentally, the Bavli may not reflect JBA because scribes often try to mask developments within colloquial language in their written texts. When manuscripts differ between a more archaic and a later form, it often cannot be known whether the text originally had the older form and this was later mistakenly updated, or whether it original reflected the newer form and was then mistakenly “corrected” to the older form. Bar-Asher Siegal explains carefully (and in more detail than the summary offered here) on p. 30 why this is such a far-reaching problem, and concludes, “we may have to be satisfied with the fact that it is not always possible to determine which phenomenon is original. Often it is only possible to raise the various options regarding each and every form.” Fortunately, much of the time Bar-Asher Siegal does reach a conclusion regarding which form is to be preferred, but this caution is indeed found throughout the book.

After the methodological introduction, the book opens with a paragraph introducing orthography, that ends, “The goal of this section is to provide an overview of the different orthographic practices one will encounter in the manuscripts” (§1.1, p. 37). This makes it clear that beginning Talmudists are not the target audience of the book.[6] But this exemplifies the strengths of the book, as well: the grammar of JBA has never received this thorough and sophisticated a study, and anyone, beginner student to advanced scholar, who studies any section of the book will be enriched by it.

Here and there are claims or analyses with which one could quibble. To take one example, Bar-Asher Siegal discusses the pharygealization of the א in words borrowed into JBA. Following Breuer, he identifies this process in the word Ṭayyi’, for example, which appears as טייעא in JBA. Here it may also be that the ע is the result of a folk etymology, however; in many of the other examples he gives of this phenomenon (§3.1.4, pp. 71-72), one wonders whether the presence of a non-etymological ע simply points to the lack of any opposition between א and ע in the dialect, as he discusses in a different example (עדי “these”) later (§, p. 81). This is the level at which the criticisms take place, however: building on the wide-ranging and fundamental work offered in this book itself, it may be possible to offer suggestions in different areas.

There are comparisons made throughout the book to other languages. Generally, these comparisons have one of two purposes. Sometimes there is a historical point being made, or implied; this is the case when the comparison is to Mishnaic Hebrew, Mandaic, Syriac, or North Eastern Neo-Aramaic dialects, for example. In such cases, it is likely that when there is similarity there is influence. Comparisons are also made to Akkadian, Greek, and other languages, presumably just for typological purposes (although Akkadian certainly did leave an impression on Eastern Aramaic, including JBA). Cross-linguistic data is put to good use in understanding how some of the distinctive features of JBA developed and are used. One example are the enclitic forms of the pronouns used on participles. Bar-Asher Siegal is able to observe that across languages, it is not uncommon for co-referential (redundant) pronouns to become a copula or a marker of agreement, and the originally dislocated element gain a central role in the clause, so that an originally marked construction becomes unmarked (§4.5.2, pp. 98-99). This allows for a clear presentation of the development of עדיפנא אנא “I am preferable” from an original אנא עדיף אנא.

Beginning in chapter 5 (p. 111), the book focuses on the verb. It should be noted that there is no artificial division found in this book between morphology and syntax, so never is the student asked to memorize forms without being told what function those forms play. As forms are introduced, their roles in the language are made clear, as can be seen in the Table of Contents (available here). At the back of the book (beginning on p. 334), there is an alternative Table of Contents, however, with the subjects arranged in the order one might find them in a traditional grammar: orthography, phonology (vowels, consonants), morphology (nouns, pronouns, verbs), syntax. In both it is clear that syntax plays a much larger role in this grammar than in most “introductory” grammars, especially in the later chapters. Indeed, although Bar-Asher Siegal is gracious in giving credit to early scholars for describing the syntax of JBA, the reader will find sophisticated discussions of many syntactic constructions here. The student of general Semitics may well benefit from these discussions even if only for comparative purposes.

One of the more ambitious parts of the book is a full presentation of the Tense – Aspect – Mood (TAM) system of JBA (§7.2, pp. 162-168). Here Bar-Asher Siegal parts ways with most older presentations, and denies that the prefix conjugation expresses the irrealis mood; he also argues that the verb הו”י, in different forms, serves to mark the tense of imperfective verbs as past or future. As in some of Morgenstern’s work, there is here a constant interplay between the conceptualization of the grammar (here, the TAM system) and the philological work with the manuscripts. It is of critical importance for the broad theory to ascertain whether the proper verbal form in a passage is איעול or עייל, for example, but the theory itself also provides justification for preferring one form (in this case, איעול), so there is something of a feedback loop here, which needs caution but also strengthens the analysis.

Related to the TAM system is the forms of the verb הו”י, and Bar-Asher Siegal deftly shows (§, pp. 168-170) that the verb went from a fully-conjugated verb in a sentence such as כי הוינן אזלין בתריה דר’ יוחנן “when we were walking after R. Yohanan” (b. Berakhot 23a, in MS M) to being frozen in its 3ms form, such as כי הוה אזלינן בתריה דר’ אלעזר “when we were walking after R. El‘azar” (b. Shabbat 12a). The analysis concludes with the note that cross-linguistically, “loss of agreement is related to cliticization,” and it is therefore possible that הוה had become a tense prefix before the participle, rather than a real verb.

There are stimulating proposals and analyses in every section. Those who put the most into the book will get the most out of it. Following the exercises and the vocabulary sections will enable students to feel quite comfortable with JBA as a language. There are some typographical errors which will hopefully be corrected in future editions, but none that I noticed could create obstacles for learning.

I mentioned earlier that this is the best introduction to JBA with the current state of the field. The field is at a high point now, in terms of the quality, quantity, and sophistication of the research being produced. But it is also now clear what would be needed to usher in a new era of JBA studies: a full critical edition of the Bavli. This would, in light of the discussion above, need to be an eclectic edition, and producing such an edition would perforce generate new linguistic and philological insights at every turn. It would also continue the feedback loop: as our texts get better, the grammar will get better, and as the grammar gets better, both the texts and how well we understand them will improve.

Bar-Asher Siegal’s text ends, rather abruptly, with a quotation from Mo‘ed Qaṭan 28a: רבה הוה קא יתיב קמיה דרב נחמן, חזייה דקא מנמנם “Rabbah was sitting in the presence of Rav Nahman, and saw that he was dozing off.” For anyone with an interest in the Bavli, it will be difficult to doze off in the middle of this book. The rigor and thoroughness make for intellectually stimulating and productive study, and open up new avenues in grammatical and linguistic analysis of the Bavli, that most cherished and most challenging of texts.


[1] See Shaul Shaked, James Nathan Ford, and Siam Bhayro, with contributions from Matthew Morgenstern and Naama Vilozny, Aramaic Bowl Spells: Jewish Babylonian Aramaic Bowls (Leiden: Brill, 2013).

[2] See also Bar-Asher Siegal’s more systematic discussion in “Reconsidering the Study of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic- Five Decades After E. Y. Kutscher and his Influential Methodology,” Zeitschrift der Deutschen  Morgenländischen Gesellschaft  163 (2013), 341-364.

[3] It should be noted that the book does not contain a list of the manuscripts used or the abbreviations utilized to refer to them; the reader is sent to Sokoloff’s Dictionary for that. While Sokoloff’s foundational position in the study of JBA makes this not unreasonable, it still would have been convenient to include the list in the book.

[4] See Eitan Pinsky, “הגרמטיקליזציה של הפועל הוה בצירוף הוה+בינוני בארמית של התלמוד הבבלי” (MA thesis: Hebrew University, 2013), 10 n. 43.

[5] On which see most thoroughly Yochanan Breuer, “The Babylonian Aramaic in Tractate Karetot according to MS Oxford [Bodl. heb. b. 1],” Aramaic Studies 5 (2007), 1-45.

[6] Even advanced students will have to work hard to follow what is being said in passages such as, “Locative PPC [= predicative possessive construction]. In this type of PPC the PR [= possessor] is encoded as the place where the PD [= possessed] is located. The common construction is structurally an existential sentence with the PD behaving as its subject, and the PR as the location. In JBA the PR follows the preposition ב ‘in’ (§, p. 107).” The first example given is then לית ביה מיא “It does not have water” (B. Qam. 61a), which seems much simpler than the analysis provided.

Aaron Koller is associate professor of Jewish Studies at Yeshiva University. His most recent book is Esther in Ancient Jewish Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2014).