English, Reviews

Ophir and Rosen-Zvi’s “Goy”

Adi Ophir and Ishay Rosen-Zvi, Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile (Oxford University Press, 2018)

Review by Mira Balberg

In Erica Jong’s novel Fear of Flying, the protagonist Isadora Wing relates her flirtatious conversation with the British charmer Dr. Adrian Goodlove, in which he complains about the fact that only Jews are allowed to make jokes about Jews (a complaint to be famously repeated decades later in Seinfeld).  “Why should I be deprived of the pleasure of masochistic Jewish humor just because I’m a goy?” he asks. Isadora then comments to herself: “He sounded so goyish saying goy.”

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English, Reviews

On ed. Katz of Yerushalmi Qiddushin

Katz Yerushalmi

Menachem Katz, Jerusalem Talmud: Tractate Qiddushin, critical edition and short explanation (Jerusalem: Yad Ben Zvi and Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, 2015)

Amit Gvaryahu in conversation with Yedidah Koren*

Menahem Katzedition of Yerushalmi Qiddushin is incredibly useful. It presents the entire tractate divided into sugyot and subsections and a punctuated text and layed out line by line. Katz adds a short commentary, references to parallels, quotes in medieval compendia and commentaries, and collects all the variants. In short, it is a wonderful tool and highlights what is sorely lacking for the rest of Yerushalmi. Continue reading

English, Reviews

Weiss and Stav’s “The Return of the Missing Father”

Haim Weiss and Shira Stav, The Return of the Missing Father: A New Reading of a Chain of Stories from the Babylonian Talmud (Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2018) – Review by Mira Balberg

“Talmudic stories are amazing!” I promised a class of fifteen college freshman who, two years ago, took a seminar with me on the cultural history of marriage. By this point in the course we had already read Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, Murasaki Shikibu’s The Tale of Genji, Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House, and other world-class masterpieces: I was finally about to introduce them to my little corner of the world and read with them stories about marriage from the Babylonian Talmud. It was only natural to pick the seven stories in Kettubot 62b-63a, which all relate to the tension between marriage and family life on the one hand, and the study of Torah (which usually involves long absences from home) on the other hand. But the group of students – all brilliant and highly enthusiastic students hand-picked for an honors program in the Humanities – were not impressed. The discussion, which has normally been lively and exciting, was languid and the students’ comments were predictable and trite. When I pressed, one courageous student said: “I don’t really know what there is to say about these stories. They are so… short.” And another said: “I just feel like I got it after the first story. It’s good to study Torah but don’t neglect your wife. That the message, right?” Continue reading

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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Photo by Roi Sabar

M. Blidstein on S. Miller, ‘At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds’

Purity in a Slowly Changing World, by Moshe Blidstein

Stuart S. Miller, At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds: Stepped Pools, Stone Vessels, and Ritual Purity among the Jews of Roman Galilee, Göttingen: Vandenhoek & Ruprecht 2015.

The book under review here, Stuart S. Miller’s At the Intersection of Texts and Material Finds: Stepped Pools, Stone Vessels, and Ritual Purity among the Jews of Roman Galilee (2015) is part of a general surge of interest in the role of purity in post-70 CE Jewish culture(s).

Miller’s book includes an introduction, eleven chapters, and a postscript, copiously footnoted, all in vigorous and generous conversation with scholarship, much of it of the recent decade. Most of it is on ritual baths and bathing in the archeology of Palestine and in Palestinian rabbinic texts, but there are a number of long excurses: a chapter on P. Oxy 840, a Christian text dated to sometime in the first four centuries which seems to describe a mikveh, a chapter on stone vessels, and a chapter on priests and purities.

In the introduction, Miller outlines the trajectory of the study of the 850 or so ritual baths excavated in Hellenistic and Roman Palestine, especially focusing on and acknowledging the work of Ronny Reich and Yonatan Adler. This leads to the first of the two main negative arguments of the book: since some (though not many) of the baths are post-destruction, and many of them were found in domestic, funerary and/or agricultural contexts, neither 70 nor 135 CE should be seen as decisive and immediate turning points in the history of Jewish ritual purity practices. Rather, as purity rituals always had a double focus, on the temple and on the household, the destruction of the temple only knocked out one of these, while the other continued and was perhaps even enhanced.

The second negative argument, made in chapters 1-4, 6 and 9, is that ritual baths found in excavations have been overdetermined and overinterpreted. Miller argues that it is generally impossible to identify excavated ritual baths as “pharisaic”, “rabbinic”, “priestly” or as belonging to any other group known from the texts, or, even, to identify them as not rabbinic or not sectarian. Architectural markers scholars wrested from the texts and deployed to assign baths to various groups (niẓoq, oẓar, divided stairways) are in fact irrelevant: they do not describe an architectural feature (niẓoq), are a modern invention (oẓar, hashaqa) or may be merely decorative (divided stairways). Ritual baths – water basins large enough for immersion with steps leading into them, commonly found in Palestine but not elsewhere, and therefore “Jewish” – are simply that: basins which could be used for bathing of a ritual nature of various types, but also for secular uses. In parallel, the Mishna and Tosefta and even the Yerushalmi rarely discuss specific structures but rather different types of water, and people who bathe in them in various ways. The overlap between artifact and text is therefore rather slim, leading to the seemingly somber conclusion that the texts do not say exactly who used the artifacts or how they used them, and the artifacts do not provide information on the degree of observation of the regulations of the texts.

These negative observations, however, do not show that archeology and text cannot inform each other, but rather that the questions they can answer must be carefully formulated and their respective domains clearly demarcated. Excavated ritual baths can independently answer general questions such as – in which spatial/architectural contexts did people bathe? What role did these facilities play in certain periods and places relative to others? What type of water did they use? However, they cannot answer questions such as – what meaning did people assign to bathing? What was their identity? Therefore, the discussion has to start with the archeological finds, interpreted as minimally as possible in light of the general cultural context, and not in light of the details of contemporary prescriptive texts. Second, these contemporary texts must be read against the grain in order to locate the common assumptions and customs of the society that produced them, rather than the specific opinions and idiosyncrasies of their authors. Only then can they be integrated with the results of the archeological investigations. These methodological observations are not new, but their systematic application to the purity rituals of the inhabitants of the Roman Galilee is novel.

The positive results are as follows: Ritual baths are found in Palestine (but hardly at all in the diaspora) starting in the second century BCE and into the sixth century CE, in Jerusalem, Galilee, and the Hebron Mountains. Most of them are from the two last centuries of the second temple, but many are much later, and they are found in diverse domestic contexts. Interpreting these findings on the background of the biblical purification requirements and Near Eastern perceptions of water (ch. 6 & 7) indicates that purification through immersion continued to be frequently practiced even after the Destruction: not only for nidda impurity but also for the impurity of corpses, zav/zava and sexual relations; not only for entering the temple, but also for eating ḥullin; not only by priests or select ḥavverim but also by other Jews. Returning in chapter eight to rabbinic texts (especially y. Ber. 3.4, 6c), as well as to later geonic and medieval texts (ch. 10) Miller finds much evidence for popular practices of immersion and/or sprinkling for purification after sexual relations, even when not required by the Rabbis, as well as of purification from niddah with “drawn” waters not according to Rabbinic halakha. Together, the rituals baths and the texts testify to traditional customs of purification in water, dependent neither on the temple nor on the Rabbis but on the domestic sphere of Jews who were not clearly part of any sect or movement in Palestinian Jewish society of the Roman period. This conclusion is of course part of the wider debate about the place of the “Rabbinic movement” in Jewish society of the time. More generally, Miller calls to turn to “complexity theory” to account for both the fluidity and the emergence of patterns in this society. I think it is unfortunate that this call was not developed to a greater extent, in order to provide a robust theoretical alternative to the flawed methods criticized (rightly, in my opinion) by Miller in the first chapters.

One criticism from the comparative perspective: Concerning popular purity practices, I thought Miller may not have gone far enough. Additional evidence for the purity habitus of the non-Jewish Roman East may have been relevant here: Jews, Christians and Jewish Christians were not the only ones immersing and sprinkling in water for the sake of purity, ritual or other (Porphyry, On Abstinence Book 4 is probably the longest repository of evidence in this direction, with all the problems of its philosophical ideology). Neither are they the only ones who built purpose-made basins for this purpose, though the other examples are in temples, not domestic contexts – e.g., the various water installations in Isis-Serapis temples, and the standard washing basins (perirrhanterion/louterion) in Greek temples. It may be relevant to note that Isiac water installations in the Roman Empire have a purificatory function lacking in Egyptian Isis temples, according to Robert Wild; perhaps this is a parallel case of Hellinization/architecturalization of purity rites? Another case in point is washing in Asclepius shrines, as found, for example, in the medico-religious account of Aelius Aristides: here washing clearly had several dimensions. Turning to Jewish-Christians, witness the multiple types of washing in the Ps-Clementine Homilies and Recognitions – daily washing upon waking, washing after and before sexual relations, both side-by-side with one-time baptism. And moving from texts to artifacts, what does archeological/anthropological theory have to say about the relationship between ritual and non-ritual washing (or: ritual and non-ritual action in general) in other local contemporaneous cultures?

One possible significance of this may be that purification after sexual relations, contact with death or birth, before eating is not necessarily part of a “purities-holiness nexus,” as Miller describes with approval the opinion of Christine Hayes (p. 205), but rather part of a more general, unstructured disgust from sex and other bodily phenomenon (disgust is an important term in contemporary purity studies). If Yair Furstenberg is right and netilat yaddaim originated in Greco-Roman eating practices (p. 222, n. 48), this is an example of a Jewish purity practice which had nothing to do with holiness, at least at first. Although Miller acknowledges general Greco-Roman perceptions of pollution (pp. 231-2) and agrees that washing after sexual relations may have resulted simply from “popular conceptions of sex is dirty” (p. 234) he does not investigate this perception regarding the Rabbis themselves; I think the contrast drawn here between Rabbis and commoners may be too strict in this regard. Furthermore, if popular Jewish purity habitus was part of Greco-Roman culture in the East, perhaps it was not based only, or even primarily, on the bible, as is often claimed here? Thus in one of the stories in y. Ber. 3.4 (6c), a woman who does not wash (after sexual relations? After menstruation?) is compared to a beast. Christian authors, too, often argued that purification (after sex, after menstruation, before worship) was simply the “natural” way of doing things (see Clement of Alexandria, Paedagogus 2.92-96; Origen, Commentary on 1 Corinthians, frg. 29; Ps.-Clementine Homilies 11.28 [where the one not washing is compared to a dung-beetle; compare Epictetus Disc. 4.11, who prefers a comparison to pigs]).

Notwithstanding these criticisms, I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. The long and sometimes winding tour is full of insights and leads to follow; I felt part of a lively and thoughtful seminar, in which all participants are treated with respect and intellectual honesty. The careful assessment of the evidence, together with the hesitation to identify artifacts with social groups known from the texts, instills confidence in the conclusions. Miller provides a solid foundation on what is actually known about Jewish purity practices in this period, upon which the more speculatively inclined textual exegetes can build their edifices.

Moshe Blidstein is a postdoctoral fellow at the Martin Buber Society of Fellows at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His main research area is rituals and ritual discourse in the religions of the Roman Empire. His current project is entitled “The Oath, Religious Identities and Mentalities in the Eastern Mediterranean, 0-500 CE.”

English, Recent Publications, Reviews

Right of Reply: Azzan Yadin-Israel Responds to Amit Gvaryahu’s review

My thanks to The Talmud Blog for inviting me to respond to Amit Gvaryahu’s review of Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash. I find myself in the odd position of responding to a review that is generally positive and in certain passages very generous in its praise. Nonetheless, in what follows I will address some of the points Gvaryahu raises in his review, and, more importantly, those that he does not. (Due to space considerations, I have abbreviated some of the Sifra passages I cite).

In his introductory comments Gvaryahu praises me for engaging “refreshingly in textual scholarship” (his italics), so it is no surprise that most of his comments involve close readings of individual passages. Some of his comments merit, I think, response of one kind only: thank you. Gvaryahu is absolutely correct about the translation (read: my mistranslation) of halalim in §2.6, and he has also found a number of textual errata that I hope to have the opportunity to correct in a future revision. However, other of his comments leave me less convinced. Thus, I cite as §2.1 the opening gloss of a derashah:

“בוהק … טהור” מלמד שהבוהק טהור.

“a rash … is pure”—this teaches that a rash is pure.
Gvaryahu contends that we ought examine the entirety of the derashah, which “is parsing the verse, dividing it up into small units, each with its own meaning.” To this I would respond in two ways. First, the opening gloss should stand on its own merits, especially as it uses the term melammed to link the biblical terms to their conclusion, though it is not clear how the gloss does what it claims to do. As it stands, it extracts two words from the verse to create a brief phrase, then glosses with the identical phrase: read innocently, it is a tautology; read in light of the interpretive issues Gvaryahu raises (e.g., the ambiguous referent of the second הוא in the verse), it is a midrash that suppresses its own interpretive arguments, with the result a tautological gloss. Second, Gvaryahu’s elaboration of the full derashah merely rehearses the claims of the Sifra. Thus, Gvaryahu writes of “the two occurrences of הוא, which are read as limiting the purity of the rash to the rash itself and leprosy which protruded from it or which it might have touched”—all this from בהק הוא (“it is a rash”) and טהור הוא (“it is pure”). But why does the word הוא function in this manner; why does is limit these legal cases and not others, etc. This may be a cogent argument in Gvaryahu’s eyes, but I suspect we have simply grown accustomed to the Sifra’s (more accurately: the anonymous Sifra’s) hermeneutic caprice.Finally, I wonder what the force of Gvaryahu’s claim is. After all, §2.1 is followed by other examples:

  • 2.2 “Raven”—this refers to the raven. (Shemini pereq 5.4)
  • 2.3 “Large lizards”—these are the large lizards. (Shemini parashah 5.7)
  • 2.4 “… all living creatures that move in the water”—to introduce (lehaviʾ) the fish. (Shemini pereq 12.6)

The first two are literal restatements of the language of Scripture; the third a midrashic expansion that “introduces” the most self-evident conclusion—that “all living creatures that move in the water” includes fish. Setting §2.1 alongside these derashot lessens the burden placed on it (calling one derashah into question does not do invalidate the broader point), and also makes the “tautology” reading more compelling (it is one of several Sifra glosses that, literally or substantively, merely restate the language of the verse).

The same holds for Gvaryahu’s response to §2.6. While I, again, gratefully acknowledge his correction regarding halalim, the point of my analysis there is the odd structure of the Sifra’s reading of בני אהרן הכהנים: it first proposes a reading (yakhol) concerning בני אהרן as though הכהנים were not stated right there, and rejects it due to the presence of הכהנים; then proposes a reading concerning הכהנים but rejects it due to the presence of בני אהרן. Why raise a possibility excluded by הכהנים to begin with, when the word is modifying בני אהרן? And why repeat the procedure, artificially ignoring the presence of בני אהרן only to then draw the phrase back into the conversation as a foil to the proposed reading? Even if the Sifra is concerned with redundancy, why address it in such a convoluted manner?

But it is unlikely that the Sifra is concerned with redundancy at all, since §2.6 is not the only place this commentary “hides” one of the words in the verse only to “rediscover” it later (what I call a fort-da derashah):

  • 2.7 “… the anointed priest …”: “Anointed”—might this refer to the king? Scripture teaches, saying “priest.” (Hovah parashah 2.6)
  • 2.8 “And if anyone … hunts down an animal or a bird that may be eaten”: I know only regarding a bird that may be eaten, whence regarding an animal that may be eaten? Scripture teaches saying “an animal or a bird that may be eaten” (Ahare pereq 11.4)
  • 3.1 “The elders of the community …”: “The elders”—might this refer to elders of the marketplace? Scripture teaches, saying “the elders of the community.” (Hovah pereq 6.1)

Here too, the additional examples buttress the claim that §2.6 is a fort-da derashah, even as they lower stakes if any one derashah is excluded from this set.

There are other nits to be picked in the review (section D ignores the structural issues with Sifre Deuteronomy §357 and the cultural dependence of lectio dificilior as I argue in Chapter 7, and more), but my main concern is with what Gvaryahu does not touch on. As it stands, the review suggests that I am not convinced by certain Sifra arguments and so cast the work as engaged in ex post facto reconstructions. This omits, rather unfairly, the philological core of the book: the claim that there is a semantic incongruity in the hermeneutic terms of the Rabbi Ishmael midrashim and the named Rabbi Akiva sources, on the one hand, and the anonymous Sifra, on the other:

1. Perhaps the most dramatic shift is evident in the phrases ribbah ha-katuv and miʿet ha-katuv. In the Mekhilta to Exodus 12:45 we read: “Miʿet ha-katuv the time of eating [the paschal lamb] … But will you argue thus about the contribution offering concerning which ribbah ha-katuv the time of eating …?” (Pisha 15). If we bracket for a moment our familiarity with the dominant sense of these phrases in the Sifra, it is evident that the Mekhilta is contrasting the relatively narrow timeframe the Torah allots the consumption of the paschal offering and the relatively wide timeframe it allots the contribution offering. Here ribbah ha-katuv and miʿet ha-katuv, then, refer to the relative breadth and narrowness of biblical categories, respectively; they do not midrashically derive them. This sense is preserved in a number of Sifra derashot, as when we are told that “Scripture has multiplied copious commandments [ריבה הכתוב מצוות יתרות]” with regard to priests, but has not done so with regard to Israelites (§2.35, ʾEmor pereq 1.1-3). What this means is nothing more (and nothing less) than that the Torah contains many more commands concerning priests than non-priests—it is not a midrashic interpretation. In the anonymous Sifra more broadly, however, ribbah ha-katuv and miʿet ha-katuv indicate an interpretive move that introduces or excludes, respectively, legal elements not found in Scripture. That these formulas, the interpretive core of the anonymous Sifra, represent a subtle but profound revision of an established tannaitic usage, is very significant, but goes unnoted in the review. (Indeed, Gevryahu’s criticism that I do not recognize [in §4.18] that both Sifra Hovah 9.8 and Mishnah Shevuʿot 3.5 employ the phrase ribbui ha-katuv misses the point entirely: they do use the same phrase but it means something different.)

2. The yakhol and minayin derashot also undergo a dramatic shift. First, note that the proliferation of ribbui and miʾut in the now-standard sense (“to introduce,” “to exclude”) disrupts the hermeneutic system of the Sifra, since ribbui arguments are now pragmatically identical with minayin derashot, and miʿut arguments with yakhol derashot:

  • 3.9 “On the seventh day”: Might this mean (yakhol) either in the daytime or at night? Scripture teaches, saying “day”—not at night. (Metzoraʿ pereq 2.1)
  • 3.10 “On the first day”: In the day, not at night. (ʾEmor pereq 16.3)

The above derashot differ rhetorically—§3.9 is a yakhol … talmud lomar argument, while §3.10 a miʿut gloss—but are pragmatically identical: the word “day” precludes the broader reading that includes nighttime. Pragmatic redundancy is a strong indication that a “non-native” element has been introduced into the hermeneutic system.

More importantly, the yakhol and minayin derashot in the anonymous Sifra (broadly speaking—I note exceptions) differ from the Rabbi Ishmael midrashim and most named tannaitic derashot in that they conclude with the same verse that initiates the discussion. This is a deeply problematic issue: if verse X legitimately raises the possibility of interpretation P, how can the same verse then exclude P (“X” yakhol P … talmud lomar “X”)? Or, vice versa, if verse X excludes reading P, how can it be the verse that raises the possibility of that very reading? (Gvaryahu’s  suggestion that yakhol and minayin derashot establish the hermeneutic markedness of a term is incorrect: hermeneutic markedness precedes and legitimizes derashot; where it is employed, it is a condition of legitimate interpretation not a conclusion).

3. Mikan ʾamru: in the Rabbi Ishmael midrashim, the phrase generally refers to derashot whose conclusion is explicitly identified by the Mishnah as a derashah, or can plausibly be construed as one. In the Sifra, mikan ʾamru often claims midrashic basis for teachings that the Mishnah characterizes as non-midrashic (testimony, “they said,” etc.).

I cannot, of course, go into detail here. However, it is important to introduce these arguments because they are the philological core of Scripture and Tradition’s first section, and, moreover, because they speak directly to some of the issues Geveryahu raises in his review. To wit, my claim that the (anonymous) Sifra reworks extra-scriptural halakhot into a midrashic form is supported by a series of arguments regarding the interpretive techniques of this collection. It is not a sense of aporia that leads me to adopt this conclusion, but rather a positive, philological thesis concerning the workings of the Sifra. Like all critical scholarship, my thesis is subject to debate and criticism (“Let the conversation begin”), but for that to happen the review needs, at a minimum, to present the book’s thesis.

The same problem attends the review’s treatment of Scripture and Tradition’s concluding chapters. The argument, in brief, is that rabbinic scholarship has failed to offer a satisfactory account of the relationship between midrash and halakhot because it has consistently sought diachronic models, when a synchronic one is more appropriate to the sources. I cannot go into a detailed justification of this thesis, nor of its ramifications, but at least as far as my intent is concerned (Nota bene: everyone is a skeptic about authorial intent until it comes to their book…), it was not offer “somewhat of a postscript.”

It is evident that Amit Gvaryahu has read Scripture and Tradition with care and has offered me some important correctives and points of consideration. Any scholar worth his salt wants readers of this sort. My sense that some of the book’s core arguments were not properly represented in the review, does not diminish my gratitude to Amit for his engagement of my book, and to The Talmud Blog for affording me the opportunity to respond.

English, Reviews

Review of Tabory and Atzmon, ‘Midrash Esther Rabbah’

For a number of years now students of aggadah have been waiting to see the publication of a number of scholarly editions of classical midrashim. Some of the most anticipated volumes include Tamar Kadari’s edition of Canticles Rabbah, Paul Mandel’s edition of Lamentations Rabbah, Marc Hirschman and Reuven Kiperwasser’s edition of Ecclesiastes Rabbah, and Joseph Tabory and Arnon Atzmon’s edition of Esther Rabbah. All of these editions are part of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Study’s Midrash Project, and some of the synopses are already available online on the project website. The recent publication of Midrash Esther Rabbah is the third volume of this ambitious series to come out. Now, we can continue to enjoy the fruits of this endeavor and whet our appetite for future volumes.

Tabory and Atzmon’s volume is elegant, and inviting to professional scholar and lay learner alike. The print is clean, the layout is (certainly for a scholarly edition) blessedly uncluttered, and the commentary is crisp and generally to the point. The reading experience could be best described as streamlined. One can hurry along the text at a nice clip, glancing just below to check parallels in rabbinic literature (both “classical” and the later collections); look further down to consider major differences in the manuscripts, and then, on to the bottom of the page, consult a conveniently organized commentary.


Though the presentation is effortless, it is obvious that each of these sections reflects an enormous amount of work. The edition is eclectic and based primarily on the six major (relatively late) manuscripts of the midrash to have survived. The variae lectiones collected in the relevant section are a selection of only those variants which the editors deemed to be important. But philologists have no fear (unless, as one prominent scholar recently complained to me, you are Shabbat observant and it is Saturday), you can access the complete synopsis online. In an introductory chapter the editors describe each witness and also propose a stemma for understanding the relationship between them. They argue that the extant manuscripts descend from one textual parent, since all the manuscripts share the same group of clear mistakes. Though I did not check the accuracy of the transcriptions against images of the manuscripts, all around the textual reasoning seemed sound.

Sometimes, the editors propose changes to the text even when these are not attested in the surviving manuscripts. It is not entirely clear when such changes are seen as so obvious as to justify alternations in the main text, and when they are not. For example, riffing on the word פרס  at Esther 1:3 the Midrash offers the following, fascinating insight into Iranian imperial expansion (p. 45 lines 198-200):

פרס – למה קורין אותה פרס? שקבלה את המלכות פרוסות פרוסות, אחד בימי תרדה, ואחד בימי ארדכיאן, ואחד לעתיד לבוא הה”ד: והיה זה שלום אשור כי יבוא בארצנו.

The readings תרדה and ארדכיאן are almost surely mistakes. As the editors note in the commentary, ארדכיאן is quite possibly a reference to the last Parthian king, Ardavan (who indeed shows up elsewhere in rabbinic literature as the subject of Rav’s lament). In fact, the better (though still inexact) form ארדביאן is recorded in MS Cambridge. Similarly, תרדה is likely a reference to a king named Mithradates (there are a number of candidates, as this was a popular name for Iranian-named kings – Parthian and otherwise) and should probably read מתרדה. While one appreciates the editors’ caution by keeping the problematic readings, given the eclectic nature of the edition I would have expected that these readings would be corrected in the main text, and then accordingly marked as emended.

The commentary’s modest and unassuming style notwithstanding, it contains many insightful suggestions, including interpretations where others have previously stumbled. Esther 1:1 refers to Ahasuerus’ kingdom spanning the world, all the way from India to Ethiopia. The midrash surprisingly remarks that הודו and כוש are easily governed, presumably because of their proximity (p. 29 lines 39-41):

והלא מהודו ועד כוש דבר קל הוא? אלא כשם שמלך מהודו ועד כוש, כך מלך על שבע ועשרים ומאה מדינה

In his magnum opus, Eliezer Segal, discusses a parallel in the Babylonian Esther Midrash (bMeg 11a) and uses the apparent #GeographicEpicFail to make a large claim about the construction of the pericope both in the Bavli and in Esther Rabbah. Without drawing much attention, Tabory and Atzmon nonchalantly suggest that the rabbis understood the verse to refer to the Northern Indian hill country, known as Kush. Indeed, when teaching the Babylonian Esther Midrash a few years ago I realized that the official name of the two neighboring provinces during Sasanian times were Hindustan and Kushan.

In the Bavli’s version, the identity of הודו and כוש is in fact debated between Rav and Shmuel (one of whom correctly identifies כוש with Ethiopia). There is nothing at all surprising about a Babylonian amora knowing a thing or two about the technicalities of Sasanian geography and thereby making the initially surprising association between כוש and Kushan.  There would be something a bit strange about a Palestinian midrash making the link for no obvious reason. In other words, this is one of the myriad of instances where questions of influence and its direction between rabbinic corpora could be raised. This, however, is emphatically not the purpose of the new edition of Esther Rabbah.

Indeed, while some scholars will reach for this volume “for its own sake,” others will often be animated by questions of literary history. When was the Esther Midrash put together? Where? How? In the above example, did the redactors of the midrash simply rework a tradition that is attributed in the Bavli to a first generation Babylonian amora? Or did the Bavli borrow from Esther Rabbah? Was their a common source? Was there a large pool of related yet distinct traditions that both corpora pulled from? For general questions like these the reader can consult the comprehensive chapters at the beginning of the edition.  There one finds alongside clear discussion of the midrash’s structure (as it turns out, the original midrash is top heavy and covered in 6 parshiyot just the first two chapters of the biblical book) lengthy essays on other midrashim to the Book of Esther, the diffusion of Esther Rabbah in medieval times, and other, related sundry topics. Importantly, these are not merely of tangential interest, since the existence of so many Esther midrashim, for example, greatly complicates the recovery and dating of the Esther Rabbah. What is more, these parallel Esther midrashim are not at all static, and we often find traditions move to and fro between the corpora. Needless to say, such a fluid situation makes the reconstruction of Esther Rabbah extremely challenging.

Apropos matters of dating, the editors wisely steer clear of tying themselves down to anything too early or too late. Many of the well-known debates are appropriately cited, though it can be a bit frustrating when the issues are presented in ventriloquy through the mouths of Zunz, Albeck, and Co. The upshot is that when it comes to questions of literary relations, one normally has to suffice with the editors’ basic references to parallels, and very occasional discussion in the commentary. Tabory and Atzmon quite obviously made an editorial decision here to cut down on verbiage and produce a neater volume, instead of shooting for something like the Theodor-Albeck Genesis Rabbah. That is good and fine. They have provided us with a gorgeous edition with room for our research to grow.

Overall, this new edition is a great pleasure to work with – and to learn from, beginning to end. No doubt it will be the fountainhead from where all future research on the literary history of Esther midrashim begin. When read on its own, this midrash will ever-beguile you with its playful hermeneutics (another valuable introductory chapter outlines Esther Rabbah’s many different interpretive strategies) and surprising traditions. When you get a chance to look at the copy, enjoy the Antinonus and Rabbi story on p. 43. And in honor of Purim (and Bibi’s speech in congress), here’s a trivia question for you: Which nation does Esther Rabbah think scratches the most, and why? First person to  cite the correct answer in the comments wins.


A. Gvaryahu on A. Yadin-Israel ‘Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash’

Azzan Yadin-Israel, Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 308+vii pages. $75.

Reviewed by Amit Gvaryahu

Azzan Yadin-Israel has presented us with a detailed and meticulous study of Sifra. This is a wonderful thing. There is to date no other such study of the midrashic methodology of any work from the school of Rabbi Akiva. There is also no critical academic commentary on all of Sifra nor a full critical edition. Though Sifra was the most widely studied Tannaitic Midrash both in late antiquity and in the middle ages–there are more manuscripts, whole and fragmented, of Sifra and medieval commentaries on it than any of its counterparts – it was neglected in modern scholarship. Yadin-Israel’s willingness to undertake this project is laudable.

Sifra is a running commentary on Leviticus. For the most part it is associated with the School of Rabbi Akiva. (Several segments of Ishmaelian Midrash, most importantly the Mekhilta de-Arayot, were incorporated into some Sifra manuscripts in the Middle Ages from the now lost Ishmaelian Midrash to Leviticus). Sifra is generally accepted to be a Tannaitic work, and its redaction predates the Talmud (Kahana; but cf. Stemberger). Some have claimed that it predates the Mishnah (Reichman).

In a Hebrew University dissertation which stands in the background of Yadin-Israel’s work, Yonatan Sagiv mapped out the exegetical methods of attributed statements in Sifra and noticed that they tended to “clump” around problematic verses and did not cover all of Leviticus. Yadin-Israel acknowledges his reliance on Sagiv’s work at the beginning of the book. He restates Sagiv thus: “The Sifra  is made up of a relatively small number of Tannaitic interpretations [i.e. attributed to named tannaim], concentrated around a limited group of verses, embedded in a much larger and more uniformly distributed set of anonymous derashot.”

The book is made up of three parts. The first (caps. 1-4) attempts to characterize the exegetical methods of the unattributed Sifra. The second (caps. 5-7) is dedicated to the character of Rabbi Akiva in rabbinic literature and the statements attributed to him in Sifra. The third (caps. 8-9) is somewhat of a postscript, offering a comparative survey of other methods of interpretation in the Judaeo-Christian/late Roman orbit and situating Yadin-Israel’s work in the context of previous scholarship.


Parts 1 and 2 of the book make bold claims. In the first part of the book, “A Hermeneutic of Camouflage,” Yadin-Israel sets out to find the hermeneutic assumptions and exegetical method of Sifra, only to discover that there is none. He reads through various homilies grouped by terms: words marked as redundant, the particle את, possessive pronouns, ribbui and mi’ut, and the tying of Mishnah to verse with the term mikan amru. He also devotes considerable space to finding consistency in the reading of certain words. Chapter 2, “The Sifra as Midrash,” is devoted to what Yadin-Israel terms “vacuity” and “semantic discontinuity,” which are, respectively, charging innocent words with midrashic meaning, and creating a derasha that does not flow logically from the verse. The conclusion of this survey is that though the anonymous Sifra might sound like Midrash – by going through the motions of marking words as redundant and inviting interpretation, by noticing various phonetic peculiarities and grammatical inconsistencies and so forth – it only employs midrashic rhetoric in “ex post facto constructions” to rework oral traditions into “Midrash.” Since the project is to find Mishnah in scripture – at all costs – it is no surprise that the anonymous Sifra throws consistency and even coherence to the wind, and engages in “tautological, solipsistic, or otherwise empty arguments” (p. 100).

But wait, you say, isn’t Sifra associated with Rabbi Akiva, the man who in popular imagination could pile heaps and heaps of interpretations on the tip of one letter? Should we expect any less than that from a work associated with him? In part 2, “A Curious Career,” Yadin-Israel unequivocally says that this is not the Rabbi Akiva presented in the attributed Tannaitic material. In fact, claims Yadin-Israel, after examining the traditions attributed to Rabbi Akiva in Sifra (in Chapter 6) his homilies are more similar in terminology and method to the ones found in the Ishmaelian Midrashim (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael and Sifre Numbers) than to the anonymous Sifra. Even an examination of the biographical traditions about Rabbi Akiva in Tannaitic literature shows him to be a product of the rabbinic academy from childhood, not at all the revolutionary outsider we know and love from the Babylonian Talmud (Chapters 5 and 7).

Yadin-Israel’s claims are not abstract or ungrounded. To buttress them, he offers a large textual corpus in translation, helpfully reproduced in Hebrew from MS Kaufmann A 50 (for Mishnah) and MS Vatican Ebr. 66 (For Sifra, all on pp. 213-229). It is a richly documented book, which offers thoughtful textual analysis on every page. Yadin-Israel engages refreshingly in textual scholarship. In lucid and beautiful prose he takes the reader along with him on what is (for Yadin-Israel) an ultimately futile quest for meaning in the anonymous Sifra. I enjoyed engaging with each source immensely, even where I did not agree with the conclusions. It is this disagreement that I will lay down below.

In Chapter 9, Yadin-Israel notes that his claim – that Sifra does not engage in creative legal hermeneutics, but in some other project – is not new. The main stream of rabbinic scholarship in the early twentieth century was of the opinion that halakhah is “Oral Law,” what Josephus called paradôsis, “tradition.” Perhaps at some point in time rabbis shifted from “tradition to commentary,” and perhaps not, but the creation of the bulk of rabbinic law was grounded in the former, not the latter. Yadin-Israel’s innovative claim here is that both tradition and commentary were appealed to as sources of authority at the same time, but in different Tannaitic schools: Rabbi Akiva was grounded in tradition, Rabbi Ishmael in commentary. Notwithstanding Yadin-Israel’s modifications of the basic thesis of midrash mekayyem or, in his terms, midrash somekh, he is (in my opinion) coming almost full circle, upending several decades of the study of Midrash. Daniel Boyarin in his Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash tentatively suggested that Midrash should be read as commentary on scripture. His suggestion became so successful that, against this backdrop, Yadin-Israel can qualify and hedge: Midrash is not always commentary and works that call themselves “Midrash” are sometimes something else. Like a front for connecting oral traditions to scripture.

And herein lies the rub. Maybe – just maybe – If the anonymous Sifra rhetorically presents itself as Midrash, its claims should be taken seriously. I would like to take up a few of Yadin-Israel’s examples in the first part of the book and see whether they have exegetical ground after all (I will use Yadin-Israel’s numbering scheme for the quotations, preceded by a §).

A.    Rashes

Leviticus 13:38-39 reads:

וְאִישׁ֙ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֔ה כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרָ֖ם בֶּהָרֹ֑ת בֶּהָרֹ֖ת לְבָנֹֽת׃  וְרָאָ֣ה הַכֹּהֵ֗ן וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרָ֛ם בֶּהָרֹ֖ת כֵּה֣וֹת לְבָנֹ֑ת בֹּ֥הַק ה֛וּא פָּרַ֥ח בָּע֖וֹר טָה֥וֹר הֽוּא׃

When a man or a woman has spots on the skin of the body, white spots, the priest shall make an examination, and if the spots on the skin of the body are of a dull white, it is a rash that has broken out on the skin; it is pure.

Yadin-Israel quotes the homily on verse 39 (§2.1):

בוהק טהור. מלמד שהבוהק טהור.

A rash is pure – this teaches that a rash is pure.

This, says Yadin-Israel (p. 27), is a tautological gloss, a homily with no meaning. And if this were the verse, then it would certainly be. Zooming out and reading the homily in context shows otherwise:

“בוהק” “טהור”. מלמד שהבוהק טהור.יכול לא יטמא משם אום. אבל יטמא משם פיסיון. תל’-לו’. ”הפורח טהור”.יכול יטהר את הבהרת שיצאת ממנו. תל’-לו’. “הוא”.

יכול לא יטהר את הבהרת שיצאת ממנו. אבל יטהר את הבהרת שניסמך לה.

תל’-לו’. “בוהק הוא”. “טהור הוא”.

הוא טהור. אין הבהרת שיצאת ממנו ושניסמך לה טהורה. אילא טמאה.

“Rash” “pure” – this teaches that a rash is pure.Could it perhaps not cause impurity in itself, but cause impurity if it is an extension of an existing leprosy? It teaches, saying: “that has broken out is pure.”Could it cause purity to the leprosy which protrudes from it? It teaches, saying “it.”

Could it not cause purity to the leprosy (בהרת) which protrudes from it, but cause purity to the leprosy that it spreads to? It teaches, saying “it is a rash” “it is pure.” It is pure, but the leprosy that protrudes from it and that it spreads to are not pure but impure (Negaim, ed. Weiss 67a).

Read in entirety, the homily is parsing the verse, dividing it up into small units, each with its own meaning: “the rash is pure,” “that has broken out is pure,” and then the two occurrences of הוא, which are read as limiting the purity of the rash to the rash itself and leprosy which protruded from it or which it might have touched.

None of these readings is self-evident, and other readings of the verse are possible. Who is the referent of the second הוא: the person (see e.g. Vulgate) or the rash? Is the rash pure, or is it only pure if it breaks out in the skin, but not otherwise (see the insistence of the Septuagint on the former). Reading the verse requires parsing it into constituent parts and explaining them, which is what hermeneutics is by definition. Yadin-Israel (p. 22, quoting a different part of the homily as §1.14), claims that the “phrase tahor hu is a necessary component of the verse because it identifies the referent of ‘pure.’” In this, Sifra also clearly disagrees with him: It clearly states: ‘“Rash” “pure” – this teaches that a rash is pure.’ The homily explains that (1) it is the rash, not the person, that is pure, and (2) that the rash is ipso facto pure, not just if it spreads. The details derived from the components of the verse now make sense as well (cf. p. 55): only the rash is pure (בהק – טהור הוא), but its spreading does not cause purity to leprosy (פרח בעור – טהור הוא). Parsing it this way, Sifra’s reading method makes many of the incongruities Yadin-Israel points out, well, congruent.

Also, even if the derasha were tautological and meaningless, Yadin-Israel does not explain to what end. There is no Mishnah or Tosefta that could be the source for this homily.

B.    Blood

Parsing the verse into constituent sentences explains what Yadin-Israel calls fort-da derashot, in which the homily: “hurls an element of the verse out of sight…and then examines the situation. …The Sifra then reels the word back in and uses it as a prooftext” (p. 30).  Leviticus 3:2 reads:

וְסָמַ֤ךְ יָדוֹ֙ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ קָרְבָּנ֔וֹ וּשְׁחָט֕וֹ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וְזָרְק֡וּ בְּנֵי֩ אַהֲרֹ֨ן הַכֹּהֲנִ֧ים אֶת־הַדָּ֛ם עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ סָבִֽיב׃

You shall lay your hand on the head of the offering and slaughter it at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall dash the blood against all sides of the altar.

Sifra comments (§2.6):

“בני אהרן”. יכול חללים. תלמוד לומר. “הכהנים” יצאו חללים.ואוציא חללים ולא אוציא בעלי מומין?תלמוד לומר. “בני אהרן”. מה  אהרן כשר. אף בניו כשרין.

יצאו חללין ובעלי מומין.

“Aaron’s Sons.” Could this refer to disqualified priests (halalim)? It teaches saying: “the priests,” to the exclusion of disqualified priests.Might I exclude disqualified priests, and not exclude handicapped priests? It teaches, saying: “the sons of Aaron.” Just as Aaron is qualified, so his sons are qualified.Thus disqualified and handicapped priests are excluded (Nedavah, ed. Weiss 6b).

Note that I modified Yadin-Israel’s translation here: halalim are definitely not “laypersons”(p. 29). They are disqualified priests, the masculine plural form of חללה in Lev 21:7 and 21:14 (see Jastrow).

Yadin-Israel says the derasha “merely cites the word ‘priests’ and asserts the analytically true fact that priests are not laypersons” (p. 29). But it is not so: the derasha wants to account for the verbosity of the verse. Why say “Aaron’s sons the priests” and not one or the other? The answer is that each name accounts for a different group of marginal priests or Aaronides who are excluded: the halalim, Aaron’s sons but not priests, and the handicapped, priests but not Aaron’s sons.

Yadin-Israel again says that this reading is “plainly opposed to the Ishmaelian notion of hermeneutic markedness” (p. 31), but this does not mean Sifra does not have its own notions of markedness or of hermeneutics which it is trying to convey through its homilies. Sagiv’s findings that Tannaitic statements in Sifra tend to clump around problematic verses do not show that the anonymous Sifra is not interested of making sense of each and every redundancy in all of Leviticus.

In Chapter 4 (p. 99) Yadin-Israel asks about the same homily: why does Sifra not simply cite Leviticus 21:21 to show that handicapped priests are disqualified? That would be an appropriate question if Sifra were attempting to prove that handicapped priests are disqualified, i.e. if Sifra was merely a cover for extra-scriptural traditions. However, if Sifra is interested in responding to the redundancy, citing Leviticus 21:21 would not help at all. (The homily might also be responding to an anomaly in Lev 21:21 which refers to “men who have blemishes from the seed of Aaron” rather than the standard “sons of Aaron,” pointing to the fact that the latter phrase denotes non-handicapped priests).

The same reading technique can solve Yadin-Israel’s issue with homilies that employ the terms yakhol and minayin together with Talmud lomar which return to the same verse (Many, even most yakhol and minayin derashot, do not return to the same verse. In chapter 2, Yadin-Israel is careful to say that not all homilies do; but cf. p. 206.) While Yadin-Israel says they are “empty,” these terms establish the “hermeneutic markedness,” i.e. the redundancy, of one or another of the elements in the verse, setting it up for the interpretation at the end.

Yadin-Israel has the same issue with din (i.e. kol va-homer) arguments which conclude with the same glossed prooftexts that preceded them (e.g. p. 63, §3.12 and pp. 64-67, §3.13). Here too Sifra is working to establish markedness. In these cases, the homily points to a redundant grammatical element (e.g. אתו) and glosses it with a halakhah. Then it introduces a din argument for the opposite of the halakhah. Then it concludes (talmud lomar) that the redundant element was required to negate the din. The fact that the formulae do not distinguish between the same verse and different verses might show that for the Sifra, redundancy is an issue whether it manifests itself in the same verse or in different verses.

C.   From Tradition to Commentary

Beyond that, however, Yadin-Israel seems to be setting up a dichotomy between “tradition” and “commentary” which seems to me unhelpful. Many mishnayot are based not on “tradition” but on “commentary.” Yadin-Israel’s example §4.18 is a case in point. On p. 94 he compares Mishnah Shevu’ot 3:5 to Sifra Hovah (Weiss 23c) and tries to determine the relationship between them. This is a tricky relationship indeed (it would have been better if Yadin-Israel had offered readers more of the Mishnah in context). But Mishnah Shevu’ot here is anything but an “extra-scriptural tradition.” The Mishnah presents a debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael regarding scriptural interpretation. They both employ the term ribbuy ha-katuv, “the inclusive language in the verse.” Many other mishnayot are based on scriptural interpretation as well (as Ch. Albeck notes sometimes in the addenda to his Mishnah commentary). Even if the Sifra here post-dates the Mishnah, and is (as Yadin-Israel explains) attempting to solve an apparent problem in the Mishnah, it does not follow that the Sifra is a mere foil for grounding extra-scriptural traditions in scripture. Quite the opposite: the Mishnah here is engaging in Midrash as well. A similar approach can resolve Yadin-Israel’s issue with Menachem Kahana’s reading of Mishnah Gittin 9:10, Sanhedrin 3:4 and Sifra Metzora (Weiss, 79c), on pp. 209-210.

There are, to be sure, homilies in Sifra which serve to “unite the Dual Torah,” to use Jacob Neusner’s turn of phrase, by coupling mishnayot with homilies (e.g. §2.19, §2.20, §3.4 and many more). But even these have an interpretive effect on scripture. For example, the list of blemishes in persons in Mishnah Bekhorot 7:6 (p. 98; on the list see Rosen-Zvi) is cast in Sifra (§2.21) as a homily on Leviticus 21:21. The contents of the list are clearly not derived from scripture. But claiming that they are anchored in a ribbuy, איש איש, is in itself an interpretation of the verse which makes the verse speak the language of the rabbis. It is not the kind of self-referential hermeneutic that Yadin-Israel attributes to the school of Rabbi Ishmael, but it is a hermeneutic nonetheless. It is the same kind of hermeneutic that fuels, for example, the Palestinian Targumim, which can go on a homiletic tangent while reading a verse. To those who have the Oral Torah, it can be found everywhere, not least in the Written Torah. (I would also add that in Leviticus 10:9 drunken priests are only forbidden from entering the tent of meeting – not officiating at the altar, and so the Mishnah here is not circumventing scripture). I think the examples here are sufficient to prompt readers to check the evidence for themselves and engage with the examples, as Yadin-Israel has so generously invited us to do. Yadin-Israel’s general theory is an impressive and beautifully argued paradigm, but it is based on the cumulative textual evidence and must be examined against a careful reading of the original texts in context.

D. A Curious Career

As for the second part of the book, Chapter 5, Yadin-Israel’s intertextual reading of the Akiva and Moses encounter in Bavli Menahot 29b is innovative and thought-provoking. It would be better for Yadin-Israel’s paradigm of the Sifra, however, to adopt Shlomo Naeh’s suggestion that Rabbi Akiva sat and “expounded heaps and heaps of halakhot on each pericope (קוצה) of the Torah.” This sounds much like Yadin-Israel’s description of the anonymous Sifra: a work intent on pairing up extra-scriptural traditions with verses. Interestingly, Moses did not understand this endeavor at all, and was only satisfied when he was informed that an extra-scriptural law was just that: “a tradition to Moses from Sinai.” (For another use of כתב in this context, see Sifre Dueteronomy 26, ed. Finkelstein, 65).

Chapter 6, on the relationship between Rabbi Akiva’s homilies and the anonymous Sifra is important in that is highlights the differences between named and anonymous homilies in Sifra in a systematic way. It is a good starting point for sustained and systematic inquiry on this relationship, although Yadin-Israel sometimes goes too far in differentiating named Rabbi Akiva homilies from those of the anonymous Sifra. I would add that though Yadin-Israel is noncommittal on the date and provenance of this layer, it is clearly cited in the Talmuds. Sifra is also “Tannaitic” in both language and content. The existence of multiple strata in Sifra (as in any Tannaitic work) does not make any of them less “Tannaitic” than the other. It shows quite nicely that there were programmatic and hermeneutic developments in the school of Rabbi Akiva.

Chapter 7, sadly, leaves me unconvinced on philological grounds. Yadin-Israel successfully shows that there are traditions that make Rabbi Akiva a member of the rabbinic community from childhood, but works unsuccessfully to discredit the Tannaitic tradition, in Sifre Deuteronomy (with a parallel in Genesis Rabbah), that casts him as someone who was an ignoramus until forty.

Sifre Deut 357: “Rabbi Akiva began to study Torah when he was forty”:

ר’ עקיבה למד תורה בן ארבעים שנה.

Genesis Rabbah 100 (p. 1295): “Rabbi Akiva was an ignoramus for forty years”:

ר’ עקיבא עשה בור ארבעים שנה.

(1) Yadin-Israel tries to cast doubt on the reading of Genesis Rabbah 100 that Rabbi Akiva עשה בור for forty years, and claim that it is a correction of Sifre Deuteronomy. On p. 152 he says it is “very odd,” but it is really not: as Yadin-Israel notes on p. 143, עשה is good Rabbinic Hebrew for “spent time.” He “was an ignoramus.”

(2) The reading of MS London of Sifre Deuteronomy, that Rabbi Akiva learned Torah for forty years (למד תורה ארבעים שנה), waited on the sages for forty years and then led Israel for forty years, leaving him no time to be an ignoramus, is not corroborated by any other manuscript evidence.

(3) The Sifre Deuteronomy fragment Yadin-Israel cites, (MS Holon 242 ה) is not a Genizah fragment but a late medieval Sephardi Fragment of Sifre Deuteronomy brought to Israel from Yemen. Its reading, עסק בעולם, is a reworking of the Genesis Rabbah tradition, perhaps even a graphic corruption (עסה>עסק and בור>בע’>בעולם).

(4) Yadin-Israel cites Midrash Hagadol to Genesis which reads that R. Akiva עשה בלא תורה for forty years, but this is a reworking, again, of Genesis Rabbah (with בלא תורה replacing the disrespectful בור, perhaps another graphic corruption of בור>ב’ ת’>בלא תורה). Midrash Hagadol on Deuteronomy 34:7 has the same reading as all the other Sifre Deuteronomy manuscripts.

(5) More importantly, the other three characters who died at 120 listed in the tradition in Sifre and Genesis Rabbah all spent forty years outside of the world of Torah. Moses was in Egypt, Hillel the Elder came from Babylonia and Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai was a merchant. To fit this pattern, Rabbi Akiva must have started learning at forty.

I am interested to know why the existence of this tradition is so troubling to Yadin-Israel’s thesis. Could there not simply be two traditions about the early career of Rabbi Akiva? This however does not diminish from the importance of Yadin-Israel’s effort to reintroduce rabbinic biography back into the study of the Tannaitic traditions themselves.

E. Editing

The derashot are supplied in translation (and sometimes in the original) without their original lemmata. This decision caused a blatant error on p. 56 (§3.2), in which Leviticus 11:2-3 is supplied as a lemma for an excerpt from a complex and difficult homily on Leviticus 11:24 which happens to cite Leviticus 11:2-3. Yadin-Israel points to this homily as an example of “extreme semantic discontinuity,” but this is alleviated if read in context and in conjunction with the correct verses. Similar but less severe problems can be found in §2.10; §2.17-18 (in §2.17 the verse is Lev 15:18, not 19); §2.38; §2.37 (Lev 15:25 is quoted erroneously, skewing the entire homily). It also blurs the choices Sifra makes out in delimiting the lemma, as I pointed out above. Sources are sometimes truncated, leading to problematic conclusions and impressions (e.g. §3.2, §3.14, §4.18, §10.1, as well as the motto at the beginning of chapter 8).

Some of the translations are inaccurate and need revising (e.g. sources §2.6; §2.14; §2.32; §3.7; §3.16; §4.18; §6.6; §6.9; §6.15; as well as on p. 106, 130, 175, 184, 193, 197-8). Sometimes the English translations do not reflect the language of MS Vat. Ebr. 66 reproduced in the back of the book and are based on the vulgate editions (e.g. §2.21; §2.31; §2.35; §4.11; §6.23). The quotation of Sifre Numbers on p. 173 is not based on MS Vat. Ebr. 32 which reads אין “חלום” אלא שיש לו פתרון, which reading solves the discontinuity Yadin-Israel found there. The Hebrew of §2.34 is copied from the vulgate editions, not MS New York. All these should be corrected in a future edition. Other than that, the book is beautifully laid out, copyedited and indexed (On p. 188: committed should be commitment; the author of the MA thesis on Sifre Zutta Numbers is not Hillel, but Hallel Baitner).

When all is said and done, I had a wonderful time reading this book, marking it up and arguing with it. It goes back to basics and offers a comprehensive statement about those basics. Let the conversation begin.

English, Reviews

E. Baumgarten, Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz – Reviewed by D. Shyovitz

Elisheva Baumgarten, Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2014) – Reviewed by David Shyovitz.

[To download the review as a pdf click here.]

Writing history on the basis of medieval halakhic sources is a notoriously tricky enterprise.  Not only are the relevant source materials inherently difficult—suffused with technical terminology, complex, often terse exposition, and assumed prior knowledge—it is extremely challenging to escape from the orbit of the sources themselves, and to draw firm conclusions as to how they reflect or intersect with the lived reality of historical actors.  Exegetical tracts (such as Talmudic commentaries and super-commentaries), for example, tend to confine their analysis to the particular texts under consideration—it is not easy to utilize the narrow explication of a particular phrase or argument in the Talmud as a means of recovering broader data about the particular historical moment in which it was generated.  Halakhic codes, as prescriptive texts, by definition tell us more about rabbinic ideals than they do about communal and individual practices.  And responsa, ostensibly the genre most transparently reflective of historical reality, have oftentimes undergone redactional and editorial processes so extensive that it is impossible to recover the historical “facts” that underlie the surviving documents.

For scholars of medieval Ashkenaz, efforts to present a descriptive, rather than prescriptive account of lived religious reality have been particularly fraught.  Long entrenched assumptions concerning the “talmudocentrism” or “halakhocentrism” of medieval Ashkenazic rabbinic culture has privileged elite legal sources, and obscured the non-elites who had no facility with—and perhaps no interest in—the dictates of halakhic texts.  As a result, medieval Ashkenazic contributions to “the history of halakhah” have often been limited to precisely that—the historical analysis of (abstract, elite) halakhah itself, rather than an attempt to write a broader history that utilizes halakhic texts without accepting their own claims to normativity and authoritativeness.

In her new book Practicing Piety in Medieval Ashkenaz: Men, Women, and Everyday Religious Observance, Elisheva Baumgarten seeks to escape from this interpretive morass, and models a new approach toward using halakhic texts for historical ends.  She mines halakhic sources composed in medieval Ashkenaz (between roughly 1096 and 1348) for the evidence they reveal concerning “pious practices”—the concrete actions and observances that were important and accessible to both rabbinic elites and the laity, men and women, members of the upper and lower classes.  By focusing on practice rather than theory, Baumgarten seeks to transcend the prescriptive nature of halakhic sources, and to bridge the gap between halakhic and other (narrative, moralistic, polemical) sources.  Rather than treat halakhah as an insular and independent construct, she seeks to reconstruct what halakhic texts reveal about the religious values and commitments of Jews who left no independent records of their lives and experiences.  What she recovers, in short, is a Jewish “lay piety,” akin to (and as we shall see, bound up in) the lay piety and popular devotion that has been the subject of much recent attention among scholars of medieval Christianity.

Practicing Piety is in many ways a path-breaking book: conceptually sophisticated, methodologically complex, the product of prodigious research and nuanced, creative readings of often familiar (and sometimes over-familiar) texts.  Its argument is for the most part extremely persuasive.  To be sure, all important books give rise to as many questions as they answer, and Baumgarten’s book is no exception—particularly because it intersects with varied overlapping fields: the history of halakhah, gender studies, Jewish-Christian relations, and others.  In what follows, I shall lay out some (by no means all) of Baumgarten’s major claims, raise some questions concerning her findings, and point to some avenues of future research that her stimulating book opens up.

Practicing Piety’s introductory chapter guides the reader through the multiple interpretive axes on which the study turns.  In order to reconstruct the piety of non-elites—the laity—and not merely the rabbinic scholars who produced the sources that have survived, Baumgarten reads those sources with an eye toward their gendered dynamics, and with comparative attention to the contemporary, predominantly Christian setting in which they were composed.  Her attention to gender serves not merely to highlight the heretofore obscured experiences of women (an approach modeled virtuosically in her earlier Mothers and Children).  Rather, by comparing the practices of men and women, Baumgarten seeks both to uncover the experiences of non-elites (since women can be said to reflect the sectors of society who were outside the rabbinic elite) as well as to locate moments of particular social conflict, since “conflicts regarding identity and institutional control are often imposed on and reflected by women” (2).  At the same time that she is attentive to the differences and overlaps between men and women, Baumgarten is constantly aware of the Christian setting within which Jews lived and practiced.  She harnesses the abundant recent scholarship on Christian “lay piety” as a means of both understanding currents within Jewish communities, as well as identifying the sources and resonances of changing Jewish practices within their socio-cultural context.  Finally, Baumgarten constantly toggles between the public and private spheres; her analysis reveals that ostensibly private acts of devotion and spirituality tended to manifest themselves publicly, and to play a role in constituting the shared ideals and identity of the community as a whole.

The main body of the book applies these overlapping lenses to six case studies.  Chapters One, Two, and Three focus on presence in the synagogue, fasting, and charity—all quotidian elements of Jewish life, and yet spheres of religious experience that underwent significant shifts over the course of the Middle Ages.  In Chapter One, Baumgarten focuses on the custom, first attested in the sifrut de-bei Rashi, of women absenting themselves from the synagogue while menstruating.  The sources that detail this practice have been subject to extensive historical analysis, mainly by scholars interested in the history of halakhah and minhag—in tracing the textual attestations of this practice, many scholars have assumed that the custom reflects new awareness of existing Palestinian texts like the Beraita de-Nidah.  Baumgarten finds such textual genealogies unconvincing, and argues that the original impetus for abstention from synagogue services came from pious women themselves.  But what began as an optional pious practice was soon normalized by rabbinic decisors, rendering it “a justification for the marginalization of women in the synagogue” (48).  Here, her comparative attention to both male and female piety bears fruit—as she shows, the newfound preoccupation with female menstrual impurity was not accompanied by concern with male impurity due to seminal emissions (keri); on the contrary, men generally attended synagogue regardless of their purity status.  Baumgarten seeks to anchor the custom in high medieval anxieties—among Jews and Christians alike—over impurity and access to sacred spaces.  Christian thinkers had debated the issue of menstruating women attending mass and taking communion since the early Middle Ages, and while the high Middle Ages saw more concern over (male) clerical purity than over menstrual purity, “the resonance between the discourses conducted by these two sets of religious leaders is significant” (41).   Indeed, Christians were deemphasizing menstrual purity at precisely the same moment that Jewish leaders were elevating nidah observance as a covenantal sign, “the defining symbol of the Jewish people and Jewish women’s covenant with God” (47).  Jews and Christians were likely aware of one another’s purity practices, an awareness that manifested itself in this “competitive piety.”

This doubly-comparative methodology, with attention to both gendered and interreligious relations, also informs the discussion of fasting in Chapter Two.  Just as the ostensibly private observance of nidah regulations had public, communal implications, so too fasting became an increasingly ubiquitous, and visible, element of the pious landscape in medieval Ashkenaz, where older fasts that had been minimized by the Geonim were revived, and where fasting became increasingly associated with penitence.  The rise of fasting paralleled the simultaneous growth of fasting in Christian lay piety, and had gendered implications as well—Jews and Christians alike subordinated pious practice to a “common gendered ideology,” which assumed that women’s role as caregivers, and even their biological workings, limited the options for pious expression available to them.  The fact that fasting occupied a prominent place in Christian penitence helps us to understand the development of Jewish penitential fasting—although both faiths anchored their practices in ancient texts and traditions, they harnessed those sources in the service of “complex structures of repentance whose theoretical and ritual overlap is too extensive to be coincidental” (101).

Chapter Three continues in the same vein, but utilizes a unique surviving source, the Nürnberg Memorbuch, in an attempt to delve more deeply into the particular social and economic settings in which pious practices were expressed.  The Memorbuch preserves the liturgy Ashkenazic Jews recited for donors pro anima—those who contributed to communal institutions on behalf of their souls—and lists the names of donors and amounts of their donations over the course of several centuries.  Baumgarten’s statistical analysis of this surviving data is a revelation—she tracks the amounts donated by men and women, the various currencies utilized by members of different socio-economic classes, the ends for which contributions were utilized, and the ways in which external events, from the inauguration of a new synagogue to the Rindfleisch and Black Death attacks on the community, impacted upon charitable norms and practices.  The upshot of this analysis is a growing, and increasingly universal desire “to commemorate each and every soul” (128)—regardless of gender and class.  The popularity of pro anima almsgiving drew on the late antique tradition of redemptive almsgiving (that Alyssa Gray and others have reconstructed), but was also spurred by Christian charitable norms.  Indeed, the very literary structure and communal function of the Memorbuch as a physical artifact represented a Jewish response to the martyrologies and necrologies in use among Christians: “another case in which Jewish culture appropriated elements from the Christian majority while tailoring them to harmonize with the Jewish frameworks of practice and belief” (115).

The juxtaposition of ostensibly familiar Jewish sources alongside elements of Christian lay piety is most productively utilized in Chapter Four, which deals with the question of women’s performance of positive time bound commandments (mitsvot aseh sheha-zman grama).  Ashkenazic decisors by and large allowed women to perform, and recite benedictions upon, commandments that were obligatory on men alone, such as hearing the shofar and shaking the arba minim.  When it came to tsitsit and tefillin, however, early allowances gave way to increasing restrictions over the course of the Middle Ages, as women were discouraged and then prohibited from wearing and making tsitsit and tefillin.  This is a familiar story to scholars of medieval Ashkenaz, and the sources that describe the process have been well trod.  But the originality of Baumgarten’s approach is her juxtaposition of this data alongside the sources indicating that men in the high Middle Ages by and large did not perform the commandments of tsitsit and tefillin.  Only as the Middle Ages progressed did a self-conscious campaign of top-down encouragement lead more and more men to adopt these practices.  The comparison of men’s and women’s experiences, then, reveals that the limitations on women’s pious expression were coterminous with the encouragement of men to perform previously neglected commandments.  The turning point in this process was the thirteenth century, a period in which we find critiques of women’s “arrogance” in a wide array of halakhic and moralistic sources.  The desire to limit women’s options for independent religious expression led to varied articulations of the core differences between men and women: men could keep their bodies clean (or “pure”) long enough to wear tefillin while women were incapable of bodily purity; women were akin to “deficient men,” since, like blind men, they were exempt from certain commandments; or, as Maharil categorically put it based on a Talmudic precedent, women are “a people unto themselves” (164).  The exaggeration of gender differences, and concomitant attempt to limit women’s options, mirrors precisely developments underway in thirteenth century Christendom, which saw the repression of the Beguines, the rise in accusations of female heresy, and so on.  “The sanctions and suspicions of the Christian hierarchy differed little from the rabbi’s concerns…the reactions led by these male authorities to women’s more active agency in religious life are remarkably similar” (170).  The inclusion of both men’s and women’s experiences, and the contextualization of Jewish concerns within their Christian surroundings, thus leads to a fresh take on a long-debated episode in the history of halakhah.

Chapter Five, which explores the ways in which piety would have been publicly visible in medieval urban settings, contains surveys of the hairstyles, garments, and fashions of Jew and Christians.  This chapter is, to my mind, the least compelling in the book.  Some of the sources contained here will be familiar to scholars of medieval Ashkenaz, but Baumgarten’s approach is less successful in recontextualizing the material than elsewhere in the book.  A number of her specific claims are original and provocative—e.g., the notion that Jewish tailoring practices would have subtly distinguished Jews’ garments from ostensibly identical Christian ones, an “internal code of sorts” (189) that made Jewish fashions simultaneously identical to and distinct from those of their neighbors.  But this argument is based on scanty (and chronologically late) evidence.  Moreover, much of her discussion in this chapter deals with prescriptive sources (e.g. halakhic discussions of the laws of shaatnez) which seem to reflect more the desires of rabbinic elites than the implemented practices of pious laypeople.

Chapter Six, however, fascinatingly extends Baumgarten’s approach from halakhic sources to narrative ones.  In a compelling analysis, she shows that “tales of pious pretenders”—rabbinic narratives in which ostensibly pious actions are discovered to be fraudulent and hypocritical—were retold and reinterpreted by medieval Ashkenazic authors in ways that accentuated female hypocrisy while eliminating that of men.  That is, the male “pious pretenders” in rabbinic literature were rehabilitated by storytellers at precisely the moment when ostensibly sincere female characters were deemed devious and duplicitous.  Again, this development tracks on to currents in contemporary elite Christian conceptions of lay piety—male religiosity was lionized as female piety was increasingly subject to surveillance and control, assumed to be fraudulent and self-interested rather than sincere and well-intentioned.

Chapter Seven concludes the book by drawing together the multiple threads of the argument—threads that Baumgarten elsewhere describes as making up “a bricolage” (87), or “a tapestry” (42).  Indeed, a tapestry is an apt analogy for the overall argument of the book.  In its large contours, the notion that Jewish piety ought to be approached via pious practices and with attention to the lay men and women who comprised the majorities within Jewish communities is compelling, and the overall picture that emerges is highly convincing.  But a close inspection of the reverse side of the tapestry, where the actual work of drawing linkages takes place, reveals a more complex and complicated picture—particularly when it comes to anchoring Jewish lay piety in its broader surrounding context.  To be sure, the scanty surviving documents from medieval Ashkenaz inevitably preclude clear and unidirectional conclusions regarding causality, and if the book leaves certain details regarding transmission and interreligious interaction unclear, it is nonetheless to the author’s credit that there are no simplistic overgeneralizations in the book, no attempts to quash the messy realities of daily life and religious beliefs into overly rigid categories or frameworks.

To begin with, the most pressing challenge to reconstructing the pious practices of the laity is one of sources.  Medieval Christian culture left behind myriad documents—written by, for, and about the laity—that historians have utilized in order to get beyond the normative and prescriptive image that emerges from top-down pronouncements.  The available Jewish source materials are far slimmer.  Thus, although Baumgarten “[takes] the vantage point of those who performed rituals rather than those who penned their descriptions and prescriptions” (216), it is those very descriptive and prescriptive texts that comprise the primary source base for her study.  Baumgarten is well aware of this methodological challenge, but never provides an explicit articulation of the method she utilizes to tease out real practices and values from the prescriptive sources in which they are reflected.  Occasionally, this leads to slippage between elite texts and the lay reality that they are assumed to describe—as when it is assumed that “increased adherence to these pious practices (tsitsit, tefillin, and shaatnez) coincided with greater attention to them in the writings of the rabbis who promoted heightened religious observance” (193).  When the sources that attest to the “increased adherence” are themselves “the writings of the rabbis,” how can we be certain that this coincidence of text and practice was not, on the contrary, a rabbinic conceit, an exclusively elite, literary development disconnected from the interests and actions of everyday Jews?

A similar complexity is manifested in Practicing Piety’s approach to Jewish-Christian relations.  Baumgarten’s illustrations of similarities between developments in Jewish and Christian piety are on the whole quite convincing—the “theoretical and ritual overlap” in the ideals, anxieties, and practices she charts are, as she puts it, “too extensive to be coincidental” (101).  But how to account for that overlap is not always clear, or at least consistent, throughout the book.  Her overall claim, as expressed in the context of Chapter Five, seems to be that “Jews wore distinctive clothing and they dressed like their neighbors” (275 n. 20): that is, that their similarities were, paradoxically, simultaneously constitutive of distinctiveness.  At times, such similarities between Jewish and Christian practices are taken to indicate a kind of bi-directional awareness and polemically inflected “competitive piety” (8 and passim)—as in the suggestion in Chapter One that Christian de-emphasis of menstrual impurity was dialectically related to Jewish privileging of nidah as the covenantal sign of Jewish fidelity.  Baumgarten recurrently gestures to Ivan Marcus’s theory of “inward acculturation,” and argues that Jews and Christians “harnessed shared rituals to express religious difference” (99).  Such commonalities in ideals and practices can thus be “simultaneously read as [appropriations] of Christian practice and as [polemics] against it” (112).  But at other points, Baumgarten limits herself to the more general observation that “the medieval Christian environment provides essential data for understanding the development of Jewish customs and ideas” (22)—that is to say, that the Christian atmosphere helps us understand Jewish developments, but was not necessarily the cause of them.  In this view, “awareness of Christian conduct is not synonymous with appropriation of its ideology or practices” (87, emphasis added), and Jewish and Christian pious practices might not have responded to one another so much as sprung from the same contextual environment, or “common ‘ritual instinct’” (44).  It would have been helpful to distinguish these two approaches from one another more carefully, especially since the polemical valences of the “appropriation” approach occasionally come across as strained.  To take just one example, in Chapter Three the similarities between the Jewish Memorbuch and Christian martyrologies and necrologies are understood to reflect not just “shared ritual instinct,” but conscious polemical appropriation.  The liturgical use of such necrologies during the Mass is thus juxtaposed with “the decision to remember the dead and their donations between the Torah and the Musaf services–with Musaf connoting sacrifice in the ancient Temple,” and read as polemically intended, as “an expression of the inward acculturation that typified medieval Jewish life” (112).  One could question whether “polemics” (micro-polemics?) of this sort were really intended or perceived as such, or whether the choice of placement of memorial rites simply obeyed the internal logic of the Jewish liturgy, in which the junction of Torah reading and Musaf was a moment when interruptions to the standard service were licit.

The ambiguity in terms of precisely how Jewish and Christian currents intersected with one another is mirrored in a certain vagueness concerning the precise factors that led to change over time.  Time and again, Baumgarten convincingly demonstrates that developments in Jewish piety—as practiced by lay Jews and as regulated by elite rabbis—mirrored developments in Christian Europe.  But a huge body of scholarship has sought to account for why Christian piety (and especially female piety) shifted and became increasingly regulated over the course of the High Middle Ages.  Much of that scholarship is referenced in Practicing Piety, but it is not wholly clear how those broader causal developments impacted upon the shifts in Jewish practice.  Put differently, did Jewish piety undergo changes over the course of the Middle Ages because Christian piety did, or were certain external factors impinging upon both religious communities, living as they did in the same cultural ambit?  And if the latter was the case, what were those external factors?  Baumgarten convincingly shows that change was afoot in the high Middle Ages, but the reader is not always certain as to why.

Baumgarten’s stimulating book thus spurs its readers to consider the extent to which Jewish piety adapted, competed with, or was indistinguishable from Christian piety—and further research by scholars of medieval Ashkenaz will no doubt engage with and extend the arguments that are so productively introduced here.  Indeed, Practicing Piety opens up numerous such avenues of future research.  To highlight just one, the very category of “lay piety,” as applied to the Jews of medieval Europe, demands that scholars revisit entrenched assumptions concerning rabbinic leadership and social structures within Jewish communities.  In medieval Christian culture, “the laity” could be contrasted with “the religious”—the priests, monks, and clerics who occupied (at least in theory) a defined and circumscribed position within society.  When, in the high Middle Ages, Beguines, tertiary Franciscans, “heretics,” and others challenged the boundaries between the religious and the laity, they were responding to real, deeply embedded socio-religious structures.  But is it safe to assume that the lines between Christian clerics and the laity tracked onto those separating the rabbis from other members of the community?  How could we determine whether the medieval Ashkenazic rabbinic elite comprised a socially and politically distinct “religious class,” with which a “laity” can be contrasted?  Practicing Piety models a way to combine moralistic and narrative sources with halakhic ones, and to use them to sharpen and deepen our notions of how social structures within Jewish communities impacted upon religious observance.

By productively, and provocatively, challenging the entrenched “top-down” model of medieval Jewish piety, Practicing Piety sheds new light upon the social, gendered, and interreligious dynamics of Ashkenazic religious practices.  Scholars of medieval halakhah, spirituality, and Jewish-Christian relations will find it to be an indispensable resource in their continued exploration of the complex, messy, and immensely fruitful religious culture of medieval Ashkenaz.

David Shyovitz is Assistant Professor of Medieval Jewish History at Northwestern University, and is presently a Yad Hanadiv Visiting Fellow in Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.

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).