English, Reviews

Seek and Ye Shall Find: On Federico Dal Bo’s Feminist Commentary on Karetot

Federico Dal Bo, Massekhet Keritot. A Feminist Commentary on the Babylonian Talmud V/7. Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2013. IX+487 pp. €129

Massekhet KeritotFederico Dal Bo is a very talented individual. This is the impression the reader gets not only from his unassuming biography on page II (two PhDs in unrelated disciplines awarded four years apart!), but also from even a cursory perusal of his new commentary on one of the most neglected corners of the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Karetot. It takes talent, and courage, to undertake a project as audacious and comprehensive as the title promises. Continue reading

English, Guest Posts, Reviews

Review of Elizabeth Shanks Alexander, ‘Gender and Timebound Commandments in Judaism’- Guest Post by Raphael Magarik

ShanksImplicit in the title of Elizabeth Shanks Alexander’s new book, Gender and Timebound Commandments in Judaism, is the question: What does gender have to do with “time-bound, positive commandments”? What motivates rabbinic texts to rule that women are exempt from those mitzvot? And as the phrase “in Judaism” implies, this question arrives entangled in important arguments over how Jewish women ought to practice today. Continue reading

English, Reviews

Rabbinic Spiritual Capital: A Review of ‘Judaea-Palaestina, Babylon and Rome: Jews in Antiquity’

Oppenheimer volumeBenjamin Isaac and Yuval Shahar (eds.), Judaea-Palaestina, Babylon and Rome: Jews in Antiquity (Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2012).

This volume is a collection of seventeen articles presented at a 2009 conference held at Tel Aviv University in honor of Aharon Oppenheimer on the occasion of his retirement. Oppenheimer is known to scholars of ancient Judaism and Christianity thanks to his work on a vast range of topics, many of which are represented by the articles in this book. Continue reading

English, Reviews

On the Margins: A Review of E. Marienberg’s ‘La Baraïta de-Niddah’

Description: Description: C:\Users\Evyatar\Dropbox\Evyatar docs\Livre - BdN\Final Book\Cover-Front-jpg.jpgEvyatar Marienberg, La Baraïta de-Niddah ברייתא דנידה. Un texte juif pseudo-talmudic sur les lois religieuses relatives à la menstruation (Bibliothèque de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes Sciences Religieuses 157; Paris : Brepols, 2012).

The Baraita deNidah is one of those compositions that should trouble anyone who is interested in the study of rabbinic literature. Its very existence, history of transmission and reception defy traditional views of the rabbinic corpus on both ideological and Halakhic respects. The recent edition of the text by Evyatar Marienberg, with its excellent reproduction of the witnesses and the extremely rich and helpful introduction, is therefore an exciting event. This book is a revised version of the second part of the author’s doctoral dissertation, published in French a decade ago as Niddah. Lorsque les juifs conceptualisent la menstruation (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2003).

The Baraita de-Nidah made its first appearance in the field of modern rabbinic studies with the edition of Haim Meir Horowitz. An Orthodox Jew from Frankfurt, Horowitz owned a bookshop where he sold new and old Jewish books as well as some manuscripts. He published several rare rabbinic texts, among which was our “Baraita” in 1890. Marienberg reproduces the main manuscript upon which Horowitz based his edition (the manuscript itself is now lost). Also published here are all of the other witnesses of the text, which are much shorter. The longest among them is preserved in manuscript Parma Palatina 2342 (De Rossi 541) where our text is entitled הלכות נידה and occupies two out of 284 folios. Other witnesses are found in some medieval rabbinic works such as the Kol Bo, Likkutei ha-Pardes and ha-Rokeah. Each one of the ten witnesses is described by the author and even more importantly, is transcribed by him separately and then in a synoptic edition. Four witnesses contain the story of the birth of Rabbi Ishmael, which is also known from another sources. Based on a philological analysis, the author concludes however that this story did not figure in the original version of the Baraita.

The text, or more precisely the family of texts (one is almost tempted to use here the term “macroform”) offer a series of halakhot in matters of nidah which are far stricter than the ones we find in “normal” (and normative) rabbinic literature. Particularly, the menstruating woman’s capacity to defile is extremely exaggerated when compared to talmudic sources. This lead some scholars to link the Baraitha to the Zoroastrian environment of Babylonian Jewry (p. 66). The problem with this hypothesis, as indicated by the author, is that most scholars believe that our text was redacted in Palestine– it is written in Hebrew and mentions only Palestinian sages. However, as Marienberg argues, one should not rule out a non Palestinian origin of the text (he proposes Italy and the Byzantine Empire). Of course, a Babylonian origin is still possible. Marienberg mentions Ephraïm Kanarfogel and Sharon Koren who connect the Baraita to Heikhalot literature. If we situate the origin of the latter in Babylonia, it may be used as another argument to support a Babylonian origin of the tractate.

Marienberg mentions several theories concerning the reasons the text was written in the first place. Some of them were already raised by Horowitz, particularly the possibility that the small tractate was a Karaite composition since some of its teachings resemble Karaite practices. Thus, it is conceivable that the tractate was written either in order to mock the talmudic tradition or to criticize it by showing that the rabbis of the talmudic period shared some of the ideas that were defended by the Karaites. However, Horowitz himself ruled against the possibility of a Karaite origin, as did most of the scholars who later dealt with the question. This interesting debate together with some others related to the date and the Sitz im Leben of the text are summarized by Marienberg in his introduction. In general, Marienberg is very cautious and quotes Daniel Sperber’s conclusion from the article dedicated to the Baraita in the revised edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, according to which neither the date nor the author of the text can be determined with certainty. Marienberg does, however, suggest that the text was redacted after the talmudic period.

In another important part of the introduction the author discusses the reception and influence of the text after its composition. The rarity of manuscripts shows that at least the two long recensions (Horowitz and De Rossi) were not well-diffused in the Jewish world. However, we do find references and even quotations of the text in some popular medieval books and commentaries. The most famous example is probably Nahmanides’ exegesis on Genesis 31:35 which quotes some of the teachings of the tractate and refers to it as ברייתא של מסכת נידה.  According to one of Marienberg’s conclusions, the tractate was used and quoted mainly by authors living in a Christian environment. He proposes to connect this phenomenon to the absence of a direct confrontation with Karaites in the Ashkenazi world – since the teachings of the tractate are close to some karaite practices, rabbinic authors from Islamic environments, where the karaite movement was relatively strong, felt much less comfortable using it.

Finally, Marienberg proposes to see the Baraita as one of the “minor tractates” whose status in the rabbinic corpus is somewhat liminal. He reminds us that one of the reasons that these tractates came to be considered as belonging to the talmudic corpus is the fact that they were included in the 19th century Romm edition of the Bavli. Horowitz edited the text after the publication of the Romm edition. Thus, Marienberg raises the possibility that an earlier publication of the Baraita, and its subsequent inclusion in the Romm edition, would have changed its place in the rabbinic corpus, enhancing its status as an official rabbinic text. This question is left open. Given the great anxiety pronounced by the author of the Baraita towards menstruating women, maybe it is for the best that this extremely misogynistic text was left outside the “official” edition of the Talmud.

This important publication adds another element to the debate regarding the limits of the talmudic corpus and talmudic culture in general. That is why the thesis about the relationship between this text and Heikhalot literature is so compelling – if we consider, together with Michael Swartz and more recently Moulie Vidas, that the Heikhalot corpus was redacted inside the walls of the Babylonian Yeshiva but not by the same authorities that produced the Babylonian Talmud, we can ask whether the status of the tractate as semi-rabbinic text reflects the position of its authors who acted somewhere on the margins of what became the normative rabbinic discourse.  This may provide us with a multidimensional picture of the early medieval rabbinic movement, in matters of authority, scholarship, Halakha and of course – gender.

English, Recent Publications, Reviews

Naftali Cohn’s “The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis”

In an attempt at remaining sane during the present Israeli election cycle, I found myself reading Naftali Cohn‘s The Memory of the Temple and the Making of the Rabbis (although given some of the rhetoric voiced here by wannabe politicians over the past few days, one could argue that a book about the Temple is actually quite relevant to Israeli politics). The book, published in Penn Press’ “Divinations” series, attempts to tackle a rather large topic that has been growing in popularity in recent years: the place of the Temple in rabbinic thought.

Whereas author scholars like Ishay Rosen-Zvi‘s or Daniel Stoekl-Ben-Ezra have devoted studies to specific topics within Temple-related tractates, Cohn devotes his to the Mishnah’s Temple discourse as a whole; reaching the conclusion that the Mishnaic portrayal of the way in which the rituals were performed at the Temple comes to “claim authority for the rabbis” (pg. 120). Claiming authority over the Temple by depicting it as functioning in a rabbinic fashion is essentially a way for the Rabbis of the Mishnah to gain authority over their fellow Judaeans. Cohn explains that the authors of the Mishnah work on multiple fronts, chief among them being the insertion of the Great Court, the Sanhedrin, into the Temple complex, along with its proto-Rabbinic sages who are depicted as the ultimate deciders of Temple practice. Cohn also argues that the manner in which the Mishnah discusses how and where rituals were performed in the Temple is geared at giving authority to the Rabbis. I admit, I’m not well read in ritual theory, but I’ll note that Cohn’s use of it in his analysis of Temple practice may fill in some of what Meir Bar-Ilan missed in Rosen-Zvi’s monograph.

The last chapter of Memory is dedicated to a comparative study of the Mishnah’s Temple, and is entitled “The Mishnah in the Context of a Wider Judaean, Christian, and Roman Temple Discourse.” Cohn combs through a dazzling array of different of sources, such as Pseudepigraphic works, Christian literature, archaeological findings (specifically synagogues and coins), and Hellenistic sources in order to contextualize the Mishnah’s picture of the Temple. Such an attempt should be commended. It is no doubt important, and as Cohn shows, fruitful, to understand the Rabbis’ Temple discourse in such a way. For him, such an analysis proves that the memory of the Temple was a point of contention, and that it was exploited by different communities in their attempts at achieving authority during the Tannaitic period.

As noted, Cohn stresses throughout the book the place of authority in Rabbinic depictions of the Temple, but I’m not so sure a) how Temple discourse in the Mishnah really gives them more authority over their fellow Judaeans, and b) if this is really why the Mishnah (and rabbinic literature more generally) spends so much time discussing the Temple.

Beyond that, I think that before we can really even compare the rabbinic Temple discourse to that of other communities, the Mishnaic Temple narratives must first be understood in their more local context of Tannaitic literature. Such a contextualization should begin with an understanding of the how the narratives concerning the Temple found in the Mishnah relate to the Mishnah’s non-narrative sections. The vast majority of the Mishnah, including its discussion of the Temple, is not what most scholars define as “narrative.” Additionally, recent attempts at analyzing the Mishnah with an eye for genre have yielded interesting results, at times even pointing out that different layers of genre may contain various Mishnaic conceptions of a given set of laws. Maybe the hundreds of non-narrative sections of the Mishnah paint a very different image of the Temple than the narrative ones do? The inclusion of such information would also change how the comparison between the Mishnah and non-Rabbinic works would be performed: the very fact that Temple is discussed by these different groups would not be the only point of comparison, but rather, the differences in the details of the practices themselves (specifically in the earlier Qumranic material) would also need to be unpacked in order to shed light on alternative conceptions of the Temple.

Second, it is very possible that the image of the Temple found in the Mishnah differs from that of the Tosefta or Midrash Halakha. The Mishnah is not the sole Tannaitic text, and, therefore, the “Rabbinic” view of that period probably cannot be deduced from it alone. To be sure, Cohn often uses the Tosefta to better understand Mishnaic passages. At one point, he does more than that, accurately noting a few telling differences between the Mishnah and the Tosefta (pg. 47): the Mishnah never depicts sectarians as actually having the power to perform the ritual as they please, while the Tosefta does so on at least three occasions. Cohn ties this to the Mishnah’s depiction of a “powerful Court that has fully suppressed the sectarians,” a depiction that is absent from the Tosefta. It is very possible that Cohn is on to something here. Scholarship concerning the relationship between the Mishnah and Tosefta has slowly been moving from issues of relative chronology to issues of what may be termed ideology or outlook. This example may be added to the list, and there is a need to further tease out the differences between the idea of the Temple present in these two intertwined Tannaitic works. Similarly, it is very probable that treatment of works of Halakhic Midrash, which to the best of my knowledge are not used in the book at all, would further nuance the position of the Temple in Tannaitic thought.

More can be said, and no doubt will be. I don’t think that I have a better answer to questions like “why the Rabbis spend so much time discussing the Temple?” than Cohn does, although I do think that we have to work a little differently in order to respond to them more fully. Nonetheless, Memory marks a significant step in furthering the research into rabbinic conceptions of the Temple in that it forces us to evaluate the Rabbi’s discourse in the context of post-destruction Judaean society.

English, Reviews

Review: Maggie Anton’s Rav Hisda’s Daughter- Guest Post by Ilana Kurshan

At our Talmud Blog-Jerusalem event, we described some of the ways that the TB community can participate in the larger conversation that we hope to foster here. At the top of the list is writing posts for the blog. And so we are happy to present a short review written by Ilana Kurshan, a friend, devoted reader of the blog, and member of the Talmud Blog community, about Maggie Anton‘s latest novel, Rav Hisda’s Daughter. The review was published in Lilith Magazine (Fall 2012; 37.3) and is cross-posted from Ilana’s blog.

Towards the end of Rav Hisda’s Daughter (Plume, $16), Maggie Anton’s eponymous heroine returns to her home in Babylon after four long years in the land of Israel and is greeted by her father with the words, “Blessed are You, Adonai…. Who revives the dead.” Anton has made quite a career out of reviving the dead, first with her trilogy of novels bringing to life Rashi’s three daughters, and now with her imaginative tale of the daughter of the third-century Talmudic sage Rav Hisda.

The novel’s opening scene is closely based on the Talmudic story in which Rav Hisda’s young daughter sits on her father’s lap while his two leading students stand before him. Rav Hisda asks his daughter which one of them she would like to marry, and she greedily responds, “both of them.” One of the students—arguably the more quick-witted—immediately pipes up, “I’ll go second!” This story sets the stage for Anton’s tale, in which Hisdadukh—Anton invents her name, which is Persian for “Daughter of Hisda”—is betrothed first to Rami bar Chama, the love of her youth and the father of her two children. Following Rami’s tragic and sudden death after just five years of marriage, Hisda is betrothed to the other student, the harsh and hardened Rava. The novel follows Hisdadukh not just from one husband to another, but also from her home in the Babylonia, where she is one of two daughters and seven sons in an illustrious rabbinic family, to the Galilee, where she mingles with amulet scribes, early Christians, and the great scholars of Tiberias, Caesaria, and Sepphoris. It is in Sepphoris that Anton imagines that Hisdadukh serves as the model for the iconic “Mona Lisa of Galilee,” a floor mosaic that remains a popular archeological attraction in Israel today.

Many of the conversations and characters in this novel are lifted straight of the pages of the Talmud. But as the Talmud is not a work of history—Anton may be the first to call it “historical fiction”—even these elements of the novel may raise eyebrows: “Everyone knew that the Evil Eye was responsible for a great deal of misery in the world. Rav, Father’s teacher, once went to a cemetery and cast a spell that let him talk to the dead. Ninety-nine told him they’d died from the Evil Eye and only one from bad air.” We must be as skeptical of the historicity of Anton’s account as we are of the Talmud’s narration of this incident in tractate Bava Metzia. And so in terms of authenticity, perhaps Rav Hisda’s Daughter has an advantage over Rashi’s Daughters, since there is no pretense that the former is based on historical sources. When Anton succeeds best, she brings Talmudic debates to life by showing the very human personalities and passions behind the various legal positions. And so when Rami and Rava debate the laws of inheritance, Anton suggests that they are in fact really fighting over Hisdadukh; thus their battle of wits is also a sort of romantic duel.

Anton’s novel is rooted not just in the soil of the Talmudic text but also in the field of academic Talmud study today, which is apparent even without glancing at her impressive bibliography or the list of illustrious international scholars she acknowledges. Hisdadukh is a student of Torah arguably modeled on her Palestinian counterpart Beruria, but she is also an enchantress who makes magical incantation bowls of the sort discovered by archeologists in the area that is now Iraq and Iran. The discussions that come alive in this book are Talmudic as well as academic, which may explain why this novel will have so much appeal for readers like myself who are steeped in the Talmudic text and the scholarship about its context. For readers who do not experience the pleasure of the familiar in its fictionalized form, Anton’s novel celebrates our rich and colorful textual heritage and reminds us that feminist history is often a return to the material and the real – to the beer the scholars drank, the springs in which they bathed, the cycle of blood that dictated their most intimate relationships, and the rooms in which they studied texts that occasionally refer to wives and daughters whose lives we can at best imagine.

English, Guest Posts, Reviews

Daniel Sperber’s Greek in Talmudic Palestine- Review by Yair Furstenberg

Daniel Sperber, Greek in Talmudic Palestine, Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan University, 2012

How much Greek in Jewish Palestine? Were Samuel Krauss to address the question titling Saul Lieberman’s seminal essay of half a century ago, we could expect in reply a most precise datum: 2370. Krauss compiled the dictionary for Greek and Latin loanwords in rabbinic literature (Griechische und Lateinische Lehnwörter im Talmud, Midrasch und Targum) published during the last years of the 19th century, and this is the number of Greek entries in this work (if we are to believe those who counted). However, this enormous number, which supposedly signifies the scope of Greek knowledge in rabbinic circles, would certainly not satisfy Lieberman.

Besides the fact that the Lehnwörter was most fervently criticized early on by linguists and classicists, who rejected a substantial share of its etymologies (between 30-50%) and valued it only as a comprehensive collection of the relevant passages, Lieberman’s major concern in identifying these foreign words laid elsewhere, beyond the realm of lexicography. In the above-mentioned essay, as in his earlier books Greek in Jewish Palestine and Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, he sought not only to identify within rabbinic literature traces of Greek presence, but to map out the types of rabbinic encounters with this culture and the intensity of the exposure. Thus he claims, for example, that whereas philosophical terminology is completely absent from Talmudic literature, which befits the rabbis’ complete disinterest in foreign wisdom, issues such as law, government, and rhetoric are well represented in rabbinic vocabulary.

In the last few decades, contemporary scholarship moved even farther away from the lexicographic endeavor, as it shifted from a philological paradigm in which related words serve as signifiers of sporadic cultural interaction to a broader cultural paradigm that seeks to identify shared structures of thought within the common Greco-Roman environment. From this perspective, even if spoken in the most Rabbinic Hebrew, Talmudic laws, narratives and anecdotes may sound to some like Greek. However, paradoxically, the evolution of new broader scholarly approaches has only reinforced the need for a clearer exposition of the actual contexts and agents (including people, words and institutions) through which such cultural exchange took place. Due to the incompleteness of earlier projects, some fundamental questions have yet to be systematically addressed: How “Greek” is each of the rabbinic compilations? Can we identify different trends or stages in the exposure to Greek language and culture? How should we account for the broader use of Greek in later sources? Did Christianity play a role in the distribution of Greek language and ideas in Palestine? How does the rabbinic exposure to Greek compare with that of other Aramaic and Syriac speaking groups in the eastern Mediterranean?

In his latest book, Daniel Sperber contributes to this endeavor by laying out some of the main findings of his two esteemed masters, Krauss and Lieberman, and by commenting on the challenges which, in his eyes, their works hold for future scholarship. Thus, in the first part, “Greek and Latin Words in Rabbinic Literature: Prolegomena to a New Dictionary of Classical Words in Rabbinic Literaute” (a reprint of two of his articles from the seventies), Sperber surveys the problems and methodological concerns which await the compilation of an improved dictionary, more than a century after Krauss. In the second part, “Rabbinic Knowledge of Greek in Talmudic Palestine”, he readdresses the fundamental question posed by Liebermen: “How much knowledge (and we may add, and of what nature) of the world which surrounded them did the builders of Rabbinic Judaism possess?”. To that end, he adds to Lieberman’s exposition some further examples of his own, relating to regional differences, knowledge of pagan ritual, rabbinic acquaintance with Roman legal and military terminology, and the use of Greek in magical texts.

Those who follow Sperber’s work will identify his examples from the many publications he contributed on the issue of Greek in rabbinic literature during the last three decades. Most prominent of these are his books, in which he not only offered solutions to textual cruxes by deciphering the Greek or Latin etymologies, but in which he sought to classify all foreign terms according to subject matters: A Dictionary of Greek and Latin in the Mishna, Talmud and Midrashic Literature (1984); Nautica Talmudica (1986); Material Culture in Eretz Israel (1993, 2006); Magic and Folklore in Rabbinic Literature (1996). In a way this is the most conspicuous of Sperber’s contributions, in which he dismantled the over-whelming question of Greek in Rabbinic literature into manageable, specific contexts and fields of practice.

The current book is of a different nature, and its purpose is more modest. It advances Sperbers general scholarly approach, which incidentally is largely based on that of Liebermen. However, in the margins, the unique and extremely important aspect of Sperber’s contribution does emerge in this latest book as well. Thus for example, to the list of more than 280 new words which he adds to Krauss’s dictionary (thanks to his elaborate use of critical editions and sophisticated assessment of manuscripts variants) he appended a subject index, which “highlights to us that in certain socio-cultural areas there was a greater penetration of Greek terms… administration, army and weaponry… employment, occupations and professions… building, tools or utensils” (p. 81).

But as the examples in the book demonstrate, the issue at hand is not only in what fields were the rabbis exposed to Greek, but the nature of their proficiency. Thus, the most enjoyable examples are those which not only incorporate Greek terminology but cunningly manipulate the languages through wordplays and puns. It takes an expert to identify those, today as well as back then. Therefore, although we are not surprised to find R. Abbahu in third century Caesarea proving his competence in Greek with a clever wordplay, it is no less than astonishing to find it in other, unexpected contexts. Such is the following case, my personal favorite, (discussed on p. 136) taking us back to the presumably ancient mishnah, which records the halahkhic dispute between the Pharisees and Saduccees (m. Yad. 4:6):

The Sadducees say we cry out against you, O ye Pharisees, for ye say ‘The Holy Scriptures render the hands unclean and the writings of Homer do not’. Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai said “Have we naught against the Pharisees save this? For lo, they say ‘The bones of an ass (עצמות חמור) are clean and the bones of Yochanan the High Priest are unclean?

As Sperber points out, quoting Chaim Rosen, there is much more to the comparison of texts (Scripture/Homer) to bones (High Priest/ass) than the halakhic issue of impurity: behind the word “עצמות חמור” [“the bones of an ass”] there lies a Greek expression referring to Homeric poetry itself – an expression which has been doctored in a “cacophonistic” manner for the sake of derision and disparagement – “aismat homerou” – viz. “the songs of Homer”. And we can only thank the Pharisees for purifying these bones and songs, reluctantly admitting the enduring influence of Greek language and culture.

Yair Furstenberg is a Mandel scholar at the Scholion Interdisciplinary Research Center in Jewish Studies at the Hebrew University. He lectures in the university’s department of Talmud and Halakha.

English, Guest Posts, Reviews

Revolution or an Evolution? A Review of Bar Ilan Responsa Project 20- Guest Post by Josh Yuter

At the end of tractate Horayot (14a), Rabbi Yohanan recounts a Tannaitic dispute between R. Shimon Ben Gamliel and his colleagues over which type of intelligence is superior: being knowledable in the sources or being “able to move mountains” through analytic reasoning.  Generations later, this question was answered in favor of the well-read scholar on the grounds that, “all depend on the master of the wheat.”  After all, even the greatest legal mind needs to process the correct material.

Perhaps the greatest contribution to the production of “wheat-farmer” Talmudists has been the Bar Ilan Responsa Project.  While the project  officially began in 1963, the first version in its most identifiable commercial form was released 20 years ago in 1992 as a CD that not only compiled major Jewish works, but also included a powerful search engine ideal for most classical Jewish text research.  Subsequent upgrades have primarily consisted of additional texts – to the point where the Responsa Project has spun off cheaper versions for those who do not need as much material – and either adding new features or improving earlier ones such as increased hyperlinking within texts that allow users to quickly look up most biblical or rabbinic citations from other sources.  As such, although the project itself was revolutionary, each upgrate is more often than not evolutionary.

The most recent 20th version has some new features which regular users may appreciate, though much of this depends on taste.  Since I spend most of my time with Talmud searches, I’m partial to the embedded references.  For example, double clicking on a Tanna or Amora will display a brief but useful biography of that sage.  There are also tooltips for expanding abbreviations and translating Aramaic to Hebrew, including names which at times conflicts with the aformentioned biographies [Note: screenshots of these and other features are displayed in the slide-show below].

In a feature introduced for this new version, Bar Ilan 20 includes the tzurat hadaf, which allows the user to view a page of Talmud as it appears in the de facto standardized Vilna edition of the Talmud.  You will notice that the editors did not select the clearest or sharpest typesetting, but I would suspect that this would be irrelevant to the average user who insists on the tzurat hadaf – after all the plain Hebrew text is just a few clicks away.  What is important is that the tzurat hadaf is not merely a static image like a PDF, but the text operates as if one were viewing the plain text.  Most notably, hyperlinks are maintained as are their dictionary tooltips.  Speaking of layouts, Bar Ilan 20 also includes a “Recommended Layout” option for all text windows which increases the margins and line spacing, which some users may find clearer.

In terms of functionality, one new feature which stands out is the new default “Natural Language Search.”  Admittedly, I am more used to searching by idioms and grammatical variants such that I have not learned how to take advantage of this feature as it was intended.  Furthermore, I noticed the inclusion of a “Mishna and Bavli Chapters” reference which alphabetically lists all the chapter names in the Talmud.  Since it is not unusual for commentaries to reference Talmud based on page number – especially for those who lived before the tzurat hadaf was formalized – having the index would be useful for tracking down the citation in the original.  However, since most of these commentaries cite at least a few words from the Talmud in the process, it is a simple exercise to simply run the regular Bar Ilan search for those words.  (Speaking of which, here is a pro tip for users: highlight the words for which you wish to search, press Control-R and the highlighted phrase will automatically be placed in the search box.)

Are these upgrades worth the cost? Based on the upgrade pricing scheme, it is always cheaper to postpone upgrading since the improvements are cumulative.  Personally I try to skip no more than two versions since some changes are “under the hood,” like the option (available since at least 17) to install and run searches off of the hard drive instead of the disc itself.  However, if there is a new feature or new sources which are of immediate use, then quicker upgrades could be worthwhile.

Since its initial release, the Bar Ilan CD has been one of the most powerful and versatile tools for Jewish research.  But like any tool, its real value of utility is determined by the needs and skills of the end-user, not to mention the ability to read and comprehend the material.  For what good is it to be a master of the wheat if we do not know how to harvest.

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Rabbi Josh Yuter is the rabbi of the historical Stanton Street Shul in New York’s Lower East Side. He blogs at YUTOPIA (www.JoshYuter.com), and tweets @JYuter.

Dissertations, English, Reviews

Karaite Mishnah (and other friends too)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

English, Reviews, Ruminations, Technology

Between Words and Ideas in the Reading of The Bavli

Amidst much fanfare, immigration lawyer and daf-yomi class teacher Daniel Retter published his index of the Babylonian Talmud, dubbed HaMafteach in both Hebrew and in English. As someone who often studies Talmud on the Sabbath and misses the various digital search engines while doing so, I fit the New York Times’ profile of someone who may want to purchase a copy. At 65 NIS, the price was right, but I would have to wait for the book’s second printing until I managed to get a copy from my local seforim store.

Despite the fact that the book overlooks its predecessors, the volume is indeed impressive, and the author is clearly a talmid chacham who put countless hours into it. When reading the introduction I was particularly struck by one aspect of the book that I don’t think has received that much attention so far. Retter writes that the index is not one of words, but of ideas. In order to explain the importance of sifting through Talmudic sugyot thusly, the indexer cites the example of “pidyon haben“- which in one important discussion in the Talmud is refered to as “yeshua haben” (BK 80a). Needless to say, a casual search via an electronic database for “pidyon haben” would fail to turn up this source, and the importance of organizing the index by ideas is felt.

In some- if not all- cases, this organizing principle can get rather subjective and even problematic. For example, the phrase “mitzvah haba’ah b’aveirah” comes up three times in the Vilna edition of the Bavli, at Ber. 47b, Suk. 30a and BK 94a (certain MSS also have it at Suk. 35a), yet the Mafteach cites five sugyot: the three sugyot in which the phrase occurs, and then two sugyot in which a similar concept is supposed to emerge – San. 6b and Meg. 32a.

In actuality, these cases are cited because they are parallels. The Sugya at San. 6b parallels the BK sugya- both discuss one who “steals a seah of wheat, grinds, bakes it, and separates from it hallah“. Part of Meg. 32a is indeed paralleled in the sugya at Ber. 47b, but not in a way that seems particularly relevant to mitzvah haba’ah b’aveira (based on the Soncino translation):

BT Ber. 47b

BT Meg. 32a

…But this is a religious act which is carried out by means of a transgression? — A religious act which affects a whole company is different. R. Joshua b. Levi also said: A man should always rise early to go to synagogue so that he may have the merit of being counted in the first ten; since if even a hundred come after him he receives the reward of all of them. ‘The reward of all of them’, think you? — Say rather: He is given a reward equal to that of all of them. R. Huna said: Nine and the Ark join together [to be counted as ten]… …R. Shefatiah further said in thename of R. Johanan: If ten have had a reading of the Torah, the senior among them rolls up the sefer torah. He who rolls it up receives the reward of all of them, since R. Joshua b. Levi said: If ten have had a reading of the Torah, the one who rolls it up receives the reward of all of them. The reward of all of them, think you? Say rather, he receives a reward equal to that of all of them. R. Shefatiah further said in the name of R. Johanan: Whence do we know that we may avail ourselves of a chance utterance [as an omen]?…

The bold lines show why these sugyot were brought together. Both deal with why “someone receives the reward of all of them”, but only the one in Berakhot includes a discussion of mitzvah haba’ah b’aveirah. My guess is that the sugya from Megillah was cited not because of its direct relevance to our topic, but rather, because of a somewhat cluttered reference area in the Mesorat haSha”s on our page from Berakhot:

The indexer seems to have relied, at least in this case, on the references found in the Mesorat haSha”s. Working with “ideas” can be tricky business…

My immediate reaction to Retter’s organizing principles was one of surprise. While reflecting on that reaction of mine, I came to consider the rules that govern my own decisions with regards to which sugyot of the Bavli I choose to bring into discussion with one another. Philology, the love of words, has a tough time utilizing ideas, often deemed too subjective, in study and in text-editing. From the other end of the toolbox, one could argue that at least since De Saussure language has often been the grounding for Theory, leading, therefore, to an emphasis on words.

Both the philological and theoretical modes of reading may have instilled a stronger focus on words, but more importantly, current search-engines are really what have been changing the way we approach the bavli. “Change”, because whereas Bar-Ilan, Ma’agarim, the Lieberman database (and still other computer programs) use words, generations of Talmud readers, have, like Retter, used other aspects of the Talmud to decide which sugyot are speaking to one another. To be sure, the virtues of the electronic revolution are numerous. Search engines have allowed corpora like the Tosefta, Midrash Halakha, and the Yerushalmi to enter into discussion with greater ease. But which sources have we lost along the way?