English, Recent Publications, Reviews

Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash- Review by Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick

Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash, Ed. R. Brody with C. Cohen and Y.Z. Stampfer (Jerusalem: Ofeq Institute, 5772).

Review by Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick

Towards the end of the sixth century, the torch of rabbinic leadership passed from the Amoraim to leaders referred to in Geonic literature as the Savoraim. Their successors, the Geonim of the Babylonian Yeshivot of Pumbedita and Sura, saw themselves as the logical heirs of Talmudic interpretation and Halakhic ruling. For a period of close to 600 years, the Geonim, through their teachings, responsa and halakhic writings (and those of their students) helped to cement the Bavli’s form. Talmud study that considers the perspective of Geonic (and Geonic-era) literature is invaluable for tracing the redaction of the text and the history and formulation of Halakha; and for understanding many subsequent medieval commentaries as well.

In practice however, using these texts for Talmud study is a daunting task. Geonic responsa have survived in numerous collections but many of them have not been properly indexed; Many Halachic codes and legal monographs shared the same fate. Despite the state of disarray of Geonic literature, from 1928 to 1942, Dr. Benjamin M. Lewin self-published – on his own printing press – 12 volumes of Otzar Ha-Geonim, which he sub-titled “Thesaurus of the Geonic Responsa and Commentaries following the order of the Talmudic Tractates”. Beginning with Berachot and ending – due to his untimely passing – with Bava Kamma, Lewin managed to achieve the impossible. His work did not end with his death: A partial volume to Bava Metsia was published posthumously and his personal hand-lists to tractates Bava Batra and Hullin were included in A. Kimmelman’s index to Geonic literature.

Lewin, working alone and under financial stress, gleaned Geonic material from responsa collections, Geonic halachic works as well as newly published Genizah fragments. He divided (in most volumes) his compilations into two sections; ‘Responsa’ and ‘Commentary’, published parallel sources alongside one another in synoptic fashion, included footnotes of his own and from other scholars of his generation (e.g. Professors J.N. Epstein, S. Assaf, S. Lieberman and S. Abramson) and added detailed indices.

Later attempts to replicate Lewin’s methods are few and far in between. Aside from Kimmelman’s aforementioned list in Shnaton Mishpat haIvri 11-12, we have H. T. Taubes’ compilation to Sanhedrin (1967) and Y. Cohen’s Ginzei Geonim on the first three chapters of Bava Batra (1995).

This is the current literary backdrop against which we eagerly greet Prof. R. Brody’s latest work, Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash. To say that this volume takes up where Lewin left off would be a discredit to the effort and scholarship invested in it. The reader should not expect to find a continuation of Lewin’s oeuvre nor even a revised edition of the older material. Rather, we have before us a fresh volume, meticulously planned from its inception.

Each section has been handpicked by the discerning eye of a master of Geonic literature. This task, daunting in itself, required the editor to decide which sources to include, which are merely repetitions and may be relegated to the notes, and which sources, although related to the sugya, are not truly native to Bava Metsia and should be merely cited but not quoted. Gone is Lewin’s partition between responsa and commentary and the reader is no longer required to alternate between different sections of the work.

All previously published material has been re-edited against the original manuscripts, alongside of which we encounter much ‘new’ responsa and commentary. Specifically, we are made privy to parts of a soon-to-be-published edition of Rav Hai Gaon’s Mishpatei Shavuot. This edition was originally under preparation by the late Prof. S. Abramson. According to the introduction and bibliography in Brody’s new book, it is slated for publication this year. Along with commentaries to Bava Metsia used as source material, Brody’s notes also reference a section in the introduction, written by Abramson, dealing with Rav Hai’s retractions in halachic decisions (p. 24 no 1). And beyond this exciting news, we are provided with newly discovered sources from texts penned by Rav Shmuel b. Hofni. These include Sefer Hamashkon, Sefer Hat’naim, Sefer Hakinyanim and chapter 74 from his “Introduction to the Mishnah and the Talmud”. The great Geonic innovator also makes an appearance – parts of Rav Se’adyah Gaon’s Sefer Hapikadon and his Sefer Hashtarot are represented in Brody’s volume. These works too are being readied for publication, and we look forward to welcoming their arrival in print.

Other novellea await the reader. In Brody’s minimalistic notes, we learn of Rav Sherira Gaon’s knowledge of Greek (p. 152 no. 2 – possible) as opposed to his son Rav Hai’s certain lack of knowledge in this field (p. 120 no. 7). Philological information abounds: Persian loan-words are discussed (see p. 32 no. 8) and the editors, experts in Judeo-Arabic, trace the Arabic etymologies of many words and phrases in Geonic literature (p. 31 n. 7; p. 34 no. 4; p. 215 no. 8; p. 216 no. 1; p. 217 no. 1).

Preserved in the notes as well are vignettes from Abramson’s unpublished discourses, a sort of academic “torah she-be’al peh”. Hinted at is his understanding of the phrase “tartei mativta” to mean the Yeshiva of Sura and the parallel yeshiva of the Resh Galuta (Exilarch), contrary to popular convention that this refers to the yeshivot of Sura and Pumbedita (see p. 80 no. 13). Further such gems include one of Abramson’s notes to the text of Mishpatei Shavuot (p. 316 no. 5) and a discussion of an attribution issue related to a particular work (p. 51 no. 8).

The following Geonic comments provide a sampling of some of the fair: Rav Hai seemed to have understood the sobriquet “Paponai” to mean “followers of Rav Papa”, contrary to the now conventional definition “those of the city of Paponia” (p. 176 no. 5). From a citation in a responsa attributed to Rav Zemah b. Paltoi Gaon (Pumbedita 872) it is apparent that this Gaon viewed the three “Bavot” as one tractate (p. 212 no. 9). This datum adds to our knowledge of the literary structure of Talmudic corpus as understood in the middle Geonic Era.

Those who have studied Bava Metsia are aware that many of the tractate’s passages are attributed by the Rishonim to Geonim or Savoraim. The current volume makes note of this (pp. 25, 72, and 102) and the editor is of the opinion that these attributions are not to be viewed as authentic – providing another viewpoint to the debate as to how the Savoraim and Geonim added to the Talmudic text (if at all). In contrast, see p. 26 no. 2 for a Geonic reading of the sugya, which relegates a part of the text to the “stam”.

The editor informs us in his English preface that three more volumes are planned, thereby completing “Otzar Ha-Geonim” on all of Bavli, after which he hopes to “prepare a corrected and updated version of his [Lewin’s] work”. The volume on Bava Batra is cited extensively (18 times), as well as a volume containing Shavuot (pp. 10, 63, 284). Citations to Otzar Ha-Geonim on Sanhedrin are to Taubes’ edition; and no hint is given of whether the remaining three volumes will include Sanhedrin as well. Interestingly, the editor also cites material from the forthcoming volumes to the following mesechtot: Hullin (p. 70), Bechorot (p. 138) and Erachin (p. 131).

Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash on Bava Metsia innagurates a new page in Geonic studies. Bava Metsia is a widely studied tractate, from both a textual as well as an halachic perspective. This volume displays a superb blend of academic and traditional Talmud study. Those with an interest in Geonic Talmud commentary would do well to avail themselves of this literary treasure. We wish to offer our thanks to Prof. Brody for undertaking this vast endeavor, and we eagerly await its succeeding volumes on all of the Talmud Bavli.

Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick is currently writing a PhD dissertation on Rabenu Hananel at Bar-Ilan University. His publications include “Rabenu Hananel on Tractate Bava Kamma” (Jerusalem, 2011).

English, Guest Posts, Reviews

Simcha Emanuel’s “Responsa of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg and his Colleagues”- Review by Pinchas Roth

Simcha Emanuel, Responsa of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg and his Colleagues: Critical Edition, Introduction and Notes (Jerusalem: World Union of Jewish Studies, 2012)

Review by Pinchas Roth

The thirteenth century has a reputation for being a little boring. Coming after the roaring twelfth century –  the era of Maimonides, Rabenu Tam and Ra’abad of Posquières – it may not have been a period of intensely creative Talmudic interpretation. But the second half of the 13th century was certainly a heyday for responsa (she’elot u-teshuvot). Two major rabbinic figures emerged during this period, and between the two of them, they wrote perhaps 4,000 teshuvot. Rabbi Solomon ibn Adret (Rashba) of Barcelona was the preeminent decisor for the Jewish communities of Iberia and Southern France, and he fielded questions from as far afield as Austria and even the Crusader stronghold of Acre. Rabbi Meir ben Baruch, better known as Maharam of Rothenburg, was also a prolific respondent who became the ultimate rabbinic authority throughout Germany. He continued to respond to Halakhic questions even after his imprisonment in Ensisheim (Alsace) in 1286.

Simcha Emanuel’s MA thesis from 1987 was devoted to a bibliographic analysis of the four printed collections of Rabbi Meir’s responsa (Cremona 1558; Prague 1608; Lemberg 1860; Berlin 1891, and also Teshuvot Maimoniyot). Of his many publications since then, it is worth mentioning two particularly significant ones. In the index of responsa from France, Germany and Italy, published by the Institute for Jewish Law at the Hebrew University in 1997, Emanuel included a series of lists providing parallels to every published responsum of Maharam. That is, for each of the responsa published in the four aforementioned collections, the list provides parallels throughout the printed literature of medieval Halakhah. In 2000, Emanuel published an article titled ‘Teshuvot of Maharam that are not by Maharam’ – passages in the Prague edition of Teshuvot Maharam that have no real connection to Maharam and were arbitrarily included by the editor.

This is the backdrop against which to appreciate Simcha Emanuel’s new book. First, by the numbers: two volumes, 1251 pages. 501 responsa, published from thirteen manuscripts. As the title implies, not all of the responsa can be attributed to Maharam, and they include new responsa by a number of authors both well-known and otherwise (many responsa are unidentified). In light of Emanuel’s study from 2000, this should come as no surprise, since all the medieval collections of Maharam’s responsa include work by others. For example, number 134 was apparently written by the unfortunate R Yaakov Savra, the first known rabbi in Krakow.

The book consists of three sections. First, each of the thirteen manuscripts is described in loving detail. Every attempt is made to explicate the date and location in which the manuscript was produced, and a great deal of information about the travails that each manuscript experienced is provided. For one poignant example – Emanuel identifies Solomon Hirschell as one of the previous owners of Sefer Sinai, a manuscript now in the Berlin Jewish Museum. He also points to the glosses from this same manuscript copied by Hirschell’s father, Rabbi Zvi Hirsch Berlin, into his copy of the Cremona edition.

The second part of the book is the main section, containing the responsa themselves. Emanuel added only minimal footnotes, most of which provide textual information without delving into the Halakhic or historical significance of the new texts. By doing so, he has left ample room for historians and other scholars to pick the fruits of his labour. Historians are already plowing through the edition, finding richly suggestive material.

The third section of the book may seem, to the reader, somewhat redundant. It contains a survey of the complete contents of each of the manuscripts utilized for the edition. The edition includes only new responsa that have not been previously published, but the final section provides details about every responsum in these manuscripts – where else it is found, in print and in manuscripts, and additional information it contains (usually, the poetic beginning or ending of the responsum that was often cropped in printed editions). The significance of this section is in the data it provides for scholars searching for all the textual witnesses of any given responsum. Generations of editors have neglected this kind of labour-intensive cataloguing, preferring to focus their efforts on the new and unfamiliar.

The absence of lists like this is sorely felt by anyone doing textual work on medieval responsa, especially collections that are found in multiple manuscripts like those of Rashba. Rashba’s responsa were recently republished in two separate editions, with dozens of newly published texts. But much of the manuscript work that went into these editions was wasted, since the new editions contain no information about which manuscripts contain the hundreds of responsa that have already been published. For someone interested in textual variants, or in the additional information found in manuscripts such as the addressees of the responsa, these new editions are frustrating and tantalizing rather than helpful. Hopefully, Simcha Emanuel’s work will set a new standard, and editors will begin to provide full documentation about the sources they used. Not only identifying the manuscripts accurately (a point on which editors are beginning to improve), but also providing full information about those manuscripts, and about all the details they contain, even when those details seem trivial.

The scholarly community should be grateful to Simcha Emanuel for providing a flood of new primary sources for the study of medieval Ashkenazic Halakhah, and for placing a high bar for future editors to aspire to.

Pinchas Roth is a graduate student in the Talmud Department at Hebrew University, Jerusalem.

English, Reviews

Reviews Galore

While the Talmud Blog assumes that readers will regularly check its constantly-updated twitter feed (accessible on the top-right of this page and through twitter), there are times when things tweeted might also be blogged, for emphasis. Since 1970, the Journal for the Study of Judaism has been one of the most important journals in the field. Its interests lean heavily “ancient” and not necessarily rabbinic (hence the subtitle “in the Persian, Hellenistic, and Roman Periods”), but there usually are a few directly relevant reviews. The reviews section is indispensable and the current issue is no exception.  Aside from a”rabbinically” focused article by Arnon Atzmon that studies the petihta using a kind of hybridic methodology (with a test case from Leviticus Rabba, Aharei Mot and its Tanhuma parallels), and a solid restatement of Aryeh Edrei and Doron Mendel’s view of a Western and Eastern (Babylonia and Palestine) Diasporic split, we have a very extensive short-review section. Highlights include another review of Thomas Kazan’s Issues of Impurity in Early Judaism, and one of Maren Neihoff’s Jewish Exegesis and Homeric Scholarship in Alexandria; Jonathan Klawans has a review of Vered Noam’s book on purity, Dvora E. Weisberg looks at Tamara Or’s Feminist Commentary on Bavli Betsah, one of the first of the ongoing to series to be published, and Steven Fraade has a brief but very helpful review of Aharon Shemesh’s Halakhah in the Making. While the genre of the short-review does not allow reviewers to fully articulate a critical take on the work in question, it sure is a great way to stay abreast in an ever expanding field.

N.B. The ‘books received’ section also has a few gems. I, for one, would love to get my hands on The Scepter Shall Not Depart from Judah: Leadership, Rabbinate and Community in Jewish History: Studies Presented to Professor Simon Schwarzfuchs (Jerusalem: The Bialik Institute, 2011), and anxiously await Stemberger’s updated Einleitung in Talmud und Midrasch (München: Verlag C. H. Beck, 2011; Ninth Revised Edition).

Book Club, English, Recent Publications, Reviews

The Book Club: Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires


Book clubs are not only for Oprah Winfrey fans. While there are numerous forums that assess recent Rabbinics scholarship, including books received, abstract digests, short reviews and review essays, conference papers and sessions, and long and looping footnotes in academic books and articles, there are surprisingly few places where scholars can get together and engage in extensive discussion about recent books of potentially great significance for the field.  The Talmud Blog’s Book Club endeavors to create just such a space. Ultimately, we’re shooting for a new kind of scholarly discourse that is able to take on numerous aspects of a work and do so in a relaxed (though serious), free-wielding conversation between friends.

The first book we’ll discuss is Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires: Yetzer Hara and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity.  Our Book Club etiquette is that we will first hear opening reflections from three readers: Amit Gevaryahu, Eva Kiesele, and Raphael Magarik.  Below you will find their (incredibly astute) thoughts and critiques about the book. They are all worth reading in full, and carefully.  Before reading them you may also want to look at Raffi’s and Amit‘s previous reviews of the book. I will serve as the MC.

For the first day or so comments will be closed to all except Amit, Eva and Raffi. This will give them time to respond to each other, if they so (demonically) desire, and I hope to weigh in as well. After that point, comments will be open to all, though we will be moderating more than normal in order to keep the discussion moving along nicely. We ask that you comment only if you have read the book, and that you direct discussion to the proper target by clicking on “reply” under the comment you want to respond to, or “leave a reply” at the end of the thread for more general reflections on the book.  To stay up-to-date with the discussion, I suggest you subscribe below, where it says “Notify me of follow-up comments via email”.  After a week of discussion, if the author wishes he will have an opportunity to respond.

Let the games begin!

Amit Gvaryahu:

Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires is in fact an inquiry into an unspoken assumption of the liberal arts: that people are, by and large, the same throughout history, and that their fundamental concerns can be discerned by inference from our own.

Rosen-Zvi begins with the philological. This should be an obvious point of departure for anyone who writes on ancient texts; sadly it is not. He surveys the existing literature and categorizes it according to time, place and milieu.

Drawing on the tremendous advances made in the study of rabbinic texts in the last fourty years – the classification of manuscripts, the critical editions, the new grammars and linguistic tools, the consciousness that various strata of a rabbinic text will not necessarily speak the same language – he is able to create a corpus of texts that is comprehensive and complete. This in itself is no mean task. The book could not have been produced without computerized tools such as Maagarim, or at least their predecessors, the Kosovski Concordances.

Rosen-Zvi, as advertised, however, goes further into investigating the origins of the yetzer hara. Not content with just a Tannaitic description of the yetzer, he discusses sugiyot in Palestinian literature (aha! They do exist!) and the Bavli, that typify and reify the yetzer even more. He manages to sketch not only a psychology of the yetzer, but a biography: the road that led the yetzer from its lowly origins to its great mastery of all that is sinful.

All that, however, is merely groundwork for what in my opinion is a groundbreaking and exciting aspect of this work: the isolation of a dialect of late antique koine. By this I mean thus: students of late antiquity are used to seeing boundaries and borders in their world as permeable and flexible. We know from amulets and synagogue floors that Jews and Gentiles both venerated Helios and the God of Israel. We know that the late antique Middle East shared myths and stories from all segments of society. Moses was a known quantity in Greek literature and he and the Jews were credited (or discredited) with various customs and laws that Greeks ridiculed and/or adopted.

Christianity of course made this koine even more monolingual: Jewish scripture in the vernacular was now a common cultural stratum that almost everyone could share (except the Zoroastrians). Literacy meant literacy of scripture and with it the sharing of even more ideas about cosmology and cosmogony, sin and salvation. Concepts and categories, for Jews and gentiles, began to overlap.

Rosen-Zvi’s work on patristic and rabbinic demonology is one locus of this overlap. Religious practitioners of both communities, rabbis and hermits, lived in common fear of evil beings that would entice them to sin, that could be warded off with constant mumbling of holy words. Salvation could be hindered by these beings, and promoted by proper spiritual exercises used against them. This is the koine.

The “Jewish Dialect” of this koine is the Amoraic yetzer. In a situation analogous to the existence of two mutually intelligible but distinct Aramaic dialects side by side in two faith communities, the rabbis reified and typified the Ishmaelian yetzer that they received from their past, into a demon with powers and weaknesses comparable to other demons in the neighborhood. But this rabbinic demon does not live outside the body, like the Christian (and Zoroastrian) demons; it lives inside it. It is the “leaven in the dough”, “a fly that lives between the two openings of the heart”.

And so, within the same semantic field of sin and salvation, with the same tools of adjuration and verbal resistance, and in the same discourse of demonology, the rabbis shaped their own distinct dialect of the late antique koine that is the evil yetzer.

This is the meaning in context of the evil yetzer. And so – to the contemporary context of the book – Rosen-Zvi contends that our own problems in life, for which we turn to Freud or William James, Durkheim or Jung, are not the problems of the ancients. The past is also a different country in the sense that the deepest concerns of its inhabitants are markedly different from ours. The yetzer is not just undeveloped language and a metaphorical image for what our psychoanalysts really know, but rather a window into a multireligious and multiethnic community – of people who were not concerned with a conflicted soul but with salvation from demons; not with mental health and hygiene but with mental and spiritual training. In that sense, Rosen-Zvi speaks Hadot in a Jewish dialect, pointing out that the people whom we (philosophers and Talmudists) identify as our spiritual forbearers are in fact colossally different from ourselves.

Eva Kiesele:

‘Demonic Desires’ is more than just the sum of Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s articles on the yetzer published over the course of a decade. It is supplemented by vast material for cross-cultural comparison, mainly Greek and Syriac patristic literature, and may well become an invaluable source for anyone interested in rabbinic anthropology. In many ways it is a reply to Daniel Boyarin’s ‘Carnal Israel’ and what has been written in its aftermath. It even delivers the famous fourth volume of Foucault’s ‘History of Sexuality’. But more importantly, it comes as a long due correction to the widespread trend of overreading: Yetzer discourse has for too long been charged with sexual apologetics, and has suffered from highly selective readings and from a tendency to quote from Boyarin’s oeuvre instead of quoting the primary sources. A certain polemical breeze throughout the book might be owed to this fact. ‘Demonic Desires’ undertakes to provide us with comprehensive analysis of all classical rabbinic sources instead, and with a proper blend of cross-cultural comparison, redaction and source criticism, and close readings. However, sometimes I found that in the process, overreading was replaced by underreading. This seems to be the case exactly in the two crucial aspects that are at the basis of most apologetics: dialectics and sexuality. Ishay routinely tones down sexual overtones – e.g., when GenR 22:6 describes a man who beautifies himself and prances around on the streets, he argues to read this as “pride” or “arrogance” (p. 69 and 104). But is not such “pride” simply courtship behavior, especially when (in a parallel) the “bear”- aka Mrs. Potiphar- lurks around the corner? He also spares certain passages from the reader that might have evoked a different impression. This is not meant to refute, though. His basic tenet that sexual transgression is just one out of many sins the yetzer leads to, is certainly convincing. The common construction of Judaism as a sex-affirmative religion via the yetzer cannot be upheld after this book.

More problematic seems to me his reading of sources that present two yetzarim, or those that might shed ambivalent light on the one yetzer. In dealing with the famous homily in GenR 9:7 (והנה טוב מאוד…) he writes, “If anything, it teaches that the evil yetzer is considered as the worst thing on earth” (p. 73). This holds true for the rhetorical question, but certainly not for the following sentence in the homily. Although through redaction criticism Ishay is able to turn down the claim that yetzer meant sexual desire, he is less sensitive to the redactional contexts with regard to possible ambivalence. See, for instance, the following passage (yYom 6:4 43d), which he does not reckon among the dialectic:

“על כל סוכה וסוכה אומר לו: הרי מזון והרי מים – לייפות את כוחו.” [mYom 6:4] למה? שאין יצר הרע תעב אלא דבר שהוא אסור לו. כהדא רבי מנא סלק למבקרה לרבי חגיי, דהוה תשיש. אמר ליה: צהינא. אמר ליה: שתה! שבקיה ונחת ליה. בתר שעה סלק לגביה. אמר ליה: מה עבדת ההיא צהיותך? אמר ליה: כד שרית לי, אזלת לה.רבי חייה בר בא הוה משתעי הדין עובדא: חד בר נש הוה מהלך בשוקא וברתיה עימיה. אמרה ליה ברתיה: אבא, צהייא אנא! אמר לה: אורכין ציבחד. א”ל: אבא, צהייא אנא! א”ל: אורכין ציבחד.ומיתת. ר’ אחא כד מפני מוספא הוה אמר: קומיהון אחינן, מאן דאית ליה מיינוק, ייזיל בגיניה!

The yetzer is no doubt introduced as sin as such; but the anecdote of the sick rabbi gives an almost ridiculous touch to the principle (why would a sick person not be allowed to drink?), and the death of the daughter clearly marks horribly exaggerated practice. While this passage is probably intended to reject asceticism, it does invest the yetzer implicitly with a quality of a drive necessary for survival – and compare this to GenR 9:7, or similarly, the passage in bYom 69b where the יצרא דעבירה gets blinded. A concept of a life-sustaining impulse existed in Stoic thought and was most probably known to the rabbis – s. the Stoically tinged dialogues of Antoninus and Rabbi. The only explanation Ishay offers regarding dialectic sources is that they are probably remnants of some midrash on מעשה בראשית. The text quoted here, however, is not at all related to creation. He pushes his point very hard when he categorically rejects the possibility of a parallel, more ambivalent notion of the yetzer.

Ishay’s review of Greek and Syriac sources is a landmark in understanding the nature and development of the yetzer. The parallels he presents are compelling, both regarding the yetzer’s demonic nature and the process of its internalization. But I do miss a third party to cross-cultural comparison: the Persian sources. The notorious difficulties in their dating aside, they share so many points of contact that it is a loss to exclude them from the picture. Qumranic demonology in general  – the assumed origin of demonic yetzer discourse – is believed by Shaked and others to be influenced by Zoroastrianism. But more specifically: At least in the more sophisticated strata of Zoroastrian literature, demons are characterized by a negative ontology – they are non-existent and “are” non-existence. The way these demons work is not causing illness or mishaps, they are there to deny and destroy religious law and the good creation, or in Ishay’s own terms for the yetzer: sin qua sin. They enter from the outside and occupy people’s minds. And just like in patristic and rabbinic literature, if you neglect religious study you become easier prey to the demons. The development of psychological traits into reified entities is typical of Zoroastrian thought; and these demons are highly “moral”. In chapter 27 of the Bundahišn (the Iranian account of creation), e.g., they are held responsible for such vices as a-rāh (“leaving the proper path”), slander, illicit intercourse, and most prominently: wrath (xešm or aēšma – the model for talmudic Ashmeday), ultimately leading down the slippery slope to heresy. Rings a bell? Yup. These demons also cause you to entertain religious study without a teacher. This said, I am doubtful whether “moral demonology” is in fact a Judeo-Christian contribution, nor is the yeshivish/monastic perspective necessarily so. I would like to make a strong claim that we have to enlarge the demonic koine.

While I do not consider the omission of Persian sources a shortcoming per se (and to be fair, Ishay admits that he leaves these texts for “specialists in the Middle Persian language and Zoroastrian culture” [p. 12]), I do think that ‘Demonic Desires’ is facing a methodological problem here. Yishay’s approach is total analysis in order to reach bold conclusions regarding the notion’s origin and development. But these conclusions may become less reliable if you do not actually consider all relevant data. For example, he describes multiple moves of in- and externalization of the yetzer and finds that the Babylonian yetzer, with its national dimension, quite surprisingly, seems closer to the Qumranic yetzer than to the tannaitic one. Ishay speculates that an “old Jewish tradition [had been] consciously ignored by early rabbis” (p. 80). Would it not be more plausible to assume that an originally Persian concept, which had reached Qumran and from there the rabbis, was revived upon returning home?

In my eyes, the most fascinating parts of the book are the analyses of the yetzer’s functions on a meta-level. There is the yetzer as rhetorical device: certain answers to halakhic lacunae are, although theoretically acceptable, marked off as no-go territory by labeling them as the yetzer’s suggestion. Don’t even think about it – this is yetzer hara! Here we are right in the kitchen of rabbinic cultural policy: the yetzer is used to draw the boundaries of rabbinic identity where it cannot be negotiated by means of argument. Ishay points out that social “others” (heretics, philosophers, matrons, etc.) fulfill a similar function of marking “forbidden” arguments, but that the yetzer is unique in that it is never engaged through dialogue. I am tempted to understand this as: The arguments presented by the yetzer do not actually belong to any “other” that one could argue with, being factually kosher, but the rabbis do not want them to be “us”, either. Awkwardly, they are “us” that is not really “us”. If so, the same mechanism works on both the collective and the individual level: the yetzer is a part of “me” that is not really “me” (cf. p. 129). This construction is a bit unwieldy, but summarizes in the best possible way the underlying dilemma: it is exactly the yetzer that allows the rabbis to legally access not only human actions but their thoughts (s. the chapter on sexuality for this ethical “inward turn”); but it cannot be allowed to “become” a thought – and thus an integral part of “me” – because such would topple the basic positive anthropology. Is this the solution to the problem of human transgression of a society that already has a notion of personal agency and responsibility but not yet a notion of an autonomous subject (into the mind of which transgressive thoughts could be integrated)? Ishay touches here on so far almost untrodden grounds, and he rightly is careful not to use too many philosophical anachronisms. In spite of such restrictions, ‘Demonic Desires’ lays excellent ground for future inquiry into the rabbinic concept of the “self”. And in doing so, it delivers yet another desideratum: beginning to integrate rabbinic literature into Peter Brown’s account of late antiquity.

Raphael Magarik

First off, I’d like to thank Shai and Yitz for asking me to contribute: unlike other participants, I’m only an amateur student of rabbinics, and it’s a great pleasure to be involved in this type of conversation around a great book.

Second, since I’d like to pick up where my review left off. In the review, I identified what I see as the book’s central move, namely shifting the context for yetzer from Hellenistic psychology (in the sense of philosophical study of the psyche) to Patristic demonology. I should say, for the little it’s worth, that the shift seems to me totally convincing.

I then raised two related questions, one internal to the book’s argument and one external. As I’m just an amateur, these will be fuzzy and philosophical — not technical or historically specific — responses.

(1) Is there a functional difference between these two discourses — do demons actually work differently than psyches, or are they just a different metaphorical register? This is a question Rosen-Zvi engages with in a number of ways, most directly when he points out that “there is no true dichotomy between character and being”—that is, between a psyche and a demon—”only a spectrum of levels of reification.”

I’d like to push the point a little: I’m not sure that some of the purported distinguishing features of demons cannot also be attributed to psychological complexes or parts of the soul. Two of those features (I think) are: that the yetzer can be defeated, that it encourages not bodily tempting sins but rather those that are specifically evil (or perhaps those which are marked as “outside” communally). But Freud thought he could cure neuroses, and I believe certain American Christians understand “Free Grace” as indicating that salvation effects a basic personality change in a person. And on the second point, not only psychological entities are bodily (Freud’s id is, but his death-drive, I think, is not), and as the death-drive illustrates, not all psychological desires are continuous with plausibly pleasurable motivations.

Now, to be clear, I’m not questioning Rosen-Zvi’s individual points about rabbinic yetzer — those seem to me astute, novel, and exciting: I’m just curious as to what’s at stake saying something like (my words), “We believe in psychology; the rabbis believed in demons” — can such a statement make a functional difference? Does Freud believe in psyches, or demons? What difference does it make? This question, of course, is a bit of a Pragmatist intervention and blends somewhat into the next one, as I’m not really worried about “whether the yetzer was a demon”: I’m not sure whether the implicit question about rabbinic ontology (what was the yetzer?) is very important at all.

(2) What’s the book’s larger intellectual project — how does Rosen-Zvi’s dispassionate historicization jive with his mentor Boyarin’s “recovery” of a usable rabbinic history? to put that question in less parochial terms, why excavate the demonological context to the yetzer now?

On this point, I’ve said a little in the review, and the question’s not so much even the mild, uncertain critique of (1) — it’s really just curiosity. Antiquarianism (in the strict Nietzschean sense) is not the most common form of socio-cultural history around today. In  footnote 14 on page 136, Rosen-Zvi says something to the effect that even Foucault needs to be problematized — well, from what angle? Do we need to return to traditional questions about the nature of evil? Recognize that the rabbis were more primitive (and their concerns more remote from our own) than we’d like to believe?

Boyarin says somewhere that the goal of writing an academic book is to get people to buy onto your historical story even if they don’t share your philosophical or political agenda — i.e., to argue for a history persuasively. I think that’s right, and I’m curious is a) Rosen-Zvi does — perhaps he takes a more positivist line about discovering the past? and b) if so, what are those commitments? I think that though Boyarin’s right to say that the point of writing history is to persuade the unsympathetic reader (and thus appeals to the commitments are invalid in the argument itself), readers still ought to know (or at least are going to be curious!) what those commitments are.

English, Reviews

In a Name: Some Late Night Ruminations on T. Ilan’s Lexicon of Jewish Names 4

People with newborn babies often find themselves awake at absurd hours of the night, a kind of teasing reminder of youthful eves long gone, when staying up late meant going out and having fun. Your parents may very well have worried about you on those nocturnal adventures. Now as a parent, it is you up worrying, and you’re home in the rocking chair. Will she have everything we want for her? Will fate treat her kind? What will we name her? Will she ever burp?

Up with my newborn a few nights ago, I puzzled especially over the penultimate question. One tool at my disposal was Tal Ilan’s latest volume of her Lexicon of Jewish Names in Antiquity – The Eastern Diaspora.  Truthfully, there was no chance on this blessed Earth that my wife would approve of “Mahlafta” – a very popular female name that shows up repeatedly in the Aramaic Incantation bowls, or the Iranian name “Dadī” for that matter (which I suppose was in a way already taken by me). But hunting for baby names was still a good excuse to peruse this invaluable tool for scholars of Jewish late antiquity – Talmudists included.

There is something about being up late that brings out the critic in you. Perhaps this is a fading memory of late night theoretical debates in smoky literary cafes…or perhaps not. That said, my thoughts on the book, even if critical, in no way mitigate the overall value of a work (and series) that is virtually peerless in aim and scope. And my comments are haphazard and not very comprehensive; we might say they are the product of late night ruminations.

The volume, although numbered four in the series, is actually the third to appear thus far. As such, the organizing principles that guide the work were already laid out in the earlier volumes, and now the names just roll. There are however new methodological issues to iron-out, and to her credit, Ilan is honest with her readers about these difficulties and other such challenges. The main issues have to do with the two largest corpora: the Babylonian Talmud and the Aramaic incantation bowls. Both include numerous male names, and in the case of the bowls, many female names (a true boon in a field of inquiry that suffers from a dearth of female names – a legacy of the unequal gender politics of text composition and transmission in the ancient world). As Ilan points out, there is usually no way to know whether a client in the bowls was Jewish or Zoroastrian (or Mandaean, Christian, Manichaean, or what have you), and for this reason she needs to tabulate the statistics twice – with and without these doubtful identifications.  Again, she responsibly informs the readers of the problem, and addresses it in her calculations. Yet the sum total of the book will still give the casual reader the impression that, for example Zoroastrian theophoric names were extremely common for Jewish women in late antique Babylonia (which I should add certainly is possible – witness Yaakov Elman’s suggestion that Rav Nahman’s daughter, דונג, an otherwise unattested name should actually read דינג or Dēnag – a popular Zoroastrian name related to the important religious concept of the Daēna \ Dēn). Perhaps due diligence is enough, but I’m left wondering why not leave these doubtful names out and have the interested reader consult the growing incantation bowl prosopography herself if there is a need to know about names that Jewesses merely may have had in late antiquity. Perhaps Ilan simply could not resist leaving such a valuable treasure-chest of names out of her collection.

Still on the subject of the bowls, the book does attempt to identify some clients of the bowls as probably Jewish based on certain factors.  One is the content of incantations, for example the inclusion of the Shema might indicate a Jewish owner.  But that claim (as the book even somewhat acknowledges) is quite problematic, given what we know about the intercultural travels of magical traditions. The presence of R. Joshua b. Perahya and his Jewish divorce document in Mandaic incantations is a case in point. If scribes of different persuasions might incorporate “foreign” magical formula, why not the clients, who were almost always illiterate. In my opinion a more problematic decision in the book is the tentative identification of all currently etymologically unidentifiable nominal elements in the bowls as Iranian. And similarly, rabbinic names without a clear identification are considered Iranian.  This apparently stems from the need to categorize the names linguistically, following the series’ scheme, but even after the book admits to this rather problematic approach, for me the admission is not enough.  It seems misleading to categorize, even tentatively, names that appear in the corpus of magic bowls or the Bavli as Iranian based merely on context – even if all other avenues of determining their provenience have been exhausted.  If I were to try to correlate all this with Ilan’s broader scholarly approach, I think it has something to do with her  tendency towards comprehensiveness. Her many books and articles aim to include as much data as possible on a subject, instead of focusing on a small set of data and beating that data to death. The volume (and series) certainly is comprehensive, but I wonder if that comprehensiveness sometimes is taken too far.

Still up late in the rocking chair, I also wondered about the book’s immediate contribution to Talmudists. On the one hand we have a helpful attempt to historically locate each rabbinic name with a specific rabbinic personage – even (and especially) when more than one sage bore a certain name. Most of these identifications are based on accepting Sherira Gaon’s (and Seder Tannaim ve-Amoraim’s) chronology, and also based on some of the classic research by Hyman and Albeck. Yet again, the problems of these presumptions are acknowledged in the introduction, and once again, Ilan still proceeds largely unfazed following the obligatory caveat.  I fear that in a quest towards comprehensiveness and” getting it all done”, the exceedingly complicated nature of this particular task is not given its proper due. More than that, signal research in the field, like A. Cohen’s Ravina and his Contemporary Sages which reflects the messiness of the data, is simply omitted. How many ‘Ravinas’ were there, after all?

There also is the issue of literary names, and to what extent these “names” really were names in use at all. A case in point is “Haruta” – the name employed by R. Hiyya’s wife to seduce her husband(!) at b. Qiddushin 81b. As Ilan makes clear, the name might not really be Ms. Hiyya’s real name but perhaps simply a “nickname”.  She dutifully cites Shlomo Naeh’s wonderful article “Freedom and Celibacy: A Talmudic Variation on Tales of Temptation and Fall in Genesis and its Syrian Background” in J. Frishman and L. van Rompay (eds) The Book of Genesis in Jewish and Oriental Christian Interpretation (Louvain 1997), pp. 73-89. But the findings of that article actually indicate that Haruta is not merely a nickname, but an attempt by a storyteller to play with the hot topic of celibacy and consider where “liberation” (Haruta) fits into that discourse – is it liberation from legal and ethical strictures (as we normally understand it today) or liberation from bodily passions (as an ascetic might see it)? This problem repeats itself whenever we have a literary context that gives reason to suspect that the name is not an historical name at all, rather a literary device of some sort. Indeed, the Talmud itself is far more literary than it is historical.  Similarly, the problem exists in extra-rabbinic sources when we encounter a name like Shōshen-Dūxt. As Ilan notes, this was the name of the Exilarch’s daughter who became the Jewish wife of king Yazdgerd I. Or so we are informed by the ninth century Pahlavi work, The Catalogue of the Provincial Capitals of Ērānšahr.  As Geoffrey Herman has pointed out, however, that this source probably merely reproduces a floating tradition then current in the Jewish community, and not anything approaching historical fact. What that means is that the name Shōshen-Dūxt may very well have been a Jewish name, but it was not born by a Jewish Sasanian queen.

One of the great pitfalls of book reviews is that the reviewer nearly always wants something other than what the author is willing to provide. The curse of human differences and expectations, or is it a blessing? In my rocking chair at 2:00am (and the following day, blearily, at my desk) I wanted a book that listed all the names actually in use by Jews in the late antiquity Eastern Diaspora, and one that analyzed their etymology closely. Something along the lines of Philip Gignoux’s magisterial Noms propres sassanides en Moyen-Perse epigraphique (Vienna 1986-) – which in my opinion should have been consulted by Ilan far more than Justi’s Iranische Namenbuch (Marburg 1895).  Alas, I did not get my wish. But the book remains the only of its kind, reflects years of painstaking (and good) research, and will be an indispensable tool for Talmudists and other scholars of Jewish late antiquity.

English, Recent Publications, Reviews

Footnote’s Footnotes

The latest Jewish Review of Books just arrived in my mailbox today. I have a review, co-written with Elli Fischer, of Joseph Cedar’s talmudic superdrama, Footnote.  We deal with a number of things in the review, including the movie’s “texture” and its use of cinematic footnotes. We also consider some of the gender implications of the movie, especially vis a vis Israeli masculinity (though there was not enough space to deal with the near total absence of women from the film, and the implications of that). Speaking of “gender” as much as possible we tried to get beyond the academic gossip that engendered the film and which the film itself engenders.  It is pretty much all anyone in Jerusalem discusses these days, aside from heavy philology. But fear not, the gossip is still there, if you look for it.

There are other interesting articles in the issue, including a timely one by Moshe Halbertal about law and forgiveness (and narrative) in the Talmud. The two names that lurk at every turn in his reading are “Robert” and “Cover”.  But for some reason, they go unmentioned.

English, Recent Publications, Reviews

Quotations of ARNB from an Oxford MS

The most recent Jewish Studies Quarterly contains an article by Christoph Berner, “Quotations from Avot de Rabbi Nathan B in MS Oxford (Bodleiana) Heb. c. 24,” JSQ 18 (2011): 217-265.  This takes us back to the good old days of publishing whole portions of rabbinic manuscripts in academic journals. This of course is still quite common in Israel, but less so in the US and Europe.
By the way, the word “quotations” in the article’s title should not be taken as an indication of size.  As Berner writes:

This manuscript is the autograph of the Magen Avot, a commentary on Avot de Rabbi Nathan A composed by Yom Tov ben Moshe Sahalon. As already noted by Schechter in his edition of Avot de Rabbi Nathan, MS Heb. c. 24 does not only contain the entire text of version A, but also vast passages of version B, which are quoted in the commentary. Although the significance of these passages for the study of version B can hardly be overestimated, it was beyond the scope of the editorial project situated in Gottingen to systematically search the voluminous manuscript (341 folios) for B traditions. In consequence, the synoptic edition of Avot de-Rabbi Nathan published in 2006 includes MS Heb. c. 24 as a textual witness of version A only,10 a fact that calls for a separate publication of the B material…

In other publication news, Seth Schwartz’ relatively new book was just reviewed by Eric Stewart at the Journal of the American Academy of Religion. For the most part, Stewart seems to like it.

English, Recent Publications, Reviews

Gafni Continues the Debate

A further chapter in the Gafni-Goodblatt debate, and for that matter in the ongoing “Stam Wars,” has recently been published in the journal Jewish History.   In a detailed and important review of Jeffrey Rubenstein’s trilogy- Talmudic Stories, The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, and Stories of the Babylonian Talmud, Isaiah Gafni comes out fighting.  Gafni acknowledges that scholars like Rubenstein and his predecessors have changed the rules of writing the history of the “Talmudic era” irrevocably, but that does not mean he will accept Rubenstein’s approach whole-cloth, or go along entirely with the latter’s proposed ceasefire for the Gafni-Goodblatt debate.

Anyone who cares about the direction of research into the Talmud’s anonymous layer should read the review itself, so I will not summarize it here.  I will say that Gafni’s main argument is that while he is willing to cede that reworked, originally Palestinian rabbinic stories in the Bavli often reflect Babylonian concerns, he is not prepared to admit that these concerns are always late, or “stammaitic.” In this he takes up an argument put forth by Yaakov Elman in a review of Rubenstein’s The Culture of the Babylonian Talmud, published in 2006 in the Journal of Religion.  Gafni offers numerous examples, expands the claim, and adds further arguments as well.

Last May, Prof. Gafni spoke at a conference organized by Uri Gabbay and me (and hosted by Scholion at the Hebrew University of JerusalemEncounters by the Rivers of Babylon: Scholarly Conversations between Jews, Iranians and Babylonians.  There he added ever more examples to rebut Rubenstein, some of them quite compelling.  Gafni’s article from the conference will hopefully appear in the proceedings of the conference, which hopefully will be published soon.

English, Recent Publications, Reviews

Another Review of Socrates and the Fat Rabbis

At the old Talmud Blog, I kept a log of reviews of Daniel Boyarin’s Socrates and the Fat Rabbis.  And then I couldn’t keep up. Two months ago, I had the distinct pleasure of responding to a paper of Prof. Boyarin’s which was itself a response to two reviews – that of Adam Becker: “Positing a ‘Cultural Relationship’ between Plato and the Babylonian Talmud’ which appeared with Barry Wimpfheimer, “The Dialogical Talmud: Daniel Boyarin and Rabbinics” in JQR 101:2 (Spring 2011), and Reuven Kiperwasser’s in Jewish History, which interestingly enough had at that point not yet been published. Kiperwasser’s important review has finally appeared in the most recent issue (in print) of Jewish History.  Hopefully, we’ll get to see a response by Prof. Boyarin at this blog in the future.

English, Reviews

Review of Why Study Talmud in the Twenty-first Century

In 2009, Paul Socken edited a collection of articles entitled Why Study Talmud in the Twenty-first Century.  It is for the most part a finely curated group of essays that provide real insight into the inner-world of modern Talmudists – even if there are some minor organizational problems (some with gender implications).  In the most recent Shofar Magazine, Ricky Hidary offers a great summary and assessment of the collection, which I can attest is well worth the read, and if you buy books, the money.