English, Events

The Talmud Blog Hosts Zvi Septimus

It’s 10:00pm in New York, and, like many others, I’m watching the debate. But there’s one thing that I can’t stop thinking about, and that’s the lecture that I just heard at Drisha by Zvi Septimus, “Was Resh Lakish a Hedonist or an Ascetic? How The Bavli Conveys Meaning”.

For all of those who couldn’t make it, the audio of the lecture is available here, and here’s the audio of the questions and answers (some may want to listen to them before the lecture itself). The sourcesheet is available here. And for those in Jerusalem next week, make sure to come hear Michal Bar-Asher Siegal speak about “The Babylonian Talmud and Christian literature: Resh Lakish and the Monastic Repentant Robber“!

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English, Ruminations, Technology

The Talmud in the Digital Age: Fragments From the Cutting Room Floor- Shai Secunda and Elli Fischer

The most recent issue of the Jewish Review of Books is now on the stands and online. On the cover of the magazine there is an endearing drawing (below) by Mark Anderson of three cheder kids completely entranced by an iPad running a Talmud application. The image was commissioned by the JRB to illustrate a review of the ArtScroll Talmud App co-authored by our own Shai Secunda and Elli Fischer. The article is not just a review of a piece of technology, but a meditation on revolutions in Jewish learning media and the future of Talmud study in the digital age.

The topic is as massive as it is important. Inevitably, not everything could be included in the final draft, and given the medium, sources and references were not cited. In the following post, the Talmud Blog includes some thoughts from the ‘cutting room floor’ on digitization, media saturation and their implications for Talmud study.  An upcoming post will list some of the many articles and books that functioned as dialogue-partners for the review.

The advent of the printing press in the fifteenth century had famously revolutionary effects in the Christian world (think Martin Luther), and less known but still substantial repercussions in Jewish culture.  Yet, the next truly dramatic innovation in the media of Jewish study was inaugurated only in 1963. It was then that a project got underway  at the Weizmann Institute in Rehovot, Israel to digitize rabbinic texts, mainly responsa, for the purpose of historical research. By 1979, the project had migrated to Bar Ilan University and its database was available at terminals on and off campus. The real breakthrough came in the early 1990s when the entire database was made available on a compact disc. Not only were the contents of a formidable Judaic library encoded in a small bit of plastic, but these contents were searchable. The vast erudition that characterizes the greatest talmudic scholars could now be replicated by a computer, inducing anxiety on the part of rabbis.

The Bar Ilan Responsa Project is now on Version 19 20 and is considered an indispensable tool for teachers, scholars, and indeed rabbis, though one can still hear occasional polemics about reaching halakhic conclusions based on keyword searches. In truth, though, by now the Bar Ilan Project is a small part of the mind-boggling volume of data that is easily accessible and fully searchable using basic internet search engines. PCs and especially laptops have lessened the physical exertion and dampered the thrill of accumulating and working through a mountain of tomes in search of a solution to a particularly thorny exegetical riddle. For those who availed themselves of the digitized Torah libraries (and it should be acknowledged that many traditional Talmudists did not) the frenetic activity of the traditional study hall ground to a halt. There is no longer any need to consult the bookshelf or library when everything is a few clicks away. There is also little room for a study partner or any sort of live conversation when seated at a computer desk. The vast differences between the quiet library and the noisy beit midrash have been lessened somewhat. Not long after the release of the Bar Ilan CD, its traditionalist opponents complained that the classical notion of ‘toiling in Torah’ would go missing if Talmud scholars began learning off of computers.  We laughed then, but from this vantage point, one begins to wonder.

The Bar Ilan CD is no doubt a powerful reference tool that supports and enhances the study of printed texts. Yet, it keeps users tethered to the computer screen. Digitization and searchability may have changed the nature of talmudic and halakhic research, but they did not replace the book. This is actually the legacy of media saturation, the shockingly recent transformation of everyday life into a wired reality of screen ubiquity and wireless connectivity. Now, the computers are actually tethered to us, and they simultaneously tally Syria’s dead, recall the date of Shakespeare’s birth, and ferry messages to and fro.  Our mobile devices are little more than sleekly packaged portable brains in jars. Actually, they are far more.  The grey matter in my pocket is magically, creepily connected to the brains in yours.

The mobility that the portable devices introduced to the experience of Talmud study seems like a relatively minor addendum to digitization, but its effects are profound. It is no longer necessary to stay confined to the beit midrash, like Bialik’s pale-skinned matmid, when the the bookshelf can be transported to the beckoning outdoors. There is something unprecedented in the presence of massive digital libraries on small portable devices.  Within the dark confines of a pants pocket, a movable Borgesesque talmudic bibliotheca has grown up.

Media theorists and New Yorker cartoonists have been diligently documenting the diverse cultural changes heralded by this newest wrinkle in the digital revolution.  It is the transformation of the book that for many causes the greatest unease.  To be sure, digitization has not yet finished off the physical book – and certainly not rabbinic texts – but that honor may well go to the e-reader and tablet computer, and soon.  Along with the demise of the traditional book, bibliophile Luddites also fear for our brain chemistry and our family life.  Media saturation with its ubiquitous hypertext links, pop-up ads, and assorted bells and whistles has pulled our attention in a thousand directions, making it difficult to pursue any one subject with single-minded focus. Educators, including Talmud teachers, lament their students’ lack of interest in the subject matter, offering Lamarckian theories about how skimming and skipping through material renders one unable to actually read. How can the mind that absorbs information in packets of no more than 140 characters be expected to get through War and Peace, with its one hundred thirty characters?

Concerns have also been raised about what media saturation is doing to the fabric of the modern family. Many of us cannot pull our eyes away from Retina™ displays long enough to look into our children’s faces. This sorry if ubiquitous state of affairs has recently received thought-provoking artistic expression by the contemporary Armenian artist, Tigran Tsitoghdzyan. One powerful image from his ‘Millenium’ series (2012)  plays with the intriguing feature of many classical madonna icons in which strangely, to modern sensibilities at least, Mary looks off to the side of the frame, apparently ignorant of attachment parenting’s most sacred rule – ‘lock thy gaze’.  In this untitled artwork, Tsitoghdzyan depicts a modern madonna looking to the left, past the baby seated on her lap; her eyes and fingertips fastened to a smartphone.  In the far right of the frame one can make out the dark edge of a television, which captivates the baby’s attention.

But all this is old hat. Intellectuals, especially public Jewish ones, have for some time been whining about the disappearance of the book, the death of the publishing industry, and other assorted textual tragedies. Peddling dystopia is easy, and words weary. As we have seen, this is not the first time that changes in technology have altered the way humans obtain and process information, nearly always to the chagrin of the old guardians of knowledge. Perhaps the human mind is simply freeing itself from the illusion that ‘books’ ever really stood alone –  hypertextuality makes intertextuality obvious – and rebelling against McLuhanian hot” books that insist on progressing linearly. Is it possible that an entire generation has been misdiagnosed with Attention Deficit Disorder? Alternatively, is it possible that a brain wired to rapidly shift between stimuli is not disordered at all, and in fact better equipped to excel in a media-saturated environment?

Despite the modern air-brushed veneer of Tsitoghdzyan’s madonna, which seems to preach to us about modernity and its discontents, the traditionalist iconography reminds us that we have been here before.  As any voraciously reading, bookish parent knows, even prior the advent of the mobile device, texts of all types – magazines, newspapers, books, and really anything fit to print –  fought for attention with the loving flesh and blood beings who make life worthwhile.  In some ways, media saturation has simply made this bad habit a more common ill.

In traditional Jewish society, a scholar who carries around a small volume of Talmud to peek at during spare moments is actually not deemed rude or distant, but industrious. He is really just an evolved form of the Jewish walking book – the “reciter” of the Geonic academy. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, due to certain technological and religious developments, highly portable talmudic tractates perfect for reviewing studied texts began to appear on the European continent. These quaint little books encapsulated a rabbinic ideology that hearkens back to Deuteronomy 6 and its exhortation to speak the Divine commandments “when you sit at home and when you walk along the road, when you lie down and when you get up.” Until recently, the modern version of these slim volumes were commonplace on New York city trains, Jerusalem buses, and London cues.  Now, they are increasingly replaced by mobile devices that house unadorned digital Torah libraries.

Digital mobility has now freed the Talmud from the study-hall; digital connectivity, from the sometimes isolation of Talmud study; and the hypertextual architecture of the web from the linearity of the traditional printed  book. If only someone would design an app that could realize the explosive potential residing in the Talmud. Now that, would be ‘cool‘.

Around the Web, English, Technology

Updates to the Lieberman Databases

I can’t claim to be much of a sports guy. Yes, I enjoy running, and I joined a makeshift ultimate frisbee team at my highschool for a couple of months (we were doomed from the get go- when it came to frisbee, the Modern-Orthodox kids were nothing compared to those from the Conservative day schools; why, I do not know), but that is pretty much the extent of my athletic career. I also cannot say that I follow sports all that much, and perhaps the two are tied together. But still, when it comes to the Olympics, I always end up watching my fair share, more out of awe for the amazing feats of athleticism than out of allegiance for the teams of my two home countries. Most amazing to me is seeing how athletes have progressed over the years, setting new records in almost every sport. While I try and shy away from claims of historical progress, these concrete numbers show that humans really are getting better at performing very specific actions, like “snatching188kg weights.

In the realm of academic Talmud, the bar is also constantly being raised. If only a few decades ago it was completely legitimate to cite in an academic article the Munich manuscript of the Bavli by quoting from Rabinowitz‘s Dikdukei Sofrim, nowadays that would never fly. Rabinowitz’s Dikdukei Sofrim was one of the most influential projects on Talmud study ever (its ambition, however, cost Rabinowitz his life, as he passed away while travelling in Russia to find more Talmudic manuscripts). The situation today is decidely different. From the comfort of an iPad, one can access many more manuscripts than Rabinowitz could ever have dreamed of seeing, and the Dikdukei Sofrim is now mainly used to see what girsa was before each rishonOne who wishes to employ philological methods in studying a sugya now how has a couple of tools for consultation:

Prof. Saul Lieberman

Perhaps the most heavily relied on tool of all, which may deserve more credit, is the Lieberman Institute’s Sol and Evelyn Henkind Talmud Text Database. Named for Prof. Saul Lieberman, the institute has been serving the world of academic Talmud for almost a generation. The Institute’s head, Prof. Shamma Friedman, has informed us that since the database went online last year, replacing the 5th CD-ROM version, it has gone through numerous enhancements in terms of how much material it contains. The website now has almost 1,330 transcriptions of genizah fragments and 300 transcriptions of complete manuscripts, transcribed by a team of dozens of scholars over the past few decades. Another addition are the almost 3,000 high-resolution images of the Mishnah and Talmud. About thirty institutions of higher learning are already subscribed. Along with the website of the Academy for the Hebrew Language and Bar-Ilan’s free Tannaim website, the database ensures that almost all of Rabbinic Literature has been transcribed according to the best manuscripts and is readily available online. Many scholars choose to copy from these databases and then check the transcriptions against photographs of the actual manuscripts, while some still insist on transcribing the manuscript evidence all on their own.

An example of the proper etiquette for citing transcriptions of rabbinic texts available online.

Another, and perhaps even more significant, feature of the Lieberman database is its sophisticated search engine. The possibility of using the Lieberman website to perform searches greatly enhances one’s ability to clarify many issues and phenomena across almost every manuscript and genizah fragment of the Bavli.

For years, alongside the CD-ROM version of the text database, the Lieberman Institute produced a CD-ROM of a “Bibliographical Index”. Similar to Moshe Pinchuk’s site on the Yerushalmi, the index lists secondary literature that relates to specific passages of rabbinic literature. For example- someone looking to find secondary literature on a sugya that they are working on can simply punch in the daf number and immediatley receive references to academic works that deal with it. This database is also set to launch as a website, which will allow for constant upgrading by users and will link to the secondary material that is available online. The index includes the Mishnah, Tosefta, Bavli, and Yerushalmi. A preliminary list of the material included is available here.

These databases, which will continue to grow with the help of user input and future technological advancements, will further serve scholars for years to come, ensuring the continued rise of the academic standard to new records. Come 2016, who knows what we will be able to do.

English, Guest Posts

Doing Daf Yomi- Guest Post by Yaakov Elman

This post, a first in what we hope will be a series on the Daf Yomi as its 12th cycle comes to a close, was written by Yeshiva University’s Prof. Yaakov Elman. A long time daf yomi learner, Prof. Elman was also Shai’s doktorvater, and his deep influence on this blog parallels the one that he has had on the field of academic Talmud.

The Babylonian Talmud (hereafter: the Bavli) is made up of approximately 1,863,000 words, spread out across 2,711 double folio-pages. Studying a double-page- known as a “daf“- a day, it takes seven years, five months, and approximately six days to complete a cycle of study of the Bavli, and the completion of the twelfth cycle (inaugurated in 1923) will be celebrated today, August 1st, by hundreds of thousands of people world-wide, with an expected 100,000 attendees at MetLife Stadium in the Meadowlands.

Such a regimen is definitely a daunting task, but tens of thousands of Jews rise early, stay up late, or somehow crowd an hour or so of study into their daily schedule, often in synagogue before or after services, on commuter trains, subways, and the like. Most of them do so in groups, with a leader taking them through the intricacies of an Aramaic-Hebrew text that has challenged the best minds the Jewish people have produced for the last millennium and a half. Of course, being part of a group allows for social interchange, and the feeling of participating in a shared goal. But my own experience suggests that while the text alone can be riveting at times and “merely” interesting at others;the Bavli hardly ever requires a stiff upper lip to see it through.

I have been asked to describe the experience of studying the Talmud in this way; let me begin by admitting at the outset that I am not a typical daf yomi person. In the forty-some-odd years that I have studied daf yomi, I have never taken part in a daf yomi group; my schedule is seven blatt on a Sabbath rather than a daf a day. Still, by not taking part in a group I was forced to rely on my own resources, and thus my view of the Bavli is my own and reflects my interests. These have changed over the years, but for the most part, my focus has been on the Bavli’s cognitive style and modes of argument, the individual contributions of its major voices, the society that produced it, and the interaction of that society with its general environment.

I began daf yomi when the thought that I would never complete even the most cursory review of the whole of the Bavli in my lifetime (at the rate I was progressing) became intolerable. I couldn’t stand the thought that I would never get a sense of the whole of the Talmud. One may ask: If the Bavli is more or less uniform in its style of language, thought and argumentation, what’s the difference, apart from the changing subject matter?

The short answer is that not only do the topics change, but the “research agenda” changes as well. Discussions of the Temple service are different from those on practical matters of civil law, for example. Some tractates concentrate on the biblical derivations of the Mishnah’s rules (Zevahim, Menahot); in some, most of talmudic law is based on custom rather than Scripture (Bava Batra, for example). While there are only 12 or 13 major figures, not all appear in the same proportion throughout the whole Bavli, and so one does not get a sense of their approaches without having kept track through a complete cycle (at least).

Daf Yomi takes its participants through the Bavli in a close-up view of the discussions carried on among the Babylonian rabbis of 220-530 CE, from prayers and blessings though the rules governing celebration of the Sabbath and festivals, through rules governing gender relations, civil law, to the Temple service and slaughter. But it is also a reflection of the society whose norms determined the shape of Jewish life for a millennium and a half, and continues to do so for hundreds of thousands of Jews today. It is also the cognitive underpinning of the Jewish mind as it has developed over the last two millennia, indeed, much more so than the Hebrew Bible.

Let me quote from a short description that I published a few years ago on which I would like to expand:

…The Babylonian Talmud is marked by a salient characteristic, its continuous and unending dialogue. The debates are not haphazard. Certain authorities who were contemporaries or near-contemporaries debate all sorts of issues related to the Mishnah, issues that are sometimes only remotely relevant to them personally. Some statistics will give us an idea of what is happening. The Babylonian Talmud is the creation of at least seven generations of Babylonian authorities, and contains several generations of Israeli authorities as well. However, of the hundreds of authorities mentioned by name, more than forty thousand times in toto, only a dozen or so dominate the discussion and are scattered in pairs… These debates are often arranged as structured discussions on a given topic, so that they appear to be stenographic records of actual debates. This appearance is literary only, however, as few of these authorities lived in close proximity. This is true even though the discussion, or sugya (a “walking through), sometimes seems to reflect a long debate over a point, a debate that gives the appearance of having lasted for generations.

The cognitive style of the Bavli is dialogic and dialectical, as manifested not only by its predominant voice, that of its anonymous redactors, who contributed over half of its text (the stama di-gemara), but by its named authorities, who both query and question and investigate incessantly. They take very little for granted; everything must have an authoritative source—and sound logic counts as such a source. As my first Talmud teacher told us ten-year olds: “A gemoro daf men farshtein, nit nur gloiben” (“We must understand the talmudic text, it us not enough to believe it”).

The predominant mode of inquiry is binary: Is A to be construed as X or perhaps (o dilma’) as Y? But while the query may seem simple, the answers seldom are, and alternate possibilities are brought into consideration. At times the query leads to another, in a dizzying array of cantilevered logic. If A, then X or Y or Z. But if A leads to X or Y or Z, then other binary possibilities open up… and so on. This is one of the ways in which the Bavli comprehends the complexities of human experience.

One consequence of the predominance of about a dozen figures over seven generations is that a few sages have a outsize influence on the whole. Furthermore, the contribution of some sages outside this dozen is quite distinctive and can easily be traced. Thus, R. Yirmiyah (a Babylonian who went on aliyah) and Rammi bar Hamma (a Babylonian who stayed home) both tend to propound theoretical problems, often involving boundary conditions for whose solution no authoritative text exists; an inordinate number of their problems defy solution. One result is that after one such query R. Yirmiyah was ejected from the study hall (Bava Batra 23a); on a later occasion, however, he was brought back by dint of another such question (Bava Batra 165a). Another reaction, that of the highly-influential fourth-generation sage Rava to two of Rammi bar Hamma’s questions was “His sharp-wittedness has brought him to error!” It is perhaps no surprise that R. Yirmiyah praised Rammi bar Hamma to his own teacher R. Zeira (Pesahim 48a). It is also not surprising that on at least one occasion R. Yirmiyah’s suggestion was so astounding that the Bavli interprets it as an attempt to make his master, R. Zeira, smile—but, as the Bavli notes: “R. Zeira did not smile” (Niddah 23a).

There are two other aspects of the Bavli’s thought that I think are essential to its understanding: its sense of proportion, and its requirement of reasonableness (as opposed to adherence to pure logic), that is, that statements conform to reality. One might think that with its continuous arguments the Bavli would be bound to strict logic, but then logic is not always reasonable. Thus, in Shabbat 5a, a particular analysis of the text at hand (quoted, as it happens, in the name of a western scholar for which there is no parallel in the Talmud of the Land of Israel) results in an interpretation in which a midget (or an normal-sized person bent over or standing in a pit) is holding a basket within three handbreadths of the ground. Rava reacts as to this proposal as follows: “Did the authority of the mishnah then trouble himself to teach us these [highly unusual] cases?” Though this retort appears only five times in the Bavli, this may be because such interpretations are rare.

The other response is far more common, and appears more than a hundred times in the Bavli. Thus, in Shabbat 151b, the redactors’ reaction to R. Yosef’s assertion that rabbinic students are never reduced to begging is: “But we see that they are!” Formally, the Bavli is a commentary on the Mishnah, a collection of laws and rules governing almost every area of life promulgated about 220 CE, but one which does not—in common with law collections of the time—decide issues at contention. But at times the Bavli will set aside the mishnaic view on matters that are not disputed as a minority opinion, or it reinterprets it so as to change it substantively, or even marginalize it in some other way.

Nevertheless, though the Bavli is often hard-headed and self-critical, and at times questioning (to the point that it embodies some of the characteristics of the later proverbial Yiddish skepticism and bemusement at human failings), these are only some of its moods. The Bavli reflects all the varied moods of a wise and discerning mentor who bemusement at human folly never stoops to cynicism, and will even at times allow itself a certain measured naivité. Its infinite variety, like that of the human mind and heart, keeps it ever fresh, and that may be the secret of why tens of thousands of people are ready to turn the page and experience the lessons of the next day.

Yaakov Elman is Professor of Judaic Studies at Yeshiva University and an associate of Harvard’s Center for Jewish Studies. He has published or edited eight books and dozens of articles on rabbinic intellectual history, Jewish biblical exegesis, and hasidic thought.

English, Ruminations

What is a Redactor?

We are often told that a good scholar has to consistently and continually question the validity of his/her basic assumptions. The problem is that many times an assumption is so inherent to our thinking, that it is easy to mistake it for a universal, objective truth and not an assumption, which is by definition subjective. One way to locate these assumptions, in order to  question them, is to look at their “signs” – the habits in academic writing, the terms we use matter-of-factly. Once we shed light on a term of this sort, we can see which view it represents, and ask ourselves whether we can or should justify its use.

After all, we all have our writing habits. Some are the fruits of extensive academic training, but others are simply the expression of personal preferences. This seems particularly true when it comes to terminology. For example, some scholars, when writing about Roman Palestine, will use the term “Eretz Israel” rather then “Palestine”. Some will use the term stammaic and others will instead use post-amoraic. There are numerous other examples. Choosing one term over another signifies a (silent) agreement with a certain view, position, thesis, theory, or politics.

So, one of my terminological habits, as I realized recently, is to write “redactors” almost each time I refer to the, well, redactors of a talmudic or midrashic text: The redactors of the sugiya, the redactors of the teaching, the redactors of the pericope, the redactors of the midrash. I don’t know exactly when we started using this term in talmudic scholarship but it seems to me a relatively recent convention that some scholars follow quite religiously while others not so much or not at all. I belong to the first group, more or less.

I don’t know exactly what it was, but something has drawn my attention to this writing habit, and signaled it as one. Maybe it is the fact that my fellows in the research center, who work on other, non-Jewish and non-rabbinic texts from late antiquity, never use this term when talking about the people who produced their texts. And it made me wonder – what does my and others’ use of the term “redactors” say about our conception of the agency behind rabbinic texts?

I realized that when I use the term “redactors” I have two others terms in mind, from which I do not wish to chose – author and compiler. Using the term “author” would assume that there is a person or a group behind the text, that has an intention, a message to transmit. This person or group is “responsible” for the text, and as Michel Foucault has shown, this responsibility creates a subject, who can be admired, criticized or condemned. Using the term compiler, on the other hand, would assume a very feeble agency behind the text. The person or group who compiled a text do not bear full responsibility for it. They have simply chosen all the texts that were available to them and put them together. They do not constitute a subject. In the terms of Roland Barthes, they are more “writers” than “authors”.

The problem is that rabbinic texts are both “authored” and “compiled” – the people behind them had a message to transmit, but at the same time they were compiling old traditions and edited them inside their own text. They did not only represent themselves, but also a tradition that they inherited, as well as invented. In the texts they authored, they had to include teachings for which they were not responsible, even when they did not agree with them.

This is perhaps the nature of the activity of those who produced the rabbinic texts, from the level of the midrashic unit, and even the single pericope or saying, to the level of the well developed sugiya.  A rabbinic text can be more compiled or more authored, but often it is both. It is a text that has a variety of agents behind it; each one of them is trying to convey a message that has to be understood in a particular context. It is a text which is a battleground, staged by the final redactor, of several views, often including that of the redactor himself.

Some scholars, and the first name that comes to my mind is Barry Wimpfheimer, have studied and examined the techniques and methods used by the redactors in order to negotiate between the different views and to create their own legal and ideological narrative. But it seems to me as important and fruitful to think of the activity of the redactor himself in these terms, as a hybrid author/compiler whose job is, indeed, a different job than that of the pure author or the pure compiler. In order to fully understand the inherent tension that characterizes rabbinic texts we have to understand that it reflects a drama inside the redactors’ mind who, on the one hand wants to conserve a culture and on the other hand wants to invent one, or to adapt the old culture to their experience, to their views.

The redactors of the rabbinic text always oscillate between tradition and invention in order to create something that is both old and new. Their responsibility for the text is, therefore, multilayered and complex; it is dialectic, as is the text itself.

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?

English, Readings

You Rejoice – though not Me: Some Notes on bMeg 10b and its Parallels

Lucas Cranach the Elder 'Untergang des Pharao im Roten Meer' (Germany, 1530)

Does God rejoice at the downfall of the wicked? Surely He wants the good to prosper and the wicked to perish. Yet, the destruction of God’s own creatures, regardless of some poor choices they may have made in the past, is also not a cause for Divine celebration. If one wishes to ascribe to a logical, binary scheme, the answer to this question can either be “yes” or “no”.  But this is the Talmud Blog, where a rabbinic “yes, but…” / “no, but…” will do just fine.  Indeed, rabbinic literature contains both views.  On the one hand, R. Ishmael confidently  responds to his students (preserved at Sifre Numbers 117) that indeed, God is happy when those who anger Him perish, while we also have a moving, anthropomorphic portrait of God’s pain at the wicked’s demise (mSan 6:5).

One of the better known talmudic passages that deals with this subject appears at bMeg 10b – towards the beginning of the so called Babylonian Esther Midrash (bMeg 10b-17a) which I am now teaching in the Hebrew University Talmud Department. The Babylonian Esther Midrash is a unique corpus. It is apparently the only complete midrash on a biblical book that was compiled in Babylonia, and as such it affords a rare window into Babylonian midrashic imagination. Scholars like Eliezer Segal have produced significant and lasting scholarship on the Bavli’s Esther Midrash. The primary tool in these scholarly endeavors is a kind of comparative criticism, that unfortunately ends up seeing the Bavli’s Esther Midrash as an essentially tone-deaf, pale reflection of Palestinian midrashic poetics.  Blame it on postmodernism, but I see in the Bavli’s ‘belatedness’ the beauty of the mosaic, pastiche – in short, a textual realization of Late Antiquity.

The passage that interests me appears towards the beginning of a long list of ‘petihtot’ to Esther, which Segal has demonstrated derive mainly from Palestinian exemplars. Indeed, the vast majority of tradents are Palestinian sages.  Further, in his assessment the full poetic punch of these petihtot is often effaced in the Bavli. This is true, but only if you consider Palestinian synagogal poetics as the sole form of legitimate poetry. Arguably, there is another kind of poetry that takes place in the processes of deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction which the Bavli performs on its Palestinian rabbinic heritage.

The point I have to make is a relatively, small, philological one.  But I do think that it partially explains a formerly incomprehensible Yerushalmi and also contributes to a deeper understanding of the development of two passages in the Bavli.  In any event, it has been far too long since the Talmud Blog had a post about a close, original reading of a sugya.

ר’ יהושע בן חנניה פתח לה פתחא להאיי פרשתא מהכא: והיה כאשר שש ייי עליכם להיטיב אתכם ולהרבות אתכם כן ישיש ייי עלי[כ]ם להאביד אתכם וג’

ומיחדי הקב’ה במפלתן שלרשעים 

והכת’ בצאת לפני החלוץ ואומרים הודו לייי כי לעולם חסדו ואמ’ ר’ יוחנן מפני מה לא נאמ’ כי טוב בהודאה זו לפי שאין הקב’ה שמח במפלתן שלרשעים

ואמ’ ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אמ’ ר’ יונתן מאי דכת’ ולא קרב זה אל זה כל הלילה באותה שעה ביקשו מלאכי שרת לומר שירה לפני הקב’ה אמ’ להן הקב’ה מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה לפני

אמ’ ר’ יוסי ביר’ חנינה הוא אינו שש אבל אחרים משיש דוקא נמי דכת’ ישיש ולא כת’ ישוש שמע מנה

R. Yehoshua b. Hanania introduced the section from here: ‘And it shall come to pass that as the Lord rejoiced over you to do you good, so the Lord will rejoice over you to cause you to perish’ (Deut 28:63). 

Now does the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoice in the downfall of the wicked?

Is it not written, ‘as they went out before the army, and say, Give thanks unto the Lord, for his mercy endureth for ever (2 Chron. 10:21)’, And R. Yohanan said: Why are the words ‘for he is good’ omitted from this thanksgiving? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked? 

And R. Shmuel b. Nahamani said that R. Yonatan said, What is the meaning of the verse, ‘And one came not near the other all the night (Ex. 14:20)’?   At that time the ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns before the Holy One, blessed be He, but He said, The work of my hands is being drowning in the sea, and shall you chant hymns before me?

R. Yossi b. R. Hinana replied: He himself does not rejoice, but he makes others rejoice.  This is indicated also by the text, which writes yasis and not yasus, which proves [what we said]. 

(bMeg 11a, following MS Columbia; translation based on Soncino)

The opening verse is taken from the so-called “rebuke” section of Deut 28.  The link between this verse and Esther seems to center on the threatening verb “cause to perish (להאביד)” in Deut 28:63 and its ubiquity in Esther, for example at 4:7.  Apparently, R. Yehoshua understood the near destruction of the Jews in Esther as a realization of the Deuteronomic rebuke.  Judging from the first three petihtot of Esther Rabbah which cite Deut 28:66-68 and other later Palestinian midrashic parallels, this was apparently not an unusual way of introducing the Scroll of Esther.

The rest of the passage, however, is somewhat peculiar, and as such has gained the attention of generations of scholars.  I will focus on two issues:  The Talmud objects to the depiction of God as rejoicing over causing the destruction of the wicked, since two midrashic interpretations demonstrate that God does not rejoice when the wicked are punished (following Yehoshafat’s defeat of the Moabites; and after the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea – the latter an example of a startling Babylonian reversal which was used in medieval times to justify the absence of Hallel recitation after the first day of Passover, but that is for another time).  The contradiction is resolved via a closer reading of the original verse from Deuteronomy, where God is now said merely to cause others to rejoice yet not rejoice Himself.  In other words, the entire sequence was generated by an apparent misinterpretation of the original verse that did not conform to midrashic traditions about God not rejoicing at the downfall of the wicked, and the conclusion is essentially to read the verse more carefully.  Further, as others have already pointed out (for example, E. Segal), the formulation of the original question “Now does the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoice in the downfall of the wicked,” is somewhat jarring, since nowhere in rabbinic literature do we find an entire generation of Jews referred to as “wicked”.

The passage bears a strong connection to a parallel at bSan 39b:

ויעבר הרנה במחנה

אמ’ ר’ אחא בר ר’ חננא באבוד רשעים רנה ובאבוד אחאב רני רינה

ומי חאדי הקב’ה במפלתן שלרשעים

והא כתי’ בצאת לפני החלוץ אומרים הודו ליי’י כי לעולם חסדו

ואמ’ ר’ יוחנן מפני מה לא נאמר כי טוב בפרשה זו לפי שאין הקב’ה שמיח במפלתן שלרשעים

ואמ’ ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אמ’ ר’ יונתן מאי דכת’ ולא קרב זה אל זה כל הלילה באותה שעה שטבעו מצרים בים ביקשו מלאכי השרת לומ’ שירה אמ’ להן הקב’ה מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה לפני

א’ר יוסי בר’ חנינה הוא אינו שש אבל אחרים משיש דוקא  נמי דכת’ ישיש ולא כתי’ ישוש שמע מינה

‘And there went out the shout throughout the camp’ (1 Kings 22:36).

R. Aha b. R. Hanina said: ‘When the wicked perish, there is song (Prov. 11:10)’, and when Ahab perished there was ‘song of songs’ (following MS Yemenite, hagadot hatalmud, and others).  

Now does the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoice in the downfall of the wicked?

Is it not written, ‘as they went out before the army, and say, Give thanks unto the Lord, for his mercy endureth for ever (2 Chron. 10:21)’, and R. Yohanan said: Why are the words ‘for he is good’ omitted from this thanksgiving? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked? 

And R. Shmuel b. Nahamani said that R. Yonatan said, What is the meaning of the verse, And one came not near the other all the night (Ex. 14:20)?   At that time the ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns before the Holy One, blessed be He, but He said, The work of my hands is being drowning in the sea, and shall you chant hymns before me?

R. Yossi b. R. Hinana replied: He himself does not rejoice, but he makes others rejoice.  This is indicated also by the text, which writes yasis and not yasus, which proves [what we said]. 

(b. San 39a according to another Yemenite MS, MS Herzog).

This passage appears at the end of the fourth chapter in tractate Sanhedrin, where the Mishna describes how, after conveying a sense of seriousness to witnesses, the court reassures them that their task is essential and worthy.  One of the verses recited for the witnesses is Prov. 11:10: “when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy”.  At bSan 39b, the Talmud cites a verse from I Kings (22:36) that describes the news spreading of (the wicked) King Ahav’s demise.  R. Aha b. R. Hinina cites the verse from Prov and adds that when Ahav died there was even greater rejoicing.  Note that the Yemenite MS Herzog is vocalized רִנֵי רִינָה.  This leads into the same sequence that appears at bMeg 10b.

It is now easier to understand why the passage refers to “the wicked” – for Ahav’s wickedness was infamous. Yet, in certain respects the bSan passage is even more problematic than its bMeg parallel. The verse from Deuteronomy is not even quoted, but is nevertheless presumed in R. Yossi’s closing exposition.  And the opening question (‘Now does the Holy One…rejoice in the downfall of the wicked’) is almost incomprehensible, for where do we see God himself rejoicing at Ahav’s death?  On the other hand, there is reason to assume that the bSan passage is “primary” to the one in bMeg in the sense that the initialbuilding blocks of the passage were composed within the discursive context of bSan (yes, I am aware of Zvi Septimus’ article). This can be demonstrated since specifically bSan seems to have developed out of a parallel Palestinian passage preserved in the Yerushalmi that also appears as a comment on the same Mishna:

כת’ “ויעבר הרינה במחנה”.

מהו “הרינה”. הריני.

וכן הוא או’ “בצאת לפני החלוץ” וגו’. ללמדך שאף מפלת הרשעים אינה שמחה לפני המקו’ם.

It is written ‘And there went out the shout throughout the camp (1 Kings 22:36)’. 

What is “the shout” – hareni.

And it also says, ‘as they went out before the army (2 Chron. 10:21)’ etc. To teach you that even the downfall of the wicked is not a joy before Omnipresent. 

It seems clear that there is some relationship between the ySan and bSan passages. The Yerushalmi comments on the same Mishna, quotes the same verse from 1 Kings and then cites the same midrash on 2 Chron 10:21 (which first appears in the Mekhilta Beshalah, Shira parsha 1, p. 118).  Yet, on the whole, the meaning of this short Yerushalmi passage has eluded interpretation, particularly the first line.  What does the word הריני mean here, and what does it add to the verse from 1 Kings?

Not surprisingly, the traditional commentators try to apply the Bavli parallel to the Yerushalmi, and they suggest that the definite article (הרינה – the shout of joy) is interpreted here to refer to the great joy felt at the demise of the wicked.  Neusner’s translation emends the text accordingly “What is this cry (HRYNH)? Lo, it is a song (HRY RYNH).” On the other hand, the Mohr Siebeck translation suggests a reading of חרון – anger.  This seems to be based on the second line of the Yerushalmi, which cites the Mekhilta about God not fully rejoicing at the defeat of Moab.  Since the latter is apparently linked to the first line with the words “and it also says (וכן הוא אומר),” one might assume that the first line about “the shout” should also convey the same message of Divine displeasure at the downfall of the wicked.

In fact, the words “וכן הוא אומר” should actually be read “וכאן הוא אומר” (“and here it says”), and they merely represent a direct though shortened quotation of the Mekhilta passage according to the best witnesses. As for the first sentence “מהו הרינה – הריני”  the final word might perhaps be read as הרינו and represent a regressive assimilated form of הפעיל צווי הרנינו – ‘(you, pl.) Rejoice!’  As such, the Yerushalmi interprets 1 Kings 22:36 to mean that God is telling the Jews to rejoice (הרנינו) at Ahav’s death.  This then is juxtaposed to the midrash from the Mekhilta where God does not fully rejoice at the defeat of Moab.  The tension between these two positions, however, is unresolved.

This brings us back to the bSan parallel. If the original, Palestinian set of amoraic comments on mSan 4:5 contains two apparently unreconciled views of the Divine reaction to the demise of the wicked, the Bavli turns this material into a dialectical sequence.  Thus, originally, the comment on the verse from 1 Kings attributed to R. Aha b. Hinina (אחא בר חננא  – a name which looks suspiciously close to “” אחאב רני רינה as indeed is made clear in a variant preserved in geniza fragment CUL: T-S Misc. 28.201) apparently refers to God commanding rejoicing at the demise of the wicked Ahav. Notwithstanding the vocalization of MS Herzog, perhaps originally the term was to be read רנו רינה and similarly represent a regressive assimilation, now of the פיעל צווי form רננו.  Either way, the Bavli explicitly interrogates this midrashic understanding of 1 Kings, since in two places God is seen as not rejoicing at the downfall of the wicked.  The Bavli’s answer, based on Deut 28:63, now works perfectly.  God himself does not rejoice, but he causes others to rejoice – precisely as we see in the midrashic reading of 1 Kings 22:36 explicitly preserved in the Yerushalmi though only residually in the Bavli.

In short, we have a passage at bSan 39b that seems to, artfully, make use of a cryptic Palestinian text that juxtaposes God’s command to rejoice at Ahav the wicked’s death with his lack of joy at Moav’s defeat. This is turned into a series of questions that clarify where Divine joy at the downfall of the wicked is to be located – not within the godhead itself, rather in divine encouragement to rejoice. A philosophically fascinating proposition.

At last, this sequence intersects with bMeg 10b, where the citation of Deuteronomy 28:63 as a frightening petihta to Esther seems to elicit the need to ‘soften’ the troubling notion that God Himself rejoiced at the near destruction of the Jews in the Purim story.  No, God Himself did not rejoice. But he did encourage others to do so in carrying out their awful, destructive task.

English, Recent Publications

The Babylonian Talmud, Now in Arabic

As reported in such news outlets as the Jerusalem Post, Yeshiva World News, and PaleoJudaica, a new translation of the Babylonian Talmud into Arabic has just been published in Jordan and is on sale for $750. Veteran readers of the Talmud Blog may recall Jonathan Marc Gribetz’s article on past attempts at translating the Bavli into Arabic. Various friends of ours have been keeping us up-to-date on this seemingly succesful publication, one of whom tracked down this advertisement promoting the Sha”s:

Translation (based on that of blog-reader Yedidya Schwartz):

 The Babylonian Talmud (In Arabic)

The translation of the Babylonian Talmud is historically unprecedented, entailing a six-year effort of more than 95 translators, researchers, and language editors under the supervision and leadership of the Middle East Studies Center – Jordan.

Hurry to buy the first copy translated into Arabic (20 Volumes).

The Babylonian Talmud is considered the most important product of historical Judaism and theoretical religious teaching for Jewish communities.

The translation of the Babylonian Talmud into Arabic represents a fundamental shift in the perception of the religious and intellectual foundations of Orthodox Jewish thinking.

This translation opens up a wide horizon for academic studies in understanding Jewish religious thought and in recognizing its various manifestations throughout history.

Stay tuned for a full review of the edition in the coming months.

English, Guest Posts

The Bible in the Bavli: Some First Numbers- Guest Post by Michael Satlow

Over the past few months, as noted earlier, with the help of research assistants I have been compiling a spreadsheet that records each occurrence of a biblical verse cited in the Bavli. The purpose of this data is not so much to ask qualitative questions (e.g., where and how does the Bavli cite a particular verse?) but to allow for quantitative analysis that might lead to new questions and avenues of investigation.

As I slowly gain more familiarity with the many extraordinary but poorly documented powers of Excel, I’ve just begun to analyze this data.  Here are a couple of preliminary observations:

1.  The Bavli cites somewhere in the neighborhood of 5900 discrete verses of the Hebrew Bible.  The Hebrew Bible contains approximately 23,700 discrete verses.  That equates to about 25% of the Bible; meaning, of course, that 75% of the Bible is never cited.  It is worth noting that 3,295 verses are cited only a single time in the Bavli.  I am not yet sure what to make of this – one next step is to analyze the density of citations by biblical book.  Does the Bavli prefer citing from certain books, especially when the size of the book is also taken into account.

2.  The seven most-cited verses (with NRSV translations, and some surrounding material added for context) are:

  • Deuteronomy 24:1 (37 times): Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife.
  • Numbers 5:13 (29 times): If any man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him, if a man has had intercourse with her but it is hidden from her husband, so that she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her since she was not caught in the act; if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself; or if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself
  • Leviticus 25:5 (24 times): You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.
  • Numbers 30:3 (24 times): When a woman makes a vow to the Lord, or binds herself by a pledge, while within her father’s house, in her youth, and her father hears of her vow or her pledge by which she has bound herself, and says nothing to her; then all her vows shall stand, and any pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if her father expresses disapproval to her at the time that he hears of it, no vow of hers, and no pledge by which she has bound herself, shall stand; and the Lord will forgive her, because her father had expressed to her his disapproval.
  • Leviticus 2:2 (21 times): After taking from it a handful of the choice flour and oil, with all its frankincense, the priest shall turn this token portion into smoke on the altar, an offering by fire of pleasing odour to the Lord
  • Numbers 6:5 (21 times): All the days of their nazirite vow no razor shall come upon the head; until the time is completed for which they separate themselves to the Lord, they shall be holy; they shall let the locks of the head grow long.
  • Leviticus 6:3 (20 times): When any of you sin and commit a trespass against the Lord by deceiving a neighbour in a matter of a deposit or a pledge, or by robbery, or if you have defrauded a neighbour, or have found something lost and lied about it—if you swear falsely regarding any of the various things that one may do and sin thereby— when you have sinned and realize your guilt, and would restore what you took by robbery or by fraud or the deposit that was committed to you, or the lost thing that you found

Five of these verses deal with matters of civil law; three deal with women.  Why these verses in particular, though?  Verses dealing with some expected topics, such as Shabbat or circumcision, are absent.

I have some ideas for at least some of the verses.  Deuteronomy 24:1-4 are the basis for almost the entire legal institution of divorce – the rabbis need to keep appealing to them for authority, perhaps at a time when most Jews would have respected the Bible far more than rabbinic say-so.  Similarly, the sotah (“suspected wife,” in Numbers 5), issues dealing with female vows (Numbers 30:3), and the nazirite vow (Numbers 6:5) are dealt with only in these places and all generate a large body of laws. I am not yet entirely satisfied with these explanations, and would welcome yours as well!

Michael Satlow is a professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown Universityand has been a mentor and sounding-board for the New Talmud Blog from the beginning.  This post was crossposted from his own blog, Then and Now.

English, Readings

One pesuk, two pesuk, three pesukim more…- Guest Post by Michael Satlow

In the Babylonian Talmud, authority comes in variety of flavors.  Sometimes a tradition, heard from and cited in the name of a teacher, carries the day.  At other times, logic wins.  The behavior of a rabbi, the opinion of an expert, or the common practice of a community sometimes drive a discussion about law or ethics.  But the trump, as anyone who has spent any time with the Bavli knows, is the Bible, especially the Torah.  While it is certainly true that rabbis often turn and twist biblical verses as origami masters might, it is always better to have a verse on one’s side.

How, though, did the rabbis of late antiquity “know” the Bible?  Did they have the whole thing memorized?  Did they consult scrolls?  Did their versions look like ours?  Did they gravitate toward certain verses or sections, or steer clear of others?  If so, why?

For me, these questions arose quite incidentally about a year ago in the context of an informal Talmud reading group.  I figured that at least the empirical questions were easy to answer.  Somebody, somewhere, must have compiled a list of the biblical verses in the Talmud and counted them up in various ways.

If such a study exists, though, I still cannot locate it.  There are tools that indicate where in the Talmud a particular verse is discussed, but no charts, tables, and graphs that I could find helped very much when it came to quantifying the Talmud’s use of the Bible.  So as a side project I began to assemble the data.

This turned into a more involved undertaking than I anticipated, but it is very close to completion.  My crack research team – my son Dani Satlow and Elijah Petzold, a very talented Brown undergraduate – has now logged every biblical verse cited in the Bavli in a spreadsheet.  The method for doing this was not perfect: we went copied the indices of each of the tractates published in the Schottenstein edition of the Talmud.  We corrected obvious errors (mainly typos) as we went, but I suspect that the indices contain additional mistakes that are now incorporated into our spreadsheet (while undoubtedly introducing new ones of our own).  Nevertheless, given the mainly quantitative goals of the project and the large numbers present, these errors should not significantly distort the results.

My next step is to figure out good ways to use this data (which I will make freely accessible, probably by the end of the semester), and here I welcome your advice.  The three top questions on my list are:

  • What is the most commonly cited verse in the Talmud?
  • Are there verses, chapters, or books that the Talmud never cites?
  • What is the density of biblical citations per tractate?

What would you like to know?

I generated the above image using Wordle, with random text from the beginning of the Talmud.  Wordle might itself be useful for research; perhaps a future post on that.

Michael Satlow is a professor of religious studies and Judaic studies at Brown University and has been a mentor and sounding-board for the New Talmud Blog from the beginning.  This post was crossposted from his own blog, Then and Now.