English, Recent Publications, Talk of the Town

A Trip to the Bookstore

After holding back for a longtime, I caved in last friday and made a trip to my local ultra-Orthodox bookstore, Girsa. As one can imagine, there were even more options than ever for someone coming to do some daf yomi shopping. I lamented that they weren’t all on display together, making it difficult to photograph, but there must have been at least five or so paperback pamphlet versions of Massekhet Berakhot specially designed for the learning of daf yomi, alongside the popular hardcover Artscroll edition. I asked the guy working at the store what the difference is between all of them and he told me that it seems to him to be a matter of personal preference, but that it might be interesting for me to buy all of them and learn from them side by side to see how they really differ from one another (it was unclear whether his suggestion was based on his looking out for my genuine curiosity or just capitalizing on it).

I’m always amazed by how many new books are constantly coming out in this country, with an ever-growing level of specificity. By way of example, here are some titles which caught my eye:

Sefer Rosh Bashamayim (“Head in the Sky”) doesn’t interest me too much- it deals with the halakhic intricacies of under-age and sick people who want to fast on Yom Kippur despite being exempt- but I thought that the title was pretty funny, given its frequent use in Israeli slang [UPDATE: for an alternative, more probable understanding of the title, see the comments section below].

Another book surprised me less by its clever title than its esoteric topic. Its title is actually pretty straightforward: “HaCheck baHalakha“. The book, which spans two volumes, also includes discussions of laws pertaining to the use םכ credit cards and bank transactions more generally (okay, I guess this actually is a very complicated topic).

I also saw a few books that might be of interest to our readers. Two of them are a little beyond my realm of expertise so I will just mention them briefly: Mosad haRav Kook has published a new two-volume edition of  the responsa of Rav Sherira Gaon, edited by R. Nathan David Rabinovitz, and another volume of Peirush Rabeinu Hananel, on Bava Metsia, is out, edited by Yisrael Soloveitchik.

Another interesting title is Yaakov Laufer’s MeSoncino vi’ad Vilna (“From Soncino to Vilna”), which tries to answer questions such as: “What happened to the word ‘Talmud’?”, “Who decided that the Tosafot will be placed on the Gemara page?”, and, most interestingly, “Who set the page layout (tsuras hadaf) for coming generations?”. The book answers much more than that, building off of R.N.N. Rabinowitz‘s monumental essay on the printing of the Talmud to provide a lot of information on the many different editions of the Talmud, their publishers, their innovations, their mistakes, and more, ending even later than Vilna with descriptions of recent digitally printed editions such as Oz veHadar.

Laufer also provides some quasi-philological examples of what has changed over the generations in the text of the Talmud. While he makes extensive use of important academic tools like The Lieberman Institute’s Talmudic manuscripts Database (although in its older version; stay tuned for a post in the coming days on updates to the newer version of the database), his use of textual witnesses often lacks sound methodology. For example, in his chapter on the first Venice Printing, Laufer brings an example of what might be considered mistake in Yerushalmi Megillah, where we read “רב אמר צריך לאמר ארור המן ארורים בניו”. According to Laufer, this version might be a “correction” made by the non-Jewish printer, Daniel Bomberg, of the less politically correct “ארורים כל הרשעים ברוכים כל הצדיקים” which is said in the prayer “Shoshanat Yaakov“, recited on Purim. It seems to me that Laufer has come across an interesting case in which the halakha eventually brought in such codes as the Tur and Shulchan Aruch is influenced heavily by the version of an Ashkenazi Sefer Yerushalmi like text, and he seems to favor it over the version that appears in our Yerushalmi (MS Leiden). Eliezer Brodt, who let us know about MeSoncino vi’ad Vilna, also informed us that he plans on writing more about Laufer’s book over at the Seforim Blog soon (another review can be found here).

Halakhah: Explicit and Implied Theoretical and Ideological AspectsTwo more recent publications are David Weiss Halivni’s new volume of Mekorot uMesorot, which completes Seder Nezikin, and another volume in the joint Van-Leer and Magnes series on the Philosophy of Halakha. This volume, partially based on a 2006 conference on Halakha and ideology and bearing the title “Halakha: Explicit and Implied Theoretical and Ideological Aspects”, contains contributions from Yair Furstenburg and David J. Landes, both of whom have guest-blogged for the Talmud Blog.

Conferences, English

Conference Review: Legal Heterodoxy in Islamic and Jewish History: Late Antique and Medieval Transformations, University of California, Berkeley, April 23-24- Guest Post by Marc Herman

I confess that I arrived at the conference last week with a healthy dose of skepticism.  Though billed as a treatment of “Legal Heterodoxy in Islamic and Jewish History,” I worried that the conference’s subtitle and chronological frame, “Late Antique and Medieval Transformations,” lightly masked a correlation of Islamic:Medieval and Jewish:Late Antique.  As I reviewed the schedule in advance, I noticed that the symposium poster announced scholars of classical rabbinics in conversation with scholars of medieval Islam.  How, I wondered, would this create a valid historical conversation?  And if history is not the goal, why study late antique Judaism alongside medieval Islam?  Would the goals be ecumenical?  Philosophical?  The theoretical study of law?

When Lena Salaymeh, one of the organizers, opened the symposium with a nod to the above disparity, it began an honest discussion of the challenge of placing Islamic and Jewish law in synchronic conversation.  The pride of place of rabbinics in both Jewish Studies and the popular Jewish imagination leads to a concomitant lack of emphasis on the medieval transmitters and interpreters of rabbinic culture.  Even among those who have studied medieval Rabbanite law, far greater work has been done on Jewish law in Latin Europe than on its counterpart in Arabic lands.  Recent decades have seen a resurgence of interest in Geonica, but surprising lacunae include Jewish law in Muslim Andalusia, North African halakhists, and even, relatively speaking, the legal writings of Maimonides.  Many books could be written about these and other topics, both from an “internal” perspective and by understanding them in light of their Muslim contexts.

This is not to say that the conference papers did not contribute to the study of Muslim and Jewish law in concert.  While previous scholarship has acknowledged connections between Sasanian-era rabbinic and nascent Islamic legal systems, these connections await thorough scrutiny.  G. Libson and others have long championed S. D. Goitein’s “Mediterranean society” view of medieval Judaism and Islam, but scholarship has not always appreciated regional or contextual factors in medieval Jewish legal history.  Developments in the study of Sasanian culture will improve the study of both Geonic-era Islamic and Jewish legal cultures.  Yaakov Elman’s paper, to nobody’s surprise, served as a good touchstone for that project. Only in teasing out what I like to call the “late antique soup” of the pre-Geonic world will we properly understand the rise of Islamic law.

Phenomenologically, I was most excited by the papers of Steven Fraade and Mohammad Fadel.  Fraade analyzed rabbinic traditions that valorize legal pluralism, while Fadel focused on the unusual positions of Ibn Hazm (d. 1064), who lived at the end of Muslim hegemony in al-Andalus and rejected the “normative pluralism” of medieval Sunni orthodoxy.  Though it went unmentioned, it is highly suggestive that as a religious minority, Geonic culture famously downplayed the multivocal vision of the rabbis, conceivably for similar reasons to Ibn Hazm.

A good conference is marked by the questions it poses and the avenues it opens, and this conference was no exception.  In her closing review of the proceedings, Talya Fishman outlined three areas of Jewish studies that could be enhanced by greater understanding of Islamic law: (1) the consolidation of legal traditions in the Geonic period; (2) a change in the “technology” of the law (from oral to written Torah); and (3) Geonic epistemology and treatment of both aggadah and halakhah.  To this list one may add the lacunae mentioned above, as well as scholarly understanding of Karaism (something this blog has recently highlighted).  Ultimately, Judeo-Islamic studies remains a young and exciting field.

Marc Herman is a graduate student in The University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Religious Studies.

Conferences, English

Halakha in the Holiday Season

While vendors here in the open-market already began selling sufganiyot a few months ago, the recent displays of hanukiyot are a sure sign of the impending holiday season. Veteran readers of The Talmud Blog may recall Shai’s classic 2009 post “Hanukah at Scholion“. For others, the Holiday of Lights might bring to mind memories of family gatherings, Youtube videos, and fried delicacies. This year, Israel based readers are encouraged to attend Yad-Ben Zvi’s Hanukah conference on Halakha. Here’s a brief description by one of the events’ organizers:

Yad Ben Zvi’s upcoming conference on ”Halakhic Revolutions – Then and Now” (December 25) is intended to serve a double purpose: it will provide an opportunity for four authors of recently published historical studies on halakhic topics (Aharon Shemesh, Cana Werman, Vered Noam and Hillel Newman) to discuss their work, and it will also serve in the same vein as a forum for other scholars to address questions of halakhic change and dynamics from antiquity to the present. The additional speakers include Rami Reiner, Adiel Schremer, Maoz Kahana, Hanan Gafni, Yair Sheleg and Moshe Halbertal.