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.

Announcements, English, Recent Publications

Recently Announced Books

Not just your everyday cereal bowl. From the Bible Lands Museum's exhibit on Jewish Magic.

Eisenbruans has announced a new volume of editions of magic bowls. Aramaic Bowl Spells: Jewish Babylonian Aramaic Bowls Volume One will include bowls from the very important Schøyen Collection, and is being edited by Shaul Shaked, J.N. Ford, and Siam Bhayro. Shaked is one of the foremost authorities on the bowls, and his work has culminated in a slew of articlestwo volumes, and numerous lectures. I had the pleasure of hearing Ford give a talk at a conference that Shai organized last May in which he highlighted many Mesopotamian motifs that he found in the bowls. To top it off, Bhayro brings his expertise on the heterogeneity of pre-Islamic Mesopotamia and on magic texts from the genizah to the volume, which indeed promises to fill a very big gap in printed scholarship.

It goes without saying that the bowls are of utmost importance to the study of Talmud, and especially of the Bavli. Besides the linguistic importance, noted decades ago by Epstein and others, the bowls represent an important window on “the everyday beliefs and practices of the Jewish, Christian, Mandaean, Manichaean, Zoroastrian and Pagan communities on the eve of the Islamic conquests.” For some free content on the topic see here (profile from the Stanford Archaeological Center), here (an article by bowl expert Dan Levine), here (a summary by Shai of a lecture given by Shaked on rabbinic bowls), and here (another summary at the old Talmud blog, of a lecture by Bhayro on divorce motifs in the bowls).

Eisenbraun’s also announced the third edition of Emanuel Tov’s “Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible“. In its newest edition, the book, published originally in Hebrew as part of the “אנציקלופדיה מקראית”,

has incorporated the insights of the last ten years of scholarship, including new perspectives on the biblical texts among the Dead Sea Scrolls, all of which have now been published. Here are expanded discussions of the contribution of textual criticism to biblical exegesis and of the role of scribes in the transmission of the text. The introduction and references throughout the book have been thoroughly revised with the beginning student of textual criticism in mind.

Many of Prof. Tov’s articles, and even some of his books, are available on his personal website.

Members of the Hebrew University Bible Project at work. Note the Talmud scholar in the red shirt.

Although this may sound a little too biblical for readers interested mainly in the Talmud, textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible is an invaluable tool for understanding exegetical moves made by the rabbis. There are many instances in which midrashim were based on a text different than that which is before us today in most editions of the Tanakh. Additionally, scholars of rabbinic literature have a lot to bring to textual criticism of the Hebrew Bible, and the volumes of the Hebrew University Bible Project even have a dedicated apparatus of quotes from rabbinic literature.