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Right of Reply: Azzan Yadin-Israel Responds to Amit Gvaryahu’s review

My thanks to The Talmud Blog for inviting me to respond to Amit Gvaryahu’s review of Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash. I find myself in the odd position of responding to a review that is generally positive and in certain passages very generous in its praise. Nonetheless, in what follows I will address some of the points Gvaryahu raises in his review, and, more importantly, those that he does not. (Due to space considerations, I have abbreviated some of the Sifra passages I cite).

In his introductory comments Gvaryahu praises me for engaging “refreshingly in textual scholarship” (his italics), so it is no surprise that most of his comments involve close readings of individual passages. Some of his comments merit, I think, response of one kind only: thank you. Gvaryahu is absolutely correct about the translation (read: my mistranslation) of halalim in §2.6, and he has also found a number of textual errata that I hope to have the opportunity to correct in a future revision. However, other of his comments leave me less convinced. Thus, I cite as §2.1 the opening gloss of a derashah:

“בוהק … טהור” מלמד שהבוהק טהור.

“a rash … is pure”—this teaches that a rash is pure.
Gvaryahu contends that we ought examine the entirety of the derashah, which “is parsing the verse, dividing it up into small units, each with its own meaning.” To this I would respond in two ways. First, the opening gloss should stand on its own merits, especially as it uses the term melammed to link the biblical terms to their conclusion, though it is not clear how the gloss does what it claims to do. As it stands, it extracts two words from the verse to create a brief phrase, then glosses with the identical phrase: read innocently, it is a tautology; read in light of the interpretive issues Gvaryahu raises (e.g., the ambiguous referent of the second הוא in the verse), it is a midrash that suppresses its own interpretive arguments, with the result a tautological gloss. Second, Gvaryahu’s elaboration of the full derashah merely rehearses the claims of the Sifra. Thus, Gvaryahu writes of “the two occurrences of הוא, which are read as limiting the purity of the rash to the rash itself and leprosy which protruded from it or which it might have touched”—all this from בהק הוא (“it is a rash”) and טהור הוא (“it is pure”). But why does the word הוא function in this manner; why does is limit these legal cases and not others, etc. This may be a cogent argument in Gvaryahu’s eyes, but I suspect we have simply grown accustomed to the Sifra’s (more accurately: the anonymous Sifra’s) hermeneutic caprice.Finally, I wonder what the force of Gvaryahu’s claim is. After all, §2.1 is followed by other examples:

  • 2.2 “Raven”—this refers to the raven. (Shemini pereq 5.4)
  • 2.3 “Large lizards”—these are the large lizards. (Shemini parashah 5.7)
  • 2.4 “… all living creatures that move in the water”—to introduce (lehaviʾ) the fish. (Shemini pereq 12.6)

The first two are literal restatements of the language of Scripture; the third a midrashic expansion that “introduces” the most self-evident conclusion—that “all living creatures that move in the water” includes fish. Setting §2.1 alongside these derashot lessens the burden placed on it (calling one derashah into question does not do invalidate the broader point), and also makes the “tautology” reading more compelling (it is one of several Sifra glosses that, literally or substantively, merely restate the language of the verse).

The same holds for Gvaryahu’s response to §2.6. While I, again, gratefully acknowledge his correction regarding halalim, the point of my analysis there is the odd structure of the Sifra’s reading of בני אהרן הכהנים: it first proposes a reading (yakhol) concerning בני אהרן as though הכהנים were not stated right there, and rejects it due to the presence of הכהנים; then proposes a reading concerning הכהנים but rejects it due to the presence of בני אהרן. Why raise a possibility excluded by הכהנים to begin with, when the word is modifying בני אהרן? And why repeat the procedure, artificially ignoring the presence of בני אהרן only to then draw the phrase back into the conversation as a foil to the proposed reading? Even if the Sifra is concerned with redundancy, why address it in such a convoluted manner?

But it is unlikely that the Sifra is concerned with redundancy at all, since §2.6 is not the only place this commentary “hides” one of the words in the verse only to “rediscover” it later (what I call a fort-da derashah):

  • 2.7 “… the anointed priest …”: “Anointed”—might this refer to the king? Scripture teaches, saying “priest.” (Hovah parashah 2.6)
  • 2.8 “And if anyone … hunts down an animal or a bird that may be eaten”: I know only regarding a bird that may be eaten, whence regarding an animal that may be eaten? Scripture teaches saying “an animal or a bird that may be eaten” (Ahare pereq 11.4)
  • 3.1 “The elders of the community …”: “The elders”—might this refer to elders of the marketplace? Scripture teaches, saying “the elders of the community.” (Hovah pereq 6.1)

Here too, the additional examples buttress the claim that §2.6 is a fort-da derashah, even as they lower stakes if any one derashah is excluded from this set.

There are other nits to be picked in the review (section D ignores the structural issues with Sifre Deuteronomy §357 and the cultural dependence of lectio dificilior as I argue in Chapter 7, and more), but my main concern is with what Gvaryahu does not touch on. As it stands, the review suggests that I am not convinced by certain Sifra arguments and so cast the work as engaged in ex post facto reconstructions. This omits, rather unfairly, the philological core of the book: the claim that there is a semantic incongruity in the hermeneutic terms of the Rabbi Ishmael midrashim and the named Rabbi Akiva sources, on the one hand, and the anonymous Sifra, on the other:

1. Perhaps the most dramatic shift is evident in the phrases ribbah ha-katuv and miʿet ha-katuv. In the Mekhilta to Exodus 12:45 we read: “Miʿet ha-katuv the time of eating [the paschal lamb] … But will you argue thus about the contribution offering concerning which ribbah ha-katuv the time of eating …?” (Pisha 15). If we bracket for a moment our familiarity with the dominant sense of these phrases in the Sifra, it is evident that the Mekhilta is contrasting the relatively narrow timeframe the Torah allots the consumption of the paschal offering and the relatively wide timeframe it allots the contribution offering. Here ribbah ha-katuv and miʿet ha-katuv, then, refer to the relative breadth and narrowness of biblical categories, respectively; they do not midrashically derive them. This sense is preserved in a number of Sifra derashot, as when we are told that “Scripture has multiplied copious commandments [ריבה הכתוב מצוות יתרות]” with regard to priests, but has not done so with regard to Israelites (§2.35, ʾEmor pereq 1.1-3). What this means is nothing more (and nothing less) than that the Torah contains many more commands concerning priests than non-priests—it is not a midrashic interpretation. In the anonymous Sifra more broadly, however, ribbah ha-katuv and miʿet ha-katuv indicate an interpretive move that introduces or excludes, respectively, legal elements not found in Scripture. That these formulas, the interpretive core of the anonymous Sifra, represent a subtle but profound revision of an established tannaitic usage, is very significant, but goes unnoted in the review. (Indeed, Gevryahu’s criticism that I do not recognize [in §4.18] that both Sifra Hovah 9.8 and Mishnah Shevuʿot 3.5 employ the phrase ribbui ha-katuv misses the point entirely: they do use the same phrase but it means something different.)

2. The yakhol and minayin derashot also undergo a dramatic shift. First, note that the proliferation of ribbui and miʾut in the now-standard sense (“to introduce,” “to exclude”) disrupts the hermeneutic system of the Sifra, since ribbui arguments are now pragmatically identical with minayin derashot, and miʿut arguments with yakhol derashot:

  • 3.9 “On the seventh day”: Might this mean (yakhol) either in the daytime or at night? Scripture teaches, saying “day”—not at night. (Metzoraʿ pereq 2.1)
  • 3.10 “On the first day”: In the day, not at night. (ʾEmor pereq 16.3)

The above derashot differ rhetorically—§3.9 is a yakhol … talmud lomar argument, while §3.10 a miʿut gloss—but are pragmatically identical: the word “day” precludes the broader reading that includes nighttime. Pragmatic redundancy is a strong indication that a “non-native” element has been introduced into the hermeneutic system.

More importantly, the yakhol and minayin derashot in the anonymous Sifra (broadly speaking—I note exceptions) differ from the Rabbi Ishmael midrashim and most named tannaitic derashot in that they conclude with the same verse that initiates the discussion. This is a deeply problematic issue: if verse X legitimately raises the possibility of interpretation P, how can the same verse then exclude P (“X” yakhol P … talmud lomar “X”)? Or, vice versa, if verse X excludes reading P, how can it be the verse that raises the possibility of that very reading? (Gvaryahu’s  suggestion that yakhol and minayin derashot establish the hermeneutic markedness of a term is incorrect: hermeneutic markedness precedes and legitimizes derashot; where it is employed, it is a condition of legitimate interpretation not a conclusion).

3. Mikan ʾamru: in the Rabbi Ishmael midrashim, the phrase generally refers to derashot whose conclusion is explicitly identified by the Mishnah as a derashah, or can plausibly be construed as one. In the Sifra, mikan ʾamru often claims midrashic basis for teachings that the Mishnah characterizes as non-midrashic (testimony, “they said,” etc.).

I cannot, of course, go into detail here. However, it is important to introduce these arguments because they are the philological core of Scripture and Tradition’s first section, and, moreover, because they speak directly to some of the issues Geveryahu raises in his review. To wit, my claim that the (anonymous) Sifra reworks extra-scriptural halakhot into a midrashic form is supported by a series of arguments regarding the interpretive techniques of this collection. It is not a sense of aporia that leads me to adopt this conclusion, but rather a positive, philological thesis concerning the workings of the Sifra. Like all critical scholarship, my thesis is subject to debate and criticism (“Let the conversation begin”), but for that to happen the review needs, at a minimum, to present the book’s thesis.

The same problem attends the review’s treatment of Scripture and Tradition’s concluding chapters. The argument, in brief, is that rabbinic scholarship has failed to offer a satisfactory account of the relationship between midrash and halakhot because it has consistently sought diachronic models, when a synchronic one is more appropriate to the sources. I cannot go into a detailed justification of this thesis, nor of its ramifications, but at least as far as my intent is concerned (Nota bene: everyone is a skeptic about authorial intent until it comes to their book…), it was not offer “somewhat of a postscript.”

It is evident that Amit Gvaryahu has read Scripture and Tradition with care and has offered me some important correctives and points of consideration. Any scholar worth his salt wants readers of this sort. My sense that some of the book’s core arguments were not properly represented in the review, does not diminish my gratitude to Amit for his engagement of my book, and to The Talmud Blog for affording me the opportunity to respond.


A. Gvaryahu on A. Yadin-Israel ‘Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash’

Azzan Yadin-Israel, Scripture and Tradition: Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015. 308+vii pages. $75.

Reviewed by Amit Gvaryahu

Azzan Yadin-Israel has presented us with a detailed and meticulous study of Sifra. This is a wonderful thing. There is to date no other such study of the midrashic methodology of any work from the school of Rabbi Akiva. There is also no critical academic commentary on all of Sifra nor a full critical edition. Though Sifra was the most widely studied Tannaitic Midrash both in late antiquity and in the middle ages–there are more manuscripts, whole and fragmented, of Sifra and medieval commentaries on it than any of its counterparts – it was neglected in modern scholarship. Yadin-Israel’s willingness to undertake this project is laudable.

Sifra is a running commentary on Leviticus. For the most part it is associated with the School of Rabbi Akiva. (Several segments of Ishmaelian Midrash, most importantly the Mekhilta de-Arayot, were incorporated into some Sifra manuscripts in the Middle Ages from the now lost Ishmaelian Midrash to Leviticus). Sifra is generally accepted to be a Tannaitic work, and its redaction predates the Talmud (Kahana; but cf. Stemberger). Some have claimed that it predates the Mishnah (Reichman).

In a Hebrew University dissertation which stands in the background of Yadin-Israel’s work, Yonatan Sagiv mapped out the exegetical methods of attributed statements in Sifra and noticed that they tended to “clump” around problematic verses and did not cover all of Leviticus. Yadin-Israel acknowledges his reliance on Sagiv’s work at the beginning of the book. He restates Sagiv thus: “The Sifra  is made up of a relatively small number of Tannaitic interpretations [i.e. attributed to named tannaim], concentrated around a limited group of verses, embedded in a much larger and more uniformly distributed set of anonymous derashot.”

The book is made up of three parts. The first (caps. 1-4) attempts to characterize the exegetical methods of the unattributed Sifra. The second (caps. 5-7) is dedicated to the character of Rabbi Akiva in rabbinic literature and the statements attributed to him in Sifra. The third (caps. 8-9) is somewhat of a postscript, offering a comparative survey of other methods of interpretation in the Judaeo-Christian/late Roman orbit and situating Yadin-Israel’s work in the context of previous scholarship.


Parts 1 and 2 of the book make bold claims. In the first part of the book, “A Hermeneutic of Camouflage,” Yadin-Israel sets out to find the hermeneutic assumptions and exegetical method of Sifra, only to discover that there is none. He reads through various homilies grouped by terms: words marked as redundant, the particle את, possessive pronouns, ribbui and mi’ut, and the tying of Mishnah to verse with the term mikan amru. He also devotes considerable space to finding consistency in the reading of certain words. Chapter 2, “The Sifra as Midrash,” is devoted to what Yadin-Israel terms “vacuity” and “semantic discontinuity,” which are, respectively, charging innocent words with midrashic meaning, and creating a derasha that does not flow logically from the verse. The conclusion of this survey is that though the anonymous Sifra might sound like Midrash – by going through the motions of marking words as redundant and inviting interpretation, by noticing various phonetic peculiarities and grammatical inconsistencies and so forth – it only employs midrashic rhetoric in “ex post facto constructions” to rework oral traditions into “Midrash.” Since the project is to find Mishnah in scripture – at all costs – it is no surprise that the anonymous Sifra throws consistency and even coherence to the wind, and engages in “tautological, solipsistic, or otherwise empty arguments” (p. 100).

But wait, you say, isn’t Sifra associated with Rabbi Akiva, the man who in popular imagination could pile heaps and heaps of interpretations on the tip of one letter? Should we expect any less than that from a work associated with him? In part 2, “A Curious Career,” Yadin-Israel unequivocally says that this is not the Rabbi Akiva presented in the attributed Tannaitic material. In fact, claims Yadin-Israel, after examining the traditions attributed to Rabbi Akiva in Sifra (in Chapter 6) his homilies are more similar in terminology and method to the ones found in the Ishmaelian Midrashim (Mekhilta de Rabbi Ishmael and Sifre Numbers) than to the anonymous Sifra. Even an examination of the biographical traditions about Rabbi Akiva in Tannaitic literature shows him to be a product of the rabbinic academy from childhood, not at all the revolutionary outsider we know and love from the Babylonian Talmud (Chapters 5 and 7).

Yadin-Israel’s claims are not abstract or ungrounded. To buttress them, he offers a large textual corpus in translation, helpfully reproduced in Hebrew from MS Kaufmann A 50 (for Mishnah) and MS Vatican Ebr. 66 (For Sifra, all on pp. 213-229). It is a richly documented book, which offers thoughtful textual analysis on every page. Yadin-Israel engages refreshingly in textual scholarship. In lucid and beautiful prose he takes the reader along with him on what is (for Yadin-Israel) an ultimately futile quest for meaning in the anonymous Sifra. I enjoyed engaging with each source immensely, even where I did not agree with the conclusions. It is this disagreement that I will lay down below.

In Chapter 9, Yadin-Israel notes that his claim – that Sifra does not engage in creative legal hermeneutics, but in some other project – is not new. The main stream of rabbinic scholarship in the early twentieth century was of the opinion that halakhah is “Oral Law,” what Josephus called paradôsis, “tradition.” Perhaps at some point in time rabbis shifted from “tradition to commentary,” and perhaps not, but the creation of the bulk of rabbinic law was grounded in the former, not the latter. Yadin-Israel’s innovative claim here is that both tradition and commentary were appealed to as sources of authority at the same time, but in different Tannaitic schools: Rabbi Akiva was grounded in tradition, Rabbi Ishmael in commentary. Notwithstanding Yadin-Israel’s modifications of the basic thesis of midrash mekayyem or, in his terms, midrash somekh, he is (in my opinion) coming almost full circle, upending several decades of the study of Midrash. Daniel Boyarin in his Intertextuality and the Reading of Midrash tentatively suggested that Midrash should be read as commentary on scripture. His suggestion became so successful that, against this backdrop, Yadin-Israel can qualify and hedge: Midrash is not always commentary and works that call themselves “Midrash” are sometimes something else. Like a front for connecting oral traditions to scripture.

And herein lies the rub. Maybe – just maybe – If the anonymous Sifra rhetorically presents itself as Midrash, its claims should be taken seriously. I would like to take up a few of Yadin-Israel’s examples in the first part of the book and see whether they have exegetical ground after all (I will use Yadin-Israel’s numbering scheme for the quotations, preceded by a §).

A.    Rashes

Leviticus 13:38-39 reads:

וְאִישׁ֙ אֽוֹ־אִשָּׁ֔ה כִּֽי־יִהְיֶ֥ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרָ֖ם בֶּהָרֹ֑ת בֶּהָרֹ֖ת לְבָנֹֽת׃  וְרָאָ֣ה הַכֹּהֵ֗ן וְהִנֵּ֧ה בְעוֹר־בְּשָׂרָ֛ם בֶּהָרֹ֖ת כֵּה֣וֹת לְבָנֹ֑ת בֹּ֥הַק ה֛וּא פָּרַ֥ח בָּע֖וֹר טָה֥וֹר הֽוּא׃

When a man or a woman has spots on the skin of the body, white spots, the priest shall make an examination, and if the spots on the skin of the body are of a dull white, it is a rash that has broken out on the skin; it is pure.

Yadin-Israel quotes the homily on verse 39 (§2.1):

בוהק טהור. מלמד שהבוהק טהור.

A rash is pure – this teaches that a rash is pure.

This, says Yadin-Israel (p. 27), is a tautological gloss, a homily with no meaning. And if this were the verse, then it would certainly be. Zooming out and reading the homily in context shows otherwise:

“בוהק” “טהור”. מלמד שהבוהק טהור.יכול לא יטמא משם אום. אבל יטמא משם פיסיון. תל’-לו’. ”הפורח טהור”.יכול יטהר את הבהרת שיצאת ממנו. תל’-לו’. “הוא”.

יכול לא יטהר את הבהרת שיצאת ממנו. אבל יטהר את הבהרת שניסמך לה.

תל’-לו’. “בוהק הוא”. “טהור הוא”.

הוא טהור. אין הבהרת שיצאת ממנו ושניסמך לה טהורה. אילא טמאה.

“Rash” “pure” – this teaches that a rash is pure.Could it perhaps not cause impurity in itself, but cause impurity if it is an extension of an existing leprosy? It teaches, saying: “that has broken out is pure.”Could it cause purity to the leprosy which protrudes from it? It teaches, saying “it.”

Could it not cause purity to the leprosy (בהרת) which protrudes from it, but cause purity to the leprosy that it spreads to? It teaches, saying “it is a rash” “it is pure.” It is pure, but the leprosy that protrudes from it and that it spreads to are not pure but impure (Negaim, ed. Weiss 67a).

Read in entirety, the homily is parsing the verse, dividing it up into small units, each with its own meaning: “the rash is pure,” “that has broken out is pure,” and then the two occurrences of הוא, which are read as limiting the purity of the rash to the rash itself and leprosy which protruded from it or which it might have touched.

None of these readings is self-evident, and other readings of the verse are possible. Who is the referent of the second הוא: the person (see e.g. Vulgate) or the rash? Is the rash pure, or is it only pure if it breaks out in the skin, but not otherwise (see the insistence of the Septuagint on the former). Reading the verse requires parsing it into constituent parts and explaining them, which is what hermeneutics is by definition. Yadin-Israel (p. 22, quoting a different part of the homily as §1.14), claims that the “phrase tahor hu is a necessary component of the verse because it identifies the referent of ‘pure.’” In this, Sifra also clearly disagrees with him: It clearly states: ‘“Rash” “pure” – this teaches that a rash is pure.’ The homily explains that (1) it is the rash, not the person, that is pure, and (2) that the rash is ipso facto pure, not just if it spreads. The details derived from the components of the verse now make sense as well (cf. p. 55): only the rash is pure (בהק – טהור הוא), but its spreading does not cause purity to leprosy (פרח בעור – טהור הוא). Parsing it this way, Sifra’s reading method makes many of the incongruities Yadin-Israel points out, well, congruent.

Also, even if the derasha were tautological and meaningless, Yadin-Israel does not explain to what end. There is no Mishnah or Tosefta that could be the source for this homily.

B.    Blood

Parsing the verse into constituent sentences explains what Yadin-Israel calls fort-da derashot, in which the homily: “hurls an element of the verse out of sight…and then examines the situation. …The Sifra then reels the word back in and uses it as a prooftext” (p. 30).  Leviticus 3:2 reads:

וְסָמַ֤ךְ יָדוֹ֙ עַל־רֹ֣אשׁ קָרְבָּנ֔וֹ וּשְׁחָט֕וֹ פֶּ֖תַח אֹ֣הֶל מוֹעֵ֑ד וְזָרְק֡וּ בְּנֵי֩ אַהֲרֹ֨ן הַכֹּהֲנִ֧ים אֶת־הַדָּ֛ם עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ סָבִֽיב׃

You shall lay your hand on the head of the offering and slaughter it at the entrance of the tent of meeting; and Aaron’s sons the priests shall dash the blood against all sides of the altar.

Sifra comments (§2.6):

“בני אהרן”. יכול חללים. תלמוד לומר. “הכהנים” יצאו חללים.ואוציא חללים ולא אוציא בעלי מומין?תלמוד לומר. “בני אהרן”. מה  אהרן כשר. אף בניו כשרין.

יצאו חללין ובעלי מומין.

“Aaron’s Sons.” Could this refer to disqualified priests (halalim)? It teaches saying: “the priests,” to the exclusion of disqualified priests.Might I exclude disqualified priests, and not exclude handicapped priests? It teaches, saying: “the sons of Aaron.” Just as Aaron is qualified, so his sons are qualified.Thus disqualified and handicapped priests are excluded (Nedavah, ed. Weiss 6b).

Note that I modified Yadin-Israel’s translation here: halalim are definitely not “laypersons”(p. 29). They are disqualified priests, the masculine plural form of חללה in Lev 21:7 and 21:14 (see Jastrow).

Yadin-Israel says the derasha “merely cites the word ‘priests’ and asserts the analytically true fact that priests are not laypersons” (p. 29). But it is not so: the derasha wants to account for the verbosity of the verse. Why say “Aaron’s sons the priests” and not one or the other? The answer is that each name accounts for a different group of marginal priests or Aaronides who are excluded: the halalim, Aaron’s sons but not priests, and the handicapped, priests but not Aaron’s sons.

Yadin-Israel again says that this reading is “plainly opposed to the Ishmaelian notion of hermeneutic markedness” (p. 31), but this does not mean Sifra does not have its own notions of markedness or of hermeneutics which it is trying to convey through its homilies. Sagiv’s findings that Tannaitic statements in Sifra tend to clump around problematic verses do not show that the anonymous Sifra is not interested of making sense of each and every redundancy in all of Leviticus.

In Chapter 4 (p. 99) Yadin-Israel asks about the same homily: why does Sifra not simply cite Leviticus 21:21 to show that handicapped priests are disqualified? That would be an appropriate question if Sifra were attempting to prove that handicapped priests are disqualified, i.e. if Sifra was merely a cover for extra-scriptural traditions. However, if Sifra is interested in responding to the redundancy, citing Leviticus 21:21 would not help at all. (The homily might also be responding to an anomaly in Lev 21:21 which refers to “men who have blemishes from the seed of Aaron” rather than the standard “sons of Aaron,” pointing to the fact that the latter phrase denotes non-handicapped priests).

The same reading technique can solve Yadin-Israel’s issue with homilies that employ the terms yakhol and minayin together with Talmud lomar which return to the same verse (Many, even most yakhol and minayin derashot, do not return to the same verse. In chapter 2, Yadin-Israel is careful to say that not all homilies do; but cf. p. 206.) While Yadin-Israel says they are “empty,” these terms establish the “hermeneutic markedness,” i.e. the redundancy, of one or another of the elements in the verse, setting it up for the interpretation at the end.

Yadin-Israel has the same issue with din (i.e. kol va-homer) arguments which conclude with the same glossed prooftexts that preceded them (e.g. p. 63, §3.12 and pp. 64-67, §3.13). Here too Sifra is working to establish markedness. In these cases, the homily points to a redundant grammatical element (e.g. אתו) and glosses it with a halakhah. Then it introduces a din argument for the opposite of the halakhah. Then it concludes (talmud lomar) that the redundant element was required to negate the din. The fact that the formulae do not distinguish between the same verse and different verses might show that for the Sifra, redundancy is an issue whether it manifests itself in the same verse or in different verses.

C.   From Tradition to Commentary

Beyond that, however, Yadin-Israel seems to be setting up a dichotomy between “tradition” and “commentary” which seems to me unhelpful. Many mishnayot are based not on “tradition” but on “commentary.” Yadin-Israel’s example §4.18 is a case in point. On p. 94 he compares Mishnah Shevu’ot 3:5 to Sifra Hovah (Weiss 23c) and tries to determine the relationship between them. This is a tricky relationship indeed (it would have been better if Yadin-Israel had offered readers more of the Mishnah in context). But Mishnah Shevu’ot here is anything but an “extra-scriptural tradition.” The Mishnah presents a debate between Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael regarding scriptural interpretation. They both employ the term ribbuy ha-katuv, “the inclusive language in the verse.” Many other mishnayot are based on scriptural interpretation as well (as Ch. Albeck notes sometimes in the addenda to his Mishnah commentary). Even if the Sifra here post-dates the Mishnah, and is (as Yadin-Israel explains) attempting to solve an apparent problem in the Mishnah, it does not follow that the Sifra is a mere foil for grounding extra-scriptural traditions in scripture. Quite the opposite: the Mishnah here is engaging in Midrash as well. A similar approach can resolve Yadin-Israel’s issue with Menachem Kahana’s reading of Mishnah Gittin 9:10, Sanhedrin 3:4 and Sifra Metzora (Weiss, 79c), on pp. 209-210.

There are, to be sure, homilies in Sifra which serve to “unite the Dual Torah,” to use Jacob Neusner’s turn of phrase, by coupling mishnayot with homilies (e.g. §2.19, §2.20, §3.4 and many more). But even these have an interpretive effect on scripture. For example, the list of blemishes in persons in Mishnah Bekhorot 7:6 (p. 98; on the list see Rosen-Zvi) is cast in Sifra (§2.21) as a homily on Leviticus 21:21. The contents of the list are clearly not derived from scripture. But claiming that they are anchored in a ribbuy, איש איש, is in itself an interpretation of the verse which makes the verse speak the language of the rabbis. It is not the kind of self-referential hermeneutic that Yadin-Israel attributes to the school of Rabbi Ishmael, but it is a hermeneutic nonetheless. It is the same kind of hermeneutic that fuels, for example, the Palestinian Targumim, which can go on a homiletic tangent while reading a verse. To those who have the Oral Torah, it can be found everywhere, not least in the Written Torah. (I would also add that in Leviticus 10:9 drunken priests are only forbidden from entering the tent of meeting – not officiating at the altar, and so the Mishnah here is not circumventing scripture). I think the examples here are sufficient to prompt readers to check the evidence for themselves and engage with the examples, as Yadin-Israel has so generously invited us to do. Yadin-Israel’s general theory is an impressive and beautifully argued paradigm, but it is based on the cumulative textual evidence and must be examined against a careful reading of the original texts in context.

D. A Curious Career

As for the second part of the book, Chapter 5, Yadin-Israel’s intertextual reading of the Akiva and Moses encounter in Bavli Menahot 29b is innovative and thought-provoking. It would be better for Yadin-Israel’s paradigm of the Sifra, however, to adopt Shlomo Naeh’s suggestion that Rabbi Akiva sat and “expounded heaps and heaps of halakhot on each pericope (קוצה) of the Torah.” This sounds much like Yadin-Israel’s description of the anonymous Sifra: a work intent on pairing up extra-scriptural traditions with verses. Interestingly, Moses did not understand this endeavor at all, and was only satisfied when he was informed that an extra-scriptural law was just that: “a tradition to Moses from Sinai.” (For another use of כתב in this context, see Sifre Dueteronomy 26, ed. Finkelstein, 65).

Chapter 6, on the relationship between Rabbi Akiva’s homilies and the anonymous Sifra is important in that is highlights the differences between named and anonymous homilies in Sifra in a systematic way. It is a good starting point for sustained and systematic inquiry on this relationship, although Yadin-Israel sometimes goes too far in differentiating named Rabbi Akiva homilies from those of the anonymous Sifra. I would add that though Yadin-Israel is noncommittal on the date and provenance of this layer, it is clearly cited in the Talmuds. Sifra is also “Tannaitic” in both language and content. The existence of multiple strata in Sifra (as in any Tannaitic work) does not make any of them less “Tannaitic” than the other. It shows quite nicely that there were programmatic and hermeneutic developments in the school of Rabbi Akiva.

Chapter 7, sadly, leaves me unconvinced on philological grounds. Yadin-Israel successfully shows that there are traditions that make Rabbi Akiva a member of the rabbinic community from childhood, but works unsuccessfully to discredit the Tannaitic tradition, in Sifre Deuteronomy (with a parallel in Genesis Rabbah), that casts him as someone who was an ignoramus until forty.

Sifre Deut 357: “Rabbi Akiva began to study Torah when he was forty”:

ר’ עקיבה למד תורה בן ארבעים שנה.

Genesis Rabbah 100 (p. 1295): “Rabbi Akiva was an ignoramus for forty years”:

ר’ עקיבא עשה בור ארבעים שנה.

(1) Yadin-Israel tries to cast doubt on the reading of Genesis Rabbah 100 that Rabbi Akiva עשה בור for forty years, and claim that it is a correction of Sifre Deuteronomy. On p. 152 he says it is “very odd,” but it is really not: as Yadin-Israel notes on p. 143, עשה is good Rabbinic Hebrew for “spent time.” He “was an ignoramus.”

(2) The reading of MS London of Sifre Deuteronomy, that Rabbi Akiva learned Torah for forty years (למד תורה ארבעים שנה), waited on the sages for forty years and then led Israel for forty years, leaving him no time to be an ignoramus, is not corroborated by any other manuscript evidence.

(3) The Sifre Deuteronomy fragment Yadin-Israel cites, (MS Holon 242 ה) is not a Genizah fragment but a late medieval Sephardi Fragment of Sifre Deuteronomy brought to Israel from Yemen. Its reading, עסק בעולם, is a reworking of the Genesis Rabbah tradition, perhaps even a graphic corruption (עסה>עסק and בור>בע’>בעולם).

(4) Yadin-Israel cites Midrash Hagadol to Genesis which reads that R. Akiva עשה בלא תורה for forty years, but this is a reworking, again, of Genesis Rabbah (with בלא תורה replacing the disrespectful בור, perhaps another graphic corruption of בור>ב’ ת’>בלא תורה). Midrash Hagadol on Deuteronomy 34:7 has the same reading as all the other Sifre Deuteronomy manuscripts.

(5) More importantly, the other three characters who died at 120 listed in the tradition in Sifre and Genesis Rabbah all spent forty years outside of the world of Torah. Moses was in Egypt, Hillel the Elder came from Babylonia and Rabban Yohanan b. Zakkai was a merchant. To fit this pattern, Rabbi Akiva must have started learning at forty.

I am interested to know why the existence of this tradition is so troubling to Yadin-Israel’s thesis. Could there not simply be two traditions about the early career of Rabbi Akiva? This however does not diminish from the importance of Yadin-Israel’s effort to reintroduce rabbinic biography back into the study of the Tannaitic traditions themselves.

E. Editing

The derashot are supplied in translation (and sometimes in the original) without their original lemmata. This decision caused a blatant error on p. 56 (§3.2), in which Leviticus 11:2-3 is supplied as a lemma for an excerpt from a complex and difficult homily on Leviticus 11:24 which happens to cite Leviticus 11:2-3. Yadin-Israel points to this homily as an example of “extreme semantic discontinuity,” but this is alleviated if read in context and in conjunction with the correct verses. Similar but less severe problems can be found in §2.10; §2.17-18 (in §2.17 the verse is Lev 15:18, not 19); §2.38; §2.37 (Lev 15:25 is quoted erroneously, skewing the entire homily). It also blurs the choices Sifra makes out in delimiting the lemma, as I pointed out above. Sources are sometimes truncated, leading to problematic conclusions and impressions (e.g. §3.2, §3.14, §4.18, §10.1, as well as the motto at the beginning of chapter 8).

Some of the translations are inaccurate and need revising (e.g. sources §2.6; §2.14; §2.32; §3.7; §3.16; §4.18; §6.6; §6.9; §6.15; as well as on p. 106, 130, 175, 184, 193, 197-8). Sometimes the English translations do not reflect the language of MS Vat. Ebr. 66 reproduced in the back of the book and are based on the vulgate editions (e.g. §2.21; §2.31; §2.35; §4.11; §6.23). The quotation of Sifre Numbers on p. 173 is not based on MS Vat. Ebr. 32 which reads אין “חלום” אלא שיש לו פתרון, which reading solves the discontinuity Yadin-Israel found there. The Hebrew of §2.34 is copied from the vulgate editions, not MS New York. All these should be corrected in a future edition. Other than that, the book is beautifully laid out, copyedited and indexed (On p. 188: committed should be commitment; the author of the MA thesis on Sifre Zutta Numbers is not Hillel, but Hallel Baitner).

When all is said and done, I had a wonderful time reading this book, marking it up and arguing with it. It goes back to basics and offers a comprehensive statement about those basics. Let the conversation begin.

Guest Posts, Reviews, עברית

‘מכילתא דרשב”י פרשת נזיקין’

מחר, ה-30 ליוני, יתקיים האירוע השנתי לזכר ד”ר ליאורה אליאס בר-לבב ז”ל בספרייה הלאומית בירושלים. הערב יוקדש לצאת ספרה מכילתא דרשב”י פרשת נזיקין: נוסח, מונחים, מקורות ועריכה, ירושלים 2013. לרגל הארוע אנו מפרסמים כאן ביקורת על הספר מאת אסף רוזן-צבי.

ספר זה הוא עיבוד קל של עבודת הדוקטור של ליאורה אליאס בר-לבב ז”ל שהושלמה לאחר פטירתה. הספר עוסק בעריכתה היצירתית של המכילתא דרשב”י. לצערנו עבודה זו נקטעה ונזקקה בעצמה למעורבות פעילה של עורך לצורך התקנתה לפרסום. זכתה אליאס בר לבב בכך שעבודת עריכה זו תיעשה בידי פרופ’ מנחם כהנא שהוא האדם המתאים ביותר לכך הן מההיבט האישי והן מההיבט המקצועי.

מלבד העיסוק החשוב בשאלת אופי עריכתה של המכילתא דרשב”י והיחס למקבילותיה תרומתו הגדולה של הספר היא בניתוחים הבהירים ובפרשנויות המחודשות הרבות שבו לקטעים שונים מהמכילתא, שלא זכתה, כידוע, לפירושים רבים. ככזה, ספר זה הינו חובה עבור כל מי שעוסק במדרשי התנאים בכלל ובקטעי המכילתא דרשב”י על פרקים כא-כב בספר שמות בפרט. את עיקרי חידושיה סיכם כהנא במילים הבאות (עמ’ יא):

שורה ארוכה של חידושים פרשניים מאירי עיניים בהבנתן המילולית של דרשות המכילתא, בהארת מובנם המדויק של מונחים מדרשיים, בחשיפת הזיקה הספרותית העמוקה של המכילתא למשנה ובייחוד לתוספתא ואף בפיתוח תובנות מתודולוגיות מחודשות על דרכי העריכה של המכילתא דרשב”י בפרשת נזיקין.

וזו מסקנתה של אליאס בר-לבב בנוגע לעריכת המכילתא (עמ’ יג):

המכילתא דרשב”י בחלקים גדולים שלה אינה מדרש מקורי אלא עיבוד, לא תמיד מושכל, של מקורות קודמים לה שעמדו לפניה.

כהנא מסתייג בפתח הדבר מתיאור זה בעיקר ביחס לתיאור הצרימות והחספוסים כעבודת עיבוד ‘לא מושכלת’ והוא מעלה את האפשרות לראות בכך מוסכמות ספרותיות שונות של עריכה.


הפרק הראשון עוסק בנוסח המכילתא דרשב”י ובהצעות חילופיות לנוסח שפורסם במהדורת אפשטיין ומלמד. נוסח מתוקן של המכילתא דרשב”י לדיני נזיקין (שמ’ כא, כח – כב, ה) מופיע כנספח לספר.

הפרק השני סוקר את המונחים המדרשיים של המכילתא דרשב”י והוא עבודה חלוצית ובסיס נתונים חשוב ביותר. במהלך הספר עושה אליאס בר-לבב שימוש רב בהבנה המדוייקת של כל מונח ומונח ומראה כיצד פכים קטנים אלו מהווים בסיס לניתוח הדרשות, הבנת יחסן למקבילות ומגמת עריכתן. כך לדוגמא, הקיצור יוצא הדופן של המונח ‘(אין לי אלא) Y, X מנין?’ או ההיכרות עם המבנה השונה של המונח ‘לרבות X’ בהשוואה למונח ‘לעשות… כיוצא ב-X’ מאפשרים לה לזהות בין הדרשה המקורית לזו המועברת (עמ’ 253-258). בחינה מדוקדקת של מונחי הדיון יכולה היתה לשמש גם בסיס לשאלות הרמנויטיות רחבות יותר. לדאבוננו מעיד כהנא שעיוניה של אליאס בר-לבב בדרכי המדרש ובקנוונציות המדרשיות לא הושלמו ועל כן לא פורסמו בעבודת הדוקטור.

בפרק השלישי, העוסק ביחס למקבילות במשנה ובתוספתא, מראה אליאס בר-לבב באופן משכנע מאוד כיצד דרשות קשות במכילתא דרשב”י מתבארות מתוך השוואה למשנה והתוספתא ולאור הבנת הדרשות כעיבוד (לא תמיד מוצלח, לדעתה) של המקורות הללו. בחלק מהמקרים החספוס נוצר מתוך ניסיון שלא צלח לאחד הלכות שונות ובמקרים אחרים (והמעניינים יותר בהקשר של הבנת הז’אנר המדרשי) מתוך ניסיון לעגן ולקשר את ההלכות למילות הפסוק. בדרך זו נוצרו ‘מדרשים מלאכותיים, לאקוניים מאוד ונטולי בהירות הלכתית’ (עמ’ 239). חידוש חשוב נוסף הוא ההבחנה שדווקא התוספתא, ולא המשנה, היא המקור ההלכתי העיקרי ששימש את עורך המכילתא דרשב”י בציטוטיו. אמנם גם המשנה עומדת ברקע דרשות רבות. בהקשר זה מנתחת אליאס בר-לבב את חטיבת הדרשות הארוכה על נזקי האש (שמות כב, ה) וטוענת שהיא עיבוד מורכב של רצף ההלכות במשנה ב”ק פרק ו.

בפרק הרביעי עוסקת אליאס בר-לבב בדגמים שונים של שכפול דרשות והעברתן. תופעה זו מוכרת בכל מדרשי התנאים ובעיקר בשתי המכילתות על פרשת נזיקין, הן בעקבות הדינים החוזרים על עצמם שבפסוקים והן בעקבות הניסיון ליצור מערכת משפטית אחידה. אליאס בר-לבב טוענת שהתופעה רחבה הרבה יותר במכילתא דרשב”י אולם מהעיון בדוגמאות נראה שהייחוד איננו רק בכמות אלא גם באיכות. תופעה נוספת הנידונה בפרק היא הצמדה ושילוב של מדרשים סותרים היוצרת את הרושם המוטעה שכוונתם זהה.

אביא כעת בקצרה אחת מהדוגמאות שבהן עוסקת אליאס בר-לבב (עמ’ 162-164 בספר) הממחישה באופן משכנע כיצד פתרון הקושי שבדרשה נובע מחשיפת העיבוד של המדרש לאור המקבילה בתוספתא. הפסוק בשמ’ כא, כח עוסק בשור שנגח אדם והרגו, שדינו סקילה – ‘סקול יסקל השור’. על מילים אלו מופיעה במכילתא דרשב”י הדרשה הבאה, עמ’ 178:

אין לי אלא אלו בלבד, מנין לרבות ולדותיהן ועריבתיהן? ת”ל סקל יסקל.
ולא יהא מסקלו מיד אלא כונסו לכיפה עד שעה שימותו
ור’ אלעזר בר’ שמעון אומ’ <<כולהן>> היו נסקלין

בשורה הראשונה מחדש המדרש שני עניינים: א. גם ולדות הבהמה שנולדו לאחר שנידונה ליסקל ולפני סקילתה בפועל – יומתו עמה. ב. אם הבהמה שנידונה ליסקל נתערבבה בבהמות אחרות ולא ניתן לזהותה – כולן יסקלו. בשורה השניה נאמר שכונסים את כל הבהמות (מדובר במקרה שהתערבבו עמה) למקום הסגר עד שימותו בעצמן ובשורה השלישית מובאת דעתו החולקת של ר’ אלעזר בר’ שמעון שבמקרה זה כל הבהמות (שהתערבבו) נסקלות. אליאס בר-לבב מצביעה על שני קשיים מרכזיים בקטע: א. הדרשה הראשונה מתייחסת לשני מקרים (ולדות ונתערבו) ואילו בהמשך מתייחסים רק לדין נתערבו. ב. היחס שבין השורה השניה לבין מה שלפניה ולאחריה – אם כונסן לכיפה עד שימותו הרי שהן אינן נסקלות כלל! אך מהמשפט ‘ולא יהא מסקלו מיד אלא…’ משמע שההמשך מסכים עם דין הסקילה?!

הפתרון שמציעה אליאס בר-לבב הוא לאור המקבילה שבתוספתא ב”ק ה, ה:

נתערבו באחרין ואחרין באחרין – כולן אסורים בהנאה.
מה יעשו להן? כונסין אותן לכיפה עד שעה שימותו.
ר’ אלעזר בי ר’ שמעון אומ’ כולהן נסקלין.

בנוסח התוספתא אין כל קושי – היא עוסקת במקרה של נתערבו בלבד ודעת ת”ק היא שלא סוקלים אותן אלא כונסין לכיפה בלבד. לפי אליאס בר-לבב, העורך ציטט את המחלוקת מילה במילה מהתוספתא והקדים לה את המשפט ‘ולא יהא מסקלו מיד אלא…’ שמטרתו לגשר בין הדרשה הקודמת במכילתא דרשב”י שדין בהמות שנתערבו הוא סקילה לבין דעת ת”ק שבתוספתא שדינן כינוס בכיפה. התוצאה היא ששיטת ת”ק מוצגת כהסתייגות מדין הסקילה שלפניה, בעוד שהיא למעשה דעה חולקת. דומני שהצעתה של אליאס להסבר דרך עבודתו של העורך משכנעת ביותר, גם אם לא ברור האם נכון לכנות עיבוד מעין זה כ’לא  מושכל’.

ניתן היה לסכם את מחקרה של אליאס בר-לבב בהצבעה על המאפיינים הייחודיים של המכילתא דרשב”י בעיבוד החומר התנאי שלפניו ובכך שחלקים גדולים מהמדרש אינם מקוריים אלא פרי של יצירה משנית (עמ’ 337). אולם סיכום מעין זה מעביר את הרושם המוטעה שממחקר המכילתא דרשב”י לא ניתן להסיק למדרשי ההלכה האחרים, ולא היא. אליאס בר-לבב עצמה מציינת כי המכילתא דרשב”י היא מדרש תנאי אותנטי המגלה קרבה גדולה למדרשים האחרים מדבי ר’ עקיבא (ספרא וספרי דברים) כפי שניכר באופן השימוש שלו במונחי הדיון (146-147). במקומות שונים משווה אליאס בר-לבב את התופעות שהיא מזהה במכילתא דרשב”י גם למדרשי הלכה אחרים, אולם אין היא עושה זאת באופן שיטתי. דומני שהשוואה מעין זו תלמד שבמכילתא דרשב”י קיימת הקצנה של תופעות עיבוד שונות הקיימות גם במדרשי ההלכה האחרים. מוקצנותן של התופעות במכילתא דרשב”י מקלה על זיהויין וניתוחן ועל כן מחקר זה ראוי להוות בסיס לבחינה של תופעות אלו גם במדרשים האחרים.

השאלה המרכזית שהעסיקה את אליאס בר-לבב היא זיהוי דרכי העריכה והעיבוד של המכילתא דרשב”י – מנין נוצרו הצרימות במדרש הקדום והמאוחר (המקורי והמעובד) וכן בין המדרש למקבילותיו. כמו כן עסקה בפירוש מחודש לקטעי מדרש קשים לאור חשיפת המקורות והעריכה. אולם עבודתה הפרטנית הרחבה יכולה וראויה לשמש כבסיס לשאלות רחבות נוספות, שאליאס בר-לבב לא זכתה לפתח. ואדגים כאן רק שלושה עניינים כאלו:

א. הרמנויטיקה – ההבחנות הרבות בין דרשות מקוריות לבין עיבודן יכולות לשמש בסיס לשאלות חשובות של קדום ומאוחר בהקשרים פרשניים. כך לדוגמא ניתן לבחון האם קיימים מאפיינים שונים לדרך הלימוד ממילות הפסוק בדרשות המקוריות לעומת דרכי המדרש המשתקפות בדרשות המעובדות.

ב. היחס שבין מדרש ומשנה – אליאס בר-לבב מראה כיצד המכילתא לוקחת הלכות העומדות לפניה ומעבדת אותן לדרשות באמצעות עיגונן במילות הפסוק. תופעה זו, שיש לבחון אותה גם במדרשים אחרים (ונראה שיימצאו בכך הבדלים בין דבי ר”י ודבי ר”ע), יכולה להיות קיימת כבר ברובד הקדום של המדרש ויש בה חשיבות גדולה להבנת הפרוייקט המדרשי כולו והיחס שבין המדרש וה’משנה’.

ג. המדרש המקורי והשוואה לדבי ר’ ישמעאל – לאחר הזיהוי של דרשות רבות כעיבוד של מקורות תנאיים מקבילים ניתן לשאול מה הם החומרים המדרשיים המקוריים שעמדו בפני עורך המכילתא דרשב”י. שאלה זו מעניינת במיוחד לצורך השוואה בין חומר מדרשי קדום זה לבין המדרש המקביל מדבי ר’ ישמעאל. שאלה נוספת היא עד כמה ניתן למצוא דמיון או מחלוקת בין שני בתי המדרש לא רק ביחס לחומר הדרשני וההלכתי אלא גם ביחס לדרכי העיבוד והעריכה שלהם.

לסיום מילה על ההיבט האישי שמאחורי ספר זה. לצערי הרב לא זכיתי להכיר את ליאורה, אך יצא לי לשמוע את שבחה ממכרים משותפים שונים. כעת יכול הקורא להתוודע למעט מדמותה בפתח הדבר המרגש שכתב פרופ’ כהנא שהיה בקשר קרוב עמה במשך שנים, הנחה אותה בעבודתה ואף ערך את הספר לדפוס. מתוך העיון בתוכנו של הספר ניכרים דבריו על הכוח הפרשני, הברק האינטלקטואלי והיצירתיות יוצאת הדופן של ליאורה ועל כן חזקה שאין גוזמה גם בתיאורו את אישיותה המופלאה והאצילית.

סוף דבר, ספר זה גדוש בחידושים הן ביחס לקריאה ופרשנות של דרשות המכילתא והן ביחס להבנת דרכי העיבוד והעריכה של מדרשי התנאים. אמנם העיון הפרטני בסוגיות הלכתיות סבוכות בהלכות נזיקין אינו קל לקריאה למי שאינו מצוי בעולם זה, אך הניסוח הבהיר והקולח מצליח להקל את עמל הלימוד במידת האפשר. צער גדול הוא שהמחברת לא זכתה להשלים את מחקרה אולם דומני שגם חוסר שלמות זה מעורר את הקורא להמשיך ולהפך בעניינים החשובים הנידונים בו.

אסף רוזן-צבי הוא דוקטורנט בחוג לתלמוד והלכה באוניברסיטה העברית. עבודת הדוקטור שלו, בהנחייתו של פרופ’ מנחם כהנא, היא על מסכתא דכספא שבמכילתא דר’ ישמעאל והיא עוסקת בין השאר בשאלות של פרשנות, עריכה והרמנויטיקה מדרשית.