Around the Web, English

A Synopsis of the Entire Talmud

Few texts present philologists with as many difficulties as the Babylonian Talmud, whose complicated transmission history – oral and written, spanning centuries and continents – has created countless conundrums that we are only now beginning to understand. At the same time, scholars dispute the proper way to understand the development of the text of the Bavli, meaning that opinions vary with regards to the proper way in which one should explain a difference in the Talmudic text: Is this event a consequence of fluidity during an early stage of oral transmission, or is it perhaps a later interpolation of a learned scribe? Such differences between textual witnesses of the Bavli are countless, and the different scholarly attempts to approach them are related to different ways of understanding how the Talmud developed over time. Thus, the close study of thousands of differences between manuscript versions of the Bavli not only helps explain the sugya at hand, but also sheds light on the development of the Bavli itself. Continue reading

English, Ruminations

Stray Thoughts on Art History and Talmudic Philology

Perhaps more than other historical disciplines, art history is not merely auxiliary to art, it is integral. It can and has been argued that what renders a banal object a bona fide art-object is some conscious level of participation in the story of art. This is a deep truth about visuality – one which was once compellingly evoked in a scene about a time-traveling modern who baffled his nineteenth century friends with amateurish, minimalist etchings on frosted glass. And it is especially true of modern and contemporary art despite – or maybe because of – incessant attempts by provocateurs to try and blow up art history with one fell swoop of shocking red paint. When you vigorously oppose history’s centrality you only enhance it.

Cy Twombly, Academy

At New York City’s MOMA, the viewer snakes his way through the museum’s classic fifth and fourth floors and thereby traces a visual narrative with his feet and eyes. The curators have ever so carefully placed these famous galleries in their “correct” sequence with corresponding plaques on the wall so that the story coheres and the art properly resonates against its general historical milieu and its own art historical context.  Without a previous “academy” to react to, Cy Twombly’s Academy is just vulgar scribbling (it of course remains that even after). One might say that herein lies the successful retort (teshuva nitzahat) to the everyday ‘heretics’ of modern art: Yes, you might technically be able to execute some of  the chaos of contemporary art on your bedroom wall, but did you do it at the right moment, with the right intention, and with the right interviews and critics drawing out the greater significance of the project?  Regardless, something is lost when art must always narcissistically fold into its own history. The pleasure of the thing, and perhaps even its essence, gets away.

For some time now the dominant critical mode of  studying the Babylonian Talmud has consisted of dissecting the sources on the page and placing them on a linear, chronological graph. The early tannaitic passage evolves into a later version, which is reinterpreted by early amoraim, reread by late amoraim, recast by editors, and reworked by redactors. Our mantra is a stutter: “re- re- re- re- re-“.  If a Talmudist succeeds in unraveling this history and explaining its historical  development – or better yet – correlating it to its historical context,  the assumption is that he has succeeded in solving it.  The thrill of this scholarly chase, its secret sleuthing and precious eureka moments, can be exhilarating, but also exhausting. What is left after the “problem” of a sugya’s development is “solved” other than to exhale Ruscha’s bright onomatopoeia?



This somewhat unfair characterization of the field need not be seen as a passionate lament, nor as a call to devolve into pre-scientific thinking (in any case, you cannot really go home again). It is instead offered as an honest, even hopeful question: Is this all there is? Or: What other critical modes might be combined with the currently dominant one to create a more complex – and hence truer – picture of the Talmud as something more than just the sum of its evolving parts?

First, we cannot forget that the growing research into the Bavli’s Sasanian context is still in its early years and will continue to yield succulent and novel insights, not all of it simply “more of the same.” There are new relevant sources that continue to come to light, and more importantly, new ways of correlating these sources to talmudic parallels. It is not all cut-and-dry Talmudic history.  Readers of the Talmud blog also know that there already are other approaches out there that look beyond diachronology. These include the oft-maligned mishpat ivri school – especially as reinvigorated by Robert Cover, and also a group of  literary approaches – particularly those focused on the text’s effect on its readers. In more hopeful moments I realize that where we are now is actually not such a bad place at all.

English, Reviews

On the Margins: A Review of E. Marienberg’s ‘La Baraïta de-Niddah’

Description: Description: C:\Users\Evyatar\Dropbox\Evyatar docs\Livre - BdN\Final Book\Cover-Front-jpg.jpgEvyatar Marienberg, La Baraïta de-Niddah ברייתא דנידה. Un texte juif pseudo-talmudic sur les lois religieuses relatives à la menstruation (Bibliothèque de l’Ecole des Hautes Etudes Sciences Religieuses 157; Paris : Brepols, 2012).

The Baraita deNidah is one of those compositions that should trouble anyone who is interested in the study of rabbinic literature. Its very existence, history of transmission and reception defy traditional views of the rabbinic corpus on both ideological and Halakhic respects. The recent edition of the text by Evyatar Marienberg, with its excellent reproduction of the witnesses and the extremely rich and helpful introduction, is therefore an exciting event. This book is a revised version of the second part of the author’s doctoral dissertation, published in French a decade ago as Niddah. Lorsque les juifs conceptualisent la menstruation (Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 2003).

The Baraita de-Nidah made its first appearance in the field of modern rabbinic studies with the edition of Haim Meir Horowitz. An Orthodox Jew from Frankfurt, Horowitz owned a bookshop where he sold new and old Jewish books as well as some manuscripts. He published several rare rabbinic texts, among which was our “Baraita” in 1890. Marienberg reproduces the main manuscript upon which Horowitz based his edition (the manuscript itself is now lost). Also published here are all of the other witnesses of the text, which are much shorter. The longest among them is preserved in manuscript Parma Palatina 2342 (De Rossi 541) where our text is entitled הלכות נידה and occupies two out of 284 folios. Other witnesses are found in some medieval rabbinic works such as the Kol Bo, Likkutei ha-Pardes and ha-Rokeah. Each one of the ten witnesses is described by the author and even more importantly, is transcribed by him separately and then in a synoptic edition. Four witnesses contain the story of the birth of Rabbi Ishmael, which is also known from another sources. Based on a philological analysis, the author concludes however that this story did not figure in the original version of the Baraita.

The text, or more precisely the family of texts (one is almost tempted to use here the term “macroform”) offer a series of halakhot in matters of nidah which are far stricter than the ones we find in “normal” (and normative) rabbinic literature. Particularly, the menstruating woman’s capacity to defile is extremely exaggerated when compared to talmudic sources. This lead some scholars to link the Baraitha to the Zoroastrian environment of Babylonian Jewry (p. 66). The problem with this hypothesis, as indicated by the author, is that most scholars believe that our text was redacted in Palestine– it is written in Hebrew and mentions only Palestinian sages. However, as Marienberg argues, one should not rule out a non Palestinian origin of the text (he proposes Italy and the Byzantine Empire). Of course, a Babylonian origin is still possible. Marienberg mentions Ephraïm Kanarfogel and Sharon Koren who connect the Baraita to Heikhalot literature. If we situate the origin of the latter in Babylonia, it may be used as another argument to support a Babylonian origin of the tractate.

Marienberg mentions several theories concerning the reasons the text was written in the first place. Some of them were already raised by Horowitz, particularly the possibility that the small tractate was a Karaite composition since some of its teachings resemble Karaite practices. Thus, it is conceivable that the tractate was written either in order to mock the talmudic tradition or to criticize it by showing that the rabbis of the talmudic period shared some of the ideas that were defended by the Karaites. However, Horowitz himself ruled against the possibility of a Karaite origin, as did most of the scholars who later dealt with the question. This interesting debate together with some others related to the date and the Sitz im Leben of the text are summarized by Marienberg in his introduction. In general, Marienberg is very cautious and quotes Daniel Sperber’s conclusion from the article dedicated to the Baraita in the revised edition of the Encyclopaedia Judaica, according to which neither the date nor the author of the text can be determined with certainty. Marienberg does, however, suggest that the text was redacted after the talmudic period.

In another important part of the introduction the author discusses the reception and influence of the text after its composition. The rarity of manuscripts shows that at least the two long recensions (Horowitz and De Rossi) were not well-diffused in the Jewish world. However, we do find references and even quotations of the text in some popular medieval books and commentaries. The most famous example is probably Nahmanides’ exegesis on Genesis 31:35 which quotes some of the teachings of the tractate and refers to it as ברייתא של מסכת נידה.  According to one of Marienberg’s conclusions, the tractate was used and quoted mainly by authors living in a Christian environment. He proposes to connect this phenomenon to the absence of a direct confrontation with Karaites in the Ashkenazi world – since the teachings of the tractate are close to some karaite practices, rabbinic authors from Islamic environments, where the karaite movement was relatively strong, felt much less comfortable using it.

Finally, Marienberg proposes to see the Baraita as one of the “minor tractates” whose status in the rabbinic corpus is somewhat liminal. He reminds us that one of the reasons that these tractates came to be considered as belonging to the talmudic corpus is the fact that they were included in the 19th century Romm edition of the Bavli. Horowitz edited the text after the publication of the Romm edition. Thus, Marienberg raises the possibility that an earlier publication of the Baraita, and its subsequent inclusion in the Romm edition, would have changed its place in the rabbinic corpus, enhancing its status as an official rabbinic text. This question is left open. Given the great anxiety pronounced by the author of the Baraita towards menstruating women, maybe it is for the best that this extremely misogynistic text was left outside the “official” edition of the Talmud.

This important publication adds another element to the debate regarding the limits of the talmudic corpus and talmudic culture in general. That is why the thesis about the relationship between this text and Heikhalot literature is so compelling – if we consider, together with Michael Swartz and more recently Moulie Vidas, that the Heikhalot corpus was redacted inside the walls of the Babylonian Yeshiva but not by the same authorities that produced the Babylonian Talmud, we can ask whether the status of the tractate as semi-rabbinic text reflects the position of its authors who acted somewhere on the margins of what became the normative rabbinic discourse.  This may provide us with a multidimensional picture of the early medieval rabbinic movement, in matters of authority, scholarship, Halakha and of course – gender.

English, Texts

A Quotation of Yerushalmi in a Judaeo-Arabic Manuscript

Few textual witnesses of the Palestinian Talmud exist. There is only one complete manuscript (MS Leiden Scaliger 3), and then another exemplar which includes order Zeraim (and tractate Sotah; MS Vatican Heb. 133), plus an assortment of fragments (now collated and described in Sussman, Otzar Kitvei Yad Talmudiyyim [Review Pending]). Quotations of Yerushalmi in medieval literature  are thus helpful in determining the original text of the Yerushalmi and in pointing out where early readers of the text thought an emendation or a paraphrase were in order. Most medieval quotations tend to be lifted verbatim from earlier quotations, mostly the commentary of R. Hananel and the code of R. Isaac Alfasi, and so any quotation not taken from these sources is especially valuable, as are quotations from Eastern works. The earlier, of course, the better.

Looking for midrashic material in a manuscript of Judaeo-Arabic sermons on the Torah, MS JTS 1803, I found a quotation of Yerushalmi, that I offer here for the first time (PDF). The manuscript (dated by the IMHM to the “12th-13th century”) is fragmented, and was obviously part of a larger compendium of sermons, similar to the Sheiltot, but in Arabic rather than Aramaic. Each sermon begins with a quotation from the Babylonian Talmud, and one, on Parshat Vayakhel, begins with a quotation from the Yerushalmi, clearly marked “Yerushalmi,” in large letters. Most of the material is not found in the medieval quotations I know of (which I found by using Moshe Pinchuk’s wonderful Yerushalmi Database), and there are no known genizah fragments of this sugiya. This quotation is 376 words long, and includes both Mishnah Shabbat 7:2 and some of the Yerushalmi ad loc (Ed. Jerusalem, p. 404, ll. 25-50).

The Mishnah in the quotation displays a “mixed” text type.  That the text type of the Mishnah here is not purely Palestinian shows that it was not originally part of a Yerushalmi manuscript, but was supplied later – either by the person who compiled the homilies in MS New York or by the copyist of the Yerushalmi MS used by the compiler. A similar phenomenon is apparent in MS Leiden itself, whose Mishnah may have been copied from MS Parma, as demonstrated by I. Z. Feintuch in 1976.

Like all other known Yerushalmi texts, the quotation offers essentially the same text found in MS Leiden as well as all the medieval authors who quote this text. Its value is in supplying corrections for the text found in MS Leiden, pointing out slight dialectical differences, and corroborating several readings added to MS Leiden by later readers. It also displays two corrupt readings which reflect a lack of knowledge with the Yerushalmi’s terminology and dialect. For example, where MS Leiden (p. 404, l. 25) explains that R. Ashian reported “the eyes of R. Aha went through the entire Torah and did not find that this thing was written” (אשגרת עיינה דר’ אחא בכל אוריתא ולא אשכח כת’ דא מילתא), the quotation reads that R. Ashian claims to have “closed the eyes of R. Aha every night” (אסגרת עיניה דר’ אחא בכל אורתא) and that he did not find this thing written. This reading makes little grammatical sense, and there is little apparent connection between the first and last clauses of the sentence. But the form אשגר עיניה was unfamiliar to a copyist, who emended it to something he understood (on this sentence, see Lieberman, Hayerushalmi Ki-fshuto, p. 128; Sokoloff, Dictionary of Jewish Palestinian Aramaic, p. 538a; Assis, Otzar Leshonot Yerushalmiyim, p. 170).

An interesting feature of the Yerushalmi text in the quotation is its agreement with emendations to MS Leiden. These agreements show us that at least some emendations to tractate Shabbat were based on other Manuscripts of Yerushalmi which we no longer have, and not on scholarly conjectures. This situation is similar to that of Order Zeraim which was emended according to MS Vatican 133, as demonstrated by E. Z. Melammed in 1981, and in accordance with the claims of the printers in the colophon to ed. Vienna.

For those interested, a longer form of this blog post is in the works.

English, Ruminations, Talk of the Town

Trying to Understand Scribal Practices

Among the many advantages of studying in Jerusalem are the many wonderful opportunities for class-outings. Not since elementary school have I been on so many field trips. Last week, I managed to get myself on a tour of The Shrine of the Book organized by the student councils of the departments of Bible and Hebrew Language. The tour was led by Dead Sea Scroll experts Prof. Emanuel Tov and Prof. Steven Fassberg.

One of Tov’s findings with regards to the biblical scrolls from Qumran that most struck the students on the trip was the character of those scrolls that were apparently written at the Qumran site. In the most recent edition of Textual Criticism of the Hebrew Bible, Tov sums up the meaning of some of the changes found in these biblical scrolls: “These changes reflect a free approach to the biblical text…” (103). Fassberg, in his discussion of spoken Hebrew at Qumran, brought examples from The Great Isaiah Scroll (1QIsaa) that exemplify this attitude. Here are two from Chapter 49 (my bar-mitzvah haftorah):




הֲיֻקַּח מגבור מלקוח

היקחו מגבור מלקוח


גבור יֻקָח ומלקוח

גבור ילקח ושובי

Whereas the Masorah uses the passive Qal (imperfect 3rd person masculine singular) twice, in the first instance The Great Isaiah Scroll has an active Qal in the 3rd person masculine plural, and in the second it has a Nifal imperfect 3rd person masculine singular. The Qumranic version adapts the ancient passive Qal, which disappeared as Hebrew developed, to more current, perhaps even spoken, forms of the verb (see Kutscher, The Language and Linguistic Background of the Isaiah Scroll, pg. 364).

For many on the tour such examples were startling. This attitude towards the biblical text and its transmission seemed at odds with the commonly recieved image of the Qumranic sect as a pious, elitist, and extremely devout group. How could such a group treat textual transmission – of the bible no less – so lightly? This question relates to what we expect from scribes, and how we are to imagine them. Must a pious scribe be a copious one with a significant amount of reverence for the text? And what does “reverence for the text” even mean? As these questions started to pop up in my head while exiting the shrine, I thought of their relevance to some of the well-worn partisan debates from the field of Rabbinics, and how scholars of biblical and rabbinic textual criticism might work collaboratively on problems of textual transmission.