English, Reviews

Straight-up Philology, Served Cold

Robert Brody, Mishnah and Tosefta Studies, (Jerusalem: The Hebrew University Magnes Press, 2014)

The “Jerusalem school” of rabbinics has traditionally avoided writing in any language other than Hebrew. In his introduction to the collected works of J. N. Epstein, Ezra Zion Melammed wrote that his teacher, J. N. Epstein “while living in the exile of Europe, wrote most of his studies in foreign languages, and from the day he ascended to Jerusalem, to teach at the Hebrew University, wrote all his studies in Hebrew […]. He also rewrote his opus magnum, Introduction to the Mishnaic Text, which was written in German and ready for the press, in his clear Hebrew […].” Even in the United States, students of this school published mainly in Hebrew: Saul Lieberman, Israel Francus, Abraham Goldberg, and Shamma Friedman wrote most of their enduring and important works in Hebrew (David Weiss-Halivni is somewhat of an exception to this rule, but the bulk of his scholarship, too, is written in Hebrew). One of Jacob Neusner’s standard complaints was the lack of scholarship in “a European language” –  and the field has seen a sea change in this regard. Most scholars of rabbinics now publish extensively if not exclusively in “European languages,” especially English.


Except, of course, in Jerusalem. Here, Robert Brody is somewhat of an exception. He is the only Hebrew University professor of Talmud who published an important monograph in a language other than Hebrew. Mishnah and Tosefta Studies now joins his The Geonim of Babylonia and the Shaping of Medieval Jewish Culture as an important addition to Brody’s English oeuvre. It is part of a long-term project, which Brody describes in his introduction, of a commentary on Bavli Ketubot out of which grew a commentary on Mishnah and Tosefta Ketubot. In the course of that work, Brody understood that he wanted to “tackle in a more systematic way several topics about which I had thought, and sometimes lectured, over a period of years.” And he wanted to do it in English. The language shouldn’t fool you, thought: Brody might be writing in English, but the book is decidedly Jerusalemite: a crash-course in straight-up philology, clearheaded and free of jargon, served cold.

Brody takes us back to basics: examining all the evidence, sometimes offering simple solutions for complex problems, and sometimes admitting cheerfully that he has none. He moves abruptly from example to example – it seems that he is really interested in presenting examples, and that the niceties of introductions and conclusions are so burdensome that he sometimes does away with them – stopping to point out how they refute this or that scholarly consensus that has solidified over the years.

In the four parts of the book, Brody discusses four scholarly paradigms that have become dominant over the last decades in the field of Mishnah/Tosefta studies. He discusses each one with a series of test cases, through which the reader can grasp Brody’s guiding principle: the evidence is always prime, each case is different, and scholarly paradigms are only as useful as the answers they provide. Each of these paradigms is associated with a scholar or several scholars who introduced them to the scholarly community. In each case Brody discusses the work of those scholars, often pointing out that the paradigms which are named for them are far from their original intent. The four paradigms are:

1. There are two distinct versions of the Mishnah, one influenced by the Bavli and transmitted with the Bavli, the other influenced by the Yerushalmi and transmitted alone. An outgrowth of this paradigm is that the MSS of the Mishnah are considered more “Palestinian” and thus more “authentic” than the Mishnah in the Bavli. This paradigm was developed by Jacob Sussman and David Rosenthal, and is discussed little beyond Jerusalem and its satellites (e.g. Christine Hayes’s Between the Babylonian and Palestinian Talmuds, which problematizes this thesis as well). While this thesis seems simple enough – and of little importance to non-philologists – it has important implications for the history of the redaction and transmission of the text of the Mishnah, and also emphasizes the fuzziness between redaction and transmission in the first place. As Ishay Rosen-Zvi notes, studies of the orality of the Mishnah, for example, would do well to think of the Sussmanian assertion that the Mishnah was a completely oral text in the formative stages of its creation, as well as note the scholastic changes that the Mishnah underwent while it was being studied in the Talmudic academies which placed it at the center of their curriculum. Or did they? Brody tests Sussman-Rosenthal’s thesis of Talmuds influencing Mishnah text by examining several examples of discrepancies between the two versions of Mishnah which do not match this model. For example, there is no Babylonian Talmud on tractate Shekalim, but the distinction between the two strands of transmission  -independent manuscripts versus Bavli manuscripts – still exists. Additionally, there is no Palestinian Talmud on the order Kodashim, but the distinction still stands. Brody discusses the ways in which we could account for these differences in the absence of a simple model like the one suggested by Sussman and Rosenthal.

2. The Tosefta predates the Mishnah. This paradigm is often attributed to a series of articles which culminated in Shamma Friedman’s Tosefta Atikta (Ramat Gan: Bar Ilan Universtiy Press, 2003). Brody agrees that “there is no doubt that Friedman is correct in claiming that the Tosefta sometimes preserves sources which are identical or very similar to those underlying specific passages of the Mishnah.” In Brody’s opinion, however, the operative word is sometimes. Since he has no general preference for one option over the other, he presents himself as an impartial observer, in each case trying to point out which option makes more sense (his treatment of Judith Hauptman’s Rereading the Mishnah, which espouses a similar point of view but makes more far-reaching claims, is somewhat less deferential).

3. The two MSS of the Tosefta present versions of the Tosefta which are independent of each other, and which have their origins in the distant past of the redaction and early oral transmission of the Tosefta. Here Brody really shines as a master philologist. In  his opus magnum, a slim Hebrew book called The Textual History of the Sheiltot (New York and Jerusalem: AAJR, 1991) Brody offers his stemmatic analysis of the relationship between all known textual witnesses of the Geonic work Sheiltot, a compendium of sermons on the weekly Torah reading, based mainly on the Babylonian Talmud. While Sheiltot has nine full MSS and countless more textual witnesses, Tosefta has between three full witnesses and some additional partial ones. Brody transferred his philological acumen from one work to the other to point out some facts that have the potential to revolutionize the textual study of the Tosefta.

First, Brody asserts that all the witnesses of the Tosefta are descended from one single written exemplar. Even the major discrepancies between the manuscripts can be explained according to this model. Thus, unlike the Babylonian Talmud, the Tosefta is best analyzed as a written text, and the variant readings as errors or corrections in the transmission of a written text. Most intriguing is his discussion of what Yoav Rosenthal has termed “changes of place,” when one segment appears in different places in two witnesses not as a part of a list with an interchanging order of segments, but simply on its own. While Rosenthal in a recent article uses these changes to reconstruct a complex redactional history of the Tosefta, Brody is – as usual – skeptical. He prefers to ascribe these changes to insertion of marginal glosses in the wrong column, noting that the gap between the two places where these kinds of segments are located in the two MSS tends to be roughly the size of one column of text or its multiples – 140 words or so (pp. 50-51).

4. Rabbinic texts are best presented in diplomatic editions, according to the “best manuscript” available. Brody “passionately” disagrees, and thus the book ends with an “impassioned plea” to change the dominant practice of printing rabbinic texts as diplomatic editions of one manuscript, rather than making educated editorial statements as to the wording of the original text itself. Two recent editions come to mind – Kahana’s diplomatic edition of Sifre Numbers, as opposed to Milikowsky’s eclectic edition of Seder Olam, which is closer to Brody’s plea.

The plea itself is in fact somewhat less than “impassioned,” as is the rest of the book: Brody is direct and curt. This book has no funny anecdotes about renaissance scholars , no apologies for the relevance of scholarship, and definitely no cultural criticism. In a field that constantly says its texts are indeterminate and fluid while adhering for the most part to whatever can be found in the canonized translations and computerized databases, Brody refreshingly lacks any desire to self-reflect. Words stand in the center of this book, and perhaps out of respect for those same words, they are used sparingly.

The book is generally well-edited, except for the too-common passive constructs and several copyediting glitches – for example, the name Lieberman (as in Saul) is sometimes spelled Liebermann and sometimes not. This could have easily been corrected. I would have also appreciated Hebrew texts as well as the translations Brody provides, but they will probably be in the Hebrew book slated for publication soon. This book is an important contribution to the textual study of Mishnah and Tosefta, an important corrective to comfortable paradigms and rules-of-thumb that dominate rabbinics, and for the first time all of this is available in English. Ignore it at your peril, and assign it to your graduate students.

English, Recent Publications

Shavua haSefer 2012

With the heat intensifying, the first of the summer groups arriving, and the stirrings of social-protest demonstrations, there is no question that the Israeli June is here. For this writer, and I imagine for many readers of the blog, the most exciting part of the month is the multi-week long “Shavua haSefer” (granted, it’s also known as “Hebrew Book month”)Here’s a list, organized according to publisher, of some of the academic books that will be on sale this month at reduced prices, along with other tips about making the rounds at the various fairs to take place around the country. Many of the books are also available at reduced prices through the websites of the publishers, but there is nothing quite like jostling for new books under a bloated Jerusalem moon suspended in the starry summer night sky:


Magnes Press publishes dozens of books related to Rabbinics. Unfortunately, especially now that they are pushing e-book sales, they rarely reprint their older books. One has to be careful to purchase them before they run out.

Some books that will probably run out soon include:

  • Daniel Boyarin et. al, Atara L’Haim (עטרה לחיים). I found this festchrift for Prof. Dimitrovsky in the press’ catalogue and was pretty surprised to see that it was still available. When I went to their offices to pick it up, so were they.
  • David Weiss Halivni’s Sources and Traditions: Bava Metzia (מקורות ומסורות בבא מציעא).
  • Abraham Goldberg’s Tosefta Bava Kamma: A Structural and Analytic Commentary with a Mishnah-Tosefta Synopsis (תוספתא בבא קמא: פירוש מבני ואנליטי). 
  • Ta-Shma’s The Old Ashkenazi Custom (מנהג אשכנז הקדמון), although they’ve been pretty good about reprinting his books.

During Book Month Magnes is running a few different sale models, depending on the book. New books only get 20% off, meaning that some of their books most relevant to Talmud are still pretty pricey. These books include:

These are just some pointers. Magnes has many other volumes, both new and old, that should be of interest to our readers. They also distribute books published by the World Union for Jewish Studies, meaning that, although they have yet to add it to their online catalogue, they may be selling Emmanuel’s Responsa of Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (reviewed here by Pinchas Roth) at their stands.


Besides the recently reviewed Sperber volumeGreek in Talmudic Palestine, Bar-Ilan’s catalogue is mainly filled with older volumes, such as:

Yad Yitzchak Ben-Zvi

  • Sussman’s Thesaurus of Talmudic Manuscripts (אוצר כתבי-היד התלמודיים) is without a doubt the most important book for talmudists on sale this Shavua haSefer. While I hope that we can fully discuss the book in a later post, here’s a brief description. The first two volumes list, alphabetically according to library, all of the manuscripts and manuscript fragments in the world of the Mishnah, Tosefta, Yerushalmi, Bavli and Ri”f. The entries are numbered, and contain a description including the exact contents, and references to secondary literature which may have dealt with them. The third volume contains a few introductory essays- mainly previously published articles of Sussman- and multiple indices. The most important indices, of course, are those that are organized by work. For example: if one is studying m. Bava Bathra 2:7, one can look up the mishnah in the proper index and see the numbers of all of the entries of manuscripts or fragments that transmit that mishnah. One can then look up the entries in the first two volumes, and then look up the manuscripts or fragments themselves. The same is true for halakhot in the Tosefta, and folios of the Yerushalmi, Bavli, and Ri”f.
  • In the field of Geonica, YBZ recently published Shraga Abramson’s edition of Rav Hai’s Mishpatei Shavuot, brought to press by Robert Brody and David Sklare (see here for the table of contents and Brody’s introduction).


Mosad Bialik, publisher of classics like Albeck’s Mishnah, Zunz’s Derashot biYisrael, and Urbach’s The Tosaphists, has some new books that may be worthwhile purchases:

Bialik also has a number of volumes of collected essays, such as those of Ta-Shma (Studies in Medieval Rabbinic Literature, in four volumes), and Moshe Bar-Asher’s essays on Rabbinic Hebrew.


Schocken distributes JTS’ books in Israel, and is probably the easiest and cheapest place to buy their books anywhere. Here too, one can find a nice mix of new and old books. Besides the classics (Lieberman’s books, the various editions put out by JTS, etc.), one should look out for:

Over a year ago at the International Book Fair, the Schocken stand had a few copies of Abraham Goldberg’s commentary to Mishnah Shabbat. Apparently, they had found some box of them after thinking that they were long sold out. A few months later they were still selling copies during Shavua haSefer and it still appears in their catalogue. To be honest, this saddens me a bit. The commentary, the work of an important teacher and scholar, should be in the library of all those who dabble in academic Talmud.


This list is not meant to be exhaustive. Anyone who knows of any other academic books that should be on our radar is invited to write about them in the comments sections below.

English, Recent Publications, Reviews

Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash- Review by Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick

Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash, Ed. R. Brody with C. Cohen and Y.Z. Stampfer (Jerusalem: Ofeq Institute, 5772).

Review by Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick

Towards the end of the sixth century, the torch of rabbinic leadership passed from the Amoraim to leaders referred to in Geonic literature as the Savoraim. Their successors, the Geonim of the Babylonian Yeshivot of Pumbedita and Sura, saw themselves as the logical heirs of Talmudic interpretation and Halakhic ruling. For a period of close to 600 years, the Geonim, through their teachings, responsa and halakhic writings (and those of their students) helped to cement the Bavli’s form. Talmud study that considers the perspective of Geonic (and Geonic-era) literature is invaluable for tracing the redaction of the text and the history and formulation of Halakha; and for understanding many subsequent medieval commentaries as well.

In practice however, using these texts for Talmud study is a daunting task. Geonic responsa have survived in numerous collections but many of them have not been properly indexed; Many Halachic codes and legal monographs shared the same fate. Despite the state of disarray of Geonic literature, from 1928 to 1942, Dr. Benjamin M. Lewin self-published – on his own printing press – 12 volumes of Otzar Ha-Geonim, which he sub-titled “Thesaurus of the Geonic Responsa and Commentaries following the order of the Talmudic Tractates”. Beginning with Berachot and ending – due to his untimely passing – with Bava Kamma, Lewin managed to achieve the impossible. His work did not end with his death: A partial volume to Bava Metsia was published posthumously and his personal hand-lists to tractates Bava Batra and Hullin were included in A. Kimmelman’s index to Geonic literature.

Lewin, working alone and under financial stress, gleaned Geonic material from responsa collections, Geonic halachic works as well as newly published Genizah fragments. He divided (in most volumes) his compilations into two sections; ‘Responsa’ and ‘Commentary’, published parallel sources alongside one another in synoptic fashion, included footnotes of his own and from other scholars of his generation (e.g. Professors J.N. Epstein, S. Assaf, S. Lieberman and S. Abramson) and added detailed indices.

Later attempts to replicate Lewin’s methods are few and far in between. Aside from Kimmelman’s aforementioned list in Shnaton Mishpat haIvri 11-12, we have H. T. Taubes’ compilation to Sanhedrin (1967) and Y. Cohen’s Ginzei Geonim on the first three chapters of Bava Batra (1995).

This is the current literary backdrop against which we eagerly greet Prof. R. Brody’s latest work, Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash. To say that this volume takes up where Lewin left off would be a discredit to the effort and scholarship invested in it. The reader should not expect to find a continuation of Lewin’s oeuvre nor even a revised edition of the older material. Rather, we have before us a fresh volume, meticulously planned from its inception.

Each section has been handpicked by the discerning eye of a master of Geonic literature. This task, daunting in itself, required the editor to decide which sources to include, which are merely repetitions and may be relegated to the notes, and which sources, although related to the sugya, are not truly native to Bava Metsia and should be merely cited but not quoted. Gone is Lewin’s partition between responsa and commentary and the reader is no longer required to alternate between different sections of the work.

All previously published material has been re-edited against the original manuscripts, alongside of which we encounter much ‘new’ responsa and commentary. Specifically, we are made privy to parts of a soon-to-be-published edition of Rav Hai Gaon’s Mishpatei Shavuot. This edition was originally under preparation by the late Prof. S. Abramson. According to the introduction and bibliography in Brody’s new book, it is slated for publication this year. Along with commentaries to Bava Metsia used as source material, Brody’s notes also reference a section in the introduction, written by Abramson, dealing with Rav Hai’s retractions in halachic decisions (p. 24 no 1). And beyond this exciting news, we are provided with newly discovered sources from texts penned by Rav Shmuel b. Hofni. These include Sefer Hamashkon, Sefer Hat’naim, Sefer Hakinyanim and chapter 74 from his “Introduction to the Mishnah and the Talmud”. The great Geonic innovator also makes an appearance – parts of Rav Se’adyah Gaon’s Sefer Hapikadon and his Sefer Hashtarot are represented in Brody’s volume. These works too are being readied for publication, and we look forward to welcoming their arrival in print.

Other novellea await the reader. In Brody’s minimalistic notes, we learn of Rav Sherira Gaon’s knowledge of Greek (p. 152 no. 2 – possible) as opposed to his son Rav Hai’s certain lack of knowledge in this field (p. 120 no. 7). Philological information abounds: Persian loan-words are discussed (see p. 32 no. 8) and the editors, experts in Judeo-Arabic, trace the Arabic etymologies of many words and phrases in Geonic literature (p. 31 n. 7; p. 34 no. 4; p. 215 no. 8; p. 216 no. 1; p. 217 no. 1).

Preserved in the notes as well are vignettes from Abramson’s unpublished discourses, a sort of academic “torah she-be’al peh”. Hinted at is his understanding of the phrase “tartei mativta” to mean the Yeshiva of Sura and the parallel yeshiva of the Resh Galuta (Exilarch), contrary to popular convention that this refers to the yeshivot of Sura and Pumbedita (see p. 80 no. 13). Further such gems include one of Abramson’s notes to the text of Mishpatei Shavuot (p. 316 no. 5) and a discussion of an attribution issue related to a particular work (p. 51 no. 8).

The following Geonic comments provide a sampling of some of the fair: Rav Hai seemed to have understood the sobriquet “Paponai” to mean “followers of Rav Papa”, contrary to the now conventional definition “those of the city of Paponia” (p. 176 no. 5). From a citation in a responsa attributed to Rav Zemah b. Paltoi Gaon (Pumbedita 872) it is apparent that this Gaon viewed the three “Bavot” as one tractate (p. 212 no. 9). This datum adds to our knowledge of the literary structure of Talmudic corpus as understood in the middle Geonic Era.

Those who have studied Bava Metsia are aware that many of the tractate’s passages are attributed by the Rishonim to Geonim or Savoraim. The current volume makes note of this (pp. 25, 72, and 102) and the editor is of the opinion that these attributions are not to be viewed as authentic – providing another viewpoint to the debate as to how the Savoraim and Geonim added to the Talmudic text (if at all). In contrast, see p. 26 no. 2 for a Geonic reading of the sugya, which relegates a part of the text to the “stam”.

The editor informs us in his English preface that three more volumes are planned, thereby completing “Otzar Ha-Geonim” on all of Bavli, after which he hopes to “prepare a corrected and updated version of his [Lewin’s] work”. The volume on Bava Batra is cited extensively (18 times), as well as a volume containing Shavuot (pp. 10, 63, 284). Citations to Otzar Ha-Geonim on Sanhedrin are to Taubes’ edition; and no hint is given of whether the remaining three volumes will include Sanhedrin as well. Interestingly, the editor also cites material from the forthcoming volumes to the following mesechtot: Hullin (p. 70), Bechorot (p. 138) and Erachin (p. 131).

Otzar Ha-Geonim He-Hadash on Bava Metsia innagurates a new page in Geonic studies. Bava Metsia is a widely studied tractate, from both a textual as well as an halachic perspective. This volume displays a superb blend of academic and traditional Talmud study. Those with an interest in Geonic Talmud commentary would do well to avail themselves of this literary treasure. We wish to offer our thanks to Prof. Brody for undertaking this vast endeavor, and we eagerly await its succeeding volumes on all of the Talmud Bavli.

Yosaif Mordechai Dubovick is currently writing a PhD dissertation on Rabenu Hananel at Bar-Ilan University. His publications include “Rabenu Hananel on Tractate Bava Kamma” (Jerusalem, 2011).

English, Recent Publications

Recent Publications from Brody and Co.

As tweeted earlier last week, Prof. Brody of Hebrew University’s department of Talmud and Halakha has just published, along with Zvi Stampfer and Carmiel Cohen, a new edition of Otzar Ha-Geonim. Stay tuned for an in-depth review in the coming weeks, and, until then, check out the table of contents and introduction here. This new volume is part of a larger project, funded by the Israel Science Foundation, which will eventually fill in all the original volumes B.M. Lewin did not complete, as well as supplement the earlier volumes with more material.

And if you’re already calling the Ofek Institute or your preferred seforim store for a copy, you might want to think about asking them to save you a copy of Prof. Brody’s  Teshuvot Rav Natronai Gaon, first published in 1994, and recently reissued in a brand new edition.

Book Club, English

Definite Article – The Book Club II

The ‘stammaitic consensus’, like many so-called consensuses, has paradoxically not yet achieved a total consensus. Still, aside from persistent skepticism emanating mainly from Israeli scholars, the stammaitic ‘toolbox’ has virtually become the source-critical method in use among academic Talmud scholars working in the field today.

There have in recent years been two interesting challenges to the stammaitic theory of redaction (I do not consider skepticism interesting – even if it is well placed). One, by Moulie Vidas,  questions why anonymity has become synonymous with “lateness” and a final editorial layer if we occasionally find the Stam actively removing attributions – apparently in order to create a distancing effect. Vidas asks source-critics to consider the literary function of anonymity and not only its presumed editorial function.  As of yet, we only have a few examples of the phenomenon of Stammaitic ‘tampering’, but it remains a very interesting argument worth following.

In Zvi Septimus’ recent research, we find another sort of challenge. Zvi questions one of the basic methodologies of “stammaitists”; namely, the attempt to chart a kind of redactional narrative across different sugyot which develops – ever so cleanly – from a set of literary kernels into a masterful and final talmudic mosaic. Like Vidas, Septimus is also interested in literary function – though here not of textual anonymity rather the experiential process of reading the Bavli. As he points out in his “Trigger Words and Simultexts – The Experience of Reading the Bavli,” one can read source-critically and still discover a far more interactive and far less teleological process of talmudic production that questions some basic axioms of contemporary talmudic source criticism. This realization points in the direction of an implied reader, which in turn can go a long way in explaining what the Talmud is ‘really’ about. I won’t give it away, however, since you should go read it here, and then listen to what our participants have to say, below.

Septimus’ article is the subject of the Talmud Blog’s second Book Club not only because it has implications for redactional theory, a pet interest of this blog. The piece is a nice example of how to read the Bavli from the perspective of contemporary literary theories.  Surprisingly, while there are many scholars interested in the “literary” parts of the Talmud, there are very few actively producing readings informed by literary theory. As such, we’ve invited two scholars, Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky and Dina Stein, who are  engaged in just such an ongoing project of reading rabbinic literature as… literature (!), and who are also interested in the processes of reading Talmud. We also strongly encourage our readers to respond to the article and to the respondents. And finally, we’ve invited the author of the article himself to rise from his theoretical death and respond to Dina and Itay’s remarks. Fear not, since you need not take anything he says into account.

Dina Stein (Department of Hebrew and Comparative Literature; Haifa University):

Zvi Septimus should be congratulated on several accounts – for his instating the word “experience” into the practice of reading the Bavli, as well as for his breaking through the narrow quarters of the sugya as the widest possible signifying context in the Bavli. And above all – for writing an incredibly lively, thought provoking essay.

Zvi proposes to replace the diachronic perspective of source criticism with a synchronic perspective of inter (or rather intra-) textuality within the Bavli, indicated by “trigger words”/”simultexts”. Placing himself as somewhat of a (monstrous) heir to Fraenkel he too assumes closure – albeit closure of the entire Bavli. Here, the notion of Iser’s “implied reader” is called upon, so as to rule out any confusion regarding a concrete, historical reader (and to avoid of course historical questions such as when was the Bavli as a whole first recognized, and by whom, and so on). No, the reader is an immune textual construct.

Yet, both “experience” and the new horizons that Zvi offers are not devoid of problems. The “experience” of reading is somewhat misleading since the reader is a hypostasized entity that could hardly be credited with “experience.” More important, the emancipating notion, that the framework within which a given tale should – or can – be read is as vast as the Bavli itself, maybe less liberating than it appears at first. Why should the boundaries of the Bavli be canonized (Zvi explicitly compares the Bavli’s self-glossing poetics to the poetics of the Bible a la Boyarin et al!) in order for the intra-textual principle to function as hermeneutic tool? It is not necessary in my view. It may even raise more problems than it solves.

Twenty five years ago Galit Hasan-Rokem published an article called “The Snake at the Wedding: a Semiotic Reconstruction of the Comparative method of Folk Narrative Research” (ARV: Scandinavian Yearbook of Folklore 43 [1987]: 73-87). There are striking similarities between that article and Zvi’s recent project (they even share some “trigger words”), insofar as both consciously shift the lens from philological, diachronic perspectives to a synchronic reading/construction of meaning. Hasan-Rokem employed tools developed originally by the philological-diachronic perspective of the geographical-historical school of folkloristics, i.e. the tale-type and the motif. Following the semiotician Yuri Lotman who wrote about “sign signals” (to other texts), motifs and fixed bundles of motifs amounting to “tale types” served her to construct possible intertexual environments within which a given text – in this case the story of the bridegroom who dies on his wedding night (Vayiqrah Rabbah 20:3) – signifies. Now Hasan-Rokem addressed texts that are not confined to a single composition or to the rabbinic corpus per se, thus allowing for a more fluid context. By referring to motifs and tale-types as “semiotic markers,” her model also implies that the intertextual framework includes oral traditions, which most of rabbinic literature was.

Applying Hasan-Rokem’s model to Zvi’s argument would shift the very heavy burden lying on the shoulders of the (implied) reader to the realm of cultural semiotics in which different texts share “trigger words” (and themes). The legitimacy for reading these texts in relation to each other would not be compromised. Moreover, the hypostasized “reader” need not be chained to what is assumed to be a fixed canonized composition. “Trigger words” in the Bavli can indeed help us reconstruct cultural associations without necessarily erecting yet another set of (imperializing) boundaries, or imagining closure.

Itay Marienberg-Milikowsky (Department of Hebrew Literature, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev).

Zvi Septimus’s article “Trigger Words and Simultexts – The Experience of Reading the Bavli” adds to a growing body of research that attempts to chart a path between two nearly opposite approaches to the talmudic text: the first emphasizes the foreignness of its elements, resulting in a long and dispersed process of creation; the second highlights the aesthetic quality of the final edited form, which gives it a seemingly uniform appearance. The first leans upon evident, necessarily partial seams, meant to merge distinct sources; the latter draws its strength from the success of the act of sewing, which makes the Babylonian Talmud a stylized, comprehensive text. A careful, self-aware movement between such different modes of discourse must lead to a third approach – and indeed Septimus suggest a very coherent one. By means of an extensive and thorough (and surprising!) analysis of a relatively ‘entangled’ story in the forth chapter of Kiddushin tractate (70a-b), the author demonstrates a new reading method, based on two fundamental claims: (A) The source-critical approach (represented here, and not by coincidence, by the work of Shamma Friedman), does not reflect the (non-critical) reader’s experience, therefore, even if it may explain some stages in the evolution of the talmudic text, it will never supply a theory of reading. (B) The “literary” approach (represented here, again by no coincidence, by the work of Jonah Fraenkel), which ignores the fact that the Babylonian Talmud, as a literary complex, constantly breaches the ‘segirut’ (I find ‘closure’, suggested by Jeffrey Rubenstein, the closest translation of the concept) of the story embedded in it,  when connecting it to other stories from different suggiyot. The combination of the two approaches defines the “Septimusian” reader: He is guided by “trigger words” to simultaneously read text-fragments that were originally far from each other, not in order to decompose them into its primary and secondary components, but to illuminate one another as wholes, in their final design; (ונמצאו “דברי תורה עניים במקומן ועשירים במקום אחר” (ירושלמי ראש-השנה, פ”ג ה”ה

This approach is definitely thought-provoking and requires a lengthier discussion; yet in the limitations of this blessed “Virtual Beit midrash” of which I am a new guest (I take this opportunity to thank Shai Secunda and Yitz Landes for their generous invitation), I will have to suffice with short words of evaluation of some of the theoretical choices made by the author, and maybe suggest possible alternatives.

The attempt to read different Talmudic stories together calls into question the aforesaid assumption, associated with Fraenkel, of ‘segirut’. This assumption, discussed in recent years by Jeffrey Rubenstein and Joshua Levinson, considers Fraenkel a prominent representative of New Criticism in the study of Rabbinic literature. Accordingly, and according to Fraenkel’s words, segirut has “external” and “internal” aspects: its mere existence renounces any affinity to non-literary fields (historical, biographical, etc.), and at the same time to inter-literary contexts (textual sequences, parallels). The two aspects combine into one: they are different expressions of “unity” or “cohesion”, which justify reading the Talmudic text through the “hermeneutic circle” – all these are key phrases – meaning, a story ought to be understood from within itself, as a unique artistic expression (and not, Fraenkel emphasizes, a variant of a pre-existing structure). Septimus, sailing away from Fraenkel’s model, does not doubt the segirut as a hermeneutic category, but raises it from a low order to a higher one: from the single story to the Babylonian Talmud as a whole. But the segirut of a short story does not resemble that of an enormous complex text; whereas the latter reflects a tendency of a loosely unified literature, well known to every learner of the Bavli, the former claims something as for the precise, condensed and focused “aestheticization” of the literary expression, randomly set in its pages (it is no coincidence that New Criticism was most fertile when analyzing poetry, especially lyric poetry, rather than prose; its fruitful use with rabbinic literature is made possible primarily thanks to the minimalistic nature of the aggadic story).  The two types of segirut are as two dimensions of the creative story-telling work of the Bavli, which are active simultaneously, and are competing for the establishment of its meaning and its poetic design: the “Narrative art” on one hand, and the “Art of Narrative Connections” (to the local suggya or to the Bavli as a whole) on the other hand.

Is the reading experience of the Bavli – be it imaginary or abstract – necessarily a harmonious experience? Considering the aforesaid, it is possible to suggest another possibility that corresponds to Septimus’ proposal. I believe that a slightly different adaptation of Fraenkel and Friedman’s point of view could pave the third, different way (that could coexist with some post-structuralistic reading practices). This approach may be of aid while attempting to perceive the Talmudic text as a “dynamic” literary framework, in which something “occurs”: a frame within which different creative motivations act as forces. Thus, for instance, instead of converting an obvious axis of development between two stories in the Bavli (Friedman) into pointing out a “static” intertextual relation between them (Septimus), perhaps we should see the intertextual mechanism as one of the strategies (poetic, rhetoric, or in this case – connective) that the Suggiyot use to try and control the meanings of the stories embedded in them, and navigate these meanings to serve the Suggiya’s needs. At the same time, instead of converting the segirut of the single story (Fraenkel) into the segirut of the Bavli as a whole (Septimus), perhaps we should see both types of segirut as if they are challenging each other, revealing the interplay between control and resistance (thanks to the existence of the single tailored story as an independent aesthetic object, with an inner consistency and a distinct ideological world. This description must not be misunderstood; I emphasize here that I do not refer to any polarized manner of “control” and “resistance” relations, nor a strict binary categorization which ranges from “hegemonic discourse” and “subversive discourse”, but to much more meaningful and intricate games of meaning; as Bakhtin teaches us: two shades of understanding can still engage in a dialogue). Surely, the dynamism of the text is obvious when one thinks of it in a diachronic perspective. However, identifying with Septimus’ criticism of the difficulties inherent in basing a reading theory on source-criticism, my suggestion is to see the synchronic reading as a performative act of reading that reflects the inner dynamism of the Talmudic text. Following this line of thought, in the case of the story discussed in the article, an interesting question concerns its violent nature, the (carnivalesque) manner in which it goes “out of control”, and the reciprocal relations between this literary process, and the first subject of the chapter, which deals with different and sometimes problematic personal statutes (‘asara yochasin’); ואכמ”ל .

Septimus successfully uses Iser’s “implied reader” to ensure, among other things, that the reader whose experience the article wishes to restore is not an actual, historical subject, but an imaginary construct, supposedly produced by the Talmudic text itself, out of the connections that weave together its different parts. This is probably one of the most intriguing “implied readers” one could think of, and the inspiring power of the hermeneutic model that Septimus suggests will prove that. However, side by side with this implied one, perhaps we can revive something of the “actual” reader – if it is still appropriate to mention him or her – that exists within every implied reader, and the Bavli reader in particular: the reader experiencing the Bavli over and over again as an incoherent work, with its internal relations, close and distant, are not always clear; the doubting and struggling reader, who dwells on the contradiction in the text, or simply the obscurity of it, on the wondering and the awe, just before trying to settle it all.