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
Today, May 6th 2014, Prof. Shamma Friedman of the Jewish Theological Seminary and Bar-Ilan University will be awarded the Israel Prize in Talmud, the most prestigious prize that the field has to offer. Over the course of my undergraduate studies at Hebrew University, I had the great fortune to work for Prof. Friedman as a research assistant. Earlier this week I visited him at his office at Machon Schechter to conduct this interview, and to continue work on his new website.
Friedman’s office is a place of pilgrimage for students, scholars, and just about anyone interested in the academic study of Talmud. I have been amazed by the amount of time Friedman generously gives to all who seek his counsel, whether they be established scholars like Prof. Haym Soloveitchik, administrators from the seminary like Chancellor Arnold Eisen, an interested layman, or a young yeshiva student bitten by the academic Talmud bug. Friedman seems happy to speak to anyone with whom he can share his excitement for Talmud.
Several months ago, before receiving the call from MK Shai Peron, Friedman was in and out the hospital with a health issue. He had an amazingly quick recovery, and managed to read countless articles and books while home-bound. On his first day back in the office at Schechter, he was accompanied by his wife, Rachel, who was concerned for his wellbeing. Rachel informed me that the doctors had told her husband that he could return to his normal schedule. They may have thought otherwise had they known that a “normal schedule” for the 77-year old Shamma Friedman means being at his office six days a week, standing at his shtender in front of his computer screen for hours on end. Amidst countless shelves and piles of books, with classical music from “Kol Yisrael” playing in the background, Friedman only breaks to speak to visitors and to teach his weekly class. His insatiable curiosity drives him to read yet another line of Talmud, to check another manuscript of the Aruch, to run another search in the Lieberman Talmud Text Databank — his face lighting up with every new discovery. Given the centrality for Friedman of his “home away from home,” it is fitting, as Rachel insisted, that part of the photo-shoot for the Israel Prize be done at the office. And it never occurred to me that I could interview him anywhere else.
YL: Prof. Friedman, for more than forty years now the focus of your research has been the Bavli. How did that happen? Your first book and PhD dealt with the medieval commentator R. Yehonatan of Lunel.
SF: I have been asked questions like this recently in one form or another and I don’t really have a good answer, or at least not an exciting answer. I never sat down and decided what I have to do, or what I want to do, weighed the possibilities and came to a decision. Actually, in most of the academic decisions I made over a long period of time I was really quite passive. Things just happened. Strangely passive in retrospect, especially given that one might say wait a minute, these are important things! A certain amount of siyata deshmaya, min hashmayim, yad hagoral, mazal, or whatever, played much more of a role than my making a clear, objective and weighted decision at any point.
I did not know that I was doing a PhD until I was told that I was doing one. I did not know what my research would be until I was told. “Told” in the sense of “helped.” I did not know what I would work on in my PhD until it happened. Before you ask me how I got to the Bavli, you should go back and ask me the simple question — why did I go to the Seminary?
YL: Why did you go to the Seminary?
SF: Well, definitely not because I wanted to work in the pulpit rabbinate. What I wanted to do was to learn and study in these fields and the Seminary was an excellent place to do it. I didn’t fight the fact that if you go to the Seminary, you came out as a communal rabbi, but that definitely was not what I was after. I was after the studying itself — I enjoyed it, I was attracted by it. And during the course of my time there the Seminary came to the decision that they would create what was then called the “Talmud program”: a concentration in Talmud study that freed you from other types of coursework, most certainly practical rabbinics, as well as other things too. It was mainly, Talmud, Tanakh and history — that was about it. More of a graduate program in that sense. And behind the Seminary’s decision to found that program — you see, they’re the one making the decisions — was a realization that the Seminary needed to train the future generation of faculty. At that point, just about the entire faculty was European-trained — where will the others come from? They established a PhD program, there was a modest stipend, we had a meeting in the sukkah in which Lieberman announced this program, and to me it was very good — I was happy to go along.
And so, that decision was made for me. Lieberman assigned to me Peirush R. Yehonatan of Lunel to Bava Qamma, and he assigned me to Dimitrovsky, who was also my teacher at that time and who was a wonderful guide. My head was completely in editing R. Yehonatan’s commentary for four years. I didn’t think about what I was going to do afterwards. I never made a calculated step to move into an academic career either. That was also a decision that was made for me when I was appointed to teach at the seminary, and I’ve been there since. A type of inertia. So after I got my head out of four years of R. Yehonatan, I came across certain things that I read agav orha, along the way. Somebody shared some offprints with me and I read Hayim Klein, I read Heschel’s Torah min haShamayim, I eventually got to Avraham Weiss. Especially by reading Hayim Klein — that’s where the change in my thinking took place. I started to see the daf of gemara differently. I was also taken by Louis Jacobs’ concept of the Bavli’s literary conceit, and Avraham Weiss’ work on literary forms such as the sugya, memra, kovetz.
YL: Weiss also talks about the development of the sugya and of the Bavli, what he calls “shikhlul.” Did that have an impact on you at all?
SF: Yes, on the deep level, Weiss had the idea of intervention, or editing of texts — I think you put your finger on the right thing — that’s an idea that’s also quite clear in Klein, and not necessarily part of the regnant line of thinking of the time, according to which “yesh masoret, ki yesh masoret lifnei khen,” and a certain belief in non-intervention. Weiss did show that there actually is quite a lot of intervention going on in the Bavli.
But even after reading Klein and Weiss I didn’t sit down and say, “I’m going to work on sugyot or the structure of sugyot.” That’s something that really came out of teaching. I decided to teach the tenth chapter of Yevamot, haIsha Rabbah, because I was interested in a specific sugya there, in the idea of “beit din matnin la’aqor davar min haTorah.” It’s somewhat ironic to me that I was first led by an idea and not by a text, given that I often terrorize my students by telling them not to go by svarot, and that first we deal with the text and then we deal with the svarot. I wasn’t really satisfied with how we finished up studying the perek, particularly the first sugya,so I decided I’d teach the perek again the next year. And then I figured out what happened there in the first sugya, and I said, “I’m going to write an article on this sugya.” However, by the time I got to the second sugya, the same thing happened, and I said that I would write an article on the second sugya as well. I didn’t think “now I’m starting Talmud haIgud,” yet when I got to the third sugya I did realize that I would have to write on the entire perek. From that emerged the concept of the genre of writing consecutive studies of parshanaut, commentary, of Bavli. And, well, hitgalgel davar li-tokh davar.
YL: What about nusach, real manuscript work, which isn’t really there in your commentary on haIsha Rabbah, but features heavily in your work after that. How did you end up writing such detailed work on Bavli manuscripts?
SF: Did I study textual theory? Did I even decide that this was what I was going to do? Absolutely not. All I was doing was teaching haSokher et haOmanim — which after I published haIsha Rabbah, became the target for really doing-up a perek — to a group here in Jerusalem. One of the people who welcomed me when I came on Aliyah, and who was interested in the scholarly work I was doing — and don’t forget that it was 1973, so a lot of these things weren’t out there yet — was Shaul Stampfer. Shaul actually got me to talk to a little group about what I was doing. And then Shaul said, “okay let’s set up a shiur.” He had an excellent core group who today are excellent professors in various fields — Chaim Milikowsky, Baruch Schwartz, Peretz Segal, Shaul, at some point David Golinkin. The group ran undisturbed for five years in which we studied haSocher et haOmanim and haSokher et haPoalim — fifty sugyot, and then I had to decide: do I see myself as a person that writes, or do I see myself as a person who primarily teaches? And I wanted to write it, I had all these ideas that came up and I wanted to write. So I told the group that I no longer had the time to continue preparing new material.
About that time I had a year at the Institute for Advanced Studies, which was actually the institute’s first year, which was located in the Truman building up on the Mt. Scopus campus of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The central scholars were Lieberman and Scholem, and each of them, in addition to having a double office, was allowed to bring on two younger scholars, so Lieberman brought me and Danny Sperber. It was rather odd that they put us up on Mt. Scopus in the Truman building. We were supposed to spend the whole day there, but there were no books there, and of course, no internet. So there was a research assistant who would go to the National Library and bring us whatever we would want. The assistant was Yehoshua Schwartz, now a professor at Bar-Ilan. I didn’t ask to be in this group, and I said that it was purely min hashamayim,and I didn’t ask to have a research assistant, so I said “what do I with a research assistant?” I told Yeshoshua to get me copies of all the manuscripts of haSokher. So he photographed all of them, and I was able by then to incorporate the girsaot into what I was doing, and it hit me one day, and I still have that piece of paper, it hit me that the Florence and Munich manuscripts in that chapter are a team, that they represent a tradition — a little later it would turn out that there was a counter-tradition, represented by Genizah-Hamburg — but when I saw that they have a tendency to go together, I wrote on top of the piece of paper, that I still have, “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern,” whom always appear together in Hamlet. I’m telling you this just to show how devoid I was of all of the talk of stemma, and so forth. It’s just that ha-dvarim histadru li-neged einai. I was an observer, hayiti mashqif min ha-tsad, min ha-hutz. I looked at it, and I saw things.
All the other areas that I worked on — language, tannaim, and the other studies — were by and large offshoots of the consecutive treatment of texts of Bavli, of sugyot, which led me to the great value of this method, in contrast to picking specific topics. The discipline of consecutive text, which I began with, leads you to things you wouldn’t have otherwise gotten to. If you’re looking at things with a hard look, you don’t walk around them, you’re forced to address them, and ultimately, that can lead to interesting investigations.
So with the correct fact that you began with, that the Bavli is the very central center piece of what I’m trying to do, my hand is at the same time in all these kinds of offshoots, like language. For instance, Matthew Morgenstern bases a lot on my work in articles like “Shayarei kitvei-yad.” Here’s what he writes in his recent book on Jewish Babylonian Aramaic [Studies in Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, pp. 33-35 — Y.L.]:
The most significant publication of the early 1980s was a seminal article by Friedman, “Early Manuscripts,” which has unfortunately escaped the attention of many Aramaists. While undertaking a study of early manuscript sources for the Babylonian Talmud tractate Bava Mezia, Friedman reconstructed from fragments found in several libraries the remains of a substantial Geniza manuscript, which contained virtually all of the sixth chapter of the tractate, as well as parts of the seventh chapter…The significance of this manuscript lies not only in the fact that it contains an early version of the textual tradition…, but also that its language is of a type that until then was known primarily from Geonic manuscripts. Friedman effectively demonstrated that many of the characteristics associated with the best Geonic sources (plene orthography, phonetic spellings) also appear in early Talmudic manuscripts. Hence the manuscript’s textual status (early eastern) rather than its genre/provenance (Geonic) determines the nature of the language (p. 24).
YL: Interestingly, Lieberman did not actually write that much about the Bavli, even if he taught it at the Seminary. How did he perceive of your work on the Bavli?
SF: I have some fantastic material on that, but since they were so personal, I never really promulgated it. In a letter that he sent me he makes a general statement that the methodology I use is correct:
שמא יקירי, רק היום הספקתי לקרוא את מאמרך “קידושין במלוה” ועלי לאמר שהיתה לי הפתעה מאד נעימה.
הנך צודק כמעט בכל דבריך, ושיטת הניתוח היא אמיתית ומדעית עד לאחת.
לרגלי עבודתי אין בידי לעמוד על כל סוגיא וסוגיא ולקיים בה הדמין תתעבד, ובאים תלמידיי וממלאים את החסרון.
תתברך מן השמים ליישר כחך לאורייתא
With the help of God, Thursday of the week of “Remember what Amalek did unto thee” 5735
My dear Shamma,
Only today did I have time to read your article “Qiddushin bi-Malveh” and I must say that I was most pleasantly surprised. You are correct in almost everything that you wrote, and the method of analysis is both accurate and scientific to the utmost point. Due to the intensity of my current work, I cannot address each and every sugya and fulfill ye shall be cut into pieces [see Daniel 2:5 — Y.L.], and my students come and fill in the gaps. You should be blessed from the heavens and may your strength be directed towards the Torah.
I later found out that he always uses the word “kimat,” when I saw that he also used it in a letter to Sperber that Sperber published. The article he’s referring to in the letter to me was a very early article — “Qidushin bi-Malveh” [published in Sinai 76 — Y.L.], in which I even disagreed with something that Lieberman wrote in his Tosefta, and I said that “וכבר לימדונו רבותינו כמה פעמים, שאין לדיין אלא מה שעיניו רואות” — which is something that Lieberman always said. Lieberman certainly would have known that that was essentially a “nitilat rishut”, and he was extremely positive about that article.
And there’s a passage in Tosefta ki-Pshuta in Bava Batra where he refers to me as his “talmid muvhak.” Why is he quoting me? I once asked him a question while I was working on haMafkid — does the word “nifkad” ever appear in the Yerushalmi? I had to ask Lieberman because I had already reached my conclusion, but I didn’t have a concordance for the Yerushalmi, so therefore I had to ask him. He liked the question, and he said “no,” and then when he touched that point while doing Tosefta Bava Batra he quoted me as making that point.
YL: You mentioned that there is a difference between your commentary to the tenth chapter of Yevamot and your commentary on haSokher et haOmanim in terms of the work with textual versions. Has anything changed in your methodology over the years?
SF: As you know, the major evolution occurred mostly towards the beginning of my career while working on haIsha Rabbah, and that that came out of teaching. Already in the introduction to haIsha Rabbah, which I wrote while I was already working on Bava Metsia, I say that in the work on Bava Metsia I will give a full representation of the sugya. I don’t give the full text in Yevamot, and the use of girsaot is only agav orha to see the best way to say a word — it’s not heker hanusah. I should also note that when I started working on Yevamot I really had something else in mind. The original topic was to be the structure of sugyot and structural patterns within the Bavli, and it was the experience of trying to understand the sugya that switched me from dealing with structural patterns to parshanut, because I became more fascinated with understanding the languages or the texts of the Bavli, which of course created all sorts of problems.
I think that the reader of haSokher has the sense that the commentary is too long — it goes into too many things. In my language, it’s “too perfectionist.” I thought that we could write a Tosefta ki-Pshuta kind of commentary on the Bavli, even if the obvious differences are clear: the Bavli is different from the Tosefta, and the writer is different from Lieberman. For both of these reasons it could maybe be on one perek or on several, but not more. The nature of what Lieberman does on just every line is just so overwhelming, and that sort of became a pattern of what I strived for.
One of the things that most impressed me while working for Friedman is his curiosity, which, combined with his thoroughness, can be somewhat of nightmare for a research assistant. Friedman must see the German original of a hard-to-find article by Gustaf Dalman; he must then get a copy of the pages from the work of another Lutheran Orientalist referenced by Dalman, only to then send his research assistant back to the library to locate that author’s doctorate. “What you photocopied for me really whet my appetite.”
All of this is on display in his footnotes. Friedman writes for someone like himself. Someone who would want to see the full quote both in its official English translation and in the original German along with a brief biographical sketch of the scholar at hand, and someone who, even though he may well have much of the material on the shelves of his personal library, would prefer not to be mivatel Torah for the few minutes it would take to retrieve the volumes, because hamelakha merubah…
YL: Besides the editing of the text and style of commentary — what else has changed, even since haSokher?
SF: Earlier I was talking about separation with the aim of scrutinizing the memrot, and not so much scrutinizing the stamma. The switch that took place more recently with my article “Al Titmah” [published in the volume of essays Malekhet Makhshevet and in Friedman’s Sugyot — Y.L.] is that I began to look at the stamma as a fantastic corpus within itself, and therefore the stamma doesn’t simply have to be shaved off in order to get to the memra.
Another shift was a much a greater emphasis on the tannaitic world, and this also came about over the course of sugya by sugya work in haSokher — particularly in the ninth sugya, nefah umasui [in the Commentary, pp. 223-238 — Y.L.]. In that sugya, unless you put together the Tosefta, Baraiyta, and Mishnah, you can’t understand what’s happening in the Bavli or in the sugya, and that reflected itself in the whole subject of Mishnah and Tosefta. That’s one of the formative parts of my thinking, and it’s so complex that I’ve never really repeated it in any of my more methodological studies — I usually just said in two or three words, “see there.” But this was really formative, the Mishnah and Tosefta thing. Also the toseftan Baraiytot study in the Dimitrovsky volume came out of the sugya by sugya work.
An additional aspect of the adding of more emphasis on the tannaitic side will be seen in my commentary to the ninth perek of Gittin. In haSokher there’s a strange thing — the Mishnah doesn’t even appear! I deal with the sugya, and I refer people to the Mishnah, but I didn’t deal with it myself. In Gittin, I don’t deal with every Mishnah, but in many cases there’s a special unit for the Mishnah because there are things to say about it that I can’t simply say to the reader, “learn the Mishnah and come back here and we’ll do the sugya.”
YL: How about the attempt to recover the original memrot — has anything changed in that regard?
SF: I’m reading a book about physics now. It’s really a fascinating book, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, it’s by someone named Zvi Schreiber, and it’s called Fizz, and it’s about a girl named Fizz who time travels and visits all of the great physicists from Aristotle, Copernicus and so on. The type of thing that happened to me happens in the History of Science: once you find something or understand something, and based on your understanding that you’ve picked up, you can kind of do an about-face and change the basis that the understanding was based on. What it means in this case is like this: there are memrot, there is stam hatalmud, each one is very clear; you can see the memrot in their literary form, we have parallels in the Yerushalmi; you know the language and we know what the stam hagemara says and how it talks and how it fills in space betweenn memrot. I say this in “Al Titmah”: having gotten to a sense of the style and touch of stam hatalmud, we now confront things that look like memrot but sound like stam hatalmud. I find a sufficient number of cases like this, including that very interesting case in Ketubot about 32b-33b on which I had a long discussion with Robert Brody [Sugyot, pp. 105-109 — Y.L.]. I’ve been seeing a lot of this in Gittin, and that will come through in the volume. The mahloqet of Abaye and Rava about “al mnat shelo tokhli basar hazir” [b. Gittin 84 — Y.L.] — I can’t see Abaye! It has the scholastic feel and the rhetoric of stam hatalmud, and therefore I conclude that it is stam hatalmud using Abaye. While I was writing “Al Titmah,” I didn’t realize how this was such a central part of my thinking.
The stam hatalmud uses Rav Papa’s and Abaye and Rava just like it used R. Yohanan to display Palestinian material. This will be a “pizmon hozer” in the Gittin volume, and it comes up a lot in my volume “מונח מונח רביעה” which discusses four munahim, each one taking up a reva of the book.
These methodologies of the study of the Bavli of the recent decades are sort of a “torat hasod” that’s known only by the inner circle, and people in related fields are often using methodologies that are a hundred years old when they get to the Bavli. To be sure, there are people like Menahem Kister, a talmudist whose work in recent years has focused on adjacent areas of scholarship, that have sophistication in all the fields, as can be seen in his fantastic recent article on Metatron [Tarbiz 82 — Y.L.]. But people farther out, in different fields, never had a chance to get these insights, and therefore you can overturn a lot of what they say. One of the frustrations that I have in talking about these two books of mine, Gittin and Minuah, is that they really represent my thinking of the last ten years, which is not even available to the inner circle! I use an article of mine on magic that is due to come out soon in English as a way of introducing the uninitiated into the methodology, and there’s a great example of how separating the layers and really understanding the sugya helps us make sense of the theological issues. Essentially, the nature of magic is generalized from stam hatalmud, whereas there’s a basic mahloqet amoraim about whether it’s real or not [the article has since appeared in Rabbinic Traditions between Palestine and Babylonia– Y.L.].
In 1973, after having already been an assistant professor at JTS for six years, Friedman and his family moved to Israel. From then and until 1990 Friedman directed the Seminary’s Jerusalem campus at Neve Shechter.
YL: Why did you and Rachel decide to move to Israel?
SF: We wanted to, we loved Israel, we loved the language, we had been thinking about doing so for many years. In 70’-71’ I spent a sabbatical here and the kids were already in schools and had friends. The trick wasn’t coming, the trick was doing so and still staying within the Seminary. That was a trick that I had enough hutzpah to try. Most of the things I’ve done with scholarship take a lot of hutzpah, but I assure you that it’s a lot of naïve hutzpah. In those days people were frozen into non-action because of Lieberman. You couldn’t operate in the field when there was something like that. I didn’t see myself as competing with Lieberman or something like that. In the talk that I gave over at his shloshim I told the story that Lieberman used to call on people to read and he would say “read now…” And then there was a pause in which he would think of who to call on and everybody was terrorized. Everyone would look down and avoid eye-contact, and I used to look him straight in the eyes. I don’t know how I had the hutzpah to do something like that. It was a pause of many long seconds that I used to look him straight in the eyes, and he wouldn’t call on me, because he knew that I wasn’t afraid to read. But the same thing went with my writing. I wrote that article disagreeing with Lieberman in Sinai, and it took a lot of hutzpah.
People tend to discuss Friedman’s work alongside that of another Israel Prize Laureate, Prof. David Weiss-Halivni, in that around the same time, both began to publish scholarship that broke up the sugya into different parts with emphasis given to an anonymous redactional layer. While multiple differences between their approaches have been noted, one of the stark differences in their output is that Friedman has not published a theory of how the Bavli came into being, whereas Halivni has.
SF: several people have dealt recently with the ambivalence of the Rambam to the Geonim and how behind his apparent admiration for them he doesn’t simply accept all of what they said. Haym Soloveitchik explained to us that the mindset of the Arabic speaking Geonim was somewhat of a shift from the Talmudic thinking, and certainly there are parts of Geonic writings that have a simplistic way of explaining the gemara and tend to explain things literally. Isaiah Gafni has already written on this in regards to Rav Sherira. So, Sherira Gaon says that Rav brought the Mishnah from Eretz Yisrael — it’s a little too simple. I have not worked on this issue per se, but it’s too clean and absolute of a kind of thing. One thing that I have touched upon is the concept of mishnat bavel and mishnat eretz yisrael, which Y.N. Epstein formulated in his lecture at the opening of Hebrew University in the twenties. I think mishnat eretz yisrael is quite clear, but you can’t really find mishnat bavel and therefore it’s one of these absolutes that must be dismantled. But as per your question, how exactly did the Bavli come into being from the first generation of amoraim — I don’t have a lecture on that. I guess I have some ideas, but, per se, I’m working on the memrot, and not on the translation to the historical examination.
YL: If I may, it seems like you see yourself more as a commentator than as someone who would write an historical introduction.
SF: Right, of course. Well, I have big introductions to everything, but they’re methodological. I’m interested in methodology. But my hero is the Rashbam — omek hapshat, pshatot ha-mithadshim bi-kol yom. If you bore down far enough you’ll get to the real pshat, or as close to the real pshat as you’re going to get.
YL: Who are you favorite Rishonim or Ahronim, or who are the ones that you commonly use?
SF: Well look, with Rishonim, I’m so involved with Rashi and Rambam. I’ve written a lot about that and I think that when the Rambam went up to yeshiva shel ma’alah, he went and visited Rashi right away. I have another unpublished Rambam article that I’m working on, and I have a lot of notes where I quote Isadore Twersky in about seven or eight places in which he says in very simple language: the Rambam was not a modest person. He actually says that –the great Twerksy! Of course, he says it nicely.
What I’m often impressed with is the tremendous genius of Rashi, combined with his modesty. I still am fantastically excited by reading Rashi. We must allow our eyes to sparkle a little more when reading Rashi. Avraham Grossman shows you how to do that in the certain issues that he has dealt with — Rashi’s attitude towards women, for example, as well as other things. But there’s a tremendous amount in Rashi.
In terms of Ahronim: you know that ani lo ish Ahronim — but I have picked up from what Lieberman said and I think it’s quite correct. There are certain Ahronim or certain schools of them that have the roots of the critical philological approach — in contrast to others with other approaches — and one of them is the Ohr Sameach.
YL: How do you see academic Talmud and your own scholarship fitting into the larger history of Jewish learning?
SF: You know the story about somebody that comes to some gadol, rosh yeshiva, somewhere in Jerusalem, and sees that Lieberman’s Tosefta is there. So he says, don’t people ask you why do you have Lieberman’s Tosefta? So he says: look, people who don’t know what it is, don’t ask me, and people who do know what it is, certainly don’t ask me! We find tremendous excitement in Wissenchaft, in madaei hayahudut, in Lieberman and Epstein. It’s so exciting that your first sense is that if you show it to people then everybody will want to use it! Look, that’s true to a certain extent, but we have to be realistic — and in terms of sociology, there’s too much ideology in certain sectors not to look at these things. We won’t get to the vort. It won’t happen in our time — but the scene is so variegated that it will reach a lot. I mean on the dati scene, take places like Ma’ale Gilboa or other yeshivot, where they are incorporating our work.
YL: Do you see academic Talmudists actively trying to make it into the larger world of Talmud study?
SF: It has definitely come up in some recent thinking of Talmud haIgud– –this idea of communicating the exciting aspects of philology and other research methodologies to people who learn in the more regular way, the way that it used to be in the earlier decades. We don’t say that this is the Igud’s goals. We’re going to have Talmud haIgud — I don’t know why exactly. It’s like everything else, because we want to understand the gemara! Because we wanted people to apply our approaches, to analyze sugyot, so that when I learn that perek I can benefit from their scholarship. Let me show you a reaction that I got from someone:
[Talmud HaIgud gives] the serious, open minded Talmud scholar, as not yet aware of the beauty and power of the academic approach, an opportunity to get hooked. How many superlatives can I use to describe the latest addition [=Benovitz]. Amazing! Fantastic! The best part is that he addresses all the issues that bother me and finds great answers. Regarding Wald, here is a very brief assessment. His definitions of the key concepts in Shabbos in the introduction are superb. They go beyond the standard definitions in their scope and relationship to each other. His grasp of the material is especially evident in Sugya 16, Hunting the Chilozon, where his explanation of Peshik Raisha D’Lo Necha leh in the context of this sugya is the best I have seen.
Here’s a quote from someone who reads our work who isn’t from the world of academic Talmud, Dr. Shalom Kelman of Baltimore, a physician and a very competent talmid chacham. He’s very fast — he can dance around me in terms of speed — he introduced himself to me and he’s always full of enthusiasm. And there are many other such people that we reach as well.
YL: You insist that you’ve been passive all along, but it definitely does seem like you have a vision.
SF: Yes, now I do! There’s no question about it, and the projects were essentially tools in order to do this — tools that I wanted. I wouldn’t say I made the bibliography for other people to use, but ner li-ehad ner li-meah.
YL: What do you think of where the field is now?
SF: I’m very impressed with the field, people who I consider younger but are really already accomplished professors already. I see myself as part of a generation that was a sort of a bridge generation. Here we had on one side giants — Lieberman — and now we have on the other side people who are very capable, but who are coming from a different world. Reading Kister’s article now is one example, maybe he’s a more outstanding one, but there are really many very capable people that are writing today and in a sense they’re much more disciplined, they have better backgrounds and training, they do the language side carefully, etc. I see so much talent and exciting work that’s coming out of people not yet retired and even from people who are just finishing their doctorates. People who are well versed in all kinds of different fields, which is not easy today considering how much is out there. There are good things happening.
YL: And how about even younger — how do you think that Talmud should be taught in High Schools in Israel?
SF: I don’t know if you know — during the Yom Kippur war I volunteered to teach in LiYadah [Hebrew University’s High School — Y.L.]. That was a time when they were studying Talmud, so all you had to do was be a substitute teacher and teach a little different. Now, I don’t even know how to get it back into the curriculum. I have these little ideas of Talmud education and I’ve discussed this before. What I guess is one of the reasons why Talmud has a bad name that would have to be overcome — this goes back to a talk that I gave at a conference for mamlakhti dati Talmud teachers and principals in the late seventies or something like that, which I mentioned in my Chair talk. I think that if a teacher is strongly intellectually engaged in the material he’s going to communicate, then the way to do it is to prepare himself for his own needs before preparing his lesson. And then I started preparing a list of things that he would need to prepare and they laughed me out, because I was essentially describing how I would prepare for that group that Shaul Stampfer put together that I told you about before. So I gave that sort of recipe of those seven things, structure of the sugya, and the relationship of the component parts, and the influence of the stam hatalmud. What I did in LiYadah was simply the idea of undressing the sugya first and then reattach the stam hatalmud. So I took out the memrot, and the divrei tannaim, and I said okay this is what this says and this is what this says, all of which makes sense. Now let’s see how the Talmud integrated that into discussion, which immediately gives a double way of approaching what the memra says itself and what the stam hatalmud creatively had to do, even though it wasn’t the “pshat,” in order to weave the things together. Now the students are not shocked by the strangeness of the Talmud — are the memrot or beraiytot strange? No. Is what the stam hatalmud wanted to do strange? It’s creative, but it’s not strange. You can begin to understand what someone would like to do, which is quite different from if you teach it monolithically.
As anyone who has visited his office knows, Friedman has collected quite a few books over the years, some of which are placed on rather high shelves. On one occasion, while his arm was in a sling due to a fall, Friedman asked me to return a rather heavy book to a rather high shelf. After climbing up on a chair and lifting up the book, I had to ask him: how did he get the book down in the first place? “The man I am when I want a book isn’t the same man that I am when I need to put a book back.” The delight in whatever sugya he is learning that gives Prof. Friedman so much energy, as well as pleasure and excitement, continues unabated.
SF: I’ll give you an example from something I’m teaching right now from haHovel. Every sugya I teach I always think “this is the most fantastic sugya.” Some of the things in the Talmud are funny, there’s humor, there’s exciting things, there’s things that make you jump, but there’s different genres within it, and one of them are piskei halakha, as Rashi says, and the piskei halakha that we have here are in the form of a list of arguments that the hovel can make to the nehbal, and all of the answers are all pitgamim. After you break your head on a long and interesting sugya with a complicated mahloqet — don’t skip over the beauty of those last four lines, which although simple, are actually very exciting.
As most of our readers already know, last Sunday Prof. Shamma Friedman was told that he will receive the seventh Israel Prize in Talmud this May. This is a fitting tribute to a scholar who has had an enormous influence on the study of Talmud both within and beyond academia. Continue reading
Shamma Friedman, Studies in Tannaitic Literature: Methodology, Terminology and Content. Jerusalem: Bialik Institute, 2013. Hebrew. XVII+534 pp. NIS 111.
Shamma Friedman is a didactic master. His aptitude for explaining and teaching complex matters in simple and concise language is impressive -and useful. His articles were the first ones I read in Talmudics and they were accessible enough for me to say, “I could probably do that.” (I have since learned that I probably cannot, at least not with Friedman’s panache). It is thus no surprise that many of his models have become the new standard in the field and were adopted (sometimes overzealously) by both his students and his wider readership. Continue reading
I can’t claim to be much of a sports guy. Yes, I enjoy running, and I joined a makeshift ultimate frisbee team at my highschool for a couple of months (we were doomed from the get go- when it came to frisbee, the Modern-Orthodox kids were nothing compared to those from the Conservative day schools; why, I do not know), but that is pretty much the extent of my athletic career. I also cannot say that I follow sports all that much, and perhaps the two are tied together. But still, when it comes to the Olympics, I always end up watching my fair share, more out of awe for the amazing feats of athleticism than out of allegiance for the teams of my two home countries. Most amazing to me is seeing how athletes have progressed over the years, setting new records in almost every sport. While I try and shy away from claims of historical progress, these concrete numbers show that humans really are getting better at performing very specific actions, like “snatching” 188kg weights.
In the realm of academic Talmud, the bar is also constantly being raised. If only a few decades ago it was completely legitimate to cite in an academic article the Munich manuscript of the Bavli by quoting from Rabinowitz‘s Dikdukei Sofrim, nowadays that would never fly. Rabinowitz’s Dikdukei Sofrim was one of the most influential projects on Talmud study ever (its ambition, however, cost Rabinowitz his life, as he passed away while travelling in Russia to find more Talmudic manuscripts). The situation today is decidely different. From the comfort of an iPad, one can access many more manuscripts than Rabinowitz could ever have dreamed of seeing, and the Dikdukei Sofrim is now mainly used to see what girsa was before each rishon. One who wishes to employ philological methods in studying a sugya now how has a couple of tools for consultation:
- The Dikdukei Sofrim Hashalem, which covers most of Seder Nashim.
- The Israel National Library’s website of Talmudic Manuscripts, which contains some of the Bavli’s main “complete” manuscripts.
- The Friedberg Genizah Project, for material from the Cairo Genizah.
- Yaakov Sussman’s catalogue (or, “Thesaurus”) of Talmudic Manuscripts, which lists all of the witnesses available on a particular passage.
Perhaps the most heavily relied on tool of all, which may deserve more credit, is the Lieberman Institute’s Sol and Evelyn Henkind Talmud Text Database. Named for Prof. Saul Lieberman, the institute has been serving the world of academic Talmud for almost a generation. The Institute’s head, Prof. Shamma Friedman, has informed us that since the database went online last year, replacing the 5th CD-ROM version, it has gone through numerous enhancements in terms of how much material it contains. The website now has almost 1,330 transcriptions of genizah fragments and 300 transcriptions of complete manuscripts, transcribed by a team of dozens of scholars over the past few decades. Another addition are the almost 3,000 high-resolution images of the Mishnah and Talmud. About thirty institutions of higher learning are already subscribed. Along with the website of the Academy for the Hebrew Language and Bar-Ilan’s free Tannaim website, the database ensures that almost all of Rabbinic Literature has been transcribed according to the best manuscripts and is readily available online. Many scholars choose to copy from these databases and then check the transcriptions against photographs of the actual manuscripts, while some still insist on transcribing the manuscript evidence all on their own.
Another, and perhaps even more significant, feature of the Lieberman database is its sophisticated search engine. The possibility of using the Lieberman website to perform searches greatly enhances one’s ability to clarify many issues and phenomena across almost every manuscript and genizah fragment of the Bavli.
For years, alongside the CD-ROM version of the text database, the Lieberman Institute produced a CD-ROM of a “Bibliographical Index”. Similar to Moshe Pinchuk’s site on the Yerushalmi, the index lists secondary literature that relates to specific passages of rabbinic literature. For example- someone looking to find secondary literature on a sugya that they are working on can simply punch in the daf number and immediatley receive references to academic works that deal with it. This database is also set to launch as a website, which will allow for constant upgrading by users and will link to the secondary material that is available online. The index includes the Mishnah, Tosefta, Bavli, and Yerushalmi. A preliminary list of the material included is available here.
These databases, which will continue to grow with the help of user input and future technological advancements, will further serve scholars for years to come, ensuring the continued rise of the academic standard to new records. Come 2016, who knows what we will be able to do.
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:
- Abraham Goldberg’s collected essays, Literary Form and Composition in Classical Rabbinic Literature , (צורה ועריכה בספרות חז”ל).
- A recent collection of some of Moshe Bar-Asher’s essays entitled Leshonot Rishonim (לשונות ראשונים).
- A brand new book by Ezra Fleisher, edited by Shulamit Elizur and Tova Beeri, Statutory Jewish Prayers: Their Emergence and Development (תפילות הקבע בישראל בהתהוותן ובהתגבשותן).
- The same goes for the new edition of Halivni’s Introductions to Sources and Traditions (מבואות למקורות ומסורות), which adds an introduction to Sanhedrin (the commentary to which has not come out yet) and a few corrections to the first edition.
- For some reason the final volume in Ezra Melamed’s series on Midrashei Halakha in the Talmuds, Halachic Midrashim of the Amoraim in the Babylonian Talmud (מדרשי הלכה של האמוראים בתלמוד הבבלי), which was published last year by Magnes and by Bar-Ilan Press, is still priced as a new book by both [it’s actually a little cheaper at Bar-Ilan; note: one should always check both publishers when a book is jointly published!].
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.
- Shemesh and Amit, Melekhet Makhshevet (מלאכת מחשבת), mentioned by Amit (Gvaryahu) here.
- Historian Moshe Beer’s collected essays The Sages of the Mishnah and the Talmud (חכמי המשנה והתלמוד).
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).
- Ofra Tirosh-Becker’s Rabbinic Excerpts in Medieval Karaite Literature, reviewed by Amit here, is due to become an indispensible tool for philologically minded talmudists.
- Moshe Florentin’s Samaritan Elegies, a collection of fifty-six poems published for the first time, along with an extensive commentary.
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:
- Shamma Friedman’s Talmudic Studies (סוגיות בחקר התלמוד), which came out last year, collects his essays on the Bavli. [Note: this volume contains Prof. Friedman’s article “אל תתמה על הוספה שנזכר בה שם אמורא: שוב למימרות האמוראים וסתם התלמוד בסוגיות הבבלי“, based on a lecture given at the same Bar-Ilan conference which became the aforementioned volume Malekhet Makhshevet. After the conference the article was released on Prof. Friedman’s site, published in this volume, and then published again in Malekhet. Only in the Studies version does the article include the very important response to the critiques brought against him by Prof. Robert Brody in the article “סתם התלמוד ודברי האמוראים“, and a response to Moscovitz’s lecture from the 14th World Congress of Jewish Studies.]
- Shmuel Glick’s A Window to the Responsa Literature (אשנב לספרות התשובות). I haven’t seen this volume yet and would like to hear more about it in the comments section from someone who has.
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.
- The Ta-Shma memorial volume, entitled Ta-Shma, published by Herzog College, collects over 30 articles in two volumes.
- Yosef Dan’s recently completed seven volume set on Jewish Mysticism.
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.
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 : 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.
Recently, while casually surfing the web, I came across “a hilariously unsuccessful for-profit online education project” known as Fathom.com, which ran during the internet bubble. In a time when forecasts floated around saying that “distance education” would be “a $9 billion industry by 2003”, Columbia University and other formal and informal institutions of higher learning banded together to “provide high quality educational resources to a global audience through the Internet.” Although the site hasn’t been updated in a few years and a lot of the links are broken, its courses are still up (now for free), and include some in Jewish Studies. To my great delight I came across one entitled “An Introduction to Hebrew Manuscripts“, co-authored by an all-star cast made up of the art historians Joseph Gutmann and Evelyn M. Cohen; the former JTS librarian and professor of Medieval Hebrew Literature and Jewish Bibliography Menahem Schmelzer; and the preeminent codicologist Malachi Beit-Arié. Beit-Arié, who is professor emeritus at Hebrew University, a member of the Israeli Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and past director of the JNUL, is currently at work on a project to create an online database of codicological information collected by the Hebrew Palaeography Project. The “study of books as physical objects” is quite an important field to be familiar with when approaching the Talmud and I immediately read through the seminar’s four sessions.
Yet while reading about the different ways in which Jews have transmitted knowledge on paper I could not help but think of how I was learning all of this from a format which had in itself become passé. Within a decade of its publication, the really excellent seminar had already fallen by the way side as its medium fell out of use. Online learning still exists, but in slightly different formats, through the extremely successful iTunes University and Academic Earth. Except for podcasts like Prof. Michael Satlow‘s series “From Israelite to Jew“, most online courses nowadays are video or audio recordings of actual university courses. Both iTunesU and Academic Earth really have a huge amount of valuable information (with some overlap), but only a limited amount of Jewish Studies courses, which is why I was surprised to see that Fathom even had a Jewish Studies section on its site. A couple of years ago my friends and I discovered Prof. Christine Hayes’ online course “Introduction to the Old Testament (Hebrew Bible)” and we were bothered that we could find practically no other full courses in Jewish Studies. Yeshiva University has a few academic lectures available on iTunes U and the Orthodox adult education organization “Torah in Motion” also has a number of academic lectures available for a dollar or two each. In Hebrew, the Youtube channel of Hebrew U has a few lectures worth watching, like Prof. Avigdor Shinan’s Introduction to Aggadic Literature and videos of the last World Congress of Jewish Studies. Still, this is scarce when compared to both the plethora of other courses available in the humanities and the amount of money which goes into Jewish Studies in the academy. When the number of potential listeners is also taken into account, it is pretty surprising that more Jewish Studies courses or guest lectures aren’t available online.
Perhaps students of Jewish Studies would do well to take the cue from Prof. Beit-Arié and try and curate a website based database that brings together links to the various free courses available online. Such a collection would not only make finding what is already available easier, but might convince more institutions to take part in online learning.
Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky ז”ל
Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky (1920-2011) belonged to the first generation of academic Talmud scholars born and educated in Israel, and certainly one of the outstanding among them. His personality encompassed a unique blend of knowledge, talent, and devotion, a combination that was all his own.
A graduate of the prestigious Yeshivat Merkaz Ha-Rav, and before that Talmud Torah Etz Haim in Jerusalem, Dimitrovsky was loyally committed to the State of Israel in the making, and as a young man took up arms and served in the Hagana during the War of Independence. He was trained in the scholarly methods and high standards of the Talmud Department of the Hebrew University at the feet of J.N Epstein and Simha Asaf, whose methods he combined with the traditional learning and orientation he received through the tutelage of his father, Rabbi Yaakov Yosef Dimitrovsky.
His spoken Hebrew was that of a native speaker, and at the same time rich and flowing naturally out of the Talmudic sources. His written Hebrew style, was likewise enriched in both these directions: from his absolute mastery of the wealth of all strata of Hebrew, stemming from his command of Talmudic and other sources, and the natural control of a native speaker, it emerged as a creation of stylistic beauty few could match.
Similarly, his research and studies, in all the various fields he addressed, all reflect this one of a kind combination of Torah scholarship, scientific methods, and religious-Zionist conviction.
Professor Dimitrovsky’s profound understanding of the complexities of the vast Talmudic corpus, down to the most minute detail, cannot be acquired except by arduous devotion to Torah study from an early age. With these strengths, Dimitrovsky created a unique scholarly profile, based on a meticulous scientific method founded on the peshat of the text, accurate historical understanding, and overall – sound common sense. He integrated a deep-seated, natural grasp of the material with fierce devotion to the beauty of Jewish tradition, even when working in the broader, secular reality of the academic setting.
These were the same qualities that led to the dialogue of love between him and his students, all during his teaching career, and above all, his inherent modesty – genuine, personal, and special to Haim Zalman Dimitrovsky. Through his years as Professor of Talmud at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, and later at the Hebrew University, Dimitrovsky trained generations of scholars of Talmud and Midrash.
These strengths mark his scholarship also: scholarly precision with loving mastery of his material persisted in his ongoing project of putting order into the texts and uncovering the depth level of correct meaning: “nahara nahara ufashtei“.
It is therefore not surprising that he gave preference to the literature of the rishonim – its profound depths require scholarly expertise as a sub-discipline in itself: “tzvat bi-tzvat asuya“. For example, Rashba, the chief disciple of the Nahmanidean school, as well as a decisor who wrote thousands of responsa – only a true scholar – astute, with the entire rabbinic corpus at his fingertips – is equal to the task of transmitting the Rashba to future generations. Dimitrovsky did so, from editing the Rashba’s novellae to compiling his responsa, with all their fragments. Every conversation with Prof. Dimitrovsky demonstrated that this was a labor of love.
Consider also the neglected, abstruse discipline of elucidating the writings of the early aharonim, namely, the masters of pilpul, who formed the link to the following generations while their own teachings were nearly forgotten, overshadowed by both rishonim and aharonim. Dimitrovsky stepped in, shed light, analyzed, and breathed new life into their words. His illumination of the semikha controversy likewise typifies his work which was devoted to the intermediate generation.
Another lost corpus restored by Dimitrovsky was the editions of the Talmud printed in Spain and Portugal before the expulsion. These disconnected dry bones were restored to their grandeur and provided with his fully innovative history of these little known prints.
Thus he was able to direct a concentrated in-depth focus to the commentarial and halakhic works of the Rashba; the printers of the forgotten edition of the Talmud dating from before the expulsion from Spain; of Y. Berav and Joseph Karo in the context the semikha controversy; and the entire genre of pilpul. Armed with profound powers of analysis on the one hand, and a restrained style, on the other, he has thereby enabled us to restore our own link to this almost-forgotten generation, and to hear – through his words – their muted majesty.
We were deeply gratified in 1994, when the unique achievements of our teacher, so well know to us, his students, were publicly recognized with the award of an Israel Prize in an official ceremony.
Shamma Friedman is the Benjamin and Minna Reeves Professor of Talmud and Rabbinics at The Jewish Theological Seminary teaching at The Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies, and Adjunct Professor in the Talmud Department at Bar Ilan University.