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.

Around the Web, English, Technology

Updates to the Lieberman Databases

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 “snatching188kg 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 rishonOne who wishes to employ philological methods in studying a sugya now how has a couple of tools for consultation:

Prof. Saul Lieberman

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.

An example of the proper etiquette for citing transcriptions of rabbinic texts available online.

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.

English, Talk of the Town


Last night, Dr. Youval Rotman of Tel Aviv University lead the inaugural discussion of Hebrew University’s  Group for the Study of Late Antiquity. The Group, which was started by Uriel Simonsohn and I in order to create an active scholarly community for researchers working on different corners of late antiquity, will be meeting monthly for group text-study and conversations, topped off by cheese, crackers, and Israeli wine as robust as the discussions.

Rotman’s topic was “Captives and Redeeming Captives in Late Antiquity: The Law and the Community,” and a crowd upwards of 30 (that’s in quantity, though I suppose also in age) read texts by Ambros, Tertullian (and more), along with rabbinic sources from the Mishna, Tosefta, and Babylonian Talmud (sources are available here).  A number of interesting trends were noted, included an apparent development in communal solidarity that turned captive redemption from a more private, family affair into a public,  community-based activity.  A connected issue that came up was the role of the state, or lack thereof, in redeeming captives.  Apparently, once you hit late antiquity Roman and Byzantine legislation forbids the state from redeeming prisoners of war.

I wonder whether the following, fascinating anecdote about Ifra Hormiz somehow reflects  those two points:

איפרהורמיז אימיה דשבור מלכא שדרה ארנקא דדינרי לקמיה דרב יוסף אמרה ליה ליהוי מצוה רבה יתיב רב יוסף וקא מעיין בה מאי ניהי מצוה רבה אמ’ ליה אביי מדתני רב שמואל בר יוסף אין פוסקין צדקה על היתומים ואפלו לפדיון שבוים שמע מינה פדיון שבוים מצוה רבה היא

Ifra Hormiz the mother of King Shapur sent a moneybag of dinars to Rav Yosef. She said to him: Let it be for a great mitzvah. Rav Yosef was sitting and looking into it –  what could be a great mitzvah?  Abaye said to him: Since Rav Shmuel b. Yosef taught that we do not levy money for charity from orphans even for the redemption of captives, it may be concluded that the redemption of captives is a great mitvah. (b. Bava Batra 8a-b; according to MS Hamburg).

The story is fascinating for a number of reasons. But in the meantime it is noteworthy that the talmudic storyteller has the queen-mother essentially delegating (and funding) rabbis to redeem (Jewish?) captives – as opposed to having the Sasanian state take care of it by itself. And it is the rabbis as a group who are in charge of captive redemption – as we also find at b. Taan 22a, where a case of captive redemption (apparently – though see the MSS) “visits upon” the rabbis, again apparently as a group.

Next up is Prof. Shaul Shaked, who will be speaking on January 3rd on “Zoroastrianism: A Religion of the Book.” For that I leave you with the following, thought-provoking picture – courtesy of my friend Dan Sheffield who has been digitizing a treasure-trove of photograph’s by the late Mary Boyce.

English, Recent Publications

Redaction and Reconstruction

Two  articles on redaction in the Tannaitic corpus that is not Mishnah were recently published. I thought that each exemplified an interesting facet of the reembracement of source criticism in recent years.

The first is Yoav Rosenthal’s article in Tarbiz 79, on an interesting phenomenon in the MSS of the Tosefta. Rosenthal’s work focuses on the “recent afterlife” of texts; something analogous to the search for “historical traditions about Jesus from the first 48 hours after resurrection”; although he contends that rabbinic works are in fact made of discreet sources, they are not always readily found. The only “rigourous” tools we have are the MSS, which rarely give away the secrets of actual redaction. They’re better at finding the first baby steps the text made when it was being transmitted.

In what might be his most influential work yet, Yoav Rosenthal brings to light some gems first discovered by Adiel Schremer. Rosenthal claims he has found footnotes in Tosefta, which become apparent when comparing the two extant MSS of this work. In some rare instances, a clump of halakhot will be found at the end of the chapter in one MS, and in the middle in another. Rosenthal shows that this clump of halakhot is a commentary on one halakha in the chapter of Tosefta that does not “move around” in the MS tradition, or an addendum to it.

This of course opens the door to the possibilities that (a) there are more such places, but they cannot be found in the MS tradition, and (b) that the Tosefta is made up of multiple layers, and that it was an open text for a certain amount of time.

This should be distinguished from true “redaction”, i.e. the creation of a new text out of sources already available to the redactor. This phenomenon was recently astutely detected in Tosefta Sanhedrin 7 by Ishay Rosen-Zvi, and deserves its own treatment.

A completely different take on the question of redaction is Steven Fraade’s “Anonymity and Redaction in Rabbinic Midrash”, published in the recently-noted Melekhet Mahshevet. In a conference conducted two years before Moulie Vidas suggested that the Stam was being anonymous on purpose, Fraade made the same observations regarding the anonymous material in the Mekhilta. Fraade notes that since Halivni and Friedman popularized the idea that the Bavli is made of different strata, very few scholars have attempted (in print, at any rate) to apply the same tools to other rabbinic texts.

Fraade suggests that it makes less of a difference whether or not the anonymous parts are earlier or later than the named ones, and that the bigger and more interesting task is to parse the effect this combination of multivocality and monovocality has on the reader. Do many names carry more or less weight than one text speaking with no names; and what is the effect of the combination?

In order to do this he read through a sizable chunk of Mekhilta nezikin, and presents the reader with a detailed discussion of parasha 4 in which he points out that the named statements in this midrash are “interlopers in a text that otherwise seems to glory in its anonymity”. He suggests that their names are presented in order to point out the partiality of the single opinions against the redacted text, brought into the debate to highlight the overarching anonymous pedagogical move that is Stam Mekhilta.

Fraade himself sees this article as the beginning of a project; as someone who is already laboring on several readings of parashot of midrash, his insight on the effect of the final redacted product on the early reader is an invaluable tool. I would, however, also focus on actual source criticism, which is easier to employ in Midrash, with all of its rules, terms and patterns, than in Mishnah, Tosefta or Talmudim.

In a way, this reading too is a study on the short-term afterlife of the text: what did the composer mean for the first audience to hear? What would the first – or third – teacher of this text transmit to his students? Are these questions better or are they in fact just a shying away from the old (“protestant”) questions of redaction and source criticism?