Wednesday, October 09, 2013


News feeds and Facebook bubbled over yesterday with discussions of a new genetic study on the origins of Ashkenazic Jews. I read through the study, understanding a very small portion of it, so any thoughts that I have about it might easily be based on misunderstanding. The study distinguishes between the paternal genetical markers of Ashkenazic Jews, which point to roots in the Near East (other than Levites!), and the maternal markers, which are European. So the big news that everyone is talking about is that the people who brought Judaism to Europe were single men and they married local women who converted.

I wanted to point to a couple of other points in the study that I thought were fascinating. First, the maternal DNA is specifically from Southern Europe, the Northern Mediterranean, and possibly even more specifically Italy. That accords beautifully with several Jewish European origin myths, like the famous Four Captives from Bari (Southern Italy) who established Torah learning in North Africa, Egypt and Spain, or Megillat Ahimaatz. The Kalonymides of the Rhineland traced their lineage to Northern Italy (Lucca). The researchers even suggest that the Jews of Spain and their exiled descendants the Sefardim shared this common origin with the Ashkenazim.

Having written my dissertation on the rabbinic literature of Southern France, I was drawn to the ambiguity of that term, Northern Mediterranean, which might mean specifically Italy and might also mean other areas, like the French Midi. Yaakov Sussman has written a speculative article pointing to a variety of cultural parallels between the medieval Jewish communities of Germany and Provence, and seems to imply that they shared a common source, perhaps in early medieval Italy. This might strengthen that suggestion.

Another point worth noting is the chronology. The researchers have developed a calculator for determining how long ago these genetic events took place. Using it with this data, they say that "these ancestral Jewish populations... may have had an origin in the first millenium BCE, rather than in the wake of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70 CE".

Some researchers have argued with vigour that the rabbinic Judaism really only spread to Mediterranean Europe in the early Middle Ages, by which time the Hellenized Jews who lived there during Roman times had disappeared one way or another. These new findings seems to suggest that there was continuity from a very early stage.

In his recent lecture, Prof. Haym Soloveitchik emphasized that his search for the origins of the Ashkenazic community is about "culture and not genetics". I think I would go with that.

Monday, April 30, 2012

Ta Shma

The National Library of Israel, which has been holding cultural events on a regular basis for the past year or so, is hosting an evening tomorrow (Tuesday, May 1st at 8pm) in honour of the Israel Ta Shma memorial volume (titled "Ta Shma"). The speakers include Moshe Idel, who will expand upon his lengthy article on the volume on the Star of David. Hagai Ben-Shamai will speak about the newly discovered Afghani "Genizah" (a topic on which Shaul Shaked is speaking tonight at 6.15pm at the Mt Scopus campus of Hebrew University, room 5318). Rav Mayer Lichtenstein will discuss Prof. Ta-Shma's impact on the yeshivot, an audience that Ta-Shma truly identified with. Prof. Ta-Shma's daughter, Ahinoam Jacobs, will speak on behalf of the family.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Halakhot Pesukot online

I just noticed that the (former) Sassoon manuscript of Halakhot Pesukot has been digitised and is available online. It's a manuscript from 10th century Iraq. If I remember correctly, its collation doesn't conform to the Gregory rule. This manuscript is Matthew Morgenstern's foremost example of 'Grade A EEMss' (Early Eastern Manuscripts). Parts of it are vocalized with Babylonian supra-linear vocalization. And now you can read it in the privacy of your own home (without even having to purchase the Jerusalem 1971 facsimile edition).

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Oxford Genizah

The Genizah fragments in the Bodleian Library at Oxford are now online!

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Two attitudes towards the Talmudhttp://www.blogger.com/img/blank.gif

A Hannukah party is waiting to be organized so telegraphically - there are two basic attitudes towards the Talmud. Legal code or multivalent discussion. Summarized admirably in the following two quotes in the NYTimes:

Rabbi Benjamin Blech, professor of Talmud at Yeshiva University, said the rabbis believed that study should not be made too easy. “We want people to struggle with the text because by figuring it out you will have a deeper comprehension,” he said. “They wanted a living index, not a printed index.”

Nothing satisfied Mr. Retter’s needs. As he said: “I’m a lawyer, and if I want to know the law, I look it up in an index.”

Friday, November 25, 2011

Hungarian Responsa Studies (book review)

תשובות ושאלות
Studies in Responsa Literature, ed. Viktoria Banyai and Szonja Rahel Komoroczy, Budapest 2011

It is rare to hear of a new scholarly volume entirely devoted to Halakhic responsa (or, indeed, to any aspect of post-Talmudic Halakhah). So I was fascinated by the very existence of 'Studies in Responsa Literature'. It is a collection of studies by scholars affiliated (at present or in the past) with the Center of Jewish Studies at the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. According to the introduction, the volume reflects the sustained interest in responsa that the students and teachers at the Center have maintained over the past several years. That institutional focus on responsa is also noteworthy. Responsa literature is so rich and multivalent that a concerted approach by different scholars with different interests makes a lot of sense. It also makes for a rewarding reading experience, going through a volume with multiple authors but with a fairly unified topic.

The first article in the volume is by Tamas (Sinai) Turan, who has made his mark in Budapest and in Jerusalem. The title is 'Terse Analogical Reasoning in Responsa Literature: Four Medieval Examples', but despite all that detail, it doesn't really explain the point of this deeply learned article. Taking examples from early medieval responsa (Geonim, Rashi, Maimonides, Tosafists), Turan shows how declarative statements by the rabbinic respondents often mask a more complicated Halakhic reality. He suggests that the text of the responsum often serves a rhetorical purpose, and that the actual Halakhic rationale employed by the rabbi may be hidden from view.

Dora Zsom has recently several articles recently (in the Hispania Judaica Bulletin) on rabbinic attitudes towards Jewish converts to Christianity in late medieval Spain and its diaspora. Here she discusses the central role that these converts played in the kosher wine trade in Spain, Majorca and North Africa, and the changing attitudes taken by the rabbis of the Duran family.

That's it for the medieval responsa. Geza Komoroczy discusses a responsum by Hakham Zvi about events in Budapest during the 1686 siege. His contention is that the person discussed in the responsum - whose wife and daughter were killed by a "bomba" during the siege - is actually Hakham Zvi himself, and draws grim conclusions from this about the rabbi's integrity. But, as far as I can see, the only basis for this identification is that, in describing his own flight from the city in 1686, Hakham Zvi mentioned losing 'my books and my dearest beloved', which is how Komoroczy translates the Hebrew and inteprets the 'dearest beloved' as being his wife and daughter. But the Hebrew term he translated is מחמדי הטובים, which can refer to prized possessions, maybe nice clothes like those of Esau, but I can't imagine a man referring that way to his dead wife and child. Without that, the whole identification falls apart.

Viktoria Banyai points to the potential use of Rabbi Yehezkel Landau's responsa (including some recently published manuscripts) for the study of Jewish history in Hungary. It's a short article and quite focused. But a lot of significant research has been done on the Noda bi-Yehudah recently (by Sharon Flatto and Maoz Kahana - others too?). Hopefully, these different scholarly strands will come together.

Szonja Rahel Komoroczy writes a fascinating analysis of R Hillel Lichtenstein's belief in the importance of Yiddish as a Jewish language, as the only language that Jews should speak. Besides studying several of his responsa and sermons, she points to the impact that this attitude had on the print history of Hungarian Jewry.

The last three articles in the book discuss Holocaust-era responsa and Halakhic discussions. Because the Nazis reached Hungary at a late stage in World War II, the communities there had the opportunity to consider the Halakhic ramifications of the tragedy enveloping them, and many of those responsa have been published over the past few decades.

I hope that the Center in Budapest continues to study responsa, and to publish its findings in English.


Thursday, October 06, 2011

Wikipedian lacuna

Wikipedia has a rubric, but no article, on 'Textual criticism of the Talmud'. Is there no one out there to fill this in, le-hagdil Torah ule-ha'adirah?