Monday, December 12, 2005

Methodological musings

I feel bad that I haven't been blogging. But I'm busy, as you should know by now. Anyway, a couple of thoughts that have occurred to me recently. I can't really back them up, but they might strike a chord with someone.

There was a time when it was quite acceptable in scholarly circles to resolve Talmudic cruxes by positing an abbreviation that was incorrectly interpreted. In other words, when faced with a word (or phrase) that was difficult to interpret in context, the explanation would be given that originally a different phrase had appeared, bearing the same initial letters. A scribe shortened the phrase to those letters, and a later scribe misunderstood them and wrote some new words that have no meaning.

This line of interpretation was championed by Louis Ginzburg, who wrote an article in Students' Annual, a JTS publication from long ago, entirely devoted to using this method to explain obscure passages in the Jerusalem Talmud. Victor Aptowitzer did the same, for other Talmudic sources. Today I came across the method in a comment by Shmuel Kalman Mirsky, in his edition of the Sheiltot.

The only example that comes to mind, though, which I haven't gone back to check (I know that Ravitsky wrote an article on the topic, in his book Al Da'at HaMakom) is Rashi's comment on Deuteronomy 11:18. There he says:
Even after you go into exile, distinguish yourselves with commandments. Put
on tefillin, make mezuzot, so that they not be new to
you when you return.
This is surprising, since one would have thought that these mitzvot are precisely the kind whose observance is unrelated to geographic issues. Therefore, someone said (and I have no idea where I heard this) that the original text (or, at least, a more original version than the printed edition) had the abbreviation tu"m. This stood for terumot uma'asrot, agricultural laws that are indeed applicable in the land of Israel. A copyist misconstrued the abbreviation, and the above text was created.

But we know that the performance of mitzvot including tefillin and mezuzah was indeed lax for much of Jewish history (as Kanarfogel has shown). And it is difficult for me to imagine how such an error could have actually developed.

In general, I think this method has fallen out of favour. That was my thought. As an aside, I suspect that Saul Lieberman didn't like this method too much himself. In his methodological introduction to Talmudic philology, Al ha-Yerushalmi, he mentioned Ginzburg's article, but he quotes only two of them, without much enthusiasm. But maybe I was reading that into him.

My other thought has to do with enthusiasm about manuscripts and their significance for scholarship. I hope my passion for manuscripts is not in question. But their contribution to the elucidation of the text is often overrated. My theory is that the more exposure a scholar has to manuscripts, especially texts outside his specialized focus, the more sober he is in appraising them.

A few stories may illustrate this. One is my last conversation with the late Prof. Ta Shema. As he was walking me out of his study, he spoke heavily about the IMHM as "riches kept by the owner to his detriment." It was clear that decades of working with manuscripts, poring over thousands of microfilms, had left him overwhelmed and exhausted.

Another story. A Talmud class at Hebrew University. The professor points out difficulties in a chapter of mishnah. One of the students, a pensioner with great enthusiasm for his studies, suggests brightly "Well then look in the manuscript!" And the teacher explains patiently that he had already looked in the manuscript, and his problem remained.

Reading through different manuscripts, one becomes inured to minor stylistic shifts, additions or elisions, different forms of a single word. Not every variation is worth getting excited about. In fact, most variations are almost meaningless. And even if a particular variation seems to be exciting, chances are it isn't.

10 Comments:

Anonymous avi shmidman said...

Manuscript Boy,
You are of course on target regarding the overestimated expectations which many have in their manuscript work. The "answer", however, is that working with the manuscript provides far more than the possibility of an alternate text. Rather, it provides a sense of where the text came from - who is writing it, what the context of the transcription is, etc. And even if we cannot identify the scribe, the knowledge that the particular scribe was a professional - or, alternatively, that he or she was a negligent amateur - goes a long way in helping us decide how to relate to the particular text.
In short, even if the manuscripts cannot help us elucidate the text via textual variants, the extra-textual elements can go a long way towards improving our understanding.
And here it is worth noting that sadly, many of those who have need for mss work end up hiring others - who have no particular interest in the item - to transcribe the manuscripts for them. In these cases, the professor at the top receives the modern transcriptions alone, without the extra-textual data - thus reinforcing the professors' feeling that the mss work has little inherent value, which in turn encourages them to continue using their research budgets to hire transcribers and stay out of the darkness.

12:31 AM  
Anonymous Lia said...

I promise I am not this single-minded, but Avi, did you mean to say that there were women scribes in the Middle Ages? Or were you being dipolatic. If the latter, kudos. If the former, can you (or anyone) say more about that?

2:41 AM  
Anonymous Lia said...

i meant diplomatic, not dipolatic.

3:03 AM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

ManuscriptBoy,

Hirhurim had a piece on this Rashi passage a few months ago.

(Click here.

4:31 AM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

And here it is worth noting that sadly, many of those who have need for mss work end up hiring others - who have no particular interest in the item - to transcribe the manuscripts for them. In these cases, the professor at the top receives the modern transcriptions alone, without the extra-textual data - thus reinforcing the professors' feeling that the mss work has little inherent value, which in turn encourages them to continue using their research budgets to hire transcribers and stay out of the darkness.

Yes, this is sad-- and it has been true for years. It is true even of some of the best editions.

(As Prof. Israel Francus shlit"a once said, in his inimitable Yiddish accent:

"You want to see Azikri's manuscript? Vhy do you vant to see de manuscript? Even I haven't seen de manuscript. I got a professional transcriber to do de vork. If I had used de manuscript itself vhen preparing my printed edition, it vould have been harder to read, so I vould have made more mistakes. Even Prof. Lieberman didn't see that manuscript."

(Sorry that I can't capture the intonation when putting it on the internet.)

4:34 AM  
Anonymous avi shmidman said...

Lia,
For the most part, we don't know the identities of the geniza scribes, since we are presented only with the text as it is written. But among the geniza fragments we do find letters from women, and we do find Hebrew poetry composed by women. Now, we cannot know for sure whether these items were transcribed by the women themselves, or whether they were dictated to other scribes. But it is reasonable to assume that if medieval women were composing Hebrew poetry, they were also writing Hebrew documents as well.

11:03 AM  
Anonymous mivami said...

I wonder if Avi or MB or anyone else knowledgable in this can cite lists of medieval Jewish women poets? Is there a specific article or book that collects that info?
thanks!

6:50 PM  
Blogger manuscriptboy said...

In the medieval period, the only one I am aware of is the wife of Dunash ben Labrat. I'm sure Avi knows much more about her, and maybe others.

9:59 PM  
Anonymous avi shmidman said...

For a survey of female poets among geniza texts, see volume 5 of Gotein's Mediterranean Society and the references he brings there.

6:54 PM  
Blogger Mar Gavriel said...

the wife of Dunash ben Labrat

Does any of her work survive, or do we only have external testimonies to the existence of her work?

3:36 AM  

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