Sunday, May 28, 2006

Sexuality and the synagogue

Female sexuality is starting to become a topic that can be discussed frankly and maturely in Orthodox circles. Male sexuality, to judge by the latest rash of rabbinic scandals, still has a long way to go.

On Shabbat I came across a Geonic source with reflects, I think, a more open approach to sexuality in the social context. It is a responsum of Rav Hayya Gaon, quoted by Naftali Weider in his important early work on Islamic influences on Jewish liturgical practices. Weider shows that the custom of men refraining from prayer after experiencing seminal emissions, which is mentioned but branded irrelevant in Talmudic sources, came back into fashion in the later Geonic period. This resurgence of interest in matters of ritual purity was a conscious response to a similar Islamic practice.

In this context, Weider quotes Rav Hayya, who was asked whether a man who has become a ba'al keri on Shabbat should wash himself in cold water, even though this may endanger his health, or refrain from washing and hence, from prayer. Rav Hayya answers that it is quite acceptable for the man to refrain from prayer, and that such a concern is certainly not grounds enough to force him to endanger his health.

As support for his opinion, Rav Hayya tells that there were many Shabbatot when he participated in the prayers at the home of Rav Aharon Gaon (Sargado, I guess) and the Gaon would sit on the side and not pray. The implication, as Rav Hayya clearly understood it, was that the Gaon had ejaculated during the night, and he made no effort to hide this.

Besides the matter of heating water for washing, I suspect there is an additional reason this exchange focused specifically on Shabbat (and Yom Tov). There is a deeply rooted rabbinic custom to have marital relations on Friday night. This, in sharp opposition to sectarian groups (mostly Karaites, but also Jubilees, whoever that was, and others, like Samaritans). Some anecdotal 20th century sources on this were recently collected by Elliott Horowitz in his contribution to the BGU volume on Shabbat.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Geneva Genizah

My father scanned me this article from Friday's HaAretz about a trove of Genizah fragments that were found by accident in Geneva. Sounds interesting - apparently there are fragments of Talmudic and Geonic works. I'm trying to find out more information.

Update: Apparently the fragments have been in Geneva for more than a century, but no-one noticed them until just a few months ago. They were bought from a papyrologist who visited Cairo in 1896. The contents have not yet been properly reproduced, but Prof. Rosenthal says that there are some significant finds there, including Geonic responsa. The page showed in the newspaper is apparently liturgical, with words from the wedding ritual in it, but its nature is still unclear.

As noted by DafKesher, David Rosenthal published a piece in the literary supplement of Ha-Aretz about the Geneva fragments, which is supposed to be the first of a series. As he mentions, Prof. Sussman was on his way to see the fragments when he became sick. The title of the article is based on a blessing over wine discussed by Naftali Weider in Sinai 20 (1957), pp. 43-48. The blessing is discussed in a Geonic responsum which was known from different sources, but has now been found in full.

He also describes a Massoretic work written by "Rabbi Shmuel, from the mouth of my teacher and master, Moshe ben David ben Yaakov ben Naftali" - this being Ben Naftali of massoretic fame.

Further update: as noted by anonymous, Rosenthal published the second installment of his review. With a photo of a palimpsest (Yahalom and Sokoloff published an article in the 70s about the twenty or so known palimpests in the Genizah, all of which were Jewish texts written over earlier Greek texts, and several of them, like the Geneva one, were Greek biblical translations. Danzig found a palimpsest where both texts are Jewish) and a get from 1148.

Friday, May 12, 2006

And now... Mekhilta

The Tosefta Online site now has complete transcriptions of all manuscripts of the Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael.

Thursday, May 04, 2006

Rashi and Rambam

The JNUL has launched a new site devoted to Rashi. It includes digitized images of several complete manuscripts and rare books, which is wonderful. Of the halakhic writings from the school of Rashi, though, they have only one manuscript - Likute ha-Pardes. This manuscript, however, like almost all other copies of this work, is copied from the printed edition.
(Hat tip to MMDevash)

One of the events of Yom ha-Atzma'ut which often seems obscured by all the haze from the barbecues is the awarding of the Israel Prizes. One of this year's recipients is Gerald Blidstein of Ben Gurion University. He wrote his doctorate on one of the chapters of the Babylonian tractate Avodah Zarah, but most of his work since then has focused on later sources, principally the Rambam. In telling his story, he mentions that when he first came to BGU, he offered three courses. Not a single student registered for any of them.

Fascinating article, based on a book, about Zalman Schocken.

I am heartbroken after hearing this morning that Natan Leibowitz, the husband of my good friend Sharon Negari, died. Since her sister Shiri was murdered in a bus bombing four years ago, Sharon has carried a very heavy load of grief and responsibility. Natan stood by her stoically, helping her raise their daughter Or and shouldering all the tasks that she was daunted by, holding the fort while she travelled the world speaking out in the name of victims of terror.
I don't know what kind of condolences I can offer.