Thursday, June 29, 2006

Materia Giudiaca

The latest volume of Materia Giudaica, an Italian journal of Jewish studies published by Mauro Perani, is available in full-text online. There are several articles that deal with interesting manuscripts, including one by Perani on a very early (9th century) Italian manuscript of the Midrash Tanhuma from Ravenna, and a copy of Menahem ben Saruq's Mahberet that is very similar to the twin manuscripts - Vatican 31 (Sifra, Vayikra Rabba and Seder Eliyahu Rabba) and Parma De Rossi 312 (Mishna). And a short piece by myself, with an acknowledgment to the amazing woman to whom I am now privileged to be married.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Michael ha-Levi Rodkinson, or: When you should just publish

A recent volume of Tarbits (74:2) includes a response by Roni Shweka to an article by my friend, Mira Balberg. They both grapple with a section in Halakhot Gedolot, and argue over how to determine whether or not it was originally part of the work. Shweka's bottom line is that it is impossible to say anything conclusive about Halakhot Gedolot without first completing all the work on the textual witnesses, including all the Genizah fragments. That sounds like a standard Hebrew University position. And I think that most people would respond that a lot of it is sour grapes, and it's not so terrible to make a suggestion based on partical evidence. Sometimes it's better to just publish.

That seems to have been the policy of Michael Rodkinson (1845-1904). And his succes has ramifications till today.

Rodkinson grew up as a Habad hassid. His brother moved to Jerusalem and became a respected publisher there. He himself also became a publisher. In 1870 he published editions of the Pardes and the responsa of Rabbi Yosef ibn Migash. He also published a newspaper - the first Hebrew bi-weekly - called Ha-Kol.

But he is more famous, and infamous, for his volumes of hassidic stories, published starting in the 1860s. These, especially Shivhe Ha-Rav about the Baal ha-Tanya, became immensely popular and influential. People who knew nothing about Hassidut thrilled at the stories and were moved by the simple morality they conveyed. More serious students of Hassidut, though, were enraged because many of these stories were entirely fictional. Joseph Dan has in recent years named the kind of nostalgic Hassidic story-telling that Rodkinson popularized Frumkinian Hassidism, and Gedalyah Nigal republished his stories in 1988.

Rodkinson's notoriety grew because of his role in the Rohling affair, in which he opposed Joseph Samuel Bloch, thus, in effect, supporting the cause of the anti-Semites.

Rodkinson was reviled for his stories, his politics and his journalism, by Ephraim Deinard, in a book titled Mashge Ivrim. He was also accused of forging the Khorason Hassidic papers by R Meir Dan Plotsky (see Yeshurun 2). Altogether, he was not a very popular character. Someone who worked with him at his newspaper, Ha-Kol, described him as completely lacking in convictions or beliefs. Which, as Gideon Kouts pointed out, made him the ideal newspaper editor.
But not the ideal translator of the Talmud. Of course, the task of translating the Talmud has often brought out the worst people, and the worst in people. But this particular translation, by virtue of having been published at the beginning of the 20th century and therefore free of copyright, has the distinction of being the only full text version available online. Which has tremendous ramifications, as any Google search for Rodkinson will show you.

So, maybe it would have been better if someone better qualified had just done the job and got it out there.

Mekitze Nirdamim

An article about the venerable publishing house, which refuses to reprint its own titles, appeared in the Jerusalem Report last week. It mentions the induction of Shulamit Elitzur to the membership of the society.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

John Rylands and Maimonides

Paleojudaica recently picked up on the report that the John Rylands University Library of Manchester has received a grant to digitize its Genizah collection. The article seems to say that the library has 30,000 fragments, all written by Maimonides.

Of course, this is a mistake. And I am sure that it was the journalist who misunderstood. But it reminded me of a story that Malachi Beit Arie tells. The JRUL was waking up to the fact that it was holding on to thousands of manuscript fragments, and no-one knew whether they were worth the effort of investigating. The Genizah collection was accumulated by Rabbi Dr Moses Gaster (1856-1939). The fragments sat in storage during World War II and suffered damage from the damp. So I imagine they also didn't look so impressive.

So they called Dr Beit Arie, the most famous Hebrew paleographer. He came, sat down, and was brought a huge box filled with fragments. He stuck his hand in, dubiously, and pulled out a page written in cursive Sefardic script. In fact, the distinctive script of Maimonides. He told the librarian what it was, and the response was "That's enough. We'll preserve it then."

Since then, several more Maimonides autographs have been found in the collection. But definitely not 30,000.

More articles on Maimonides autographs at JRUL:

Malachi Beit Arie, "A Maimonides autograph in the Rylands Gaster Genizah collection", Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library 57 (1974) 1-6

Simon Hopkins, "Two new Maimonidean autographs in the John Rylands University Library", Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library 67,2 (1985) 710-735

Abraham David, "An unknown autographic Genizah fragment of Maimonides’ code ("Mishneh Torah") in the John Rylands University Library of Manchester [B 5756]", Bulletin of the John Rylands University Library 73,1 (1991) 3-5

Kuntres Mesharetet be-vate Yisrael

A couple of weeks ago, while teaching a class that was looking at some of the halakhic issues arising from the use of midwives during the Middle Ages, the question of non-Jewish midwives came up. I said that, generally, the presence of non-Jewish helpers - whether they live in the house or simply take a large role in its upkeep - was always the cause of halakhic entanglements, and that medieval Halakhah is full of discussions of such entanglements. From a historical and halakhic point of view, that is a good thing - "le-hagdil Torah ule-ha'adirah". But to me, personally, it has always seemed like an unnecessary extravagance, and where necessary, a recipe for tension. I think that the cause of pluralistic harmony is better served by people having their own space within their own house. And the whole idea of hired help has always made me uncomfortable.

Yesterday, I found a little booklet at the library titled Kuntres Mesharetet be-vate Yisrael. It was just published by someone in Monsey. It is devoted to the halakhic issues that arise from having a non-Jewish housekeeper. He deals with laws of kashrut, bishul akum, yihud and touching, Shabbat and Yom Tov, and other miscellaneous laws (it is permitted to give a compliment to a non-Jewish employee; it is forbidden to make a bracha if her hair is uncovered and visible). In the introduction he explains that non-Jews were created in this world in order to serve Jews. This can be proven from the fact that Jewish women have never served in non-Jewish homes, even though the opposite has been true since ancient times. The only difference is that, in the olden days, "Kol kevodah..." and so the balebusta was in the home throughout the day, while now many women leave home for work, and thus all kinds of terrible halakhic mishaps are liable to happen.

That's not what I would have hoped for.

A different perspective, one I also find strange, is that of Abraham Vita Reggio:
שמחוייבים אנחנו שלא לשנוא אותם, שגם הם מצווים בדתיהם שלא לשנוא אותנו... וגם אנחנו צריכים לאהוב אותם, שאילולי הם היינו חולים ומתים בשבתות ימי הקור, וגם ע"י שאוכלים כמה בעלי חיים האסורים ואילולי הם לא היתה הארץ יכולה להכיל כמה
בהמות טמאות שרבו מארבה...
For we are commanded not to hate them, just as they are
commanded by their religions not to hate us... and we must also love them,
because if not for them we would become sick and die on winter Shabbatot.
And also because they eat animals which are not kosher, and if not for them, the
earth would be unable to sustain all the non-kosher animals, which are more
numerous than locusts.
A nice, but strange, expression of gratitude.
Published by Meir Benayahu, Assupot 14 (2002).

Monday, June 19, 2006

The infant son of the Gazan judge

There is a poem found in the Genizah which I have been meaning to write about for a while now. It is a kerovah, an expanded version of the Shemoneh Esreh, written as an elegy for the son of the payyetan.

The author of this poem was Yeshuah ben Natan ha-Levi, who identifies himself as a Haver, apparently holding some position in the academy of Erets ha-Tsevi. From other Genizah fragments it emerged that he was also the judge of Gaza. His son, to whom the poem is dedicated, was named Yoshiyahu (Josiah), and he died a few days after Purim, 1026, at the age of six.

Yeshuah describes the world as turning dark as he carried his son to burial. How can he forget him, and how can he possibly be comforted? All he asks is that, when he dies, he should be reunited with his son. The imagery that he uses to describe his relationship with his son is that of a mother - interestingly, the mother of Yoshiyahu is never mentioned.

He declares that there never was such a special child as his, so clever and studious and pious. Instead of playing with children in the street, he would come home and recite the prayers with his father. He shared his food with others, and asked his father questions about his learning. One question in particular stumped his father, and amazed all those who heard he had asked it. It is a question that has no answer. The question begins "why do all mortals die?", and there the fragment ends.

The poem was first published by Menahem Zulai in 1937, and dedicated to the memory of his brother. An additional page was found by Ezra Fleischer in Cambridge and published in a festschrift for Simon Halkin in 1973.


Booklists are a tantalizing, but sometimes illuminating, class of documents which can teach a great deal about medieval literature. They are, on the whole, simply lists of books that were owned by private individuals or by booksellers. They usually include only the title of the book, but sometimes also the name of the author, the size of the volume and its codicological form - how many volumes, on paper or parchment, in what kind of script.

Hebrew booklists have been published in scattered places over the past 150 years, originating and reflecting different cultures and time-periods. But most of them are either late medieval lists from Italy, or early medieval lists from the Geniza.

The star booklist producer of the Geniza was Rav Yosef Rosh ha-Seder. In fact, it sometimes seems as if that was his main genre of self-expression. He was a talmudic scholar whose father came from Baghdad, and he himself wandered around Egypt at the time of Maimonides and his son (the only year he mentions explicitly is 1211). He composed, or at least began, or at least meant to begin, several large literary projects - a commentary to the Mishna, a summary of the Talmud, a commentary on Rav Saadia's siddur and more. Some fragments of these books have been identified (as well as his work on the laws of writing a Torah scroll, published by Elkan Adler and ascribed by him to Judah Barceloni, the author of Sefer Ha-Ittim). But his impact on Jewish scholarship in the post-Genizah age has mostly been through his booklists - of books he wrote and of books he copied, owned and offered for sale.

I mention all of this because Nehemiah Allony's long-awaited (the author died more than 20 years ago) work, incorporating all known (many unpublished hitherto) booklists from the Genizah, has now been published by Yad Ben Zvi. Evening of speeches next Sunday.

(It was the kind of book that spent years in manuscript form, with privileged individuals receiving access to it and utilizing it for their research. The publication of a book like that makes the Jewish studies community a healthier place, in my opinion).