Monday, April 30, 2007


The Bar Ilan University Talmud department is devoting its annual colloquium to medieval rabbinic literature. The first session will be devoted to a question I have been thinking about for a while, in the wake of the work of several of the speakers in the session.

Many rabbinic books have come down to us in multiple versions, and scholars struggle to find models that will help to explain how those versions took shape. For instance, how do we understand two different versions of a talmudic sugya? Is one a corruption of the other? That's not a very exciting tack to take. Is one from Sura and the other from Pumbedita? That line of reasoning used to be fairly popular, but seems to have faded away. Does one reflect a more conservative mode of transmission, and the other a freer one? Shamma Friedman seems to go in that direction. Does that also break down along geographic lines, distinguishing between Oriental and Occidental manuscripts of the Talmud?

One aspect of this question was debated by Peter Schafer and Chaim Milikowsky in the 1980s (Journal of Jewish Studies, 1986-1989), and was played out further in several articles that Milikowsky wrote later, including reviews of books by students of Schafer. The question they were debating was whether differences between manuscripts of a particular work - let's say, Genesis Rabba - should be taken as variants of one work which can be appraised as being less or more reflective of the original, or whether every manuscript is a new and independent composition which says nothing about any hypothetical original. Both positions became more nuanced over the course of the discussion, but the difference in approach is reflected in their literary output. Should each manuscript be given equal time in the limelight, with its entire text reproduced and displayed in parallel to the other manuscripts? This is called a synoptic edition (like the synoptic gospels) and tends to create huge volumes. Or should the editor use his critical skills to choose only those readings from a manuscript which he considers to be worthwhile, and consign the rest to the varia lectiones section (mador hilufe nushaot)?

Schafer and his students continue to produce synoptic editions of books, and Milikowsky continues to criticize them for being a waste of resources. He promises that in his forthcoming edition of Seder Olam, there will be a single, critical text, based primarily but not exclusively on a genizah fragment (from the Antonin collection).

Which brings me to the question of discipleship. Sometimes it seems as if the conclusions of scholars are determined not by their data, but by their affiliation. There are probably many examples of this, but one that has been on my mind is the question regarding the Yemenite manuscripts of the Talmud. Eliezer Samson Rosenthal (in his doctorate, and in his introduction to Valmadonna manuscript, both on Pesahim) developed the theory that the Yemenite manuscripts to Pesahim contain a version of the Talmud closer to the one known to the Babylonian Geonim. This is the basis for the assumption among Talmud students at Hebrew University that a Yemenite talmudic manuscript is probably the best there is. This is the claim that R. Dr. Mordechai Sabbato makes for the Yad ha-Rav Herzog manuscript of Sanhedrin (and Makkot and Taanit).

But among students of Shamma Friedman, the hypothesis is that Yemenite manuscripts are really bad and unreliable. This has been claimed by Steve Wald, and more extensively by Aaron Amit.

Now, both sides admit that most Yemenite manuscripts are very late, much later than any Talmudic manuscripts from anywhere else in the world. And they are rife with scribal mistakes, dittographies, etc. Also, they often contain explanatory glosses. The question is whether that makes them bad, or whether under the dust and sand, they are actually pearls of untouched Talmudic wisdom. I'm inclined to think that they should be dealt with carefully, but that they often yield important information. What's startling is how partisan the discussion is.

Anyway, to get back to the conference. Prof. Yaakov Spiegel, who has published a huge two-volume study of books and writing in rabbinic Judaism, will introduce the question of "mahadurot", versions. Aharon Ahrend will follow. He has done some interesting work on Rashi's Talmud commentary, identifying several people from Rashi's circle who had a hand in its textual emendation. For a similar phenomenon in Rashi's bible commentary, see Jordan Penkower's studies. Then Yehuda Galinsky and Yisrael Peles are featured. Both of them have written about works for which they claim multiple authorial originals. Meaning that the author himself wrote different versions of his own book, and the manuscripts reflect those different versions.

That's a nice model, which Shraga Abramson and Yisrael Ta-Shma also discussed. It can probably be applied to Avraham ben Ephraim's Kitzur Semag. But Peles has also tried to use it on manuscripts of R. Moses of Coucy's Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, with, I think, less success.

The second session will feature Zvi Stampfer, speaking about how a Geonic monograph was written. Shalem Yahalom will discuss an early collection of Tosafot on Rosh ha-Shanah, by R. Yitzhak ben Asher, one of the first Tosafists. Prof. SZ Havlin will speak about the Rashba.

Sounds interesting.


Blogger DafKesher said...

and consign the rest to the varia lectiones section (mador hilufe nushaot)
I believe the term you're looking for is "apparatus criticus".
Also, the almost fanatical machloket can be resolved - if one reads the claims of both sides - thus: the Friedman school say the readings of the sugyot are secondary and heavily redacted to conform to "standard" use. The Rosenthal school says that the spelling and grammar is better in the yemenite MSs. They both draw the conclusions for the other area from their hypothesis in the other.
I have also entertained the possibility that the Yemenite (and sometimes sephardic: Hamburg 165, for example) MSs were considered better simply becuase they were not ashkenazi. Many times, however, ashkenazi reading support readings found in Geniza fragments (for all they're worth), against the sephardi MSs, and sometimes even against the yemenite ones. Obviously none of these arguments has much worth in and of itself, and each location should be checked carefully, and a local decision should be made.
I also heard from Prof. Milikowsky, who has written to this effect as well, that the text of seder olam is *not* based on his better critical judgement, since he sticks to his base text most of the time, even when he believes that it preserves an inferior reading (similar to Lieberman's use of MS vienna). Today - and he has published to that effect as well - he believes in the use of
instead of an apparatus and settling each dispute between MSs on a more or less local basis.
see his article on Lev. Rabbah in the latest volume of Sefer Bar Ilan for an edition of LevR piska 30 based on stemmatic analysis, with a synopsis instead of an apparatus.

12:58 AM  
Anonymous andy said...

What does it say about the academic study of the talmud and other medieval rabbinic literature when a complete am-ha'aretz like Schafer (who, based on his latest book, simply cannot make a 'laining' on a blatt of gemara) is a bar-plugta with Chaim Milikowsky?

1:35 AM  
Blogger DafKesher said...

Andy - it means that Americans are so bored by philology, because they're dull and insipid, that they let Austrians do it just for the purpose of writing it away.

2:33 AM  
Blogger Menachem Mendel said...

Nice post MB. In the spirit of diyyukim, the variae lectiones are, if one chooses, in the apparatus criticus, yet MB is also correct b/c "variae lectiones section" is a translation of mador hilufe nushaot. If anyone is interested, here is a great site about mss studies.

5:14 PM  
Anonymous andy said...

Are the proceedings of these conferences generally published? Also, on the subject of Geonic monographs, why doesn't someone reprint Margoliot's edition of Halakhot Ketzubot (okay so technically it's not geonic)? Bar-Ilan only has the text itself. Oh and thank you as always for keeping us (reasonably) up to date on what's going on.

2:21 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think Amit has noted, however, that the Yeminite MSS in Pessachim can agree strongly with the Geniza fragments, and are therefore reliable (despite their obvious additions). I don't remember friedman being particularly doctranaire on this point, but I could be wrong.

-Noah Bickart

7:08 PM  
Anonymous Lia said...

Re Andy's and Dafkesher's comments about Schaeffer being an am ha-aretz and Americans being bored - wouldn't it be nice if instead of describing thing that way, we focused on what Americans and folks like Schaeffer CAN offer - which by the way is a lot, especially since their primary audience (American non-Jewish scholars, and American university students) have minimal to no access (or for that matter interest) in Israeli philologists. That would be nice if we could think that way. I think the tone of your comments reflect more about the negative aspects of "the academic study of Talmud" than the matter you were asking about.

10:33 PM  

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