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.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Yom ha-Zikaron

There are a few people I think of especially on Yom ha-Zikaron (there are some I think of every day). One of them is my grandmother's first cousin, Eliyahu Hershkovitz. He was an only child, who made aliyah with his parents from Romania in 1933. He studied biology at Hebrew University and served in the Palmah. He was killed, with 34 other soldiers, while trying to break the siege on Gush Etzion, on 16 January 1948.

Another is my friend Natan Axelrod. He was born in St. Petersburg in 1977 (when it was still Leningrad) and made Aliyah with his parents in 1987 (I think). He went to high school at Horev in Jerusalem, and started the Hesder program at Yeshivat ha-Kotel. He served in the IDF in the artillery, and afterwards moved to Yeshivat Har Etsion. On a broiling Friday morning in 1999, in the Judean desert near Ein Gedi, he died of overheating. Because he was still in the hesder program, he received a military burial on Har Herzl.

Friday, April 13, 2007


This German city is probably best known to readers of this blog for the venerable Ashkenazic copy of the Tosefta which it housed for many years. Available online here in digital images and here in transcription, and served as the basis for most of Zuckermandel's edition of the Tosefta.

And now it turns out it also has a medieval mikveh.