I want to take a pause from commenting directly on the Talmudic text to share two thoughts about how to approach the text. One is prompted by a comment from Simcha to an earlier post. The second has to do with the mindset with which I try to read the text.
In a comment on the post, “A SHOFAR OF SHARDS” Simcha pointed to the archeological discovery of a stone inscribed, “To the place of trumpeting,” which is currently in the Israel Museum. The stone matches an account in Josephus that the stone marked the place where a priest would stand and sound the trumpet announcing Shabbat. It is a stunning reminder that the debate in the text reflects the experience in the community.
Simcha then notes, “Indeed, the beauty of archeology is that it sheds so much light on the written. And this is why I keep asking you and R’ Amy how can we make sense of the Gemara if we have such little knowledge of the material culture of that period…” It is an important question.
Simcha is correct that every tool we have that tells us more about life on the ground in the time of the sages enhances our ability to understand their discussion. It is not only archeology, but other kinds of texts and our knowledge of the surrounding cultures. We benefit from advances in history, sociology, folklore studies and more. The discussion recorded in the text of the Talmud was never isolated from the life surrounding the sages.
There are many scholars who are currently exploring the ways in which the insights from these other disciplines can inform our understanding of the Talmud. I will only cite one book, though it will lead you to others: The Cambridge Companion to The Talmud and Rabbinic Literature, edited by Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee. The essays included here survey the field and detail many influences on the Talmudic discussion.
I note only one example: Yaakov Elman’s essay discusses the influence of Middle Persian Culture on the sages. He cites parallels between Sassanian law and Rabbinic law. He details both the ways in which these laws change as they move between cultures and presents other examples in which the law entered Jewish life unchanged. The myth that the sages of Babylonia were unaffected by life in the Sassanian Empire is clearly false.
Elman’s insights are paralleled throughout the Cambridge Companion by other writers reflecting lessons learned from a variety of disciplines. Where possible I will incorporate their insights, but my learning in those areas is limited. It is important to remember our limitations.
When I read the text I am aware of two opposing tendencies. I am tempted to read the text through the lens of my contemporary practice, an approach that I know to be problematic. The sages mark the beginning point, while I am living at the (latest) end point. The two cannot be identical. So I try to maintain a mindset that focuses on the emerging forces that speak for one position or the other. My shorthand for these two approaches asks if I am reading from the text forward or from my practice backwards.
For example, as we studied the passages about which kinds of shofars were acceptable and which not, I had a clear picture of what counted as a shofar in my head, based on the selection available in our local Judaica shop. But that turns the matter on its head. The Judaica shop stocked those horns that had been deemed kosher not only according to the Talmudic debate, but more importantly by the decisions that had been made by generations of poskim, decisors, from the days of the Gaonim forward.
The traditional tools for the study of Talmud, the commentaries of Rashi and the Tosafot among others, lure us to read the text through the eyes of the later generations. These commentaries speak to the development of the halakhah more than the inner conflicts of the sages. They have a great deal to offer, and I do refer to them to help clarify the text. Nonetheless I am always suspicious that the questions they ask are not necessarily the questions the sages are grappling with, nor do they reflect the issues I may be seeking to understand.
We are currently reading in Chapter 4 of B. Rosh Hashannah. The question at hand is the sounding of the shofar in the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction. The discussion, noted in R’ Scheinerman’s latest post “Blowing in the wind and on shabbat (Rosh Hashanah 29b)”, leads to a comparison of the holiness of Yavneh versus Jerusalem. I hear in that passage a debate over the future of a community. The two centers represent different constituencies and different worldviews. If I can succeed in hearing that debate as they experienced it (I know that is an impossibility, but it is my hope), I believe I can better understand the text in front of me.
We have only imperfect tools with which to read the text. Simcha is correct that we need to consult a wide variety of disciplines – archeology and more – to understand more deeply the context from which the Talmud emerges. I believe I am correct as well that we need to strive to read through the eyes of the sages and not from our contemporary experience.
The bottom line is that the text offers us many entry points from which to appreciate the world of the sages.