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Tuesday, September 15, 2009


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.


Simcha said...

Before I read your post, I finished reading about the influence of Hellenism on rabbinic Judaism and I was surprised to read that among many items, the Seder for example is modeled after the Greek symposium, and that Hillel’s hermeneutic rules followed mathematical formulas from the Greeks. Our discussion in this blog and your references added to my further understanding of the problem in discussion.

Yishar Koach, Rabbi Rieser, for your elaborate response. Your honest insights regarding Talmudic material and its understanding are well appreciated. You convinced me that contemporary practices and perspectives can and should add to the way we read Talmud. I will still be inclined to make references to history (if possible) in order to illuminate more.
I am honored that you took the time to elaborate on my points. Thank you!

Thank you and Rabbi Amy to your wonderful teachings. May you have a Shana Tova.

"Fortunate is the nation that knows the teruah" [Ps. 89:16]. Fortunate are those who know how to cope with the challenges of this world, who know how to transcend the teruah blasts of uncertainty and hardship. Despite the doubts and confusion, they are able to "walk in the light of Your Presence" [ibid.], in the knowledge that the future era of "God will reign forever" lies ahead.
[Adapted from Mo'adei HaRe'iyah, pp. 62-63; Celebration of the Soul, pp. 38-89]

Simcha said...


World's Oldest Synagogue Discovered
Friday September 11, 2009

Archaeologists in Israel have discovered what they believe to be the world's oldest synagogue buried beneath a site that was slated to become the location of a new hotel. The synagogue is thought to be some 2,000 years old and contained a remarkable 120 square meter stone carved with a seven branched menorah.

Why is this so exciting? Because the synagogue dates to the period of the Second Temple, where the actual menorah was housed. Since most of the menorah depictions that have been discovered were created after the Temple's destruction, the synagogue's stone is one of the most accurate representations found to date. Although a handful of contemporaneous menorah engravings have been uncovered, what makes this new one unique is its distance from Jerusalem. Located near the Sea of Galilee, the engraving indicates that the ancient Jewish world was more connected than previously thought. "The artist might have seen the menorah during a pilgrimage and then recreated it in the synagogue," suggested archaeologist Dina Avshalom-Gorni of the Israel Antiquities Authority.

The synagogue was discovered in an area known as Migdal, which plays an important role in Jewish history because the region was involved in the Great Revolt.