When “Slaughtering” Means “Pulling” and “A Tent” Means “A Wife”: A New
Approach to the Literal Interpretation of the Sages and Its Purposes

by Yonatan Sagiv

Many see literal interpretation as the very essence of biblical interpretation, dating back to the Bible itself. Literal interpretation appears in various ways in rabbinic literature, e.g., “X means nothing else but Y” (“Y אלא X אין”). The common scholarly assumption is that this term addresses semantic problems, especially with regard to translating biblical Hebrew into rabbinical Hebrew. In this article I argue that semantic interpretation sometimes serves as a tool for addressing other difficulties in the Biblical text that are not semantic at all. Two examples of an apparent semantic problem introduced by the formula “X means nothing else but Y,” which is actually a problem of content, appear in the Sifra. The first is the interpretation of Lev. 7:2 (Sifra, Tsav, Parasha 4:3, 33c), in which the approaches of the schools of R. Akiva and R. Yishmael regarding the plural form of the verb “slaughter” (ישחטו) are presented. The second case is the interpretation of Lev. 14:8, where the Sifra (Sifra, Metsora, Parasha 2:11, 71b) and MMT faced the same crux regarding the word “his tent” (אוהלו), but offered different solutions. These examples also demonstrate that the main criterion for choosing a verse as a prooftext was not always the biblical text per se, but rather its implicit commentary tradition.

The Story of David’s Captivity in the Hands of Yishbi Be-Nov in Tractate Sanhedrin
 of the Babylonian Talmud – Sources, Editing, Structure and Plot
 in the Service of an Ideological Message

by Gilad Sasson

In the expansion of the Biblical story of David’s captivity in the hands of Yishbi Be-Nov, which appears in Tractate Sanhedrin of the Babylonian Talmud, God offers David two options: captivity or the destruction of his descendants. David chooses the first option and is captured and led to Yishbi. At the same time, God takes measures, through Avishai, to thwart the execution of His own edict by causing David to change his decision. The plot describes David’s transition from passive to active after he changes his mind.

This story has attracted the attention of scholars of folklore, who have found parallel versions in extra-rabbinic sources. This article wishes to add two new directions to that of existing research: (a) clarification of the formation of the story in light of parallel versions in rabbinic literature; (b) literary analysis of the story. Integration of these three research approaches exposes the creative method of the narrator, who combines motifs from the literature of the Sages and from other sources and adapts them, using literary devices. He thus develops the plot towards a surprising message: God’s love for David overrides the strict letter of the law.

“Can Two Walk Together, Except They be Agreed?”
The Yemenite Version of Tractate Sukka (Babylonian Talmud)
and its Relation to Maimonides

by Rabin Shushtri

The analysis of different textual traditions is one of the foundations of academic Talmudic studies in general and of research on the Babylonian Talmud in particular. Analysis of the manuscripts of Tractate Sukka in the Babylonian Talmud shows clearly that there are two main branches of the text of this tractate: the vulgate branch and the Yemenite branch. One of the main methods for evaluating a manuscript is comparison to indirect text-witnesses. In this paper I have compared the version of the talmudic text attested by Maimonides’ writings to that found in extant manuscripts and secondary text-witnesses. There are seventeen places where Maimonides’ rulings depend upon a specific version of a sugya. My analysis shows that in fifteen of them Maimonides conforms to the Yemenite version. As for the other two instances, in one Maimonides’ version is secondary, and in the other the Yemenite branch is secondary. Thus, we conclude that Maimonides and the scribes of the Yemenite branch had a common source. Moreover, in the vast majority of places this common tradition appears to reflect the original version of the Talmud, before it was edited. This is a reflection of the high quality of the Yemenite tradition, which was hardly affected by later intervention. It is unlikely that scholars changed the text of the Talmud to make it conform with Maimonidean rulings, and indeed a study of the aforementioned passages shows this to be impossible. This tradition persisted, reaching the greatest halachic authority of Medieval times, Maimonides, and therefore when we analyse his rulings, which often do not suit the conclusion of the sugya in the text of the Talmud known to us, we must take into account the possibility that his ruling was based on a different version of the talmudic text.

Reconstructing the Original Midrash Based on Rabbinic Parallels:
A New Paradigm for an Old Problem

by Arnon Atzmon

Modern scholarly reconstructions of rabbinic texts have tended to avoid the use of higher critical methods, because they are based on the indirect evidence provided by parallels in rabbinical literature. Indeed, they seldom use these methods in combination with the lower critical method, which is based on the study of direct textual witnesses. Rather, scholars engaged in textual reconstruction have adopted the lower critical method almost exclusively as their primary tool, arguing that reference to parallels in rabbinic literature is a speculative and problematic methodology. In this paper, I support the use of higher criticism for reconstruction of the original versions of rabbinic texts by demonstrating its usefulness in this framework. I propose distinguishing between two paradigms of textual reconstruction based on higher critical methods by presenting the results of midrashic reconstructions.


The Art of the Jewish-Persian Tale in the Middle Ages
A Study of the Story of R. Akiva and His Wife in Fourteenth- and
Sixteenth-Century Manuscripts

by Dror Eydar

In the mid-fourteenth century an anonymous Jewish author living in the city of Hamadan in northwest Iran prepared a Hebrew transcription of a collection of stories derived from the Talmud and the Midrash . One of these stories, #148, is a retelling of the tale of R. Akiva and his wife, the daughter of Ben Kalba Savua, their marriage against all odds, and their rise to greatness. A study of this story as it appears in the Hamadan manuscript reveals it to be a complex literary composition, prepared by an author who possessed advanced editorial skills, even by modern standards. This paper investigates this version and a similar but later Judeo-Persian version in light of their primary sources in the Talmud and the Midrash. The versions are also compared to parallel Hebrew medieval manuscripts from the Geniza and from Yemen. The two similar manuscripts are compared, and a fundamental difference between them is claimed to have historical significance.

The Commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah Attributed to Rashi

by Eran Viezel

The commentary on Ezra-Nehemiah attributed to Rashi has been identified as Rashi’s commentary in every edition of the rabbinic Bible which contains the Hagiographa, and has been preserved in over thirty-five manuscripts. In 1864, Abraham Geiger argued that Rashi was not the author of this commentary, and his view has been accepted by most modern scholars. Nevertheless, many scholars assume that the commentary does contain authentic material by Rashi, and they maintain that it was written by Rashi’s students. In fact, however, a proper analysis of the authorship of this commentary remains a scholarly desideratum. The present article reinvestigates this issue by studying the role played by this commentary in the history of Jewish biblical exegesis, analyzing its sources, comparing its style and methodology to those of other contemporary biblical commentaries, and examining its influence on other commentators. The article suggests that this commentary was written in northern France around 1150 by a student of Rashbam.

Human Choice and Animal Will in Jewish Philosophy at the End of the Middle Ages

by Shalom Sadik

The aim of this article is to illustrate that there are three different approaches in Jewish philosophy towards animal will and its connection to human will.
I. The approach of Rabbi Isaac Albalag: This philosopher is of the opinion that human will is equivalent in essence to animal will. According to this approach, will is the power of an entity to observe as one whole all the external and internal factors that affect it, and to choose its course of action unbound by any set of rules. This is an anti-deterministic philosophy.
II. The approach of Rabbi Moses of Narbonne: This philosopher maintains that human choice is completely dependent on intellect. According to this approach, animals do not have choice because they are incapable of observing the existing reality and deciding their course of action; rather, they follow their animalistic urges. By contrast, humans possess intellect that enables them to transcend the deterministic framework.
III. The approach of Rabbi Hasdai Crescas: In his opinion both human will and animal will function in a similar manner, within an intransigent deterministic system.

Prolegomena to the ‘Metzudot’ Commentary on the Prophets and Writings

by Baruch Alster

R. Yehiel Hillel Altschuler’s ‘Metzudot’, written in the eighteenth century, remains one of the most popular commentaries on the Prophets and Writings, as can be seen by its many editions and by its inclusion in most printings of Miqra’ot Gedolot since the early nineteenth century. This commentary has so far been overlooked by scholars of Jewish Bible interpretation, and the present article presents a preliminary attempt to rectify that situation.
The first part of the article surveys the early publication history of the commentary, comparing the introductions to the two preliminary editions of the ‘Metzudot’ (Zolkowa 1753-1754 and Berlin 1770) with that of the final version (Leghorn 1780-1782). I show that R. Yehiel Hillel begins by carrying out his father’s work and gradually comes to view himself as his own exegete. But this independence is not total – Altschuler bases himself on the ‘seven pillars’ of traditional Jewish exegesis (Rashi, Ibn Ezra, Radak, Ralbag, Abarbanel, R. Moses Alsheikh, and R. Solomon Ibn Melekh), while his own contribution is mainly in deciding which of his predecessors is closest to the peshat in each individual case.
This self-perception brings us to the second part of the article, where I examine two examples of Altschuler’s method of exegesis: Is. 28:1-4 and Ps. 45:10-16. I show that in both cases, Altschuler chooses from his sources and adapts them according to his own exegetical ideas, such as his understanding of metaphor, and his religious and ideological viewpoints, including his tendency toward a positive view of women.
The article concludes with remarks showing that Altschuler’s method is similar to that of Rashi, who, while relying heavily on his midrashic predecessors, also chose and adapted his sources according to his exegetical and religious-ideological preferences.

Human Law and Divine Justice: Towards the Institutionalisation of Halakhah

by Bernard S. Jackson

This article distinguishes two models of the relationship between Human Law and Divine Justice in the Jewish tradition.  According to the (commonly assumed) “dualistic” model, human law is conceived as a separate system from divine justice, operating under delegated authority from God; according to the “monistic” model, human law is an integral part of a single system of divine justice. I argue that the biblical sources largely presuppose the monistic model, and that traces of it survive even when rabbinic law moves significantly towards the dualistic model. I distinguish four forms of divine justice: direct, institutional, charismatic and delegated.  I then relate them to the two models.  I maintain that the institutional form, where God directly intervenes in human adjudicatory processes, through institutions like the oracle, ordeal or oath, is wrongly reduced (in the dualistic model) to a functional supplement to human law, because the cases in which it occurs also reflect significant divine interests, The “charismatic” form (clearly monistic) is found not only in the prophetic role (and the varying interpretations of the “prophet like Moses”) but also in the conception of the judicial role in the Bible. Survivals of the monistic model are found in criminal law, in both the “snake of the rabbis” and the procedure of Mishnah Sanhedrin 9:5(b). The latter, like the torts cases in the dinei shamayim baraita in B.K. 55b, alludes to biblical texts which evoke divine justice, and may thus be interpreted as reflecting the monistic model. A parallel argument may be applied to the institutionalisation of marriage and divorce: rather than institutions of human law, to which a separate theological significance was attached, it appears that theological models strongly influenced the very processes of their institutionalisation..

A New View of Women and Torah Study in the Talmudic Period

by Judith Hauptman

This article presents evidence that in the Talmudic period women in rabbinic families studied Torah, in the broad sense. Since Torah study by men often took place at a rabbi’s home or in a rabbi’s courtyard, women were in a position to overhear discussions of Jewish law and even participate in them. Anecdotes in which a woman discusses halakhah with a man are scattered throughout the two Talmuds and hence easily overlooked. But when collected and presented side by side, they offer a persuasive argument that men taught women newly emerging halakhot so that women could apply these halakhot to life situations.

Writing by Divine Imperative as a Criterion for the Prophetic Authority
of Texts in the Biblical Exegesis of Isaac Abarbanel

by Jair Haas

Isaac Abarbanel’s complete faith in the truth of Judaism often led him to explore even marginal aspects of the Jewish faith, in order to reveal their inner logic and consistency. One example of this tendency is his interpretation of the tripartite division of the Scriptures (Law, Prophets, and Writings) as found in the Talmud and universally accepted by subsequent generations of Jews. Profiat Duran associated the three
sections of Scripture with Maimonides’ tripartite division of the levels of prophecy: Mosaic prophecy (the Torah), ordinary prophecy (the Prophets), and the Holy Spirit (the Writings). However, as a systematic commentator on the Bible, Abarbanel, who basically accepted Maimonides’ distinction between the levels of inspiration, found that Duran’s scheme was inapplicable to several books and texts in the biblical corpus, so he decided to refine it. His primary move was to sever the authority of a given text from the inspirational level that served as the basis for its inception, and tying it instead to the level of authority by which it was committed to writing. In the process of modifying the Maimonidean-Duranian approach, Abarbanel relied heavily on the doctrine of authority as found in the commentaries of the fifteenth century Catholic theologian Alphonso Tostado, who, like Abarbanel, dealt extensively with questions of the Bible’s literary history. However, the principle that the authority of a text depends on the sanction by which it was written down is to be found neither in Abarbanel’s Jewish predecessors nor in Tostado. Hence, the idea of applying the distinction between the words attributed to biblical figures and their inclusion in a literary work, which is found in earlier strands of medieval exegesis, to a new issue, seems to have been original with Abarbanel.


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Last Update:February 15, 2005