"For Your Love is More Delightful than Wine:"
Concerning Tannaitic Biblical Traditions

by David Henshke

The Mishnah (A.Z. 2:5) and Tosefta (Parah 10:3) contain two halakhic deliberations between R. Joshua and R. Ishmael which relate that R. Joshua diverted the discussion to a different topic, asking R. Ishmael if the verse “For your love (דודיך) is more delightful than wine” (Cant. 1:2) is read in the masculine (dodekha) or feminine (dodayikh). Three issues have been raised concerning this passage: Which was the original context within which the discussion took place, that of the Mishnah or of the Tosefta? What is the relationship between the question relating to the verse in Canticles and the halakhic discussion preceding it? Finally, and most important, what is the meaning of R. Joshua’s proof for the proper vocalization of the word?

This article presents a survey of the solutions to these issues suggested both by traditional commentators and modern scholars, pointing out their difficulties. A new solution is offered, built upon the proposal that R. Joshua’s proof as found in extant texts really consists of two strata. In the first stratum, R. Joshua wanted to prove that the correct vocalization of the word is dodayikh (feminine), and his proof indeed makes sense. However, since the vocalization accepted by the Masorah is dodekha (masculine), the redactors of the Mishnah inserted an addition into R. Joshua’s words that reversed his intent. According to this addition, the proof supports the vocalization dodekha, and this caused the difficulties. The article then suggests a solution to the first two issues as well.

"How Does One Create Fine Children:"
The Views of Rabbi Eliezer and the Sages about Eugenics

by Yitzchak Roness and Aviad Yehiel Hollander

In Bavli Nedarim 22b, R. Eliezer’s wife, Imma Shalom, describes her husband’s behavior during intercourse, mentioning his practice to “reveal a handbreadth and conceal a handbreadth.” This statement has been understood by most traditional commentators and academic scholars as an expression of extreme modesty, or as an attempt to avoid the experience of physical pleasure, as part of a comprehensive lifestyle governed by the ascetic ideal.

Based on comparison of this text with its counterpart in Tractate Kallah, as well as the analysis of sources attributed to R. Eliezer associating the attributes of a couple’s offspring to the couple’s comport during intercourse, we propose an additional explanation of R. Eliezer’s practice.

We suggest that the ultimate goal of this practice was to ensure the birth of worthy offspring, based on the assumption that achievement of this goal depends in large measure on the woman’s state of arousal during intercourse. Nevertheless, in line with the accepted understanding of the story as depicting the exemplary behavior of an ascetic personality, we suggest that R. Eliezer’s unusual practice be understood in light of other possibilities mentioned in the Talmud which were intended to engender the same result.

Sugyot Which Were Emended Due to the Transition From Oral Study to Written Study

by Mordechai Sabato and Rabin Shushtri

In this paper, the authors discuss two adjacent pericopae from Sukkah 36b. Each of these passages presents two conflicting versions of a single dictum. By examining the text of these sugyot carefully, the authors seek to demonstrate that the original versions of each of these dicta were identical. The difference between these passages found expression not in their text, but in the intonation used during oral recitation of this material, and perhaps also in the bodily gestures which accompanied such recitation. This stems from the fact that during the period close to the redaction of the Talmud its text was studied orally, so its intonation constituted an integral part of transmission of the sugya. Once the Talmud was committed to writing, its intonation was forgotten, and so was the original sense of these sugyot. Therefore, copyists and scholars emended them in their effort to grasp the meaning that was lost with memory of the intonation.

An appendix to the article discusses the correspondence between the character of the MSS and the textual traditions of tractate Sukkah as manifest in these two passages and in the rest of the tractate.

 "The Hardest One - Ascara": Diphtheria as Sacred Disease and Supernatural Retribution in Mishnaic and Talmudic Literature

by Abraham Ofir Shemesh

Diphtheria is a viral disease that develops in the throat. Ancient Jewish sources describe it as a serious and cruel illness, which sometimes breaks out as a mass epidemic. In the theological world of the Sages, diphtheria was considered as a sacred disease that affected sinners who committed offenses with a functional connection to the mouth and throat, such as defamation or eating forbidden foods.

Until the development of modern medicine, the mortality rate of infants and young children was high. Diphtheria was considered to be a disease associated with the moon. One of the consequences of this belief is the reciting of prayers on Wednesday, the day the celestial bodies were created, for the prevention of outbreaks of diphtheria and for the recovery of sick babies.

Late Talmudic tradition reports on the death of Rabbi Akiva’s students in a diphtheria epidemic. It is hard to know from this vague tradition when the epidemic broke out – whether while the students were studying together, or during the Bar-Kokhba revolt or its aftermath. Amoraim fostered the idea of disaster befalling its victims as punishment and attributed diphtheria to this tragedy, perhaps not as historical truth, but as an educational message for supposedly immoral (or even less than ideal) behavior in as society of scholars.

Rashbam's Commentary on the Story of the Creation

by Itamar Kislev

Rashbam’s unique conception of the creation story in Genesis 1 as an introduction to the commandment of the Sabbath in the Ten Commandments is well known, and it illustrates Rashbam’s extensive use of the principle of introduction. While some scholars considered this conception of Genesis 1 a reaction to Christian or mystical Jewish interpretations of this chapter, the present article stresses the need to examine this original exegesis in its exegetical context. Since Rashbam himself suggests his conception of the creation as motivated by exegetical considerations, it seems necessary to understand the principle of introduction that Rashbam applies here as related to the exegetical difficulties which he raised. This understanding of the exegetical motivation and advantage of Rashbam’s commentary can be accomplished in this case by recognizing that it is a reaction to Ibn Ezra’s exegesis of the same passage.

Once Again Seething a Kid in Its Mother's Milk

by Alan Cooper

It is well known that the thrice-repeated biblical law prohibiting the seething of a kid in its mother's milk is the basis for the general Jewish prohibition of consuming, cooking, or even profiting from meat and dairy products prepared in combination.  Despite two millennia of commentary, however, there still is no general consensus about the meaning of the proscription in its biblical context.  Most ancient and modern commentators have explained it on the basis of humanitarian and/or cultic concerns.  The first part of this paper is a critical examination of those lines of interpretation, with special attention to the traditional hermeneutics that inform them.  The remainder of the paper advocates an interpretation that classifies milk and meat among the “forbidden mixtures,” based primarily on the ancient “science” adduced in an extraordinary seventeenth-century Jewish commentary and on recent work on the role of gender in biblical law.

When Rabbi Eliezer Was Arrested for Heresy

by Joshua Schwartz and Peter J. Tomson

Talmudic Literature contains three stories about the arrest of Rabbi Eliezer and the accusation of minut leveled against him (Tosefta Hullin 2:24; Bavli Avodah Zarah 16b-17a; Kohelet Rabbah 1:8 [3]). The three versions of the story represent different historical, social and religious realities. In the earliest version, which is found in the Tosefta, Jews and Christians are entangled with one another, as well as with the realities of Roman policy toward both Jews and Christians. The Rabbis strove to unravel the entanglement, but it is difficult to know to what extent they succeeded. By the time the story reached the Bavli and Kohelet Rabbah, the Jews and Christians had parted ways and developed distinct identities, but the Christians had now become entangled with the Romans. Old boundaries were no longer relevant, new ones were drawn and the traditions developed and were changed accordingly.

Structure and Ideology in the Aher Narrative (bHag 15a and b)

by Jay Rovner

The narrative of the condemnation and apotheosis of Elisha ben Avuya (Aher) in bHag 15, which has been treated in several recent studies, justifies further inquiry regarding its literary form, esoteric aspects, structure, and time of composition.  The literary form is a bifurcated parallel eight-unit structure in which the first four units are mirrored in the second group. The latter set reverses the problems set in the first one.  The esoteric elements show that the first four units are governed by an absolutist either/or modality, which does not allow Elisha to save himself, or Meir to save him.  This is reversed in the second half where, governed by dialectical rabbinic modes, reasoned argument reverses divine decrees.  This bifurcation encodes a general opposition between surface/deeds and interior/Torah.  Structuralist analysis of the first and final (eighth) unit shows how they mirror each other in opposing ways to reach different outcomes: in unit one, Elisha is condemned; in the final one, Meir is restored. The outcomes differ because the first unit had no “helper,” whereas the final one did.  The matching style of the first and final episodes, the thoroughgoing revision of earlier traditions elsewhere, as well as the matching parallel literary structure, indicate that the Elisha narrative was produced by late stammaitic authors.

A Talmudist's Halakhic Hermeneutics:
A New Understanding of Maimonides' Principle of Peshat Primacy

by Mordechai Z. Cohen,

In his Book of the Commandments Maimonides makes “the peshat of scripture” the sole source of halakhah that carries biblical (de-orayta) authority, relegating laws derived midrashically to the lower, rabbinic (de-rabbanan) status. While seemingly privileging the “way of peshat” championed by his older contemporary Ibn Ezra, this Maimonidean principle has long been a source of perplexity, since Maimonides elsewhere devalues Scripture’s “literal sense.” To resolve this crux, the current study begins by clearing up a confusion created by the Hebrew translations of Maimonides’ works, in which Arabic zahir (lit. “apparent [sense]”) is rendered peshat, whereas he distinguished between the two concepts. In line with his Judeo-Arabic exegetical heritage, he did not privilege the zahir, i.e., the literal (“apparent”) sense, which, in the exegetical tradition founded by Saadia (and endorsed by Ibn Ezra), was to be adjusted in light of reason and tradition. On the other hand, Maimonides used the Hebrew/Aramaic word peshat (left untranslated in his Judeo-Arabic writings) as a technical term connoting the original (and legally authoritative) sense of Scripture—according to the “transmitted interpretation” (“Oral Law”) given at Sinai, which may diverge from the literal sense. Drawing upon hermeneutical concepts from Muslim jurisprudence, Maimonides distinguished between this source of halakhah and further laws that the Rabbis derived from Scripture via midrashic extrapolation, which he likened to qiyas (legal analogy) in Islamic law.

Categorically Jewish, Distinctly Polish:
The Museum of the History of Polish Jews and the New Polish-Jewish Metahistory

by Moshe Rosman

This article articulates concepts underlying the permanent exhibition of the new Museum of the History of Polish Jews in Warsaw. These include: pre-partition Poland-Lithuania was a multinational commonwealth in which the Jews had a relative degree of security; the Jews were both in Poland and of Poland, and the civilization they created was categorically Jewish but also distinctly Polish: their history is a story of overall achievement and stability, punctuated by crisis and persecution; antisemitism, more or less a constant presence, was not unrelenting and should not overwhelm the narrative; and the Shoah was not the culmination of Jewish history in Poland. Disputed issues include the question of the place of Polish Jews in Jewish history, who “owns” the Polish-Jewish experience, the history of Hasidism, how to portray the Holocaust in Poland, who is a Jew and how negative Jewish attitudes and actions towards Poles should be treated. The Museum will dare both Poles and Jews to take seriously a new metahistory, derived from recent scholarship, contradicting some deeply held stereotypes and cherished conventional notions.

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Last Update:February 15, 2005