I, Collector

21 08 2011

The best thing about being a collector of books is that people come to know you as a collector of books, and when they wish to get rid of various old texts that are beginning to gather dust, they call you.

The first call was from the university, whose library is undergoing a drastic downsizement, and whose Hebrew books were going to be shipped off to the local Chevra Kadisha for burial.

Not on my watch.

An opportunity to liberate some old seforim from the clutches of the chevra, who wish to bury in the lonely earth so many tomes once salvaged from a land so raped by fire, and I’ll be damned if it doesn’t make me wax poetic. Lest such fine specimens prematurely enter the ground, I hurried forth with too few bags and needed to make two trips. My collection, as a result, has now been swelled by the following nineteen tomes, many of which are in urgent need of repair. I list them below, from oldest to youngest:

• The third and fourth volumes of a Mishne Torah (being the fourth and fifth books: נשים and קדושה). Berlin, 1866;

• A machzor for Rosh haShana, Yom Kippur, Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot, acc. to the Ashkenazi tradition. Vilna, 1873;

חובות הלבבות (“Duties of the Heart”), by Rabbi Bahya ibn Paquda, an 11th c. Sephardi Jew. This ethical work was translated from Arabic into Hebrew by Shmuel ibn Tibbon. Vilna, 1874;

The Students Prayer Book: A New Interlinear Translation of the Daily, Sabbath and Festival Prayers, with the Blessings, Prayers for Children, &c., &c., to which is prefixed A Compendium of the Hebrew Accidence, Designed to Serve as an Introduction to the Study of the Sacred Language. By Rev. A.P. Mendes. London, 1874;

• The first volume of a Midrash Rabba (being Genesis Rabba and Exodus Rabba). Vilna, 1887;

Selichot for Rosh haShana. Vilna, 1911;

Schul-atlas für höhere lehrenstalten. An atlas for high school students by C. Diercke and E. Gaebler. Braunschweig, 1907;

• A translation of Chaim Meir Heilman’s 1902 בית רבי: תולדות הרב into Yiddish, the second and third parts being made by Heilman and the first by somebody who calls himself by the initials, י.ח. The text constitutes a history of Rabbi Schneur Zalman (“the Alter Rebbe”), Rabbi Dovber Schneuri (“the Mitteler Rebbe”) and Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneersohn (“the Tzemach Tzedek”). Vilna, 1913;

• A machzor for Rosh haShana and Yom Kippur, acc. to the Ashkenazi tradition. Pietrkov, 1913;

שפת עמנו: A Hebrew Grammar and Reader for Schools and Selfinstruction. By Moses Rath. Vienna, 1921;

מבחר השירה העברית: Anthologia Hebraica: Poemata selecta a libris divinis confectis usque ad iudaeorum ex hispania expulsionem. A selection of Hebrew poems, composed between the years immediately following the formation of the canon until the exile from Spain. The oldest poems in the text are by Ben Sirach, and the latest are by Rabbi Shlomo ben Reuven Bonfid. Leipzig, 1922;

עשרים וארבעה: נביאים אחרונים – דברי ירמיהו. The third volume of Shmuel Leib Gordon’s illustrated commentary of the Tanakh. Warsaw, 1922;

• A beautiful facsimile of a handwritten Shir haShirim. Berlin, 1924;

• A haggadah for Pesach. Vienna, 1930;

• A haggadah for Pesach. London, 1933;

• A two-park machzor for Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur, acc. to the Polische tradition. Vienna, 1934;

• A haggadah for Pesach. Vienna, 1937;

תרגום יהואש. A two-volume translation of the Tanakh into Yiddish, by Yohoash Farlag Gezelshaft. New York, 1941;

• And an old copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost, printed in London. When? Damned if I know. My guess: early 20th.


Lest you think, dear reader, that I was blessed but once, the second call was from Heinz B., a congregant of the synagogue that I work for. He has a large library, but too many of the books in it have fallen into disuse. Would I like to have a look? Indeed I would! With many thanks to Heinz, the following are the texts that have since been added to my collection of academic literature:

• Peter Ackroyd, Israel Under Babylon and Persia (Oxford University Press: 1970);

• William Chomsky, Hebrew: The Eternal Language (The Jewish Publication Society of America: 1975);

• Peter Craigie, The Book of Deuteronomy (The New International Commentary on the Old Testament; Hodder and Stoughton: 1976);

• Alan Crown, Biblical Studies Today (Chevalier Press: 1975);

• Samuel Driver, An Introduction to the Literature of the Old Testament (The World Publishing Company: 1965);

• Otto Eissfeldt, The Old Testament: An Introduction (trans. Peter Ackroyd; Clarendon Press: 1974);

• William Harper, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Amos and Hosea (The International Critical Commentary; T&T Clark: 1973);

• Eric Heaton, The Hebrew Kingdoms (Oxford University Press: 1968);

• Isaac Husik, A History of Mediaeval Jewish Philosophy (Atheneum: 1976);

• Yehezkel Kaufmann, History of the Religion of Israel: From the Babylonian Captivity to the End of Prophecy (Ktav Publishing House: 1977);

• Moses Segal, A Grammar of Mishnaic Hebrew (Clarendon Press: 1970).


I would that there was time enough to read them all. In the meantime, as it is books that are presently occupying my attention, the following ones were recently acquired for a fee:

Ohr Zarua, by Rabbi Yitzhak ben Moshe of 13th c. Vienna. An halakhic exposition in three volumes, following – for the most part – the order of tractates in the Talmud;

Kol-bo, a possibly 13th, possibly 14th c. collection of law and lore, arranged according to no immediately apparant order and published anonymously;

Arukh haShulchan, by Rabbi Yechiel Michel Epstein of 19th c. Lithuania: a 13-volume revision of the Shulchan Arukh;

Ben Ish Chai, by Chacham Yosef Chaim of 19th c. Baghdad: a very curious exposition upon the individual parashot of the Torah, their relationship to various kabbalistic doctrines, and their connection to halakha l’maaseh;

Seder Olam Raba, and Seder Olam Zuta: two early midrashim, concerned with finding absolute dates for the events described in the biblical literature, up until the end of the Persian period;

Sefer Mishnat haRosh al-haTorah: a commentary upon the individual parashot of the Torah, culled from the writings of Rabbi Asher ben Yechiel, of 13th c. Ashkenaz.


And in the realm of academia:

• Shmuel Safrai (ed.), The Literature of the Sages. First Part: Oral Tora, Halakha, Mishna, Tosefta, Talmud, External Tractates (Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1987);

• Shmuel Safrai, Zeev Safrai, Joshua Schwartz, Peter Tomson (eds.), The Literature of the Sages. Second Part: Midrash and Targum; Liturgy, Poetry, Mysticism; Contracts, Inscriptions, Ancient Science and the Languages of Rabbinic Literature (Compendia Rerum Iudaicarum ad Novum Testamentum; Fortress Press, 2006);

• Menachem Elon, Jewish Law: History, Sources, Principles (4 vols.; trans. B. Auerbach and M.J. Sykes; Philadelphia: The Jewish Publication Society, 1994);

• J. Maxwell Miller and John H. Hayes, A History of Ancient Israel and Judah (2nd ed.; Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2006);

• Hanokh Albeck, Shishah Sidrei Mishnah (6 vols.; Jerusalem: Bialik Insitute, 1957);

• Ephraim Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs (2 vols.; trans. I. Abrahams; Jerusalem: Magnes Press, 1987).


Digitised Manuscripts Online

27 04 2011

Wow. The Jewish National and University Library is digitising its entire collection of rare and out-of-print monographs. For the list of 1100 texts that have already been uploaded, see this site. I haven’t spent much time with it, although I know that I will be playing with it a great deal in the next few days, but am already most impressed with the list of works under the Rabbinic Literature tab. I plan on going absolutely nuts on “Karaitica” as soon as possible.

Twelve Clouds

26 12 2010

Inspired by the Sixty-Six Clouds that I blogged about earlier, I decided to make twelve clouds of my own: one for each of the tractates in the Mishna, Seder Mo’ed.


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The Torah, Redux

9 11 2010

Thank God for the internet! In what can only be described as an act of philanthropy, the Bodleian Libraries at the University of Oxford have made electronically available MS Hunt. 80: an autograph section of Maimonides’ Mishne Torah, checked against the original version by the author himself. It is most unfortunate that the other volumes of this important text are no longer extant, but I strongly encourage everybody to have a look at what is available. You will note that, towards the end of the manuscript, we read the following words:

הוגה מספרי אני משה ברבי מימון ז”ל

Checked against my book. I am Moses, son of Rabbi Maimon of blessed memory.

One can only imagine the excitement of this manuscript’s founder, the Arabic scholar Robert Huntington, who discovered it in Aleppo in the 17th century. As Joel Kraemer notes, in his highly recommended biography of Maimonides¹, Huntington had also discovered an autograph edition of Maimonides’ “Commentary on the Mishna”. As this is likewise being stored at Oxford’s Bodleian Libraries, let us hope that their online publication of the Mishne Torah is just the beginning, and that we soon see Maimonides’ first major work made publicly available as well.

[Hat-tip: Hagahot]

¹ Joel L. Kraemer, Maimonides: The Life and World of One of Civilization’s Greatest Minds (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 169.

Rhyme and Reason: The View from my Room

12 09 2010

Having recently increased the number of books that I own to 1,186, and having also recently acquired a new shelf for the purpose of storing those that I want as close to my desk as possible – not to mention being nerdy enough to actually photograph them for the benefit of others, I have decided to devote a post to the new appearance of my bedroom. The following is the first of my shelves, found to the left of my desk:

This shelf houses all of my academic literature (Hebrew Bible, Dead Sea Scrolls, Rabbinic Literature, Jewish History, Linguistics and [primarily Semitic] Languages). You can’t see all of it, but it’s the least pretty of my three shelves, so let’s move along.

Ah, now we’re talking! This is my Primary Literature shelf #1. It houses various copies of the Hebrew Bible (most notably Miqra’ot Gedolot, Torat Hayyim and BHS), as well as all of my versions (Samaritan Pentateuch, Septuagint, Peshitta, Vulgate, and two texts in Bohairic Coptic). It also houses my favourite English translations (Geneva Bible, KJV, RSV, NRSV and the Jerusalem Bible) and some material from Qumran/Masada. If you squint, you will notice Josephus, Philo, the “Apocrypha” and “Pseudepigrapha” (critical editions, all), a critical edition of various Gnostic texts, a wonderful biblical index to the rabbinic literature (again, thanks, Rivqa!), a couple of copies of the Mishna (Hebrew and English) and both Talmuds. I have to sit on my bed to access the Talmuds and the Ein Yaakov, but that’s all part of putting a library in a bedroom.

Isn’t she beautiful! This is my Primary Literature shelf #2, and the most recent addition to the family. You can’t see the bottom shelf in the photo, or the rightmost part of the top shelf, but it commences with facsimile editions of both the Aleppo and the Leningrad Codex. Afterwards is my large collection of midrashim (Midrash Rabba, Midrash Tehillim, Pirqei d’Rebbi Eliezer, Midrash Tanchuma, Pesiqta d’Rav Kahana, Pesiqta Rabbati, Tana d’Bei Eliyahu, Leqach Tov, Seikhel Tov, Yalqut Shim’oni, Mekhilta d’Rebbi Ishmael, Sifra, Sifrei, Mekhilta d’Rebbi Shim’on bar Yochai and Midrash Tannaim). The top shelf also contains what little I have of the Geonic literature: the Iggeret of Rav Sherira Gaon, the Sheiltot of Rav Achai Gaon, the translation of the Pentateuch into Arabic by Rav Saadiah Gaon, and Rav Saadiah Gaon’s siddur. Completing the top row, I also have Siddur Vilna (the nearest thing to a critical edition, that I have yet encountered, of the Ashkenazi nusach), as well as two copies of the Haggada, and a set of Ashkenazi machzorim that once belonged to my grandfather. Those have been cut off on the left.

Continuing downwards, this shelf houses Rambam’s Mishne Torah (in Shabbetai Frankel’s beautiful fifteen-volume critical edition), the Arba’ah haTurim, the Mishne Berurah, and various other lesser (and more contemporary) works of halakha. Entering the realm of the kabbalah, I’ve some early literature (Sefer Yetzirah, Sefer haBahir, Sefer Raziel haMal’akh), as well as three editions of the Zohar, and a variety of kabbalistic siddurim. My philosophy (“chaqirah”) component is very small, and focuses chiefly on works by Judah haLevi, the Rambam, Luzzato, Soloveitchik and Leibowitz, but my Sifrei Hassidut section is fairly long, and mostly Chabad. Nonetheless, it does contain a small selection of texts from Breslov, Satmar, Toldos Aharon, Shomer Emunim and Spinka, as well as the Noam Elimelekh.

Those with a keen eye (assuming that any of you are still reading this) will have noticed two things. There is a golem after my copies of the Sefer Yetzirah (honestly, I didn’t put it there…), and I’m going to need a new bookshelf soon. Possibly also a life, although I’m pretty happy with the bookish one I lead at present. Qohelet had it right, although I understand him to be praising the publishing industry, rather than advising against it. And after all, what else is life for if not to acquire a little learning? (Something about falling in love and having children, maybe… I think I read that somewhere.)

“The Midrash Says…”

25 08 2010

Most people who use the word “midrash” don’t know what it means. To them, “midrash” simply denotes a convoluted and nonsensical commentary to a text: a tract composed with the intention of obfuscating a point, of inventing a wild fantasy, or of replacing the biblical literature with arcane trivia about first millennium rabbis and their views on the science of the day. To open any casual guide to Judaism, such as grace the shelves of bookstores throughout this country, is to be vindicated in this suspicion. These authors, whose noble aim is to educate people in the broadest strokes possible, could not possibly be more incorrect.

While the genre of Midrash is homogeneous in respect of the fact that it is, 100% of the time, a commentary upon the biblical literature (unlike the Talmud, for example, which comprises a commentary upon the Mishna), it is also held together by its utilisation of a particular methodology. According to one source, this methodology was first adumbrated by Hillel, who ostensibly determined seven rules of exegesis. According to another source, it was Rabbi Ishmael who created the concept of Midrash, and who defined it with a total of thirteen rules. A third source has Rabbi Eliezer propounding thirty-two rules of midrashic exegesis, and a fourth (attributed to Samuel ben Hofni) places the total number at forty-nine.

For those of us who are not accustomed to actually spelling out the methodological principles that underscore our immediate comprehension of a text, the very existence of such rules is enough to inspire a headache. And for those of us who subscribe to the various hermeneutical principles of the modern era (that a text must be understood in its immediate context, in relation to other similar texts, and in light of the society that produced it), the nature of the midrashic methodology that underscores this particular genre is abstruse to the point of appearing ridiculous.

To read a collection like Midrash Rabba (perhaps, more than any other, the collection to which people unintentionally refer when they say that “the Midrash says…”), none of this is particularly problematic. Like several other examples of midrashim and collections of midrashim, Midrash Rabba is homiletic in its import. The rabbis, concerned with making sense of the anomalies of the text, together with the various silences of the text, used the intellectual tools at their disposal in order to provide the stories with a more profound meaning. The overwhelming majority of them could not be taken literally even if one were so inclined, and it is reasonable to suggest that none of them were meant to be taken literally in the first place. By removing verses from their immediate context, and by understanding them on the basis of verses elsewhere within the Tanakh, the rabbis turned the Hebrew Bible into a single, comprehensive rabbinic text.

But what happens if one is to derive messages from this text? What occurs when, instead of dealing with the narratives of Genesis or the poetry of Psalms, the text is dealing with the pronouncements of Numbers, or the stipulations of Deuteronomy? What happens, in other words, when the text, rather than being homiletic in nature, is halakhic instead? Is halakhic midrash any different to narrative midrash? And does this difference have any impact upon Judaism today?

The means by which academic midrash becomes practical law was a bone of contention between two second century rabbis: Akiva and Ishmael. While Ishmael is traditionally credited with a halakhic midrash to Exodus (“The Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael”), Akiva’s students are credited with the halakhic midrashim to Leviticus (“Sifra”; also called “Torat Kohanim”), Numbers and Deuteronomy (“Sifrei”), as well as the anonymous sections in both the Tosefta (that which was, purportedly, left over after the crystallisation of the Mishna), and even the Mishna itself.

Rabbi Ishmael, whose approach to text is best exemplified by a statement of his that “the Torah speaks in human language” (Sifra, Num §112), was a strict applicator of midrashic methodology. Rabbi Akiva, whose approach appears to have had a more mystical bent, was apparently inclined to derive laws from obscure features of the text (such as an additional letter), and with less regard for the conventional midrashic tools. A discussion that the two have in a Talmudic passage (bSan 51b) is particularly illustrative.

There, the debate concerns the fate of a priest’s daughter who has committed adultery. The discussion concerns a passage in the Torah (Lev 21:9), which stipulates that she should be burned, but which fails to make clear whether it is adultery of which she is guilty, or whether it is premarital sex. Based on a comparison with two other biblical verses (Lev 20:10 and Deut 22:21), and utilising at least two different midrashic principles, Rabbi Ishmael determines that the young girl in our verse is only betrothed to be married, and that if she were actually married already, her punishment would be stoning instead. Rabbi Akiva disagrees.

According to Rabbi Akiva, the daughters of priests merit burning both for premarital intercourse as well as adultery. Despite the fact that the Torah does not make this clear, and despite the fact that Akiva is unable (or unwilling) to answer the objections of Ishmael, or even to provide an alternative rationalisation, this is his final word. His reason is that the word “daughter” in the particular verse under discussion has a vav attached to it, and he explains this extra letter – for reasons that are unclear – as alluding to the fact that she is burned despite her marital status at the time of her crime. Famously, Rabbi Ishmael cries out, “And because this word has a vav attached to it, you would take her out to be burned??”

Sadly, the Talmud furnishes us with very little that can really indicate the relationship of these two scholars. As with Hillel and Shammai, the tradition is predominantly recorded by those who favoured one over the other, and in this instance the majority of the literature venerates Rabbi Akiva. It is worth noting, however, that the texts that do so tend to lionise him in mystical terms. To give but two examples, Moses is granted a vision of Akiva, expounding halakha from the “crowns” appended to the Torah’s letters (bMen 29b); and Rabbi Akiva, alone of four venerable sages of his day, succeeds in both ascending to the supernal realms and descending from them in peace (tHag 2:2). Rabbi Ishmael, on the other hand, is depicted in far more mundane and logical terms than his contemporary.

In the field of halakhic studies, a major question concerns the relationship between the Mishna and the halakhic midrash. Alone of all of the halakhic texts, the Mishna presents the law without any justification for the law. Rather than referencing its opinions in other texts (as the Talmud does), or even with an appeal to logic, the Mishna presents the law, which is the law because the Mishna presents it. This is in sharp contradistinction to the halakhic midrash, which presents law as the results of a methodological analysis of the literature of the Torah.

This gives us two possible options. Either we can suggest that the Mishna holds primacy, and that the halakhic midrash developed as a means of demonstrating to those Jews who rejected the Mishna that its laws were all contained within the Torah itself, or we can argue that the midrash held primacy and that the Mishna is simply a codification of the results of such hermeneutical exegesis. In the event of the former option, halakhic midrash remains speculative and the difference of opinion between Akiva and Ishmael is thoroughly academic. Irrespective of the means by which one reaches his conclusion, the conclusion is already established by the Mishna and is not the subject of debate.

In the event, however, of the latter possibility, the difference of opinion between Akiva and Ishmael is most profound. If the Mishna constitutes the crystallisation of halakhic midrash, then the methodology employed by the midrash has a tremendous bearing upon the practical realia of law. Approximately three centuries after the completion of the Babylonian Talmud, Rav Sherira – the head of a prestigious academy in Babylon – wrote a letter, in which he clearly explained the origins of the Mishna, the Tosefta, the two Talmuds and the halakha. In this letter, he makes it very clear that the anonymous sections of the Mishna were composed by Rabbi Meir, whose teacher – Rabbi Akiva – was the source of his every opinion.

Had the methodology of Rabbi Ishmael so captivated the hearts and minds of his disciples that he instead had been venerated over the charismatic Rabbi Akiva, and had the Mishna been composed in accordance with his views, what might the halakha look like today? In a world in which competing rabbis debate each other in relation to halakhic criteria that derive in essence from Akiva, perhaps the simplest solution for those who wish to read the passages more literally is to simply say, “I have it on tradition from the school of Ishmael.”

The Illustrated

9 10 2009

One of the few things that I remember about my grandfather was the fact that he did not like comic books. I remember this because, even though he died when I was six, my earliest aspiration was to be an illustrator. I used to wonder whether or not he would have enjoyed a comic book that I produced and was always certain that the medium could be more than people usually gave it credit. It’s therefore a curious fact that, with very few and scarce exceptions, I never actually spent my time reading comics. I cannot say precisely why that was, except that I may have inherited the very prejudice that I was so certain was unfounded. Comics are frivolous. Comics are lurid. Comics, by providing illustrations, promote laziness. Comics are for children; adults read books.

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