Being a religious Jew and an academic student of religions, can sometimes present you for some interesting reactions, especially when you live in a society like the Israeli, where the idea of various religious groups living together is okay, but studying each other religious texts are less normal (it does happen though).
One reaction I’ve gotten a couple of times is based on a mishnah in the Mishnah, Tractate Sanhedrin, which states that:
“… these do not have a portion in the world-to-come: One who says, ”Resurrection of the dead is not from the Torah,” and ”the Torah is not from Heaven,” and an heretic apikoros. Rabbi Akiva says, Even one who reads external books…” (Sanhedrin 10:1 – Kehati translation)
The problem being R. Akiva’s statement. According to the people reacting to when I tell what I study, what I study is contrary to what is allowed from the Mishnah (and the Mishnah is considered holy, also by me). The Hebrew is “af haqore bisfarim haḥitzonim” (אף הקורא בספרים החיצונים), the “ḥitzonim” meaning something external, that is, outside the accepted tradition, which would include any religious (or non-religious) book you can imagine, which is not either part of the Canon or Rabbinical of nature. Or does it mean this?
Let us take one Jewish commentary, before we delve into some of the interesting aspects of Talmuds and manuscripts, that of R. Yitzḥaq Alfasi, who states that these books are books of heretics who interpreted the Biblical texts according to their own opinions, rather than to follow those of the Rabbinical Sages, z”l. From this we can learn that external texts are not so much connected to non-Jewish religious texts, as they are connected to Jewish religious heretical texts. This will also be clear from the following discussion.
First I want to relate to the Babylonian Gemarrah on the Mishnah, which is found in Sanhedrin 100b. Here we can read (differences of wordings is caused by the use of a difference translation, the Hebrew is the same):
“R. Akiva said: Also he who reads uncanonical books, etc.” A Tanna taught: This means the books of the Sadducees. R. Joseph said: It is also forbidden to read the book of Ben Sira.”
So here we see that the books thought about, as understood by a Tannaic rabbi, as well as the later Amorai, R. Joseph, are Jewish books. They don’t relate to, e.g., Greek or Persian religious writings, only Jewish – in their eyes – heretical writings.
In the Yerushalmi we can read the following on the same mishnah (Yerushalmi, Sanhedrin 28a):
“R. Akiva adds: one who reads the outside books such as the books of Ben Sira and the books of Ben La’aga. But he who reads the books of Homer and all other books that were written from then on, is considered like one who is reading a secular document… (here is a quote from Ecclesiastes 12:12)… Hence, casual reading is permissible but intensive studying is forbidden.”
Also here we see that it is related to other Jewish writings (Ben Sira and Ben La’aga both being Jews) as being problematic, as far as they are considered heretic, while Greek texts, and texts written after that particular time are not.
The question is why this is the case? What is so bad about the Jewish heretical writings, which is not found in the non-Jewish religious texts? The answer is found in the discussion following R. Joseph’s statement in the Talmud Bavli. Basically – to sum up – the problem lies in the fact that the Jewish heretical writings are too similar to the canonical Jewish writings, that is, the Canon of the Bible and the sayings of the Rabbinical Sages, z”l. One – particularly an unlearned – can easily confuse the two (as an example try to read the writings of Ben Sira and compare them with, e.g., Ecclesiastes), while this is not the case with non-Jewish religious writings (compare, e.g., the Torah and the Quran). Also, since they at this time, of the Mishnah, did have a canon, when it came to the Biblical writings, then it would not be a problem with later texts, since we would know that they are written too late to be part of the Biblical canon.
According to the Sages, z”l, what we are dealing with is a question of accepted texts being part of the canon, and therefore holy, or heretical texts proposing themselves as being holy texts, part of the canon.
There is also the question of which words were used about the texts in questions. We find differences depending on which manuscripts we are reading. As we saw, the Tanna taught that what was meant was “books of the Sadducees,” but some manuscripts have “minim” (מינים) instead of “Sadducees.” This word is used about heretic Jews, particular Christian Jews – which most likely also is why “Sadducees” have been inserted in some manuscripts, since Christians in the Medieval times didn’t take so lightly on what could be considered an affront to Christian dogmas and teachings.
But all in all we get a picture of a statement, which most likely was primarily concerned with the confrontation between canonical Holy Texts, and heretic writings, which might have been confused with Holy Scripture, rather than a statement against the study (even more the modern academic study) of non-Jewish religious texts, which – as we saw – were considered on level with secular writings, and as such would not be object for the same intensive study, as would be the case with Jewish Holy texts.
What can we learn from this, besides the already explained? Well, that when we are dealing with religious texts, particularly when they are found within a religious tradition (and most religious texts are, not surprisingly), then we need to get into the details and expand the reading if we want to really understand their meaning. Just reading one text artificially, and then believe that we get the full picture from that, is simply misleading. Unfortunately many religious people today seem to read their own religious texts that way, something which damage and bring their religion down on a level, rendering it without meaning or purpose. Religions, whether it be Judaism or other religions, are not afraid of the critical study of their texts, on the contrary, they demand it. They want the believer to understand what the religion is about, not just based on a shallow reading of one or two text, for then to believe that the answer and solution is found, based on that inadequate reading.
In the last part we dealt with the first mishnah of Tractate B’rachot, being presented for opinions on until when we can recite the Shma’, the context of the Shma’, and so on. In this part we will focus on the first discussion relating to the mishnah, called “sugya,” where the Gemarrah will discuss the issue of the order of the recitals of the Shma’:
|The text of the Gemarrah is build up by several parts, dealing with different issues. Each of these parts are called “sugya.”|
|When the Gemarrah talks about the Tanna, then it is referring to the Mishnaic Sage behind the Mishnaic text.|
|As It Is Written||Dichtiv||
|Whenever the Gemarrah states this term, then it deals with Biblical texts.|
|If You Want||`I Ba’yet||
|This expression introduces a strengthening analogy.|
|If This Is So||`I Hachi||
|This expression introduces a challenge to the preceding argument.|
תנא היכא קאי דקתני מאימתי ותו מאי שנא דתני בערבית ברישא? לתני דשחרית ברישא!
תנא אקרא קאי דכתיב בשכבך ובקומך – והכי קתני זמן קריאת שמע דשכיבה אימת? משעה שהכהנים נכנסין לאכול בתרומתן
ואי בעית אימא יליף מברייתו של עולם דכתיב ויהי ערב ויהי בקר יום אחד
אי הכי סיפא דקתני בשחר מברך שתים לפניה ואחת לאחרית ובערב מברך שתים לפניה ושתים לאחרית לתני דערבית ברישא
תנא פתח בערבית והדר תני בשחרית עד דקאי בשחרית פריש מילי דשחרית והדר פריש מילי דערבית:
To what is the Tanna referring since he teaches ”from when,” and more, why is it that he teaches about the evening first? He should teach about the morning first.
The Tanna refers to the verse ”when you lay down and when you rise” – And this is what he is teaching, when is the time of the recital of the Shma’ when laying down? From the time that the Kohanim enters in order to eat their Terumah.
And if you want, [then] say that he learned from the creation of the world, as it is written “and it was evening and it was morning, one day.”
If this is so, [why is it] in the end [of the Mishnah] taught ”In the morning do you bless twice before [the Shma’] and once after [the Shma’], and in the evening do you bless twice before [the Shma’] and twice after”? Teach in the evening first.
The Tanna opened in the evening and then teaches in the morning, [and] while referring to the morning he explains the subjects of the morning and then returns and explains the subjects of the evening.
- What does the Tanna (of the Mishnah) refer to when he asks “from when”?
- Why does he teach about the evening Shma’ before the morning Shma’?
1: The Gemarrah wonders why the Tanna asks the question “from when” in regards to the evening Shma’. As we learned in the last post this is a rather sudden way of introducing the Mishnah. No explanations on what is going on or what we are about to deal with, just a question throwing us directly into the discussion. This isn’t the worry for the Gemarrah though – it is more interested in the source for the Mishnah’s question. “On what do you base this question? Why do you find the need to ask ‘from when’?” The answer is based on the Biblical verse of Devarim (Deuteronomy), which is part of the recital of the Shma’, and which gives us hints at when we should recite it. If we are to recite a Biblical text, shouldn’t it give us answers about itself as well? The Gemarrah answers for the Mishnah as well: when you lay down [to rest] and when you rise. And since the laying down comes first, then it is clear that this is the Shma’ which the Mishnah relates to, the evening Shma’, and evening, that is, when the evening Shma’ of “when you lay down” can be recited from “when the Kohanim enters to eat their Terumah.”
This first answer answers both the two questions asked, namely what is the basis (Devarim 6:7) for the question, and why is the evening Shma’ dealt with before the morning Shma’, namely because of the order of the wordings of “when you lay down” and “when you rise.”
The Gemarrah offers yet an answer, if the first isn’t satisfying, namely that we can establish the order of why the evening Shma’ is dealt with before the morning Shma’ on the order of Creation, namely that evening came before morning, as it is seen in Bereshit (Genesis) 1:5 – “and it was evening and it was morning, one day.”
A third question:
- Why is a later mishnah dealing with the subjects of the morning Shma’ before the evening Shma’, if the order of the Biblical verses argues for the opposite?
The argumentation of the order is challenged by the Gemarrah, referring to a later Mishnah (B’rachot 1:4), which in its order deals with the subjects of the morning Shma’ before it deals with the subjects of the evening Shma. If this is the case, the Gemarrah states, then the Tanna should deal with the morning Shma’ first here also, not the evening Shma’.
This, explains the Gemarrah, is no problem since the Tanna begins with the evening Shma’, which should be so based both on the context of the verse commanding the recital of the Shma’ twice a day, as well as the order of the Creation, but only in order to begin the whole discussion, and then continue to the morning Shma’, and while he is dealing with the morning Shma’ then he deals with its subjects as well, for then to return to the evening Shma’ after that.
There are a number of answers given to us here, not all of them being answers to questions asked, but that is also part of the discussion of the Gemarrah. What we learn here is the order of the recital of the Shma’, having it based on two Biblical verses (Bereshit 1:5 and Devarim 6:7), that evening was prior to morning in the Creation, that the Tanna only used the evening Shma’ as an introduction to the discussions on the subjects related to the recital of the Shma’.
As we see from this first discussion the Gemarrah doesn’t have a problem conducting a discussion with itself. It raises problems as they come, and deal with them based on quoting sources, the Bible and various Mishnaic material, in order to establish a conclusion, a conclusion the Gemarrah itself isn’t afraid of questioning.
There are three sources for the deducing of rules presented for us here. The first, and most important, is the Biblical Scripture, the Torah, the second is the Oral Tradition, here presented in the form of the Mishnah itself, and the third is the inferring by analogy (called Maqqish or Heqqesh). The last is done by the comparison of two cases, in order to establish a conclusion. Here presented in the comparison between the evening Shma’ being presented before the morning Shma’. The question is why this is so. By comparing to two Biblical sources, Devarim 6:7 and Bereshit 1:5, we can learn that just as the evening Shma’ is mentioned in the Bible, so should it be in the Mishnah, which again follow the order of Creation. By this do we see the red thread between the Written and the Oral Torah. In the mishnah itself, the one dealt with already, we see a fourth source, namely consensus, which was the case of the “the Sages say.”
This conclude the first Sugya of the first mishnah.
Before I begin on the first mishnah it would be a good idea to give an overview over a typical daf in the Talmud. Daf is Hebrew for page, and the subject is found by relating to the page it is written, that is, according to the Order, then the Tractate, and then the page. And since each page has two sides, the number of the page will be followed by a or b in order to indicate which side we are dealing with. That is when we use the Latin script to indicate where in the Talmud to look, the Hebrew is different, but the idea is the same. So if we for example should relate to where we will be begin then it would be Seder (Order) Zera’im, Massechet (Tractate) B’rachot 2a. Page two because each tractate starts on the second page, not the first page, and a because it would be the first side of the page.
Let’s look at what it looks like:
This is the first page in the Talmud Bavli, which we will be focusing on in the coming. I will tell you about the parts of the Talmud during the next couple of pictures or so.
The name of the chapter is given from the first word of the chapter. In this case it is “me’eimatai,” “from when,” which is written in top of the page to the right (as well as in the big box introducing the text):
The next part, next to the title of the chapter, is the number of chapter, here “Pereq Rishon,” the first chapter:
And then follows the name of the Tractate, here B’rachot:
As said, the title of the chapter is the first word of the text, which is introduced by the title:
In the middle of the page we have the talmudic text itself, with the Mishnah and the Gemarrah. It is this text which we will be focusing on:
The first part is the Mishnah, the first mishnah of the Talmud, actually beginning with the title, and then continuing until the two letters gimel and mem, which is short for Gemarrah:
The mishnaic text is rather short compared with the discussions following it. The following is the Gemarrah, which continues on the next many pages, before we will reach the second mishnah:
The text surrounding the Talmudic text to the right is Rashi’s commentary. On the second side of the page it will be to the left instead of to the right. Rashi, besides his commentary to the Torah, also wrote an extensive commentary to the Talmud, revealing his great insights and knowledge on both Torah and Talmud:
On the other side and underneath the Talmudic text we find the commentaries of the Tosafot, not to confuse with the Tosefta. The authors of the Tosafot were the disciples of Rashi and other later commentators, adding to his commentaries on a rather high level, taking advanced discussions for granted:
On the sides of the commentaries we have references to the Torah and various passages, as well as the commentaries of R. Nissim Gaon, Z”L, but I won’t be referring to these much.
So this was a short introduction to a typical page in the Talmud Bavli. The Yerushalmi reminds but has some differences, but I will get back to that when (if) we will study it instead.
In the following post I will make a study with you of the first mishnah. Until then, take care.
Something I have been thinking about for a long time, and which I have promised to per video but simply never can make myself get around, is to do a study of the Talmud, if not all the Talmud (that is going to take some time, maybe also too much time), then at least some. And not only in order to study it or to talk about it, but also to study the reasoning of the Talmud, especially the different ways of discussions in the Mishnah and the Gemarrah.
But before we get there an introduction is in its place.
First off, there are two Talmuds: The Talmud Bavli and the Talmud Yerushalmi. Why there are two and which one I will be relating to will be explained a little later. The structure of the two Talmuds are very alike, they consist of a textual body with commentaries being written around them, elucidating the text. The textual body consist of two parts, the mishnaic text, which is the foundation, and the text of the Gemarrah, which takes the most space by far. The reason for this is that the mishnaic text is the actual body being commented on by the Gemarrah.
In Judaism (that is, Rabbinic Judaism, which from now on in this context simply will be called Judaism for convenience) there are two bodies of holy Scriptures, the Bible (called TaNaCh) and the Mishnah. The Bible is structured in three parts, the Torah, the Nevi’im (Prophetical Books), and the Ketuvim (the Scriptures), thereby forming the word T-N-K (pronounced TaNaCh). The Torah, which is the five Books of Moshe Rabenu, A”S, is the Holy Book in Judaism, being the foundation for every commandment and principle deduced by the Sages. It is known by other names as well, describing its nature in comparison with the other Jewish Scriptures, namely Torah she’bichtiv, the Written Torah, and Humash, the name being based on the number of books (the number five in Hebrew is hemesh). That the Torah, the Humash, is written is important in relation to that part of the Torah, which is believed to have been given Oral, namely the Oral Tradition or Torah she’be’al-Peh (the Torah which is in the mouth), which has been transferred orally from generation to generation, from Moshe Rabenu, A”S, until R. Yehuda HaNasi, Z”L, who saw the need to write down the Oral Tradition in the beginning of the third century CE.
The Mishnah is organized in six “Sedarim,” from the word ‘seder,’ which means ‘order.’ These Sedarim are organized in massechot, tractates, which each has a number of chapters, which each has a number of ‘mishnayot.’ The term “mishnah” with a small ‘m’ is the decisions brought down through the ages, though not all are going back to Sinai. In differing between the Mishnah in its total and the single mishnah, I will write it with capital m and without.
The six Sedarim are as follows:
Seder Zera’im, which deals with agriculture, though the first tractate, Massechet B’rachot, which we will be dealing with in the beginning, is concerned with prayers and blessings. It has eleven tractates in it.
Seder Mo’ed, which deals with the festivals, and which has twelve tractates.
Seder Nashim, which deals with issues concerning women, such as the various forms of marriage, divorce, female impurity and so on. It has seven tractates.
Seder Nezikin, which deals with civil law and the structure of the courts, as well as punishments, idol worship and witnesses. Here we also find the ethical tractate, Pirqei Avot. It has ten tractates, though the three first, Bava Kamma, Bava Metzia, and Bava Batra, originally was one tractate.
Seder Qodashim, which deals with issues related to holiness. It has eleven tractates.
Seder Tehorot, which deals with purities. It has twelve tractates.
There are other mishnaic materials besides the Mishnah. When R. Yehudah HaNasi, Z”L, had organized the Mishnah there was still mishnaic material left. This material was collected by his disciples in a work called Tosefta, which means ‘addition,’ a work which is being referred to by various rabbis in the discussions of the Gemarrah as proof-text, in their attempts to strengthen or attack a position. But in comparison to the mishniyot of the Mishnah they have lesser authority.
The Mishnah is written in what is called “mishnaic Hebrew,” a form of Hebrew being slightly simpler than the Biblical Hebrew, showing its traces of being a spoken more than a written language. It has some differences from Modern Hebrew, such as the suffixes in the plural, but any Hebrew speaker should be able to read and understand the mishnaic text without any noteworthy troubles.
Not long after the death of R. Yehudah HaNasi, Z”L, the compilation of the Mishnah, and the gathering of the Tosefta, the need to explain the mishniyot in the Mishnah appeared, both because the Jews found themselves under new situation as well as the Mishnah being presented in a very straightforward language, which leaves many details unexplained, something I believe will appear from the beginning of our study.
Therefore the rabbis of the religious centers, found in two geographical areas, namely in Eretz Yisrael, what constitutes the Galilee, Judea, and surroundings, and Babylon, began to comment on the Mishnah. Their comments, which were written in the spoken language of their time, Aramaic, show proof of their geographical background, such as local features being used in their examples and discussions. There are other differences as well, such as the type of Aramaic, the Babylonian Gemarrah being written in Eastern Aramaic, and the Palestinian Gemarrah in Western Aramaic. Also the elements differ, the Babylonian having a lot of Persian and Babylonian mythical elements incorporated.
The Babylonian Gemarrah is the most extensive of the two, having a century more to be edited and worked upon, finished most likely around 550 CE, though there has been proved later editing, conducted by the anonymous group of rabbis called Savoraim.
The Palestinian Gemarrah was never finished, being disrupted around 425 CE caused by anti-Jewish pogroms by the Christian emperor Theodosius II, and therefore lack a lot of material as well as organization. It does hold material which the Babylonian Gemarrah doesn’t cover, especially in context of agriculture, since that issue was important for the Jews in Eretz Yisrael, while not for the Jews in Babylon, having the commandments only being connected to the Land of Israel. Therefore the Babylonian Gemarrah is considered the more authoritative of the two, except on issues where it doesn’t mention anything.
From this we find one Mishnah and two Gemarrot, one Babylonian Gemarrah, which together with the Mishnah is called the Babylonian Talmud or Talmud Bavli, and one Palestinian Gemarrah, which together with the Mishnah is called the Palestinian Talmud or Talmud Yerushalmi.
Mentioning the Mishnah in this context one thing has to be pointed out, namely that there are some smaller differences on the mishnaic text in the two Talmuds. I have dealt with this issue in some earlier posts, which you can read here, here and here. This might have been caused by the Mishnah being transferred orally in the Land of Israel even at the time of the disruption of the Palestinian Gemarrah, causing the changes in language as will always appear through time, while the mishnaic text most likely was considered holy in its written form from the beginning in Babylon.
Regarding the Sages. We will see that a lot of Sages will be mentioned by names, and I will try to explain when and where they lived. But sometimes the Gemarrah talks about ‘Tanna.’ This is the title for the Sages living in the Mishnaic times, that is, from the time before the compilation of the Mishnah. The Sages of the Gemarrah are called Amoraim.
With this said (or written) I feel that we are ready to begin the study of the Talmud.
In the second verse of the Torah, which deals with the creation, we find the expression “והארץ היתה תהו ובהו” – The earth was in utter chaos. The problem I have with this statement is that I don’t feel that I fully appreciate the meaning of the expression “Tohu vaVohu.”
The roots of the two words, Tahah (תהה) and Bahah (בהה), make it all even more difficult, having Tahah meaning to wonder, to be amazed, to be dumbfounded, to ponder or to reflect, while Bahah means to stare into space, to daydream, or to gaze. The thing is, the expression “Tohu vaVohu” has always been understood as utter chaos, or without form, and still is. If we look at the four most used English Jewish translations, we will see the expression being translated as follows:
‘Astonishingly empty’ (Judaica Press and Artscroll), and ’unformed and void’ (Soncino and JPS)
Checking a number of Christian translations, we reach the same understanding of the words, meaning without form, empty, or void.
This is also the sense left us when we relate to various commentators, e.g. Rashi who writes that Tohu “is an expression of astonishment and desolation, that a person wonders and is astonished at the emptiness therein.” This is an interpretation which leans on the meaning of Tahah, though he doesn’t relate to the second part of the expression, Bohu. Ibn ‘Ezra understands the expression as “empty waste,” while Nahmanides states that the “lower prime matter, after its creation from nothingness, was completely prime matter, that is matter without substance.” So also here are we dealing with understandings of the expression as something without form or, as Nahmanides express it, substance. Contrary the other commentators Nahmanides attempts to translate Bohu on its own, explaining that it consists of ‘bo’ and ‘hu,’ that is “is in him,” relating to the idea of a being. I would suspect that he somehow attempts to relate it to Bahah, ‘seeing’ something that will be in ‘it,’ that which still is without form.
Onkelos, the Aramaic Targum found with any Hebrew Bible, which was written in the beginning of the second century, translates the expression as “צדיא וריקניא” –Tzadya w’Reqanya, meaning something desolate and empty, also dealing with the same meaning. The Midrash (Bereshit Rabbah) takes another approach, relating the Tohu vaVohu to evilness and wrongdoing, though still in the negative understanding of void and waste.
When we look at other Biblical passages using the words, then we find Tohu ten places, all relating to something being vain, void or confusion, while Bohu is found three times, relating to emptiness.
So by now we have established that the understanding of Tohu vaVohu means something astonishing/confusing emptiness, void, desolate being without form or something in that regards. For me, when I read this expression, I get the idea of a world still not being formed or ‘expressed,’ sort of speaking. Something has to be added, we are still viewing something not yet decided on.
That said, I still don’t feel that I have the full understanding of the expression itself, nor of the words. They escape me, my full understanding of them. I need to approach them closer, but how? Also their relations to their roots, how can they change their meaning like that? Do they change meaning at all? Something I’m sure of is that this isn’t the last time I’m going to deal with this subject.
Most people have read a translated text of some sort, whether it be a novel, official text, religious scriptures or something else. There’s nothing weird in that, it happens more often than we are aware of. But there’s another thing we might not be so aware of, or even if we are, we don’t offer it much thought. When reading a translated text, we read an interpretation of a text – that is, when we read a text, which is translated from one language to another, the chance that the translator had to interpret the original text is great. Sure, in some cases the two languages are so close, that a direct translation can be done, for example with Danish and Norwegian, but for the most the case is that the translation involves two languages which are not that similar.
In my situation, studying religious text, this is most certainly the case, having sometimes to deal with text which do not only belong to different families (all languages belong to certain families, where they share some similarities with the other members of the family, often making it possible to either understand parts of written text in between the languages, or at least find a larger number of words they share), but also belonging to different times. For example, when I read the Talmud, I deal with a language belonging to the Semitic family of languages, which also covers Hebrew, Arabic, Amharic and so on, while myself speaking a language belonging to the Germanic family. The way of expression is very different in some cases.
Therefore it isn’t weird that we need a portion of interpretation when translating from the one language to the other, at least if we wish for the translation to give sense. I would like to present you for an example on this, showing you how many different ways a somehow simple text can be translated. The text is the first verse in the Torah, talking about the beginning of creation. The Hebrew text goes like this:
בְּרֵאשִׁית בָּרָא אֱלֹהִים אֵת הַשָּׁמַיִם וְאֵת הָאָרֶץ
Now, it would actually be pretty simple to translate this text, simply taking it word for word, ending with a result like this: “In beginning created God the heavens and the earth.” The only thing that would come out a little odd would be the lack of ‘the’ in the start of the sentence, between ‘in’ and ‘beginning.’ That is in the text, but implicit. But even in my attempt to make a very simple translation of a very simple text did I make an interpretation, namely of the word אֱלֹהִים, which I translated to ’God.’ The word ‘elohim’ (as it is written in English) is a plural form of the word ‘eloah,’ meaning god. That is, what I should have written, had I made the precise translation, would be “in beginning created gods the heaven and the earth.” So why didn’t I do that? Well, the answer lies in the word preceding the word for ‘gods,’ ‘bara.’ This word is a verb, meaning ‘to create,’ which is being expressed in 3rd person singular, not plural. Of course one could suggest that ‘beginning’ is the subject creating ‘gods,’ but not only would that not give any sense (beginning created gods), it would also be wrong, since Biblical Hebrew is a VSO-language, that is, the verb precedes the subject. To explain, in Biblical Hebrew you would say “eat I the food,” not “I eat the food,” as is the case in English. So from this alone, the fact that we are dealing with a verb being expressed in the singular, while the subject is being presented in the plural, can we see that an interpretation is needed for the translation.
Having said that I want to present you for four different translations of the word, being found in the most used Jewish English translations, namely those of JPS, Artscroll, Soncino, and Judaica Press:
|JPS 1985/1999||Artscroll||Soncino||Judaica Press|
|When God began to create heaven and earth||In the beginning of God’s creating the heavens and the earth||In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth||In the beginning of God’s creation of the heavens and the earth|
The most noteworthy differences is in the first part of the sentence (Bereshit bara Elohim), but we also see one example in differing interpretations in the second part, namely with heaven/s, having JPS and Soncino interpreting it in the singular, while Artscroll and Judaica Press interpret it in the plural. The reason for the two differences is found in the fact that heaven in Hebrew is a plural word (as is for example ‘money’ in English). The question is how we understand it when we read the word, as a ‘name’ or as something expressing plurality of existence (this is also the case with elohim, is it one of God’s Names, or is it an expression of plurality)? JPS and Soncino interpret it as the former, Artscroll and Judaica Press as the latter.
When we look at the first part we see a more interesting differing between the translations, having JPS state that “When God began to create,” while Artscroll and Judaica Press both talk about the beginning of God’s action, though differing on whether it is ‘creating’ or ‘creation’ we are talking about, while Soncino agrees with the two that we indeed find ourselves “in the beginning.”
It is not without significant importance to deal with this interpretation, since it is a crucial question of ‘when.’ When are we finding ourselves here? In the beginning of time or in the beginning of creation? As we see, JPS wants to tell us that we are at a moment of time, where God began to create (heaven and earth), which is reflected in Artscroll’s translation, expressing the same idea in a different way, attempting to be more true to the Hebrew text. Judaica Press tells us that we find ourselves “in the beginning of God’s creation,” which alone would give us a sense that where we are (in time) is actually after God indeed did create, while Soncino leaves us with the question of “in the beginning” of what, though this is seemingly the most true translation.
So why not just leave it at that? Why not translate it as it says? Well, because that isn’t what the text says. The problematic word is ‘reshit,’ relating to something coming before something else, or rather, the start of something, not just “in the beginning.” The problem here is that ‘reshit’ has to be connected, telling something about the thing it is connected to, which here would be the ‘created’ and the object of ‘created,’ that is, what the verse actually says is “first God created heaven and earth,” which leaves us with the question “and then what?” It doesn’t deal so much with the matter of time, as it does with the order of creation. The word ‘reshit’ is also used in understandings as ‘source,’ ‘first fruit,’ and ‘origin.’ This is indeed what Artscroll and Judaica Press attempt to reflect in their translations, while JPS tries to express a sentence which give most sense for Western (or English speaking) readers, while Soncino attempts to follow the most ‘correct’ translations.
So what am I trying to tell with all this? Well, first and foremost I’m trying to share some thoughts with you on a subject I find interesting. I have written a little about this in another post, but with a somewhat different approach. Second off, I think it is important to be aware of this fact, when reading translations, especially when reading religious texts, where translations can be of crucial importance for the believer and his/her understanding of what the text wants to say. For example, when I read the first verse here in the Torah, I don’t read a text that is interested with the question of time whatsoever, but rather a text which is very interested in the order of creation. But for the Western reader, the question of time – when we talk about creation – is crucial, which also is why the question often pops up in various polemics. Basically, how I understand the text is rather as ‘God created heaven and earth as the source [of what follows],” not as “in the beginning of everything God created heaven and earth.” That doesn’t mean that my reading is correct, or that I would express that interpretation in my translation, should I translate it, but I would still attempt to translate the text as close to the Hebrew text, while still expressing what I believe the Hebrew text wants to tell us. And that is what every translator does, and that is also what we – as readers of translated texts – need to be aware of, when we read translations. Especially if we take part in polemics, studies of religions, or other forms of dialogue or discussions, which involves the use of translations and doctrines being expressed and searched in them.
Once in a while I try to find new interesting blogs, and sometimes I am lucky. Today I feel myself really lucky, having found two blogs, one called The Talmud Blog, publishing mainly articles on the study of the Talmud, and another called The Immanent Frame, publishing articles on the interdisciplinary perspectives on secularism, religion, and the public sphere. I highly recommend any with interest in the subjects to visit either or both, they are seriously goldmines.
Especially one writer, Lena Salaymah, who writes on The Immanent Frame, wrote an article for The Talmud Blog, where she explains her motives for and thoughts on studying and researching Near Eastern Legal Culture. For my readers it will come as no surprise that exactly that is my focus.
The article is interesting and well-written, explaining and putting words on many thoughts I have myself, but which I haven’t been able to express as well as Salaymah does it. Especially when she writes about “proto-Semitic” that “as a metaphor, “proto-Semitic” offers a useful heuristic for thinking through how we approach the study of Jewish and Islamic law. If you imagine scholars of Jewish law articulating their ideas in Hebrew and Aramaic, while scholars of Islamic law articulate their ideas in Arabic, then my objective is to converse with both groups of scholars in a meta-language (proto-Semitic) that engages both legal traditions. Just as “proto-Semitic” is the common ancestor of the Semitic language family, Near Eastern legal culture is the shared antecedent of Jewish and Islamic legal systems,” do I feel that she puts the finger precisely on my own thoughts.
After I wrote my assignment on Ibrahim as an early Monotheist (which I will publish later on), did I feel too that we are dealing with a common Middle Eastern – or maybe rather Near Eastern – expression, more than we are talking about a “Jewish” on the one hand and a “Muslim” on the other. Of course, I’m not attempting to say that the two religions are basically the same, though there are many similarities to be find, they are not only products of their original geographical homes, and even so there would have been differences, but they are also that, products of their original geographical homes, and therefore – of course – have many similar expressions and thoughts.
I am looking forward to see what results she must create from her coming works, and I hope that you also will find it interesting, at least some of you.
Anyway, take a look of the blogs, I can highly recommend it.
Some of the most obvious differences between the Chumash and the Quran is the language, style and organization. Where the Chumash is written in Hebrew, Biblical Hebrew more correct, the Quran is written in Arabic. Where the Chumash is more or less told as long story, presented chronically, with Deuteronomy somehow standing out from the four other books, the Quran seems to be a mix of random revelations, dealing with various themes. Where the Chumash is beginning from one end, with the creation of the world, and ending at the other, with the death of moses, the Quran is organized after the length of the chapters, the suwar, with the longest first and the shortest last, except the opening surah, surat al-Fatihah. We are not told which suwar are from Mecca or which are from Medina, though the general notion is that the short suwar are Meccan, while the longest are Medinian.
The Chumash seems to want to tell a story, where the Quran is more focused on explaining various conditions appearing during the life of Muhammad. True, there are parts which relates to earlier prophets, but the appearance of these parts seem to be provoked by either incidents needing them or questions about them. See for example when Muhammad reminds the Children of Israel of Allah’s former favors bestowed upon them (2:40 and 2:47), or relating to Abraham (2:124 and 6:161). The Quran is a constant dialogue involving its readers and reciters. The Chumash on the other hand relates a story, telling about what happened to the pre-Israelite world (in Genesis) and the Israelites themselves (Exodus and onwards). Of course, when the religious Jew is studying the Chumash, he – as much as the Israelites being told about – takes part in the incidents. He is not outside, but inside the Biblical account. He too was present when the Israelite received the Torah at Mount Sinai. But this is the traditional way of relation to and studying the Chumash, based on interpretations of it.
The relation to the languages of the two Scriptures is only explained in the case of the Quran. According to 12:2 the Quran was revealed in Arabic, in order that “you,” the Arab tribes, would understand it, and this is being expanded all through the Quran. The awareness that the Quran is being revealed in Arabic is very central, which can be seen from the many places this is being mentioned, whether when it is outright stated that the Quran is in a “clear Arabic language” in order to make it “easy” to understand(16:103, 19:97, 26:195, and 43:3). But that is not the whole purpose of the Quran being in Arabic, it is also in Arabic in order to be a warning ( That there are non-Arabs is also considered by the Quran (20:113 and 42:7) whether it is to warn the individual or the “Mother of Cities” (Mecca). There are other verses dealing with Arabic as the language of the Quran, but this is enough to show how central the awareness of the Quran being an Arabic revelation is. We don’t see the same focus on language in the Chumash, only relating the language in relation to the tower of Babylon, where it states that “all the nations were of one language,” and how God changes this in order to confuse them. The Hebrew language of the Chumash is not explained, except – maybe – in relation to Abraham and his descendants being descendants of a Hebrew, themselves Hebrews, and in that regard simply taking it for granted that their Holy Scripture is in Hebrew as well. But still, if we relate to the wider context of the whole Jewish Bible, we don’t see anything of the same awareness of the language, even having some books in another language, e.g. the Book of Daniel and the Book of Ester, both being in Aramaic. It seems that Aramaic in later times was as much the language of the Hebrews as Hebrew was.
Though the two bodies of writings might seem very different in their structure, where they have things in common is their followers reverence for them. Both the Chumash and the Quran take the central focus par excellence in Judaism and Islam. Both are found as the basis for any legal decision or any discussion on metaphysic matters. Both takes the focus as the main object of study, whether it being the Jewish tradition of reading the whole Chumash during a year or the Islamic ditto with the Quran during the holy month of Ramadan. We see it as well in the discussions in the Talmud, which mostly are related to and centered on Biblical verses, such as the discussion of the three daily prayers, which are related to the practice of the three patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
If we relate to the various sectary strives in both Islam and Judaism, we see the same centrality and acceptance of the Quran and the Chumash, whether it be the Sunni-Shi’a conflict, or the various Jewish groups either accepting or refusing the Oral Tradition, all Muslim groups accept the central status of the Quran, as well as all Jewish groups to our days have accepted the status of the Chumash. This is so central, that it might even be possible to deem a sectarian group either outside the Islamic sphere or the Jewish sphere, religious speaking, in their relation to the Quran and Chumash respectively.
So while we do find many differences between the Quran and the Chumash, that is when we relate to the two Scriptures as pure texts, not as holy religious scriptures. In that matter the reverence shown them by their followers, shows a very similar attitude.
Yet another post on Avraham Avinu, A”S. I know it, I’m going crazy, but there’s a reason. As you know, I’ve been writing that I’m doing an assignment on him for one of my exams, and where the other courses haven’t been so extensive or focused on one theme, it has been easier (or just more compelling) to go really deep with my studies on Avraham Avinu, A”S.
I will be going on with my posts on him for a little more time, but there will also be presentations of other exams I’m doing, for example in Early Christianity and Approaching Classical Jewish Texts. The exam in the course in Early Islamic Texts has been given, orally, and didn’t take so much, since the course continues into next semester. The same is the case with the course in Early Christianity, which does have a shorter written assignment on some six to eight pages. I’ll present that within a couple of days, there are some interesting things there. I still haven’t received that questions for Approaching Classical Jewish Texts, so I can’t share my thoughts on that one with you yet.
Anyway. I’ve made a habit of making a working paper when I have to deal with assignments, and this is also the case with this assignment. Sometimes they are given as presentation to the teacher or incorporated in the introduction for the assignment itself. This one is mostly for my own though, so I don’t feel bad about sharing it with you, so you can see what I will be focusing on in my assignment.
When I studied on University of Copenhagen, I usually put my assignments up after evaluation, but I’m not sure I’m allowed to do that now though I don’t see how it should be a problem. If there won’t be any problems in it, I will share my assignments with you, as soon as they have been evaluated.
Here’s my working paper – feel free to comment:
Abraham as an Early Monotheist
Abraham plays a very central role both in Judaism and Islam. Many examples on this can be mentioned, but just to mention two examples, one from Judaism, one from Islam, then we can think of the Jewish convert receiving the title of “ben Avraham” (son of Abraham), or the way he is described in Quran as Hanif and being the only one called “Khalilat Allah” (friend of Allah). Abraham is a role model in both religions, one being emphasized in attempts to console and bringing Arabs and Jews together, focusing on his role as forefather for both people. Therefore it could be interesting to see how he is described as a faithful role model for the two people.
What I found interesting in this relation is to find out how he is described in early Islamic literature, and then see if we can find Jewish sources for these descriptions, or whether he is described in a genuine Islamic way. Where we find Jewish sources, it could be interesting to see how far back they are depicted, and whether there has been any evolution in them. This is to see if it is the same Abraham the Muslims and the Jews are focusing on as a role model at all, or whether there are related to two different forefathers.
The questions I will attempt to answer are to be presented as:
What are the main points presented about Abraham in early Islamic literature in regards to him being an early monotheist? Are there any examples of these representations of him in pre-Islamic Jewish sources, and if there are, do we find any evolution in these?
My approach will thus be to find accounts in early Islamic literature, depicting Abraham as a monotheist, then to see if I can find any similar accounts in earlier Jewish literature, starting with later Jewish literature and then working my way back, to end with Biblical account of Abraham.
What I will not be dealing with, are the questions on whether there has been later Islamic influence on Jewish thoughts on Abraham, since part of my approach is to find examples on Jewish thoughts in Islamic presentation of Abraham, as well as examples being purely Islamic.
I will do this by doing comparative analysis between the texts, but in order to get to a better understanding of the meaning applied to certain terms, as well as finding elements which can be said to be similar or where they differ from each other. This point is also important in order to determine whether Ibrahim is depicted as Avraham from an earlier or later stage of Jewish literature.
It will be done in various stages, starting by finding the Quranic meaning of Abraham as a Hanif, finding Quranic accounts relating to this meaning, comparing this with later similar Islamic representations, and then working backwards through Jewish literature, to see if and where those representations can be found and when they can be found. When this is done, I believe it will possible to determine how Abraham is described in early Islamic literature, where we can speculate on Jewish influence, when the Jewish representations have first evolved, and finally what can be said to be pure Islamic description of Abraham.
What I will not be doing here, is relating to Christian sources, unless it is needed, so when I state that I will find “pure Islamic descriptions of Abraham,” it is with the reservation that this can be found in Christian sources, rather than being “purely Islamic.” Also in this, even if not found in Christian sources, it might be found in pre-Islamic Arabic legends on Abraham.
I will be using a number of sources, a list of which can be found in the end of the assignment, the primary sources being found among following literature:
The Quran – Yusufali’s translation unless otherwise stated.
Ahadith – Here only Sahih Bukhari and Muslim.
Sirat al-Nabawiyya – Here only Muhammad ibn Jarir al-Tabari’s History.
The Talmud – Primarily the Babylonian Talmud.
Midrashim – Primarily Bereshit Rabbah.
Targumim – here only Targum Onkelos and Targum Jonathan.
Rewritten bibles – here only book of Jubilees, Josephus’ “Antiquities,” and Philo’s “On Abraham.”
The Bible – The JPS 1999 translation unless otherwise stated.
As the awake reader might have noticed, the title have changed slightly during the three posts on this account, from being between Bar Kamza and Bar Kamzora, over Kamza and Bar Kamza, and now Kamza and Bar Kamzora. This is on purpose, presenting the first of our differences, namely the names of the reason of confusion, the names of the one supposed to be invited and the one being invited. In both accounts are we presented for four persons right away, namely the wealthy man holdning the banquet, his friend, the servant supposed to invite his friend, and the one being invited instead of the friend. In either versions are we told the names of the wealthy man or his servant, but whereas the friend is called Bar Kamza in the Midrashic version, his name is Kamza in the Talmudic version, while the one being invited is Bar Kamzora in the Midrashic version and Bar Kamza in the Talmudic version. Or – maybe not correctly put, but nevertheless interesting – Bar Kamza is the friend in the Midrashic account, but the enemy in the Talmudic account.
Let’s repeat the two accounts, presenting them next to each other in order to make it easier to compare:
|On account of Kamza and Bar Kamza was Jerusalem destroyed.|
|A tale is told of one of the wealthy men of Jerusalem who made a banquet, inviting everyone.|
|He said to his servant, “Go and bring me my friend Bar Kamza.”||There was a man whose friend was Kamza, and whose enemy was Bar Kamza. He made a banquet, and said to his servant, “God and bring me Kamza.”|
|He went and brought him his enemy, Bar Kamzora.||He went and brought him Bar Kamza.|
|He entered (the banquet) and found him sitting among the guests.||He came and saw him sitting there, and said to him:|
|He said to him, “Get up and get out of here.”||”Since you are my enemy, what are you looking for here? Get out!|
|He replied, “I will pay the cost of the meal; but don’t throw me out in shame.”||He said to him, ”Since I am already here, let me alone, and I will pay you for what I eat and drink.”|
|He said to him, “You have no choice but to get out of here.”||He said to him: ”No.”|
|He replied, “I will pay for the entire banquet; but don’t throw me out in shame.”||He said to him: ”I will pay you half the cost of the banquet.”|
|He said to him, “You have no choice but to get out of here.”||He said to him: ”No.”|
|He replied, “I will pay you double; but don’t throw me out in shame.”||He said to him: ”I will pay you the entire cost of the banquet.”|
|He said to him, “You have no choice but to get out of here.”||He said to him: ”No.”|
|He picked him up and threw him out.|
|R. Zecharia b. Avqulos, who was capable of protesting, was there, but he didn’t protest.|
|Upon leaving, he said, “I get thrown out in shame, and let them sit there in peace?!”||He said: ”Since those Rabbis were sitting there and did not protest, I will go and slander them.|
|He went down to the king; and said to him, “Those sacrifices that you send them – they eat them.”||He went and said to the king, ”The Jews have revolted against you!”|
|He rebuked him saying, “That’s slander; you wish to denigrate them.”||He said to him, ”How can this be proven?”|
|He said to him, “Send the sacrifices with me, and send along a trustworthy man, and you’ll find out the truth.”||He said to him, ”Send them a sacrifice, and see if they will offer it.”|
|He sent a trustworthy man with him along with the sacrifices.||He sent with him a three-year calf.|
|He arose at night and placed unnoticeable blemished on (the sacrifices).||As he went, he placed a blemish on the lip (some say, the eyelid) – a place which is a blemish for us, but not for them.|
|When the priest saw them, he didn’t offer them as sacrifice, saying,||The Rabbis considered offering it as a sacrifice for the peace of the kingdom.|
|“I’m not offering them (now); tomorrow I will offer them.”||R. Zechariah b. Avqulos said to them, ”They will say, ’Blemished animals are (permitted) to be offered on the altar’!”|
|A day went by, and he didn’t offer them; another day went by, and he didn’t offer them.||They considered killing him, so he would not go and tell|
|At which he sent word to the king, “What that Jew told you is true.”||R. Zechariah b. Avqulos said to them, ”They will say, ’He who puts a blemish on a sacrificial animal deserves the death penalty’!”|
|Immediately he sent out to destroy the Temple.|
|That is what people say, “Between Kamza and Kamzora was the sanctuary destroyed.”|
|R. Yose said, “The timidity of R. Zecharia b. Avqulos burned down the temple.”||R. Yohanan said, ”The timidity of R. Zechariah b. Avqulos destroyed our house, burned our Temple, and exiled us from our land.”|
The accounts are agreeing on what happened upon the wealthy man seeing Bar Kamza/ora, with some differences, the Talmudic version having the wealthy man asking Bar Kamza what he is doing there, before telling him to leave, and Bar Kamzora being more generous with his offers than those of Bar Kamza.
Then we have R. Zechariah b. Avqulos. For those of you who read Hebrew/Aramaic, you might notice the differences in the Aramaic texts in his name, being Avqalis (אבקליס) in the Midrash and Avqulos (אבקולס) in the Talmud. It is not of great importance, but nevertheless interesting. What is important in this regard is the mentioning of him. In the Midrash he seems to have been added, only being mentioned in the Hebrew verses, not in the Aramaic verses, whereas in the Talmud we don’t have the same verses, except the final verse. Instead he takes part in a Halachic discussion with the Rabbis, on whether to sacrifice the animal or to kill Bar Kamza, where he is being the “stubborn” one, not accepting to let go of the rules, even for the sake of “peace of the kingdom.”
It is interesting to see how the two versions differ on his role, but still put negative focus on him, either by not objecting to the treatment of Bar Kamzora or in being too timid in dealing with the sacrifices, when so much was at stake.
Another thing which is interesting is that in the Midrash it is R. Yose blaming R. Zechariah for being overly timid, while it is R. Yohanan in the Talmud. Or maybe both actually did it? There is also a slight difference in the accusations, so it would be possible that they both reacted to his timidity, though in different times and/or places, though I believe that it is more plausible that it is the same statement being prescribed to either one or them.
On the part of Bar Kamza/ora leaving the banquet we have an interesting exchange; in the Talmud we see the exchange ending with Bar Kamza being thrown out, which doesn’t happen in the Midrash, where we are left without the ending. On the other hand, the Midrash then has the inserted verse about R. Zechariah not objecting, and then we see the reverse: In the Midrash we then learn that he indeed got thrown out, whereas in the Talmud we learn that the Rabbis did not object. So we have the crossing of accounts, the same thing happening, but the ‘not objecting’ is mentioned first in the Midrash, where it is mentioned second in the Talmud, and the throwing out is mentioned first in the Talmud, whereas it is mentioned second in the Midrash.
Then we have the meeting with the king. Where the Midrashic king seems to be more skeptic, the Talmudic king are more concerned with how Bar Kamza’s accusations can be proven. And in the Midrash there is focus on the man sent with Bar Kamzora, while it is the sacrifices being in focus in the Talmud, which is obvious taking the further story into account. In the Midrash we are presented with the reaction of the king, whereas the Rabbis are in focus in the Talmud. We suddenly follow two different narratives on the same happening, with the same unfortunate outcome; the destruction of the Temple. But we are left ignorant on R. Zechariah’s role in the whole story in the Midrash, and this might be why we had to insert the two Hebrew verses about him in the Midrash, since it doesn’t explain us what the Talmud does; namely that R. Zechariah was among the rabbis, and that he was the reason why the sacrifices were not brought to the alter in the end, making the king’s servant run to the king and tell him what we had witnessed, leading to the king believing the accusations.
One of my readers, the blogger Olive Twist (check the blog), asked some interesting questions, namely what happened with the animal, whether the account can be considered a true historical event, and what year this happened.
What happened with the animal I have already guessed, but let’s consider the possibility of this being a “true historical event.”
We know for a fact that sacrifices were brought for the wellbeing of the Roman emperor, and that the Roman prefect oversaw that this was done satisfactory. We can also be rather sure that there were sects among the Jews, who were not on good terms, and we can maybe see this account in this light, since – I believe – it is clear that the wealthy man were either among or at least positive to the Rabbis, whereas Bar Kamza/ora might have been among their opponents. I can’t say for sure which group he belonged to, but he was most likely not among the Pharisees (the Rabbis).
If we look at when this event happened, I would expect it to have happened within the last couple of years before the riots in the year 70 CE, though I don’t believe this account to be the direct reason for the Romans destroying the Temple, that is most definitely because of the rebellion in 70 CE.
But the most important question we have to ask ourselves here is, what is the story trying to tell us? Imagine that you are a religious believing Jew in the first centuries after the destruction of the Temple. You look at the state of the Jews, and ask why? Why did G-D allow this to happen? Why did He allow His home to be destroyed? You have to be able to give an explanation, because there must be some reason. In Jewish tradition the destruction of the Temples as well as the exiles are always caused as punishment, and this is the story’s explanation, that we were punished for Rabbis being too timid, not objecting when people are being done wrong, on confusions among people, on baseless hatred and the lack of understanding. This is indeed the “official” traditional Jewish reason for the destruction of the second Temple, Sinat Hinam, baseless hatred.