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The reading of religious texts and reaching a clear understanding



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.

Studying the Talmud


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.

The Mishnah:

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.

The Gemarrah

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.

Comparative study on the law schools and overall structure of Islam and Judaism – Defining the Schisms



Considering finding the comparison of the evolution of the Jewish maḍhab, I think there are some things that need to be in place, before we can begin the comparison. First off, one of the reasons the various maḍâhib appeared was the internal split as well as the geographical distance between the centers. People became more focused on their local center than on the overall center. When do we see the same in Judaism? Another thing which needs to be in place, is the acknowledgment of the same basic sources. When talking about Islam the split in the legal sources is the Sunnah and the Imams, where the Shi’as don’t acknowledge the Sunni compilations of Hadith, so the Sunnis don’t acknowledge the Shi’a ditto as well as the status of the Imams. Within the Sunni maḍâhib the basic sources where agreed upon, as they were, I believe, in the case of the Shi’a maḍâhib.

So we have two levels of comparison here. One is in the schism of disagreement on basic sources, that is, the sources considered holy and thus basic for further understanding of Allah’s will, the other the schisms within the major movements, where it is a question more about different principles in the interpretation of these sources, than the sources themselves.

When I think of examples on the first schism in Judaism, I find many and from various periods of time. During the Biblical times the obvious example is that of the Samarians and the Judeans. During the time of the Second Temple there are the schisms between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, the Essenes and the other Jewish groups (in regards to the status of the Temple as well as the priesthood of the Essenes), and later on between the Rabbinic Jews and the Karaites. Today we might even talk about the schism between the Orthodox on the one hand and the Reform on the other (with the Conservative movement somewhere in between). What is worthwhile to notice here is that we are talking about schisms, which emphasis the struggle on who are the right ones to define what “true Judaism” is, that is, where do we put the limits. That is also the case in the Islamic schism between the Sunnis and the Shi’as. Of course, which I dare say is obvious, it doesn’t mean that the two parts in each schism, whether Jewish or Muslim, denies the other side’s right to leave an imprint on the religion, as well as the case can be that sometimes the one part denies the other side’s right, while the other side acknowledge the right of the first side.

The schisms which I believe cannot be placed within this category of schisms, let’s call it the Schism of Who is Right, are those of the Ashkenazim and Sfaradim, and that of the Talmuds Yerushalmi and Bavli, simply because we have two sides, in both cases, agreeing on the basic sources.

This leaves me though with maybe even more work. First off, which groups should I focus on? It is clear that I need to decide on whether I focus on the Rabbinical Jews, the Sadducees, the Reform, the Sunni, or the Shi’as, for the sake of focus. Second off, I also need to establish whether we can find examples on the maḍâhib in all cases. Maybe I find it among the, let’s say, Karaites, but it doesn’t mean that it exists in the case of the Sadducees. I need to define my approach, my focus, and be able to explain why I chose that focus.


Some recommended reading:


“Studies in Usul al-Fiqh,” Iyad Hilal, can be found at www.islamic-truth.fsnet.co.uk

“Principles of Islamic Jurisprudence,” M. H. Kamali, can easily be found by search on Google.

“Hadith : Muhammad’s Legacy in the Medieval and Modern World,” Jonathan A. C. Brown. Oneworld Publication, 2009.

“The Most Learned of the Shi’a: The Institution of the Marja’ Taqlid,” edited by Linda S. Walbridge. Oxford University Press, 2001.

“Introduction to Islamic Theology and Law,” Ignaz Goldziher (translated by Andras and Ruth Hamori). Princeton University Press, 1981.

“Halakha in the Making: The Development of Jewish Law from Qumran to the Rabbis,” Aharon Shemesh. University of California Press, 2009.

“The Talmud: A Selection,” Edited by Norman Solomon. Penguin Books Ltd, 2009.

“Who Owns Judaism? Public Religion and Private Faith in America and Israel,” edited by Eli Lederhendler. Oxford University Press, 2001.

“For the Love of God and People: A Philosophy on Jewish Law,” Elliot N. Dorff. The Jewish Publication Society, 2007.

“An Introduction to the History and Sources of Jewish Law,” edited by N. S. Hecht, B. S. Jackson, S. M. Passamaneck, D. Piatelli, and A. M. Rabello. Oxford University Press, 1996.

“The Sages,” R. Ephraim Urbach. The Magnes Press, 1987.

“The Halakhah: Its Sources and Development,” R. Ephraim Urbach. Modan Ltd, 1996.

Comparative study on the law schools and overall structure of Islam and Judaism



In Islam, when talking about Fiqh and Usul al-Fiqh, which is normally translated as “Jurisprudence,” though that doesn’t convene the full or exact meaning of the expressions, we deal with various “schools” of law. In Arabic these “schools” are called “maḍhab” (مذهب). These schools, which are named Hanafi, Hanbali, Shafi’i, Maliki (which are forming the four Sunni-schools), Jafari, and Zayidiyyah (forming the two Shi’a-schools), convey various approaches to how to deduce law from the primary sources (for Sunni-Islam they are the Quran and the Sunnah, compiled in the six works of Hadith, for Shi’a-Islam they are the Quran, the four works on Hadith, as well as the sayings of the Imams), which are not clear.

So today we have two major streams of Islam, namely Sunni- and Shi’a-Islam, which each have a number of “schools,” structured around a number of authorities. I am aware, of course, that there are more streams and groups than just the ones mentioned here, but we have to keep a certain focus, in order to get – at least – a basic understanding of things at hand.

Why do I state all this? Well, when I was sitting and studying the principles of the four Sunna-schools (please forgive me all you Shi’as, I haven’t forgotten you, just need to keep one thing at a time), suddenly thought about the Jewish ditto, or rather, whether there is a Jewish ditto, whether we can make some comparison between the Islamic situation and the Jewish situation. For example, in Judaism we talk about two major traditional schisms, namely the Ashkenazi and the Sfaradi, normally being translated to the “Western” and the “Oriental” traditions, though this is highly misleading. These two traditions are again parted in smaller traditions with their differences. These two traditions are being expressed in laws, prayers, and attitudes. For example, during Pessah, Passover, Ashkenazim do not eat “kidniyot,” rice and the like, while Sfaradim do. There are also differences in prayers, not so much in which prayers we pray, though also, but more dialects and certain wordings being different between the two traditions. The most well-known difference, I think, is the time we wait between eating meat and milk, which is six hours for the Sfaradim and three or one hour for Ashkenazim (again depending on which stream you belong to).

But the Sfaradi-Ashkenazi schism isn’t the one I’m focused on the most, since it doesn’t refer much to what is at stake when we talk about the Islamic schools of law, at least, that is, I don’t feel that it is so. I’d rather focus on the schism between the schools of Eretz Yisrael, the Palestinian schools, and that of Babylon, which laid the foundation for the two Talmuds, the Bavli and the Yerushalmi. Of course, these were finished in around 650 CE and 425 CE respectively, but the two areas kept on having a mutual struggle and disagreement of authority, which – among other things – can be witnessed by the fight for authority on the calendar between Sa’adia Gaon and R. Meir, Z”L.

In order to get to a better understanding on the similarities, if any, between the two religions, I need to establish a basis for comparison. I have chosen to focus on the understanding of the term maḍhab, in order to see if the two religions share any basis in the foundation of their legal traditions. The problem here is that we don’t have a term in Judaism which answers to the Islamic term maḍhab, at least not what I know of, so in order to find out what can be compared, we need to know what to compare with, the mentioning of the term maḍhab not being enough, at least not in the understanding of “school,” for what does a “school” constitute.


More on that the following days.

Abraham as an Early Monotheist



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.

The Death of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi



Thought I wanted to share this short written assignment I did for my class in Classical Jewish texts, which also can be seen in context of my comparative studies of the Talmud.

I am thinking about expanding it and adding parts of the analysis I didn’t find room for in the assignment, if anybody would be interested. Let me know.


The death of Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi – as it appears in Talmud Bavli, Ketubot 104a and in Talmud Yerushalmi, Kilayim 9:3



The death of an authority like R. Yehudah HaNasi certainly would not happen without some attention, which is reflected in the two accounts presented for us in the Babylonian and Palestine Talmud. Both accounts give an interesting understanding of how the news of his death was accepted (or not accepted), his role and significance among the Jews of his time, as well as how later authorities viewed him, since though the accounts are prescribed his immediate surroundings, I would expect the written and presented accounts to be much later, and thus have changed in some regards, though these might not be so obvious.

Since I do not wish to make too an extensive an analysis, caused by the lack of space and time, I will only attempt to deal with the most obviously similarities and differences in the two accounts.




First and most obvious, both accounts deal with the death of the great compiler of the Mishnah, Rabbi Yehudah HaNasi, as his title is in Hebrew[1]. Both accounts have reactions to his death, which show people taking the news rather bad, having people stating that whoever tells of his death, would be killed. Both accounts have Bar Qappara involved as the one giving the news, though he denies answering the question of R. Yehudah haNasi’s death directly. Both accounts have Bar Qappara telling about his death in a parable, mentioning the struggle between the “ones below” and those who “fly on high” for either the tablets of the commandments (the two Luhot haBrit, as they are called in Hebrew), or the Holy Ark (the Aron haQodesh), the two of them clearly symbolizing R. Yehudah HaNasi, and the “ones below” the living world, while those who “fly on high” would be the angels, which hints at his struggling with the illness he died with, having to give up his breath in the end.




There are differences both in length and content. Even though both accounts have the overarching theme in similarity, the account as it is told differs strongly, and would not have a hard time telling which account is told, should he be told it. The account of the Palestinian Talmud is much more concise, only telling of the “people of Zipori” not wanting to accept the death of R. Yehudah HaNasi, then having Bar Qappara visiting them, already having his head covered and clothes rent[2], giving them the parable of the “ones below” and the ones who “fly on high” fighting for the tablets, with the latter winning this one, to which the people of Zipori ask whether Rebbe[3] has died. Knowing well the danger involved by giving news of his death, Bar Qappara answers “you said it,”[4] making them accept the news, and then mourn over him, a mourning powerful enough to be heard in Pepta three miles away.

The account in the Babylonian Talmud is much longer, double the length, introduced with the information that R. Yehudah HaNasi was ill, and therefore the scholars declared a fast “to ask for mercy,” while in the same time stating that everyone telling of his death, will be “stabbed with a sword”. It further adds an account of R. Yehudah haNasi’s maidservant going to the roof, stating that the “ones above and the “ones below” are asking for him, and that may it be the will of God to listen to the ones below, but when seeing how he suffers, she asks that the “ones above” may win, so he would be relieved from his sufferings. From there we jump to the Sages, who were continuous praying for his recovering, which – understood from the context – would be them engaged in the struggle to keep him alive, making them the “ones below,” until a vessel certainly was taken up and dropped, disturbing them enough to interfere their prayer, and letting R. Yehudah HaNasi give up his breath. They then send Bar Qappara to investigate his state, who finds out that he had died, and then we return to the account of Bar Qappara giving news of his death, still with the difference that here he turned his cloak around so it would not appear what had happened. Also in this account we are not told how they react from the news, ending with Bar Qappara’s indirect answer.


Seeing how the Babylonian account have so much extra material interwoven, I would imagine that this account is a later than the Palestinian, wanting to tell what the Palestinian account is leaving out and explain what was going on. The parable about the “ones below” and the “ones above” becomes much more concrete in the Babylonian account, while the question on why God would let him die, when righteous men are praying for him also is being answered. R. Yehudah HaNasi is also elevated to a higher status in the Babylonian account that in the Palestinian one, concluded on the context of the narratives, though the Palestinian account in no way gives the impression that it was “just a rabbi” who died here, highlighted by the response to the news of his death.


What I have not focused on so much here, is the style of the accounts, nor the elements, only going through the accounts as they are told, and by that comparing them. I have mentioned the latter indirectly though, pointing out material that is added in the Babylonian account, but more could be said about that.

[1] His name –  being the son of Rabbi Shim’on ben Gamliel – would be Yehudah ben Shim’on.

[2] A sign of mourning.

[3] R. Yehudah HaNasi.

[4] Taking him to court it would be impossible for them to claim that he said that R. Yehudah HaNasi was death, since he never claimed that, but they would still understand what had happened.

A Different Mishnah – Part III


So far we have found out that there are textual variances both between the Mishniyot in the two Talmuds as well as between different manuscripts of the same Talmud. And in this post we will see yet two other differences, one of them which I probably should have pointed out earlier, though it isn’t the biggest difference.

In the Bavli the parts of the Mishnah is also called “mishnah”. The way the reference to a certain mishnah in the Mishnah[1] goes according to order (Seder), tractate (Masechet), chapter (Pereq) and mishnah, so for example if we are talking about the second mishnah in B’rachot, then it would be Seder Zera’im, Masechet B’rachot, pereq alef (one), mishnah alef. Most often it would just be B’rachot alef, alef though, since people would know which Seder we are talking about.

Anyway, when we read the Yerushalmi the mishnayot are called “halachot”. The meaning being more or less the same[2], but still an interesting difference. Why I mention this will become obvious in the coming part.

We went through the first mishnah in the first post, so now I will quickly go through the next two mishniyot and end with the fourth in the end of this post.

משנה ב:

מאימתי קורין את שמע בשחרין\ת. משיכיר בין תכלת ללבן. ר’ אליעזר אומר בין תכלת לכרתן\י (וגומרה) עד הנץ החמה, ור’ יהושע אומר עד שלש שעות שכן דרך בני מלכים לעמוד בשלש שעות. הקורא מיכן\מכאן ואילך לא הפסיד כאדם שהוא קורא\הקורא בתורה.

Mishnah 2:

From when do we read the Shma’ in the morning/during morning prayer[3]? From when you can recognize the difference between blue[4] and white. R. Eli’ezer says, between blue and green[5] (and completes) until sunrise, and R. Yehoshu’a says, until the [end of the first] three hours, since it is the practice of the princes/kings[6] to rise [at the end of the] in the three hours. He who reads from here and onwards did not lose [heavenly reward], [but] is like a person[7] who reads the Torah.

משנה ג:

בית שמאי אומרים: בערב כל אדם יטו ויקרו\יטה ויקרא ובבוקר יעמודו\יעמוד, שנאמר: ובשכבך ובקומך. ובית הלל אומרים: כל אדם קורין כדרכן\קורא כדרכו, שנאמר: ובלכתך בדרך. א”כ\אם כן, למה נאמר ובשכבך ובקומך אלא בשעה שבני אדם שוכבין\ם ובשעה שבני אדם עומדין\ם

Mishnah 3:

The house of Shamay says: In the evening every person will recline and recite, and in the morning they will stand[8], as it is said: “and in your laying down and in your rising.” And the house of Hillel says: Each person recites as is his practice, as it is said: “and your walk in the path.” If so, why is it said “and in your laying down, and in your rising”? Rather[9], in the time when people lay down and in the time that they stand up.

And then something interesting happens. In the Bavli the mishnah continues with the following account:

א”ר טרפון: אני הייתי בא בדרך והטתי לקרות כדברי ב”ש וסכנתי בעצמי מפני הלסטים. אמרו לו: כדי היית לחוב בעצמך שעברת על דברי ב”ה.

Said R. Tarfon: I was coming on the street and inclined to recite, according to the sayings of the house of Shamay, and I endangered myself due to the robbers. [They] said to him: You owe that to yourself since you passed the words of the house of Hillel.

But in the Yerushalmi the third mishnah ends without the account of R. Tarfon. The account appears as the fourth halachah instead, changing the common order. So now we don’t only have difference in text, but also in order.

I will end my series of post on this subject for now, but when I have studied more, I will share some of my findings. From now on though, whenever I’m relating to a part in the Bavli, I will mention it as “mishnah”, whereas every time I’m relating to a part in the Yerushalmi, I will mention it as “halachah”. That will be the practice as long as they don’t follow the same order.

For those of you, who are interested to follow the study, you are welcome to join the group I have made on Facebook, “Comparative Studies in Talmud“.

All the best.

[1] I will differ between whether I am speaking about the compilation of mishniyot or a single mishnah, by writing Mishnah with a capital letter or normal letter. So the compilation will be written “Mishnah”, while a single part of it will be written “mishnah”.

[2] Not etymologic though, the word “mishnah” having the meaning of something being repeated, whereas the word “halachah” hints at a path to follow.

[3] The change between nun-sofit (ן) and the taw (ת) in the end changes the meaning of the word from “mornings” to “morning prayer”.

[4] The word “techelet” (תכלת) is a special kind of blue, which true nuance has been lost today. Traditionally it has always been the opinion of the majority that it came from a see-snail, though which one has been doubted. Today there are some who believe that they have found out which snail it is.

[5] The word means “leek”, which has a special green color, hard to distinguish from blue when there isn’t sufficient light.

[6] The adding of the word “bney” (בני), “sons of”, renders the meaning from “kings” to “sons of kings”.

[7] The two meanings of the “she’hu qore” (שהוא קורא) and “ha’qore” (הקורא) are “that he reads” and “a reader” respectively.

[8] The words for recline and stand up, are expressed in singular in the Bavli and in plural in the Yerushalmi. This is done in all this mishnah.

[9] This word is only found in the Yerushalmi, stating that “instead of thinking that the biblical verse used here has anything to do with how, rather read it as telling when”.

A Different Mishnah – Part II


So I have spent some more time on the comparative studies in the textual variants between the Mishnah in Talmud Bavli and Talmud Yerushalmi, and there is even more to it than just textual variances.

I talked with my teacher in Classical Jewish Texts, Professor Paul Mandel, about the subject, and he confirmed that it indeed was an interesting and discussed subject, at least in the academic world. He is going to compile some literature on the subject, when the time allows him, but already now has he given me some more material, which gives more than just textual variances. He provided me with a copy of an older version of the Talmud Bavli, where the Mishnah has some interesting changes. Unfortunately I have left the copy at home, so I can’t say which version it is now, but I will add the information when I come home.

Anyway. When we read the Mishnah in Talmud Bavli (the first mishnah in B’rachot), then it is introduced with the question; “from when do recite the Shma’ in the evenings?” The word for “evenings” is ‘aravin (ערבין), but in the copied version I got the word is ‘aravit (ערבית), which is the evening prayer itself. A small detail, but nevertheless an interesting differences. This mean that the question changes from “From when do we recite the Shma’ in the evenings,” to “from when do we recite the Shma’ in the evening prayer?” The topic suddenly changes from being a general question about a time in the evenings, to become a question of the time of elements of the liturgy.

Another, and – as far as I would think – more interesting difference, appear later in the Mishnah, during the account of Rabban Gamliel and his sons. In the last part, after they have told him that they still haven’t recited the Shma’, R. Gamliel – in both Bavli and Yerushalmi – tells them that if the dawn still hasn’t begun to rise, then they are still obligated to recite the Shma’. BUT, in the version I received from Professor Mandel, the word for “obliged” is changed with another word. In the two versions I have used so far, which can be found in most Talmuds today, I believe, the word is Hayyavin (חייבין), but in the copy the word is Mutarin (מותרין), which means “allowed” not “obliged”. The difference being that Hayyavin definitely demands the sons (and the rest of us, who don’t make it before midnight) to recite it, as long as it is before the rise of dawn, but Mutarin only allows us to do it, it does not demand us to do it, so far as we already have passed midnight. It might seem as a small detail, but in the realm of Halachah it is of great importance.

I have more to add, but one thing at a time, this seems to be enough for now. Within the coming days I will add more findings to the subject, so stay tuned(!)

Take care and have a wonderful week.


I found these two examples on various manuscripts, the first from the Biblioteca Nazionale Centrale in Firenze, the second from Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris.

The first one, from Firenze, has the Hayyavin, which is the third word in the ninth line, from left. The second, from Paris, has the Mutarin, which is the eight word in the fourth line. I am unfortunately not sure how old the two manuscripts are, but I will try to find out for the next post on the subject.

A Different Mishnah?



Okay, it has been some time, too long time, but the studies and work have simply been too big a bite for me to also write on a regular basis. At least for now. I’m not giving up though, and now I found something interesting enough, that I really wanted to share it with all of my readers out there.

But I have to warn, this might be a little geeky, somehow technical, so please forgive me if this isn’t going to be the great inspirational post. Not that I believe so many of my posts are, but anyway, I do believe that it’s going to be interesting.


Now, I don’t know how many of you are familiar with the Mishnah, or on which level you are familiar with it. Explained in short, Mishnah is the compilation of what in Judaism is considered the Oral Law, given to Moshe Rabenu, A”S, and handed down through the generations until it was written down in the time of R. Yehudah HaNasi, Z”L, around the year 200 CE. There is one Mishnah, which became the basis for later commentaries, called Gemarrot (in plural, singular it’s Gemarrah), and the two, Mishnah and Gemarrah, are compiled in what we call Talmud (which later on had a lot of commentaries added, but that’s another story).


The problem: We are supposed to have on Mishnah, not two. So with that in mind, I would expect that whether I read the Talmud Bavli (the Babylonian Talmud) or the Talmud Yerushalmi (the Palestinian Talmud) the same Mishnah would appear. But it doesn’t. Or, it does, but with textual variances.

Let me clarify before I continue, what we have is not a different Mishnah, it is the same, and the text is basically the same. Some words differ, some ways of spelling, and some suffixes and prefixes exist in the one Mishnah, but not in the other. I will give an example, from the first Mishnah in the first tractate in the first order (Seder Zera’im, Masechet B’rachot, Mishnah Alef), which talks about from when we can recite the Qriyat Shma’ in the evening. The translation goes, whether the one form or the other:


“From when do we recite the Shma’ in the evenings? From the time that the Kohanim enter in order to eat their T’rumah until the end of the first shift, words of R. Eliezer. And the Sages say until midnight. Rabban Gamliel says until the dawn rises.

It happened: And his sons came from the drinking house, they said to him: We did not recite the Shma’, he said to them: If the dawn still has not risen, you are obliged to recite.

And not this alone did they say but all that the Sages said until midnight are we commanded until the dawn rises the incenses, the fats, and the limbs. And (we) are commanded until the dawn rises in all the eating on one day.

If that is so, why did the Sages say until midnight? In order to keep man from the sin.”


Note: My translation has been kept pretty strict to the Hebrew text, unless where I had to change in order to give meaning.

The thing is, there are differences, which – since the Mishnah was written down, long time before the Talmuds (either one) was written – should not be there. Let me present the Hebrew text.

The following are the result of comparing and combining the Mishnah from the two Talmuds. Everything written in black, is the common text, which is found in both versions. The blue text is as it is found in the Bavli, and the red as it is found in the Yerushalmi.

משנה א:

מאימתי קורין את שמע בערבין. משעה שהכהנים נכנסין\ם לוכל\לאכול בתרומתן, עד סוף האשמורת\ה הראשונה, דברי ר’ אליעזר. וחכמים אומרים עד חצות. רבן גמליאל אומר עד שיעלה עמוד השחר. מעשה, ובאו בניו מבית המשתה ואמרו לו, לא קרינו את שמע, אמר להן\ם, אם לא עלה עמוד השחר חייבין אתם לקרות. ולא זו בלבד אמרו, אלא כל מה שאמרו חכמים עד חצות מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר. הקטר חלבים ואיברים מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר. כל הנאכלין\ם ליום אחד מצותן עד שיעלה עמוד השחר. אם כן, למה אמרו חכמים עד חצות. כדי להרחיק את האדם מן העבירה

There are four types of differences, type of suffix (the nun-soffit instead of the mem-soffit), prefixes appearing in one version but not the other, letters being part of the spelling in one version but not the other (the yod in eyvarim), and words being different and/or only appearing in one version but not the other (luchal/le’echol, and et ha in the last line).

Exactly why this is the case I can’t say, at least not yet. But it’s certainly a subject I’m going to put more focus on, so don’t be surprised if you’re going to hear more from this front.

All the best