Article appeared originally in AJS Review, V. 32 No. 2, November 2008
The appearance in recent years of an impressive series of books, articles, and mainly dissertations on various aspects of the Mishnah, collectively signifies something greater then the sum of its parts. These works herald the emergence of a new wave of Mishnah research. While differing significantly in their themes and methods, all the works discussed below share some basic methodological assumptions which are not shared by more “traditional” studies. Among these are: a holistic attitude to the Mishnah as a composition; interest in questions of variegation of genre and style (narratives, rituals, lists, etc.); sensitivity to literary devices and techniques; and the use of new interpretive paradigms from rhetoric, cultural and performative studies.
There is yet another, more fundamental, feature shared by many of these new studies: their return to the most basic questions regarding the nature and character of the Mishnah; questions which stood at the center of academic scholarship of rabbinic literature from its very inception, but have been largely abandoned gradually in favor of more local philological and interpretive studies.
What characterizes the Mishnah as a composition? What kind of project is it? What is the place of midrash within it? What kind of historical value does it hold? What are its relationships to older traditions? Or, in short: what is mishnah?
In what follows I attempt to explore some of these new developments through two specific case studies: E. Alexander’s application of orality studies to mishnaic research, and several recent studies on ritual narratives in the Mishnah.
Mishnah research has a long tradition of focusing on text, both in its philological and its literary aspects. When orality began to gain attention as a theoretical tool in rabbinic studies, it was mainly limited to the writings of folklore specialists, who attempted to identify remnants of folk literature in rabbinic aggadah (an attempt strongly criticized by Yona Frenkel and his aggadah-as-high-literature school). In recent years rhetoric began to take the place of folklore, and scholars started thinkingof actual performative settings for the production of rabbinic literature. Nonetheless, the impressive body of knowledge developed in Orality Studies made very little headway into rabbinics, which remained focused largely on written texts.
This lacuna supplies the background necessary to evaluate E. Alexander’s recent book on Mishnah Shevu’ot: Transmitting Mishnah: the Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006). Alexander uses the concept of orality inorder to renew the discussion of some very old questions regarding the composition, redaction and transmission of the Mishnah. The book is courageous in its willingness to debate some of the most prominent scholars and most established theories on the Mishnah and its creation. Alexander returns to the very beginnings of the field, using the fieldwork of Milman Parry and his student Albert Lord on oral storytellers in Yugoslavia, in order to imagine how an oral-textual production might have looked. The results are at times eye opening. Thus, she reads the fixed phrases, appearing time and again in Mishnah Shevu’ot, not simply as termini technici, used for the sake of legal clarity, as the common explanation goes, but as building bricks for oral transmitters, similar to what Parry and Lord observed in both the Homeric and the Yugoslavian cases. Alexander takes these studies as a powerful antidote to the literary bias which separates too sharply between the production and transmission of texts. According to heroral model, textual transmission involves a renewed act of textual creation. Thus, Alexander’s “oral lens” (p. 9), replaces fixed exempla with a flexible model and passive transformation with active performance.
Their pioneering work notwithstanding, Parry and Lord’s concepts remain very limited, especially in their insistence on binary divisions between orality and literacy. Alexander thus turns to more recent scholars like Ruth Finnegan, who emphasizes the coexistence and interdependence of orality and literacy. Written texts are orally performed (thus bringing them to a wider, usually illiterate, audience), while oral recitation both depends on and facilitates writings (as is clearest in the case of ancient rhetoric). Here Alexander’s book is consciously based on Martin Jaffee’s 2001 Torah in the Mouth, which takes as its central task to establish the coexistence of oral and written transmission in rabbinic literature. Alexander applies Jaffee’s model to analyze Mishnah-Tosefta parallels in tractate Shevu‘ot. Like Jaffee, but unlike most scholars, Alexander reads these parallels not as an adaptation of one source or the other, but as a testimony to the existence of multiple versions to the same source, as typical of oral transmission.
In the Second Chapter Alexander’s book moves from the Mishnah itself to its reception and canonization in the two Talmuds. Alexander chooses her own path here as well, which remains distinct from common conceptions. Instead of identifying the canonization process in the very formation of the Mishnah itself, at the first half of the third century, she presents it as the result of a long process of Talmudic interpretation of, and engagement with, the Mishnah. Here, however, one might question her dating of the Mishnah’s canonization “by the end of rabbinic period” (p. 77). Alexander’s conclusion is based on identifying authoritative status with textual fixity, which seems problematic in light of our knowledge about canonization processes of other rabbinic compositions, first and foremost the status of the Bavli in the Geonic academies, which while fully authoritative and binding, was textually fluid and “open.”
The second part of the book (chaps. 3-4), is dedicated to an analysis of the casuistic style of Mishnah Shevu‘ot. The place of casuistics in early rabbinic literature has gained a thorough and detailed discussion in Leib Moskovitz’s Talmudic reasoning: from Casuistics to Conceptualization (Tubingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2002). For Moskovitz casuistics is not only a stylistic choice, but a more general “mode of logic and reasoning” (p. 9). Casuistic form testifies not only to a preference for a certain type of legal formulation, but by and large, to the way the Tannaim thought. The generalizations and conceptualization found in tannaitic material (mainly in the Mishnah) are “of very low level” (p. 59), “rather narrow in scope and not very abstract or creative, conceptually speaking” (p. 97). Moskovitz does admit that in some cases a “readily discernible implicit principle” (p. 49) stands behind casuistic formulae, in which case casuistics should be read as a legal style rather then a mode of thinking (“principled law in casuistic fashion.” p. 49). He also maps various kinds of implicit and explicit generalized rulings in Tannaitic literature. However, he does not offer any reasoning the Tannaim may have had for choosing casuistics as the prevalent style in the Mishnah. Ultimately casuistics seem, for him, to simply be a part of “ancient law in general” (p. 97), and so it is the other side of the issue, the development of halakhic conceptualization, which occupies most of his explanatory effort. It is exactly this lacuna which is the starting point of Alexander’s thesis, analyzing mishnaic casuistics as a conscious educational tool.
Alexander’s theoretical sophistication, together with her sensitive close readings, allow her to read the numerous short case-studies, which are the building blocks of Mishnah Shevu‘ot, in an unexpected way. Rather than as a testimony to a not-yet-conceptual legal mind, Alexander reads casuistic halakhah as pedagogic instruction in legal thinking, even while teaching new laws. Different types of casuistic styles are read by Alexander as specific devices to train students in various kinds of legal inference. Thus, the simple basic casuistic form in the Mishnah is interpreted as “using particular cases to illustrate general rules;” while series of related cases are “An exercise in compare and contrast;” improbable cases are “Exploring how different legal principles interact,” and borderline cases are “fleshing out legal ambiguities.” Alexander thus agrees with Abraham Goldberg’s famous thesis of the Mishnah as a teaching manual, rather than as a legal code or anthology, but asserts that the “teaching” in this manual should not be restricted to legal content only, but more generally to legal thought and analysis.
This is a good example of the new sensitivities shared by many of the recent studies, even when they employ different methods and approaches. M. Shoshan, in his dissertation, also discusses the Mishnah’s casuistic style, and his account differs significantly from that of that of Alexander’s. While Alexander treats casuistics as a distinct style, Shoshan views it as part of a larger range of mishnaic rhetorical techniques, showing relative degrees of narrativity. Moreover, Alexander emphasizes the pedagogic virtue of casuistics, while Shoshan emphasizes the special claim of authority it implies. Both, however, share the very basic attitude to casuistics as a rhetorical device rather then as a mode of legal thinking, as common in various studies. Though quite different, a shift from legal to rhetorical models (for analysis of legal sections!) is clear in both cases.
Let us now return to the oral-written co-existence theory, the center of both Jaffee’s and Alexander’s studies. While Alexander essentially bases her thesis on general theories of orality (like Goody’s and Finnegan’s), Jaffee cites specific historical comparisons to contemporary Hellenistic literacy in order to establish his claim. He specifically associates rabbinic literature with Roman rhetorical exercises, in which students revised famous written texts whilst performing them orally. He sees this, andsimilar phenomena, as possible models for the development of rabbinic literature, and, more specifically, as an explanation for the existence of signs for both oral (mnemonic devices, lists and narratives) and written components (compositions and combinations which ignore these oral special traits) in the Mishnah. The model itself makes a lot of sense, and also has some convincing cross-cultural examples, but its applicability to rabbinic literature is far from proven. In fact, Jaffee applies the written–oral model in two different, even opposing, ways regarding various compositions. When dealing with the relationship between Mishnah and Tosefta (chapter six) he explains the parallel material as coming from two “independent written recensions of an anterior oral performative narrative” (p. 102), assuming a transformation from an oral mode to a written one. However, when discussing the recasting of the Tannaitic material in the Talmuds (chapter seven) he argues for a transition in the opposite direction, from written to oral – “reworking through memory a written text” (p. 131). While both have parallels in Hellenistic practice, and are theoretically possible, I did not find a convincing argument for preferring one model in the first case and the other in thesecond. How are we to choose the relevant model for comparison, and, more importantly, how can we be sure that rabbinic literature complies with it?
Yaacov Sussman has recently suggested that it actually doesn’t. In his article ,which might be translated as: “Taking the Concept of ‘Oral Torah’ Literally, the Power of the Jot and Tittle,” Sussman claims that rabbinic literature was created and transmitted exclusively orally, at least until the eighth century. He further insists that while the coexistence theory holds true for many cultures both contemporary with and later than the rabbis, it does not apply to rabbinic literature. There is no single positive proof of the existence of official or unofficial written copies in the house of study, as was assumed by scholars. Indeed, all the sources show that the rabbis never turned to written books, even when they failed to remember the text or had doubts regarding its exact wording (the two classic cases for consulting books in ancient cultures). They had only the Tannaim (memorizers or “living books”) at their disposal in these cases. The popularity of the co-existence thesis, especially regarding the Mishnah, does not come from evidence for the existence of written material beside the oral memorization in the house of study, but from dogmatic, theoretical and comparative assumptions regarding textuality. Such a phenomenon of exclusively oral composition, Sussman continues, indeed might be unique to the cultural environment of the rabbis, and should be understood in light of a similarly exceptional ideology of one authoritative Torah as the basis of the rabbinic academy, distinguished from all other traditions, which should therefore be kept oral. There is only one book in the house of study, the Bible. This ideology, phrased formally only during the third century, but with much older roots, is the foundation of this unique phenomenon of a thoroughly literate culture whose literary production is nonetheless exclusively oral.
Sussman’s paper is itself not without problems, but it should, I believe, function as a warning sign against uncritical wholesale implementations of contemporary theories of orality. General theories, like comparative studies, should not become our onlymeasure, lest they prevent us from appreciating the specific material at stake. This is the case, for example, with Catherine Hezser’s rejection of Lieberman’s thesis on the exclusively oral publication of the Mishnah, on the ground that: “there is no analogy for the oral transmission of a literary corpus as large as the Mishnah in late antique Greco-Roman society.” The similarities between rabbinic and other oral cultures should be decided in each case specifically, and cannot be simply taken for granted.
Theories regarding rabbinic orality do not always give enough place to the unique characteristics of rabbinic literature. They often tend to mix three different meanings of orality, introducing a measure of vagueness into the discussion: First, orality asa theoretical-methodological tool of thinking about texts (what Alexander calls an “oral lens”, or “the oral conception of textuality”). Second, orality as an historical phenomenon, characterizing ancient (or, more generally, pre-modern) societies; which facilitates comparative historical studies, mainly, in our context, with Roman-Hellenistic textuality. And, lastly, the specific rabbinic ideology of the Oral Torah .A cautious study of rabbinic orality has to monitor both the theoretical andthe comparative contexts of orality by a careful study of the third, cultural specific, concept. Any claim about rabbinic orality, moreover, has to take the rabbinic corpus as a whole into consideration: midrash and mishnah, halakhah and aggadah, early andlate, and to resist the temptation to concentrate on specific texts which seem to lend themselves more easily to oral conceptualization like late aggadic compilations, in the case of folklorists, and mishnaic lists or ritual narratives, in the case of studies of oral performance. Tractates Ḥullin or Yevamot were no less orally transmitted then Tractate Yoma or Midrash Eikhah Rabati; and thus every theory about the scope and meaning of rabbinic orality, performative or otherwise, has to take all thesetexts into account.
One area in which these new studies seem to make a great difference is that of Temple laws and narratives in the Mishnah. The Mishnah contains nearly forty narrative-like descriptions of various rituals, most of which are related to the Temple and its cult.These descriptions – identified by their distinctive narrative-like style: a succession of verbs (e.g. the priest goes, takes, brings etc.), rather then the normal apodictic or casuistic mishnaic style – might occupy a whole tractate (Yoma, Tamid), a chapter (Pesaḥim 10, Nega‘im 14, Parah 3), a single Mishnah unit or even one part of it (Bekhorot 9:7, Zevaḥim 5:3). Several recent studies such as those by Avraham Walfish on tractates Rosh Hashana and Tamid, Yair Lorberbaum, Beth Berkowitz and Chaya Halberstam on capital punishments in Sanhedrin, Daniel Stökl Ben-Ezra on Yoma, and my own study of Sotah, undermine the naive conception of these tractates as authentic descriptions of Temple rituals, recorded when the temple was still functioning or shortly thereafter. According to the new studies these narratives are, by and large, a result of second century debates, fashioning and redaction, and should, accordingly, be taken to represent the concerns of that post Temple era. The Temple and its worship were studied, reshaped and even reinvented, as part of the second century’s all-inclusive legal system, according to the academic needs and interests of its sages.
It seems that a conceptual revolution has indeed occurred, and in a very short period of time. I have in fact experienced this revolution with regard to my own study of tractate Sotah. When I submitted my dissertation in 2003, I felt almost like a heretic, offering to read this temple ritual as a theoretical textual creation, and none the less as a ritual; a performative textual-ritual, created in the tannaitic house of study. When revising my study into a book, less then three years later, I could already cite a handful of powerful studies on various tractates, to support and enrich such a reading.
M. Yoma can serve as a clear example of the depth of this shift. Most of the tractate consists of a detailed chronological description of the temple ritual on the Day of Atonement (or, simply, The Day = yoma). D. Z. Hoffman was among the first to describe Yoma as an “old Mishnah,” formulated when the Temple was still functioning, and his observation was adopted by J.N. Epstein. Examination of the arguments cited by both shows clearly that they based their theories more on the content of the Tractate than on any positive textual evidence. They were influenced by the assumption that temple narratives in the Mishnah are descriptions of temple reality, and thus must have originated from Temple days. Recently, Daniel Stokl has raised some serious questions regarding this conception, and especially the assumption that Yoma should be regarded as a reliable historical description of Temple ritual. He has shown that several details in the mishnaic ritual are clearly anachronistic, while others contradict descriptions found in the earlier writing of Philo, Qumran, Josephus, and the Gospels. Moreover, some of the laws are clearly derived from midrashic inferences or theoretical legal analogies, rather then based on concrete reality, and some are even explicitly attributed to mid-second century sages (the Usha generation.)
Stokl’s and similar studies have convincingly undermined the “ritual narrative as temple memories” doctrine, and instead uncovered a multiplicity of factors which operate in the mishnaic discourse of the Temple in a way not recognized by more traditional scholarship. They have shown that the Mishnah artfully combines Temple and priestly traditions with post-temple reality and practices, biblical exegesis, ideological innovations, analogies from other halakhic fields, and more. Even in the realm of biblical exegesis alone a plethora of sources may be identified, combining verses regarding the Tabernacle in the desert, the first and second Temples, and Ezekiel (read by the sages as a prophesy referring to the future temple), all combined with traditions and memories from the last days of the Second Temple.
As this plurality of sources clearly shows, ritual narratives in the Mishnah should be considered first and foremost as a style, a literary device, rather than as a specific body of knowledge. Indeed, by looking at the content only one cannot know whether a Mishnah will appear in narrative-like or apodictic style. Similar issues are discussed in some Mishnah units as narratives, while in others as apodictic laws, regardless of their parallel theme. Thus, for example, while some biblical rituals are presented as richly developed narratives in the Mishnah, others possess only some sparse narrative characteristics. Others still, lack all narrative qualities and are presented instead as a series of derashot, with no chronological sequence.
This requires us to think about ritual narrative in the Mishnah first and foremost from a literary and rhetorical perspective. What is gained by presenting a specific ritual in a narrative style? Phenomenologically speaking the uniqueness of the ritual narrative is located in the special way it combines law and narrative, thus presenting the ritual as both a typical event and a binding law. These two are intimately connected, for the alleged repetitive nature of the ritual (the descriptive side) is exactly what gives rituals their binding power (the prescriptive one): This is how it should be done since this is also how it was always done. M. Shoshan similarly emphasizes the rhetorical power of ritual description in the way it presents the law as an ever present reality: “Ritual narratives present a chain of interrelated events relating to the Temple cult […] These texts are not stories because the event described are not one-time occurrences but procedures that were repeated on a regular basis. Ritual narratives operate in an almost mythic structure of time and space in which the same events repeat themselves exactly over and over again.”
Such an analysis may explain an interesting fact overlooked, to the best of my knowledge, by previous scholarship. Ritual narratives in the Mishnah tend to present the way rituals were performed in the temple era, even in cases when the laws surrounding them discuss the way these rituals are performed in the post temple era. A clear example is the laws of testimony on the new moon in Tractate Rosh Hashana. Although scholars observed that these laws combine the reality of the Temple in Jerusalemwith that of post-destruction Yavneh, they did not notice that the ritual narrative itself, beginning with Mishnah 1:9 and ending at 2, presents Jerusalem alone as the telos of the journey, while Yavneh appears only in the laws surrounding the narrative. This may indeed be exactly the role of such narratives: the presentation of a pure, ideal, “original,” ritualistic world, untouched by historical events. Ritual narratives thus make the past present, even when the laws around it discuss more mundane issues, which are relevant for actual legal practice. In S. Fraade’s words: “Though these legal practices are often performatively inoperable in the historical context of mishnaic times, through their narrativization they become perpetually present and accessible via the portals of mishnaic study.”
Some ritual narratives suit such performative reading more than others, so much so that they might even be described as a “script or score […] produced with the assumption that its meanings will be activated primarily in performance before an audience.” So, most notably, is the case with Mishnah Yoma, which seems especially conducive to liturgical recitation. Indeed, as Y. Yahalom and M. Swartz have shown, the earliest avodah liturgies for the Day of Atonement were no more than slight modifications of Mishnah Yoma itself. One can go one step further and claim that the mishnaic narratives function not only as manuals for performance but are in fact themselves rituals, to be carried out through learning or reciting. Thus writes B. Berkowitz regarding the descriptions of court executions in tractate Sanhedrin: “the rabbinic ritual of execution may be the ideal ritual. While rituals usually work to create a perfect reality in an unpredictable world, the ritual of the Mishnah creates a reality that is almost impervious to contingencies.” As strange as this thesis may sound, it is not very different from the conception which appears in several Amoraic circles, which consider the study of order Kodashim in the Mishnah as a substitute for actual sacrifice, a fact which probably caused the inclusion of this order in the Babylonian curriculum.
Such understanding might carry implications for much more then mishnaic temple rituals only. Taken seriously it can shed new light on the question of the place of the Temple in the Mishnah as a whole. Temple laws do not appear as an isolated realm in the Mishnah. To the contrary, the Temple is fully integrated into the mishnaic legal system. The language and style of Temple laws are not different in any recognizable way from any other law, whether operative in tannaitic times or completely theoretical. The destruction has almost no presence in the Mishnah. In most cases, the Temple does not appear as a memory of the past or an expectation for the future, but as part and parcel of the all-inclusive mishnaic legal code, in the very present. Such integration is unique and in fact unknown to us from any other Jewish legal code in late antiquity.
These characteristics have brought Jacob Neusner to claim that the Mishnah should be read as a substitute to the Temple in a post-Temple era, rather than as legal guideline toward it: “The Jewish nation went from doing things to imagining systems […] The second century was an age of system-building, making things up in the mind, spinning a web of reality out of the gossamer threads of attenuated hope. It was a time of philosophy, inner reconstruction.” Neusner’s ungrounded generalizations were justly criticized, but as a result the thesis itself was never seriously engaged. I believe that Neusner’s thesis should be modified, but not rejected altogether. The Mishnah cannot be fully explained as a fictitious substitution for a failed reality, but this aspect does exist in the Mishnah, and should not be overlooked. Thus, for example, Tractate Sanhedrin presents a utopian society, ruled by a Jewish king, and judged by a Jewish central judicial institution (the Sanhedrin) wielding full judicial and punitive authority. Tractates Demai and Avodah Zarah, on the other hand, assumes a very different social reality, in which adherents of the rabbinic system live as a minority among non-rabbinic (Jewish or gentile) majority. A more balanced analysis thus should take into account at least two opposing vectors: practical legal instructions on the one hand (as, for example, the laws of purity, tithes etc.), and the creation of an alternative discursive reality on the other (e.g. Temple rituals and punitive laws). The crucial question, however, is what is the relationships between the two vectors, and how are they combined in the Mishnah?
Let me exemplify this last point with a specific query. The destruction of the Temple did not mark the end of the observance of many laws, which continued to be practiced after the destruction of the Temple, albeit in a substantially different manner. The question raised in these cases – most notably holidays and rules regarding the land – is which of the halakhic realities – Temple or post Temple – is engaged by the Mishnah. In some cases the Mishnah’s discussion concentrates on the Temple, while in others it is the factual, post-Temple, mode which is discussed. Thus, for example, Mishnah Ma’aser Sheni assumes Jerusalem to be the place to which the second tithe is brought, while its use and disposal after the destruction appears only atthe very end of the tractate (5:7: “If a man has produce at this time “.Most of Tractate Bekhorot, on the other hand, discusses bodily defects, which are relevant particularly to the post-destruction reality, in which only defects can make the first-born animal fit for priestly consumption. Here, Temple times appear as a clear exception (4:1: “During the time of the Temple … it is permitted”). Thus while Ma’aser Sheni discusses bazeman hazeh as an atypical case, in Bekhorot it is bishe’at hamikdash which appears as the exception.
The picture is thus far from being unequivocal, demonstrating well the urgent need for a more systematic mapping of the various factors operating in the Mishnah. Only such a mapping would enable scholars to seriously engage the basic questions regarding Temple ritual and law: how much of it stems from Temple traditions? Is there any identifiable linguistic or stylistic difference between the mishnaic presentations of laws currently in effect versus laws whose observance has fallen into disuse? What is the role of different generations (Yavneh, Usha and later second century sages) in reconstructing Temple rituals? The same holds true for other stylistic traits in the Mishnah: casuistic vs. apodictic laws; lists vs. general rules etc. In each case we should ask: where does the Mishnah use one style and where the other? Is there any identifiable pattern? Is it a question of chronology, genre, literary variation, or some combination of all the above?
New tools engender new tasks. Since we have already tasted the fruits of the new studies, we cannot be satisfied with impressionistic generalizations anymore. We should move forward to more systematic works on a series of specific textual studies aiming at a broader synthesis regarding the Mishnah. A study of one single tractate, thorough and innovative as it may be, cannot tackle these questions. Only looking at the larger picture will allow us to evaluate the place of second century house of study in recreating mishnaic temple rituals.
In summation: I have discussed two case studies of current Mishnah research: recent applications of orality studies to rabbinic literature and several readings of Temple rituals in the Mishnah. Although very different in nature, both share the same basic gesture: returning to “old” questions on the nature of the Mishnah, in order to shed new light on them through novel approaches and methodological tools. Orality studies gives us new insight into questions of the redaction and transmission of the Mishnah, while utilizing tools from cultural studies challenges us to rethink the antiquity and historicity of various mishnaic traditions. What is more, in both cases the new analyses became possible only through combining large agendas, contemporary methods and theoretical tools, and concrete text-centered philological research; thus beginning to break the artificial wall, characterizing previous research, between philology and cultural studies. There is much work ahead of us, but after reading the studies mentioned here, I believe we are on the right track.