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Book Reviews of Baalei HaTosafot I

It is our opinion that there has been probably no book in the field of medieval rabbinic literature that was subject to so many important, sometimes quite critical reviews, as E.E. Urbach’s Baalei HaTosafot. Originally published in 1955 and then republished with revisions in a second edition, Urbach’s work still stands as one of the most important works on medieval rabbinic literature. Our plan is to review four important reviews of Urbach’s work (the first edition), trying to summarize the important points of each. Some of the reviews touched upon similar points, but they all had something new to add. We are not going to attempt to cover all of the opinions expressed by the reviewers, neither are we going to critique the critique, since who are we to “put our heads between the mountains” (jYeb. 1:6). The first review is by Hayyim Hillel Ben-Sasson and was published in Behinot, v. 9.

As with every review of Urbach’s book, Ben-Sasson praises the work as a monumental achievement which is the result of meticulous scholarship and devotion. Ben-Sasson raises an issue which was touched upon by a number of the reviewers and that is the almost complete absence in Jewish scholarship of works examining the history of halakhah. The scholars of Wissenschaft wrote many works dealing with biography and bibliography, the halakhists and halakhic works, but nobody really examined the history of the halakhah itself. Ben-Sasson feels that there was a hesitancy from scholars to subject the halakhah to the same scholarly examination that was used for other types of literature. He comments that only someone who loved the material like Urbach did could have devoted so much time and effort in order to produce such a work. Ben-Sasson comments that it seems that Urbach would in some way want the same creativity and freshness that he saw in the period of the Tosafot to be renewed in today’s world. About these feelings of Urbach Ben Sasson says, “Rather he knows that scientific objectivity does not tolerate declarations about aspirations, and about this he struggles with himself.”

There are a number of areas in which Ben-Sasson finds Urbach’s analysis lacking. The first is that Urbach ignored one of the most important genres of literature from the period and that is the communal enactments, Takkanot haTzibbur. Ben-Sasson feels that the picture which Urbach paints of the communal authority and place of the Tosaphists can only be partial without examining these communal enactments. Another critique which was cited by others is Urbach’s historical analysis. Ben-Sasson finds it scattered, and when it does appear it often breaks up the flow of the discussion, and also it is often incorrect.

One facet of the book which was criticized by everyone was Urbach’s comparing the work of the Tosafot to the of the Glossators and Scholastics. It was not that comparative analysis is improper, just that they all felt Urbach failed at it. After much discussion of the Glossators and Scholastics Urbach concludes that there was no influence, just a common intellectual environment. Ben-Sasson criticizes Urbach and says that there are numerous other types of literature being written which might have proved better material for comparative analysis. In addition, the argumentative analysis is so prevalent in Europe at the time that it is difficult to think that there was no influence. In addition, instead of comparing Rabbein Tam to Abelard, Ben-Sasson says that a better figure to compare him to might have been Bernard of Clairvaux.

Ben-Sasson also critiques what he sees as Urbach’s over emphasis on seeing the instances where the Tosafot, and Rabbeinu Tam in particular, enacted intentional changes or innovations as their defining intellectual character traits (the discussion continues). One does not only have to examine their overt statements about change and innovation to try and build an intellectual portrait, the totality of their work must be examined in order to build such a portrait.

Lastly, the question was raised by Ben-Sasson as to what was the cause of the radical new method of study that was employed by the Tosafot. Urbach never gave a clear answer, and any attempt that he made was rejected by Ben-Sasson as inadequate. Ben-Sasson claims that in reality their method was not so new, rather the new historical circumstances brought about by Rashi’s commentary to the Talmud-a democratization of Talmud study with the Talmud now accesible to many new students-forced teachers to write down and use more often exegetical methods which had been used in the past.

One Response to “Book Reviews of Baalei HaTosafot I”

  1. 1
    Hermann Kantorowicz, Heidegger and the Nazis:

    [...] author of the important work Studies in the Glossators of the Roman Law. E.E. Urbach in his Baalei ha-Tosafot refers to the research of Kantorowicz a number of times in his discussion of the Tosafot’s [...]

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