Menachem Mendel

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Modern Talmud Study II

One of the basic foundations of textual study is actually having a reliable text to work with, but before I speak about what we know about the text of the Talmud, I want to first touch upon the question of the oral nature of the Mishnah and then in a later post the Talmud. “Orality” is a very popular buzzword these days in the field of rabbinic literature. Since traditionally we speak of “The Oral Law” (תורה שבעל פה), what can we say about the oral nature of Talmudic literature? Two of the pillars of 20th c. modern Talmud study, J.N. Epstein and Saul Lieberman, had a fundamental disagreement with regard to the question of whether the Mishnah was ever written down. Epstein in his Mavo le-Nusah ha-Mishnah (MNM) wrote that the Mishnah was written down, and that Rabbi Judah the Prince’s “Tanna” (i.e. memorizer of Tannnaitic traditions”), even wrote down Rebbi’s Mishnah (MNM, pp. 692, 703). While Epstein was of the opinion that the Mishnah was written down, he claimed that its study was still oral in nature, and that written texts were only consulted when the need arose. On the other hand, Saul Lieberman in the chapter “The Publication of the Mishnah” in his Hellenism in Jewish Palestine, wrote that while we have sources which describe certain works as being written and deposited (כתוב ומונח, כתיבא ומנחא), with these written editions being consulted when doubts and controversies arose, we have no source which speaks of a book of the Mishnah being consulted. Henceforth Lieberman proposed that the Mishnah was published orally, i.e. it was never written down, but rather an authoritative oral edition was “published” (Hellenism, pp. 92, 93). Recently Yaakov Sussman has published a comprehensive study reiterating the oral nature of Talmudic literature (Mehkarei Talmud, vol. III), and this opinion was also supported in Neil Danzig’s article on the transition from a Talmud that was transmitted orally to one that was written down (Bar-Ilan Studies, nos. 30-31). Robert Brody seems to have found a middle-ground between Epstein and Lieberman, having written about the oral publication, transmission, and learning of the Mishnah, but it is unclear to me whether he also agrees with Epstein as to whether it was also concurrently written down (Mehkarei Talmud, I, p. 295). Lastly, Martin Jaffee in his book Torah in the Mouth, describes what he terms the “interpenetration” of the oral and written nature of the Mishnah. He feels that in the Mishnah one can find an interplay between both an oral and a written culture of transmission and learning.

2 Responses to “Modern Talmud Study II”

  1. 1
    Arnold Wolf:

    Are Men Capable of Writing a Second Torah?


    MOED: Erubin 21b

    “…….And furthermore, my son, be admonished of making many books. My son be more careful in the observance of the words of the Scribes than in the words of the Torah, for in the laws of the Torah there are positive and negative precepts, but, as to the laws of the Scribes whoever transgresses any of the enactments of the Scribes incurs the penalty of death.”

    Are the Sages holding themselves up as greater than G-d Himself?

  2. 2
    Menachem Mendel:

    Dr Elman also has a great article on orality (written within the past 7 years)
    mivami | 06.18.07 – 11:18 am | #

    Yes. The one that I am familiar with was a comparison between Jewish and Islamic schools in the Geonic period and was published in _Transmitting Jewish Traditions_ by Yale U. Press.
    Menachem Mendel | 06.18.07 – 11:31 am | #

    Mai Nafka Minah?
    Since we know that just because a thing is written down doesn’t mean it is (or even is intended to be) a static text in antiquity (given the absnense of printers and photocopiers), and that we know that just because a thing is oral doesn’t mean it was totally open and fluid, what real difference for the study of Mishnah does it make if you adopt either Epstein’s or Lieberman’s position (regardless of which one is most convincing)?
    Lia | 06.18.07 – 11:33 am | #

    I think that the importance of Lieberman’s position is that it shows how a version of an oral text can be accepted as authoritative without it ever being written down. He clearly was trying to prevent anachronistic perceptions of what “published” had to mean. Secondly, there are people who feels that a written text is less fluid than an oral one.
    Menachem Mendel | 06.18.07 – 12:03 pm | #

    Another claim which Martin Jaffee makes, regardless of whether you accept his description of the oral/written nature of the Mishnah, is that orality may influence the social context of learning. Does reliance on a written text mean a different culture of learning than reliance on an oral mode of learning and transmission?
    Menachem Mendel | Homepage | 06.18.07 – 1:18 pm | #




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