Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition


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Carl Kinbar. New York: Cambridge University Press, Alexander engages scholarship in rabbinics and orality studies, and thus her work will be of interest to scholars in both fields. In this environment, no one version of a textual parallel was considered more authentic or authoritative than any other. The nature of oral texts not only allowed for, but encouraged, multiple versions. Thus, Alexander differs from scholars who attribute variants to literary manipulation or textual corruption. Meanwhile, the Mishnah elaborates the debate itself, assuming more background knowledge.

Alexander cautiously speculates that these differences may represent different pedagogical settings. Thus, Mishnah and Tosefta draw on a shared storehouse of legal concepts and language that is their common source.

Admitting that the process from fluid text to fixed, omnisignificant, and authoritative text may never be fully known, Alexander sees a general development from the Yerushalmi to the later Bavli. In the Mishnah, these paired sentences are found in a discussion of the relationship between violated oaths and required sacrifice. Aqiba or the redactor exemplifies that relationship by referencing this unit of two sentences in which it is implied that a sacrifice is brought for each count. After covering the same basic ground, the Bavli goes even further in its atomization of the Mishnah, drawing additional inference from the sequence of the oaths, assuming that word order in the Mishnah conveys additional meaning beyond the actual statements of the text.

Interpretive strategies used modestly in the Yerushalmi are exploited fully in the Bavli.

Transmitting Mishnah

Thus, the Mishnah shaped the way its students and eventually the sages of the Talmuds would think about the matters at hand. Though others have suggested that the Mishnah is a teaching text, Alexander is the first to show how pedagogical methodology was inherent in the text itself. Those who see the Mishnah in other terms will be strongly challenged by this analysis. Seeing the atomized mishnaic text as omnisignificant, the Talmuds often read mishnaic cases or fragments thereof as if they were borderline cases and thus produced analyses that are often counter-intuitive when compared with a straightforward reading of the Mishnah texts being studied.

While building on the work of scholars such Martin Jaffee and Steven Fraade, who have also applied orality studies to rabbinic texts, Alexander does not interact sufficiently with contemporary scholars such as Shamma Friedman and Judith Hauptman who emphasize the literary nature of the Mishnah. Perhaps it would have been helpful for us to see how her analysis applies to texts beyond tractate Shevuot.


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And if the Oral Law had been in writing, the rabbis would not have been able to make any innovations, and also the masses would not have accepted their decrees, relying instead only on what is written. Systems and Laws In the beginning it was expressly forbidden to write more about the law than God had caused Moses to signify to the nation. Like Levison, Mendelssohn portrayed the OL as playing an essential role in granting the rabbis a degree of flexibility, allowing them to adjust the law to the changing environment. It is not surprising that Mendelssohn and Levison were vested in describing the OL as a means for introducing changes to, and allowing flexibility in, the halakha.

In the Enlightenment period, when Jewish law was often perceived by Christians as obsolete, it was crucial to emphasize the relevance of the halakha and its ability to adjust to modern times. And if so, what explains their drastic deviation from his theory on the concept of OL as ensuring preservation of tradition and preventing dissension?

When we studied together at the yeshivah of the wondrous gaon , Rabbi Shachna of blessed memory Numerous times I and many other students asked that he [Shachna] record his decisions.

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His response evidenced his piety and great humility; he was more humble than any other man on earth. Although it is no simple matter to determine the earlier Jewish sources of inspiration for the revolutionary approach to the OL in the late eighteenth century, its tremendous influence on nineteenth-century Jewish scholarship is clearly evident. For me, the relationship between the Written and the Oral Law is the same as that between letter and word: the letter exists and the word flourishes; the letter is rigid and the word is vital.

Each has its advantages and disadvantages and, taken together, they prevent religious life from dissolution, on the one hand, and from stagnation, on the other. And those who attempt to refute them can do nothing. Whereas the true answer is thus: the Sages of the Mishnah and Talmud made many statements that were appropriate for the context in which they made them.

And it never occurred to them that everything they said would be committed to writing For they were truly wise and did not put their words in writing so leaders of future generations might fix and change them according to the needs of changing times and places. In that sense, Luzzatto stood in contrast not only to medieval but also to ancient theories of OL. Whereas the sages were proud and protective of their tradition, Luzzatto felt embarrassed by it and wished to minimize its access to strangers.

If students did not violate the prohibition and kept their tradition orally, much confusion and embarrassment could have been avoided.

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As one might expect, Orthodox figures were not eager to adopt this modern liberal theory of OL. Indeed, Rabbi Moses Sofer , the leader of Orthodoxy in Hungary, repeated the notion put forth by the medievalists, describing the literary culture as a threat to tradition and the oral environment as a guarantee for its preservation as a matter of fact, Sofer did not publish his own writings, claiming that the Talmudic prohibition was still intact. Such was the case of Rabbi Jacob Zevi Meklenburg In his earlier writings, Meklenburg adopted the medieval view of the OL as a tool for its preservation.

The lawgiver deliberately provided an ambiguous text that requires additional interpretation.


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  • One can easily attribute anything he desires to the text and adapt it to his own taste. The challenge now is not only to adhere to the text but also to interpret it according to the authoritative tradition. However, it actually demonstrates a great resemblance: Meklenburg agreed that a written text could in theory provide a clear message and that the conception of OL was meant to add some blurriness to the tradition and to allow numerous interpretations of the WL.

    In other words, what liberal scholars described as an opportunity, Meklenburg viewed as a challenge. All this material he redacted in the Mishnah, which was diligently taught in public Copies of it were made and widely disseminated, so that the Oral Law might not be forgotten in Israel. Although several discussions were devoted to this dilemma in the medieval period, 30 one does not receive the impression that this matter was dominated by ideological considerations. The revolutionary understanding of the OL in the latter part of the eighteenth century dramatically influenced the discussion of this historical question in the nineteenth century.

    The assumption that the existence of an oral tradition reflected the ability of the halakha to change led to endless debates: When did Jewish law lose its vitality? Who was responsible for turning the halakha into a fixed or perhaps a lifeless system by writing it down? Here, too, we must distinguish between various approaches. Radical liberal scholars, who were not bound by the authority of the Mishnah and the Talmud, continued to maintain the prevailing Maimonidean approach and assumed that it was indeed Judah the Prince who violated the prohibition against the recording of the OL.

    Such an assumption supported their belief that the Tannaim and Amoraim were the ones who distorted the Jewish religion by introducing endless laws and customs. If people could only understand that our sages did not write down as much as one page, but their disciples preserved in their memory every word, every scrap of conversation, they heard from their mentors, because they believed that everything uttered, even conversationally, deserved preservation From their perspective, portraying the legal system as dynamic and flexible only contributed to the justification of further changes in the halakha.

    It was a historical irony that led to agreement between these opposite poles.

    This, as everyone knows, is the way of the Torah: an individual is not beholden to accept the opinion of his colleague that, according to his own view and discernment, is not true. Can this be the way of truth, that Jewish scholars promulgate something that in their innermost conviction is not true - that they negate an idea that they see as compelling?

    But Weiss was certainly an exception. As in other instances, the boundaries of tradition and scholarship were vague and blurry in the work of the pioneering scholars of modern Jewish Studies. A legendary tradition in the Midrash is of major importance in this context as well. Unlike an oral tradition, a written document is accessible to all readers, more or less talented, and is, therefore, subject to conflicting interpretations, some accurate and some not.

    The recording of the OL would, therefore, have exposed it to such dangers and risked its future existence. This approach was taken first and foremost by Maimonides in his Guide : Even the traditional Law, as you are well aware, was not originally committed to writing But Maimonides was not the sole medieval Jewish scholar to adopt this stance. Ha-Levi and Albo did not just point out the problematic nature of a written tradition but also emphasized the qualities of oral transmission.

    Unlike a written document, which is subject to conflicting interpretations, an oral tradition, delivered directly by the teacher to his students, was more likely to remain unchanged and this assured its preservation, as Ha-Levi notes: The faculty of speech is to transmit the idea of the speaker into the soul of the hearer.

    Although this prevailing explanation of OL was rooted in ancient Greek philosophy particularly in Platonic works 12 and found support in more ancient Jewish sources, 13 it also responded to the historical reality of the medieval period. As Maimonides hinted in his Guide and Albo stated explicitly in Sefer Ha-Ikkarim , the massive literature devoted to the interpretation of the Talmud, as well as the endless debates between leading rabbis on halakhic matters, were an unfortunate result of the decision to convert an oral tradition into writing: Because this interpretation can not be in writing, else the same uncertainty of which we spoke will attach to this writing as to the first, and we should require an interpretation of the interpretation, and so on without end.

    The first was Mordechai Gumpel Schnaber Levison As Levison explained: And if the Oral Law had been in writing, the rabbis would not have been able to make any innovations, and also the masses would not have accepted their decrees, relying instead only on what is written.

    Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition
    Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition
    Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition
    Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition
    Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition

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