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Yakov Z. Mayer

Yakov Z. Mayer is a PhD candidate in Tel Aviv University. His research focuses on the printing of the Palestiniam Talmud, and it’s reception in the German speaking lands during the long 16th century. He writes in Haaretz’ magazine for Culture and Literature and teaches Talmud at Alma – House for Hebrew Culture and at Yeshivat Orot Shaul. His recent book, “Writings – Collected Articles on The Portion on the Weekly Portion from Haaretz” (Hebrew), has been published in Yediot Sefarim in 2015.


The Reception of the Jerusalem Talmud in the Early Modern Period

Subject matter, goals, and scope of research project

Two corpora of Jewish legal law were composed during the 6th and 7th centuries anno domini, the Babylonian Talmud and the Palestinian Talmud, one in Babilon and the other one inPalestine. Both of them contain legal discussions that took place in both Babylonian and Palestinian halls of study (Batei Midrash), as a result about 80% of the legal material in the Talmuds is similar, but not identical. The Babylonian Talmud represent the legal material as recorded in Babylon in Babylonian Armaic (close to Syriac) and the Palestinian Talmud represent the legal material as recorded in Palestine, in Galilean Armaic. These differences relate to the formation of the Talmuds, but the difference expanded during the ages.

Untill the end of the first milenium peaceful Babylon was the greatest center of Jews and of Jewish courts, while Palestine suffered wars and persecutaions, and the Jews of Palestine couldn’t' condemn a stable literary culture. A a result the Babylonian Talmud became the most important corpus in Jewish heritage, it stands in the middle of Jewish intellectual, practical and legal life since then, survived the migration to Europe and it is still the main book for legal Jewish law until today. By contrast the Jerusalem Talmud was known mainly by reputation and through incomplete citations, not as a complete body of text arranged in an orderly fashion by tractate and subject matter, in the manner of the Babylonian Talmud.

The first printing of the entire Babylonian Talmud was completed by Daniel von Bomberghen in Venice in 1523. In the same year, the Jerusalem Talmud was also printed for the first time, in the same printing house.

Even before it was printed in Venice, the Babylonian Talmud was a familiar text to the Jewish communities of Europe. Sections of it had previously been published in Italy and Spain, and manuscripts of this Talmud were available for those who sought them. Thus its printing did not lead to a revolution in the study of this Talmud, but was one of many important stages in the spread of its knowledge. But the Jerusalem Talmud was almost never systematically studied, and no full commentaries on this Talmud were composed during the middle Ages.

The Jerusalem Talmud published in Venice was based on one complete manuscript, with the aid of three partial manuscripts. It appeared on the page in two full columns, without any surrounding commentary. Conversely, the printed Babylonian Talmud rendered the text into a multilayered work, with its central commentaries – Rashi and Tosafot – featuring as an inherent part of the Talmud, and including a fixed order of folios for easy referencing. In turn, this affected the methods of study of the Babylonian Talmud. The printing of the Jerusalem Talmud delivered into the world a new text that complemented the Babylonian Talmud. However, unlike that Talmud, whose structure and meaning was highly familiar, the study of the Jerusalem Talmud was almost negligible and its authoritative status was insufficiently established.

This printing was the first step in the long and complex process of the gradual reworking and acceptance of the Jerusalem Talmud by the community of Talmud scholars. In my work I wish to examine the history of the acceptance of the Jerusalem Talmud from the time of its printing. This process will be documented from various perspectives: The compilation of the Jerusalem Talmud and its indexing; initial anthologies; the use of this Talmud for legal decisions and analysis; and the first commentaries on the Jerusalem Talmud.

This transformation in attitudes towards the Jerusalem Talmud cannot be divided cleanly into the above four categories, as each of these interacts, builds upon, and merges with the others.

This project will take into account the general development of the printed word during this period. Through this analysis I will provide a clear picture of the artificial and speedy “civilizing” of this “savage” text, the Jerusalem Talmud.

The absence of previous commentaries makes the rare evidence of oral traditions of studying the Jerusalem Talmud very important. In the introduction to the second edition of the Jerusalem Talmud. 1609 Cracow edition, the publishers apologize for daring to comment and explain passages from the Jerusalem Talmud "despite the boycott (!) on explaining it". In their apology the publishers say that they wouldn't dare to do so unless they had a tradition from the Ravia – Rabbi Eliezer ben Yoel Halevi – an important medieval Jewish scholar from 13th century Köln, the only medieval Talmud scholar who made significant use of the Jerusalem Talmud. Ravia's book wasn't printed yet in 1609 (it wasn't printed fully until 21'th century) but his figure was well known and was used as an authority for the Polish publisher, allowing him to interpret the Jerusalem Talmud.

From this point of view the Jerusalem Talmud is one of the intellectual bridges between Ashkenaz – medieval Germany – and Poland, the land of the German immigrants.


Guiding principles and axioms of the research

My work will be based mainly on Foucault’s “archaeology of knowledge,” theory.

Before Foucault, De Certeau and Barthes had abandoned the study of authorial intention in favor of a reading of the text as a creative act. They identified the central meaning of the text as contained in its impact upon the act of reading. For De Certeau, reading is a different kind of knowledge-producing activity, a quiet one that perhaps does not affect any change in the object, but does affect the manner of its use. However, Foucault, in his lecture, “What is an Author,” critiqued Barthes’ suggestion of leaving behind the author and focusing on the text, arguing that the assumption that there is a “work” is no more invented than the supposition of an author; it too is a cultural construct that requires decoding.

The Talmud, of course, does not have a single author, but is edited over and again, while its meaning as an integrated work is repeatedly constructed and deconstructed. This is especially true for the Jerusalem Talmud, whose status in scholarly discourse is uncertain, and even its definition as a unified corpus is constantly placed in question.

Through this Foucauldian reading of the study of the Jerusalem Talmud, the counter-intuitive choice of studying the Talmud enables a focus on the mode of existence of a particular discourse. The formation of this discourse in the 16th and 17th centuries is to a great extent the subject matter of my work.

In this sense I wish to unearth an “archaeology of knowledge,” that is, a reflective methodological analysis of Talmudic discourse in the Early Modern Period: How was this discourse created, by whom, and in which language; what was the motivation for its formation; who had the legitimacy to create, ratify or invalidate this discourse; and other such inquiries. These broad questions are best processed and unpacked by an exploration of the margins of Talmudic discourse, embodied by the Jerusalem Talmud as a “novel” text.



Refereed Articles

  1. Z. Mayer, Rav Hamnuna and Rashbi, Between Ashkenaz and Sepharad, in: Y. Liebes and others (ed.), The Zoharic Narrative, Bialik Institute Printing Press 2016 (Hebrew).
  2. Z. Mayer, The Devil, The Taz and Shabbetai Sevi – A Late Polish Hsidic Tale, El Prezente 10 (2016). pp. 95-103.
  3. Z. Mayer, The Introduction to the Zohar - Text, Structure and Editing, Kabbala 33 2015 (Hebrew). pp. 153-181.
  4. Z. Mayer, Life of an Ant: Nationalism, Poetry and Zoology between South Africa and Degania, Panim, January 2013 (Hebrew). pp. 69-78.

Non Academic Publications

  1. Z. Mayer, Readings: Writings on The Portion on the Weekly Portion – Collected Articles from Haaretz, Yediot Sefarim 2015. (Hebrew).
  2. Z. Mayer, Gam Tzipor (The Sparrow Too) – A Novel, Hakibutz Hameuhad Publishing House 2012 (Hebrew)