Wednesday, January 20, 2010

History of the Jews' Creative Torah-Derived Literature

Rabbi Professor Elazar Hurvitz is brilliant. He is also a kind and grandfatherly person who makes me really happy. The stuff he taught was way too cool not to share, so here are the notes. (Notes and not quotes. I paraphrased parts.) Did you ever want to know who exactly the Amoraim/ Tannaim were and what they did/ why they did it? Here's a crash course. As usual, all mistakes are mine.

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Tanakh

The essence of Israel is embodied through their creative capacity. Thus, throughout the ages, Israel has chosen to proceed in the field of literary study, always choosing to create. At the beginning, God gave us the Torah. By this we refer to the Five Books of Moses. But was that all? What about Nach? How did we receive Nach?

The Neviim said things and only later did they decide to write down their prophecies. The Anshei Kneses HaGedolah and Sofrim decided to put together what was said in some coherent way. And what of Kesuvim? In contrast to Navi, Kesuvim was given written down. When it came to Neviim, the transmission of prophecy was oral and then they made a record of it. Kesuvim means whoever created the book wrote it down.

Chazal decided that they were going to treat the whole Tanakh as one unit: everything is legitimate. What do we mean when we say everything is legitimate? That if they bring a proof of a certain point that they want to say, they can bring the proof from Mishlei to reflect upon Bereishis. They made everything one unit at the time of the end of prophecy. After the last Navi prophecied, that was the cutting line- nothing else can go into the text of Tanakh.

Torah She'Baal Peh: Tannaim

After Tanakh comes Torah She'Baal Peh. How? Well, the question of the time was: What can we get out of the Torah? Is it emotional points of view or laws? Well, narrative doesn't yield a composite of laws. So they said to themselves, "Let's see how practical we can be when studying the text of the Torah. What's the halakha from the pasuk? Can we dig up the halakha of the pasuk?" All the Tanaim were interested in was halakha. They were interested in halakhic consequences. So their desire was to find the halakha as a result of what we know till now.

At that point in time, they realized that when a person reads the Torah, he cannot tell which mitzvos are where and derived from what. So they decided to take all the mitzvos and classify them in an enyclopedic way in order to tell people the subject matter of the halakha. If you look at Shabbos, Berachos, Yuma, you will say that they are all arranged according to subject matter. Sometimes you encounter an argument but basically it's halakhos based on subject matter, which yields Mishnayos.

So Mishnayos are halakhos of the Torah classified according to subject.

When they finished this, that was the end. But the problem now was: they neglected the actual text of the Torah! Where are these halakhos coming from? The Chumash! So they said, now we must go to the Chumash and learn HOW the halakha was created. We must give you the process of recovering the halakhos from the Torah.

When you learn Mishna, the pasuk does not play a role in the Mishnayos. It doesn't say 'she'neemar' (or when it does, the percentage of 'sheneemars' is very low). That wasn't the issue here. When it comes to learning the text of the Torah, there they decided to figure out the origins. This is the distinction between Midrash Halakha and Mishna. The Midrash is the research on each pasuk: where the halakha stems from. Non-halakhic material was not of interest to then, though (which is why they did not cover Genesis.) When they finished the process of arranging everything and going through the text of the Torah, that was the end of Tekufas HaTanaaim.

Amoraim

Halakha was already arranged by subject matter. The Tannaim also showed you how they got to the idea. So what should the Amoraim do? They decided to go back to the Mishnayos and draw a comparative study between the Mishna and the Medrish. They were curious to see if the consequences of the halakha in Midrash Halakha will match the Mishna. You see, the Tannaim had done two different things separately:

1. First, they had created an encyclopedic assembly of halakhos (Mishnayos.)
2. Secondly, they had explained how those halakhos derived from the Torah (Midrash Halakha).

The Amoraim came to say: Can we compare those two texts to each other?

In the Mishna itself there was a Tosefta. It was a supplement rather than a major text. So the Amoraim re-check this. After that, they went to the baraita and want to see how Midrash Halakha quotes the halakha- how it got it. After the mishna comes the baraita to interrogate and see if what the Mishna is saying is a healthy consequence of the Midrash. Thus, they created the Talmud. The first layer of Gemara after the Mishna is the beraita, then questions and everything else. Everyone was adding until one day someone said, 'Enough.' That comparative study between Mishna and Midrash Halakha is the first layer of the Gemara.

Every Amora jumping on a mishna is trying to find a discrepancy between the mishna and midrash. Only in the Shas Vilna at the end of ___ meforah that makes a list of midrashim whenever talking about a beraita.

Now the question becomes: What did the Amoraim do with Chumash? Can they touch the Chumash or not?

Tannaim already did everything! So Amoraim decided to take the non-halakhic material and only dealt with Aggadah. So Sefer Bereishis they could do (because the Tannaim had not touched that.) The Amoraim tried to work with non-halakhic material. Their question was: Can we explain the Torah from the emotional/ philosophical point of view? That was the art.

Then added a pesikta on Chagim, Pirkei D'Rebbe Eliezer, etc, and the one guiding principle in all of these was: no halakha.

But who was the audience for everything the Amoraim were doing? Can this be taught in the classroom? No. You cannot put aggadah in a yeshiva environment. The reason why is because by aggadah anything goes. By halakha, we have machlokes. Therefore the Amoraim's main contribution was to the outside world of people who couldn't learn Chumash/ where halakha was not their piece of bread.

So Tannaim are operating for the elite students who are in the yeshiva/ classroom. The Amoraim are working with the Chumash to create something you can learn with people in the synogogue. So to get that clear:

Midrishei Tanaim: Halakha
Midrishei Amoraim: Aggadah

How did it work in the system in the community? Well, when a person's in shul, you have to give him variety. It can't just be gefilte fish in every dish. According to the Rambam, in very early times everyone used to daven what he felt. But then we got the nussach ha'tefillah (long subject we are not addressing right now) and what was the centerpiece of it? Kerias HaTorah. But someone is in shul, so why should he only know Torah and not Navi? So okay, we'll give you pieces every Shabbos of Navi, and that's how we get the Haftorah. (This is dedicated to the knowledge of the people.) What's missing? Kesuvim. Well, that too was given to us! Because the biur of the Parshas Ha'Shavua was based on Kesuvim.

(Take Bereishis Rabbah- you can see it yourself. [He pulls out a Bereishis Rabbah and gives it to us- sure enough, every opening statement is taken from Mishlei, Tehillim, Daniel, etc- all from Kesuvim.])

And in the Gemara sometimes the Amoraim would overflow. They would tell their students during the week what they gave as a derasha in shul, and that's how we get aggada in the Talmud Bavli. They include mashal, sippur, everything. So Talmud becomes an open door as long as it fits in somehow. So you have sections of Aggadah, sometimes united, sometimes not. Mesechet Megillah is a whole peirush on Megillas Esther.

So the Amoraim finish their job. What happens then?

Savoraim

The Savoraim polish things. It's like when someone digs up a diamond and transports it to a different place; it's the raw diamond and has to be polished. But you didn't create the diamond. So the Savoraim don't create- they just polish the text linguistically, etc. (R' Sherira says so.) They also may add a sugya to ask questions but no halakha.

Geonim

Then came the Geonim who start a new type of literature which is called 'Shaalos and Teshuvos.' Also Parshanut HaTorah in Arabic, Hebrew, etc- flood of parshanim until today. And what happened with the Talmud? Chiddushim (Ran, Nimukei Yosef, everyone until today.)

Today every Rav in the world, if he wants to exist on the map, has to write Shaalos and Teshuvos.

Today

Alas, today people are not creative anymore; they're just encyclopedic. It's all Kol Bo. Since the 2nd World War, creativity is going down- I'm not referring to literature. When it comes to literature, the poems and the books that we have! I'm talking about rabbinic texts. We need people to contribute, not to inform. To have something original. We are lacking this.

15 comments:

Shades of Grey said...

I know I said I'd have to wait to read this until tomorrow - well, it IS tomorrow. This is SO fascinating - I've never heard/read anyone explain this in such a systematic and clear (not to mention engaging as well as interesting fashion). This kind of makes me want to go to Revel...

Anonymous said...

was it mentioned that this general approach of "creativity" (vs. mesorah) is the subject of debate?

as a side issue - how do you explain"When you learn Mishna, the pasuk does not play a role in the Mishnayos. It doesn't say 'she'neemar' (or when it does, the percentage of 'sheneemars' is very low)." - was someone ahead of theit time?
KT
Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

also why iiuc is there no creative fiction literature?
KT
Joel Rich

Shai said...

That account is so old school that it's hard to believe it's being taught in a graduate school of academic Jewish studies. I would hope that there would be at least some engagement with what others have written in the field (in the last 35 or so years), even if he chooses to disagree.

Anonymous said...

Shai,
Can you summarize the major themes of the new school approach ?
KT
Joel Rich

layman said...

I was also surprised to see R' Sherira quoted as a source regarding the Savoraim. Though I am no expert in the field, I know that the historical veracity of his account of TSBP is very much in question (in other words, pretty much discounted by academics). I agree with Shai--if this is the only opinion being taught, I am somewhat appalled.

Anonymous said...

Everyone,relax, the new semester just started and the basic building concepts Chana described so clearly here are necessary in order to progress in the class further. Sheesh!

Shadesof said...

"Alas, today people are not creative anymore; they're just encyclopedic. It's all Kol Bo. Since the 2nd World War, creativity is going down- I'm not referring to literature.... We need people to contribute, not to inform. To have something original. We are lacking this."

R. Chaim Brisker seems to disagree with this:

"Reb Chaim Brisker, the most innovative Talmudic thinker of the last 150 years, once defined a chiddush in learning as achieving a proper understanding of the Rishonim."

http://www.jewishmediaresources.com/1119/rabbi-angels-lament

Chana said...

Okay, everybody chill. This is just the beginning really basic overview before we get to all the complicated good stuff. Huzzah that.

Shira Salamone said...

"We need people to contribute, not to inform. To have something original. We are lacking this."

That's why you're in Revel, Chana. You're a writer with a commitment to the mesorah/tradition. Your doctoral dissertation is eagerly awaited.

anon said...

For one thing, that is a very unacademic approach to things. But to answer Joel's specific question, it completely ignores scholarship such as that by R. David Weiss Halivni, summarized neatly here: http://menachemmendel.net/blog/2010/01/20/david-weiss-halivni-on-the-talmud/

Anonymous said...

Thanks. BTW I once heard R' halivni started down this path because of chasurei mechsera vhachi katani seeming stained.

KT
Joel Rich

Anonymous said...

"This is just the beginning really basic overview before we get to all the complicated good stuff."

a bad foundation will lead to a dangerous building. your summary is so wrought with mistakes i dont know where to begin.

zad said...

For starters, over thirty-plus years, it's become widely accepted that the Talmud was put together after the close of the Amoraic period by a group of scholars called the Stammaim. While the Amoraim are the figures cited in the Talmud, the interstitial statements that comprise the bulk of the Talmudic discourse and the actual redaction of the Talmud, were the work of this post Amoraic group

Anonymous said...

Anon January 22, 2010 9:10 AM said:

"This is just the beginning really basic overview before we get to all the complicated good stuff."

a bad foundation will lead to a dangerous building. your summary is so wrought with mistakes i dont know where to begin.

Hey Anon, why don't you begin somewhere and share YOUR knowledge with us? Negative comments like the one you made get the us nowhere.