Mandsager, John. To Stake a Claim: The Making of Rabbinic Agricultural Spaces in the Roman Countryside. Ph.D. dissertation, Stanford University, 2014.
In To Stake a Claim: The Making of Rabbinic Agricultural Spaces in the Roman Countryside, I argue that the prescriptions for Jewish practice about the boundaries of Jewish space in the countryside may be considered a call by the rabbis for the transformation of a landscape filled with many different neighbors, from non-rabbinic Jews to Roman conquerors. I focus on Mishnah and Tosefta Zera’im (Seeds), notably the laws pertaining to the Sabbatical year (shevi’it), the first-fruits offering (bikkurim), the charitable donation of the “corner” of one’s harvested fields (peah), and the prohibition on planting “mixed-kinds” in the same space (kilayim), considering these topics through literary, spatial, and post-colonial lenses. In this dissertation, I contend that these rabbinic sources set forth the vision for an idealized Jewish landscape filled with rabbinic Jews who manage their estates in accordance with God’s will. By examining the spatial aspects of these legal discussions, I focus our attention on topics often neglected in modern scholarship, where agricultural rituals and spaces in the Mishnah and the Tosefta are often put to the side in favor of consideration of urban life and society (for example, the many studies on Rabban Gamaliel and Aphrodite’s bath). Thus, this dissertation expands our understanding of the spatial worlds imagined and idealized by the early rabbis by arguing that the fields, gardens, vineyards, and orchards beyond the city limits were of acute interest to the Tannaim.
After an introduction to spatial approaches to rabbinic literature, this dissertation begins with an analysis of how biblical agricultural commandments and the theologies of the land found in the Hebrew Bible are transformed in the Second Temple period, setting the stage for the innovations of the Tannaim. Following these methodological and historical introductions, this dissertation proceeds with a further contextual chapter which situates rabbinic agricultural spatial discussions in Roman literary and physical expressions of the countryside, notably the space of the villa rustica. It is within these contexts – the biblical and Second Temple patrimony of God’s agricultural commands and the space of the Roman villa – that this dissertation proceeds to examine the following topics found in early rabbinic literature: 1) the social and familial divisions of the idealized Jewish household, particularly in the context of the question of whom is obliged to bring the “first-fruit” offerings to the Temple; 2) how spatial boundaries are created between fields and neighbors, considering the laws of kilayim, peah, and shevi’it; and 3) how the micro-spaces of garden plot and individual field are visually presented as distinctly Jewish through adherence to the prohibition on planting “mixed-kinds.”
By interrogating the importance of these spaces and their rituals, I argue that early rabbinic literature adopts Roman ideals of rural life but subverts those ideals to impose a specifically Jewish vernacular upon the landscape. Thus, I argue that the commitment to Biblical laws of agriculture, even in light of profound changes to the landscape wrought by Roman imperial domination, serves to challenge that domination through the assertion of distinctly Jewish agricultural spaces. In this dissertation, I utilize textual, literary, and spatial analysis of the halakhic reasoning and argumentation found in early rabbinic literature to reveal the cultural and spatial ideals of the creators of these texts. These legal texts describe a world filled with outsiders, from Roman conquerors to Jews with different interpretations of scripture and practice: the laws of Jewish farming differentiate normative (rabbinic) Jewish practice and social structures from those others. It is the spatial aspect of agricultural life, from its fences to its regimented rows of crops that serve to physically and visually mark a Jewish space as distinct. And moreover, by comparison with the spatial vernacular of the Roman villa, rabbinic attention to and idealization of Jewish estates hints towards the complicated relationship between the Roman Empire and its colonized subjects; between adoption, co-option and resistance to imperial physical, social, and political reordering of the countryside. Beyond questions of how and why the early rabbis focused on and transformed biblical agricultural law, my analysis in this dissertation offers methodological tools for spatial analysis of legal texts in rabbinic Judaism specifically and imperial spaces more broadly.
I am currently working on a monograph based on this dissertation.
John Mandsager, University of South Carolina
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