Dissertation Spotlight | Noah Bickart

by Noah Bickart in

Ancient Jewish Sanhedrin council depicted in People's Encyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883). WikiCommons

Ancient Jewish Sanhedrin council depicted in People's Encyclopedia of Universal Knowledge (1883). WikiCommons

Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee critique the discipline of "Talmud" as one which is, "focused on solving difficult textual-philological questions in talmudic exegesis by comparative studies of the languages spoken by communities among whom the sages lived. But such focus on linguistic detail, important as it is, left unexplained the literary 'forest' within which the 'trees' of the rabbinic lexicon were planted."[1] This dissertation is, in a sense, a response to such an invitation. Written from the perspective of one trained as a Talmudist in the traditional Wissenschaft desJudentumssense, This dissertation challenges the cliché, showing that only through a detailed analysis of a particular kind of tree can the forest as a whole be understood. Careful consideration of the ways in which talmudic terminology (a chief focus of those interested in textual-philological questions) changed over the course of the rabbinic period helps us situate certain texts and textual patterns in their proper context, and enables us to see the ways in which rabbinic thought was in flux during the period in which the Talmud came into being. 

This project investigates the meaning and usage of a particular set of linguistically related Talmudic terms in order to show how and in what cultural context the Talmud began to take shape in the emerging scholastic centers of rabbinic learning in late Sassanian Babylonia. The term tistayem appears in sugyot of a particular type thirty-four times in the Babylonian Talmud; but should be seen as a sub-category of the ḥad amar... v'ḥad amar formula. These traditions, over 450 in number throughout rabbinic literature, present a dispute between two (almost always) contemporary sages, in which the names of the disputants and their positions are known but in which the connection between the two has been severed. 

I am interested in the term "tistayem," and its analogs within the talmudic corpus primarily because I want to show how an understanding of this explicitly redactional and scholastic term sheds light on the process of the redaction of the Babylonian Talmud and the culture which produced it. In our case, the term tistayem itself is redactional in nature; that is, by its very meaning and the way it is employed it speaks to the ordering of extant material in particular ways. By pointing out how this process works, we will learn something about the people who chose this way of ordering and presenting the material that they inherited and shaped. By comparing the term tistayem to related terms in the talmudic corpus, we can begin to identify when the scholastic processes hinted at by the term were employed, thereby creating a kind of genealogy of Babylonian Jewish scholastic practice, beginning in the disciple circles of the early Amoraim and concluding with the scholastic practices of the Babylonian academies in Geonic times.

The tistayem sugyot utilize the same form:  

 R' So and So and R' So and So. One says "X" and the other "Y" Tistayem that it is R' So and So who says "X"... (or "Y") ...(Tistayem)  

Tistayem is here defined as meaning, "let it be promulgated" and is thus shown to be inherently redactional in nature. By its very meaning and the way it is employed it speaks to the ordering of extant traditions in new literary frameworks. With one crucial exception the phrase is not presented as having been uttered by named Amoraim, and no named Amoraim seem to be aware of or make use of the re-linked statements as such. Rather, the literary recreation of the scholastic enterprise is narrated anonymously, in a form and style that seems to post-date, at least literarily, the rabbis referenced in each sugya. The Aramaic language, nature of the enterprise itself and the awareness of material from various places and times suggests that these sugyot are the products of people whose oeuvre was the redaction and presentation of material they had available to them, as such, it is possible that they date from a later period.  

This term has analogs both in early sources dating from Amoraic disciple circles, in which an analogous term was used to indicate the process by which different reports of statements could be combined to achieve a more authoritative version of a tradition, and in later texts from Geonic times in which the term comes to denote a specific kind of scholastic practice in which traditions were ordered for easy memorization and promulgation. 

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, parallels to these terms are found in the roughly contemporaneous literatures of Syriac speaking Christians providing avenues for comparisons between these scholastic cultures which shared scripture, language and similar modes of study as worship. The project of comparing the terminology of literary corpora which emanated from Jewish and Christian institutions provides a frame of reference for asking and answering broad questions about what it may have meant to promulgate religious ideas in literature within the Sassanian context in particularly scholastic centers. Finally, this study demonstrates the ways in which increasing sophistication in usage of these terms mirrors increasing academization during the Talmudic period. As such, evidence is marshalled in support of a more gradual model of the redaction of the Talmud. 

Dr. Noah Bickart is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Religions Studies at Yale University.

[1] Charlotte Elisheva Fonrobert and Martin S. Jaffee, Introduction to The Cambridge Companion To The Talmud and Rabbinic Literature (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 1.


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