“Effective Combinations of Words and Things: The Babylonian Talmud Gittin 67b-70b and the Literary Standards of Late Antiquity,” PhD Dissertation, University of Zurich, Switzerland, 2018.
When I applied for a doctoral position proposing to write a PhD thesis on the basis of my master's thesis entitled 'Magic in the Babylonian Talmud's Tractate Shabbat', the professor smiled gracefully at me and said: "I see your potential as a scholar - but we will have to work on the concepts you use!" This came both as a shock (who likes to start from scratch all over again?!) and as a relief. During my studies on magic in the Talmud I had felt a continuous unease. Wasn't I creating something artificial and utterly unhistorical by accumulating bits of texts that were - apart from my notion that they referred to something unreasonable and unorthodox and, hence, magical - completely unrelated?
For a short moment I considered exchanging the concept of magic with medicine before realizing that this was too easy. Abstract modern concepts such as magic, religion and science (and medicine as a sub-category thereof) that were not designed for historical analysis should be avoided. These three concepts, for example, lead to an import of a centuries-long European discourse on what is right and what is wrong. Moreover, 20th century syllogism has taken on the habit of turning abstract concepts into categories, arguing that this is pertinent for mutual understanding. While this may be true for more concrete categories such as 'furniture', 'colors' and 'vehicles', abstract categories such as gnosticism, philosophy, religion (and the dependent -isms as well as the -ity) often destroy original networks instead of helping to organize them..
Although I had to rack my brains to avoid these familiar concepts every time I started writing, this was actually where I found that my work started to become meaningful. After all, what is the use of digging through ancient texts if we do not allow them to teach us their concepts? Subsequently, a whole new intellectual world opened up before me. I would like to share some of its insights here.
As Daniel Picus wrote in his dissertation spotlight: the core of a dissertation, usually the first written chapter, tends not to become the first within the dissertation. So, too, my core chapter became the fourth of five chapters. It basically contains the insight that, stripped bare of their dialectical attributions (Rav X said Z; R. Y said W), distinct literary excerpts can be made out in the body of the Babylonian Talmud. Thus, I show that one type of medical recipe can be found throughout the Babylonian Talmud in various formats—lists, anecdotes, or framed as sayings. I recollected the recipes and rearranged the original treatise behind the excerpts through comparison with similar late antique treatises, mostly from the Greco-Latin surroundings.
From here, I could have preceded in several directions. I could have, for example, gone the classical medical-historical route and traced possible genealogical relationships of the recipes, the origin of the ingredients (thereby maybe providing certain updates on Löw's Flora der Juden, 1924-34) or even the biochemical effectiveness of certain therapies. However, by that time I was too much intrigued by the compilation technique applied by the compiler of the Talmud, and I chose to devote the rest of my dissertation to a thorough analysis of the commentary to the Mishnaic lemma qordiaqos in bGit 67b-70b.
Chapter One now addresses the question of the genre of the Babylonian Talmud. Is it a “commentary plus,” as is often heard, or rather an “encyclopedia minus?” Do genres matter at all in the late antique library or to the late antique author, or was the ancients’ focus rather on the genealogical, and thereupon ideological, affiliations which books were supposed to have? These questions are both historically and conceptually significant. Still, the inquiry served yet another purpose, namely to integrate the Babylonian Talmud into the literary world of its time. Judging from suitable comparanda, the latter should not be placed further forward than the 5th or 6th century CE.
The second chapter discusses the technique applied by the compiler of the Talmud in more detail. It starts with Pliny the Elder and his nephew's description of the elder's processing of material for his Natural History, as well as archaeological research based on this information. I attempt to show how the compiler worked with keywords and excerpts in order to obtain the most fitting rhetorical structure. Suitable units for investigating the work of the compiler are, according to this assessment, not the traditional sugya, the argument, but commentaries that run from one lemma to the next.
The third chapter addresses the stories in the commentary on qordiaqos, which include the well-known stories about Rav Sheshet dining at the exilarch's house where he is fed different kinds of impure or inedible chunks of meat, as well as the stories about Solomon hunting for the shamir to build the temple. It is shown that the stories are composed as strings of exchangeable micro-stories, thereby allowing for a deliberate reduction or extension of the plot. This observation, as well as a very detailed analysis of the references to other stories and texts which constitute the story, are brought into connection with the prevailing aesthetics not only of texts, but in late antiquity in general.
Similarly, the reconstructed recipe book in the fourth chapter is not only my patchwork, but most of all the patchwork of a collector, adaptor and generator of therapies. As the versatile utilization of these recipes in the Babylonian Talmud shows (not only enlisted, but also in stories or framed as dicta), even medical recipes constitute distinct entities with a life of their own and may serve as building blocks (patches) of various texts.
A good rhetorical composition tries to startle the audience one last time in the concluding remarks, the peroration. However, a compiler working with excerpts is often forced to use the otherwise unfitting but still noteworthy pieces in the end. Thus, in the Gittin commentary under discussion as well, the end is only loosely connected to one keyword (wine) and still startles the reader/listener with a whole new perspective on disease, namely behavior. Behavior as well, the reader/listener is told, can lead to diseases, as well as weaken, or strengthen the body. While there seems to exist no therapy other than 'don't do it!' and thereby avoiding these diseases altogether, the mix of addressed harmful positions during intercourse, or badly chosen foodstuffs, allowed me to discuss some loose ends in my last chapter as well. Among the latter are a discussion of indications and recipes that were treated in a hermeneutical manner and thereby transferred into a different realm, food preparation and gender conceptions as well as healing through words.
In the end, I faced patchwork everywhere: in the commentary on qordiaqos, which is made out of excerpts; in the stories which are built out of individual stories (with other built-ins) as well as in the recipe book which was made of very different recipes (ingredient-wise). Could this approach be framed in one or several concepts? It seems that exactly this question explains a difference between the contemporary and the late antique scientific way of thinking. While we like to frame things in concepts or even more stable categories, they decided and ordered bits and pieces of information on a case-by-case basis.
Thus, many curative recipes provide alternative therapies right away, and proof stories illustrate ad-hoc adaptations. The same is true for the way in which stories are crafted, enabling dialogues and characters to be exchanged in order to illustrate a certain point. This is, of course, also apparent the rabbinic take on law, based on individual juridical cases.
Maybe not surprisingly, the Google Books ngram viewer shows a significant increase in the use of the term “concept” between 1850 and 1979, from 0% to 0,01% of usage. This does, of course, not imply that there were no concepts before this time. But, apparently, there was no need to (and no marked for) identifying them. If we want to identify the late ancient non-Aristotelian syllogism we may be more successful without the use of abstract categories and the search for concepts. And this, I would like to emphasize, is a methodological statement and not outdated postmodern criticism.