Sunday, February 19, 2023

The Printed Page of the Talmud by Rabbi HAYM SOLOVEITCHIK

0PEN ANY COPY of the Talmud printed within the past half millennium and you will find on the inner side of the page the commentary of Rashi  and on the outer side of the page Tosafot, the glosses of the French talmudists of the twelfth and thirteenth century. Why did Rashi and Tosafot become so central to talmudic study and why is their study the core of the traditional Jewish canon?

If one reads an accurate translation of the Talmud, such as the translation published by the Soncino press, one will understand all the words of the text and the general line of argument, but the individual steps lack clarity and the argument as a whole hangs loosely together. The reason is that the Talmud is, as it were, a "telegramatic" text, the main points are stated, but the flow, the linkage of the various points, is left up to the reader to reconstruct. It is this flow and linkage that Rashi supplies, and with remarkably few words. Rashi was gifted with an inordinate ability to detect both minor gaps in a presentation and the slightest ambiguity oflanguage and correct them succinctly. Realizing the cumulative effect of trivial errors, he deftly guides the student through the text with a mere word or two, preventing a host of possible misunderstandings. So definitively did Rashi solve these problems that no one ever attempted again to write another commentary to the Talmud and all other commentaries were swiftly consigned to oblivion. Provence discarded its classic commentary, that of R. Abraham ben David of Posquieres (r125-rr98), and even Yemenite Jewry, who revered Maimonides (rr35-1204) as few other Jewish cultures have venerated a scholar, allowed Maimonides' commentary to the Talmud to disappear.

Rashi's commentary did not arise out of nowhere. Genius alone could never discern the meaning of the innumerable Persian, Greek, and Latin words that abound in the Talmud. Behind Rashi stood the traditions of talmudic interpretation of the academies of the Rhineland, the famed yeshivot of Mainz and Worms that Rashi attended as a youth. Those traditions are now known as the Com­mentaries of Rabbenu Gershom Maor ha-Golah (Light of the Exile). Like the ban of polygamy that is attributed to Rabbenu Gershom but is actually a longstanding communal ban, the Commentaries are not his but rather the collective work of the academy of Mainz in the eleventh century.' The com­mentary on several tractates has been preserved and a comparison with that of Rashi is illuminating. Much of the exegetical material of Rashi is already found there, but the commentary lacks those crucial words and comments that give bite and tightness to the talmudic arguments. Much as a great lawyer takes a brief of a competent one and, with an insertion of a phrase or two, transforms the reasonable argument into a convincing one, so Rashi transformed his heritage. The bricks and mortar of his ceuvre are to be found in the works of his predecessors. What those commentaries lack is the magic touch of Rashi's masonry.

The commentaries of Rashi democratized talmudic scholarship. Prior to his work, the only way to master a tractate was to travel to a talmudic academy and study at the feet of a master. No writ¬ten work could systematically convey with any degree of sustained accuracy the precise line of a talmudic argument. That could be conveyed only by oral instruction, by the vibrant voice of gifted teachers. With the appearance of Rashi's work, anyone, regardless of means, could by dint of talent and effort master any talmudic topic. It further expanded the range of knowledge of most scholars. Previously, one knew accurately only what one had been fortunate to study at an academy. Once one departed, one could scarcely expand his range of knowledge, at least not with equal precision. The lifelong study of Talmud, the constant conquest of new tractates, and the unlimited personal acquisi¬tion of knowledge was in many ways the consequence ofRashi's inimitable work of exposition.

This is not to say that Rashi's explanations were definitive. Far from it. For some three hundred years scholars scrutinized his commentary, criticized innumerable passages, and demanded their reinterpretation. Yet, all realized that the problem that had confronted scholars for close to half a millennium- how to turn the abrupt and sometimes gnomic formulations of the Talmud into a coherent and smoothly flowing text- had been solved definitively by Rashi. The subsequent task of scholars, therefore, was to emend and add to his interpretations. Thus came into existence the subsequent genre of talmudic commentary, the Tosafot, or "additions" to Rashi that are printed along side his commentary.

What are the Tosafot? The glosses of scholastic dialectics, the product of collation, contradiction, and distinction. The Talmud is a vast, loosely organized corpus with many overlapping discussions. The tosafists undertook on each and every given topic to collate all the discussions of a given issue in the entire Talmud, to note any contradictions between the different passages, and to resolve them by distinguishing between the cases under discussion. Not that the tosafists were the first to note contradictions in the Talmud. Contradictions have been noted from the moment that the Talmud became normative. The approach that had previously prevailed was to follow, in cases of contradiction, the sugya de-shematsa (dominant discussion). There is generally one major treatment of an issue in the Talmud, though that issue may reappear in the course of many other discussions. When confronted with a contradiction, one should follow the conclusions of the dominant discussion, even if other talmudic discussions of the problem would seem to imply a different outcome. The premise of dialectic is, however, that there are no "major" and "minor" passages in the corpus. All passages are of equal valence. The Talmud in its totality is a harmonious whole. Talmudic discussions are indeed "telegrammatic," and thus, though certain conditions of the case at bar are not always expressly spelled out, they are inferable from the discussion. The task of the scholar is to ferret out the distinctiveness of each of the seemingly similar cases under discussion and, thereby, restore harmony to an apparently dissonant corpus. Not that the tosafists were the first people to distinguish between seemingly similar cases. Just as contradictions were noted from the very outset of talmudic study, so too were distinctions made and contradictions resolved from the beginning. Maimonides often quietly resolved contradictions with an added word or two, and few scholars quietly anticipated and resolved more questions that way than did Rashi. 

Anyone familiar with the super-commentarial works on Rashi knows how frequently the authors note, "and Rashi forfended the problem by .... " What was new in the dialectical approach is the systematic quest for, and resolution of, contradictions. It demanded a new mode of study, in a sense, even a new curriculum. The Talmud could no longer be studied "vertically," or consecutively, line after line, page after page, as had been done previously. It demanded "horizontal" study, where each line of the Talmud was sys¬tematically collated with all parallel passages found in the vast talmudic corpus, and contradictions were uncovered and resolved. The fruit of their labor of some two centuries is Tosafot, the glosses printed alongside Rashi.
Anonymity reigns in the Tosafot. Only too often questions are raised without the name of the interlocutor. We find simply, "ve-temah" (objection) or "im tomar" (should you say). Nevertheless, the acronyms of two speakers do stand out: I1"i and '"i. The former designates Rabbenu Tam, the universally accepted moniker for R. Jacob hen Meir of Ramerupt (r roc--r r yr}; the latter indicates his nephew, R. Isaac of Dampierre ( d. II 8 9). 2 Most of the famed thought of the tosafists is actually the product of these two men. Who were they and why their prominence?

The dialectical method, omnipresent in the Talmud, was revived by Rabbenu Tam. Dialectic was the dominant mode of scholastic thinking in the Middle Ages- it obtained in Roman and canon law and in theology. Was Rabbenu Tam influenced by developments in his surroundings? The revival of Roman law had not come to Champagne by the second or third decade of the twelfth century when Rabbenu Tam began his revolution, and the dialectics of canon law did not appear until later. In theology, dialectics was indeed emerging in northern France at this time, but its concepts and vocabulary were so technical, alien, and, in one sense, repugnant to Jews, that, even if we overlook the fact that these discussions were conducted in Latin, "the language of the priests" as Jews called it, it seems rash to attribute influence to them without concrete evidence. One can of course invoke the zeitgeist (spirit of the age), but that simply is another way of saying we know of parallel develop-
ments without having any evidence of contact.

In one sense the question is bootless. The greatness of Rabbenu Tam did not lie in his discovery of dialectic, which is employed in the talmudic discussions themselves, but rather in the scope and depth of his use of it. Rabbenu Tam's influence extended over the entire talmudic corpus; he scarcely left a topic that he did not revolutionize by dialectic. He was able to offer many hundreds, probably thousands, of legal distinctions that subsequent thinkers found, and to this day still find, essential for any understanding of talmudic law. So fecund were his ideas and so productive was his mode of thinking that this mode of analysis has continued to the present day. Rab¬benu Tam rewrote halakhic thought by his revival and use of dialectic and made this method an indispensable tool of talmudic study.

Though extraordinarily creative, Rabbenu Tam wrote very little. The one small work he authored himself, Sefer ha- Yashar, was first printed in I 8 I I and remains unused to this day. Words came easily enough to Rabbenu Tam when engaged in polemic or in the niceties of polite correspondence, but when called upon to express ideas, the sentences swiftly break down. The flow of words is unable to keep pace with the speed of his thought and with the leaps of his creative association. It is ronic that the one significant tosafist who wielded the metrics of Spanish poetry with any degree of skill was unable to pen a clear sentence, even by the abrupt and inelegant standards of dialectical writing.

Rabbenu Tam's thoughts have come down to us via the agency of his nephew, R. Isaac of Dampierre (Ri). Indeed, were it not for Ri, not only Rabbenu Tam's work, but the very dialectical revolution itself, might well have had no lasting impact. The nephew was the equal of the uncle in genius, but wholly opposite in character. Not for him the communal involvements, the sound and fury of scholarly controversies, the threats of excommunication that characterized the career of his stormy and imperious uncle. Quiet and unassuming, and without any desire to bend others to his will, Ri passed his entire life teaching and writing in a two- or three-street hamlet in Champagne.4 We know little more of his self-effacing life other than that he studied with his uncle, Rabbenu Tam. This meek exterior, however, hid an iron will and a relentless dedication to his craft that few equaled in Jewish history. Just as his great-grandfather, Rashi, humbly but steadfastly sought to explicate the entire Talmud, Ri undertook the protean task of elucidating the entire Talmud in light of dialectic and equally succeeded in his goal. In his school and under his tutelage every line of the Talmud was subjected to the probing light of the newly revived method. The slightest whisper of contradic¬tion was noted and solutions were proffered; solutions and distinctions that have proven so suggestive and fruitful that their study is the staple of the talmudic curriculum to this day. 

Rightly, Nahmanides deemed Ri, baa! ha-Tosafot (the author of the Tosa[ot). Though an easy writer, Ri himself wrote little. He adopted the widely used method of composition, the reportatio.5 The magister (master) would select a stu¬dent to prepare a report of his teaching that he then would correct and certify, or the master would dictate the text himself. While Latin circles attributed these reports to the teacher, the tosafists credited them to the pupil. Nevertheless, all recognized that the work was an accurate report of the master's teachings. Over the course of his life, Ri used four students to write reportatios. The first, his son, R. Elhanan, was in the midst of composing a commentary on the tractate Avodah Zarah when he was murdered in a pogrom in n84. That truncated work is the only one of his many Tosafot that has come down to us. 6 R. Samson of Sens picked up where his fallen colleague had left off and wrote Tosafot on much of the Talmud. These Tosafot form the basis for most of the printed Tosafot on the Talmud. Only three of his original Tosafot have survived, those on Pesabim, Ketubbot, and parts of Avodah Zarah,' R. Judah of Paris penned a third set of reportatios, and those on Berakhot and Avodah Zarah have come down to us.  One student, R. Barukh, felt the need to bring the new discussions and conclusions of the dialectic to a wider audience and to draw practical conclusions from them. That is to say, translate the new ideas of Dampierre into religious practice. He chose several select topics, such as the laws of the Sabbath and kashrut, and composed, under Ri's direction or atleast inspiration, a reportatio elucidating Ri's teachings regarding these matters. Entitled, Sefer ha-Terumah, the work is in every sense a Tosafot from the school of Ri. 

Two areas of Jewish law are not found in either Rashi or Tosafot: agricultural law and the laws of purity. The former, discussed in Zeraim, primarily obtain in the Land of Israel, while the latter, addressed in Tohorot, are operative only when the Temple in Jerusalem is standing. These tractates consist only of Mishnayot. Both Rashi and Tosafot restricted their work to talmudic tractates and therefore left these areas untreated. Ri's pupil, the aforementioned R. Samson of Sens, penned a vast commentary to these Mishnayot, a work that has not been superseded to this day. 10 His departure for Israel in r2II effectively ended the creative period of tosafist thought. 
Most intellectual revolutions take a century or so to be absorbed, not only by the public but also by the discipline itself Such was the case with the joint labors of Rabbenu Tam and Ri. Put differently, intellectual revolutions occur wholesale, their impact is achieved only by retailing it. The thirteenth century witnessed the packaging and delivery, if you wish, of the thoughts of the great men of the twelfth century. This took two forms: the writing of codes and the editing of the Tosafot that had been issued from Ri's academy in Dampierre. 

The first task, foreseen by R. Barukh, was undertaken on a grand scale by R. Moses of Couey, tosafist, preacher, and disputant at the trial of the Talmud in Paris in 1240. Organizing his work according to Maimonides' count of the biblical commandments, he reproduced under the rubric of each commandment, the extensive discussions of the Tosafot of his teacher, R. Judah of Paris. The end product was a massive two-volume work entitled Sefer Mitzvot Gadol, which was accessible only to scholars. II The need for a briefer, practical guide to the tosafists teachings was immediately felt and swiftly met. R. Isaac of Corbeil penned an abridgement of this work called Sefer Mitzvot Katan, which was widely diffused and very influential.  
The editing and abridging of the Dampierre Tosafot occupied such mid- and late-thirteenth-century talmudists as R. Perez of Corbeil and R. Eliezer of Touques. Their works are known, not surprisingly, as Tosafot R. Perez and Tosafot Touques. Oddly enough, these thirteenth-century abridgments became the basis for our printed Tosafot, not the original Tosafot that were issued by Ri's academy in Dampierre. In Italy in the late-fifteenth century, the Tosafot of R. Samson of Sens, were generally available, but by a strange twist of fate this classic set of Tosafot did not make it into the canon. Gershom Soncino, the printer of the first published Talmud, had somehow heard that the Tosafot of Touques and other late Tosafot were the most reliable. So he disregarded the Tosafot of R. Samson that lay readily at hand and at personal risk traveled to France to find these reputedly superior Tosafot. As he wrote thirty years later in a somewhat garbled note: 

I toiled and found books that were previously closed and sealed, and brought them forth to the light of the sun, to shine in the firmament, as the Tosafot from Touques of R. Isaac and Rabbenu Tam(?!). I traveled to France, Charnbery and Geneva, the places where [the books] were conceived, so that the public might benefit from them, for in Spain, Italy and all the lands, we have only heard of the [Tosafot] of Sens, of R. Perez and R. Shimshon and their colleagues. 1 
What he brought back from his foray in France was an assorted mixture of Tosafot from a variety of schools,  and this late medley of Tosafot, wholly derivative of those of Dampierre are what he (and subsequently all other printers of the Talmud) published. And it is they that have become the canonical Tosafot of the printed page. The caliber of Rabbenu Tam and Ri was such, however, that their thinking, even in a somewhat abrupt and abbreviated form, was powerful enough to shape the course of talmudic thought for close to a millennium. 

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