Originally published in Journal of Jewish Studies 7:1/2.
Abraham Weiss, Le-heqer ha-Talmud—The Talmud and its Development, Philip Feldheim, New York, 1954, pp. 446, price $5.
The Babylonian Talmud (like the Palestinian) is strangely silent on the subject of its own composition. Who were its final redactors? What role did they play? By which process did the Talmud assume its present shape? Is it possible to trace the development of the talmudic form of expression from the actual recorded debates through their recasting until it emerges as a literary style? How account for the puzzling phenomenon that statements are found attributed to both a Tannaitic and Amoraic source? What is the precise relationship between the memra (the legal maximof an Amora) and the sugya (the Talmudic section of which it is a part)? These, and kindred questions, have been almost entirely neglected by writers of talmudic methodology. The Classical methodological works such as the famous letter of Sherira Gaon, the Mebo Ha-Talmud of Samuel ha-Nagid, and the Sefer Keritut of Samson of Chinon, deal with the history of the Talmud and with its terminology; modern writers like Zechariah Frankel and David Hoffmann have made a noteworthy contribution to what has been called the ‘Higher Criticism’ of the Mishnah; but the detailed literary analysis of the Gemara has been left (with the exception of occasional notes in I. H. Weiss’s Dor Dor We-Doreshaw and I. Halevy’s Dorot ha-Rishonim) to recent scholars, prominent among whom are Julius Kaplan, the author of the justly renowned ‘The Redaction of the Babylonian Talmud,’ and the author of the work under review, who is probably the foremost living authority in this field.
Weiss has published a number of books and articles on this theme, the results of which are summarized and elaborated on in this work. Weiss is essentially a talmudist’s talmudist. Le-heqer ha-Talmud can only be fully appreciated by experts capable of examining the thousands of passages, quoted with astonishing erudition. For this reason it is more than a little difficult to convey the essence of the work in English. However, Weiss’s investigations are so novel and so important that an attempt is made here to sketch the more significant of them.
The work is divided into five parts. Part I deals with the fascinating question of the ‘fictitious sugya.’ A sugya is generally in the nature of a discussion, in which contending scholars are mentioned by name. Are the names of the disputants authentic, i.e. is the sugya report (with elaborations) of a discussion which actually took place, or are the names fictitious and the sugya a later composition in which differing views are conveyed by the device of placing them in the mouths of imaginary contestants? Or is it possible that both authentic and fictitious controversies are to be found? Weiss is undoubtedly correct in stating that the majority of sugyas, in which the names of many different scholars arc mentioned, have their origin in actual debates. There would have been far less circumstantial detail and a far greater economy of names if all the sugyas were fictitious. But, not content with this, the author takes issue with the Tosafists (B.B. 154b, s.v. b’ram; Bekh. 4b, s.v. ‘ela; Yeb. 35b, s.v. kule ‘alma; Nidd. 24a, s.v. ‘amar) and argues that there is not the slightest evidence that any sugya is fictitious.
This is not to say that the disputants always conducted their debates in each other’s presence; the Talmud abounds in reports of scholars ‘bringing’ teachings from one master to another and from one school to another. Still less is into say that the sugya as we know it has not been ‘re-touched.’ Weiss is convinced that the Talmud is a literary work, in which the raw material of the debates has been thoroughly refashioned. The Talmud has been called (by Herbert Loewe in his Foreword to D. Wright’s The Talmud, Lond., 1932, p. 10) the ‘Hansard’ of the discussions. This is inexact: there is more to the sugya than a plain report. A better analogy would be the account of a parliamentary debate by a literary historian like Froude or Macaulay. In fact, as the reviewer has tried to demonstrate (in the Journal of Jewish Studies, Vol, III, No. 4, 1952, ‘Evidence of Literary Device in the Babylonian Talmud,’ pp. 157-161), the redactors not only gave the discussions literary form, they, at times, even recast them so as to produce such effects as a sense of climax by witholding a vital piece of information until the end of the sugya. If this is correct, an even better illustration would be the historical novel, where events which actually happened have been embellished for dramatic purposes.
Part II deals with the complicated problem of statements attributed to either a Tannaitic or Amoraic source (with the formula: ‘So-and-so said, and others say it was taught in a Baraitha’); or those attributed to both sources (‘So-and-so said, and it was taught also in a Baraitha’); or where an Amoraic statement is supported in the sugya by a quotation from an identical, or, at least, similar, statement in a Baraitha. Who was really responsible for the statement quoted? How did one and the same statement come to be attributed to sources between which there was a gap of centuries? It is surely stretching the hand of coincidence too far to suggest that in so many cases an Amora and a Baraitha gave expression to the same opinion in almost identical terms. (Though Weiss does not deny that this may have happened on occasion).
Weiss (Dor, II, p. 215), partly as a result of this difficulty, goes so far as to suspect the authenticity of every Baraitha quoted in the Babylonian Talmud; regarding it as axiomatic that the Babylonian Amoraim did not scruple to fictitiously attribute their own opinions to the Tannaiim in order to endow them with authority, and, conversely, to plagiarize Tannaitic sources in quoting Tannaitic teachings as their own! Our author considers this to be an unwarranted aspersion on the integrity of the Babylonian teachers. His solution of the problem is to suggest that in the literary atmosphere of the Babylonian schools it often happened that a Tannaitic saying was so frequently quoted and commented upon by an Amora that in the course of time it became virtually identified with him; much as one today might speak of Shaw’s doctrine of creative evolution even though Shaw did not attempt to hide his indebtedness to Bergson’s élan vital. (A good example of this kind of identification, in an earlier period, is the ‘saying’ of Samuel the Younger in ‘Aboth IV. 19, which is no more than a direct quotation of Prov. xxiv, 17, 18. Cf. the treatment of ‘unacknowledged’ quotations in the Biblical literature, in Robert Gordis’s Koheleth—The Man And His World, N.Y., 1955, Chapter XII, p. 95f and notes). In the later process of redaction, the statement was attributed to either the Tanna or Amora or to both the Tanna and Amora.
The composition of the memra is the subject of Part III. In addition to original memras, there are those derived from other sayings or from decisions rendered. It must not be assumed that the whole of a memra, as we have it, is original. In most cases two distinct strata can recognized—the original text and the later comment, e.g. ‘So-and-so said . . .’ (text), ‘What is the reason? Because . . . .’ (comment). (Weiss, not too happily, calls these the ‘Mishnah’ and the ‘Gemara’ of the memra). That the comment on the ‘text’ is generally of a later date than the text itself can be seen, among other things, from the fact that occasionally more than one comment is given on the same text (cf. B.Q. 56b, B.M. 5b, Qidd. 44b, B.B. 148b).
Parts IV and V deal with variants in the texts of the memra and of the sources on which the memra is based. These are not to be confused with post-talmadic textual criticism i.e. with attempts at establishing a correct talmudic text. From numerous passages it is clear that there are variants of Amoraic statements in the Talmud itself. A careful and detailed analysis of these is given together with speculations as to how they came about.
The most important of the appendices is that refuting the views of I. Halevy and Julius Kaplan on the redaction of the Talmud. Weiss’s own view that the Gemara process of interpretation began right at the beginning of the Amoraic period and that our Talmud is the product of an accumulation of layers of such interpretations, is expounded at length in his other works and is here mentioned only indirectly. So too his disagreement with the traditional view that R. Ashi was the redactor of the Babylonian Talmud. It is a pity that Weiss does not give a summary of his views. It is clear that he looks upon the Talmud as a literary work and would not accept the widely held view that it was not committed to writing until the Saboraic period (see H. Strack’s Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash, E.T., Philadelphia, 1945, pp. 18-19). But it would have been helpful if this, and Weiss’s positioning general, had been more emphatically stated. As it is we are left with the impression that everything is still very much ‘in the air’ and that the problems so admirably delineated still await their solution. Be that as it may, no serious student of the Talmud can afford to neglect this work. Its scope, originality and comprehensiveness assure it of an honoured place in any talmudic library.