Originally published in BSOAS 39:2 (1976), pp. 435-6.
Baruch M. Bokser: Samuel’s commentary on the Mishnah: its nature, forms, and content. Part 1. Mishnayot in the order of Zera’im. (Studies in Judaism in Late Antiquity, Vol. 15, Pt. 1.) xvi, 257 pp. Leiden: E. J. Brill, 1975. Guilders 80.
The Mishnah, compiled in Palestine around A.D. 220, was commented on at length by individual teachers and in the schools of Palestine and Babylon. The term Amoraim, used of these post-Mishnaic teachers of Judaism, means, in fact, interpreters, who saw as their main task the elucidation of the Mishnah and the other sources used by the Tannaim, the teachers who flourished during the first two centuries in Palestine. Prominent among the early third-century Amoraim was the Babylonian Shmuel or Mar Shmuel whose comments on the Mishnah are scattered throughout both the Palestinian and BabyIonian Talmuds. The question to which the author addresses himself, following a. suggestion thrown out by his teacher, Professor J. Neusner, is whether these amount to an actual commentary on the Mishnah by Shmuel which circulated along with the Mishnah itself among the Amoraim.
Bokser’s method is first to isolate from the mass of material in the two Talmuds all the references to comments on the Mishnah by Shmuel, in this volume to those on the order Zera’im, dealing with agricultural laws, and then to see if the total of 51 items adds up to a commentary or, at least, the extant portion of a larger work in the form of a commentary. On the face of it there are no more than stray comments but with skill and erudition Bokser seeks to demonstrate that they do seem to belong to an actual running commentary to the Mishnah. This result is arrived at by the application of form-critical method on the same lines as Neusner’s work on the Mishnayot dealing with the laws of impurities (but here applied to the Amoraic literature). For instance some of Samuel’s comments are recorded as part of a debate with other Amoraim and a statement in a debate regarding a particular matter cannot be at the same time part of a general commentary. Yet careful analysis shows that the debate form is not original with Shmuel but is a device adopted by the later editors e.g. Shmuel’s interpretation of a given Mishnah is at times recorded side by side with a different interpretation by his Palestinian contemporary Rabbi Yohanan but it is highly improbable that Shmuel in Babylon really conducted a sustained debate with Rabbi Yohanan in Palestine. To be sure there were good communications between the two centres of Jewish learning but these were surely insufficiently adequate for a debate between the two teachers to be carried out effectively. It is far more probable that Shmuel and Rabbi Yohanan commented on the Mishnah independently of one another, their opinions being later presented as if they had engaged in a debate.
This is only Part 1 of Bokser’s thesis and covers only one of the six orders of the Mishnah. The complete, investigation is therefore awaited when, it is hoped, the answers will be forthcoming to certain important problems. (Bokser, it should be said, does touch upon them.) Thus, if it be granted that Shmuel did compile a commentary to the Mishnah how extensive was it? Why did he comment on some Mishnayot and not on others? Has some of the material been lost? Was Shmuel the only Amora who compiled a commentary to the Mishnah or can the same detective methods succeed in uncovering similar commentaries by other early Amoraim, the afore-mentioned Rabbi Yohanan for instance? But even, this part of the work abounds in fruitful insights into the way in which the Amoraic traditions were transmitted and later recorded.