Originally published in Journal of Jewish Studies 46.
Yaakov Elman, Authority and Tradition: Toseftan Baraitot in Talmudic Babylonia. KTAV, Hoboken NJ, 1994. xiv, 328 pp. $39.50.
Jack N. Lightstone, The Rhetoric of the Babylonian Talmud, Its Social Meaning and Context. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, Waterloo, Ont., 1994. xiv, 317 pp. $28.50.
These two books contribute to the on-going investigation into the literary style and composition of the Babylonian Talmud. Yaakov Elman discusses with great erudition (though not without a degree of nitpicking) the problem of the relationship of the work known as the Tosefta to the Babylonian Talmud. Toseftan material appears regularly in the Bavli but often in a form different from that in the Tosefta now in our hands and some of the material is attributed to later Amoraim. Was ‘our’ Tosefta (it is extremely doubtful whether the Talmudic statement, tractate Sanhedrin 86a, that the anonymous sections of the Tosefta are to be attributed to the second century Tanna, R. Nehemiah, refers to ‘our’ Tosefta) compiled after the close of the Bavli or, even if it was compiled much earlier, did the editors of the Bavli have access to the work?
Elman first provides a helpful summary of modern scholarship on the question and then proceeds to study for comparative purposes Tosefta Pitha and its parallel in the Bavli Pesahim in order to see what light can be shed on the problem. The reason Elman has chosen these two blocks of material, when the investigation might have been undertaken by comparing two other parallel sections of the Tosefta and the Bavli, is that these two are of a suitable size, neither too small nor too large. Yet Elman remarks towards the end of the book (p. 275) that, since his research covers only these two in a comprehensive manner, ‘More work is necessary to determine whether the patterns detected in this first probe are typical for all of the Bavli and the Tosefta’. Since so much remains unresearched in any event, it can be argued that a better methodology would have been to try to survey, in a more perfunctory manner, the whole of the Bavli and the Tosefta, even at the cost of losing the close analysis, tables and all, Elman provides.
Nevertheless, Elman does arrive at certain conclusions, which he summarises as follows: ‘In sum, the Tosefta as it is now constructed cannot have been known to the redactors of the Babylonian Talmud, and, if their attributions are to be accepted, to Amoraim after the first generation. Baraitot seem to have circulated in Babylonia in oral traditions as discrete units, or, at most as clusters. . . . In any case, early or late, the Tosefta was not known as such in Amoraic Babylonia.’ Although Elman does touch on it in passing, more could have been made of the possibility that the final editors of the Bavli did use Toseftan bricks for the construction of their edifice but re-shaped them for the purpose. A particularly good example of this is the alteration of Tosefta Bava Kama 10 (ed. Zuckermandel p. 369) so that it fits into the sugya on the right of a man to take the law into his own hands (Bava Kama 27b) where the original wording is changed. This phenomenon of the use of earlier material that has been re-cast so as to fit in with the general argument is found not infrequently in the Bavli. It is often not a matter of two diverse texts but of the same text being worded in different ways.
Jack N. Lightstone examines the rhetoric of the Babylonian Talmud, using the tools of social anthropology as well as those of acute textual analysis. He has no difficulty in demonstrating the unique quality of this ‘rhetoric’ (he might have used the jargon-free word ‘argument’), found nowhere else in associated, ancient Rabbinic works. This is, in fact, known to every student of the Bavli without the need for a computer. Lightstone’s basic thesis is that this type of argument, redolent of the pure academic activity of the schoolhouse, emerged in the fifth century C.E., when the social conditions of the time tended to encourage an ‘elitist virtuosity’, as Lightstone calls it.
The reader of Lightstone’s book is required to have sufficient stamina to wade through a morass of obfuscation. Many a reader will be tempted to give up when presented with page after page in which perfectly intelligible arguments, which could have been presented in ordinary prose form, are laid out in squiggly form, as if they were poems by E. E. Cummings.