Sunday 24 March 2019


Zivchei Tzedek by R. Abdallah Somech .

Some are torn between an agonizing choice:
- to study Talmud (Gemora) in the traditional manner, as in the style of a typical yeshiva;
- or to explore the world of academic Talmud study where variant texts, dates, awareness of the editing process, and the surrounding cultural influences are taken into consideration?

[For examples of such an approach see BabylonianInfluences on the Babylonian Talmud, and for an example of variant texts see And What Does Rashi Say?]

Once again I draw from another fascinating paper by Rabbi Dr Richard Hidary, who had studied under R. Yaakov Elman and is currently a professor at Yeshiva University.[1]
R. Hidary is the perfect person to express his views on the matter as he has studied and taught in both universities and yeshivas. 

[For more of R. Hidary’s research, see Were the Editors of the Bavli More Powerful than its Writers?]


R. Hidary begins by quoting the following excerpt containing some very challenging questions (and the Reader is left wondering as to its source) [2]:

“How was the Mishnah written?

Did the Men of the Great Assembly [410 to 310 BCE] begin to write it followed by the sages of each generation who each added small amounts until Rabbi [Yehuda ha-Nasi] came and sealed it [around 200 CE]

[The Mishnaic period, however, is generally given as much later, from around 0 to 200CE. Bringing in the Mishnaic period 400 years earlier lends more credence to it[3], but this creates another problem...]

On the other hand, most of it is anonymous and an anonymous Mishnah is [considered to have been authored much later] by R. Meir[136-163 CE]

[So, besides being a later work, if R. Meir did write most of the Mishnah, it suggests that the Mishnah was not really a collaborative work?]

Furthermore, most of the sages mentioned in it are R. Yehudah, R. Shimon, R. Meir and R. Yose who are all the students of R. Akiva?...[So, again, perhaps the Mishna only reflects one school of Jewish thought?]

The order of the Sedarim is clear; however, regarding the Massekhtot, why is Yoma before Shekalim... And so, too, regarding every Massekhet that was not ordered together with others that are similar in content? 

[Does this suggest some extensive but incomplete editing took place after the Mishnah was written?]

And the Tosefta about which we heard that R. Hiyya wrote it – was it written after the Mishnah or at the same time as it?

[Tosefta means ‘supplement’. The Tosefta was compiled in 189 CE and corresponds to the same format of the Mishnah with Sedarim and Messekhtot. It is similarly written in Mishnaic Hebrew although it sometimes contradicts the Mishnah and also contains Midrashic material. The Tosefta often takes anonymous rulings and names the authors and they are not always R. Meir.]

Why did R. Hiyya write it?

If it is additional material that explains issues in the Mishnah, then why did Rabbi [Yehuda ha-Nasi] not include it? After all, it is also stated by the Sages of the Mishnah [i.e it is from the same Mishnaic period. So is something subversive going on here]?

So, too, the Braitot [Braita means 'external'or 'outside' and refers to teachings also from the same Mishnaic period but not from the main academies] – how were they written?

So, too, the Talmud [200-500CE] – how was it written?

And the Saboraic sages...[who followed from 500-650CE, and were known as the editors of the Talmud]...

R. Hidary then points out that while this excerpt appears to resemble a modern course outline at a non-yeshiva academic institution, it is, in fact, a thousand-year-old piece of correspondence sent by the scholars of Kairouan, Tunisia, to Rav Sherira Gaon in 987CE!

Amazingly, we see that what would today pass for academic (as opposed to traditional) questions - which would be shunned by most contemporary non-baal-teshuvah yeshivot - was actually part of the legitimate mainstream scholarly debate of Gaonic times (650-1038).


Here is another example, this time about textual variants:

“In some versions of the Gemara, it is written that if one tells his fellow, ‘Only repay me in front of witnesses,’ and the other one claims ‘I did repay you before this person and that person but they went to a foreign land,’ he is not believed.

However, this is a scribal error which caused teachers to err based on those books.

I have researched the old versions and have found one that is reliable and I have received in Egypt part of an ancient Gemara written on parchment as they used to write five hundred years ago.

I have found two witnesses in the parchments regarding this halacha and in both of them it is written, “If he claimed, ‘I repaid before this person and that person and they went to a foreign land,’ he is believed.””

Once again R. Hidary shows that while this appears similar to something a Cambridge scholar would have written about the Cairo Geniza fragments - or something a Talmudic text critic at Hebrew University would have written - it is, in fact, a quotation from Rambam’s Mishneh Torah[4] from the late 12th century.

He asks:

“If Rambam made efforts to obtain the best manuscripts and evaluate them, does that make him untraditional? Are those of us who take time to read Talmudic manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza - perhaps some of the very manuscripts used by Rambam – also being untraditional?”

If this indeed was the practice of many of our earlier sages, then why is there so much resistance from the traditionalists today, towards those who pursue similar academic lines of study?


R. Hidary then explains when this antagonism towards academic Talmud study may have begun:

“In short, the split between ‘traditional’ and ‘academic’ study is fairly modern and somewhat unfortunate.

One finds manuscript analysis and discussion of redaction in the works of all the Rishonim right alongside and within their substantive commentaries. All the Rishonim lived before printing was invented and therefore had to deal with manuscript analysis.”

And then he pinpoints, historically, just when that shift towards closing the mind to anything outside of the standard traditional texts occurred:

“The split began when the Wissenschaft scholars began to explore mainly academic types of questions.”


The Wissenschaft des Judentums, or Science of Judaism, was a Jewish movement active in Germany in the 1800s which used scientific methods to critically examine rabbinic literature. 

Its early members were Heinrich Heine and Leopold Zunz and they attempted to create a Volk or people and replace religion with culture. Heine and many other members were later to convert to Christianity.

Their aim was to ‘elevate’ Judaism to be on equal footing with the other great cultures of the world. ‘Jewish Studies’ was introduced into the universities as a respectable academic course of study, and the publication of the Jewish Encyclopaedia in 1901-1906 is considered the fruits of its labour. The movement was keen to show that Judaism continued to make important contributions to world civilization throughout the ages.

The Wissenschaft did not despise Judaism and most of its members were happy to be associated with Jewish scholarship. They prided themselves on the tradition particularly of rabbis like Saadia Gaon, Ibn Ezra and Maimonides, and held them up as shining lights to show how these critical thinkers could and should become models for future intellectual Judaism.

Besides being cultural, the Wissenschaft also had a religious component and many of its members were rabbis who were preparing for a career in the rabbinate. However, some of the group were Enlightenment scholars who slowly turned away from orthodoxy and foreshadowed the birth of the reform movement.

Nonetheless, in the late 1800s, it developed an orthodox branch through members like R. Azriel Hildeshimer who was one of the founders of the Modern Orthodox movement. 

Another such member was R. David Tzvi Hoffman who later taught in R. Shimshon Refael Hirsch’s[5] school in Frankfurt am Main. R. Hoffman was also an original member of the more traditional Moetzes Gedolei haTorah, and yet he wasn’t afraid to quote historians like Heinrich Graetz.

Ironically the orthodox faction of the Wissenschaft came under fire by religious Jews who felt that the presence of respected rabbis would cause more boundaries to become blurred. And it was also the target of Christians who felt that the more liberal branch would attract non-Jewish converts and keep Jews from converting to Christianity and eventually, the government closed its synagogue which was run by Leopold Zunz (and which, incidentally, had an organ).

All being said and done, it was the Wissenschaft and its flirt with the left which largely created the negative attitude towards academic Judaism, which still remains and is very much prevalent today.


R. Hidary reminds us that during this time there were some Ashkenazi and certainly Sefaradic Acharonim who were not affected by the polemics, agendas and sometimes liberal associations of the Wissenschaft

These would include rabbis who were able to straddle both academic and traditional Talmud study:


R. Hazzan was born in Izmir, Turkey, and grew up in Jerusalem and served as a chief rabbi of Rome.
He possessed sufficient independence of mind to speak out against superstitious practices of Italian Jewry such as washing corpses in warm water and not allowing clocks in a synagogue yard.

He authored a work, Iyye haYam[6], a commentary on the Responsa of the Gaonim which also deals with the thorny issue of when the Talmud was finally put into writing. 

He analysed the Gaonic chain of tradition arguing that (the Spanish version of Iggeret Sherira Gaon was the original version and that) the Talmud was only written towards the end of the Gaonic period (around 1038) which is about 500 years later than commonly believed.


R. Nachman Natan Coronel was born in Amsterdam and worked in Jerusalem and Safed. He collected rare rabbinical manuscripts and sold some to European libraries. He authored numerous Halachik works as well as his Beit Natan which contains a number of manuscript variants for Masechet Berachot.

Besides his copious writing on rabbinic matters, he was also awarded the gold medal for art and science by the emperor of Austria.


Chacham Abdallah Somech was a respected posek or Halachik decisor, as well the Rosh Yeshiva of Midrash Beit Zilka in Baghdad.

He writes:

“A book has come into our hands whose title is Dikduke Soferim by Rabbi Refael Natan Neta [Rabbinowicz]...

He merited to enter the Bavarian State Library in Munich and found there a great find: a manuscript of the Babylonian Talmud from the year 1390.

It contains many variant readings from the Talmudic text in our printed editions. There are many sugyot [sections of Talmud] that are difficult but according to the reading in that manuscript they can be explained with ease.”[7]

Obituary for the author of Dikdukei Soferim - R. Refael Nata Rabbinowicz [8] - in the Jewish Standard, 7 December 1888, 


R. Hidary acknowledges that some academic scholars today do assume a mocking attitude towards anything of a rabbinic nature. It is also true that the yeshiva world often mocks the academic scholars. But he also says that many such scholars also started out with yeshiva training.

He sincerely believes that both the yeshiva and the academic worlds can co-exist and be mutually beneficial. He makes a very interesting point:

“...a 5-10 % investment of one’s learning time in ‘academic’ areas of textual and historical analysis will yield results many times over in the precision and depth of a student’s substantive analysis.

Every Talmud student should be drilled on basic dates, such as when the Mishna was composed, and know the names of the cities where the twenty most often quoted Tannaim and Amoraim were active, what generation they lived in, and who their teachers and students were.

I would further propose the introduction of some of the following into the curriculum: readings from Iggeret Rav Sherira Gaon; basics of manuscript analysis; introduction to Aramaic grammar; an outline of the history of the Jews in Israel and Babylonia during the Talmudic era and the functions of basic Rabbinic institutions, such as the Nassi, the Reish Galuta...the background cultures of the Romans and Sassanians; how to find and use Midrash Halacha, Tosefta, Yerushalmi and Geonic material; background on the biographies, methods and works of the Rishonim; and approaches to the study of Aggadah.”


Perhaps the best way to sum up R. Richard Hidary’s approach of mutual compromise and benefit, is to take note of the Aramaic wording of the title of his paper: 

'Hilkakh Nimrinhu le-Tarvaihu' ...Therefore let us say both!


R. Hidary concludes by writing that Yeshiva University “employs some of the most brilliant and talented minds in both areas of traditional and academic Talmud study.”

When I was at a yeshiva in New York, I expressed the desire to just go and have a look at Yeshiva University as it always held some strange allure for me. I was told not even to step anywhere near its vicinity.

I never did go even to just have a look.

That was a decision I regret to this day.


Rabbi Hidary has kindly given me permission to provide a link to his original article.

[1] Traditional versus Academic Talmud Study: “Hilkakh Nimrinhu le-Tarvaihu”, by Rabbi Dr Richard Hidary.
[2] Parentheses are mine.
[3] Some put the date of the beginning of the Mishnaic period at 273 BCE.  See –The Mishnaic Age.
[4] Hilchot Malveh veLoveh 15:2.
[5] It must be mentioned, though, that R. Hirsch was a staunch opponent of the Wissenschaft.
[6]Siman 187.
[7] Zivchei Tzedek haChadashot, siman 140.
[8] The newspaper article refers to R.Rabinowicz as Nathan Rephael while Chacham Abdallah refers to him as Refael Natan Neta.


  1. Can you check the links here? They don't seem to work.

  2. Thank you. I think its working now.

  3. Hi, another great post, Thank you. I was wondering if you were able to suggest where one might learn about the things you mentioned at the end of the post:
    1. basics of manuscript analysis;
    2. introduction to Aramaic grammar;
    3. an outline of the history of the Jews in Israel and Babylonia during the Talmudic era
    4. The functions of basic Rabbinic institutions, such as the Nassi, the Reish Galuta...the background cultures of the Romans and Sassanians;
    5. how to find and use Midrash Halacha, Tosefta, Yerushalmi and Geonic material;
    6. background on the biographies, methods and works of the Rishonim;
    7. approaches to the study of Aggadah.


  4. I think that the inference is that it is such a huge (and neglected) field of study that to be done comprehensively would involve restructuring of the popular system (i.e.: it will probably never happen).
    The serious student would have to either enroll at institutions that do teach such subjects, do much additional reading and be aware of manuscript analysis (which is thankfully becoming more and more available by various institutions presenting new editions which take into consideration the variant texts).
    In short, although its not easy within the present parameters, the first step is awareness of an unimaginably vast world of exciting and illuminating neglected Torah knowledge waiting to be discovered.

  5. excellent post. One question, why dont u just go and visit the Yeshiva university? just go, thats what I would do.

  6. Thanks queen lover. But I wish I would have studied there when I was a bit younger.