Scroll Down: Classical Jewish Texts on the Internet

Spring 2018

Source: AJS Perspectives, Spring 2018


A revolution has occurred, but most people, it seems, have not noticed. I refer to the worldwide effort to digitalize the great medieval Jewish manuscript tradition, with full credit to individuals such as Albert Friedberg, George Blumenthal, and Leonard Polansky for making this work possible through their generous benefactions. The result is a brave new world, in which these precious treasures of the Jewish past are now available to scholars, students, and the public at large. As far as I can tell, this major enterprise has not received the attention it deserves, while the use of these manuscripts has not yet been fully integrated into the teaching of Jewish Studies. I, for one, have become an evangelist for the cause, as reflected by the fact that during the past decade, more and more of my teaching, research, and lecturing has been devoted to these manuscripts.

Thus, for example, I have delivered a public lecture entitled “Scroll Down: Classical Jewish Texts, from Parchment to the Internet” (with its intentionally catchy, clever title) at Oxford, Birmingham, UCLA, Catholic University, and Rutgers; twice I have taught a course for Jewish Studies undergraduate majors and graduate students on the subject; and I have segued from my own core research in the areas of Bible and Hebrew language to several recent publications on specific issues in medieval manuscripts.

Most importantly for the present essay, these manuscripts have informed my teaching, not only with such obvious courses as “Introduction to the Bible” and “The Dead Sea Scrolls,” but most significantly with “Jewish History I: Ancient and Medieval.” This latter course, which serves as the Jewish history survey course (part 1) here at Rutgers, includes the Middle Ages (per the title), concluding with the year 1492. Through images of medieval manuscripts, I make the life of late antique and medieval Jewry come alive.

The Mishnah is no longer just the earliest rabbinic text, but we also marvel at its later manuscript tradition, especially by examining the Kaufmann manuscript (Budapest). The Talmud of the Land of Israel (Leiden manuscript) is inspected here; while the Babylonian Talmud (Munich manuscript) is examined here. Even if the students cannot read Hebrew, they are able to appreciate these texts, the size of each compilation, and the history of their transmissions. They no longer are abstract compositions, which appear in book form, usually as a series of printed books on a bookshelf (which immediately removes them from their historical setting). Rather, these classical rabbinic texts now are understood as words written in ink by a scribe on vellum or parchment (even if in these cases the original compositions were transmitted orally for generations). Whether my students are Jewish or non-Jewish, knowledgeable in Hebrew or not, they are all able to recognize the expert scribal hand responsible for the Kaufmann Mishnah manuscript.

There is, moreover, an important history lesson that can be learned by reading the Mishnah manuscripts (Kaufmann and others). I direct the students’ attention to the statement in M. Sanhedrin 4:5 (fig. 1).  The printed editions from the sixteenth century onward read, “One who destroys a life within Israel, he brings upon himself the saying, ‘It is as if he has destroyed an entire world.’ And one who raises up a life within Israel, he brings upon himself the saying, ‘It is as if he raised up an entire world.’” When one looks at the manuscripts, however, one realizes that the phrase “MiYisrael” (“within Israel”) is lacking. These documents testify to the real world view of the rabbis: every single human life—Jewish or non-Jewish—is to be valued.

How does one explain the addition of “MiYisrael” (“within Israel”) in the printed editions? My proposal is that centuries of medieval antisemitism, especially within Christian Europe, led the Jewish community to have a less sanguine attitude toward the value of the lives of non-Jews. Blood libels, accusations of host desecrations, rampant killings, inquisitions, expulsions, and more had taken their toll. The Jewish community turned inward, away from the universalist outlook expressed by the classical rabbis. The great ecumenical ideal enunciated in the Mishnah was transformed into a parochial statement by later Jews: what a teachable moment.

As indicated, the manuscripts for the Mishnah, the Talmudim, and other rabbinic compilations are dated centuries after the composition and final editing of these texts. When we reach the Middle Ages in our course, accordingly, the characters whom we study truly come alive through our inspection of the manuscripts. Judah ha-Levi is not just the author of the great philosophical work ha-Kuzari, who left his native Spain to travel to ’Erez Yisra’el, but he is the one who personally penned the Cairo Geniza document J.T.S. ENA I.5 (L41), a letter addressed to a colleague, in which the author mentions both the book and his travel plans (fig. 2). This document, along with all the Geniza documents noted below, are available here, from which I capture the images for educational purposes.

Read the entire article at AJS Perspectives.

Updated: Mar. 27, 2019