Friday, April 17, 2015


Steven Fine, Aaron Koller (ed.), Talmuda de-Eretz Israel: Archaeology and the Rabbis in Late Antique Palestine. Studia Judaica, Bd 73. Berlin; Boston: De Gruyter, 2014. Pp. xiii, 352. ISBN 9781614514855. €119.95.

Reviewed by Joseph Geiger, The Hebrew University of Jerusalem (

Version at BMCR home site

[Authors and titles are listed at the end of this review.]

Talmuda de-Eretz Israel has its roots in a conference organized by the Yeshiva University Center for Israel Studies in 2011' (ix). The volume promises "the integrated study of rabbinic texts and archaeology," stating that "[e]ach essay begins with a specific rabbinic source that serves as a focal point for the article" (viii). The papers are arranged in the order of the presumed dates of the sources discussed (though this is never made explicit).

Rabbinic literature is by far the largest body of writings from Antiquity that does not conform to the formula "by the elite, for the elite, about the elite." Hence one of the particularly interesting queries pertaining to it is its relation to the archaeologically recovered realia, of course with the proviso of the specific society to which these texts and data pertain. The major attempt to collect these realia and establish their relationship to the texts, Samuel Krauss's Talmudische Archäologie,1 is now over a century old: not only its age, but far more importantly, the immense proliferation of new material, make its replacement a major desideratum.2

The present volume is a welcome collection of papers by a variety of scholars each dealing with a specific problem. None of the contributions, however, faces the crucial larger issue: do the texts indeed reflect the material realities? No well known holders of a negative view on this question contributed to the volume. The general approach is summed up in two contributions included as "Afterwords," one by an eminent archaeologist, Eric Meyers, the other by an eminent rabbinic scholar, Daniel Sperber. Meyers remains committed to the idea that, in order to understand the world of the rabbis better, "it is imperative to be immersed in the textual material including the visual and epigraphical sources that are chronologically relevant" (305). He goes on to demonstrate this with respect to burial customs, remains of foodstuffs, stone vessels, ritual baths, synagogues and issues of gender – most of which are discussed at length by contributions in the volume. Sperber's article insists on the need for philological examination prior to the evaluation of the material finds. The piece is a bibliographic treasure-trove – though unfortunately needs editing.

With respect to the papers that form the main body of the volume, space constraints allow for no more than a brief enumeration of their contents and concerns.

Aster attacks the question of the origins of Mishnaic Hebrew: did it develop out of the Galilean dialect of the Northern Kingdom, or was it perhaps influenced by closely-related Phoenician? On the one hand, the archaeological evidence cannot support continuity between pre- exilic Israelite settlement and the re-emergence of Jewish communities in the Hellenistic period, while on the other hand there is evidence for Phoenician cultural penetration from the Persian period onwards: thus, the author suggests that "more weight ought to be given to Phoenician influence" (18). Milgram discusses the options suggested in the Mishnah to circumvent the express Biblical commandment (Deut. 21:15-17) of the firstborn son's double portion inheritance. He places the change in inheritance practice implied by this Mishnaic argument in the context of changes from the Biblical period's extended household, often headed by a firstborn son, to the predominance of the nuclear family in Mishnaic (viz., Roman) times. This change is supported by both textual and archaeological evidence; for classical parallels on the status of the firstborn see 27 n. 42. Yuval-Hacham takes up the issue of Jewish iconoclasm, an offshoot of the well-known debate concerning the conflict between the observance of the Second Commandment and the finds in the Palestinian synagogues. Though active Jewish iconoclasm seems to be attested, at best, in two widely separated cases, it is suggested that Late Antique Jewish attitudes to graven images were influenced by the active Christian polemics that eventually led to iconoclasm and the rise of Islam and its strict aniconic stance. Adler surveys two sets of archaeological finds – ritual baths, of which approximately 850 have been identified, and stone vessels – seeking to clarify the chronology of the relaxation of observance of certain purity laws. He places the dramatic decline in use of ritual baths not at the time of the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple, but rather at the suppression of the Bar-Kokhba revolt. He reaches a similar conclusion concerning the spread of stone vessels (all stone vessels are immune to ritual impurity). The paper does not take account of the reduction in Jewish population after the Bar-Kokhba revolt. Leibner maintains that the recently excavated fragments of the late third century mosaic floor of the synagogue at Khirbet Hamam in the Eastern Lower Galilee reflect a rabbinic interpretation of the crossing of the sea by Pharaoh's army. Like the wall paintings of the Dura Europus synagogue, this runs counter to the view of the rabbis as remote from the Jewish mainstream. Schiffman examines the complex relationship between the rabbinic prescriptions concerning the writing of Biblical texts and scribal practices in the Dead Sea scrolls. Sivertsev not only draws parallels between a story in the Palestinian Talmud about king Solomon and the doctrine of the king's two bodies of Kantorowicz, but sees in it also "an example of late Roman emperor-criticism"; he draws especially on the story of Justin II's abdication. Note that the Palestinian Talmud was redacted in the fourth century, centuries before the reign of Justin II. Visotzky finds support for the use of pattern and copy-books used by mosaicists in a parable in Genesis Rabbah. Notley argues that the archaeological discoveries at Magdala, on the western shore of the Sea of Galilee, support the suggestion that the fertile lands of Gennosar belonged to priests from Hasmonaean times. Hasan-Rokem fulfils, in spades, her promise to use "exegetical imagination" (a phrase she uses about half a dozen times) to connect a lengthy midrash in Leviticus Rabbah with the famous Odysseus mosaic in the House of Leontis in Scythopolis. Fine argues persuasively that descriptions of the Temple by later rabbis reflect Roman, and also Sasanian, architecture of their own times. This essay (by one of the editors!) is particularly poorly edited and proofread, even by the standards of the present volume (see below). A difficult passage in the Babylonian Talmud may be understood as a story about Rabbi Judah the Patriarch preventing his household from participating in pagan sacrifices. Stern argues that this interpretation is at least not contradicted by the archaeological evidence from Sepphoris and by Jewish epigraphic evidence from Asia Minor. Moreover, this seemingly unexpected behaviour of the "House of Rabbi" would be in line with Stern's revisionist view of the Patriarch's descent: according to his view Rabbi Judah was the first person to carry the title of Patriarch and rather than being the scion of a leading rabbinic dynasty he came from an aristocratic Galilean family. Fraade discusses the Rehov inscriptions in the context of linguistic code-switching and arrives at the conclusion that despite the differences in social milieu "rabbinic literature of the land of Israel and the realia of the synagogue inscriptions inhabited the same multilingual world" (238). Miller, in a very long paper, returns to Shaye Cohen's old problem of "epigraphical rabbis," and his case for their close association with the literary rabbis of our texts. Lieber considers how Late Antique Jewish nuptial poems reflect actual practices, and their closeness to contemporary Christian customs.

Though many of the papers repeat, in one form or another, their authors' earlier work, this is a welcome contribution to an important subject, attacking many of its most significant aspects. Unfortunately the world of the Palestinian rabbis, part of the Roman Empire, remains a closed book for most classical scholars. Admittedly, as with the world of the Egyptian papyri, the question of the specificity of the finds is far from uncontroversial, and it is an open question whether the conclusions about the Jews of Palestine are relevant for other provinces of the Roman Empire. Nevertheless, and despite the great difficulties rabbinic texts pose – in the experience of the present reviewer, appreciably greater than those of most classical literature – any effort to bring them closer to the world of classical scholarship must be welcome.

The volume is well served by a great number of illustrations. However, its editing and proofreading are rather indifferent. I note a small sample: 21, for verses read versus; 33 n. 12 E.E. Urbach is misspelled Orbach; in the same n. on the next page, Tiberis for Tiberias; 35, Blidstein is misspelled Bildstein; 38 n. 28, "Seventh Earthquake" – insert "Century"; 39, Pseuco-Jonathan; 100, "it gall nut," read "of gall nut"; 103, l. 2, an unfinished sentence; 171, "It is has been suggested..."; 226, n. 5, for "tree" read "three"; 231, n. 17, "Sterreichischen" (bis); 279, Tertullian is assigned to the fourth century; 323, n. 10, "Die Getreidebau" for "Der G."; 325, n. 19, (David) Jacoby is misspelled Jaakobi. Transcription of Hebrew and Aramaic is inconsistent throughout.

Table of Contents

Steven Fine and Aaron Koller, Preface v
Shawn Zelig Aster, Mishnah Baba Metsia 7:7 and the Relationship of Mishnaic Hebrew to Northern Biblical Hebrew 1
Jonathan S. Milgram, Mishnah Baba Batra 8:5 – The Transformation of the Firstborn Son from Family Leader to Family Member 19
Noa Yuval-Hacham, Mishnah Avodah Zarah 4:5 – The Faces of Effacement: Between Textual and Artistic Evidence 29
Joshua Weistuch and Ben Zion Rosenfeld, Tosefta Ma'aser Sheni 1:4 – The Rabbis and Roman Civic Coinage in Late Antique Palestine 53
Yonatan Adler, Tosefta Shabbat 1:4 – "Come and See the Extent to which Purity Had Spread" An Archaeological Perspective on the Historical Background to a Late Tannaitic Passage 63
Uzi Leibner, An Illustrated Midrash of Mekilta de R. Ishmael, Vayeḥi Beshalaḥ, 1 – Rabbis and the Jewish Community Revisited 83
Lawrence H. Schiffman, Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 1 (71b-72a) – "Of the Making of Books": Rabbinic Scribal Arts in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls 97
Alexei Sivertsev, Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 2,6 (20c) – The Demise of King Solomon and Roman Imperial Propaganda in Late Antiquity 111
Burton L. Visotzky, Genesis Rabbah 1:1 – Mosaic Torah as the Blueprint of the Universe – Insights from the Roman World 127
R. Steven Notley, Genesis Rabbah 98:17 – "And Why is it Called Gennosar?" Recent Discoveries at Magdala and Jewish Life on the Plain of Gennosar in the Early Roman Period 141
Galit Hasan-Rokem, Leviticus Rabbah 16:1 – "Odysseus and the Sirens" in the Beit Leontis Mosaic from Beit She'an 159
Steven Fine, Babylonian Talmud, Sukkah 51b – Coloring the Temple: Polychromy and the Jerusalem Temple in Late Antiquity 191
Sasha Stern, Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zarah 16a – Jews and Pagan Cults in Third-Century Sepphoris 205
Steven D. Fraade, The Rehov Inscriptions and Rabbinic Literature – Matters of Language 225
Stuart S. Miller, "This is the Beit Midrash of Rabbi Eliezer ha-Qappar" (Dabbura Inscription) – Were Epigraphical Rabbis Real Sages, or Nothing More Than Donors and Honored Deceased? 239
Laura S. Lieber, The Piyyutim le-Hatan of Qallir and Amittai – Jewish Marriage Customs in Early Byzantium 275
Eric Meyers, The Use of Archaeology in Understanding Rabbinic Materials: An Archaeological Perspective 303
Daniel Sperber, The Use of Archaeology in Understanding Rabbinic Materials: A Talmudic Perspective 321
Index 347


1.   See now Yaron Z. Eliav, 'Samuel Krauss and the early study of the physical world of the rabbis in Roman Palestine', JJS 65 (2014), 38-57. Yaron very kindly read this review and commented on it.
2.   An important recent contribution is Catherine Hezser (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Jewish Daily Life in Roman Palestine, Oxford 2010.

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