Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Which is more impressive (debunking the Yerushalmi Kodshim)

I've long felt that "stories" are fascinating because, ostensibly, we can learn something about people who tell stories; what inspires them, what they dislike, what their values are like etc. Obviously its easy to play the pop shrink and come to all sorts of unfounded conclusions, but even so, the stories we tell tell stories about us....I think.

Another thing I find fascinating is the episode concerning the fraudulent Yerushalmi order of Kodshim which was published early in the 20th century and accepted by many gedolei Torah, as well as critical scholars, but also suspected and proved to be a forgery by....other gedolei Torah, as well as critical scholars. A fascinating overview of the case was written by R. Yosef Gavriel Bechhofer and can be downloaded here.

In brief, the one-time existence of the a Talmud Yerushalmi on Kodshim was known from references to it in rishonic literature, but the actual order itself was lost. A mysterious person calling himself Shlomo Yehuda Algazi-Friedlaender, claiming to be Sephardic (but was actually Lithuanian), turned up with a text he claimed was the Yerushalmi Kodshim. He had in fact forged it himself, and did so ingeniously, reworking actual texts from the Bavli, creating his own text out of unsourced halakhot quoted by rishonim, changing names etc. It's really worth reading R. Bechhofer's exceptional essay.

In the essay he notes a story (refer back to the first paragraph of this post), which he calls "an unverified legend related in the Yeshiva world," about how the Rogachover Gaon, R. Yosef Rozen, determined it to be a forgery based on a simple test: because of his encyclopedic knowledge of the Talmud, he noticed that each tractate contains the name of at least one amora which doesn't appear in any other tractate. In these tractates, there are no amoraic hapax legomena. Thus, it had to be fake.

The story is interesting (R. Bechhofer notes that R. Rozen's analysis and objections actually appears in his Tzafenas Paneach, #113-115). I think it's evident that underlying the story, or legend, is the idea of the Rogachever's encyclopedic knowledge but also his knowledge of arcane Talmudic trivia which would escape the attention of anyone but one who was somehow able to have in mind, as it were, the entire Talmud at one time in order to notice something like that. Presumably the Rogachever knew all kinds of other things which no one else knew about the Talmud, things which only a mind like his could notice and which he never had occasion to share.

But perhaps something else is underlying the story as well. The true nature of how the hoax was debunked involved more prosaic research. Even though great scholars accepted it--in R. Bechhofer's essay it is even mentioned that one great scholar in particular began wearing Rabbenu Tam tephillin because this work mentioned it--there were red flags which caused others to doubt it. Friedlaender did an impressive job, but his method wasn't foolproof (or else he wouldn't have gotten caught, right?). It was realized what sources he used. There was philological problems. His manuscript was allegedly seen by the Gerrer Rebbe who recognized it was not really old, but made to appear as such. All in all, it was detective work and not a Feat of the Mind in the push-a-pin-into-the-Talmud-and-I'll-guess-the-word way which revealed the work to be fraudulent. (Which is not to say that the legend is not actually true--it might be, but it wasn't the foundation of the Rogachever's case, and it certainly was not the reason why it was unmasked.)

In any event, which is more impressive, research or what I called a Feat of the Mind?

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