Monday, November 30, 2009

Textual criticism of a recent book about, in part, medieval yeshivos. Also, what did Rashi sell?

I was perusing Mayer I. Gruber's annotated translation of Rashi's commentary on Psalms. Very learned, very well done, very good and interesting introduction. As an aside, Gruber once supplied an excerpt from the introduction for a Seforim Blog post, which garnered some very strong opinions. Haym Soloveitchik had famously written that Rashi was as likely an egg salesman as a vintner (the implication being, we've got no good evidence for either). Gruber's view is that while it's true that there's no evidence that Rashi was a vintner, there is in fact no evidence that he was anything else because really the evidence points toward him being a professional rabbi and rosh yeshiva. He was, in fact, a Ga'on, who headed a yeshiva called Yeshivas Ge'on Ya'akov, which was also the name of the great Babylonian yeshivos, which were also headed by men fully titled Rosh Yeshiva Ge'on Ya'akov, or Ga'on for short. In making this claim he first tries to show that Rashi was not as likely an egg salesman as a vintner, and that is the Seforim Blog post.

At that post, critics jumped on the fact that it seems silly to even waste any space with Soloveitchik's throw-away line (obviously intended to make a point in a humorous1 way), let alone subject it to several paragraphs describing a statement by R. Shemaya about how Rashi enjoyed eggs fried in honey, and several other responsa regarding Rashi's dealing with cows, sheep and wine barrels. What the critics missed is that Gruber was making a serious point but he was being funny. Someone even suggested that he was "skeptical of these claims that the author intended the egg stuff as a joke. It would be weird for a guy to do a whole bunch of research about Rashi and eggs just for the purpose of an unfunny joke that additionally did not jibe with the rest of the article." He thinks there are two possibilities: "1) He took Soloveichik's statement about egg-dealing at face value (and frankly, without having read the original article, I don't see any reason not to), or 2) It was just an excuse to make his article seem more impressive by adding a bunch of tangentially-related research. I see this all the time in these types of articles."

However, having read the entire introduction not only can I safely say that he does not take Soloveitchik's statement seriously, but he absolutely was trying to be humorous. In fact, the introduction is peppered with many interesting and humorous bits in the footnotes. To my mind this is a good thing. It's not letzanus, it makes an otherwise highly informative read also a fun read.

With that in mind, I'd like to highlight something in foonote 32 on page 21 of the introduction. The background is a description of the character of a yeshiva in Ashkenaz in Rashi's time. Mordechai Breuer described the beis ha-midrash in such a yeshivos of the time, and according to him it seems typically to have been nothing more extravagant than the large living room of the rosh yeshiva (which was called the בית החורף, in a nod to Jer. 36:22, because it was the only room in the home which was heated). However, some archaeological evidence may show otherwise, or at least challenges this description. In Norman Golb's The Jews in medieval Normandy he describes the ruin pictured below. This ruin in Rouen was long remembered as an ecole aux Juifs, that is, a yeshiva. Golb goes on to prove that the term "school"(or scola in the Latin documentation of the time) could not have been used for a synagogue, so this is definitely a yeshiva.

In any event, Breuer was inclined to see the medieval Ashkenazic yeshiva as rather small, informal and almost ad-hoc, but Golb says not necessarily. In fact, these two accounts need not be contradictory. Golb himself is of the view that both kinds of yeshivos could have existed side by side, one more official than the other.

In his book he writes (pg. 192) "eminent scholars such as Meir1 of Rothenburg (thirteenth century) had yeshiboth in their own names, evidently not connected in any way with a public system of support . . ."

Gruber adds as follows: "[Reading Prof. Golb's words in the light of Breuer's study quoted above, I was inclined by my training as a biblical scholar to emend this word to "homes" based on the graphic similarity between the initial h of "homes" and the initial n of "names," and I assumed that Prof. Golb's secretary or a typesetter misreading initial n for h then misread o as a. Fortunately, I asked Prof. Golb (electronic communication dated 3 August, 2000) if, in fact, my conjectural emendation had correctly restored his intent. Prof. Golb kindly replied with his explanation that, in fact, Jews were forbidden by their own rules2 to conduct the classes of a yeshivah in a residence].

The irony is that Gruber's otherwise excellent book is marred by many typos. I haven't had to made any conjectural emendations of note yer.

1 "al ta'am ve-re'ach..."

2 In Saul Lieberman: the Man and His Work by Elijah Schochet and Solomon Spiro, it is recounted that when a student made the mistake of calling a tanna by their first name (e.g., "Akiva said..."), the Professor would admonish them, probably in an intimidating Litvishe manner, "Are you personally acquainted with him?"

3 The "rules" referred to are a list of twelve rules called Hukke haTorah which "were issued by a regional council meeting in a major northwestern European city, very likely Rouen, no later than sometime in the twenth, or at the latest, eleventh century." These takkanos survive in several manuscripts, and required the maintenance of a "midrash" in every town.

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