Thursday, December 29, 2005

Why was there never a massoretic project for the Gemara?

Dilbert asks Why does it have to be so hard to learn gemara?
The Torah(five books of Moses) is written on parchment without any vowels or punctuation. However, we usually learn Torah from a chumash, which has punctuation, vowel markings, and cantillation notes (which help with phrasing as well as accenting the proper syllable). The gemara, on the other hand, usually comes without any vowel markings, punctuation marks (except for the occasional colon), or any other help.

No wonder that the author of a text on aramaic grammer(R. Frank I think) in his introduction tells the reader to read the gemara the way his ancestors did, but to understand what the proper pronounciation should be (because the tradition of the ancestors is not the way it should be pronounced if the proper rules are followed.)

The gemara is hard enough as it is. Why do we continue to perpetuate increased difficulty? why cant we all use Steinsalz editions, if only for the grammer and punctuation? Why do the usual editions of Mikraot Gedolot have the commentors written in microscopic rashi script with every other word an abbreviation? Why should I feel guilty when I reach for my mossad HaRav Kook edition which has everything in legible vowelized Hebrew? Isn't the goal to understand? Can anyone please tell me why this situation has persisted? Is it lack of funds so everyone can have a readable text? Is there a benefit to having 5th graders struggling just to read the words of the gemara(besides having absolutely no idea what the words mean)? Is it all just tradition? or am I missing something? Who canonized the Vilna Shas?
A lot of questions, but I think the key which answers all of them is the last one.

It's precisely the point: the text of the Talmud hasn't really been stabilized (although in, let's say, the past 40 years its come close as the Vilna Shas has become almost synonymous with Talmud). A lot of older people (sorry folks) will remember that decades ago, although widespread, the Vilna edition was most definitely not the only Shas being used. When my father was married, my grandfather bought him a beautiful shas which was not the Vilna edition. When I was a child, my shul had a beautiful set of Shas from the 1860s, which obviously wasn't the Vilna edition.

This slightly parallels the situation when printed texts first became widespread and the ubiquity of printed matter began to obscure the fact that manuscripts do not read the same way, which is not to say that informed Talmud studiers aren't aware that there are textual questions. Every student of Talmud is exposed to "hacha garsinon" and the emendations of the Bach on nearly every page. But the point is that first and foremost, if there ever was a stabilization of the text for Talmud, it's only been happening recently.

Secondly, Dilbert references the Chumash, which is marked with all kinds of diactrics. But this didn't happen by itself. It was the fruit of a centuries long project to develop these notations for the Torah. This never happened for Talmud. There were no schools of Talmud massoretes. The closest we got were commentators like Rashi, who often tell us how to read the text (and likely as not others argue with their readings).

Which brings us to the next point. Although it is true that in the Torah there actually can be many ways to read the text, in the main only one way was canonized. There are exceptions, but by and large we all end our verses at the same spot. With exceptions, we all have our asmachta/ commas in the same spot and we all vocalize the text the same way. Again, the massoretes figured out what it was and how to put it into writing. This never happened with the Talmud. There is scarcely a line which cannot be read more than one way.

In Gemara, one woman's pause in the text is another's cue to keep on reading.

A fourth point is that, in fact, it is only in recent decades that anyone even had the idea that the Talmud ought to be a popular work, rather than a scholarly one. Given the situation we face today, where everyone learns Talmud, or should, or is expected to it indeed makes a lot of sense for some type of Talmud massoretic project to take place. But how? There really isn't anything resembling one tradition for how to read the Talmud and how to vocalize the text. Although actually, the Steinsaltz and Artscroll Talmuds which do point the words and insert commas and question marks is a sort of massoretic Talmud project--one that many Talmudists lament for reasons that are not entirely elitist. There may well be a day when the readings in these editions will become fairly normative simply because of the sheer numbers of people who learn Talmud will be learning from those editions, disguising the fact that there is no one way to read the Talmud.

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