Making Sense of the Talmud’s Many Layers

Feb. 10 2015

The Talmud comprises two different works, one (Mishnah) redacted around the year 200 C.E. and the other (Gemara) around the year 600. The latter portion, presented as a commentary on the earlier, is arranged as a sort of dialogue among rabbis (known as amoraim) who frequently cite rabbis of earlier generations, who themselves sometimes cite even earlier opinions. Contemporary scholarship has tried to make historical sense of these various layers, often by isolating the contributions of the final generation of editors. Alan Brill and Moulie Vidas discuss the latter’s recent book, which offers a new approach to the problem. Brill writes:

The regnant approach to talmudic source criticism is that there is a pristine early amoraic layer . . . and the later layer was an addition that changed the earlier material, making the discussion more abstract, or creating dialectics and justifications. This approach is usually associated with [the scholars] Shamma Friedman and David Weiss Halivni who . . . seek to restore the earlier stratum since it represents a reliable corpus of traditions, unlike the conjectures of the later [editors].

In contrast, Vidas assumes that the entire talmudic argument . . . is one unit. . . . Vidas’s innovation is that texts that seem like earlier texts are literary devices [used] by the later [editors] to create a sense of distance from themselves and allow for a creative opening. For him, demarcating opinions as traditional “can be used to invoke discontinuity” by fossilizing them as the past. . . The Talmud [for Vidas] is no longer a conservative repository of traditions, [but] rather a literary “self-conception of its creators.” There is no earlier opinion, just a later text presenting the topic as if there were a later and earlier layer.

Read more at Kavannah

More about: David Weiss-Halivni, Judaic Studies, Mishnah, Religion & Holidays, Shamma Friedman, Talmud

Israel Is Courting Saudi Arabia by Confronting Iran

Most likely, it was the Israeli Air Force that attacked eastern Syria Monday night, apparently destroying a convoy carrying Iranian weapons. Yoav Limor comments:

Israel reportedly carried out 32 attacks in Syria in 2022, and since early 2023 it has already struck 25 times in the country—at the very least. . . . The Iranian-Israeli clash stands out in the wake of the dramatic events in the region, chiefly among them is the effort to strike a normalization deal between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and later on with various other Muslim-Sunni states. Iran is trying to torpedo this process and has even publicly warned Saudi Arabia not to “gamble on a losing horse” because Israel’s demise is near. Riyadh is unlikely to heed that demand, for its own reasons.

Despite the thaw in relations between the kingdom and the Islamic Republic—including the exchange of ambassadors—the Saudis remain very suspicious of the Iranians. A strategic manifestation of that is that Riyadh is trying to forge a defense pact with the U.S.; a tactical manifestation took place this week when Saudi soccer players refused to play a match in Iran because of a bust of the former Revolutionary Guard commander Qassem Suleimani, [a master terrorist whose militias have wreaked havoc throughout the Middle East, including within Saudi borders].

Of course, Israel is trying to bring Saudi Arabia into its orbit and to create a strong common front against Iran. The attack in Syria is ostensibly unrelated to the normalization process and is meant to prevent the terrorists on Israel’s northern border from laying their hands on sophisticated arms, but it nevertheless serves as a clear reminder for Riyadh that it must not scale back its fight against the constant danger posed by Iran.

Read more at Israel Hayom

More about: Iran, Israeli Security, Saudi Arabia, Syria