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Gentiles, Rabbis and Texts

By Sasson Lerner

Posted October 17, 2002

Review of Gil Student, The Real Truth About the Talmud; also accessible at http://talmud.faithweb.com/*

  1. Introduction

  2. Who is a Gentile?

  3. Are Gentiles Human?

  4. Sex, Donkeys, and Critical Research

  5. Donkeys Again, or Can a Gentile Have a Father?

  6. So, Are they Donkeys or People, After All?

  7. Concluding remarks

1. Introduction

An old joke tells that two kinds of people are ubiquitous: Jews and anti-Semites. Little wonder, therefore, that the antagonism between the two holds a place of honor among the oldest phenomena of civilization. Accordingly, the number of narratives touting the case of either side escapes any reasonable assessment. Some of these circulate, or at least originally circulated, as folk legends, some as literary works, and recently – as internet postings and sites. One of the latter is the subject of this essay.

The site, authored by Gil Student, opens with a statement of purpose:

There are many lies circulating the internet about the Jewish Talmud. These allegations are supported by "direct quotations" from the Talmud that are frequently wrong or taken out of context. However, most people lack the scholarly background to verify these claims. Most people have no way of knowing that these accusation are false and malicious. What we are attempting is to demonstrate in detail how these accusations are both wrong and intentionally misleading. We are trying to show to the world the real truth about the Talmud. [1]

This is apparently supposed to give a visitor the impression that, in contradistinction to accusations against the Talmud which are merely "lies," at this site he will find an honest scholarly analysis of relevant sources, that would "show to the world the real truth about the Talmud." Yet it is precisely such bold claims that arouse in a critically-minded reader a sense of suspicion. In our age, saturated with research on anything and everything and increasingly conscious of the problems facing a researcher – including cultural and ideological biases inherent to him as well as to all other human beings – bold claims "to show to the world the real truth" about something are usually taken as earmarks of propaganda rather than even-headed scholarship. (Recall the infamous Soviet newspaper Pravda – "The Truth.")

Of course, the mere presence of cultural biases in humans does not invalidate the academic demand for objectivity. Consciousness of one's biases and a maximal effort to get rid of them at least during worktime are merely something for researchers to work on – just as sportsmen have to work on their muscles' capacities. But in any piece of writing there are telltale signs of whether its author has indeed undertaken such an effort. And unfortunately, Student's texts testify to the opposite.

Consider just the first sentence of his statement of purpose. It may well be that "many lies" are circulated on the internet regarding the Talmud – or anything else. But to begin in such fashion one's own work, without informing the reader what these "lies" actually are, leaves an impression that it does not really matter to the author: any claim presenting the Talmud in a negative light is a priori a lie. This is not the way a good scholar deals with his sources.

Or pay attention to the term "the Jewish Talmud." As anyone familiar with the subject knows, it is either wrong or redundant – depending on how much you want to go into details. Strictly speaking, there are two Talmuds – collections of sayings and discussions by rabbis of the first half-or-so of the first millennium CE, outwardly presented in the form of commentary on the Mishnah (another collection of Rabbinic law and lore, dating basically to the 2nd century CE – although all these collections may preserve more ancient material). One is the Jerusalem or the Palestinian Talmud, completed sometime about 400 CE in the Galilee (hence the title "Palestinian" fits better, whatever its modern political overtones). The other is the Babylonian Talmud, completed in Mesopotamia sometime in the 6th or 7th century. For reasons lying beyond the scope of this essay, it was the Babylonian Talmud which assumed the most authoritative status throughout the Jewish world from the early Middle Ages on. Consequently, the study of the Palestinian Talmud was much neglected and significant parts of it were entirely lost – but it is still a different thing from the Babylonian. And of course, there are other collections of Rabbinic law and lore – various midrashim or "expositions" arranged in the form of commentary on the Bible or protracted homilies on selected biblical verses, and dating basically to the same period in which the Talmuds were composed (although some of them are of later date).

To be sure, a statement of purpose should not be expected to delve into all these nuances. "The Talmud" can be fairly used as a brief designation for the entire Rabbinic lore of the first six-seven centuries of the Common Era – customarily called the Early Rabbinic material (which is, in turn, divided along chronological lines into Tannaic and Amoraic – the first produced by Tannaim, sages active prior to the compilation of the Mishnah, and the second by the sages who flourished afterwards, Amoraim). [2] But what is "the Jewish Talmud"? Of course the Talmud is Jewish. In the same vein one could speak of "the American stars-and-stripes flag." And even people totally unversed in the Talmud know that. Why, then, did Student use this semantic monster?

A scientifically proven answer to this question cannot be given, of course. But it seems that the expression "the Jewish Talmud" points to a sort of special connection between the Talmud and the Jews, a connection that works in fact in both directions. Not only is the Talmud something of the Jewish realm, but it also characterizes that realm – and therefore, an attack on it is an attack on Jewishness itself. Using the abovestated analogy, burning a stars-and-stripes flag is widely understood as an anti-American act, and the reaction it would arouse in most Americans is predictable. Student seems to endeavor to create in his readers a similar perception: that all allegations against the Talmud are not only "lies" but also manifestations of anti-Semitism. That would, without much effort, push to his side a large part of his audience (primarily Jews, but not only – after the Holocaust, anti-Semitism has become much unrespectable in the Western mind).

Of course, it is true that many attacks on the Talmud are indeed motivated by hate towards the Jews as such; and in particular, the arguments mentioned on Student's site frequently feature in anti-Semitic publications both in print and on the internet. But for a real scholarly analysis, it is mandatory to treat the primary sources on their own, in isolation from their modern social context, and to attempt instead, as far as possible, at reconstruction of the original context in which they were produced. A researcher worth his name strives neither to condemn nor to vindicate his sources but to understand them. Student's strategy, however, is entirely different – which is even more evident from the "Introduction" chapter on his site ("The Real Truth About The Talmud: Why does this site exist?"):

Anti-Talmud accusations have a long history dating back to the 13th century when the associates of the Inquisition attempted to defame Jews and their religion [see Yitzchak Baer, A History of Jews in Christian Spain, vol. I pp. 150-185]. The early material compiled by hateful preachers like Raymond Martini and Nicholas Donin remain the basis of all subsequent accusations against the Talmud. Some are true, most are false and based on quotations taken out of context, and some are total fabrications [see Baer, ch. 4 f. 54, 82 that it has been proven that Raymond Martini forged quotations]. On the internet today we can find many of these old accusations being rehashed and this site is an attempt to correct the mistakes and put the true quotes into their proper perspective.

This passage, which opens the introduction chapter, is obviously intended to dwell on the same point that was made implicitly in the statement of purpose – arguments against the Talmud are naught but anti-Semitic attacks, and contrived attacks at that. However, a reader careful enough to check the sources mentioned by Student himself will quickly discover that the latter took too much liberty with the former.

First, neither Donin nor Martini became renowned for preaching. Both got their publicity mainly through written works. But more importantly, while Donin's work was indeed a kind of accusation against the Talmud (much for allegedly immoral and anti-Christian statements), Martini took quite a different approach: to find in the very Talmud, and other Early Rabbinic sources, statements that buttress the fundamental teachings of Christianity. [3] This hardly succeeded, of course – but to classify Martini's work as an attack on the Talmud on a par with that of Donin would be plainly wrong. Yet, such a presentation of things allows Student to speak of anti-Talmudic arguments which are "total fabrications," for "it has been proven that Raymond Martini forged quotations."

In fact, the matter is far from "proven," and a number of modern scholars – Jewish and non-Jewish – do not accept Baer's position. Salo W. Baron, after discussing both opinions, concluded that "the weight of evidence favors the assumption that neither Martini, nor any of his Christian predecessors whose works he may have used, was guilty of outright forgeries." [4] But in any event, employing Martini as an outright accuser of the Talmud gives Student a golden opportunity to present the whole business of anti-Talmudic allegations as ridden with forgeries.

Does this mean that Student has purposefully distorted the information he found in Baer's book? Perhaps – but it is equally possible that his was only a wishful interpretation of Baer's narrative, whereby fine distinctions between actual attitudes of Christian authors were of less importance than the overall message which Student wanted to convey: anti-Talmudic accusations are for the most part contrived.

Yet even such wishful interpretation obviously distorts the historical picture, and it is therefore incumbent on scholars not to read their own attitudes into their sources. Such caution is, however, not to be expected from authors whose purpose is apologetics rather than research. For one trying to understand the evidence before drawing conclusions from it, maximal accuracy is a necessity; for one who has already formed the conclusion and tries to fit the evidence to it, accuracy is a luxury to be freely exchanged for anything that would create in his audience a favorable attitude towards his position and a negative one towards that of his opponents.

Regrettably, Student has chosen the latter approach. Declaring that his site would be focusing on those accusations against the Talmud, which render it "racist and anti-gentile," Student asserts:

Because today's Orthodox Jews still lead their lives based on the laws contained in the Talmud, it is incumbent upon Jews to understand and explain that their religious laws are not racist or derogatory to gentiles. Jewish law, as contained in the Talmud, treats gentiles with the proper respect due to a person created in the image of G-d. Their property and lives are honored and any (mis)quotes from the Talmud indicating otherwise need to be seen in their original language and context.

Thus, the conclusion is formed a priori, and it is "incumbent upon Jews" – now for some reason not only Orthodox – to make any evidence they encounter fit into this conclusion. Student himself purports to do it by demonstrating the relevant passages from the Talmud "in their original language and context." Yet it is just the original wording and context of Talmudic, and not only Talmudic, terms that he prefers to ignore when suitable – which is well illustrated by the following case.

2. Who Is a Gentile?

Before delving into particulars, Student offers a general discussion on "Gentiles In Judaism: Where do gentiles fit into the Jewish world view?":

There are three main categories of gentiles [see R. Yom Tov ben Avraham Alshevili, Chiddushei HaRitva, Makkot 9a n.]. The first category is the gentile who fulfills his obligations as an ethical monotheist. This person is generally called a Ben Noach (or Noachide) meaning a proud descendant of the biblical Noah. In the Jewish tradition Noah and his sons were commanded to fulfill seven commandments which amount to ethical monotheism... Those gentiles who observe these commandments are considered righteous gentiles. They are, however, not Jews and are not considered part of Jewish society. They are righteous people and recognized for their accomplishments. However, they remain part of the human brotherhood but not part of Jewish society.

There are those who go beyond this step and approach a Jewish court and, in exchange for entering Jewish society, they vow to observe their commandments and be ethical monotheists. Such a person is called a Ger Toshav... Both the Ben Noach and the Ger Toshav are righteous gentiles. However, the Ben Noach has not entered Jewish society and perhaps does not wish to. Therefore, he is treated like a stranger. He is respected as a righteous human being, one who is fulfilling his divine purpose in the world. However, he is not part of the Jewish community...

The third category is of the gentile who is not an ethical monotheist. He is violating the covenant G-d made with Noah and his descendants and will be punished for those sins. It is with these people that Judaism has a very ambivalent attitude. On the one hand, they are acting contrary to G-d's purpose in the world. For this reason, Judaism tries to distance Jews from them. On the other hand, they are people created in G-d's image and must be respected as such. The compromise is that their positive traits, examples of which we will shortly see, are recognized and respected. However, their negative traits are never fully forgotten and full societal integration with such people is discouraged.

As Student himself notes, this tripartite division of the non-Jewish world is based on the commentary of R' Yom-Tov ben Avraham Ashebili [5] (acronym: Ritva; c. 1250-1330, Spain) on tractate Makkot of the Babylonian Talmud, folio 9a. Yet, Ritva's picture of the third class of non-Jews is far less compassionate:

Such one, who is not careful to observe the Seven Noahide Commandments – it is permissible to push him down into a pit when there is no [fear of gentiles'] hostility [towards the Jews], or to cause his death wherever one has any pretext for doing so... [6]

This is hardly characteristic of an attitude holding that these gentiles "are people created in G-d's image and must be respected as such." But more importantly, the view of "sons of Noah" or Noahides as a separate category, different from both gerim toshavim (plural of ger toshav) and "regular" gentiles, is plainly untenable in the view of the Early Rabbinic sources. Consider, for example, the mishnah – a single literary unit of the whole compilation termed the Mishnah with the capital M – in tractate Nedarim 3:11:

[One who says,] "Forbidden be it to me to have any benefit of the sons of Noah" – may have benefit of Israelites but not of [members of other] nations. [7]

That is, "sons of Noah" are tantamount to non-Jewish "nations of the world," without any distinction as to whether those people of whom one commits himself not to have any benefit observe the Seven Noahide Commandments or not. [8]

Or consider the Babylonian Talmud's discussion of the mishnah of Bava Qama 4:3:

Mishnah: [If] an Israelite's ox gores an ox of the Temple's treasury, or an ox of the Temple's treasury gores an Israelite's ox – [the owner of the goring ox] is exempt, as it says: "His neighbor's ox" (Exodus 21:35), and not a consecrated ox. [If] an Israelite's ox gores an alien's ox, [the Israelite] is exempt; but [if] an alien's ox gores an Israelite's ox – be it an ox that was harmless before or an ox that has been proven dangerous, [the alien] must pay the full sum of damage.

Gemara: [9] ...they say: whichever way you turn – if "his neighbor" is meant specifically, an alien should be also exempt if his ox gores an Israelite's ox; and if "his neighbor" is not meant specifically,an Israelite should also be liable if his ox gores an alien's ox. Rabbi Abahu said: it is written, "He stood and measured the earth; He beheld and drove asunder the nations" (Habakkuk 3:6) – [God] beheld that the sons of Noah were not fulfilling the Seven Commandments they were given, and drove their property, permitting it to Israel. [10]

Thus, Jews are not held liable for damages done to gentile property because "the sons of Noah were not fulfilling the Seven Commandments they were commanded," and God "drove their property permitted to Israel" – which makes sense only if the term "sons of Noah" is understood as meaning gentiles as such. (The implications of this Talmudic discourse on general picture of gentiles in Early Rabbinic sources are another issue – which, interestingly, is not mentioned anywhere on Student's site.)

Whatever the motivation behind Ritva's view, it is not sustained by the Talmud itself, and even among medieval commentators on the Talmud it remained a single opinion. Why, then, did Student appeal to it? Because it is too obvious that few gentiles would ever "approach a Jewish court and... vow to observe their commandments and be ethical monotheists." Furthermore, in the view of the Talmud itself, the very concept of ger toshav was anachronistic already by the age in which the Talmudic sages lived: "R' Sh[im'on] ben El'azar [11] said: the laws regarding ger toshav are practiced only when the Jubilee year is practiced." [12] According to a Tannaic source quoted in the both Talmuds and in the midrash Sifra, the Jubilee year is practiced only when all the twelve tribes of Israel are living on their ancestral lots – a situation which, according to that very source, ceased to exist already with the exile of trans-Jordanian tribes by the Assyrian empire. [13] It may be, of course, that the view of Rabbi Shim'on ben El'azar was not shared by all rabbis of that period – but there is nothing in the Early Rabbinic sources to suggest that. Apparently, therefore, already by the Talmudic period all non-Jews in existence were seen as one and the same – "regular" gentiles.

Even Christians – whose religion is commonly considered monotheistic – were deemed by the early rabbis gentiles par excellence, not different in any significant way from the others. According to the first mishnah of tractate 'Avodah Zarah,

Three days before the feasts of gentiles, one is forbidden to negotiate business with them, to lend them and to borrow from them money or artifacts, to pay them debts and to receive payment on debts from them... R' Ishmael says: [these things] are forbidden three days before and three days after [a feast]; the Sages say: [they are] forbidden before, but permitted after a feast.

The Babylonian Talmud, discussing this mishnah, delves into the question of whether the count of three days includes the day of the feast itself. During the discussion, a remark is brought:

Rav Tahlifa bar Avdimei said in the name of Shemuel: according to the words of Rabbi Yishma'el, with Christians [14] it is forbidden [to negotiate business] at any time – but if we assumed that the count [of three days] includes the day of the feast itself, it would follow that [business negotiations on] Wednesday and Thursday are permitted. [15]

Christians are judged by this statement as regular gentiles, on a par with pagans; Christianity is no different here from any other non-Jewish creed. And there is no evidence whatsoever that other rabbis disputed the view of Rav Tahlifa bar Avdimei and Shemuel (both Babylonian Amoraim of the 3rd century CE [16]). This does not necessarily mean that for the rabbis there was no difference between gentiles holding monotheistic and polytheistic beliefs; it is quite possible that in their view Christianity was simply not monotheistic enough – although there is nothing to suggest that they were familiar to any serious degree with Christian teachings. [17] But it clearly follows from this passage that even in today's Western world, where monotheistic belief is commonly taken for granted, few non-Jews would qualify, by Talmudic criteria, for "ethical monotheists."

Still, Ritva's later opinion aside, do the Early Rabbinic sources show much respect to "regular" gentiles – the only ones to exist, in their authors' opinion, at that time – as "people created in G-d's image"? This question demands investigation of other chapters on Student's site.

3. Are Gentiles Human?

Two of these chapters are dedicated to the question of whether the Talmud views gentiles as human beings. The first of them deals with a Rabbinic homily on the verse of Ezekiel 34:31. The homily goes as follows:

"And you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are mankind" – you are called men, but gentiles are not called men.

The original intent and meaning of Ezekiel 34:31 – "And you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are mankind and I am your God, says the Sovereign Lord" – is a question in itself and need not concern us here. In passing, it should be noted that behind the English "mankind" in the verse and "men" in the Rabbinic homily stands the same Hebrew singular noun 'adam – properly "a man," but here best understood as collective singular and translated accordingly.

Student's chapter ("Gentiles Are Human: The Talmud does not consider gentiles to be sub-human") starts with the declaration:

The idea that only Jews are human and not gentiles runs contrary to a number of fundamental Jewish principles. According to the Talmud, gentiles ARE human and the complicated texts quoted to prove the accusation are misinterpreted, as we shall see.

Unfortunately, Student does not detail or even refer to those "fundamental Jewish principles" to which the idea in question "runs contrary." Nor does he pay due to the admittedly complicated nature of the texts mentioned – as much as bringing enough of their context to clarify their place in Talmudic discourse or their textual and conceptual interrelation. From the quotations Student does bring it is evident that his primary concern is with the uses of the homily on Ezekiel 34:31 in the Babylonian Talmud. Yet, he does not even cite all the appearances of this homily in that Talmud – although there are only three: in tractate Yevamot 60b-61a, Bava Metzi'a 114a-b, and Keritot 6b. These faults should be corrected here in order to understand properly both the homily itself and the ways it was used by the early rabbis. In those Talmudic fragments quoted by Student, the translations offered below – here and elsewhere in this essay – are slightly different from his. Of course, each writer believes his translations to be better, but there are few substantial differences; wherever there are, they will be dealt with.

It would be useful to start from Keritot 6b:

Our rabbis taught [in a Tannaic source]: [18] One who smears with the oil of anointment animals or vessels is not liable; gentiles or dead – is not liable. Granted [this is the law regarding] animals and vessels, for it is written: "Let it not be poured on a man's flesh" (Exodus 30:32) – while animals and vessels are not men. So [would one be exempt for smearing] dead – for since [a person] is dead, he is called a dead and not a man. But why [should one be exempt if he smears] gentiles? They are men! – No, as it is written: "And you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are mankind" (Ezekiel 34:31) – you are called men, but gentiles are not called men. – Yet it is written [of Midianites captured by the Israelites], "And men – sixteen thousand souls" [19] (Numbers 31:40). – They said: that is to distinguish them from cattle and sheep [whose numbers are related in the preceding verses]. – But it is also written, "Should I not have a pity on Nineveh [a great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand men not knowing between their right and their left, and much cattle]?" (Jonah 4:11) – That is to distinguish them from cattle. But if you ask [for another explanation of the law on smearing gentiles], I can say as a tanna [20] learned in the presence of R' E[l'azar]: [21] one is forbidden to smear those who are themselves forbidden to smear [something], but one is not forbidden to smear those who are not forbidden to smear [anything]. [22]

This passage is part of a sugiya – a section of the Talmud dealing with a specific issue –whose topic is smearing unconsecrated things with the sacred oil of anointment. This is clearly not the oil's proper usage, and in particular, pouring such oil on men – except several categories of Temple priests and Israelite kings – violates the biblical prohibition "Let it not be poured on a man's flesh" (Exodus 30:32). The point of the homily on Ezekiel 34:31 is that smearing gentiles with the sacred oil does not violate this biblical prohibition because gentiles are not properly men.

Of course this whole Talmudic debate is purely theoretical. By the time it was written there had been no Temple priests or Israelite kings for centuries, nor did anyone care to produce the sacred oil of anointment. Rabbinic literature is permeated with such theoretical discussions, the goal of which is learning for the sake of learning. And though the discourse in question is coined in the form of a dialogue, it does not necessarily mean that such a dialogue ever really took place – it may be merely a literary device, intended to arouse in a learner interest in the issue under discussion and awareness of its different aspects. This literary form, learnt by the ancient rabbis from Greek and Hellenistic philosophers, became the favorite of Talmudic discourse.

The author of this sugiya understood that at first sight gentiles seem to be men, and therefore one could suppose them to be considered such in regard to the issue of smearing "man's flesh" as well. To refute such supposition, two arguments were used: one proceeding from the homily on Ezekiel 34:31 and the other based on a legal tradition demanding a parity between the smearer and the smeared in regard to the relevant prohibition in order to render the smearer liable to punishment. This does not mean, however, that the first argument was considered insufficient in and of itself: providing several alternative explanations for a given principle was a common feature of rabbinic learning. On the other hand, the author of the sugiya in Keritot 6b coined the dispute in such form as to lead to the conclusion that at least when compared to cattle and sheep, gentiles are called men.

In Bava Metzi'a 114a-b the homily on Ezekiel 34:31 appears in quite a different context:

Rabbah bar Abuhah met Elijah in a cemetery of gentiles...[23] He asked [Elijah]: Isn't Sir a priest? What, then, is he doing in a cemetery? [Priests are forbidden to impurify themselves through contact with dead.] [Elijah] responded: Isn't Sir versed in [the section of] Purities? For it is taught [in a Tannaic source]: [24] Rabbi Shim'on ben Yohai says, Graves of gentiles do not convey impurity, for it is written: "And you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are mankind" (Ezekiel 34:31) – you are called men, but gentiles are not called men.

The Talmud then proceeds to detail the rebuke received by the late-3rd-century Babylonian Amora Rabbah bar Abuhah due to his negligence of the section of Purities – the last of the six thematic sections into which the whole Rabbinic law is divided and the one which had already become purely theoretical by the time this story was told. The moral is that one should be well-versed even in those laws which are not practical, for they are also part of the Torah – understood broadly as the whole divine teaching revealed by God to the People of Israel and explicated by later sages. But the point concerning the homily on Ezekiel 34:31 is that gentile graves do not convey impurity since gentiles are not properly considered men. The demand for such "manhood" in order for one's grave to convey impurity is not explained; to understand the reason for it, one should look at tractate Yevamot 60b-61a:

It is taught [in a Tannaic source]: Rabbi Shim'on ben Yohai said, Graves of gentiles do not convey impurity by the way of tent [that is, on all objects being under the same roof with them], for it is written, "And you, My sheep, the sheep of My pasture, you are mankind" – you are called men, but the nations of the world are not called men. They argued: [it is written,] "And men, sixteen thousand souls" (Numbers 31:40) [so even Midianites are called men]. – [That is] to distinguish them from sheep and cattle. – [It is also written,] "Should I not have a pity on Nineveh, a great city, in which there are more than one hundred and twenty thousand men not knowing between their right and their left [and much cattle]?" (Jonah 4:11) – That is to distinguish them from cattle. – [It is also written, regarding the Israelites' war with the Midianites:] "Everyone who has killed a person [25] or touched a corpse – purify yourselves" (Numbers 31:19)! – [This is to account for] the possibility that one had [inadvertently] killed an Israelite.

And what would the sages [say on this]? "There lacks not one person [26] of us" (Numbers 31:49). [This sentence is put in the Pentateuch in the mouths of Israelite commanders regarding the battle with the Midianites, after which the soldiers were ordered to purify themselves in Numbers 31:19.] What would R' Shim'on ben Yohai [say on this]? [The verse means:] "Not one man of us suffered a lack by committing a sin." Ravina said: Even if it be admitted that the Scripture excluded them [gentile corpses] from conveying impurity by the way of tent – for it is written, "If a man dies in a tent [everything that comes into the tent and everything present in the tent shall be impure for seven days]" (Numbers 19:14) – where have we seen that the Scripture excluded them from conveying impurity through touch or carrying [that is, on a person who touches or carries a gentile's corpse]? [27]

The last question is rhetorical; it is left without answer, implying that gentile corpses do convey impurity through touch or carrying. On the other hand, in order to convey impurity "by the way of tent," a grave should be that of a "man," 'adam – as specified in Numbers 19:14, a verse in the section of the book of Numbers that deals with impurity conveyed by dead bodies. And insofar as Ezekiel 34:31 specifies that only Israelites are 'adam, it can be concluded that graves of non-Israelites do not convey impurity "by the way of tent."

This law is attributed, here and in Bava Metzi'a 114a-b, to the 2nd-century Tanna Rabbi Shim'on ben Yohai (or bar Yohai) – active, like all Tannaim, in Palestine. On the other hand, the homily on Ezekiel 34:31 in Keritot 6b proceeds with no attribution whatsoever. And the verse itself has nothing to do with the specific issue of impurity conveyed by graves; rather, it dwells on the special bond between God and Israel. A reasonable conclusion would be that the homily and the law of graves are two different things: the homily had gained currency on its own and Rabbi Shim'on ben Yohai applied it to the specific issue of grave-impurity.

The division of the above quotation into two passages has been made by the present author. It is not found in the original Talmudic text, which has almost no division into passages whatsoever. But the content of the quotation justifies such division. The first passage is coined in the form of a dialogue quite similar to the one in Keritot 6b – which likewise should be considered a literary device rather than the transcript of a dialogue that took place in real life. This dialogue, however, proceeds one step further. After raising the general exegetical objections based on Numbers 31:40 and Jonah 4:11, where gentiles are plainly termed 'adam, the author proceeds to an argument dealing specifically with the issue of impurity conveyed by corpses: the Pentateuch itself says that the Israelites who had killed Midianites in war had to purify themselves – ergo, gentile corpses (or graves, for that matter) do convey impurity.

From this point on, the discussion takes quite a different turn. Whether or not the previous dialogue may be seen as a transcript of a real dispute, it is clear that it does not belong to sages of the Tannaic period. These sages' discussions are always coined in Hebrew – quite different from Biblical Hebrew, to be sure, but still Hebrew.And the dialogue regarding the saying of Rabbi Shim'on ben Yohai in the first passage of the above quotation is coined in pure Aramaic: meytivei for "they argued," and dilma 'iqtil had mi-yisra'el for "the possibility that he had killed an Israelite." Admittedly, in the Babylonian Talmud meytivei is usually a technical term introducing quotation of a Tannaic source raised by a later disputant – real or literary – in objection to a certain view; [28] but here it introduces only a quotation of biblical verses. It was apparently this term which misled the author of the second passage, who thought that it indicates a real Tannaic source opposing the view of Rabbi Shim'on ben Yohai and ascribed it to "the sages" in general. [29] Evidently the author of the second passage had already worked with the first passage in its present form and tried to push the opinions expressed in it one step further.

Support for "the sages'" view was found simply: according to Numbers 31 itself the Israelites had not lost a single fighter in the war with the Midianites – so the Israelites ordered to purify themselves in Numbers 31:19 must have had killed Midianites, and yet contact with the Midianites' corpses rendered them impure. To sustain the opinion of Rabbi Shim'on ben Yohai, one has to interpret the verse of Numbers 31:49 as saying that not a single Israelite fighter had brought some kind of "lack" on himself by sinning – a strained interpretation, but such are common in Early Rabbinic treatments of the Bible. The discussion concludes with a statement by Ravina – a 5th-century Babylonian Amora [30] – intended to limit the scope of the law related by Rabbi Shim'on ben Yohai: 'adam-hood is necessary only to convey impurity "by the way of tent" but not through touch or carrying (that is, when one touches or carries without directly touching a gentile's corpse).

The latter opinion is, however, far from meeting the biblical text. Thus, the very first verse of the Pentateuchal passage on impurity conveyed by dead says: "One who touches a dead, any person of man, [31] shall be impure for seven days" (Numbers 19:11) – the conclusion that impurity conveyed by touching a dead body is also dependent on the body's former status of "man" would be obvious. The Hebrew be-'ohel – translated in this context as "by the way of tent" – does not appear in the saying of Rabbi Shim'on ben Yohai itself in most of the oldest manuscripts including this part of tractate Yevamot, [32] nor in the medieval collections Yalqut Shim'oni and Haggadot ha-Talmud. [33] Likewise, it does not appear in the quotation of Rabbi Shim'on's saying in Bava Metzi'a 114a-b, in any manuscript or printing. Furthermore, since Ravina's statement is coined in such way as to limit the scope of Rabbi Shim'on's saying, there would be no reason for it if the saying were limited from the outset to conveying impurity only "by the way of tent." Therefore, the addition of be-'ohel to the statement of Rabbi Shim'on ben Yohai in Yevamot 60b-61a must have resulted from an interpolation by a later copyist. Perhaps it started as a comment, written on the margins or between the lines of Talmudic text, with Ravina's limitation already in view. What happened then is best explained by a responsum from the Geonic period (the 7th-11th centuries CE), probably authored by the respected Babylonian R' Hai Gaon (939-1038):

It is common that a reference, explanation, or variant is written in the margin or between the lines. A copyist thinks it is part of the text and writes it all together. He thus leads astray, for [his copy] will fall into the hand of a sage who will treat the matter as a unit and render decisions according to the addition. [34]

In any event, Rabbi Shim'on ben Yohai himself must have held that gentile graves do not convey impurity in any way because of the gentiles' inherent lack of manhood.

Still, however, a plain and fair reading of the story of the Israelites' war with the Midianites in Numbers 31 makes it clear that – according to this story, at least – gentile corpses did convey impurity. Furthermore, the saying of Rabbi Shim'on ben Yohai, though attributed by Elijah in Bava Metzi'a 114a-b to the section of Purities, is conspicuously absent from all extant collections of Tannaic sources as such (the Mishnah, the Tosefta and the Tannaic midrashim). Yet, as noted above, the main point of this saying is not the homily on Ezekiel 34:31 itself but its application to the issue of impurity conveyed by graves, while the homily must have had a currency of its own – as evident from its use in a totally different legal context and without attribution to Rabbi Shim'on ben Yohai in Keritot 6b.

In fact, the very text of Ezekiel 34:20-31 begs such homily, for it is devoted exclusively to a promise of better future to Israel, and ends up with a verse using the term 'adam in specific regard to them. Little wonder, therefore, that sayings limiting the term 'adam in Ezekiel 34:31 to Israelites are quite common in Palestinian midrashim (although nowhere are they quoted in the names of Tannaim). [35]

On the other hand, there clearly are statements in the Early Rabbinic sources which apply "man" terms to gentiles. Two such are quoted by Student, both from the Babylonian Talmud. Unfortunately, his quotations are torn out of context and should be expanded in order to realize both their original meaning and the use made of them in the Talmudic discourse. The first is from tractate Gittin 47a:

Rabbah said: Although a gentile has no property rights [on land] in the Land of Israel so as to annul [the obligation of] tithing [the yield of his plot of land], as it says, "The land is Mine" (Leviticus 25:23) – still he has property rights in the Land of Israel so as to dig there ditches and caves, as it says, "The heavens, the heavens are the Lord's, but the earth He has given to mankind" (Psalms 115:16). R' E[l'azar] [36] said: Although a gentile has property rights in the Land of Israel so as to annul [the obligation of] tithing, as it says: "[...the tithes of] your grain" (Deuteronomy 12:17, 14:23) – and not a gentile's grain – still he has no property rights in the Land of Israel so as to dig there ditches and caves, as it says: "The land is the Lord's" (Exodus 9:29, Psalms 24:1). [37]

The fragment marked in bold in the above quotation is the only one cited by Student – thus creating a false impression that gentiles' property rights in the Land of Israel are unequivocally guaranteed by the Talmud. Of course, this is not the point of the chapter in question – but offering such quotation without the slightest remark as to its selective nature is not an example of good scholarship. In a work whose general theme is the view of gentiles in Early Rabbinic sources, it would be useful to note that gentiles' property rights in the Land of Israel are in fact subject of a debate, to which the Talmud itself cannot find a clear-cut solution (at least not in the sugiya in Gittin 47a-b). Interestingly, the disputing sides here are Amoraim active circa 300 CE, while in the Palestinian Talmud, different opinions on the issue are ascribed to sages of the late Tannaic period and the point of dispute itself is formulated differently. [38] But that lies beyond the scope of the present inquiry.

In any event, the term "mankind" (benei 'adam, literally "sons of men") is applied by Rabbah to gentiles in Gittin 47a. This does not mean, however, that the same term would be applied to them by those sages who coined the homily on Ezekiel 34:31 or used it in order to exclude gentiles from the category of 'adam. Different people may have different opinions – even if they are rabbis. Since the Talmud (any of them) is a collection of sayings of and stories about different Rabbinic figures of the first centuries CE, it is only to be expected that one would find there contradicting opinions. The very sugiya of gentiles' property rights in the Land of Israel starts by quoting two diametrically opposite opinions of different Rabbinic authorities, and the Talmud does not attempt to reconcile them – although it tries to find each of them support in earlier Rabbinic sources. Furthermore, each of the two opposing viis based on quotations from the Bible – which is also a collection of different works expressing different ideas. And, unlike Yevamot 60b-61a, here the Talmud does not even ask how each side in the dispute would explain the verses quoted by its opponent.

The same is true of another saying brought by Student in order to demonstrate that 'adam-terms can be applied to gentiles. This one is from tractate 'Avodah Zarah 2b-3a:

Then God [39] says to them [gentiles]: "Let them tell us the first things" (Isaiah 43:9) – the Seven [Noahide] Commandments that you were given, did you observe them?

And how do we know they did not observe them? As Rav Yosef taught: "He stood and measured the earth; He beheld and drove asunder the nations" (Habakkuk 3:6). What did He see? He saw the Seven Commandments which the Sons of Noah accepted upon themselves but did not observe, and since they did not observe them, He made them unbound [by these commandments].

Had they profited of it? If so, sinners would be rewarded! – Mar, the son of Ravina, said: Rather, this means that even if [gentiles] observe the commandments, they get no reward for it.

Do they? Yet, it is taught [in a Tannaic source]: Rabbi Me'ir used to say: From where do we learn that even a gentile occupying himself with the Torah is like the [Jewish] High Priest? From what is written, "[You should keep My statutes and My laws,] by performing which the man lives" (Leviticus 18:5). It is not written "priests, Levites and [ordinary] Israelites" but "the man" [ha-'adam] – to teach you, that even a gentile occupying himself with the Torah is like the High Priest. – Well, [gentiles do get reward for observing the commandments,] but only at the level of ones who are not [formally] bound by commandments, [which is an inferior level,] as R' Hanina said: one who is [formally] bound by a commandment and performs it is superior to one who performs it although he is not so bound.

Here, again, Student cites only the fragment marked above in bold – obscuring thus the complicated nature of this Talmudic discourse, which is itself only a part of a larger eschatological homily, punctured in the typical Babylonian-Talmud style with aside give-and-takes on details and occupying the first two folia of tractate 'Avodah Zarah. [40] In fact, the whole fragment quoted here is a give-and-take on the homilist's remark that at the end of days gentiles would be accused of not having observed the Seven Noahide Commandments (so much for Student's category of "righteous gentiles" – yet, the proper meaning of this term in Early Rabbinic sources is better left to a separate discussion). This give-and-take proceeds in several steps, each of which has been put in the above quotation in a separate passage for the sake of reader's convenience.

Interestingly, the phrase literally translated here as "a gentile occupying himself with the Torah" (goy ha-'oseq ba-torah), is interpreted by Student as "a gentile who engages in the study of Torah." To be sure, the common meaning of the phrase la-'asoq ba-torah (in the infinitive) in Early Rabbinic writings is indeed "to engage in Torah study"; and this is the only meaning mentioned by Marcus Jastrow in his classic dictionary of this literature. [41] Yet it fits neither the context of the Talmudic discussion in the above quotation nor the verse of Leviticus 18:5 on which it draws – both deal with practical performance of the Torah's precepts rather than mere study. The saying of Rabbi Me'ir is employed in the same way in tractate Bava Qama 38a, while in tractate Sanhedrin 59a it seems to be related to Torah study proper. On the other hand, in the Tannaic midrash Sifra the homily on Leviticus 18:5 is coined in a form that fits better the use made of it in tractates 'Avodah Zarah and Bava Qama:

"[You should keep My statutes and My laws,] by performing which the man [lives]" (Leviticus 18:5).

Rabbi Yirmiyah used to say: From where [do we learn] that even a gentile, if he performs the Torah, is like the High Priest? From what it says, "by performing which the man lives."

He also said: It does not say, "This is the way [literally: Torah] of priests, Levites and [ordinary] Israelites" but "This is the way of the man [ha-'adam], o Lord God" (II Samuel 7:19).

He also said: It does not say, "Open the gates and let priests, Levites and Israelites come" but "...and let the righteous nation, [42] keeping faith, come" (Isaiah 26:2).

He also said: It does not say, "This is the gate to the Lord; priests, Levites and Israelites [shall come in it]" but "...the righteous shall come in it" (Psalms 118:20).

He also said: It does not say, "Rejoice, o priests, Levites and Israelites [in the Lord]" but "Rejoice, o righteous, in the Lord" (Psalms 33:1).

He also said: It does not say, "O Lord, improve the lot of priests, Levites and Israelites" but "O Lord, improve the lord of the good."

So, even a gentile who performs the Torah is like the High Priest. [43]

The term "performs" (Hebrew 'ośeh) leaves no doubt that it is spoken of practical performance of the Torah's precepts. Curiously, the homily – here much more developed and supplemented with support from other biblical verses – is attributed in the Sifra to Rabbi Yirmiyah, apparently the late-2nd-century Tanna of the generation following that of Rabbi Me'ir. [44] However, since Rabbi Me'ir is a far more popular Tannaic figure than Rabbi Yirmiyah, the latter's teachings had good chances of being attributed, especially by oral tradition, to the former – while the reverse it is harder to imagine.

The Sifra's version seems to be closer to the original homily on Leviticus 18:5; but the replacement of 'ośeh by 'oseq ba-torah is more difficult to explain than the mere change of attribution. Wording could have changed – especially in oral transmission – but the sages who employed this homily in its context in 'Avodah Zarah 3a (and Bava Qama 38a) must have understood it in its original sense. Perhaps 'oseq ba-torah had a more general meaning, in the vein of "living a life of the Torah" or "occupying oneself with the Torah" generally – of which studying the Torah was an important but not the only part.

Be it as it may, in 'Avodah Zarah 2b-3a the saying of Rabbi Me'ir (let us call it thus for the sake of simplicity) is raised as a counter-argument to that of Mar the son of Ravina, a 4th-century Babylonian Amora [45] who held that gentiles are not awarded for their observance of the commandments. And the Talmud tries to harmonize the two sayings by a compromise: gentiles are rewarded for their performance of the commandments, but not as munificently as Jews.

Needless to say, this compromise fits neither the view of Mar the son of Ravina nor that of Rabbi Me'ir. The first claimed that gentiles get no reward for the observance of commandments, period. The second drew an equation between a gentile "occupying himself with the Torah" and the High Priest – surely the High Priest is formally "bound by commandments" and rewarded accordingly for their performance. Unlike in trade or politics, in scholarship middle-ground compromises do justice to neither side of a dispute – especially if they are forced on earlier sources by later interpreters. But Talmudic rabbis were no academicians; too often they preferred to do violence to their sources by forcing them into some kind of "unified Torah" rather than gently accepting the fact that different people may have different views on the same subject. They had, after all, to produce teachings, not research.

In fact, even the attempts in Keritot 6b and Yevamot 60b-61a to qualify the homily on Ezekiel 34:31 so as to admit that in distinction from animals gentiles may be called men are naught but yet more examples of such wrong-headed harmonization. The original homily says nothing of this kind; nor does it dwell on a verse where any comparison between gentiles and animals is necessitated. Even if the homilist was aware of biblical verses terming gentiles 'adam, he may have simply ignored them for the sake of the message he wanted to convey. A good parallel can be found in a use of the homily on Ezekiel 34:31 in the midrash Qohelet Rabbah:

R' Bon said: [Thus] says God: although I raised prophets from amidst Israel, who are called men – as it says, "you are mankind" (Ezekiel 34:31) – I did not raise in the same fashion prophets for gentiles, who are called cattle, as it says: "and a lot of cattle" (Jonah 4:11). [46]

Amazingly, the verse used in Keritot 6b and Yevamot 60b-61a to argue that gentiles may be called men is interpreted here to mean that they are mere cattle – in spite of the fact that this very verse details the enormous population of the gentile city of Nineveh, "more than one hundred and twenty thousand men not knowing between their right and their left, and a lot of cattle." The approach of Qohelet Rabbah has its own point, however: if gentiles are men when compared to animals, in what meaningful sense can they be non-men?

Unfortunately for a reader looking for careful scholarship, Student's work is plagued by the same tendency to harmonize the unharmonizable. Having (selectively) quoted the texts from Gittin 47a-b and 'Avodah Zarah 2b-3a, Student proceeds:

We see from Gittin that the Talmud considers the phrase Bnei Adam (sons of man) to refer also to gentiles. We see from Avodah Zarah that the Talmud considers the term HaAdam (the man) to refer also to gentiles. Clearly, gentiles are considered human. Why then does the Talmud in Bava Metzia understand that gentiles are not considered Adam (man)?

The explanation is that these are different terms and only a superficial reading would render the term Adam in Bava Metzia as man. Gentiles are absolutely considered human as biology clearly dictates; there are no physiological differences between Jews and gentiles. All people are ultimately descended from the same ancestors, Noah and Adam.

However, the Jews, as a unified nation, are one organic entity. We are obligated to treat each other as close family members and are responsible for each other's actions.

When the Talmud sees the Hebrew word Adam it sees an allusion to Adam of Genesis 1-5 who was at one time the only person. The Talmud understands this as referring to the Jewish people who are an organic unit like one person. Gentiles do not have this organic national bond with each other and are therefore excluded from this concept.

Other terms referring to people, Bnei Adam (sons of Adam) or HaAdam (the man), are understood to refer to the species homo sapien of which gentiles are obviously members just as Jews are.

Of course, this is plainly wrong. Take, for example, the Babylonian Talmud's pun on Job 38:1, "Then the Lord answered Job from the storm" (in Hebrew, "storm" and "a hair" sound the same – se'arah – although they are spelled differently):

[Job] said: o Lord of the Universe, perhaps a wind of storm whirled before you and caused you to confuse Job ['Iyov] with "an enemy" ['oyev]? [Thus God has punished Job as though he were His enemy.] So God answered him in storm – "Then the Lord answered Job from the storm, saying:" You fool of fools! I have created myriads of hairs on a man's head, and for each and every hair I have created a dimple of its own, so that no two hairs would feed from one dimple – for otherwise, if any two hairs fed from one dimple, man's eyesight would be dimmed. I had never confused a dimple with a dimple – could I confuse Job with "an enemy"? [47]

Whatever its biological accuracy, this story obviously describes the head of each and every homo sapiens specimen, and the term "man" – plain old Hebrew 'adam – applies here to Jew and gentile alike.

Another example is the use of benei 'adam in the Tannaic midrash Sifrei Zuta, in a homily on Numbers 35:34, "Do not impurify the land on which you are sitting and in which I am dwelling, for I am the Lord dwelling in the midst of the sons of Israel [benei yisra'el]":

"Dwelling in the midst" – can it be in the midst of a hundred, or in the midst of a thousand? [No, for] it says, "In the midst of the sons of Israel"; some say, in the midst of each and every tribe, and some say, in [the midst of] all the tribes together.

R' Nehorai said: "For I am the Lord dwelling..." – [can it be] in exile? [No, for] it says, "the land [...in which I am dwelling]." Or [can it be] in the Land [of Israel] while you are in exile? [No, for] it says, "In the midst of the sons of Israel" – when sons of men [benei 'adam] are in the Land, and not when they are not in the Land. [48]

Here, benei 'adam equals benei yisra'el.

Or the use which the midrash Bereshit Rabbah makes of God's warning against homicide in Genesis 9:5:

"[From the man, too, from every man's brother,] I will exact [his due for] the man's life" – this speaks of Israel, as it says: "And you, My sheep, the sheep of my pasture, you are mankind" (Ezekiel 34:31). [49]

Here the term "the man" (ha-'adam) in the biblical verse is understood to apply to Israelites only. And yet immediately following this homily in Bereshit Rabbah is another one, attributed to a different Rabbinic figure and dwelling on Genesis 9:6:

"Whoever sheds the man's blood, [by a man should his blood be shed]" – Rabbi Haninah said: it all speaks of the laws of the sons of Noah [gentiles].

So, one and the same term – ha-'adam – was applied by different sages to different categories of people. As aptly noted by Morton Smith, specifically in the context of a discussion "On the Shape of God and the Humanity of Gentiles," "a gift for systematic theology... is a great handicap in the study of rabbinic literature." [50]

4. Sex, Donkeys, and Critical Research

Student's concern with gentiles' humanity or inhumanity does not stop with the homily on Ezekiel 34:31. In another chapter, listed on his contents page as "Gentiles Are Human 2: The Talmud does not consider gentiles to be animals" he deals with a couple of quotes from the Babylonian Talmud where gentiles are allegedly called "animals" (in fact, donkeys). The first of these is the story in tractate Berakhot 58a:

R' Shila flogged a man who copulated with a gentile woman. [The man] went to slander him at the king's. He told [the king]: There is a man among the Jews who administers judgment without the king's license. [The king] sent an officer to bring him.

When [R' Shila] came, they asked him: Why did you flog that man? [R' Shila] replied: Because he had copulated with a donkey. They asked him: Do you have witnesses? [R' Shila] replied: Yes. Elijah [the prophet] came, looking as a [regular] man, and bore testimony.

[The king] said: If so, he should be put to death. [R' Shila] said: Since the day we were exiled from our land we have no license to put people to death; but you can do with him whatever you want.

While they were considering the case, R' Shila uttered: "Yours, o Lord, is the greatness and the glory [and the splendor and the eminence and the majesty, for everything in heaven and on earth is Your kingdom, o Lord, who exalts Himself over all]" (I Chronicles 29:11). They asked him: What did you say? He replied: Thus I said, Blessed be God, who established the earthly kingdom after the way of the heavenly kingdom and gave you the power and love of judgment. [They] said: He admires our government that much! They gave him a staff and said him: You may judge!

When [R' Shila] was going out, the [flogged] man said to him: Does God make miracles for liars? [R' Shila] replied him: You wicked one! Aren't they called donkeys? As it is written, "whose flesh is the flesh of donkeys" (Ezekiel 23:20). When he saw that [the flogged man] was going to tell [the gentile authorities] he called them donkeys, [R' Shila] said [to himself]: This man is a pursuer, and the Torah said, one who comes to kill you – rise and kill him first. So he struck him with the staff and killed him.

Then he said: Since a miracle happened to me in regard to this verse, let me expound it. "Yours, o Lord, is the greatness" – this is the act of the Creation, as it says, "Who makes great things beyond comprehension" (Job 9:10). "And the glory" – this is the Exodus from Egypt, as it says, "So Israel saw the great power [with which the Lord struck Egypt]..." (Exodus 14:31). "And the splendor" – these are the sun and the moon which stood still for Joshua, as it says, "So the sun stood still and the moon stopped moving..." (Joshua 10:13). "And the eminence" – this is the fall of Rome, as it says, "Their blood sprinkled on My garments..." (Isaiah 63:3). "And the majesty" – this is the war of the Brooks of Arnon, as it says, "Therefore it is told in the book of wars of the Lord: Waheb in storm [and the brooks of Arnon]" (Numbers 21:14). "For everything in heaven and on earth" – this is the war with Sisera, as it says, "From the sky the stars fought, [from their tracks fought with Sisera]" (Judges 5:20). "Is Your kingdom, o Lord" – this is the war against Amalek, as it says, "For Lord [swears by laying] hand on His throne, [that a war be between the Lord and Amalek for all generations]" (Exodus 17:16). "Who exalts Himself" – this is the war of Gog and Magog, as it says, "Behold, I turn on you, Gog, the chief, head of Meshech and Tubal" (Ezekiel 38:3, 39:1). "Over all" – said Rav Hanan bar Rava in the name of R' Yohanan: even a supervisor of local water supply is appointed [to his post] by Heaven.

Already at first glance it can be seen that this story consists of two main parts: a homily on I Chronicles 29:11 (the last passage in the above quotation) and narration of circumstances in which that homily was formulated. A question worth asking is whether the connection between the two is merely occasional or if there is some deeper intent to it.

But to begin, two things should be noted. First, of several sages in Early Rabbinic sources bearing the name Shila, the only two mentioned without patronymic or place of origin are an early-2nd-century Tanna and an early-3rd-century Babylonian rabbi, active about the end of the Tannaic and the beginning of the Amoraic period. [51] Both are mentioned by the title "Rabbi" – as distinct from "Rav," the title usually borne by Babylonian Amoraim – but that does not make much difference anyway, since all extant versions of the story under discussion bring Shila's title in abbreviated form: "R'." [52] Second, neither of the above R' Shilas would have been able to quote the last part of the homily on I Chronicles 29:11 in the name of Rav Hanan bar Rava, a late-3rd-century Babylonian Amora. [53] A solution to this contradiction is not hard to find, as will be shown below. Interestingly, Student makes no mention of this problem, nor does he cite at all the homily on I Chronicles 29:11 – although he claims to be interested in the story's historical background:

Let us first put this event into its proper historical context.  Aaron Hyman [Toldot Tannaim Ve'amoraim, vol. 3 pp. 1111-1112] places this during the time of R. Shimon ben Gamaliel II which is early second century. Around fifty years earlier the Temple had been destroyed and large portions of the Jewish population brought to Rome and sold as slaves. The Jews were still persecuted due to the decrees of the emperor Trajan (reigned 98 to 117) and, when he died and Hadrian became his successor, Hadrian's early policy of tolerance was changed to one of persecution as well, some say due to Jewish informers who warned against giving Jews too much independence.

In fact, Aharon Hyman's Toledot Tanna'im we-'Amora'im identify the story's R' Shila as a Tanna who was a teacher of Rabban Shim'on ben Gamliel II [54] – and therefore belonged to the preceding generation, which is the only way to date his activity to the earlier part of the 2nd century CE. (Rabban Shim'on II himself was active only in the mid-2nd century, after the great Jewish revolt against Rome, headed by Bar Kokhba, had been violently suppressed, and the rabbinic center in Palestine had moved to Galilee. [55]) Also, it is far from clear whether Hadrian's persecutory measures against the Jews preceded the Bar Kokhba revolt or followed it as a sort of retaliation, [56] and nothing is known about Jewish informers allegedly prompting the emperor to start the persecutions. [57]

What are, however, the considerations that brought Hyman to identify the story's R' Shila the way he did? Student does not detail them. But a reader curious enough to consult Hyman's book itself will easily discover that all these considerations are based on R. N. N. Rabinowitz's Diqduqei Soferim, [58] where it is mentioned that in the Munich manuscript no. 95, R' Shila is reported to have been slandered "at the caesar's" (bei qeisar) [59] instead of "at the king's" (bei malka) and allowed by the authorities to administer judgment "at the entrance of Rome" (a-pitha de-romi). These readings are not represented in the above translation, which follows the common Vilna printing of the Babylonian Talmud, but they are attested – at least partially – in several other medieval manuscripts. The Oxford manuscript no. 366 and the Paris manuscript no. 671,4 read "at the entrance of the Romans" (a-pitha de-roma'ei) although they make no mention of "caesar." [60] The Florence manuscript no. II I 7-9 – the oldest manuscript of tractate Berakhot, dated 1176 CE – makes no mention of "the entrance of Rome" but has the reading "caesar." The Roman context may be reasonably considered as evidence that the story had originated in the Roman empire's domain – in which case Rabbinic circles of Palestine would be the best candidate, and R' Shila mentioned without patronymic may be taken to be the early-2nd-century Tanna. The chronological contradiction between this R' Shila and Rav Hanan bar Rava would remain – but it can be solved by assuming that the whole homily on I Chronicles 29:11, or at least the last part of it, is a later addition to the original story, or that the name of Rav Hanan is a later interpolation, resulting perhaps from the fact that he also taught this part of the homily.

Whatever the persuasive force of Hyman's argument as such, it clearly demonstrates the importance of Talmudic text-criticism. To understand a text – especially an ancient text – one should be aware of the changes that might have occurred to it in the process of its transmission through generations. To this end it is necessary to consult as many witnesses to the text as possible: old manuscripts and printings, quotations in other sources, etc. To judge between different versions, however, one should apply his own power of reason, informed by a general knowledge of the process of transmission of the text in question, formulaic conventions prevailing in it, and the text's inner logic. Thus, it is not always possible to draw a clear borderline between textual and literary criticism (like in the above discussion of Yevamot 60b-61a, wherein the conclusion that the word for conveying impurity "by the way of tent" should be omitted from Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai's saying was reached not only because of the absence of this word from most early witnesses to the text, but also because its insertion jars the otherwise evident logic of the Talmudic discourse, and it is quite easy to understand how such an insertion could have taken place after the original text was formulated). But this does not mean that critical judgment should be forsaken – unless one is interested in preserving his pre-conceived opinion about his sources rather than trying to understand what they really wanted to say.

Regrettably, Orthodox Jewish circles – with which Student identifies himself – generally opt for the first path. Hence their common suspicion of critical approach, and this is perhaps the reason why Student refrained from citing the details of Hyman's argument (although Hyman himself was, as were many other Orthodox Jewish scholars, well aware of the importance of both textual and literary criticism). [61] But ancient sources should not be blamed for what their modern readers do.

Constructing a reasonable scenario of textual development which would link together all the extant versions of the story about R' Shila is a difficult task that is best left for another occasion. But an appreciation of the "Roman" readings mentioned above is a sine qua non for making a reasonable conclusion about the story's provenance and historical setting (if any). The Vilna printing is not a reliable witness to the text, compared to medieval manuscripts, because of its late date. But to all intents and purposes bearing on the present discussion, the Vilna printing's version of the R' Shila story is the same as that of the Venice printing – the first complete printing of the Babylonian Talmud, published by Daniel Bomberg's famous publishing house in 1520-1523. [62] This printing, undoubtedly based on earlier manuscripts, should be taken into consideration in any text-critical analysis. It totally omits all the "Roman" readings of the Florence, Oxford, Munich and Paris manuscripts, using instead markedly Persian terms: harmana (for "license" to administer judgment which R' Shila had not initially obtained) and pristaka (the officer whom the king – not caesar! – sent to bring R' Shila before him). [63] The same terms are attested in Yalqut Shim'oni, [64] a medieval Ashkenazic collection of novelistic material from Early Rabbinic sources, whose readings "should be considered in many cases [for the purposes of Talmudic text-criticism]... on a par with [medieval] manuscripts of the source under discussion." [65]

Interestingly, another collection of novelistic material from Early Rabbinic literature – 'Ein Ya'aqov, compiled in the early 16th century – preserves both the Roman and the Persian terms; [66] apparently these derive from independent textual traditions combined by the author of this collection (R' Ya'aqov ibn Haviv, 1445-1515, Spain-Salonica). But in any event, another Persian term – qolpa or qopla ("staff") [67] – is attested by all versions of our story, from manuscripts to printings to medieval collections. Persian terms, unless derived from the Bible, had no currency among the Jews in the Roman world; the natural place to look for their origin is Babylonia – not so much in the Parthian as in the Sasanian period, when the Persian cultural influence in this region was at its peak.

However, since of all Early Rabbinic sources the story of R' Shila is related only in the Babylonian Talmud, it is obvious that it reached us – and medieval European copyists and collectors as well – only through Early Rabbinic circles of Babylonia. Thus, there is little wonder at the presence of Persian terms in the story; these could have been used in a story originally composed in Babylonia or added to some original Palestinian story during its transmission in Babylonian circles – especially in oral form – with more or less equal plausibility. Likewise, the Roman terms attested in the abovementioned manuscripts could have belonged to an original Palestinian story or have been added to a story of Babylonian provenance by later copyists, who mistakenly took the story to refer to a Jewish community under Roman rule (in fact, these terms – "caesar" and "Rome" – were so widely known in rabbinic circles that no special acquaintance with the Roman world was needed to use them). No more than a glance at several extant versions of the R' Shila story is needed to realize that they could have come into existence only through rather free tampering of copyists with the text – which, however, did not alter the story's plot and overall message.

Still, existence of a version free even of these Roman terms testifies that at least in one Babylonian recension of the story they did not exist – and there would be nothing in that recension to argue for Palestinian or other Roman provenance. It may be, of course, that another Babylonian recension of the same story preserved the "original" Roman terms and it is that recension which is reflected in the aforementioned manuscripts. But that would mean that different extant versions of this story – and perhaps of tractate Berakhot as a whole – cannot be traced back to a single original text from which all later ones were supposedly copied and re-copied. Such an assumption is quite unfavorable, and it is best not resorted to unless none other is reasonably acceptable. Thus, purely textual considerations make the idea of Palestinian provenance quite doubtful.

But there is no reason to limit the inquiry to purely textual considerations. The content of the story, the motifs it uses, and the ideas it expresses may be even more useful in determining its provenance. Single words may have been easily added or dropped in the course of copying and re-copying a text through generations, and even an originally Palestinian story may have been be written down in Babylonia in local dialect using Persian terms. But literary motifs and ideas expressed in a story are harder to tamper with. If one encounters in a given text motifs and ideas known otherwise only from either Palestinian or Babylonian sources, it is reasonable to conclude that the story the text tells originated in that respective country.

In the story of R' Shila, no motif can be taken as distinctively Palestinian. On the other hand, the most striking candidate for a Babylonian motif is R' Shila's phrase "Since the day we had been exiled from our land, we have no license to put people to death." Such statement is hardly to be expected of Jews living in Palestine – the land they believed to be theirs. To be sure, the perception of exile of Israel from their land by the hands of Rome – metaphorically termed "Edom" – was shared even by Palestinian Jews. [68] But never do Palestinian sources put the notion of exile in first person in the mouth of a Palestinian Jewish figure, either in a legal discussion or in a narrative like that of R' Shila. At most, the notion of exile is put in the mouth of the Jewish people collectively, like in the midrash Sifra on Leviticus 26:32: "'I shall lay the land waste' – this is a good thing, so that Israel would not say, 'Now that we have been exiled from our land, enemies will come and find pleasure on it.' Therefore... even the enemies coming afterwards would not find pleasure on [that land]." [69]

Yet in the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 55b-56a, there is a story of events that led to the Second Temple's destruction. In that story, the central rabbinic figure is one Rabbi Zekhariyah ben Euqoles. The story criticizes his behavior, and the critique, attributed to the late-3rd-century Palestinian Amora Rabbi Yohanan, [70] is coined in the following phrase: "The meekness of Rabbi Zekhariyah ben Euqoles destroyed our home, burnt our Temple-hall and exiled us from our land." [71] This might have counted as a Palestinian expression of the idea of exile.

Indeed, the blaming of Rabbi Zekhariyah ben Euqoles for the Temple's destruction occurs twice more in Early Rabbinic sources, in almost the same literary form – which makes it reasonable to assume that in all cases it is spoken of different variants of one and the same adage, which apparently had a currency of its own. Both additional sources are Palestinian: the Tosefta, a collection of Tannaic traditions that had not been included in the Mishnah (in the context of a legal discourse on a minor issue of Sabbath observance) [72] and the midrash 'Eikhah Rabbah (again in a story of events that led to the Second Temple's destruction, basically the same as in the Babylonian Talmud). [73] Attribution of the saying is somewhat problematic: the Tosefta ascribes it to the Tanna Rabbi Yose, and 'Eikhah Rabbah to either Rabbi Yose or the Babylonian Amora Rav Yosef, according to different versions. Yet the attribution to Rabbi Yose seems to be the original one, as it is attested in a Tannaic source where other readings – both Rav Yosef and Rabbi Yohanan – would be improbable (although later interpolations cannot be excluded in sources of this kind). Thus the Palestinian provenance of the saying stands.

But in both the Tosefta and 'Eikhah Rabbah the formulation of the saying is: "The meekness of Rabbi Zechariah ben Euqoles burnt the Temple-hall," period. The expansion to "...destroyed our home, burnt our Temple-hall and exiled us from our land" is attested only in the Babylonian Talmud and seems to be the work of a Babylonian editor, who collected different stories about Rome's assault on the Jews and arranged them into the compilation now occupying folios 55b-58a of tractate Gittin. To such an editor the notion of "exiled us [in first person plural] from our land" was only natural.

In any event, the perception that "we were exiled from our land" as the reason for loss of the Jewish sages' ability to administer capital punishment is exclusive to the Babylonian Talmud. Palestinian Tannaic midrashim condition the authority to issue death sentences on the existence of the Jerusalem Temple; [74] and even the Babylonian Talmud, whenever it quotes Palestinian legal traditions, connects the loss of such authority to the fact that Jewish courts no longer operate under the Temple's aegis – not to exile "from our land." [75]

The "explanation by exile" is given, besides in the R' Shila story, only once in Early Rabbinic sources – in the Babylonian Talmud, tractate Megilah 12b. A homily on the book of Esther brought there dwells on Queen Vashti's refusal to appear at Ahasuerus' banquet and reads Jewish sages into the verse of Esther 1:13, where the king is told to have consulted "the sages who know the seasons" about the case. The homilist takes these sages to have been rabbis (rabbanan), and relates that they were asked by the king to rule how the disobedient queen should be punished. That, according to the homily, created quite a problem for them: were they to order her executed, the king, sobered up the next morning, would accuse them of having murdered his wife; and were they to opt for a less severe punishment, the king would rage while still drunken, feeling that his honor was unimportant in the rabbis' eyes. Therefore the rabbis politely refused to judge the case: "Since the day the Temple was destroyed and we were exiled from our land, the counsel has been withheld from us and we are not capable of judging capital cases." The homily is attributed to Rava, a Babylonian Amora of the early 4th century CE, [76] and besides the standard Palestinian concept of the loss of the Temple's aegis, the rabbis' inability to judge capital cases is explained here by the notion "we were exiled from our land."

Of course, a single occurrence of such notion besides the story of R' Shila may not be enough to draw far-reaching conclusions. It should be also noted that in the R' Shila story itself the phrase, "Since the day we were exiled from our land we have no license to put people to death," does not appear in the Florence manuscript – which merely reads instead, "The power is not in our hands" (leit shultana be-yadan). Still, it appears in all other witnesses to the text, and the whole issue seems to be of some weight in drawing conclusions about the story's provenance.

Another important point of the story about R' Shila is much more clearly Babylonian. The story does not dwell on the ethnic identity of the woman with whom the flogged Jewish man copulated; she is merely termed "gentile" (goyah) – and the verse of Ezekiel 23:20 is used to say that having sex with her is like having sex with a donkey. Needless to say, this is not the meaning of the original biblical passage:

Then she multiplied her whorings, recalling the days of her youth, when she whored in the land of Egypt. And she lusted with their paramours, whose flesh is the flesh of donkeys and issue [of semen] – the issue of horses. Thus you came back to the lewdness of your youth, with Egyptians as your lovers, because of the breasts of your youth (Ezekiel 23:19-21).

"She" in this passage is a woman named Oholibah, a metaphor of Jerusalem and the kingdom of Judah (Ezekiel 23:1-4). Oholibah's sexual misconduct represents Judah's sins, in part attempts at an alliance with Egypt in the last decade before Jerusalem fell at the hands of Nebuchadnezzar in 586 BCE. In any event, the phrase in Ezekiel 23:20 regarding "the flesh of donkeys" is intended to mean Egypt only – and thus it was understood by all Palestinian sources of the Amoraic and early post-Amoraic period. [77]

The only Tannaic source dwelling on this verse, Tosefta 'Arakhin 3:2, [78] does not limit it to Egyptians – but not to gentiles as such, either. In the Tosefta the phrase is applied to all human beings and used to learn that one who vows the weight of his arm or leg (in precious metal) to the Temple's treasury should use donkey's meat and bones in weighing the metal – a use of the verse that is openly admitted to be parabolic.

It is only the Babylonian Talmud that applies the "flesh of donkeys" verse to non-Jews as such – always in Amoraic discourse, and if such use of the verse is attributed to someone, it is only to Babylonian sages. [79] Thus the weight of evidence tends towards a Babylonian provenance of the story about R' Shila; at least there is nothing definitely Palestinian to it.

Whether the story is reliable as a historical source is a different question altogether. It has been argued that the political climate reflected in this story fits that of Babylonia in the second quarter of the 3rd century CE, when the new Sasanian regime had done away with the wide autonomy the Jews had enjoyed under Parthian rule and sought to supervise even internal Jewish affairs. [80] But such a climate was apparently not specific to that period. A story in tractate Ta'anit 24b relates how flagellation of a Jewish culprit by the court of a Babylonian rabbi brought about an intervention of King Shapur (Shabur in Talmudic parlance). Some versions indicate that the culprit was guilty of sexual contact with a gentile woman, but the relevant phrase is absent from the oldest manuscripts [81] and seems to stem from a later interpolation to the original story, probably influenced by the story of R' Shila. There are different readings as to the name of the sage in question – Rav Yehudah, Rabbah, or Rava. [82] But all these Amoraic figures flourished between the mid-3rd and mid-4th centuries CE, and during all that period there was only one King Shapur – Shapur II (reigned 309-379). [83] Furthermore, Shapur II was already crowned at his birth, and if the Talmudic mention of the king's own activity in that case is to be relied upon, the event would be dated at least to the second quarter of the 4th century – which means that the rabbi in question must have been Rava. Thus it is quite possible that the story of R' Shila was also composed in King Shapur's days – or perhaps earlier or later.

On the other hand, most details of the story about R' Shila bespeak an utterly unhistorical naïveté. A Jew going to complain to the authorities about excesses of his communal leaders would have no better chances to get directly to the king's court in either Rome or Persia than he would have to obtain a private audience with the President in the present-day USA. Roman Palestine was governed by provincial administration: first as provincia Judaea, then – after the suppression of the Bar Kokhba revolt – as an integral part of a larger province Syria-Palaestina. [84] Complaints of a Jew's misbehavior towards another Jew would have to be addressed to provincial authorities, not "at the king's." The Sasanian regime, on the other hand, was characterized by well-organized administration and rigid stratification of the society into estates: the priests, the warriors, the bureaucracy and the farmers-and-artisans class, each carrying out its hereditary duties and not intervening in the others' domains. Jews, as well as other non-Iranian groups, possessed a kind of self-government and were not a part of this social stratification – but if a Jew wanted to complain about the usurpation of power by another Jew, the officials he would have to turn to were judges (of the priestly estate) or bureaucrats, not the king. [85]

The same unhistorical naïveté is manifest in the authorities' grant of juridical power to R' Shila just because he had praised them aloud: if this were the way the things worked, becoming a judge would be too easy for a normal state mechanism to function adequately.

The most palpable detail, however, which makes it problematic to treat the story of R' Shila as an accurate description of a real-life event, is appearance of Prophet Elijah. Student sees in it "a fascinating example of the slow decrease in divine revelation," with God no longer speaking to people directly but sending Elijah to do it instead. According to Student, "R. Shila lived during the end of the last period of divine revelation and he was, therefore, still able to witness Elijah's descent from heaven." But of course, the descent of people who had lived long ago "from heaven" – wherever that is – flatly contradicts all our understanding of human nature, and critically-minded researchers should not be expected to believe in such things (at least not during working hours, when a critical set of mind is a professional requirement). Also, in the story of R' Shila, Elijah carries no divine message and appears not only before R' Shila but primarily before the gentile court, testifying that the flogged Jewish man had really had sex with a donkey.

Furthermore, the sentence relating Elijah's descent and testimony is totally absent from the Munich, Oxford, and Paris manuscripts. There the relevant fragment of the text reads as follows:

When [R' Shila] came, they asked him: Why did you flog that man? [R' Shila] replied: Because he had copulated with a donkey. They said: If so, he should be put to death. [R' Shila] said: Since the day we were exiled from our land we have no license to put people to death; but you can do with him whatever you want.

To answer the question of which version is closer to the original would require a thorough text-critical study of the story of R' Shila – which can be hardly accomplished in the limits of this inquiry. But the absence of Elijah's descent leaves open the problem which it solves in other versions: why did the gentile court believe R' Shila without any further investigation? This is not how a real governmental agency would function – but apparently, for the story's author it did not matter much. He was interested in expressing certain ideas, with Elijah or without him, not in accurate description of real-life events.

Of course, the story may have a kernel of historical truth. It is entirely possible that a certain R' Shila presided over a Jewish court, sentenced some Jew to flagellation for sexual contact with a gentile woman, suffered as result certain difficulties at the hands of the state authorities but came out of the whole matter unscathed. But again, historical accuracy is not the story's prime concern. To read it as history is to misread it. Instead, one should try to grasp the idea that the story was intended to convey.

Now it is time to return to the connection between the incident with R' Shila and his homily on I Chronicles 29:11. The verse on which the homily dwells is unrestrained praise of God. In the book of Chronicles it is a part of the thanksgiving prayer of David, which opens with the words "Blessed be You, the Lord, God of Israel, our Father from ever forever" (I Chronicles 29:10). But the praise in verse 11 is too general, and it is hard to understand from it how God, who rules over the whole world, is specifically Israel's "father." The homily fills this gap. Granted it begins with the Creation, praising this divine act which is fundamentally beyond human comprehension, but immediately the homilist turns to specifically Israelite events; more exactly, to wars in which God fought, or it was believed He will fight in the future, for Israel. Such was the drowning of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea, Joshua's victory over the Canaanites, Deborah's triumph over Sisera, and so on. It is hard to tell what exactly the homilist meant by "the fall of Rome," which he related to the first passage of Isaiah 63, speaking of God's revenge against Edom – again, the equation between Edom and Rome was universally accepted among the rabbis, probably because Roman rule over Judea was associated with the name of Herod the Idumean. [86] Maybe the homilist referred to some Roman defeat in the endless wars in which it was engaged first with Parthian and then with Sasanian Persia, but it seems more likely that he meant the final defeat of Rome at God's hand at the end of days, like the defeat awaiting Gog and the land of Magog in the ultimate eschatological war. [87]

So all the wars mentioned either took place in the long-gone biblical past or were foretold to occur in the messianic future. A Late Antique Babylonian Jew would be reasonably expected to ask: And what about now? How can God's "fatherhood" be felt in the atmosphere of exile and foreign domination? To that R' Shila's answer was brought in the name of Rav Hanan bar Rava: the powers ruling over Jews were authorized directly from the heaven, down to the lowest ranks. Perhaps it is hard to comprehend – but why should it be any easier than the act of Creation, incomprehensible in principle?

Such an interpretation is coined in an even more explicit form in the Jewish Aramaic translation of Chronicles, where the final clause of I Chronicles 29:11 is rendered as: "Yours, O Lord, is the Kingdom of Heaven, and You convey authority on all angels in heaven and on all who are raised to be chiefs on earth." [88] Although the Aramaic translation of Hagiographa, of which this is a part, is first attested, of all extant sources, by R' Hai Gaon, [89] it is quite possible that some fragments of that translation – including the one of I Chronicles 29:11 – preceded that time by centuries. [90]

Now the incident with R' Shila, which is said to have been the immediate background of his homily, perfectly demonstrates just how gentile power can be used to the Jews' benefit – that of the "right" Jews, of course. Indeed, "wrong" Jews can try to use that power for their benefit – but a rabbi's sagacity, coupled with divine providence (with or without Elijah), ably forestalls such threat, and turns things to their proper course with the approval of gentile authorities. R' Shila flogs a Jewish culprit for having slept with a gentile woman – and the authorities approve his action, driven to believe that the punishment was meted for bestiality. R' Shila kills the culprit because the latter is going to put him in mortal danger – the authorities would surely not like being called donkeys – but the story is constructed in such way that it is evident that this punishment would also be approved by the authorities themselves, who had just given R' Shila license to administer any judgment he finds necessary.

The thematic connection between the last part of R' Shila's homily and the incident involving him and the Jewish sinner implies that the textual link between the two should be taken as genuine, rather than resulting from a conflation of different sources. It is still possible to regard the name of Rav Hanan bar Rava as an interpolation – but there is no textual evidence for such an assumption. Rather, it seems preferable to identify the story's R' Shila with Rav Shila bar Avina, a late-3rd-century Babylonian Amora and a contemporary of Rav Hanan bar Rava. [91] That his name is brought in the story without patronymic may be perplexing but not unparalleled: although Rav Nahman, mentioned without patronymic, is usually the late-3rd-century Amora Rav Nahman bar Ya'aqov, sometimes the Talmud refers in this way to a Babylonian sage active some four generations later, who is generally identified with the Amora mentioned otherwise as Rav Nahman bar Rav Huna.[92]

Returning to our story, however – did R' Shila cheat? This is just the accusation the story puts into the mouth of the Jewish sinner: "Does God make miracles for liars?" Put into a mouth of an evildoer, the question is in fact rhetorical; but the story's author was diligent enough to clarify himself beyond any reasonable doubt: "You wicked one! Aren't they called donkeys?" – and a biblical verse is quoted in support. In the Florence, Munich, Oxford, and Paris manuscripts, the phrasing is even more open: "You wicked one! I have told the truth!"

Perhaps, as Student asserts, "R. Shila could claim that he was speaking metaphorically and the court mistakenly understood him literally." But there is nothing in the story to suggest that he – or the story's author – would claim so. Student's argument reminds one of an old Jewish joke about how one learns from the Bible that Abraham wore a skullcap from what is written, "So Abram went as the Lord had spoken to him..." (Genesis 12:4). What does it have to do with a skullcap? Well, how can one imagine a righteous person like Abraham going somewhere with his head uncovered?

5. Donkeys Again, or Can a Gentile Have a Father?

Still, it should be kept in mind that the homily on the "flesh of donkeys" was quite common among Babylonian rabbis. It may be useful to check its other uses in the Talmud before proceeding to a conclusion about what it was generally held to say – although the importance of distinction between different opinions should never be overlooked.

One of these cases – and the other from which Student sets out to refute the notion that gentiles are considered animals – is the discourse in tractate Yevamot 97b-98a:

Come hear [what a Tannaic source says [93]]: Two twin brothers, proselytes or freed slaves – neither [of them] should perform the rite of halitzah [meaning refusal to enter a levirate marriage] or enter a levirate marriage [when the other one dies without having had offspring], nor is he liable for [having sex with the other] brother's wife. If they were conceived not in holiness [that is, before their mother became a Jewess] but born in holiness – neither [of them] should perform the rite of halitzah or enter a levirate marriage, but he is liable for [having sex with the other] brother's wife. If they were both conceived and born in holiness – they are like [regular] Israelites in all [these] matters...[94]

Said Rava: That which the sages said, "there is no father to a gentile" – do not say that it is because [gentiles] are totally lecherous and we do not know [who is really whose father], but were we to know [that], we should pay heed to it. Rather, we pay no heed [to the biological paternity of gentiles] even if we know it for sure – for here we have two twin brothers, [formed] from a single drop [of semen] that divided in two, and still, it is taught at the end [of the above Tannaic source,] "neither [of them] should perform the rite of halitzah or enter a levirate marriage." From here we learn that God has sequestered their seed, as it is written, "Whose flesh is the flesh of donkeys and issue – the issue of horses" (Ezekiel 23:20). [95]

Here, again, Student translated only a part of the relevant text (emphasized here in bold) – so that the unsuspecting reader would never know the reason for Rava's statement. Perhaps Student intended to save a reader what he thought to be superfluous details – but this hardly fits his self-declared policy of showing Talmudic passages "in their original language and context." [96] After all, a Tannaic source claimed to be the base of an Amoraic saying is surely important for understanding the saying itself. It seems, therefore, that Student's decision on just what to quote was motivated by another factor – and it is hard to avoid the impression that it was the desire to reduce as much as possible the quotation of terms and phrases potentially offensive to gentiles. Whatever the meaning of Rava's statement, it is surely not pleasant to learn that your brother is not really considered your brother if you have happened to be conceived "not in holiness" – let alone the very notion of gentile "unholiness" compared with the inherent "holiness" of the Jews.

At least in one case, this is undoubtedly what Student did. The Talmudic expression 'afqurei 'afqerey rahmana le-zar'ey, translated here as "God has sequestered their seed," Student translates as "G-d has freed his descendants." Such translation is clearly euphemistic: the transitive verb 'afqer, the Aramaic counterpart of Hebrew hefqir, may be taken to mean "to free" – but only to free something from one's legitimate possession. [97] Thus, in contradistinction to the largely positive sense of "free" in modern English usage, the verb 'afqer has a rather negative sense of loosening an otherwise proper bond. When a person 'afqer-s something of his own, it may be understood as relinquishment, but when somebody 'afqer-s another's stuff, it is proper to speak of confiscation – or, better, sequestering, since the object of this act does not necessarily pass into the possession of its subject. (For example, the Rabbinic maxim hefqer bet-din hefqer, "sequestering by a [Jewish] court is [valid] sequestering" – where hefqer is the gerund form of the same verb – is used in the Babylonian Talmud to justify the ruling that if a man marries a minor girl and she dies, the husband rather than the father should inherit her, in spite of the biblical law to the contrary. [98] According to the Talmudic argument, a rabbinic decree, bearing the force of a court decision, sequesters the dead wife's property for the sake of her husband, so that her father is simply left with nothing to inherit from her.)

In our case, the object of sequestering is expressed by the Aramaic zera' – literally, seed or semen, but figuratively also progeny. [99] Yet since Rava's saying is linked to the biblical verse speaking explicitly of the issue of semen, it is more reasonable to interpret zera' in this context as seed or semen literally. Thus, Rava's phrase means that God has sequestered, so to speak, a gentile's seed – so the children it produced are not considered his. Unfortunately, thus formulated the phrase looks too offensive – so Student has evidently tried to take as much sting out of it as possible. [100]

Troubles, however, do not end with translation. Student's explanation of Rava's saying proceeds as follows:

A gentile who converts to Judaism no longer has a father [cf. Rashi, ad. loc., sv. Ha]. It is not, the Talmud is careful to point out, because we assume that gentiles are licentious and his biological father may not really be the man who impregnated his (m)other. That is not the case. Rather, a Jew and a gentile are existentially separated by this chasm and the relations of a gentile has no legal standing regarding a Jew. [101]

The principle mentioned by Student in the last sentence is quite common in the Babylonian Talmud. And like many other common principles, it has a formulation of its own: "A newly-fledged proselyte is like a newborn infant" (ger she-nitgayyer ke-qatan she-nolad damei). Consider, for example, the Talmudic dispute lying at the heart of the sugiya, in which the Tannaic source about proselyte twins is brought in attempt to arrive at a decision (tractate Yevamot 97b):

The sons of Yudan the female slave were manumitted. [Manumitted slaves have, in Jewish law, the same personal status as proselytes.] Rav Aha bar Ya'aqov permitted them to marry each other's wife. Rava said to him: But Rav Sheshet forbade [such marriages]. [Rav Aha] replied to him: He forbade, and I permit.

All agree that [such marriages] are permitted to [proselytes] who are paternal but not maternal [brothers]. All agree that [such marriages] are forbidden to [proselytes] who are maternal but not paternal [brothers]. The dispute concerns only those [brothers], who are both paternal and maternal: the permitting side relates them after their father, as they are commonly called "the sons of a certain man"; and the forbidding side relates them after their mother, as they are also called "the sons of a certain woman."

There are also those who say that Rav Aha bar Ya'aqov would disagree [with Rav Sheshet] even concerning brothers who are [only] maternal. Why? Because a newly-fledged proselyte is like a newborn infant.

Yet no such formula is present in Rava's saying on "sequestering" gentiles' seed. In fact, the very source mentioned by Student in the above quotation explains just why the "newborn infant" principle does not apply to Rava's saying.

Rashi is the acronym of Rabbi Shelomoh Yitzhaqi (1040-1105, Troyes, France), the author of the most popular commentary on the Babylonian Talmud, arranged in all common printings alongside the Talmudic text itself and considered in traditional Jewish circles the basic interpretative interface through which the Talmud should be approached. [102] "Rashi, ad. loc., sv. Ha" means Rashi's commentary on tractate Yevamot 98a, on the phrase "That which the sages said, 'there is no father to a gentile'" (ha de-'amur rabbanan 'ein 'av le-goy). What Rashi says, however, is totally different from what Student claims him to say:

"That which the sages said, 'there is no father to a gentile'" – even when one cannot say that [a newly-fledged proselyte] is like a newborn infant, e.g. regarding [a person] who has been conceived not in holiness but born in holiness; such person has kin relations this mother, like any [native-born] Israelite, but no kin relations through his father.

What does this mean? To understand it, one must look at Rashi's comments at the bottom of folio 97b, on the Tannaic source on which Rava's statement is based:

"[If they were conceived not in holiness but born in holiness,] neither [of them] should perform the rite of halitzah or enter a levirate marriage" – for [the duty of] levirate marriage applies only to paternal [brothers], [103] and these [twins] have no father, since a gentile's [104] seed is like that of an animal.

"But he is liable for [having sex with the other] brother's wife" – liable to the punishment of "cutting off" [105] for [having sex with] the wife of one's maternal brother, since [the twins' mother] is like any Israelite woman that gave birth to sons.

That is, twin brothers born to a proselyte mother when she had already become a Jewess are considered maternal-but-not-paternal brothers – with the implication that they can be punished for having sex with their brother's wife (which applies to wives of maternal as well as paternal brothers), but no duty of levirate marriage is incumbent upon one of them if the other dies childless (for this duty pertains to paternal brothers only). However, since at the moment of their birth their mother had already become Jewish, these twins are considered native-born Jews. So the principle applied commonly to sever all proselyte's kin relations – "a newly-fledged proselyte is like a newborn infant" – cannot pertain here: these brothers have never been newly-fledged proselytes. Therefore, the reason for their being not related to each other through paternal line should be looked for elsewhere, and it is found in the fact that at the moment of their conception their father had been a gentile – ergo they have no legally recognized paternal bond, just as donkeys do not.

Unlike the "newborn infant" legal fiction, pertinent only to proselytes, this one applies to gentiles as such. Student is right in noting that the "flesh of donkeys" principle is not grounded in a presumption of gentiles' factual lechery, but is a legal concept with a standing of its own. Yet he is wrong in limiting the validity of this legal principle to proselytes only.

There is, however, another point to Rashi's commentary on this Talmudic fragment, which Student regrettably does not call into attention. Again, it has to do with text-criticism. Commenting on folio 98a of tractate Yevamot, Rashi notes:

The text should read thus: "...and still it is taught, 'neither [of them] should perform the rite of halitzah or enter a levirate marriage'." That is, the rationale [for Rava's saying] comes from the final part [of the Tannaic source about the proselyte twins]. This rationale cannot be derived from the first part [of that source], for in the case mentioned there [the twins] have no kin relations through their mother either, since [the principle] which applies there is not "the issue of horses" but "a newly-fledged proselyte is like a newborn infant."

Here is an attempt by a commentator to emend the text he comments upon. If he finds it necessary to develop a special argument in support of this emendation, it must have made a difference to him – so there are good reasons for it to make difference to a modern scholar as well.

The Vilna printing of the Babylonian Talmud, on which Student has based his work and which has been used for the above translation of the fragment in question, has adopted Rashi's emendation (with a minor difference in reading "still, it is taught at the end" instead of "still, it is taught," which also fits Rashi's argument, relating Rava's saying to the second part of the Tannaic source quoted before it). So did all major printings of tractate Yevamot, starting with the earliest ones, and the Munich manuscript no. 95. But of known medieval manuscripts, that is the only one which accepted it. Other manuscripts of tractate Yevamot or the relevant part of it – the Moscow manuscripts nos. 594 and 1017, the Munich manuscript no. 141, and the Vatican manuscript no. 111 – have another reading:

...for here we have two twin brothers, [formed] from a single drop [of semen] that divided in two, and still it is taught, "nor is [a brother] liable for [having sex with the other] brother's wife." [106]

Such a reading is also attested in the influential medieval commentaries Tosafot (on tractate Bekhorot 46a; the Tosafot on that tractate were written by R' Shimshon of Sens, c. 1150-1216 [107]) and Tosfot Rid (by R' Yesha'yahu de Trani, Sr., c. 1200-1272 [108]), as well as in Migdal 'Oz, a commentary on Moses Maimonides' Mishneh Torah written by R' Shem-Tov ibn Ga'on (1287-1325, Spain-Safed). [109] Another medieval compilation is We-Hezhir, [110] attributed to the 10th-century North African rabbi Hefetz ben Yatzliah (although this attribution is doubted in present-day research). [111]

So large a number of textual witnesses to this reading evidently means that it was quite common. Why, then, did Rashi emend it? The answer lies in Rashi's own words: this reading, although common, bases Rava's saying on the first part of the Tannaic source, which speaks of the case of twins who were born gentiles or slaves and only then became Jews. Yet, in such case, at the moment of conversion or manumission they would become "like newborn infants," implying severance of all kin relations, not merely paternal – so there is no need to involve specifically the "sequestering" of their father's seed. Therefore, Rava's saying has to be based on the second part of the Tannaic source mentioned, where distinction between kin relations on paternal and maternal sides does make a difference: as children born to an already Jewish mother, the twins are considered maternal brothers; but since conceived from the "sequestered" seed of a gentile, they are denied paternal brotherhood – and therefore not subject to the duty of levirate marriage.

There is, however, a problem to Rashi's argument. It starts from the assumption that Rava fully subscribed to the principle that "a newly-fledged proselyte is like a newborn infant" and to its application to the field of personal status and kin relations. Such a view of this principle was indeed universal among medieval rabbis – but obviously not in the Talmudic discussion in Yevamot 97b-98a itself. This discussion starts with the disagreement between Rav Aha bar Ya'aqov and Rav Sheshet regarding existence of kin relations between two manumitted brothers born to a female slave. The first explanation of this disagreement is, so to speak, nominalistic: according to it, the point of the dispute is whether the children of a gentile or slave couple should be related through their father, since people are usually called by a patronymic, or after their mother, since in common parlance people may be related through their mother as well. (In fact, the specific people whose case gave rise to the whole issue are explicitly related through their mother – "the sons of Yudan the female slave.") This view evidently assumes that if ex-slave (or proselyte) brothers are related through their slave (or gentile) mother, their brotherly status will be sufficiently recognized to disable them from marrying each other's former spouse. Only then is another explanation offered, claiming that Rav Aha bar Ya'aqov would permit such marriages even to exclusively maternal brothers – for at the moment of their conversion, they become "like newborn infants," and all their kin relations expire.

It is not clear which of the two explanations – if either – is embraced by the author of the saying on "sequestering" gentiles' seed. It is at least possible that he opted for the first explanation of the disagreement between Rav Aha bar Ya'aqov and Rav Sheshet and did not recognize the validity of the "newborn infant" principle in matters of kin relations. In this case, the law that proselyte twins may freely have sex with each other's wives would be due only to the fact that they are nominally related through their father, and such relation has no legal status insofar as the father's seed has been judged to be not legally his. Yet if born already Jewish – to a mother who had converted while pregnant – they would be considered Jewish brothers, like any other twins born from a sexual contact between a Jewess and a gentile man. Still, they would not be subject to the duty of levirate marriage – either because of the principle limiting that duty to paternal brothers only or perhaps because of some other exception based on an independent legal argument like the following one:

"...so that the [dead brother's] name would not be obliterated from Israel" (Deuteronomy 25:6) – and not from proselyte stock. From here you learn that twin proselyte brothers, conceived not in holiness but born in holiness, are exempt from [the duty] to [either] perform the rite of halitzah or to enter a levirate marriage, as it says: "From Israel" – and not from the proselyte stock. [112]

Thus the emendation insisted upon by Rashi is not necessarily justified – but since it was based on a premise universally accepted in the medieval rabbinic world (that the "newborn infant" principle regarding a gentile is pertinent to the field of kin relations), it has enjoyed wide acceptance. It was explicitly endorsed by R' Yom-Tov ben Avraham Ashebili (Ritva), [113] and brought about a certain suppression of the alternative reading –traces of which are still visible in Vatican manuscript no. 111, where the "non-Rashi reading" has been marked for erasing and the "Rashi reading" substituted between the lines. [114]

The switch to the "Rashi reading" has brought about another phenomenon, understanding which would help us solve another riddle in the question of gentile paternity – a riddle which Student has tried to harness to his case. In the Babylonian Talmud, Qiddushin 17b, the following statement is brought:

Said Rava: It is a biblical law that a gentile inherits from his father, as it says [of one who redeems a Hebrew slave sold to aliens], "He should make a reckoning with the [slave's] buyer" (Leviticus 25:50), but not with the buyer's heirs [115] – which implies that [in general,] there are heirs to the [gentile] buyer. That a proselyte [inherits] from a gentile is not a biblical law but the words of scribes [i.e., a rabbinic decree]... That a gentile would inherit from a proselyte, or a proselyte from a proselyte – there is no law to this effect, either biblical or from the words of scribes... [116]

If a gentile inherits from his father, it is only reasonable to conclude that there exists a legally recognized bond of kin between the two – and a statement to this effect is attributed to none other than Rava. Student should not be expected to miss the point:

Proof that this [the saying on gentiles' seed being "sequestered" due to the "flesh of donkeys" principle] is only talking about converts to Judaism and not about all gentiles, can be brought from Talmud Kiddushin 17b where it is stated that a gentile inherits from his father. If a gentile has no connection to his biological father, how can he inherit from him?

Alas, the saying in Yevamot 98a on gentiles' seed being "sequestered" due to the "flesh of donkeys" principle, although employed in a context dealing with converts to Judaism, pertains basically to gentiles as such. Its very wording is "there is no father to a gentile" ('ein 'av le-goy), an adage attested elsewhere in Early Rabbinic sources, and there is no reason to suppose that this "gentile" implies "proselyte." [117]

Still, the contradiction between the two sayings attributed to Rava stands. At the moment of this writing, no critical edition of tractate Qiddushin is available – but of several early witnesses to the text which the present author had the ability to check, all attest the reading "Rava." [118] On the other hand, regarding Yevamot 98a, all the sources listed above as attesting the "non-Rashi" version read "Abaye" instead of "Rava." [119] Abaye, Rava's contemporary and colleague, was also his frequent disputant, and nothing can prevent the conclusion that one of the issues they disagreed upon was whether gentiles have legally recognized paternal bonds: in Rava's view, they had; in Abaye's, they had not. Such a conclusion solves the ostensible contradiction between Yevamot 98a and Qiddushin 17b without the need to read into the texts things they do not say.

In fact, it is not at all difficult to understand how the name of Abaye in Yevamot 98a came to be changed for that of Rava. First, the name of the sage expressing the opinion on "sequestering" gentiles' seed is not germane to the sugiya in Yevamot 97b-98a, and since Rava is mentioned anyway at the beginning of the sugiya ("Rava said...: But Rav Sheshet forbade [such marriages]"), a negligent copyist could have substituted his name for that of Abaye in the continuation of the sugiya as well. Second, since it is a rule in Talmudic disputes, that – save on a handful of issues – in the case of a disagreement between Abaye and Rava the final verdict follows the latter's opinion, [120] it may be that a wide acceptance of the "seed sequestering" principle by post-Talmudic authorities had driven someone to attribute this view to Rava, so that it would not jar the generally accepted method of legal determination. It may even be admitted that such change took place only once – but, copied and re-copied over and over again, it gave rise to a whole branch of the text's "genealogical tree," reflected in all major printings of tractate Yevamot, in Munich manuscript no. 95, and doubtless in many manuscripts which had been lost with time and did not show up in modern libraries.

Nor is it hard to understand why such a version would gain so much popularity at the expense of its "competitor." Having the reading endorsed by influential commentators like Rashi and Ritva, it would be more readily accepted in rabbinic circles, first by copyists and proofreaders of manuscripts, then by publishers and proofreaders of printed editions. Some of them would merely emend the specific fragment mentioned by Rashi – like the proofreader of Vatican 111 or even Ritva himself: all manuscripts of Ritva's commentary attest the reading of the Talmudic text which attributes the "seed sequestering" statement to Abaye. [121] But if there existed an independent version that included the "Rashi reading" explicitly, a copyist or a publisher paying common respect to Rashi's commentary might be expected to prefer such a version from the outset. That the attribution to Rava – not mentioned by Rashi himself – created a contradiction with Qiddushin 17b would not much bother such a copyist or proofreader. In most cases, he would not be even aware of this contradiction; but even were he aware of it, unwavering respect for rabbinic authorities would easily drive him to think that someone – surely the rabbis of the Talmud themselves or their prominent successors – must be or have been able to solve this contradiction through some kind of method usually employed in traditional Jewish learning to harmonize the unharmonizable.

It is hard to tell whether the version attesting both the "Rashi reading" and the attribution to Rava in Yevamot 98a came into being after Rashi's time and partially under his influence, or before his time and merely got a good measure of endorsement from his commentary. Rava's name could have been substituted in the text at any stage of its transmission, and the precise part of the Tannaic source on twin proselytes on which the "sequestered seed" principle is based does not really matter to the principle itself – only to a doubtful attempt to harmonize it with the "newborn infant" principle.

It seems, however, that at the very beginning of our text's history it had no mention at all of the precise part of the Tannaic source on which to base Abaye's – sic! – statement. Oxford manuscript no. 367 (dating apparently to the 14th century CE, like all the oldest manuscripts of tractate Yevamot [122]) simply omits that whole part of the saying which has become the subject of Rashi's emendation – while the saying itself is attributed to Abaye:

Said Abaye: That which the sages said, "there is no father to a gentile" – do not say that it is because [gentiles] are totally lecherous and we do not know [who is really whose father], but were we to know [that], we should pay heed to it. Rather, we pay no heed [to the biological paternity of gentiles] even if we know it for sure – for here we have two twin brothers, [formed] from a single drop [of semen] that divided in two. From here we learn that God has sequestered their seed, as it is written, "Whose flesh is the flesh of donkeys and issue – the issue of horses" (Ezekiel 23:20).

This is all the more remarkable given the fact that this manuscript brings Rashi's commentary alongside the Talmudic text in a way quite similar to that of modern printings – and Rashi's demand for the reading "...from a single drop [of semen] that divided in two, and still it is taught, 'neither [of them] should perform the rite of halitzah or enter a levirate marriage'" appears on that very page where this reading is absent from the Talmudic text itself. To be sure, Oxford 367 is known as a manuscript plagued by omissions. [123] But it has still to be asked whether these omissions were due to the copyist's negligence or resulted from a briefer original used by him; most of the omitted readings were in any case supplied by the proofreader on the text's margins or between the lines – so his refraining from doing the same in this case is remarkable on its own.

It seems more reasonable to assume that the original text of Yevamot 98a was quite similar to that of Oxford manuscript no. 367, with no mention of the precise part of the Tannaic statement on gentile proselytes on which to base Abaye's statement on "sequestering" gentiles' seed. Since that precise part did not matter very much anyway, it was substituted by later copyists on their own: in this essay we have already seen examples of more substantial changes made by some copyists to a Talmudic text – like the addition or omission of Elijah's appearance before the gentile court in the story of R' Shila.

Returning to Yevamot 98a, however, it may be that at first only the addition attested by medieval commentators and manuscripts – save Munich 95 – was made, and the "Rashi version" appeared only with Rashi himself; or perhaps the version endorsed by Rashi had already come into existence before his time. But in any event, in this version – either before or after Rashi's time – the whole saying on "sequestering" gentiles' seed had become attributed, wrongly, to Rava instead of Abaye. Thus the contradiction with Rava's statement in Qiddushin 17b was actually created ex nihilo. But the weight of Rashi's opinion – later joined by that of Ritva and apparently other authorities also – was so great that it was the wrong version which gained the most currency in the form of printed editions of the Talmud, whose circulation and accessibility to the general public far exceeded that of textually correct old manuscripts. Rashi's firm belief in the "newborn infant" principle and its applicability to severing all kin relations of a newly-fledged proselyte may allow us to understand his line of reasoning in the text-critical decision he made, but it does not validate that decision. It is surely a fault that Student failed to pay any attention to this important issue and employed instead the ostensible contradiction between Yevamot 98a and Qiddushin 17b as a poorly grounded apologetic device intended to reduce as much as possible the offensiveness of Talmudic sources about gentiles.

There is one more detail worth discussion in Student's treatment of gentiles' paternal relations. Pursuing his line of argument, that the principle of "sequestered" seed applies only to converts to Judaism, Student claims:

Talmud Yevamot 62a tells us that a gentile who has children, and thereby fulfills the blessing/commandment of "be fruitful and multiply", who subsequently converts to Judaism, is not obligated to have more children. Since he already fulfilled the blessing/commandment when he was a gentile he does not have to fulfill it again as a Jew... If a gentile has no father, then how can a gentile man ever fulfill the blessing/commandment of "be fruitful and multiply"? His children will never be considered his.

This refers to the following fragment of the Babylonian Talmud:

It is told: One who had children while a gentile and then became a proselyte – R' Yohanan said: he has already fulfilled [the precept] "be fruitful and multiply"; Resh Laqish said: he has not fulfilled [the precept] "be fruitful and multiply."

Rabbi Yohanan said: he has already fulfilled [the precept] "be fruitful and multiply," since [the proselyte in question] did have children. Resh Laqish said: he has not fulfilled [the precept] "be fruitful and multiply," [since] a newly-fledged proselyte is like a newborn infant.

Each side proceeds in accordance with its [general] view, as it is told: One who had children while a gentile and then became a proselyte – Rabbi Yohanan said, he cannot have a firstborn son to the effect of [double] inheritance, [124] since he has already had "the beginning of his potency" (Deuteronomy 21:17); [125] Resh Laqish said he can have a firstborn son to the effect of [double] inheritance, [since] a newly-fledged proselyte is like a newborn infant.

[Although both disputes reflect a disagreement regarding one and the same principle,] there is a necessity [in citing both]. For if we were told only of the first dispute, [it might be supposed that] in this case Rabbi Yohanan said [what he said] because [the precept] "be fruitful and multiply" pertains to them [gentiles] as well, but regarding the issue of inheritance he would agree with Resh Laqish – for [the issue of] inheritance does not pertain to them. [126] And if we were told only of the second [dispute, it might be supposed that] only in this case Resh Laqish disagreed, but in the first [case] he would agree with R' Yohanan. So it is necessary [to quote both disputes].

R' Yohanan asked R[esh] L[aqish]: what about "At that time Berodach Baladan the son of Baladan, king of Babylonia, sent [letters and gifts to Hezekiah]" (II Kings 20:12)? [Resh Laqish] answered: while being gentiles, they have [legally recognized] pedigree [so the Babylonian king is related to his father]; but once converted, they have no pedigree. [127]

The text clearly deserves more consideration than is given it by Student. At first glance, the idea, that "a gentile who has children, and... subsequently converts to Judaism" is considered having already fulfilled the precept "be fruitful and multiply," seems to be expressed only by the late-3rd-century CE Palestinian Amora Rabbi Yohanan, while his contemporary and colleague Resh Laqish (Rabbi Shim'on ben Laqish) [128] ostensibly disagrees. However, careful reading of the text makes it appear that Resh Laqish would also share Rabbi Yohanan's view, were it not for the principle that "a newly-fledged proselyte is like a newborn infant" – and therefore considered childless from the moment of conversion. This is, of course, just what Student claims.

But let us turn again to the form of the Talmudic text – with special consideration of its partition into smaller units, each of which has a distinct meaning and function in the discourse as a whole. Like elsewhere in this essay, in the above quotation such a partition has been expressed graphically by dividing the text into passages. That the last two passages are each a distinct textual unit with its own function is obvious. The passage before the last explains why it was necessary to cite two cases of dispute between Resh Laqish and R' Yohanan, and the last passage proceeds with an argument against the position of Resh Laqish, as result of which the latter's view has to be limited to proselytes.

This, however, gives rise to the question: if Resh Laqish's position was grounded from the outset in the concept that "a newly-fledged proselyte is like a newborn infant," why argue against it from a verse which has nothing to do with proselytes to begin with? Of course Resh Laqish would agree that, as far as the Jewish law was concerned, the Babylonian king was related to his father and the father-king had fulfilled the precept of "be fruitful and multiply" (assuming, for the sake of convenience, that he had one more son and daughter, so as to satisfy the differing opinions in the Mishnah, Yevamot 6:6). But that would have nothing to do with Resh Laqish's initial view, restricted to proselytes only!

The solution of this perplexing point is provided by a careful analysis of the interrelation between the first and the second passages in the above quotation. The first passage states succinctly the views of both sides in the dispute. The second one proceeds to explain the foundations of these views. But interestingly, each explanation starts with quoting the relevant view in full once again, thus jamming the text's flow and creating a sort of cacophony. (Imagine a text like, "Today, John went for the first time to school. Jane did not go to school, however. Today, John went for the first time to school because he is six years old. Jane did not go to school, however, because she is only three.") This is all the more strident given the Talmud's general fondness for laconism, especially in legal discourse. From a uniform text, produced at one stroke, one would expect a formulation like:

One who had children while a gentile and then became a proselyte – R' Yohanan said: he has already fulfilled [the precept of] "be fruitful and multiply"; Resh Laqish said: he has not fulfilled [the precept of] "be fruitful and multiply."

Rabbi Yohanan said: He has had children already. Resh Laqish said: But a newly-fledged proselyte is like a newborn infant.

Or, better:

It is told: One who had children while a gentile and then became a proselyte – Rabbi Yohanan said: he has already fulfilled [the precept] "be fruitful and multiply," since [the proselyte in question] has had children already; Resh Laqish said: he has not fulfilled [the precept] "be fruitful and multiply," since a newly-fledged proselyte is like a newborn infant. [An explanation of each side's position is given when the position itself is introduced.]

It is only reasonable to conclude that the second passage in the above quotation of Yevamot 62a did not initially belong to the Talmudic text but started its life as a comment, written on the margins of some copy of the text. Like the comments of Rashi, for example, this one started with quoting a phrase from the Talmudic text – the formulation of Rabbi Yohanan's view – and then explained it; then quoted another Talmudic phrase – this time the formulation of Resh Laqish's position – and explained it, too. And, as in the case of the term be-'ohel in the saying of Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai in Yevamot 60b-61a, [129] the comment then found its way into the body of the Talmudic text. This comment was apparently based on the reservation of Resh Laqish's view made only after the argument from Berodach Baladan the son of Baladan was raised. Being inserted, however, to an earlier stage in the text, this addition created the abovementioned cacophony in the text's flow.

Thus far, however, the problem is still not solved. The third passage in the above quotation from Yevamot 62a fully meets the criteria of textual fluency. In the dispute of whether a proselyte, who has already had children while a gentile, can sire a son who would be regarded as firstborn in matters of inheritance, this passage introduces each of the opposing views only once, immediately providing a reason for that view. And still, Resh Laqish's position is grounded here in the principle that "a newly-fledged proselyte is like a newborn infant" – which makes the "Berodach Baladan argument" out-of-place.

It is time to turn to other witnesses to the text. A fragment of the Talmudic text of Yevamot 58b-63b from the Cairo Genizah, preserved in the Taylor-Schechter Unit of the Cambridge University Library under the number F 1(1),1, has the following reading instead of the third passage in the above quotation:

Each side proceeds in accordance with its [general] view, as it is told: One who had children while a gentile and then became a proselyte – Rabbi Yohanan said: he cannot have a firstborn son to the effect of [double] inheritance; R' Shim'on ben Laqish said: he can have a firstborn son to the effect of [double] inheritance.

R' Yohanan s[aid], he cannot have a firstborn son to the effect of [double] inheritance, [since the proselyte in question] has had children [while a gentile]; they were "the beginning of his potency" (Deuteronomy 21:17), but [the first son born to him after conversion] would not be "the beginning of his potency." Resh Laqish s[aid], he can have a firstborn son to the effect of [double] inheritance, [since] a converted gentile is like a newborn infant. [130]

This is just what we have seen above regarding the dispute on a proselyte's fulfillment of the precept "be fruitful and multiply": first the disputing views are formulated, then each of them is formulated once again, the formulation followed by explanation of that view. Correspondingly, with the text of Cambridge F 1(1),1 in mind, it is easy to come to the conclusion that here, too, the "proselyte as a newborn infant" principle began as a comment on the text's margins, influenced by continuation of the Talmudic discourse, and only then was inserted by a negligent copyist into the body of the text – before the "Berodach Baladan argument," which limited the discourse to proselytes in the original version. The resulting text was as clumsy as that of the first and second passages in the quotation from the Vilna printing, but here it was apparently edited to a more fluent form early enough to give rise to a version reflected (with unavoidable minor changes) in all extant versions of the text besides Cambridge F 1(1),1.

From purely textual viewpoint, it would be equally plausible to suggest that the majority of versions of the Talmudic discourse in question reflect the original formulation of the disagreement regarding inheritance, and that the formulation in Cambridge F 1(1),1 is only a product of later editing intended to make this disagreement appear in the same form as the preceding one. Such an assumption, however, lends the same measure of freedom to the supposed late editor, while falling short of solving the contradiction between the limitation of disagreement to proselytes from the outset and the restriction of the dispute to proselytes only as result of the "Berodach Baladan argument." It seems more reasonable, therefore, to adopt the former assumption: the text of Cambridge F 1(1),1 is closer to the original in the sense that it incorporates the fragments (which had initially been comments on the text's margins) in their original form, while in the version present in all other witnesses to the text, the second of these additions has been already edited to a more fluent form. Even the text of Cambridge F 1(1),1, however, does not faithfully represent the original text of the Talmudic discourse in question. The original text was presumably something like the following:

It is told: One who had children while a gentile and then became a proselyte – R' Yohanan said: he has already fulfilled [the precept] "be fruitful and multiply"; Resh Laqish said: he has not fulfilled [the precept] "be fruitful and multiply."

Each side proceeds in accordance with its [general] view, as it is told: One who had children while a gentile and then became a proselyte – Rabbi Yohanan said: he cannot have a firstborn son to the effect of [double] inheritance; Resh Laqish said: he can have a firstborn son to the effect of [double] inheritance.

[Although both disputes reflect a disagreement regarding one and the same principle,] there is a necessity [in citing both]. For if we were told only of the first dispute, [it might be supposed that] in this case Rabbi Yohanan said [what he said] because [the precept] "be fruitful and multiply" applies to them [to gentiles] as well, but regarding the issue of inheritance he would agree with Resh Laqish – for the issue of inheritance does not pertain to them. And if we were told only of the second [dispute, it might be supposed that] only in this case Resh Laqish disagreed, but in the first [case] he would agree with R' Yohanan. So it is necessary [to quote both disputes].

R' Yohanan asked Resh Laqish: what about "At that time Berodach Baladan the son Baladan, king of Babylonia, sent [letters and gifts to Hezekiah]" (II Kings 20:12)? [Resh Laqish] answered: while gentiles, they have [legally recognized] pedigree; but once converted, they have no pedigree.

In such a text, the opinion of Resh Laqish would be initially quoted without being restricted to proselytes. Only after the "Berodach Baladan argument" would a reservation be made, according to which gentiles qua gentiles "have [legally recognized] pedigree; but once converted, they have no pedigree." This would mean that in the Talmud's understanding, the initial reason for Resh Laqish's view was sheer absence of legally recognized paternal ties among gentiles – something along the lines of "sequestering" their seed, although without an explicit formulation to this effect. That would mean, inter alia, that sons born to a proselyte prior to his conversion are not really considered his sons, and only those born after the conversion are to be so considered. Only pressed by the biblical verse relating explicitly a gentile to his father would Resh Laqish admit that gentiles' paternal relations are legally recognized – but would still argue that this does not pertain to proselytes.

Support for such an understanding of the disagreement between R' Yohanan and Resh Laqish comes from the Palestinian Talmud (tractate Yevamot 2:6 [4a]):

A gentile man who copulated with a gentile woman and she had a child – Rabbi Yohanan said: there is [legally recognized] pedigree to gentiles; Rabbi Shim'on ben Laqish said: there is no pedigree to gentiles.

Yet it is written, "At that time Berodach Baladan the son of Baladan, king of Babylonia, sent letters and gifts to Hezekiah" (II Kings 20:12)! – Because [Berodach Baladan] paid honor to his ancestors, he was described [in the Bible] with his pedigree.

Yet it is written, "King Asa sent [gold and silver] to Ben Hadad the son of Tabrimmon the son of Hezaion, king of Aram living in Damascus" (I Kings 15:18)! – That is to say, a thug the son of a thug. Likewise it says, "Haman the son of Hamdata" (Esther 3:1, 10; 8:5; 9:10, 24). Was he really the son of Hamdata? Rather, [the Bible called him] an enemy the son of an enemy – the same is true here [with Ben Hadad]: a thug the son of a thug.

Here, unlike in the Babylonian Talmud, the disagreement is presented not casuistically but conceptually: sayings attributed to the disputing sides dwell on the basic principle which lies at the heart of the disagreement, not on its application to some specific cases. And the point of this conceptual difference is whether gentiles – not proselytes! – may be related to their fathers from the viewpoint of Jewish law. This is the very point that has been found to be the cornerstone of the disagreement between Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Laqish in the above analysis of the text in tractate Yevamot, 62a, of the Babylonian Talmud.

A sensitive reader will not fail to notice that the very verse about Berodach Baladan the son of Baladan, which in the Babylonian Talmud is the immediate cause of limitation of Resh Laqish's view to proselytes only, is rejected in the Palestinian Talmud out of hand, with a not very clear explanation that the Babylonian king was related after his father only because he "paid honor to his ancestors" and therefore no general conclusion should be made from that verse. Likewise, the verse regarding Ben Hadad the son of Tabrimmon the son of Hezaion, used in the continuation of the Babylonian Talmud's discourse in Yevamot 62a to buttress Rabbi Yohanan's opinion, is rejected out of hand in the Palestinian Talmud.

There is, however, little to wonder about it. Neither Talmud presents its readers with a transcript of a personal dispute between Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Laqish. Both disputes are literary constructs, created for purely didactical purposes, as is absolutely clear in the continuation of the Jerusalem Talmud's discourse:

Said Rabbi Tanhuma: Thus would Rabbi Shim'on ben Laqish argue against Rabbi Yohanan: It is written, "And Ziba [a slave of Mephiboshet the son of King Saul] had fifteen sons and twenty slaves" (II Samuel 9:10). Now, do slaves have a pedigree? [Which means that even if someone is related in the Bible as someone else's son, no conclusions regarding the legal recognition of pedigree should be made from such cases.]

Of course, once again a counter-argument is found (although its meaning is far from clear), and no final verdict is made in the dispute; and once again the verse used in this argument is employed, in a somewhat different way, in the same discussion in the Babylonian Talmud. But the point of interest is that Rabbi Tanhuma (bar Abba) was a Palestinian Amora active in the late 4th century [131] – a whole century later than Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Laqish! Still, he found it worthwhile to pursue on his own the argument of Resh Laqish's side, as evidently did other sages in both Palestine and Babylonia – who pursued the argument of R' Yohanan's side as well, crafting the sugiyot (plural of sugiya) in both Talmuds that we have been dealing with. The phrase "R' Yohanan asked R[esh] L[aqish]," preceding the quotation of the verse about Berodach Baladan in the Babylonian Talmud, need not be given more historical credence than Rabbi Tanhuma's "Thus would Rabbi Shim'on ben Laqish argue against Rabbi Yohanan."

It should be even doubted, whether the sayings attributed in both Talmuds directly to Rabbi Yohanan and Resh Laqish were in fact uttered by those sages. At least in the Babylonian Talmud, there is good reason to suppose that the sayings on fulfillment or non-fulfillment of the precept "be fruitful and multiply" were put into the sages' mouths in order to link the discussion of their disagreement to the general theme uniting folia 61b-63b of tractate Yevamot as a whole – a discussion of this very precept. But whether formulated one way or another, these sages' sayings in both Talmuds apparently testify to their fundamental views: in Rabbi Yohanan's opinion, gentiles had legally recognized paternal bonds; in that of Rabbi Shim'on ben Laqish, they had not. Thus, the two Palestinian sages were divided on the same point as Abaye and Rava in Babylonia, although without resorting to the specifically Babylonian homily on gentiles as donkeys.

6. So, Are they Donkeys or People, After All?

Thus far we have discussed two uses of this Babylonian homily. In tractate Yevamot, it is only an aid to construction of a legal fiction whereby gentiles are denied the bond of paternity. "Sequestering" one's seed is a legal concept and it cannot be employed directly as a description of what its author believed to take place in the real world. The same is true of the principle that "a newly-fledged proselyte is like a newborn infant" (those who accept it would obviously not place a 70-year-old convert in a baby care center), or of the modern perception of corporations as "legal persons" (no one would demand baby care for a newly-formed corporation). Yet the legal fiction denying some family bonds to gentiles certainly reveals quite a negative view of the latter – especially in an age and society where family, with both parents performing their due roles, was considered a fundamental value. In addition, the very the use of the "donkey phrase" to construct this legal fiction surely does not look pleasant to a non-Jewish eye – although Rabbi Shim'on ben Laqish was able to express the same principle without using this phrase.

The story of R' Shila, on the other hand, does apparently mean gentiles to be donkeys – at least in the context of sexual contacts, which is why R' Shila claims, more or less explicitly, to have told the truth to the gentile court about the Jewish culprit's offense. The two other mentions of the Babylonian homily on Ezekiel 23:20 make the point even more openly. The first of them is, surprisingly, cited by Student as proof that gentiles are not considered donkeys – in a discussion in tractate Berakhot 25b:

Said Rav Yehudah: A naked alien – it is forbidden to recite the Shema' prayer in front of him.

Why specifically alien? The same is true for a [naked] Israelite! – Regarding an Israelite, the prohibition is clear, but there was a necessity [to teach it in regard] to an alien. Perhaps one would say: since it is written about them "whose flesh is the flesh of donkeys" (Ezekiel 23:20), they should be considered mere donkeys. So, he [Rav Yehudah] is telling us that the concept of nakedness applies to them too, as it is written: "Their father's nakedness they did not see" (Genesis 9:23).

This statement is also employed, in the course of discussion on a different issue, in tractate Shabbat 150a, with Rav Yehudah's saying quoted precisely and the clarification of it formulated somewhat differently – so as to make it better fit the context of the debate in which it is brought. The difference is, however, not significant for the purpose of analyzing the use of the homily on Ezekiel 23:20.

What does Student find in this text that would demonstrate gentiles not to be considered donkeys?

Some might read this verse [Ezekiel 23:20] and understand it to mean that within Jewish law gentiles are considered as animals. Some might come to the conclusion that this verse means that gentiles are not really human and therefore their standing before us naked is like an animal standing before us naked and the ritual law forbidding prayer before a naked person is not applicable.

However, R. Yehudah teaches, that is not the case at all. Gentiles are people and not merely animals and the verse in Ezekiel does not mean that gentiles are animals. To understand the verse literally, the Talmud says, is to misunderstand the verse. Gentiles are unquestionably human, created in G-d's image, and Jewish law recognizes this as do the rabbis of the Talmud.

Of course, to understand the verse of Ezekiel 23:20 that way one has to tear it completely out of its immediate textual context, which not only restricts the "flesh of donkeys" phrase to Egyptians but also specifies that the whole story of Oholibah's sexual excesses is a metaphor of the kingdom of Judah's politics. But what about the text in Berakhot 25b itself?

First of all, one should distinguish again between the saying of Rav Yehudah and its subsequent analysis in the Talmud. The saying merely relates that one is forbidden to recite the Shema' Yisra'el prayer in front of a naked gentile ("alien," nokhri). The learned dialogue that follows tries to clarify why Rav Yehudah mentioned specifically "an alien." The reason provided is acceptable, but it should be still noted that it is not expressed by Rav Yehudah himself. In this part of the Talmudic text, Rav Yehudah is described in third person singular: "he is telling us" (qa-mashma' lan; qa is a shortened form of the Aramaic verb qayyem, "to be" [132]). To be sure, this clause is impersonal, and its subject may be not Rav Yehudah himself but his maxim (in which case the translation should be "it is telling us") yet even in this case the formulation bespeaks a certain detachment between the formulator and Rav Yehudah, enough to conclude that these are two different persons. To appreciate the text better, it would be helpful again to divide it into passages, as in the above quotation: first the saying of Rav Yehudah itself, then its discussion and the conclusion reached.

Still, what is that conclusion? It surely means that gentiles are not to be always considered mere donkeys. But why should one entertain such an idea to begin with? Because generally this is what they are considered. It is only an explicit biblical verse relating to nakedness which allows one to conclude that this concept applies to gentiles as well – enough to forbid one from praying in front of a naked gentile.

A parallel may be offered. When the Syrian president Hafez el-Asad died in June 2000, the country's authorities were faced with a problem: the age of the heir apparent, Bashar el-Asad, was only a couple of months over 34, while the constitution of Syria stated that a person has to be at least 35 years old in order to function as president. Of course, finding a solution was not a big problem: the national parliament was quickly assembled, and reduced the minimum age for presidency to 34 years and a month. Suppose, however, that they had done it another way: left the original law in force, but passed a new one, stating that a person with the last name el-Asad would be able to function as president regardless of his age. In such case, the initial law would still be valid to all intents and purposes, and only exception made for el-Asads would enable the young Bashar to assume presidency. If another person aged 34-and-a-bit – for example, one Ahmed Jabar – wanted to run for presidency, he would not be able to do so. (In fact, nobody besides Bashar would be able to do it anyway – but that's another issue altogether.) Likewise, the only exception regarding the issue of nakedness renders it forbidden to recite the prayer in front of a naked gentile; basically, gentiles are presumed to be donkeys.

As for being "created in G-d's image" – the text in Berakhot 25b implies at most that when naked, gentiles look the same as Noah (whose "nakedness" Shem and Japheth did not see, according to Genesis 9:23). This is no small thing, of course; the Early Rabbinic treatise Avot de-Rabbi Natan relates that "Adam came into being [already] circumcised, as it says, 'God created man in his image' (Genesis 1:27)." If this is the meaning of being created in God's image, then God himself must be circumcised – which would make Him, when naked, look not much (although still) different from a naked gentile. Yet, the same text in Avot de-Rabbi Natan continues: "Likewise, Noah came into being [already] circumcised, as it says, 'Noah was a just and righteous man in his generation' (Genesis 6:9)." This would make Noah look different from gentiles; so the author of this text might disagree with the author of the discussion in Berakhot 25b.

The last use of the Babylonian homily on Ezekiel 23:20 not mentioned until now is the discussion in tractate Niddah 45a:

Our rabbis taught [in a Tannaic source]: [133] Justine, the daughter of Severus the son of Antoninus came once to Rabbi [Yehudah ha-Nasi]. [134] She asked him: Rabbi, at what age can a woman get married? He answered: [From when she is] three years and one day old. – And at what age can a woman become pregnant? – He answered: [From when she is] twelve years and one day old. – She said: I got married when I was six, and had a child when I was seven; woe to the three years I lost sitting in my father's house. [When she could be married, have sex, and not become pregnant.]

Could she get pregnant [at the age of six]?... [135] If you will, I can say, "Whose flesh is the flesh of donkeys" (Ezekiel 23:20), and if you will, I can say, "Whose mouth spoke vainly and whose right hand [raised in oath] is deceptive" (Psalms 144:8).

Thus, the "donkey phrase" is used to solve a contradiction between a generally held principle that a woman cannot become pregnant at the age of six and a story relating how a certain woman did it. The solution implied is: since "their" flesh is that of donkeys, principles regarding normal human biology do not pertain to "them." "They" must be gentiles as such – nothing suggests applying the verse of Ezekiel 23:20 specifically to Romans. Thus, the Babylonian homily on that verse may be taken to mean that there are even biological differences between Jews and non-Jews, whereby the latter are closer to donkeys (if not actually donkeys). Medicine, of course, does not support such an idea – but that could not bother less the author of this text.

To be sure, the "donkey phrase" is only one of the two suggested ways to solve the contradiction. The other option merely presumes the gentiles to be liars through and through, so when Justine the daughter of Severus says something, she should not be believed. This kind of attitude – pertaining explicitly to gentiles qua gentiles – is attested in both Talmuds. [136] It hardly bespeaks a much better view of gentiles, but here, at least, they are not deemed to be animals.

7. Concluding remarks

The sources discussed in this essay reveal a considerable measure of disagreement. Like on any other subject touched by the Early Rabbinic sources, few opinions regarding went unchallenged. This is, again, only to be expected of sources quoting many different views of many different people. But to try to force all these into some "unified Torah," as was attempted by the early rabbis themselves and as has been common in much of traditional Jewish learning from that time on, would only hamper any genuine attempt to understand what these sources were really intended to say.

Regrettably, Student's work is influenced throughout by this methodological blunder. Sometimes he even omits the names of the sages whose opinions he mentions, introducing them instead as "Talmud... tells us" (in the case of Yevamot 62a) or "it is stated" in the Talmud (regarding Rava's saying in Qiddushin 17b on a gentile inheriting from his father). With as much reason one could, citing a book from a public library, claim that "the public library says" something. Writers of this kind should be reminded of the mishnah in tractate Avot 6:6: "One who says things in the name of the one who had said them [originally] brings redemption to the world" – or at least to those willing to pursue "the real truth about the Talmud."

Another manifest failure of Student's work is his total negligence of critical research. Even as basic a requirement of careful scholarship as text-criticism is entirely neglected – although every good library dedicated to Jewish studies has full critical editions of at least some sources mentioned by Student. (Regrettably, such editions are the exception rather than the rule regarding both Talmuds; much is still to be done in this field.) When Rashi emended the Talmudic text in Yevamot 98a – or opted for one of several versions known to him – he was probably wrong; but he at least tried to make his way to the right text. Student does not even try.

Finally, as noted at the beginning of this essay, Student's work is plagued by an explicitly apologetic stance. Contrary to his site's title, he is interested not in "the real truth about the Talmud" but in demonstrating that Early Rabbinic sources "are not racist or derogatory to gentiles." Like in the old joke about the difference between a researcher and a preacher, the conclusion is given – what facts can we find to support it? With this kind of attitude there is little wonder that most of Student's quotations of Early Rabbinic sources are too much selective or one-sided, preventing an unsuspecting reader from the outset from appreciating fully the texts and the issues involved – and that sometimes he is driven to plainly wrong interpretations of the sources he used (like taking the discussion in Berakhot 25b to mean that gentiles are to be considered non-animals generally, rather than specifically in regard to the issue of nakedness). In short, those people who "lack the scholarly background" to understand the Early Rabbinic sources on their own would gain nothing, and miss much, by turning to Student's site for aid.

Still, the question may be raised: admittedly, the early rabbis disagreed on many points, yet they all belonged to a certain intellectual circle, sharing – and in fact, often shaping – much the same sphere of thought and behavior, which has come to be termed in modern parlance Rabbinic Judaism. Given all due respect to differences in details, what can be said in general of the place of gentiles in these rabbis' worldview?

Alas, to answer this question adequately would require years of research and treatment of many more sources and topics than mentioned on the whole Student site – which, in fact, deals with only a minuscule part of the relevant Early Rabbinic material. Furthermore, plagued by methodological faults as it is, Student's approach would be of little avail for understanding the issue, even if it spanned all the relevant material. It was the purpose of this essay to demonstrate just that – and that a much better understanding of the sources at hand can be attained by use of proper standards of critical research.

Regrettably, Student's site is not the only exemplar of poor scholarship on the issue of Early Rabbinic Judaism's stance towards gentiles. Too much of what has been written on this topic originated not in the aspiration to research and understand the subject for what it is, but in other motives, having to do with certain social, political and religious agendas. Student is merely a telltale example of where such motivation can lead a scholar.

Fortunately, however, enough people and institutions in our age are concerned with preserving and cultivating proper academic standards capable of neutralizing the lion's share of those "side effects" which hamper a researcher's job. For those who strive to understand what the early rabbis – each on his own and all together – thought about gentiles, the right place to look is academic works. The social, political and religious affiliation of the particular academicians involved would still matter, to be sure – but not much.

Even so, the sheer volume and complexity of the material involved renders it impossible to comprehend all aspects of the issue by perusing a single study; and besides, Thomas Aquinas had already warned caution of the man of only one book. But a good place to start may be Sacha Stern's Jewish Identity in Early Rabbinic Writings (Leiden: Brill, 1994), which had its origins in the Ph.D. thesis written by this Orthodox Jewish scholar in the St. Cross College of Oxford. As its title bespeaks, it not only analyzes a large number of Early Rabbinic sources touching, inter alia, on the perception of and relation to gentiles, but also strives to comprehend these sources in the larger framework of Jewish identity, as these sources and the people standing behind them understood and cultivated it. This is especially important because, as Stern himself aptly notes, a culture's image of the "other" is often best understood not as an expression of factual reality observed by that culture's members, but rather as a mirror-image of their own collective identity:

...a representation of the "us" necessitates a representation of "them". By definition, the "self" is that which is distinguished from the "other". Self implies other, "Jew" implies "non-Jew"; the former is only meaningful if in contradistinction with the latter. The rabbis' experience of being specifically Jewish depends fundamentally on their awareness of this distinction. [137]

It would be fitting, therefore, to conclude this essay with another quote from Stern, which, at one and the same time, summarizes the issues discussed in detail in this essay, supplements numerous examples from other Early Rabbinic sources testifying to the rabbis' view of gentiles, and puts the whole issue in the larger social and ideological context which gave rise to these sources. This, however, makes the quote more than a bit lengthy, and reproducing the numerous references to the relevant sources, given by Stern, would make it at least twice that length – so they are omitted here; a reader willing to pursue the whole matter further would do best by consulting Stern's book directly:

To conclude, rabbinic sources suggest that although the title of "man" is restricted to Israel, in some sense Israel transcend the level of humanity, and have some affinity with angels and even with God. The nations, who have an intrinsic affinity with animals, stand in radical contrast to them...

Righteous and angelic, the superiority of Israel over the nations should be by now self-evident. Rabbinic sources do not shy from stating that Israel are the choicest of all nations, the best, the greatest, the highest, the most beloved of the Almighty. One Jew outweighs all the nations put together. Appropriately, every morning is recited the daily blessing "that He has not made me a non-Jew".

This superiority is said, in Talmudic and other sources, to provide substantial benefits to Israel. According to the prevailing opinion, Israel are immune from the astrological influence of constellations. "Israel are sons of kings"; "all Israel are worthy of kingship". Israel are not fit for slavery, for "'They are My slaves (says the Almighty)', and not slaves of any other slaves". A non-Jew who hits a Jew is punishable by death. According to later sources, touching Israel is tantamount to sacrilege, for they are holy. Israel are compared to the beach upon which the waves cannot prevail; so the nations continuously threaten Israel, but never to any avail. "Israel are mighty before the nations"; like God, they are masters over all the inhabitants of earth.

On the other hand, our sources are well aware that in actual reality, Israel's power and Divine immunity are not apparent. Israel are subjected by Rome and often molested with impunity. Our sources complain about extortionate taxes, annonae and angariae, much as did the other subjects of the Later Roman Empire. More specifically, the Romans are blamed for having destroyed the Temple and for issuing decrees against Jewish religious observance. Israel suffer whilst nations are in peace. Israel are pursued by the nations and singled out for harsh and humiliating treatment. The nations put the Jews to death in spite of having been told by the Almighty to treat them with respect. This is why Jewish courts have the duty to discourage prospective converts with the following warning:

"Do you not know that Israel at the present time are persecuted and oppressed, despised, harassed and overcome by afflictions?"

There is thus a discrepancy, throughout our sources, between the description of Israel as persecuted and oppressed and the notion that in some sense, Israel are "really" superior to the nations and immune from their persecutions. This superiority appears to represent a subjective, "internal" truth, transcending, on some other plane, the experiences of the outside world. The internalisation of the experience of Jewish identity as an alternative, "transcendental" reality is a theme to which we shall frequently return... Presently we may surmise that as an escapist fantasy, this perception of Israel must have provided the authors of our sources with some psychological comfort, "compensating" for the predicament which they were experiencing as Jews in the historical reality of the Late Antique society. [138]


[*]This review is based on the version of this Internet site available on August 31, 2002.

[1] Here, and elsewhere in quotations from Student's site, spelling and emphasis are preserved.

[2] Rabbinic literary developments of the 6th-7th centuries CE - the so-called Saboraic Period - are poorly documented; but there clearly are Saboraic strata in the Babylonian Talmud. See S. W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, VI (New York: Columbia University Press, Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1958) pp. 16-22; D. Goodblatt, "The Babylonian Talmud," Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II, XIX.2 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 1979), pp. 294-295, 304-318.

[3] Y. Baer, A History of the Jews in Christian Spain, I (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1971), pp. 150-156, 167-168, 185. See also S. W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, IX (1965), pp. 63-65, 106-108.

[4] S. W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, IX, pp. 106-107; and see there, p. 299, n. 10.

[5] Spelling according to E. Kopfer, "R' Yom-Tov ben Avraham Ashebili," Encyclopaedia Hebraica, XIX, (Jerusalem-Tel Aviv: Ha-Hevrah le-Hotza'at Entziklopediyot, 1968), p. 405.

[6] Y. Ralbag (ed.), Hiddushei ha-Ritva - Masekhet Makkot (Jerusalem: Mossad ha-Rav Kook, 1984), pp. 113-114. Here and elsewhere, translations from Hebrew and Aramaic sources are by the present author.

[7] Quoted according to the Vilna printing.

[8] Discussing this mishnah, the Babylonian Talmud asks why Jews are not included among "sons of Noah" - for they, too, trace their genealogy to this biblical personality. The answer is that "since Abraham had been chosen for his mission they came to be called after his name" (Nedarim 31a). No other group of humans is excluded from the category of "the sons of Noah."

[9] This term designates Talmudic discussion of a mishnah.

[10] Bava Qama 37b-38a. Throughout this essay, the Babylonian Talmud is quoted according to the common Vilna printing (Widow and Brothers Rom, 1880-86), while restoring, however, to their proper place the terms signifying non-Jews as such - "gentiles" (goyim), "aliens" (nokhrim) and "nations of the world" ('ummot ha-'olam). These terms, largely interchangeable in the Early Rabbinic sources, were replaced in the Vilna printing - as well as in many other ones - by euphemisms like "idolaters" ('ovdei kokhavim), "Canaanites" (kena'anim) and such, so as not to offend the sensibilities of Christian censors. Yet, as consultation of any medieval manuscript and even the earliest printings would show, such euphemisms are totally absent in these earliest witnesses to the text - at least in all cases mentioned in this essay - and general terms pertaining to non-Jews as such figure instead. The precise gentile-terms restored to the texts in this essay are taken, unless mentioned otherwise, from R. N. N. Rabinowitz, Diqduqei Soferim (Munich: Huber-Haff, 1868-86). Rabinowitz's work is based primarily on the Munich manuscript no. 95 of the Babylonian Talmud, dated 1343 CE, but takes into consideration some other early witnesses to the text also.

Aside from gentile-terms, textual variations between different versions of the sources are mentioned only if germane to the issues discussed.

[11] The Vilna printing has merely an abbreviation "R' Sh. ben El'azar." However, of all known early rabbinic figures, the only one to fit this abbreviation is Rabbi Shim'on ben El'azar, a sage of the fifth generation of the Tannaim (circa 170-200 CE). See M. Margalioth (ed.), Entziklopediyah le-Hakhmei ha-Talmud we-ha-Ge'onim (henceforth: Margalioth), II (Tel Aviv: Yavneh, 1976), pp. 847-849.

Periods of activity of early rabbis are almost never precisely dated, but they are often linked one to another through family or discipleship ties (for example, by mentioning that A was a son or a disciple of B). Thus, the chronology of early rabbinic figures can be drawn on generational basis, while years of activity of each generation of scholars can be approximated on the basis of occasional historical notes in the Talmud itself or of early post-Talmudic sources (such as the Epistle of Rabbi Sherira Gaon, written in the late 10th century CE). The Tannaic period spanned six generations, circa 40-220 CE; the Amoraic period - eight generations, circa 220-500 CE. For chronological tables of the Early Rabbinic period, see Margalioth, at the beginning of each of the two volumes.

[12] The Babylonian Talmud, 'Arakhin 29a.

[13] The Babylonian Talmud, 'Arakhin 32b; the Palestinian Talmud, Shevi'it, 10:2 (39c); Sifra, Be-Har, 2, 2 (ed. Weiss, p. 107b).

[14] The Vilna printing, the term "Christians" (notzerim) has been replaced by "Sunday" (yom A, the first day of the Jewish week), so as not to offend directly the sensibilities of Christian censor. Yet the meaning of the text remained obvious.

[15] 'Avodah Zarah 6a.

[16] Margalioth, II, pp. 813, 882.

[17] See S. W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, II (1952), pp. 130-131.

[18] Aramaic tannu rabbanan. In the Babylonian Talmud, this is a formula introducing quotation of a Tannaic source (see e.g. Ch. Albeck, Mavo le-Talmudim [Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1969], p. 21).

[19] Although the captives in question were virgin girls, 'adam is used here as collective singular, denoting both sexes.

[20] The noun tanna should not be capitalized here, as it does not mean a sage of the Tannaic period but merely a member of a rabbinic academy whose job it was to recite traditional teachings when required in the presence of the academy's head (tannei tanna qamei…). Such tannas are mentioned only in the Babylonian Talmud and post-Talmudic Babylonian sources (see Y. I. Halevi, Dorot ha-Ri'shonim, III [Pressburg: Alliance Israélite Universelle, 1897], pp. 5-6, n. 1; A. Weiss, Le-Heqer ha-Talmud [New York: Feldheim, 1955], pp. 39-40, n. 15).

[21] In Keritot 6b the name of the sage in whose presence the tanna learnt is abbreviated: "R' E." However, when the same anecdote is discussed in tractate Keritot 7a the sage's name is given in full: "R' El'azar." There the Talmud also quotes the remark which R' El'azar made to the tanna in pure Aramaic. Since Tannaic sayings are generally quoted in Hebrew, the R' El'azar in question must be an Amora - Rabbi El'azar ben Pedat, the late-3rd-century sage often mentioned simply as R' El'azar, without patronymic. Among the Tannaim, R' El'azar without patronymic is the mid-2nd-century Rabbi El'azar ben Shamu'a (Margalioth, I, pp. 113-121).

[22] The term "gentiles" (goyim) has been restored to the present text in accordance with the Venice printing of the Babylonian Talmud (Bomberg, 1520-23, reprinted Jerusalem: Maqor, 1971).

[23] Here the two personages proceed to discuss several questions which are relevant to the sugiya in Bava Metzi'a 114a-b but irrelevant to the homily on Ezekiel 34:31, and are therefore omitted from the present quotation.

[24] Aramaic tanya. In the Babylonian Talmud, this is a formula introducing quotation of a Tannaic source (see e.g. Ch. Albeck, Mavo le-Talmudim, p. 21).

[25] The original Hebrew for "person" here is nefesh - literally, soul. The translation "man" would be equally possible - but since this term and its Hebrew counterpart 'adam are the cornerstone of the present discussion, another translation has been chosen.

[26] The original Hebrew for "person" here is 'ish - literally, man. Yet for the same considerations as those detailed in the previous note, another translation has been preferred.

[27] In this text, the reading "gentiles" (goyim) and "nations of the world" ('ummot ha-'olam) are attested by all "old manuscripts and printings," according to Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem - the series of full critical editions of the Babylonian Talmud's tractates (A. Liss [ed.], Masekhet Yevamot, II [Jerusalem: Makhon ha-Talmud ha-Yisra'eli ha-Shalem, 1986], p. 366*). [In tractates published in the series Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem a page number with an asterisk means the page numbered in Hebrew numerals with the value equal to that of the decimal number mentioned. For example, p. 366* is numbered in Hebrew ShSW. Pages of Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem mentioned by "bare" decimal numbers are numbered so in the original and belong to the editors' foreword to a given tractate.]

[28] Ch. Albeck, Mavo le-Talmudim, p. 21; A. Weiss, Le-Heqer ha-Talmud, p. 35.

[29] Some versions read we-ha-ketiv ("Yet, it is written…") or we-lo we-ha ketiv ("Is it so? Yet, it is written…") instead of meytivei (A. Liss [ed.], Masekhet Yevamot, II [Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem], p. 367*). It seems, however, that these readings are not original: if any of them were, it is hard to imagine how it could be replaced by meytivei, which is usually not connected to biblical quotations; but just because of this fact it is easy to understand how the problematic meytivei was replaced in some versions by "biblically-oriented" terms. Also, the perception of a Tannaic view opposing that of R' Shim'on in the second passage of the above quotation is evidently dependent on the very term meytivei, and it is hard to explain its origins otherwise.

[30] In fact, there were two sages bearing this name, one preceding the other by two generations - but both flourished in the 5th-century Babylonia (Margalioth, II, pp. 787-789).

[31] The Hebrew original for this clause is le-khol nefesh 'adam. Another translation might be preferred on literary grounds, but would most likely jar the distinctions based specifically on the word "man," 'adam, which lie at the heart of the present discussion.

[32] These are: the Munich manuscripts nos. 95 and 141, the Moscow manuscript no. 594 and the Vatican manuscript no. 111. The Oxford manuscript no. 367, however, has the reading be-'ohel in Rabbi Shim'on ben Yohai's saying - as well as all printings of tractate Yevamot, starting from the earliest ones.

[33] A. Liss (ed.), Masekhet Yevamot, II (Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem), p. 366*.

[34] Quoted by D. Goodblatt, "The Babylonian Talmud," Aufstieg und Niedergang der römischen Welt, II, XIX.2, p. 268. The addition in square parentheses is by Goodblatt.

[35] Bereshit Rabbah, 34 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, I, p. 325); Wayiqra Rabbah, 5 (ed. Margalioth, I, p. 109); Pesiqta de-Rav Kahana, 2 (ed. Mendelbaum, I, p. 18); Qohelet Rabbah, 3 (ed. Hirshman, II.3, pp. 319-321).

Qohelet Rabbah, as a literary work, belongs to the post-Amoraic period, but Amoraic statements like this are quoted in it throughout - not unlike the Talmuds' quoting early Amoraic or even Tannaic statements dating centuries before their compilation. The group of the earliest post-Amoraic Palestinian midrashim includes 'Eikhah Rabbah, Rut Rabbah, Shir ha-Shirim Rabbah, Qohelet Rabbah and 'Ester Rabbah - and all these were compiled even before the Babylonian Talmud, as a literary work, began to reach Palestine. Therefore it is justified to treat them as independent witnesses to Palestinian rabbinic traditions. Midrashim later than these - of Palestinian or any other provenance - will be ignored in this essay for the sake of proper chronological delimitation. For a chronology of midrashim accepted in current research, see Yonah Frenkel, Darkei ha-'Aggadah we-ha-Midrash, I (Givatayim: Yad le-Talmud, 1991), pp. 3-10.

[36] The Vilna edition, like most versions of this text, mention this rabbi by mere abbreviation "R' E." However, Vatican manuscripts nos. 130 and 140 read explicitly "R' El'azar." This reading is also attested by the 12th-century R' Ya'aqov ben Me'ir (Rabbenu Tam) in his Sefer ha-Yashar (H. Porush [ed.], Masekhet Gittin, II [Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem, 2001], p. 251*). In fact, since one side in the dispute is represented by an Amoraic figure - the circa 300 CE Rabbah bar Nahmani (whom the Talmud often mentions simply as Rabbah, without patronymic) - it is most reasonable to also identify the opposite side as an Amoraic figure of approximately the same period. In this case, only Rabbi El'azar ben Pedat would fit the abbreviation (see Margalioth, II, pp. 770-773; and cf. above, n. 21).

[37] In this text, the reading "gentile" (goy) is attested by all "old manuscripts and printings," according to Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem (H. Porush [ed.], Masekhet Gittin, II, p. 251*).

[38] The Palestinian Talmud, Demay 5:8 (24d), Kil'ayim 7:3 (30d), Gittin 4:9 (46b).

[39] In this essay, for the sake of reader's convenience, common Talmudic epithets of God - ha-qadosh barukh hu (the Holy One, blessed be He) and rahmana (the Merciful One) are translated simply as "God."

[40] On the homily in general, which dwells extensively on the contrast between Israel and other nations, see: J. L. Rubenstein, "An Eschatological Drama: Bavli Avodah Zarah 2a-3b," AJS Review, 21 (1996), pp. 1-37; L. Jacobs, "Israel and the Nations: A Literary Analysis of a Talmudic Sugya," Tel Aviv Review, 2 (1989-90), pp. 372-383; Y. Brandes, "Petihta le-Pereq "Yemei 'Eideihen" - Shi'ur Mavo le-Limud Masekhet 'Avodah Zarah," 'Aqdamot, 5 (1998), pp. 9-23; A. Hilewitz, "Le-Herkevah shel Derashat ha-'Aggadah be-Reish Masekhet 'Avodah Zarah," Sinai, 80 (1976-77), pp. 119-140.

[41] M. Jastrow, A Dictionary of the Targumim, the Talmud Babli and Yerushalmi, and the Midrashic Literature (henceforth: Jastrow), II (New York: Pardes, 1950 [1st ed. Philadelphia, 1903]), p. 1098.

[42] The Hebrew for "nation" here is goy. In the Bible, this term meant "a nation" - any nation - but in the rabbis' language it came to mean any non-Jewish individual. That is also Rabbi Yirmiah's pun on this word.

[43] Sifra, Aharei Mot, 9, 13 (ed. Weiss, p. 86a)

[44] Margalioth, II, pp. 593-594, 621.

[45] Ibid., pp. 643-644.

[46] Qohelet Rabbah, 3 (ed. Hirshman, II.3, pp. 319-321).

[47] The Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 52a-b.

[48] Sifrei Zuta on Numbers 35:33 (ed. Horowitz, p. 336).

[49] Bereshit Rabbah, 34 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, I, p. 325).

[50] M. Smith, Studies in the Cult of Yahweh, I (ed. S. J. D. Cohen; Leiden: Brill, 1996), p. 160.

[51] Margalioth, II, pp. 801-802.

[52] Adin Steinsaltz has in his edition of tractate Berakhot (Jerusalem: ha-Makhon ha-Yisra'eli le-Firsumim Talmudiyim, 1981, p. 255) the reading "Rabbi Shila." Yet, he does not explain the source for that reading, and it seems to be his own interpretation of the abbreviation "R'," on the same grounds as those detailed here.

[53] Ibid., I, p. 354.

[54] A. Hyman, Toldot Tanna'im we-'Amora'im, III (Jerusalem: Qiryah Ne'emanah, 1964 [1st ed. London, 1911), pp. 1111-1112.

[55] Ibid., pp. 1163-1171; Margalioth, II, pp. 851-854.

[56] On this, see S. W. Baron, A Social and Religious History of the Jews, II, pp. 106-107, 374, n. 22 (and earlier sources mentioned there).

[57] That is apparently a free paraphrase of the story in the Babylonian Talmud, Gittin 57a, according to which the Roman campaign against the Jews started because of an ambush made by some Jews on the procession of the emperor's daughter after she had ordered cut, for her own needs, a cedar-tree planted for a Jewish youth's wedding. Of course, this Talmudic anecdote is hardly reliable as historical evidence of Hadrian's reign nor is the emperor's name mentioned in it - the occurrence related is merely presented as the cause of the Roman assault which ended with the destruction of Betar. More importantly, the anecdote speaks not of persecutions but of the war which led to the destruction of Betar - the Bar-Kokhba war, if the name of the city destroyed is to be relied upon - and its seeming naïveté is only thinly disguised apologetics, intended to present one of the most decisive political actions taken by Late Antique Jewry (the struggle for independence from Rome) as the mere result of a mishap caused by a band of hot-headed hooligans. Furthermore, in the Talmudic anecdote there is nothing to suggest that the informers who told the emperor about the ambush on his daughter were Jewish, and they did not warn him against giving Jews any measure of independence - they merely claimed that the Jews had rebelled against the emperor.

[58] Berakhot (1868), pp. 326-327.

[59] Here, "caesar" is to be understood as a common noun signifying Roman emperors as such, not as personal name or title of any specific emperor - hence the avoidance of capital C.

[60] For a collection of variant readings in this story, see Y. Frenkel, "Ma‘aśeh be-R' Shila," Tarbitz, 40 (1970-71), pp. 33-34. Unfortunately, Frenkel does not take into consideration the Florence manuscript - which would necessitate, in the present author's opinion, a considerable revision of the text-critical judgments he makes. Nor does he deal with the final part of the story - R' Shila's homily on I Chronicles 29:11.

[61] For discussion of Orthodox Judaism's repulsion from a critical approach to the Early Rabbinic sources - a repulsion unprecedented to a large degree in earlier Jewish scholarship - see P. Hayman, "Implications of Academic Approaches to the Study of the Babylonian Talmud for Student Beliefs and Religious Attitudes," Y. Rich and M. Rosenack (eds.), Abiding Challenges: Research Perspectives on Jewish Education (London: Freund, Tel Aviv: Bar-Ilan University Press, 1999), pp. 375-399. One should be careful, of course, not to ascribe this repulsion, widely shared by both common Orthodox Jews and their religious leaders, to all members of that community. Many Orthodox Jewish scholars, working in academic as well as non-academic settings, engage in critical research of the Early Rabbinic literature daily.

[62] Although, since the paging of tractate Berakhot in the Venice edition is different from the Vilna, this story is found there on folio 60a, not 58a.

[63] For Persian origin of these terms, see A. Kohut, Tosfot he-'Arukh ha-Shalem (New York: Pardes, 1950 [1st ed. Vienna, 1937]), pp. 163, 343. Y. Soreq ("The Economic Aspect of a Vague Term in the Talmud," Jewish Quarterly Review, 67 [1976-77], p. 236) has tried to trace Latin origin for harmana - unsuccessfully (cf. Sh. Y. Friedman, "Le-'Aggadah ha-Historit be-Talmud ha-Bavli," idem. [ed.], Sefer ha-Zikkaron le-Rabbi Shaul Lieberman [New York-Jerusalem: Jewish Theological Seminary, 1993], p. 129, n. 10).

[64] According to the Parma manuscript no. 1172 and the first printing of Yalqut Shim'oni (Salonica, 1526).

[65] Y. Frenkel, Darkei ha-'Aggadah we-ha-Midrash, II, p. 567, n. 100.

[66] At least the first printing of 'Ein Ya'aqov (Salonica, 1516).

[67] The correct version should be qopla, which is attested (tractate Shabbat 63b) by R' Natan ben Yehiel of Rome (circa 1035-1110) in his Sefer he-'Arukh (A. Kohut, Tosfot he-'Arukh ha-Shalem, p. 364).

[68] See e.g. Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma'el, Masekhta de-Pisha, 14 (ed. Horowitz-Rabin, p. 52); Sifrei, Be-Midbar, 84 (ed. Horowitz, p. 83).

[69] Sifra, Be-Huqqotai, 2, 6 (ed. Weiss, p. 112a).

[70] Margalioth, II, pp. 481-494.

[71] Regarding the meaning of "meekness" ('anawtanut) in this context, see: D. Rokeah, "Zekhariyah ben Euqoles - 'Anawtanut 'o Qanna'ut," Zion, 53 (1988), pp. 53-56, and the exchange between D. Rokeah and D. R. Schwartz ibid., pp. 313-322.

[72] Tosefta, Shabbat, 16:6 (ed. Lieberman, p. 77).

[73] 'Eikhah Rabbah, 4 (ed. Buber, p. 72).

[74] Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shim'on bar Yohai, ad Exodus 21:14 (ed. Epstein-Melamed, p. 171); Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishma'el, Mishpatim, Masekhta de-Nezikin, 4 (ed. Horowitz-Rabin, p. 264).

[75] Shabbat 15b, 'Avodah Zarah 8b, Sanhedrin 52b.

[76] Margalioth, II, pp. 762-766.

[77] Bereshit Rabbah, 96 (ed. Theodor-Albeck, III, p. 1197); Wa-Yiqra Rabbah, 23 (ed. Margalioth, III, p. 536); 'Eikhah Rabbah, 1 (ed. Buber, p. 73).

[78] Ed. Zuckermandel, p. 545. This Tannaic statement is also quoted, with insignificant variations, in the Babylonian Talmud, 'Arakhin 19a.

[79] Berakhot 25b, Shabbat 150a, Yevamot 98a, Niddah 45a.

[80] J. Neusner, A History of the Jews in Babylonia, II (Leiden: Brill, 1966), pp. 28-35.

[81] H. Malter, The Treatise Ta'anit of the Babylonian Talmud (New York: American Academy of Jewish Studies, 1930), p. 108.

[82] Ibid.

[83] J. Neusner, A History of the Jews in Babylonia, IV (Leiden: Brill, 1969), pp. 1-17.

[84] For a study of Roman administration in Palestine, see e.g. A. Schalit, Ha-Mishtar ha-Roma'i be-Eretz-Yisra'el (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1937).

[85] See J. Neusner, A History of the Jews in Babylonia, II, pp. 12-14.

[86] Historically, of course, this is incorrect. The Roman rule over Judea commenced in 63 BCE, when Herod was at most a baby. But the memory of Herod must have been much more vivid than that of the inept Hyrcanus II, a Hasmonean prince who was the first to rule Judea under Roman auspices.

[87] The Paris manuscript no. 671,4 reads "this is the wicked kingdom which is destined to fall" instead of "this is the fall of Rome." Such reading obviously implies a hope for future destruction of Rome (often termed by the rabbis "the wicked kingdom") - but this cannot be proven to be the original reading of the text.

[88] A. Sperber (ed.), The Bible in Aramaic, Based on Old Manuscripts and Printed Texts, IV.A (Leiden: Brill, 1968), p. 31.

[89] Y. Komlosh and Ch. Rabin, "Tanakh, Targumim," Encyclopaedia Biblica, VIII (Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 1982), p. 756; and see Margalioth, I, pp. 221-228.

[90] Likewise, although the Pseudo-Jonathan Aramaic translation of the Pentateuch had not been completed in its present form before the Islamic age, one of its fragments apparently dates to the days of the Hasmonean High Priest John Hyrcanus, 135-104 BCE (Y. Komlosh and Ch. Rabin, ibid., p. 749).

[91] Margalioth, II, p. 802. The Paris manuscript no. 671,4 reads "said R' Hanina bar Papa in the name of Rav" instead of "said Rav Hanan bar Rava in the name of R' Yohanan." Since R' Hanina bar Papa was active a generation later than R' Shila bar Avina (Margalioth, I, pp. 346-348), adoption of this reading would necessitate another identification of the R' Shila in our story - most likely, with R' Shila of Kefar Tamarta, a contemporary of R' Hanina bar Papa who quoted several other sayings in his name (Margalioth, II, pp. 801-802). Yet, R' Shila of Kefar Tamarta was apparently a Palestinian Amora - which may jar the conclusion reached above about the Babylonian provenance of the story in Berakhot 58a. The reading of the Paris manuscript cannot be rejected out of hand, but a thorough text-critical analysis of the story in question would be needed before preferring it to the reading of all other witnesses to the text, "said Rav Hanan bar Rava in the name of R' Yohanan."

[92] The Babylonian Talmud, Ketubot 7a, Hulin 80a. And see Margalioth, II, pp. 668-672.

[93] Aramaic ta shema'. In the Babylonian Talmud, this is a formula introducing a quotation of a Tannaic source brought in order to support or undermine one of the views in an Amoraic dispute (see e.g. Ch. Albeck, Mavo le-Talmudim, p. 21).

[94] Here the Talmud attempts to make an inference from the Tannaic source quoted on the point that is debated in the sugiya, of which this fragment is a part. That inference, however, is not connected to Rava's statement and is therefore omitted from this quotation.

[95] In this text, the reading "gentile" (goy) is attested by almost all "old manuscripts and printings," as well as medieval commentaries, according to Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem (A. Liss et al. [eds.], Masekhet Yevamot, IV [1996], p. 14*). The only exception is a fragment of the Talmudic text of Yevamot 97b-98a from the Cairo Genizah, preserved in the Taylor-Schechter Unit of the Cambridge University Library under the number F 5,106, where the wording is "there is no father to a proselyte" ('ein 'av le-ger). But this is evidently a scribal error - no such version is attested elsewhere, while the adage "there is no father to a gentile" ('ein 'av le-goy) is encountered in Palestinian midrashim as well (Bereshit Rabbah, 18 [ed. Theodor-Albeck, I, p. 165]; Rut Rabbah, 2 [ed. Lerner, p. 68]).

[96] See above, p. 4.

[97] See e.g. Jastrow, II, p. 1212.

[98] Yevamot 89b. For the correct formulation of hefqer bet-din hefqer, see A. Liss (ed.), Masekhet Yevamot, III (Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem, 1989), pp. 312*-314*.

[99] Jastrow, I, p. 414.

[100] This conscious euphemization is all the more remarkable given another choice made by Student in translating this phrase - putting the possessive pronoun in singular ("his zera'") rather than in plural ("their zera'"). This corresponds precisely to the original Aramaic, where the pronominal suffix -ey is in singular - but jars the fluency of the text, since in the preceding sentences gentiles are explicitly mentioned in plural, and even creates an appearance of connection between God and "his zera'" (while, of course, the zera' mentioned is a gentile's, not God's). Therefore, grammatical exactitude has been sacrificed in this case by the present author for the sake of better expression. Yet Student's adherence to literal translation only emphasizes his preference for euphemism when the literal translation may be offensive to gentiles.

[101] The addition in regular parentheses has been made by the present author. The text in square parentheses is present in the original.

[102] Israel Ta-Shma, in "R' Shelomoh Yitzhaqi," Encyclopaedia Hebraica, XXXI (1979), pp. 992-1000.

[103] The idea that the duty of levirate marriage applies only to paternal brothers had already been expressed in Tannaic sources (Sifrei, Devarim, 288 [ed. Finkelstein, p. 306]) and echoed in the Babylonian Talmud by the 3rd-century Amoraim Rav Yehudah and Rabbah (Yevamot 17b). It should not be concluded automatically, however, that this view was shared by all Rabbinic figures of that period - although sheer absence of evidence to the contrary may testify to this effect.

[104] In accordance with Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem (A. Liss et al. [eds.], Masekhet Yevamot, IV [1996], p. 14*).

[105] In the Bible, this punishment is understood as cutting a sinner off from his people, whatever that means (e.g. Leviticus 18:29, connected with a series of sexual offenses, one of which is having sex with one's brother's wife). The Babylonian Talmud interprets it as cutting a sinner's soul off from his people both in this world and in the World-to-Come (Sanhedrin 64b, 90b, 99a, Shevu'ot 13a).

[106] A. Liss et al. (eds.), Masekhet Yevamot, IV (Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem), pp. 14*-15*. The part of the text italicized here is absent from the Moscow manuscript no. 1017 - which does not, however, change the version's meaning. Unfortunately, the text of Cambridge F 5,106 ends just at the words "for here we have two twin brothers."

[107] Sh. Z. Havlin, "Talmud Bavli," Encyclopaedia Hebraica, XXXII (1981), p. 878; idem., "R' Shimshon ben Avraham mi-Shantz," ibid., p. 160.

[108] Israel Ta-Shma, "Trani (deh)," Encyclopaedia Hebraica, XIX, p. 45.

[109] D. Sh. Levinger, "Shem-Tov 'even Ga'on," Encyclopaedia Hebraica, XXXII, p. 73. For references to attestations of this version of the Talmudic text in the commentaries mentioned, see A. Liss et al. (eds.), Masekhet Yevamot, IV (Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem), p. 15*, n. 21.

[100] Y. M. Freiman (ed.), We-Hezhir, II (Warsaw: Baumritter, 1880), p. 177. The precise reading of We-Hezhir is a bit different: "…still they are not liable for [having sex with the other] brother's wife; nor do they have to perform the rite of halitzah or enter a levirate marriage." Such changes of wording are only to be expected from what is in fact a free paraphrase of the Early Rabbinic source - but the idea expressed here is the same as in all witnesses to the text mentioned above: Rava's statement is based on the first part of the Tannaic source, where it speaks of those twins who were born gentiles and became Jews later in their lives.

[111] See "Hefetz ben Yatzliah," Encyclopaedia Hebraica, XVII (1969), p. 850.

[112] Sifrei, Devarim, 289 (ed. Finkelstein, p. 309).

[113] R. A. Yaffehn (ed.), Hiddushe ha-Ritva - Masekhet Yevamot, II (Jerusalem: Mossad ha-Rav Kook, 1992), p. 1346.

[114] A. Liss et al. (eds.), Masekhet Yevamot, IV (Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem), p. 15*.

[115] Here Rava makes use of a Tannaic legal homily on Leviticus 25:20 preserved in Sifra, Be-Har, 6, 8 (ed. Weiss, p. 110a)

[116] Both omissions in this quotation are of Tannaic sources brought in the Talmud to support Rava's opinion - which are irrelevant to the present discussion. The term "gentile" (goy) has been restored to this fragment in accordance with the witnesses to the text mentioned in n. 118 below.

[117] See above, n. 95.

[118] Munich manuscript no. 95, Vatican manuscript no. 111, Oxford manuscript no. 367, and the Venice printing of the Babylonian Talmud.

[119] A. Liss et al. (eds.), Masekhet Yevamot, IV (Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem), p. 13*. The Genizah fragment Cambridge F 5,106 also reads "Abaye," although not enough of it has been preserved to judge whether it had the "Rashi version" or the "non-Rashi version" of the saying on "sequestering" gentile seed itself (see above, n. 106).

[120] The Babylonian Talmud, Qiddushin 52a, Bava Qama 73a, Bava Metzi'a 22b, Sanhedrin 27a. To the last Babylonian Amoraim, this rule was still unknown. Thus, tractate Sanhedrin 47b-48b details a certain disagreement between Abaye and Rava which does not fall into the category of those where the verdict should follow Abaye according to the rule in question. The sugiya ends up, however, not with quotation of the rule and a verdict that the law should follow Rava's opinion, but in a much different way: "Mareimar taught: the law follows the opinion of Abaye; the sages taught: the law follows the opinion of Rava. And the law follows the opinion of Rava."

So, at least Mareimar, a 5th-century Amora (Margalioth, II, p. 654), was not aware of the rule giving general precedence to Rava; nor were his opponents, the anonymous "sages," aware of it - otherwise they would not fail to cite it in their support. In fact, the same is true of the editor of this sugiya: were he to know the general rule in question, he would quote it at least in addition to - if not instead of - telling how different authorities judged the specific case mentioned. It seems that the original sugiya ended just with these mutually contradictory legal decisions, and the final remark, "And the law follows the opinion of Rava," is a later addition intended to provide a clear-cut verdict consistent with the already known general rule.

The rule itself, like all other rules telling how to make decisions in the cases of dispute between Amoraim, dates evidently to the Saboraic period. See E. R. Zini, Rabbanan Savora'ei we-Klalei ha-Halakhah (Haifa: Ofakim Rehavim, 1992).

[121] R. A. Yaffehn (ed.), Hiddushei ha-Ritva - Masekhet Yevamot, II, p. 1346, n. 76.

[122] A. Liss et al. (eds.), Masekhet Yevamot, IV (Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem), p. 32.

[123] Ibid.

[124] According to Deuteronomy 21:15-17, one's firstborn son receives in inheritance twice a regular son's portion.

[125] I.e., the proper firstborn son of the proselyte in question is the first child he had sired while a gentile; since that son is gentile, however, he can inherit nothing from his now Jewish father.

[126] Tosafot ad loc., s.v. de-law, take this phrase to mean that it is the law of double inheritance by the firstborn son which does not pertain to gentiles, while the concept of inheritance as such applies to them by the biblical law (in accordance with the saying of Rava in Qiddushin 17b). This is, however, yet another example of forcible - and probably wrong - harmonization of different texts. The precise formulation of the Talmudic text here is de-law benei nahalah ninhu - literally translated into English as "for inheritance does not pertain to them." "To them" refers obviously to gentiles as such, and there is no reason to take the term "inheritance," brought here without any further specification, to mean anything more specific than the issue of inheritance as a whole. Thus it appears that the author of this formulation - in all likelihood, the same one who constructed the whole discussion of the disagreement between R' Yohanan and Resh Laqish in Yevamot 62a - thought gentiles to be excluded from the very principle of inheritance, at least in accordance with Jewish law. That further in the discussion gentiles were admitted to have legally recognized paternal bonds would not impede such an opinion in the least: recognized pedigree does not necessarily imply the right of inheritance.

[127] Here the readings "while (a) gentile(s)" (be-goyuto in singular, be-goyutan in plural) are attested by all "old manuscripts and printings," according to Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem (A. Liss [ed.], Masekhet Yevamot, II, p. 388*-391*).

[128] See Margalioth, II, pp. 791-797.

[129] Above.

[130] Aramaic goy she-nitgayyer ke-qatan she-nolad damei. The common ger is changed here to goy, which does not obviously change the adage's meaning; nor does it alter significantly its form. The fragment is quoted in accordance with A. Liss [ed.], Masekhet Yevamot, II (Diqduqei Soferim ha-Shalem), p. 389*.

[131] Margalioth, II, pp. 886-892.

[132] J. N. Epstein, Diqduq ha-'Aramit ha-Bavlit (Jerusalem: Magens, Tel Aviv: Dvir, 1960), p. 90.

[133] See above, n. 18.

[134] See Margalioth, I, pp. 435-446.

[135] Here Tannaic sources are cited, implying that it is impossible for a woman to become pregnant at so early an age.

[136] The Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 45a; the Palestinian Talmud, Pesahim 8:6 (36a).

[137] S. Stern, Jewish Identity in Early Rabbinic Writings, p. 1. See also ibid., pp. 4-6.

[138] Ibid., pp. 42-44; italics and spelling preserved.


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