Current Issue Article Abstracts
Summer 2021, Vol. 111.3
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FORUM: LOOKING AT LISTS
Bricks without Mortar: Looking at Lists
The scholars in this forum were invited to choose a list from their own field of study, then reproduce it and bring their distinctive lenses to its analysis, paying special attention to the form itself.
Many lists are engendered by rupture (one rarely inventories one's property unless that property is in jeopardy or in transition) and, so, mark the joins in time. Others do the epistemological work of classification. Still others do things that are wholly unexpected, like the list you'll read that authorizes a religious performance.
The Postmortem Inventory of Astrug Mosse, a Jew of Marseille (1397)
Daniel Lord Smail
This brief essay offers a set of remarks on the postmortem inventory of a Jew from the city of Marseille who died in 1397. The inventory, which lists all the assets in the estate, had been compiled by the decedent's daughters and was then presented to the court in order to be registered. Like many inventories from the region, it proceeds room by room, and offers valuable glimpses of Jewish material culture as well as the folk ontology governing the classification of things. The article includes a translation of the inventory, recording strikethrough deletions and interlineations.
Lists and inventories permeated the experience of Jews who fell victim to the Holocaust, as well as that of those they left behind. The National Socialist and Vichy regimes were obsessive about both lists of Jews and inventories of their property. In the years and decades following the war, survivors and their heirs seeking restitution of their goods or reparations for their loss encountered entangled bureaucracies, each requiring their own form and rhetoric of inventory. This article explicates the work lists and inventories did for both oppressors and victims, as well as the rich insights they offer historians.
The Fruits of Halakhah
Tractate Ma'aserot of the Mishnah commences with the general rule that one is not obligated to tithe fruits and vegetables until they become edible, and follows this rule with a lengthy list of different produce items alongside the time in which each one of them can be registered as "food" and is therefore subject to tithing. This essay briefly discusses this list to elucidate the rabbinic practice of list-making as a textual, rhetorical, and cultural phenomenon. It argues that this list demonstrates the complex and multilayered textual history of the Mishnah, but also the coherent and consistent message of the Mishnah that halakhah is the ultimate way of seeing, organizing, and understanding the entire world. At the same time, this list depicts a world in which halakhah is inscribed into rather than superimposed upon the natural order, and thus rhetorically turns compliance with rabbinic law into a desired state of harmony with nature.
In the autumn of 1713, as plague ravaged the city of Prague, the offices of the Habsburg monarchy drafted a list of the salaries of Jews working to ameliorate conditions within the Prague ghetto, which the monarchy had sealed off from the rest of the city. The list reveals the state of plague response in this premodern Jewish ghetto—of barbers, nurses, care for the sick and the dead, as well as study and prayer—and its financial cost to the community. The production and archival maintenance of the list may also hint at the tensions between Jewish self-governance and state administration. Its creation, an act of budgeting and good order, may not simply have been the product of Jewish compliance with Habsburg record-keeping, but may even have been a barter of information on paper for practical non-interference in affairs of the Jewish community.
An Ottoman Sephardi Trousseau
This essay highlights the nineteenth-century trousseau list of an Ottoman Sephardi bride named Rosha Ben Gabbay. Recorded in a mix of Ladino, Turkish, and Hebrew and preserved in the archives of the Jewish community of Izmir, the ashugar lists the numerous garments, textiles, and furnishings that the bride would bring to her new home. Though rooted in the patriarchal economics of an Ottoman Jewish marriage market that continuously regarded women as sources of material and financial capital, the ashugar also reflects the tacit expectation that brides like Ben Gabbay bear a new form of cultural capital demanded by the modern age, namely the savvy negotiation of life a la turka and life a la franka. In navigating this perceived opposition that pervaded nineteenth-century Ottoman life, brides like Rosha Ben Gabbay were important mediators of modernity in the eastern Sephardi diaspora.
This essay describes a list of planetary horocrators—that is, the planets ruling each hour of the week—found in an eleventh-century manuscript from the Cairo Genizah. Four different fragments of this manuscript have thus far been identified, and they enable the reconstruction of the list's original layout. Such a list can easily be tabulated, but the medieval Jewish scribe who produced it preferred to spell it out in its entirety, and in a very disorganized manner. In part, this was because the Jews of medieval Cairo were more used to working with lists than with tables. But given his interest in various methods of divination (his manuscript also included a handbook of goralot, or lot-casting), our scribe may have deemed that the cumbersome and opaque layout of his list might enhance its perceived validity.
Traditional Jewish interpretations of the story of the tower of Babel, as preserved in various midrashic collections, concentrated on sins committed by the builders on account of which they deserved divine punishment. The main purpose of such an approach was to draw from the scriptural account a moral lesson, regardless of the historicity of the narrated events, their dating, chronology, etc. In contrast, medieval Karaites living in the lands of medieval Islam shifted the main focus of their exegetical interest in this text to history, including the history of the text. Exploring historicizing tendencies in medieval Karaite commentaries on this biblical narrative, this essay ponders the seemingly simple question of what made the Karaite exegetes of the time discover history and read biblical stories as true histories. It demonstrates how the exegetes' novel approach to Scripture may have resulted from their engagement with the surrounding Muslim culture, which was concerned with establishing the historical context of the qur'anic revelation and investigating the reasons and circumstances of revelation (asbāb al-nuzūl). Tracing specific Islamic influences on the Karaites' reading of the story of the tower of Babel, the essay argues that they can be detected not in direct borrowings of specific interpretations, but on a meta level, owing to differences between Muslim and Jewish conceptualizations of revelation, which engendered diverging exegetical responses to Scripture in the two religions. Finally, the essay addresses the question of the Karaites' contribution to the history of Jewish exegesis of this chapter.
Isaac the Blind's Letter and the History of Early Kabbalah
No document is more central to the scholarly historiography of kabbalah's "origins" than a unique letter written by R. Isaac the Blind. Since its discovery, scholars have made it the foundation for an elaborate narrative about the transmission of kabbalistic traditions from Provence to Gerona at the beginning of the thirteenth century. Scholars have not only used the letter to help reconstruct the ties between these two centers, but even to reconstruct their purported theological concerns about the transmission, composition, and dissemination of esoteric lore.
The present study offers a fresh and thorough explication of this cryptic, and partly encrypted, document, which is here translated and critically edited. Whereas previous scholars focused on its exoteric opening, neglecting the esoteric central portion that spans nearly half of the letter, the author elucidates this difficult section, with the assistance of traditions attributed to Isaac and the writings of his own trustworthy nephew, Asher b. David. Particular attention is paid to Isaac's quotations from Sefer yetsirah, which reveal the central pillar of theology supporting Isaac's doctrine of mystical intentions (kavanot). This decipherment yields a new understanding of the exoteric section and of the entire correspondence between the kabbalists: they were debating the mystical-contemplative significance of certain liturgical kavanot and religious rituals (especially taking an oath by the Tetragrammaton).
In the aftermath of the 1848 revolutions, the search for a symbolic Jewish presence in the urban centers of Central Europe led to the emergence of a monumental synagogue architecture in the Moorish revival style. This new architectural convention experienced a sudden breakthrough in April and May 1854, when it was adopted almost simultaneously in the plans for three major synagogues to be built in Leipzig, Vienna, and Pest. In this article, I will demonstrate that the social and aesthetic agendas of the three community leaderships were interconnected and that they must be understood in the context of the international political events transpiring at the time. In the spring of 1854, Europe witnessed the military and propagandistic run-up to the Crimean War. In the spirit of liberal patriotism, Hungarian Jews identified with the Ottomans against the Czarist Empire and saw the contemporary Islamic-Christian alliance as a globalizing extension of the emancipation process.
Aaron David Gordon's life and writings have been gaining renewed interest in recent years. The prevailing position among scholars is that, in contrast to his articles, his philosophical magnum opus, Man and Nature, was not written in response to public polemics in the New Yishuv, but rather as a philosophical study, intentionally kept distant from the events of the hour. In contrast, this study demonstrates that Gordon wrote the first chapter of Man and Nature, which bears the book's title and delineates its conceptual framework, as a critical response to Life and Nature (1909) by Yehuda Leib Metmann (1869–1939), the founder of the Hebrew Gymnasium. In his Man and Nature, Gordon came out against Metmann's educational vision, which called for gaining control of nature in the Land of Israel by means of rigorous scientific investigation, in the spirit of the Baconian slogan "knowledge is power." Exploring Gordon's critique of Metmann's Life and Nature may shed new light not only on the circumstances that led to the writing of one of the major Jewish philosophical works of the twentieth century, but also on Gordon's compelling and acutely relevant call for the preservation and protection of nature regardless of human interests and needs.