The Significance of the Location and Date of the Shulhan Arukh

The location and date are both of enormous significance, as was the material form the book actually took. Venice was the capital of Hebrew printing for much of the sixteenth century. So much of early modern Jewish culture took material form there: The cultural renaissance in Safed appeared in print at presses in Venice and elsewhere in northern Italy; these same printing houses were meeting places for Jews, converts, Catholics, and Protestants; Hebrew printing in Venice and its environs had a dramatic impact upon the publication of Yiddish texts; and the Bible and the Talmud became printed books in Venice in the first half of the sixteenth century. It is not an accident that Karo’s work, intended to serve as a standard law code for all Jews, appeared there. The date is also of considerable consequence. After the burning of the Talmud in 1553 and a bitter feud between the two most important printers of Hebrew, the production of Hebrew books in Venice had ceased. With its resumption in 1564, a new regime of censorship was imposed upon it, and the Talmud could not appear in print. Karo’s Shulhan ‘arukh was one of the first texts to appear under this new regime.

Yaacob Dweck, “What is a Jewish Book?” AJS Review 34:2 (November 2010), 369.

The Surprising After-Life of the First English Translation of the Talmud

After all of the criticism, the minor renewed interest notwithstanding, Rodkinson remained generally neglected. Where recalled, it was more often negatively, and, concerning his translation, in a disparaging manner. Rodkinson is not mentioned in Jewish Publishing in America, nor in The Jews in America: A History. In the latter case, Albert Mordell, reviewing the book for the Publication of the American Jewish Historical Society, wrote, “Another woeful lack is that of mention of translations from Hebrew classics in whole or part, even though some of these translations were, like M. L. Rodkinson’s Talmud, not of a high order.” He is also neglected in Meyer Waxman’s A History of Jewish Literature, where mention is made of several translations in various languages. Where the New Talmud is remembered it is negatively, as in Yehuda Slutsky’s comment, “In his later years he devoted himself to translating the Talmud. The value of this translation, printed in two editions, lies only in the fact that it is a pioneering effort.” A biographer of Wise writes that “In 1898 he gave his name to Michael Rodkinson’s quack translation of the Talmud. . . .” More diplomatically, Jacob Rader Marcus, writes, that Rodkinson’s translations “were anything but felicitous and did little to enhance the understanding of the Talmud by non-Hebraists.” Most recently, R. Adam Mintz concludes that “Rodkinson’s work was rejected because of its poor quality, and not because of an objection on principle to this type of abridged translation.”

Rodkinson took great pride in his translation of the Talmud. Indeed, his tombstone has an inscription stating that he was the translator of the Babylonian Talmud, certainly an attribution of questionable accuracy. It is ironic that Rodkinson, who did have other earlier accomplishments, is credited with and remembered for, and negatively at that, a work for which he was responsible and did oversee, but was, in truth, performed, either in its entirety or in part, by others.

There is an epilogue to the New Talmud story. After all of the above it would seem evident that the New Talmud has been forgotten, only remembered by students of Jewish literary history. However, that is not entirely the case, for the New Talmud has been revived, particularly in non-Jewish circles, on the Internet. The Internet Sacred Text Archive has posted the entire text of the “The Babylonian Talmud Translated by M.L. Rodkinson [1918].” Their website is cited by a number of other Internet sites, including at least one for Jewish studies. The New Talmud is available on CD from both the Sacred Text Archive, as one of 500 religious texts ($49.95), and from B & R Samizdat Express, in the latter instance together with several other Jewish texts ($29.95). A number of used and rare book sites offer individual volumes and entire sets of the New Talmud at a wide range of prices.

Internet Sacred Text Archive and Samizdat Express simply reproduce the text and are neutral in outlook. Unfortunately, other Internet sites, more often than not anti-Semitic, reference and quote from the New Talmud. This is also the case with a number of anti-Semitic books. Most surprisingly, to conclude on a relatively positive note, the New Talmud reappears on the reading list for college courses, for example, a lecture on “The Tractate Avot and Rabbinic Judaism,” in Reed College. It seems that Michael Levi Rodkinson’s New Talmud has in fact not been forgotten. Whatever its shortcomings, it has found an audience and is alive today in new and unanticipated formats.

Marvin J. Heller, “Deciphering the Talmud: The First English Edition of the Talmud Revisited. Michael Levi Rodkinson: His Translation of the Talmud, and the Ensuing Controversy”Seforim Blog (19 May 2013).

Isserles’ glosses heralded the beginning of an extensive commentary tradition that would grow up around Karo’s code

Isserles’ glosses signaled far more than simply the “Ashkenization” of a Sephardic text; they also heralded the beginning of an extensive commentary tradition that would grow up around Karo’s code, radically transforming its purpose and its material form. In the ensuing centuries, Joshua Falk, Shabbateai (or Sabbatai) ha-Kohen, Abraham Gombiner, Israel Meir ha-Kohen, and many others would eventually add their commentaries to all or part of the Shulhan ‘arukh. In so doing, they transformed the text from a short compendium accessible to anyone with a basic knowledge of Hebrew into one that required instruction and supervision. The book was also transformed in its material form. Already in the sixteenth century, the Shulhan ‘arukh had changed from a being a book that could be carried with ease into a folio volume that required care, attention, and two hands. The commentary tradition that surrounded its text would soon come to dwarf Karo’s own work.

Yaacob Dweck, “What is a Jewish Book?” AJS Review 34:2 (November 2010), 370-371.

A Difficulty of Describing Gender in Antiquity

To speak of effeminacy as a gender-‘‘deviant’’ trait presumes, of course, a gender ‘‘norm’’ by which an individual’s status could be measured. Defining this norm, however, is a complicated matter, in part due to the tendency to read into the past modern Western perceptions of gender, that is, to presuppose—usually on the basis of an essentialist, transcultural definition of gender deriving from observed differences in external genitalia—a fundamental continuity between antiquity and the present. Recent scholarship has called into question this supposition of continuity, underscoring instead the fundamental alterity of ancient concepts of gender and, moreover, the inextricable link between such gender systems and their particular sociocultural contexts. In other words, scholarly approaches have increasingly viewed gender as a fluid, contextually determined phenomenon, and as such, an issue that is more a matter of ideology than simple biology.

Jason von Ehrenkrook, “Effeminacy in the Shadow of Empire: The Politics of Transgressive Gender in Josephus’s Bellum Judaicum,”  The Jewish Quarterly Review 101:2 (Spring 2011), 146-147.

65 years in, we can no longer be sustained merely by the fumes of our own existence or by the fumes of those who threaten us

Sixty-five years in, we can no longer be sustained merely by the fumes of our own existence, or by the fumes of those who threaten us — as powerful as those realities are. We must have a painful conversation not only about our borders with our neighbors, but about the identity of the home we build together — this is the Zionist calling of our times.

Rabbi Mishael Zion, “Israel at 65: Celebrating is Not Enough”, The Jewish Week (12 April 2013), 23.

In pre-Israeli Days, Zionism was a dynamic, world-wide movement whose goal was the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine

In pre-Israeli Days, Zionism was a dynamic, world-wide movement whose goal was the creation of a Jewish national homeland in Palestine. In 1948, to the surprise of many leading Zionists and others, the goal was achieved. From then on, nobody could ever figure out what a Zionist was. Some say a Zionist is a Jew who tries to persuade a second Jew to give money to settle a third Jew in Israel. Zionism has become an ideal whose time has gone. Is a Zionist now someone who is friendly to Israel? Well, so are the non-Zionists – indeed, all Jews, not to mention WASP candidates for public office in America. Is a Zionist someone who contributes to Israel? Well, as Ben-Gurion puckishly used to remind the Zionists, the non-Zionists give more. So what is a Zionist? The Israelis (understandably worried that Israel is becoming an oriental or Levantine state) have a simple answer: if you claim to be a Zionist, you must come and live in Israel. The result is a thunderous silence. Aw, come on, say the Israelis, stop playing games, we need you. The silence now becomes eloquently ominous.

Albert Vorspan, My Rabbi Doesn’t Make House Calls: A Guide to Games Jews Play (Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1969), 102.

The parallels with the challenges for modern Israel are striking, for Solomon, like modern Israel, was essentially confronting “non-state actors”

The parallels with the challenges for modern Israel are striking, for Solomon, like modern Israel, was essentially confronting “non-state actors.” For Haddad the Edomite, an indigenous resident stripped of his territory, one might substitute Hamas or Islamic Jihad; for Rezon the Syrian, one might substitute Hizballah. As with modern Israel, neither threat to Solomon’s state was existential. Solomon was prepared to tolerate some level of violence in his more remote territories as long as he could preserve the peace in Judah and avoid entanglements with major foreign powers. That was not the case for those who ruled after him, whether in Judah or in Israel. Few of Solomon’s successors avoided major conflicts with other states. Modern Israel, likewise, cannot now and probably will not in the future be able to avoid conflict with states, whether with Iran or with some as yet unforeseen threat.

Dov S. Zakheim, “The Geopolitics of Scripture,” The American Interest (July/August 2012), 11.

Rabbis Interpreting the Law According to the Needs of Those who Lived By It

Rabbis had a number of exegetical methods for expanding the parameters of the law while respecting the integrity of authoritative sources. Practical or inductive reasoning, or simply conjecture, could be used to reinterpret a talmudic passage, suggesting that the text is discussing something other than what it seems. The provenance of a troublesome legal text could be limited to circumstances dissimilar to what a jurist now faced, effectively neutralizing the legal impact of the original case. Precedents could be narrowed or broadened to afford such greater flexibility in dealing with a problem. If the situation was extreme, a text could even be deliberately misinterpreted in the course of developing a line of thought. A jurist had to separate a contemporary case from previous legal thought if he was to follow an independent approach. Hermeneutical methods, however, did not tell Jewish legalists when to attempt a reinterpretation of the law.
Perhaps in a simpler world, halakists could have ignored the comings and goings of daily life and let purely legal considerations shape all legal discussions. Yet, no rabbi could be oblivious to the practical implications of his decisions on individuals or the Jewish community. In each generation and in every locale, rabbis had to interpret the law in light of the needs of those who lived by it while respecting the integrity of a legal tradition that was believed to have emanated from Mount Sinai with all its details and specifications. Any ideal of searching for absolute truth was outweighed by other values and goals.

Edward Fram, “Jewish Law and Social and Economic Realities in Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century Poland” (Ph.D. diss., Columbia University, 1991), 4-5.