Sunday, March 27, 2011

Archaeology and the Talmud: 1

This week Yeshivah University is hosting a 2-day conference entitled, Talmuda de-Eretz Israel: Archaeology and the Rabbis in Late Antiquity. Here is a report on day 1:

Eric Meyers, Duke University, The Use of Archaeology in Understanding Rabbinic Materials: An Archaeological Perspective

Meyers pointed to some areas of intersection between rabbinic texts and archaeology. He singled out: burial customs (the move from communal to individual burials); food customs (the lack of pig bones and most Jewish sites, although other non-kosher food remains were occasionally found); purity (especially stone vessels, whose use continued into the Byzantine period); gender (the continued use of loom weights for domestic textile work); and baking (the improving technology of grinding wheat, leading to increased leisure time for women). Meyers called for the "unsiloing" (my term) of the disciplines of textual studies and archaeology.

Daniel Sperber, Bar Ilan University, The Use of Archaeology in Understanding Rabbinic Materials: A Talmudic Perspective

Using ancient archaeological finds, mainly from Italy, Sperber showed how material remains can help to unlock the meaning of some talmudic texts. One particularly intriguing example he gave was the way that locks were used in antiquity: from the outside of the door, one had to bring a key through a hole and angle it in to the lock - this can help to explain why the rabbis in some cases declare the space of an armlength around a door to be unclean. He also used examples relating to knots on the Sabbath and vessels.

Galit Hasan-Rokem, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Leviticus Rabbah 16, 1: “Odysseus and the Sirens” in the Beit Leontis Mosaic from Beit She’an

Hasan-Rokem used the Lev. R. text as a starting point - it contains an interesting comment by a certain "R. Reuben" referring to the "Siron." She sees this as an intertext to the Beit Leontis Mosaic, which contains representations of Odysseus. She also pointed to a source in the Sifra that wrestles with the question of whether a Siren is kosher!

Burton L. Visotzky, Jewish Theological Seminary, Genesis Rabbah 1,1: Mosaic Torah as the Blueprint of the Universe-- Insights from the Roman World

Taking his cue from a version of this well-known midrash found on a Genizah fragment, Visotzky argues for a reading that compares the Torah to the plan (or pattern book) of the maker of a mosaic, rather than the more conventional reading that understands Torah as the plan for an architect. This reading depends on understanding the unusual Hebrew term pishpesh as being instead a corruption of the Greek term for mosaic.

Alexei Sivertsev, DePaul University, Jerusalem Talmud Sanhedrin 2,6 (20c): The Demise of King Solomon and Roman Imperial Propaganda in Late Antiquity

In Late Antique Roman imperial propaganda, the emperor was sometimes portrayed as having two "bodies", a kind of royal, disembodied, superbody and then an actual carnal one. The former is what ruled and connected the fleshly emperor to something beyond him. The story in y. Sanh., Sivertsev argues, takes this ideology and turns it on its head as a critique of monarchic rule.

Laura S. Lieber, Duke University, The Yotzerot le-Hatan of Qallir and Amittai: Jewish Marriage Customs in Early Byzantium

Lieber looked, but failed to find, any material evidence produced by Jews in Late Antiquity that could be definitively connected to marriage. Piyyutim (especially those from the early Middle Ages), though, do provide some references to Jewish wedding practices, such as garlands/crowns, adorning the bride, and at a late stage rings.

For the image above, see here.

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