Saturday, April 19, 2014

Archeological Find to Resolve Ancient Rabbinic Dispute?



    Archeological Find to Resolve Ancient Rabbinic Dispute?

By Steven Plaut




     Passover is a good time to "pass over" political matters for a brief hiatus and speak about less upsetting matters.   This past weekend, the Makor Rishon newspaper revealed one of the most fascinating stories in Israeli archeology, one that has intriguing implications for resolving an ancient Rabbinic controversy.


     The discovery involves an ancient tefillin box discovered in a cave near the Dead Sea, south of the better known area where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.  This is where a number of artifacts from the Bar Kochba rebellion against Rome were found.   The Bar Kochba revolt ended in failure, and the Romans murdered Rabbi Akiva in retaliation, as well as nine other leading sages and thousands of their religious students.  This is the tragedy that we mourn during the first 33 days of the Counting of the Omer, which just began this past Tuesday evening.


     But the significance of the tefillin box was only uncovered by Dr. Yonaton Adler, who teaches at Ariel University (yes, the one the Left is calling for dismantling and boycotting) and also at the Hebrew University. 


   Adler is an expert on antiquities, with special interest in ancient tefillin.  The tefillin or "phylacteries" are two boxes attached to straps that Jews don every morning during prayer.  They represent the manifestation and application of the Torah commandment to Jews to place the words of God as a sign on their arms and in between their eyes.  Standard tefillin contain four small reams (small scrolls) of parchment, papyrus, or paper in the box placed on the forehead, representing the four senses that are contained in the head, and a single ream in the box placed on the forearm, for the sense of touch.  Short portions from the Torah appear on each ream, the best known of which is the paragraph recited twice daily by Jews that follows the recitation of the proclamation Shma Yisrael.  Both the boxes and their straps are made of leather and dyed pitch black and the boxes are squares.


     A number of ancient tefillin have been uncovered in archeological digs, some going back even before the period in which the Dead Sea Scrolls were composed, meaning well before the period of the Talmud, indeed back to when the Second Temple was still standing and operating intact.


     While perusing artifacts held in the Israeli Antiquities Authority, Dr. Adler discovered the tefillin box I am about to describe.  It was actually uncovered in 1960 from a cave containing Bar Kochba era relics (132-136 AD) but was apparently put aside and forgotten in the Antiquities Authority, probably because no one understood its significance or even realized that it was a tefillin box.  The problem is that it does not look like any tefillin box any living person has ever seen. 


    First, it is incredibly small.  The size of tefillin boxes seems to follow its own trend in fashion.  A generation back the boxes were usually pretty modest, but in recent years the trend among observant Jews is to use much larger boxes, large enough to hold a plum.  The box uncovered near the Dead Sea and analyzed by Adler is tiny.  It is a head tefillin  box and the parchments inside are so tiny that the writing must have been done by someone with uncanny skills in miniaturization, something that today could only be accomplished using a computer and robot.  The box in question is so small that those who actually discovered it in the cave probably did not understand that it was a tefillin box at all.  Some other ancient tefillin boxes with tiny writing were previously uncovered and analyzed.  


    Second, the box uncovered by Adler is not square, as are all tefillin  used today.  It is rectangular.  In addition, while its ancient color long ago faded, it is clear that it was not originally dyed black, but perhaps tan or brown.       


     Most important of all is the fact that the tefillin in question is complete, containing all four reams encapsulated in any head tefillin box.  And as such it promises to resolve an ancient theological dispute among two of the greatest sages of the Middle Ages.


    The four passages from the Torah that must be written on the reams inserted into the head tefillin box are spelled out in the Talmud and are accepted by all streams of Judaism.  However there is a famous disagreement about the ORDER of the passages.  Standard tefillin boxes follow the opinion of Rashi.  Just who was Rashi?  Only the most important Biblical and Talmudic commentator who ever lived.   Rashi (whose real name was Rabbi Shlomo Yitzhaki) died in 1105 in France.  In his lifetime he wrote a compendium of commentaries on the Torah that are so clear and understandable that they are still used today in nearly every study version of the Torah text, nearly a thousand years later.  No other commentator is so crisp and lucid.  Any book that contains at least one set of commentary on the Torah text will include Rashi's, although may include others as well.  Rashi also composed commentaries on non-Torah books of the Bible and a near-complete set of commentaries on the Talmud.  Standard editions of the Talmud today always contain the Rashi commentary.


    The problem is that Rashi's ruling regarding the order of the passages in the head tefillin box was challenged by his own grandson, Rabbeinu Tam.  His real name was Jacob Meir (died 1171 in same town as Rashi) and he himself was so eminent a scholar that he often allowed himself to challenge rabbinic rulings by his own grandfather.  Rabbeinu Tam was one of the more eminent contributors to the post-Rashi commentary on the Talmud known as the Tosafot.  The Tosafists were prominent scholars who took the rulings of Rashi as a starting point but not as unchallengeable.  (Rashi's own son-in-law was another well-known Tosafist.)  And Rabbeinu Tam rejected Rashi's ruling regarding the order of the reams in the head tefillin.


     While most standard tefillin boxes ever since then have followed the ruling by Rashi, the matter is considered to be still open and unresolved.  Some Jews pray in the morning using standard Rashi-edict tefillin boxes, and then at the end of prayer briefly don a second head tefillin box constructed according to Rabbeinu Tam's ruling and recite the Shma Yisrael a second time.


    If all this sounds a bit esoteric, the question has excited debate among Jewish scholars for nearly a thousand years.


    The matter was ALMOST resolved several years back when some ancient tefillin boxes from the site of the Dead Sea Scroll caves were recovered.  In the best preserved, only part of their reams were intact.  Infuriatingly, the archeologists who carefully removed the reams from the tefillin box did NOT record the ORDER in which the reams had been placed in the box!   So the Rashi-Rabbeinu Tam dispute could not be resolved.


     But the box uncovered by Dr. Adler IS fully intact and contains all four reams!  The problem at the moment is to figure out a technology that will allow the reams to be opened without crumbling into dust.  This is not a trivial problem for parchment that has sat in the desert for two millennia.  But just as the Dead Sea Scrolls were eventually opened and preserved, I trust a solution will be found here as well.


    When this happens, the dispute between Rashi and Rabbeinu Tam is likely to be resolved once and for all, nearly a thousand years after it was initiated.  


   Just one last interesting point about Rashi.  Today in standard Rashi commentaries on the Torah, Rashi often translates a difficult word from the Torah into Yiddish.  There is only one little problem with this.  Rashi did not speak Yiddish at all.  He spoke medieval French, a language very different from modern French, probably as different as English is from German.  So why do the commentaries show Rashi translating words into Yiddish?  Because no one today speaks medieval French and in standard texts, particularly those following Lithuanian scholarly traditions, the ancient French was replaced with Yiddish that the rabbinic students were thought to be able to understand.


     At the time Rashi lived, almost no one living in France was literate in this ancient French.  Many ancient languages were spoken only and writing skills for them developed later.   Indeed, very little was known about this ancient medieval pre-modern French.  Until linguists realized that they could reconstruct the ancient French using Rashi in reverse.  Taking the original Rashi commentaries in which Rashi translated Torah terms into Old French, the scholars worked in reverse and extracted a vocabulary of over 3000 words.  Hence, people who might have no interest in the religious importance of the Rashi commentaries themselves, including French linguists, found that the very same Rashi preserved and salvaged the earliest version of spoken French for all the world!


Moadim L'simcha!



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