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From Sermon to Commentary

Expounding the Bible in Talmudic Babylonia

Eliezer Segal

Publication Year: 2005

The Bible has always been vital to Jewish religious life, and it has been expounded in diverse ways. Perhaps the most influential body of Jewish biblical interpretation is the Midrash that was produced by expositors during the first five centuries CE. Many such teachings are collected in the Babylonian Talmud, the monumental compendium of Jewish law and lore that was accepted as the definitive statement of Jewish oral tradition for subsequent generations.

However, many of the Talmud’s interpretations of biblical passages appear bizarre or pointless. From Sermon to Commentary: Expounding the Bible in Talmudic Babylonia tries to explain this phenomenon by carefully examining representative passages from a variety of methodological approaches, paying particular attention to comparisons with Midrash composed in the Land of Israel.

Based on this investigation, Eliezer Segal argues that the Babylonian sages were utilizing discourses that had originated in Israel as rhetorical sermons in which biblical interpretation was being employed in an imaginative, literary manner, usually based on the interplay between two or more texts from different books of the Bible. Because they did not possess their own tradition of homiletic preaching, the Babylonian rabbis interpreted these comments without regard for their rhetorical conventions, as if they were exegetical commentaries, resulting in the distinctive, puzzling character of Babylonian Midrash.

Published by: Wilfrid Laurier University Press

Series: Studies in Christianity and Judaism

Title Page, Copyright Page

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pp. v-vi

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pp. vii

This book has been published with the help of a grant from the Canadian Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences, through the Aid to Scholarly Publications Programme, using funds provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada....

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Introduction: Aggadic Midrash in Babylonia

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pp. 1-8

In both the ancient rabbinic texts and the accepted usages of academic study, the term midrash encompasses a diverse range of meanings. Almost all these meanings share a historical component, limiting its use to a specific era of “late classical Judaism,” roughly coextensive with the era that produced the Mishnah and...

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1. A Chamber on the Wall

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pp. 9-15

To the best of my knowledge, there is no precise parallel to Rav’s and Samuel’s interpretations in any other rabbinic compendium. In some of those texts, however, the biblical narrative about Elishah and the Shunamite woman is expounded in diverse ways.10...

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2. A Holy Man of God

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pp. 17-20

This midrash is a discourse on Leviticus 19:1–2: “And the Lord spake unto Moses, saying, Speak unto all the congregation of the children of Israel, and say unto them, Ye shall be holy: for I the Lord your God am holy.” In addition to motivating its audience...

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3. Two Faces

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pp. 21-27

This dispute between Rav and Samuel is attached directly to the verse in Genesis, and appears to be concerned with the correct understanding of sela', which denotes the item or limb from Adam’s anatomy out of which God created the first woman....

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4. Daughters of Zion

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pp. 29-31

This discussion is included in an exposition of Isaiah 3:16–24. In that section, the prophet berates the arrogant and wanton daughters of Jerusalem, threatening that they will come to sad ends at the hands of foreign conquerors. Rabbinic comments both exaggerate the immorality of those women and magnify the...

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5. Cave of Machpelah

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pp. 33-35

All these interpretations contain homiletical lessons.9 The first sings the praises of Abraham and Sarah, whose honour multiplied the market value of their property. Similarly, the second explanation10 extols the righteousness of the Hebrew Patriarchs and God’s just apportioning of rewards in the next world....

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6. Amraphel and Nimrod

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pp. 37-39

Both passages are built on well-known midrashic hermeneutical devices, particularly the propensity to identify minor biblical personages with one another or with more prominent ones5 and the symbolic name etymology.6 In this case, there is some textual basis for the identification of Amraphel with Nimrod,...

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7. A New King

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pp. 41-50

As an explanation of the biblical narrative, the suggestion that this was anything other than a new Pharaoh in a fully literal sense is impossible to accept here.5 The Talmud’s attempt to provide a textual basis for the interpretation is unconvincing. More importantly, the effort does not bear any obvious homiletical...

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8. The Fish

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pp. 51-54

The basic content of both traditions is similar, in spite of the significant dissimilarities in their forms. Although the Tanhuma version does not bear the marks of a rhetorically crafted homily, it is made up of a straightforward stringing together of biblical paraphrase, midrashic embellishments, and proof texts....

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9. Sevenfold

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pp. 55-61

As R’Rabbinowicz noted correctly,7 the text of the printed editions is incoherent, since the dispute between Rav and Samuel is not over the Psalms verse but over Ecclesiastes 12:10. Their comment on Psalms is found (introduced as “Rav and Samuel both say”) in b. Nedarim 38a, and it was probably transferred to b. Rosh...

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10. “From India Even unto Ethiopia”

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pp. 63-65

The dispute about the relation between India and Ethiopia is ultimately over the question of whether to read it as a statement of the geographical vastness of Ahasuerus’ empire or of the power of his control over it. According to the latter explanation, his hold over the (undefined) farthest reaches of his domains was...

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11. Ahasuerus, a Clever King or a Stupid King?

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pp. 67-68

Apparently the present dispute is focused not on any particular word or phrase but on the sequence of events. Ahasuerus first banqueted the provincials; and only afterwards did he convene a second feast for the inhabitants of his capital, Shushan. Rav and Samuel debate the political wisdom of this arrangement....

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12. “The Court of the Garden…”

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pp. 69-70

The simple sense of Esther 1:5 implies that there is a structure called a bitan, which has an attached garden, and that in that garden is a courtyard, in which the king’s banquet took place. The midrashic interpretations read the verse differently, as if it refers to three distinct places, each of which was used as a venue...

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13. Treasure Cities

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pp. 71-72

This disagreement over midrashic etymologies has no parallels in the classic midrashic collections. Rashi initially explains both interpretations as foreshadowing the sufferings that will later be inflicted on the Egyptians, “danger” alluding to the Egyptian deaths at the Red Sea3 and “poverty” to their spoiling by...

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14. Pithom and Raamses

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pp. 73-74

Even though the kind of creative etymology ascribed to Rav and Samuel4 is quite commonplace in rabbinic literature, it is not clear why they found it necessary to posit that Pithom and Raamses were actually the same city,5 since this stands in stark contradiction to the words of the verse that refer to “treasure cities” in the

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15. Shiphrah and Puah

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pp. 75-77

The passage operates on two distinct but interrelated planes. The actual dispute between Rav and Samuel concerns the identification of the Hebrew midwives who disappear from the scriptural narrative after this episode, never to be mentioned again.4 This approach conforms to the widespread midrashic practice...

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16. Coats of Skins

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pp. 79-80

The dispute concerns the syntactic structure of the expression “coats of skins.” Does “skin” denote the material from which the coats were made or the purpose to which they were put? The precise meaning of both positions is left unclear. It would appear that the first view is intended to be a literal one—which is to say...

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17. To Do His Business

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pp. 81-84

Taken in isolation, without comparing it with any related traditions, either in the local passage or elsewhere, the dispute between Rav and Samuel appears to focus on the exegetical question of whether “to do his business” should be understood literally5 or as a circumlocution. The former opinion, which favours the...

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18. Orpah and Harafah

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pp. 85-88

Both of these name-etymologies presuppose the identification of “Harafah” as Goliath’s mother, and as Orpah, the sister-in-law of Ruth. The homiletical theme implicit in this interpretation is illuminated in a discourse that appears in several midrashic contexts, including the current page of b. Sotah:...

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19. Shobach and Shophach

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pp. 89-90

The citation of this example in the Mishnah as one of Israel’s great military exploits might have been expected to inspire numerous midrashic expositions, and yet it has evinced little interest in rabbinic literature. The passage is structured as a pair of conventional name-etymologies, based on the orthographic...

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20. Elishah and the Children

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pp. 91-92

The aggadic tradition cited here is not attested elsewhere in classical rabbinic literature. It could be a fairly conventional attempt to magnify the divine assistance that was extended to biblical heroes and apply it to a situation that is already miraculous in its character....

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21. Staff or Goblet

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pp. 93

In both b. Gittin and b. Sanhedrin, this dispute is brought in connection with the aggadah about how Solomon was deposed by Ashmedai and forced to become a beggar;3 this is probably the correct narrative context, although it is possible to imagine some alternative possibilities. Both interpretations refer to essential...

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22. King and Commoner

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pp. 95-96

The most complete version of the story about Solomon’s fall from power is a dictum ascribed to Resh Laqish in b. Sanhedrin 20b, which adduces various verses in order to trace the diminishing of his dominion, from ruling “over the upper realms,” and concluding:...

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23. Ezekiel’s Cry

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pp. 97-99

Ezekiel 11:1–13 tells of twenty-five leading citizens of Jerusalem, including Jaaziniah and Pelatiah, who are disparaged for obscure offenses.9 The prophet is instructed to condemn them, foretelling how they will be removed from Jerusalem and given over to an enemy in whose hands they will fall by the sword....

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24. Mahlon and Chilion

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pp. 101-103

Notwithstanding their formal dispute, in the guise of very standard nameetymologies, the interpretations of both Rav and Samuel are substantially identical in content. They conform to a well-established homiletical tradition that portrayed Mahlon and Chilion as archetypes of faithless Jews who abandon...

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25. His Eldest Son

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pp. 105-107

The question of the Moabite king’s motives is dealt with in Pesikta de-rav kahana 2:5, which is part of a composite proem to Exodus 30:12.3 The passage is built around Proverbs 14:34 “Righteousness exalteth a nation: but sin is a reproach to any people,” which is interpreted in various ways as indicating contrasts between...

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26. Achan and Zimri

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pp. 109-111

This passage forms part of a composite proem. It consists of several expositions of Psalm 50:23, the last of which12 develops the theme of how “a thanksgiving offering which does not come on account of a sin” is the most desirable form of offering, and therefore culminates with Leviticus...

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27. Ham and Noah

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pp. 113-115

Both R’ Berakhiah’s and R’ Huna’s interpretations posit a measure-for-measure correspondence between the punishment and the crime: servitude for depriving Noah of a potential servant; darkness for preventing an act done in darkness. Both accept the logic that punishment was exacted from the offspring, because...

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28. Sennacherib, Clever or Stupid?

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pp. 117-119

The “stupid” interpretation supplied by the Talmud for the dispute between Rav and Samuel7 is very similar to Rabbi Simeon ben Yohai’s argument in the Sifré: Sennacherib,8 in his attempt to persuade the Judeans to acquiesce voluntarily to exile, was less than persuasive in not promising them that their new location...

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29. Copper Precious as Gold

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pp. 121-123

As in b.‘Arakhin, two interpretations are proposed, and both are ascribed to amora’im, not to the original baraita. The first view is identical to that of the Tosefta and the first position in the Babylonian passage. The second view, however, gives us a third option that is not attested elsewhere.16 At the very least, this...

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30. Non-Babylonian Examples

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pp. 125-128

Ezekiel’s eschatological vision of the river issuing from the Jerusalem Temple was a popular one for rabbinic preachers,6 and midrashic embellishments of chapter 47 were incorporated into several midrashic compendia. In Song of Songs Rabbah 4:23,7 the midrash is attached to Song of Songs 4:15 “Thy plants [shelaha-yikh...

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pp. 129-139

Of the thirty-two disputes between Rav and Samuel that were examined in this study, we were able to identify or surmise parallel Palestinian traditions for twenty-four . This fact is remarkable of itself, when we bear in mind that the scriptural texts that were interpreted span the Bible’s full range, including not...

Works Cited

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pp. 141-152


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pp. 153-164

E-ISBN-13: 9780889209114
Print-ISBN-13: 9780889204829
Print-ISBN-10: 0889204829

Page Count: 176
Publication Year: 2005

Series Title: Studies in Christianity and Judaism