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  • From Sermon to Commentary: Expounding the Bible in Talmudic Babylonia
  • Matthew LaGrone
Eliezer Segal . From Sermon to Commentary: Expounding the Bible in Talmudic Babylonia. Wilfrid Laurier University Press 2005. vii, 164. $49.95

Eliezer Segal makes a significant contribution to the scholarship on Talmudic literature in From Sermon to Commentary. In thirty compact chapters, he examines selected extracts from the Babylonian Talmud to judge their interpretative value. He compares these extracts with corresponding passages in the Palestinian Talmud, and finds the former wanting in coherency and meaning.

Rather than focus on Halakhic, or legal, portions of the Talmud, Segal turns his attention to the aggadic Midrash. The content of aggadic Midrashim (plural of Midrash) in Talmudic literature includes theological speculation, ethical persuasion, and religious education. These Midrashim were put to very different uses by the rabbis of Palestine and Babylonia. Segal notes that the 'institutional settings' of the particular Midrash is important in comparing its use in the two Talmuds. The creation and application of aggadic Midrash by the rabbis of the Palestinian Talmud are best seen in 'coherent literary homilies' and sermons. He argues that aggadic Midrash was formed in the synagogue, which was part of the daily, lived religious experience of both the rabbi and his congregation. For the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud, however, these Midrashim were not incorporated into homilies but rather were objects of 'theoretical study and scholarly interpretation' in the yeshiva, or Talmudic academy. Thus, these passages were removed from their original sermonic context and placed into a less amenable framework, one characterized by 'academic methods of analysis.' [End Page 209] The reasoning of Babylonian rabbis was faulty in this matter because they were utilizing inappropriate hermeneutical techniques to study these Midrashim. This leads the author to conclude that their explanations of these texts are 'superfluous and cryptic' and ultimately 'unsatisfying.'

All of the examples cited by Segal involve a dispute between two early third-century CE Babylonian rabbis, Rav and Samuel. Both Talmuds frequently depict a pair of rabbis as disputants. Rav headed the yeshiva in Sura; Samuel led the academy in Nehardea. They bridged the gap between the time of the tannaim and the amoraim. The former were sages whose debates formed the Mishnah (the first part of the Talmud); the collected deliberations of the latter were the basis of the Gemara (the other half of the Talmud). Segal shows that the debates attributed by the Talmud's editors to Rav and Samuel often lacked any significant connection to the biblical verses elucidated by the rabbis: they did not interpret the verses in their plain sense and their metaphorical or allegorical renderings did not deepen the meaning of the text.

A good illustration of this absence of exegetical soundness comes from Rav and Samuel's reading of the first verse of the Book of Esther. The verse reads, 'From India even unto Ethiopia.' According to the Book of Esther, the Persian king Ahasuerus controlled an expanse extending from India to Ethiopia, and the rabbis debated over the correct proximity of the two countries. One rabbi holds that they are at opposite parts of the world, while the other declares that they abut. Rav and Samuel then link the verse in Esther to a thematically similar one in 1 Kings involving Solomon, who was said to have a kingdom that stretched from Tiphsah to Gaza. Segal sees little in their reading of the text that would add to a sermon, and that 'the basic geographical premise of this midrash is factually untenable' – that is, the rabbis would have known the relative location of each country.

Segal notes that the rabbis had at hand ample subjects for homilies from this particular Midrash but instead chose to stress something as apparently irrelevant as geography. He suggests that Rav and Samuel could have taken up the perennial theme – as found in another Midrash – about the potentially corrupting power of 'arrogance.' The rabbis of Talmudic Palestine created a legend that Solomon's 'pride led to his being deposed from the throne and forced to wander as an unrecognized beggar.' Rav and Samuel did not opt for this more robust and coherent construal.

Segal's book...


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