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Theory and Practice of Talmud Commentary

Tue, December 18, 2:30 to 4:00pm, Seaport Hotel & World Trade Center, Beacon Hill 1 Complex

Session Submission Type: Roundtable


The act of writing commentary has been crucial to the Babylonian Talmud’s reception history, that is, to the Talmud’s canonical cultural place as a legal source, as a location for multi-vocal debate, as a basis for ritual practice, and as a subject for academic study. From the medieval commentary traditions of Rashi and Tosafot to modern commentaries such as that of David Weiss Halivni, commentary has shaped and transformed our understanding of the Bavli and has played a significant role in defining both Jewish discourse and identity. Indeed, within some Jewish cultures, the study of commentary is even considered tantamount to the study of Talmud itself. However, given the centrality of commentary to the Bavli’s reception history, we have not yet invested sufficient scholarly energy in considering Talmud commentary as a field of cultural inquiry unto itself. Instead of reading Talmud commentaries as sources of historical knowledge, which no doubt they are, we aim to interrogate their literary and cultural functions. For example, how are the literary features of a particular commentary or commentary tradition linked to the cultural functions of that commentary or commentary tradition? How does a piece of writing on the Bavli come to be labelled commentary? In this roundtable, we seek to create a generative interdisciplinary conversation that enables scholars to think more fully and critically about the definition and cultural roles of commentary. Roundtable participants are talmudists, medievalists, and early-modernists. Commentary traditions include North African, Sefardic, Provencal, and Eastern European schools.

1. A variety of Talmud commentaries have been written over the past millennium. What defines these works as the literary genre of commentary as opposed to code or monograph?
2. What literary commonalities might we identify in these works we call commentaries, if any? What differences?
3. What role has Talmud commentary played in the creation of Jewish cultures, past and present?
4. How might we theorize Talmud commentary so as to better understand the factors involved in producing or writing Talmud commentary, past and present?

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