Alt+SHIFT: Panim el Panim

Yitzchak Blau Tradition Online | January 25, 2024

Alt+SHIFT is the keyboard shortcut allowing us quick transition between input languages on our keyboards—for many readers of TRADITION that’s the move from Hebrew to English (and back again). Yitzchak Blau continues this Tradition Online series offering his insider’s look into trends, ideas, and writings in the Israeli Religious Zionist world helping readers from the Anglo sphere to Alt+SHIFT and gain insight into worthwhile material available only in Hebrew. See the archive of all columns in this series.

Yonatan Feintuch, Panim el Panim: Shezirat ha-Halakha veha-Aggada bi-Talmud ha-Bavli (Maggid Books, 2018), 253 pages

Yonatan Feintuch’s outstanding work, on the “weaving of Talmudic halakha and Aggada,” furthers two trends of the past fifty years. Scholars have shown greater sensitivity to the literary artistry of both Tanakh and Aggada, with Robert Alter and Meir Sternberg standing out regarding the former and Yonah Fraenkel and Jeffrey Rubenstein prominent in terms of the latter. Feintuch adds to our appreciation of the literary and aesthetic beauty manifest in rabbinic stories.

This Alt+SHIFT series has highlighted the Jewish people’s return to Israel inspiring an expansion of intellectual Torah creativity beyond Gemara and halakha. Among other authors, we have encountered Benny Kalmanzon and Ruth Calderon’s contributions to aggadic study; Shalom Rosenberg, Avi Ravitzky, and Yakov Nagen’s creativity in Jewish thought; and Yoel Ben-Nun’s biblical insights. Feintuch deserves a place on this list as well.

Intertextuality is a major theme with Talmudic tales alluding to biblical stories or linking with other aggadot elsewhere in the Shas. R. Hiya would pray each day to be saved from his evil inclination causing his wife to wonder how this was connected to the fact that they had stopped engaging in marital relations. She dresses up as a prostitute named Haruta and seduces R. Hiya. Feeling distraught and guilty, R. Hiya enters an oven. Even though his wife explains that he did not truly sin, R. Hiya spends the rest of his days in misery about his sinful intentions (Kiddushin 81b). Feintuch notes several parallels to the biblical story of Yehuda and Tamar. A woman dresses as a prostitute, a man who does not recognize her has relations with her, and the threat of burning appears. This connection emphasizes that just as Yehuda was being unfair to Tamar by keeping her waiting, so too R. Hiya was not acting justly towards his wife.

One famous Talmudic story tells of a rich gentile who, afraid of losing his vast fortune, bought an extremely expensive jewel and kept it in his hat. One day, the wind blew his hat off and the jewel was swallowed by a fish which ultimately made it to the Shabbat table of “Yosef who honored Shabbat” providing him with great wealth (Shabbat 119a). In a different episode, Yosi ben Yoezer tries to disinherit a wayward son but that son finds an expensive jewel in a fish. The son turns out not to be derelict as he dedicates a good deal of the money to the Temple (Bava Batra 133b). In both stories, the jewel is worth thirteen vessels filled with dinars. Clearly, we have two parallel stories both of which rely on the Greek tragedy theme of inability to escape a foreordained destiny. Feintuch suggests that the comparison sheds a positive light on the “wayward” son since he ends up the equivalent of the righteous Yosef Mokir Shabbat.

A central part of Feintuch’s efforts is appreciating how the Talmudic context should influence our reading of aggadot. While Fraenkel insisted on reading each story as an independent closed unit, Feintuch joins the school of Rubenstein and Ofra Meir in emphasizing each story in its context. The R. Hiya story follows three Talmudic tales stressing the overwhelming force of the evil inclination and a halakhic discussion of the laws of yihud. Stopping the discussion there would convey that our Sages thought we could never fight this corrupting inclination enough. The R. Hiya story provides a balancing note that being overly fixated on sexual temptation can have equally disastrous effects.

Feintuch develops various models for how aggadic material can impact a preceding legal discussion. He thinks that the aggadot about the manna in Yoma (chapter 8) revive a rejected halakhic position. In the aggadic section, the biblical command of innuy includes both fasting and refraining from marital relations on Yom Kippur while the halakhic analysis forbids sex on other grounds. A story about a pious fellow who imperils himself by refusing to interrupt his prayers to greet a Roman official (Berakhot 32b) seems to be anti-normative since Jewish law prioritizes preserving life. Feintuch explains that this story sets up an option of extra piety which would allow for taking on the risks involved and not interrupting a dialogue with God. A Gemara says that Torah scholars may be granted exclusive selling rights to a given product. When Rav Dimi came to town, he wanted a monopoly on selling figs, had his scholarship tested by R. Adda, and was found wanting. This led to tension, a curse, and R. Adda’s eventual death (Bava Batra 22a). For Feintuch, this passage reveals the difficulty in applying this particular halakha. The need to define who qualifies as a scholar can be a source of great competitiveness and fighting

His reading of a story about Herod refurbishing the Temple shows the Talmud’s full display of literary flair with leitworts including slave, king, and sight. Much of the tension revolves around whether or not Herod, a former slave, is fitting for the kingship. Herod blinds R. Bava ben Buta but the latter shows much more vision than the monarch. R. Bava advises Herod to rebuild the Temple while the messengers ask the Romans for permission. The Romans write to Herod “batar de’avdin mitmalkhin” (Bava Batra 4a).The simple meaning is a complaint: “after you do it, then you consult?”—but Feintuch catches the extra resonance of “after you were a slave, you become the king?”

[Read Yonatan Feintuch’s recent TRADITION article, “Reassembling the Pieces: On the Literary Unity of Halakha and Aggada” (Summer 2022).]

In addition to his literary sensitivity, Fentuch also engages in some classical academic scholarship which includes comparing variant versions and analyzing the history of a text’s composition. He compares variant versions and notes that in the Yerushalmi (Berakhot 5:1), the anonymous pious fellow immersed in prayer is named as R. Yohanan and he seems to be merely unaware of the Roman official, unlike in the Bavli where he makes a conscious choice to ignore the Roman. In a story with three protagonists: a poor, a rich, and a wicked person (Yoma 35b), Feintuch advances some convincing arguments that the original story only had the contrasting pair of rich and poor; the wicked fellow reflects a later addition. Editors added a discussion of Yosef (“the wicked”), an individual who overcame arrogance, as a model for priests tempted to pride by their appearing center stage in this tractate.

Feintuch’s Panim el Panim makes a major contribution to the growing world of aggadic study. He shows how paying attention to halakhic and aggadic context enhances our interpretation of the Aggada and reveals that literary sensitivity to intertextuality, leitwort, and word-plays enriches our reading of Talmudic texts.

Yitzchak Blau, Rosh Yeshivat Orayta in Jerusalem’s Old City, is an Associate Editor of TRADITION.

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