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Gabbay, Uri, and Shai Secunda [Eds.]


Encounters by the Rivers of Babylon. Scholarly Conversations Between Jews, Iranians and Babylonians in Antiquity.


Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck 2014. VI, 469 S. = Texts and Studies in Ancient Judaism, 160. Lw. EUR 189,00. ISBN 978-3-16-152833-0.


Catherine Hezser

This volume, which is based on an interdisciplinary conference of Assyrologists, Iranists, and Jewish Studies scholars that took place at the Scholion Interdisciplinary Centre of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 2011, covers a time period of approximately one thousand years. The contributions examine encounters between Babylonian, Persian, and Jewish cultures from the time of the Babylonian Exile to the Babylonian Talmud, that is, from Achaemenid to Sasanian times. The articles vary with regard to their length (the longest has 98 pages and the shortest 9), specificity (some articles are of a general introductory nature whereas others are very specific linguistic studies), and chronological focus.
While the interdisciplinary approach is to be welcomed, the major problem of this approach – at least in connection with the wide scope adopted here – lies in the often very large chronological and cultural differences between the compared texts. Many of the papers compare texts from the Achaemenid period with the much later Babylonian Talmud, probably because Babylonian Jewish (exegetical and magical) literature is not available earlier. Often analogies or even dependencies between the much earlier texts and the Bavli are claimed. The huge influence of Hellenism on Second Temple and rabbinic Judaism and the phenomenon that the Palestinian Talmud served as the prototype of the Bavli are not given sufficient consideration. A conference with an exclusive focus on Babylonia may tend to claim internal Babylonian developments and connections rather than considering the complex interaction between East and West, Mesopotamian and Graeco-Roman cul-ture. Such a multi-cultural approach to Babylonian Judaism is necessary in view of ancient historians’ increased emphasis on the impact of Hellenism on Persian culture and knowledge transfer from West to East in (late) antiquity.
Y. Elman’s long introductory essay, which constitutes approximately a quarter of the volume, sets the stage both thematically and methodologically. He suggests to replace the traditional »influence peddling« by a more complex and subtle approach that acknowl-edges a certain »impermeability« of each of the cultures involved (8). Zoroastrian and rabbinic culture are distinguished from earlier Mesopotamian culture in their rejection of mythology and adop-tion of a moral world view, the importance of orality, and shared cognitive styles ( Listenwissenschaft and casuistic argumentation). Elman notices, however, that unlike the dastwars, rabbis were »drawn to complexity« (54) and used analytical methods that were developed in Hellenistic time already. These methods would have reached Babylonian rabbis through contacts with their Palestinian colleagues. The latter part of Elman’s article is based on L. Moscovitz’ work, Talmudic Reasoning (2002), and addresses the issue of conceptualization in rabbinic, Roman and Sasanian law. While the late antique redaction of Pahlavi books may have served Bavli editors as a model, Elman acknowledges the fact that compilatory ac-tivity was also carried out elsewhere (e. g., Justinian’s Digest) and that, ultimately, »the Bavli is the Yerushalmi writ large« (94).
The rest of the articles are arranged under three headings, »Society and Its Institutions«, »The Transmission of Knowledge«, and »Scholasticism and Exegesis«. The essays by P. O. Skjaervo, providing an introduction to Zoroastrian literature and terminology, and S. Secunda, on hermeneutical approaches to Scripture (»Background and Prospects«), which appear under the third rubric at the end of the volume, would have been more suitable for the introductory section alongside Elman’s essay.
In the first part of the book R. Zadok takes a new look at the Murashu documents which seem exceptional in comparison with Babylonian temple or private archives stemming from urban contexts. C. Waerzeggers applies network theory to encounters between Judeans and Babylonians mentioned in cuneiform texts and concludes that interchange took place in the mercantile world. M. Macuch investigates the relationship between rabbinic and Zoro-as­trian courts. It seems that a modus vivendi was reached by allow-ing Babylonian Jews to »enforce their own laws« (147) in religious matters as long as they did not contradict the law of the Sasanian state. She sees a similar distinction between the Sasanian lawbook (MDH) and Pahlavi commentaries to Avestan texts (the Zand): while the former deals with property, procedural, criminal, and family law, the latter deals with purification, protection from demons, and moral matters. One might ask, though, whether and to what extent the thematic focus of the Bavli would have over-lapped with Sasanian law in family and civil matters. The range of topics the Bavli addresses were set by the Mishnah and Pales-tinian Talmud rather than constituting an originally Babylonian response and supplement to Sasanian law.
In the second part the title of A. Winitzer’s paper (»Assyrology and Jewish Studies in Tel Aviv«) is rather misleading: he examines traces of Babylonian traditions (esp. the Gilgamesh Epos) in the book of Ezekiel. J. Ben-Dov argues that Jews adopted elements of popular Mesopotamian astronomy in calendrical matters. N. Wasserman examines possible connections between early Akkadian and later Jewish Aramaic magical texts. Especially with regard to love spells, a direct impact of the earlier on the much later texts »is very limited« (259). He sees a stronger connection where anti-demon and anti-disease magic is concerned, due to the narrower time gap be-tween the source material. J. N. Ford claims that the ancient Mesopotamian kidinnu motif, a defense against evil forces that might enter a house, has analogies in a Jewish Aramaic incantation bowl from the end of the talmudic period. These two papers indicate the problems involved in making comparisons and claiming connec-tions over such long time spans.
This problem continues in the third part. I. L. Finkel maintains that certain exegetical techniques pertaining to cuneiform texts (e. g., polyvalence) are also found in the Babylonian Talmud, point-ing to other scholars’ studies on the matter rather than discussing texts in detail (this is the shortest article in the volume). U. Gabbay identifies an allegedly shared distinction between the literal sense and the perceived meaning in both Akkadian and rabbinic commentaries. E. Frahm suggests that while cuneiform scholarship was »com­par­tmentalized« (328), some Judeans may have received a Baby­lonian education. Again, a more or less direct line is drawn from exilic times to the much later Babylonian Talmud. By point-ing to the very different text corpora (unlike the Bavli the Mesopotamian texts are technical treatises), however, the article indicates what lines of scholarship are not worthwhile pursuing any further. The final and very interesting paper by Y. Kiel presents a comparison between rabbinic and Zoroastrian discussions on the transmission of ritual impurity through movement (carrying and bearing). Rather than claiming influence he refers to »affinity« based on »the same cultural milieu« (431). The volume closes with source, name, and subject indexes.
At the end one wonders whether a chronologically narrower but culturally more open approach, with a focus on the Babylon-ian Talmud at the intersection between Persian and Graeco-Ro­man culture, would not be more useful and appropriate. Nevertheless, the present volume caters to the interests of a wide range of scholars, who may take a pick and choose approach to the papers offered.