Shawn Zelig Aster, Yeshiva University, Mishnah Baba Metzia 7,7 and the Distribution of the Phoenician Jar: The Relationship of Mishnaic Hebrew to Northern Biblical Hebrew and to Phoenician
Using the material evidence of settlement patterns, Aster argued that there was no continuous Israelite/Jewish settlement in the north (i.e., Galilee) from the Assyrian conquest to the Persian period. Rather, the upper Galilee was decimated, and only in the Persian period did Jews move back to the western Galilee, while the Phoenicians settled along the coast It is the contact that these two communities had through trade that led to Phoenician influence on Galilean Hebrew. This in turn accounts for what appears to be “Israelianisms” (my term) in later mishnaic Hebrew, that is, linguistic peculiarities that some have identified as traces of old northern Hebrew, which was similar to Phoenician.
Jonathan Milgram, Jewish Theological Seminary, Mishnah Baba Batra 8,5: The Transformation of the Firstborn Son from Family Leader to Family Member
Milgram argued that this text distinctly breaks with biblical rules of inheritance, that favor the firstborn son. By contrast, this mishnah introduces the possibility of “gifting,” which potentially eviscerates the biblical law. Milgram attributes this change, or at least correlates it, to a change in family structure from clans to nuclear families, in which the firstborn sons played no special economic role.
Uzi Leibner, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Mekhilta de-R. Ishmael, Vayehi Beshalah 1: Rabbis and the Jewish Community Revisited
Leibner focused on the mosaic in the recently uncovered Wadi Hamam synagogue. Although badly damaged, part of this 3rd-4th century mosaic is a beautiful representation of Pharaoh’s army drowning in the Red Sea. At the other end of the Sea is a building that appears from its iconography to be a temple. Leibner identifies this structure as Ba’al Tzafon, mentioned in the Bible and discussed in the Mekhilta. Leibner then used this observation to argue that rabbis and “ordinary” Jews shared traditions, and thus that it was untenable to argue that rabbis remained totally disconnected from their larger world.
Steven Fine, Yeshiva University, Babylonian Talmud, Baba Batra 4a: Polychromy and the Jerusalem Temple in Late Antiquity
A late rabbinic source whose historicity has been widely rejected, claims that the Herodian Temple was full of colors. Fine agrees, but argues that the rabbinic imagery can instead be useful as a window into late antique aesthetics. The rabbis appear to have drawn on the visual culture of the world in which they lived, in which vivid colors commonly reflected wealth, prestige, and high artisanship.
Sacha Stern , University College London, Babylonian Talmud, Avodah Zara 16a: Paganism in Sepphoris– A Strange Baraita
Starting from what truly is a strange “baraita” (it is actually not identified as such, although it has a Palestinian setting and Stern argues that it is indeed authentically Palestinian), Rabbi Judah pays off the authorities (so it seems) so that his family does not offer sacrifices on the a pagan holiday. Stern argues for the essential plausibility of this scenario: Rabbi gained his title of Nasi by virtue of being from a wealthy family (see Stern’s previous article in Journal of Jewish Studies 54(2003): 193-215), and such families, even Jewish ones, may well have participated in pagan rites as part of their civic responsibilities. Stern drew on the extensive “pagan” archaeological remains in Sepphoris as well as inscriptions from Asia Minor that demonstrate that one could buy one’s way out of this sacrificial responsibility.
Steven D. Fraade, Yale University, The Rehov Inscriptions and Rabbinic Literature: Matters of Language
Fraade continued his work on multilingualism, focusing in this talk on “code switching,” that is, the multilingual shift of languages to convey specialized meanings. In the Talmud in particular this is seen in the shift between Hebrew and Aramaic, in which the latter is the clear language of dialectical argumentation. The phenomenon also appears in Jewish inscriptions, though. The “Rehov Inscription,” a sixth or seventh century mosaic text found in a synagogue near Beit Shean and specifying the boundaries of the “land of Israel” for the purpose of tithing, shows such switching – most of it is in Hebrew, but it contains some Aramaic. Yet in the same synagogue, there is a (still unpublished) Aramaic dedicatory inscription that contains some Hebrew, as well as an earlier copy of the larger inscription that was painted on a fresco that is somewhat different. The language of the inscription makes an implicit claim for “linguistic patriotism.”
R. Steven Notley, Nyack College, Genesis Rabbah 98,17: “And Why is it Called Gennosar?” Recent Discoveries at Magdala and Jewish Life on the Plain of Gennosar in the Early Roman Period.”
An ornate stone table (picture above) was found in recent excavations of what appears to be the largest first-century synagogue found to date in Israel. The table contains a relief of a menorah, which is frequently associated with priests. So too, the term Gennosar, denoting the Sea of Tiberius, is called this due to the term’s reference to early Hasmonean rulers.
Yonatan Adler, Bar Ilan University, Tosefta Shabbat 1,14: “Come and See to What Extent Purity has Spread Forth”: Archaeological Evidence for the Observance of Ritual Purity in Eretz Israel from the Hasmonean Period until the Close of the Palestinian Talmud
Much recent scholarship argues that the vast bulk of Jews stopped following laws of purity with the destruction of the Temple. Yet, Adler argues, there is much evidence of continued construction of ritual baths (he takes most stepped-pools to be mikvaot) and the production of stone vessels in Judea from 70-135. There is far less use of mikvaot and stone vessels in the later period and in the Galilee (with Sepphoris being an exception).
Lawrence H. Schiffman, New York University and Yeshiva University, Jerusalem Talmud Megillah 1 (71b-72a): “Of the Making of Books”: Rabbinic Scribal Arts in Light of the Dead Sea Scrolls
Building on the work of Emanuel Tov, Schiffman compared the actual scribal practices in the Dead Sea Scrolls, particularly of proto-Masoretic texts, to the later rabbinic scribal laws. By and large, the Dead Sea scribes appear to have conformed to these laws (with some exceptions, of course). There are many possible ways to interpret this evidence, so we must be careful using this case to generalize more broadly one way or another about the relationship of these earlier scribes to rabbinic halakhah.
That’s the summary. In a little bit I’ll post again with my reactions to the conference as a whole.