Over the past few months, as noted earlier, with the help of research assistants I have been compiling a spreadsheet that records each occurrence of a biblical verse cited in the Bavli. The purpose of this data is not so much to ask qualitative questions (e.g., where and how does the Bavli cite a particular verse?) but to allow for quantitative analysis that might lead to new questions and avenues of investigation.

As I slowly gain more familiarity with the many extraordinary but poorly documented powers of Excel, I’ve just begun to analyze this data.  Here are a couple of preliminary observations:

1.  The Bavli cites somewhere in the neighborhood of 5900 discrete verses of the Hebrew Bible.  The Hebrew Bible contains approximately 23,700 discrete verses.  That equates to about 25% of the Bible; meaning, of course, that 75% of the Bible is never cited.  It is worth noting that 3,295 verses are cited only a single time in the Bavli.  I am not yet sure what to make of this – one next step is to analyze the density of citations by biblical book.  Does the Bavli prefer citing from certain books, especially when the size of the book is also taken into account.

2.  The seven most-cited verses (with NRSV translations, and some surrounding material added for context) are:

  • Deuteronomy 24:1 (37 times): Suppose a man enters into marriage with a woman, but she does not please him because he finds something objectionable about her, and so he writes her a certificate of divorce, puts it in her hand, and sends her out of his house; she then leaves his house and goes off to become another man’s wife.
  • Numbers 5:13 (29 times): If any man’s wife goes astray and is unfaithful to him, if a man has had intercourse with her but it is hidden from her husband, so that she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her since she was not caught in the act; if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife who has defiled herself; or if a spirit of jealousy comes on him, and he is jealous of his wife, though she has not defiled herself
  • Leviticus 25:5 (24 times): You shall not reap the aftergrowth of your harvest or gather the grapes of your unpruned vine: it shall be a year of complete rest for the land.
  • Numbers 30:3 (24 times): When a woman makes a vow to the Lord, or binds herself by a pledge, while within her father’s house, in her youth, and her father hears of her vow or her pledge by which she has bound herself, and says nothing to her; then all her vows shall stand, and any pledge by which she has bound herself shall stand. But if her father expresses disapproval to her at the time that he hears of it, no vow of hers, and no pledge by which she has bound herself, shall stand; and the Lord will forgive her, because her father had expressed to her his disapproval.
  • Leviticus 2:2 (21 times): After taking from it a handful of the choice flour and oil, with all its frankincense, the priest shall turn this token portion into smoke on the altar, an offering by fire of pleasing odour to the Lord
  • Numbers 6:5 (21 times): All the days of their nazirite vow no razor shall come upon the head; until the time is completed for which they separate themselves to the Lord, they shall be holy; they shall let the locks of the head grow long.
  • Leviticus 6:3 (20 times): When any of you sin and commit a trespass against the Lord by deceiving a neighbour in a matter of a deposit or a pledge, or by robbery, or if you have defrauded a neighbour, or have found something lost and lied about it—if you swear falsely regarding any of the various things that one may do and sin thereby— when you have sinned and realize your guilt, and would restore what you took by robbery or by fraud or the deposit that was committed to you, or the lost thing that you found

Five of these verses deal with matters of civil law; three deal with women.  Why these verses in particular, though?  Verses dealing with some expected topics, such as Shabbat or circumcision, are absent.

I have some ideas for at least some of the verses.  Deuteronomy 24:1-4 are the basis for almost the entire legal institution of divorce – the rabbis need to keep appealing to them for authority, perhaps at a time when most Jews would have respected the Bible far more than rabbinic say-so.  Similarly, the sotah (“suspected wife,” in Numbers 5), issues dealing with female vows (Numbers 30:3), and the nazirite vow (Numbers 6:5) are dealt with only in these places and all generate a large body of laws. I am not yet entirely satisfied with these explanations, and would welcome yours as well!