Saturday, September 27, 2014

Sarshar, The Jews of Iran

The Jews of Iran: The History, Religion and Culture of a Community in the Islamic World
Houman Sarshar (author)

Hardback | In Stock | £60.00

Living continuously in Iran for over 2700 years, Jews have played an integral role in the history of the country. Frequently understood as a passive minority group, and often marginalized by the Zoroastrian and succeeding Muslim hegemony, the Jews of Iran are instead portrayed in this book as having had an active role in the development of Iranian history, society, and culture. Examining ancient texts, objects, and art from a wide range of times and places throughout Iranian history, as well as the medieval trade routes along which these would have travelled, The Jews of Iran offers in-depth analysis of the material and visual culture of this community. Additionally, an exploration of more modern accounts of Jewish women’s experiences sheds light on the social history and transformations of the Jews of Iran from the rule of Cyrus the Great (c. 600–530 BCE) to the Iranian Revolution of 1978/9. This long view of the Jewish cultural influence on Iran’s social, economic, and political development makes this book a unique contribution to the field of Judeo-Iranian studies and to the study of Iranian history.

Review of Calderon, A Bride for One Night

Ruth Calderon. A Bride for One Night: Talmud Tales. Trans. Ilana Kurshan. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press; Jewish Publication Society, 2014. xx + 163 pp. ISBN 978-0-8276-1209-9; ISBN 978-0-8276-1164-1; ISBN 978-0-8276-1165-8; ISBN 978-0-8276-1163-4.

Reviewed by Daniel Rosenberg
Published on H-Judaic (September, 2014)
Commissioned by Matthew A. Kraus
Her retellings are often gems, consistent with the best art of modern midrash of biblical texts, and compelling literary works in their own right. Her writing shows her to be a consummate and sensitive teacher who is deeply learned: in every paragraph of her retellings, explicit references to the full breadth of traditional Talmud study and history resonate to the mind’s ear of the classically and academically trained reader, and yet are presented accessibly and gently to the reader for whom this is the first encounter with them.
But the reviewer does have some reservations about the book from an academic perspective.

More on Ruth Calderon and her book is here and links.

Friday, September 26, 2014

The Cairo Geniza at JTS

THE NEW YORK TIMES: The Cairo Geniza, Under Piecemeal Restoration (Eve M. Kahn).
Experts at the Jewish Theological Seminary in Manhattan are puzzling over curly bits of ancient paper recovered from a closet in a Cairo synagogue. Boxfuls of the formerly soggy and bug-infested fragments are undergoing delicate repairs and digitization in the hope that the texts can be reunited, at least virtually, with the rest of their manuscript pages, which are scattered at institutions worldwide.

In the late 1800s, European and American scholars, dealers and curiosity seekers took home parts of the trove, known as the Cairo Geniza, a Hebrew word for treasury. No one knows why Jews then did not follow the custom of burying their ruined paperwork. The material may have been torn apart intentionally, to prevent non-Jews from desecrating it, or accidentally, through mishandling.

The documents date to the ninth century and contain a babel of poetry, prayers, recipes, legal and family correspondence, doodles and accounting tallies, in languages including Aramaic, Hebrew, Arabic and Judeo-Arabic. The layers of multicultural handwriting represent centuries of peaceful relations among Muslims and Jews in Arab lands.

The article has some interesting details about the conservation and digitization process. The Times also had a piece on work on the Cairo Geniza at Tel Aviv University last year, noted here. There is more on digitization of the Geniza fragments in the links in that post too. And for more on the Cairo Geniza, see here and oh so many links.

Also, a small correction to the above article. The final quoted paragraph implies that all the documents from the Cairo Geniza date to the ninth century. In fact, only a few are that early. The date range of the fragments is from about the ninth century or a little earlier all the way up to when the Geniza was cleared out in the late nineteenth century. But despite their relatively late date, some of the fragments are of comparatively very early manuscripts of classic Jewish texts such as the Mishnah, Talmud, Midrashim, Piyyutim, etc.

CORRECTION (15 October): The date range of manuscripts from the Cairo Geniza actually extends earlier than I implied above. Several years ago I noted a seventh-century biblical fragment that seems to come from there. And more recently, Larry Hurtado has noted some New Testament and Septuagint (Aquila) Geniza palimpsests that may go back as early as the fifth or sixth century.

Phoenician alphabet sculpture

PHOENICIAN WATCH: One woman’s quest to bring the Phoenician alphabet to life (Elise Knutsen, Lebanon Daily Star).
BEIRUT: If identity crisis is among the most common pathologies suffered by Lebanese, Nayla Romanos Iliya has found the remedy, or at least the one for her. After living abroad for more than 20 years, Romanos Iliya rekindled an appreciation of her Lebanese heritage by creating sculptures based on the Phoenician alphabet. Born and raised in Beirut, Romanos Iliya was educated in French schools during the Civil War, before choosing to study architecture and design at the American University of Beirut.

It's good to have a hobby.

Thursday, September 25, 2014

Astronomical discovery

CODEX CLIMACI RESCRIPTUS: Scholars Discover Early Astronomical Drawings. Undergraduate Students with Green Scholars Initiative Find 1,500-Year-Old Drawings of Constellations Hidden in Ancient Biblical Manuscript.
OKLAHOMA CITY, Sept. 19, 2014—

Museum of the Bible announced today that undergraduate students with its Green Scholars Initiative have discovered what may be among the earliest-known classical drawings of celestial constellations hidden under a layer of Greek text in a 1,500-year-old biblical manuscript. Additionally, the student-scholars at Tyndale House, an institution associated with the University of Cambridge, found the earliest manuscript attributed to Eratosthenes in the same document. The Greek mathematician, geographer and astronomer was the first to calculate the Earth’s circumference, the tilt of its axis and the inventor of geography.

The research, conducted in 2012 and 2013 at Cambridge, also uncovered the earliest copy of the opening of a work by Aratus, a Greek poet who was one of the first to write about constellations and other celestial phenomena.

The discoveries were made as students used high-tech, multispectral imaging on the Codex Climaci Rescriptus, an ancient codex purchased in 2009 as part of the Green Collection, one of the world’s largest private collections of rare biblical texts and artifacts. This is a palimpsest manuscript, meaning the writing underneath was rubbed out and written over as ancient scribes repurposed costly parchment in order to create a new document.

Follow the link for more details. Regular readers will recall that this manuscript is a palimpsest (i.e., a lower layer of writing has been erased and then over-written with new text). The top layer of writing has biblical texts in Greek, but the erased writing is gradually being recovered and includes biblical and other material in Aramaic, and now this. Background on the Codex Climaci Rescriptus is here and links. It was bought at auction in 2009 for the Green Collection (but cf. also here), about which there has been much controversy recently. I blog, you decide.

Esoteric and mystical traditions in b. Hagigah

THIS WEEK'S DAF YOMI COLUMN BY ADAM KIRSCH IN TABLET: The Talmud’s Mysticism Is Too Mindblowing Even for Its Students. Tread carefully, the rabbis warn, when seeking to understand creation or envision God.
Last week, Daf Yomi readers made the acquaintance of two angels: the Angel of Death, who shepherds the generations to the grave, and Duma, who rules over souls in the underworld. But this week, as we started chapter 2 of Tractate Chagiga, we plunged much deeper into the murky realms of the supernatural, as the rabbis pondered the two great secrets of Jewish mysticism: the account of Creation and the account of the Chariot. These subjects, the Talmud warns, are not to be taught promiscuously; they are so profound, and so potentially disturbing, that they can only be studied under strict limits. The “act of Creation,” we read in Chagiga 11b, can be taught only to one student at a time, and the Chariot—the name for the prophet Ezekiel’s baroque vision of the Godhead—cannot be taught at all. It must be studied alone, and then only if the student is “wise and understands on his own.”

There follows a good summary of the esoteric and mystical material in tractate Hagigah. Kirsch concludes:
Reading these pages, I couldn’t help wondering what the effect of reading Chagiga must have been on generations of Talmud students. Almost all of the Talmud, at least all that I’ve read so far, is extremely rational, lucid, and mundane. It approaches law with the tools of logic and strrives relentlessly for clear, full explanations of problems. No one could read, say, Tractate Eruvin and get carried away by spiritual raptures: You’re too busy trying to visualize right angles and calculate distances. Imagine spending years of your youth learning to think in this way and then coming upon Chagiga: It would be like entering a different world, in which logic flies out the window and all is allegory, vision, and dream. The accounts of the Creation and the Chariot feed a religious appetite that most of the Talmud seems designed to starve. What excitement these pages must have offered, what stimulus to imagination!

Too much stimulus, in fact—which is why the rabbis insisted so much on the need to restrict mysticism to the most sober and mature students. In Chagiga 14b, we read one of the most famous anecdotes in the whole Talmud, the one about the four sages who “entered the orchard”—that is, delved into supernatural mysteries—and what happened to them. Ben Azzai “glimpsed” God and immediately died; Ben Zoma glimpsed God and lost his mind; Elisha ben Avuya “chopped down the shoots,” meaning that he became an apostate. (His name is never mentioned in the Talmud, where he is referred to only as Acher, “the other.”) Only “Rabbi Akiva came out safely,” able to live with the divine knowledge he had gained. Clearly, the odds are stacked against the Jewish mystic. But in a tradition built around the pursuit of knowledge, it’s no wonder that so many generations of Jews refused to remain content with ignorance and made their ways, in fear and trembling, into the orchard.
It is likely that the compilers of the Babylonian Talmud were familiar, and not entirely comfortable with, some of the mystical traditions now preserved in the Hekhalot literature, on which more here and links, and more recently here, here, and here. There is a vast secondary literature on the subject, some recent volumes of which are noted here, here, here, and here. And I have some posts involving the story of the Four Who Entered Paradise here, here, here, and here and links.

Earlier Daf Yomi columns are noted here and links.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Postdocs at the Hebrew University

H-JUDAIC: JOB: Hebrew University, Postdoctoral Fellowships.
Mandel Postdoctoral Fellowships in Humanities and Jewish Studies for 2015-2018

The Mandel Fellowships are intended for scholars, from Israel and abroad, who have shown exceptional excellence, depth, and originality, and whose research may enrich academic and cultural discourse.
Follow the link for details and application information.

New edition of Qalliri's piyyutim for Rosh HaShanah

Rabbi El'azar Berabbi Qillir Liturgical Poems for Rosh Ha-Shana

Edited by: Shulamit Elizur, Michael Rand

Purchase options: Price Site price
Printed book $ 46.00 $ 41.40
Total $ 41.40

Publisher: World Union of Jewish Studies
Sources for the Study of Jewish Culture
Prayers, Poetry and Piyutim
Publish date: September 2014
Language: Hebrew

Danacode: 45-131134
ISBN: 978-965-7418-03-1
Cover: Hardcover
Pages: 734
Weight: 1400 gr.

Rosh Hashana, the Day of Judgment, has been embellished with numerous fascinating liturgical poems (piyyutim). This book is devoted to the compositions that were written for Rosh Hashana by the illustrious poet R. El‘azar berabbi Qillir, who was active in the Land of Israel at the beginning of the seventh century. The piyyutim for Rosh Hashana are many and varied, and they adorn all of the special prayers for the festival. A number of these piyyutim are known and recited to this day in Ashkenazi congregations, while others are published here for the first time. Even those piyyutim that are known from the festival prayer books (mahzorim) are presented here in a new light. The present edition is primarily based not on European mahzorim, but on earlier fragments from the Cairo Genizah; on the basis of such early sources the editors have succeeded in adding new, original material to the known compositions—there is not one famous composition to which heretofore unpublished material has not been added, in some cases throwing new light on the entire work. Even in such cases, therefore, we are not merely offering old wine in new wineskins, but presenting a new blend that confers on the poetic compositions novel aspects, not previously brought to light.

This edition has been prepared on the basis of close to 400 manuscripts, and all of the variant readings have been given in the margins. An extensive commentary aids the reader in understanding the difficult idiom of the payyetan, identifying the many scriptural and midrashic sources that are woven into the piyyutim, and following the development of their themes. A general introduction treats various questions connected to the poems, from their attribution to the author and the reconstruction of the component parts of each composition, to the literary shaping of the material. In his piyyutim, R. El‘azar berabbi Qillir treats Rosh Hashana in all of its aspects: the Day of Judgment, the blowing of the shofar; the malkhiyot, zikhronot, and shofarot verses; the merit of the Fathers; and more. A number of compositions are specially intended for when Rosh Hashana falls on the Sabbath. Qillir’s unique method in the shaping of each of these themes is also clarified in the introduction. The complex web of interrelations between the piyyutim and their literary sources is elucidated as well; thus it has become clear, for example, that one of the piyyutim edited here for the first time throws new light on the famous poem, U-netane toqef qedushat ha-yom. “O King, Remember [the ram] caught [by its] horn!” These few words from one of the piyyutim published in the book reveal the genius of the great payyetan. Here, R. El‘azar berabbi Qillir has succeeded in encapsulating in four words the three great themes that lie at the heart of the benedictions that are unique to Rosh Hashana—kingship, remembrance and the ram’s horn (shofar)—all in the form of a prayer that beseeches God to remember for our sakes, on the Day of Judgment, the Binding of Isaac, symbolized by the ram whose horns are caught in the thicket. And if in four words the payyetan has managed to encapsulate such far-flung meanings, one can only imagine the riches contained in this enormous collection of R. El‘azarʼs writings for the Day of Judgment, which we now have before us.


ROSH HASHANAH: A World Of Shofars: The Ancient Musical Instrument That Will Sound For Rosh Hashanah (Antonia Blumberg, The Huffington Post). With cool pics.

Rosh HaShanah

HAPPY ROSH HASHANAH (Jewish New Year 5775) to all those celebrating! The holiday begins this evening at sundown.

Biblical background here. And some relevant historical background and related information is collected here.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Hebrew Calendar

IN HONOR OF ROSH HASHANAH (TOMORROW): The Hebrew Calendar: A marvel of ancient astronomy and math. The biggest marvel is how Iron Age Jews managed to adjust the lunar calendar to the solar one. (Elon Gilad, Haaretz).
Israel's official calendar is the Hebrew one. According to Jewish counting,
this Wednesday we will be starting Year 5775, that is - the supposed 5775th year since the world was created on Saturday night, October 6, 3761 BCE.

This reckoning was instituted by Maimonides in the 12th century, in the stead of the previous system Jews had used before, which counted from the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE.

Moving onto today: Israel's official calendar is the Hebrew one. Under law, official Israeli documents must have the Hebrew date on them. Moreover, holidays in Israel are determined according to the Jewish calendar, not the Gregorian one. Thus a given fest – say, Rosh Hashanah – will happen on the same date each year according to Jewish reckoning, but on a different day each year according to the Gregorian calendar. That is because the Gregorian and Jewish calendars don't coincide.

Read it fast, before it vanishes behind the paywall!

There's lots of historical information here, including a discussion of the Gezer Calendar. But, surprisingly, there is no reference to the solar calendar used by the Qumran sectarians, the book of 1 Enoch and the book of Jubilees, on which more here and links.

Also, Philologos had a column some time ago on Jewish calendars. The link has rotted, but the excerpt gives an overview.

And, tangentially related, a while ago my colleague Grant Macaskill sent me this article from 2005, which tells how a physicist seems to have unwittingly reinvented the Enochic solar calendar, or at least something pretty close to it, and was trying to persuade people to adopt it: Novel calendar system creates regular dates (Maggie McKee, New Scientist).
A US physicist is lobbying for people to adopt his novel calendar in which every date falls on the same day of the week each year.

The current calendar, which runs for 365 days, was instituted by Pope Gregory in 1582 to bring the length of the year in line with the seasons. But because the Earth actually orbits the Sun every 365.24 days, a 366-day "leap year" must be added every four years to account for the extra fraction of a day. In this Gregorian system, a given date (such as New Year's Day) falls on different days of the week in different years because 365 is not evenly divisible by seven.

That means new calendars must be printed every year, and the dates for recurring events constantly recalculated. "For many years, I've had to make up a new schedule to tell my class when homework is due," says Dick Henry, a physicist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland, US. "Here I am putting all this totally unnecessary work in and I decided I better do something about it."

So Henry designed a calendar that uses 364 days, which breaks down evenly into 52 weeks. In his so called "Calendar-and-Time" (C&T) plan, each month contains 30 or 31 days. He decided on each month's length by forbidding the new calendar to differ from the old one by more than five days and by setting Christmas Day, 25 December, to always fall on a Sunday.

Dr. Henry adds an intercalated week ("Newton Week") every five or six years. It isn't clear exactly how the Enochic Jews and Qumran sectarians dealt with the slight discrepancy between the 364-day solar calendar and the actual 365-and-a-quarter-day solar year. Like the Enochic calendar, his calendar has the advantage of keeping all the holidays on the same day of the week every year. This was more important for the Jewish calendar, since if holidays did not have a stable spot in the week (as they don't in the modern Jewish calendar), when a major holiday falls on the sabbath it can cause halakhic complications.

Not the oldest Jewish prayer book after all?

SKEPTICISM: World's oldest siddur or overpriced patchwork? Jerusalem's Bible Lands Museum unveils what they suggest is the world's oldest siddur. But is it really? (I24News). Excerpt:
"I believe the Green Foundation acted in good faith based on the information they received when they purchased the book," Matthew Morgenstern, a professor of Hebrew at Tel Aviv University, told i24news.

Nevertheless, there are many questions as to the book's provenance.

"No one is casting doubt that the actual pages in the book are authentic," says Morgenstern.

"But the book was written by a number of different scribes, many of the texts are incomplete and the pages are of slightly different sizes. Is what we're seeing actually a book that was bound in the Middle Ages?"

Morgenstern says it is not impossible that the ancient fragments, while genuine, could have been bound together in modern times by an antiquities dealer looking to fetch a higher price.
Also, Dr. Ben Outhwaite, head of the Cambridge Genizah Research Unit, thinks it looks later than the ninth century and wants more information on how the C-14 tests were carried out. And they are not alone with their concerns. Officials from the National Library in Israel are also expressing some doubts to the AP: 'Oldest Jewish Prayer Book' Donated To Jerusalem's Bible Lands Museum. Haggai Ben Shammai, academic director of the National Library, thinks that another siddur in Germany could be the oldest, and Aviad Stollman, curator of the Judaica collection, is, like Morgenstern, skeptical both of the date and that the siddur is even a single document.

Background here and links.

Battir security fence update

HAARETZ: Cabinet postpones decision on controversial route of West Bank barrier. Ancient terraces in Battir were designated Unesco World Heritage Site in bid to change route of Israeli wall. (Nir Hasson).
Israel’s cabinet on Sunday put off making a decision on the route of the West Bank separation barrier in the area of the Palestinian village of Battir while it discusses the issue further and examines alternatives.

The cabinet had been widely expected to approve a route for the barrier that was opposed by villagers, preservationists, environmentalists, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority and even residents of Jewish settlements in the Etzion Bloc.

The story is also covered in the Jerusalem Post: West Bank Battir barrier off the table for now (Tovah Lazaroff).

Background on the controversy surrounding Battir (Betar) and its recent naming by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site is here and links.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Dura Europos and Amphipolis

It just gets worse: ISIS Seize Dura-Europos

Background on Dura Europos and on its current fate is here and links.

The latest: Amphipolis: More Questions, More Answers ...

Background here and links. Dorothy King's blog is the place to go to keep updated on this story.


Conference: The visual world of Persianate culture
A promising and interesting conference hosted by the University of Edinburgh coinciding with the launch of their Masters in Persian Civilization. ...

Book Review: Review: The transmission of the Avesta
Piras, Andrea. 2014. Review of Alberto Cantera (ed.): The transmission of the Avesta. Wiener Zeitschrift für die Kunde des Morgenlandes 104. 365–368.

New Book: Intangible spirits and graven images
Shenkar, Michael. 2014. Intangible spirits and graven images: The iconography of deities in the pre-Islamic Iranian world. Leiden: Brill.

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Docherty, The Jewish Pseudepigrapha

The Jewish Pseudepigrapha
An introduction to the literature of the Second Temple period

Susan Docherty


SPCK Publishing

Additional information

224 pages. Paperback. (234 x 156 mm)

Our Price


This is a concise yet comprehensive guide to the Pseudepigrapha: the Jewish texts of the late Second Temple Period (circa 250BCE–100CE) that are not included in the Hebrew Bible or standard collections of the Apocrypha. Each chapter deals with a specific literary genre (e.g. apocalyptic, testaments, rewritten Bible), encouraging readers to appreciate the texts as literature as well as furthering their understanding of the content and significance of the texts themselves

As well as providing helpful introductions to the different genres, the book surveys key issues such as: date, authorship, original language; purpose; overview of contents; key theological themes and significance.
The publisher kindly sent me an advance electronic copy a while ago.