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The Theological Stratum of the Martha b. Boethus Tradition—An Explication of the Text in Gittin 56a

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  10 June 2011

Naomi G. Cohen
1 Janoush Kortchak Street, Haifa, Israel


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Notes and Observations
Copyright © President and Fellows of Harvard College 1976

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1 Though they were almost certainly indifferent to history as such, this does not mean that they were ignorant of past events; only that their evaluation and use of them in Midrashic material was didactic, and even in other material, almost never historic. Cf., e.g., M. D. Herr, “The Conception of History Among the Sages” (Hebr.), Proceedings, Sixth World Congress of Jewish Studies, Jerusalem, Vol. III (in print).

2 For a textual-critical breakdown of this Aggadic insert, cf. Weiss, Abraham, Studies in the Literature of the Amoraim (Hebrew) (New York: 1962) 261–64Google Scholar, who sees in it two main traditions from the latter part of the third century, Palestinian and Babylonian respectively, with later additions and accretions. Baer, Y., “Jerusalem in the Times of the Great Revolt,” Zion 36/3–4 (1971) 127–90Google Scholar (Hebr.), considers the entire section very late (not preceding the 5th century C.E.), and based upon Josephus' account and late Christian legends. Neither work makes specific mention of the Martha b. Boethus incident as such. Baer contains extensive bibliographical references. Cf. also, Neusner, J., Development of a Legend (Leiden: 1970)Google Scholar for the portion concerning R. Yoḥanan b. Zakkai.

3 See Soncino transl., p. 254, note 2 (ad loc).

4 “Rabbi Meir: A Descendant of Anatolian Proselytes,” JJS 23/1 (Spring 1972) 5159.Google Scholar

5 Cf. Fraenkel, J., “Bible Verses Quoted in Tales of the Sages,” Studies in Aggadah and Folk Literature, (Scripta Hierosolymitana 22, Jerusalem: 1971) 80100.Google Scholar Though Fraenkel's conception and explanation differ, he too sees the Bible verses as “an intrinsic part of the structure of the stories.” Cf. too, e.g., Abraham, , son of Maimonides, “Derashot Hazal” (translated from the Arabic by an unknown hand), addendum to Milhamoth Hashem, ed. Margaliot, Reuven, (Mosad Harav Kook; Jerusalem: 1953)Google Scholar; Herford, R. Travers, Christianity in Talmud and Midrash (London: 1903) 1213Google Scholar; Strack, H. L., Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (JPS; Philadelphia: 1945) 202 et passimGoogle Scholar; Zunz-Albeck, , Haderashoth Beyisra'el (Mosad Bialik; Jerusalem: 1947) 32Google Scholar et passim; Bloch, Renée, “Note méthodologique pour l'étude de la littérature rabbinique,” Recherches de Science Religieuse 43 (1955) 195227Google Scholar; Vermes, G., Scripture and Tradition in Judaism (Haggadic Studies; Leiden: 1961)Google Scholar; Halevi, A. A., Sha'arei Ha'agadah (Tel-Aviv: 1963) 12, 10, 14.Google Scholar As one can see from the titles, the concepts Midrash, Haggada, and Agadah overlap.

6 The quotation of only a part of the verse intended is a common phenomenon in Rabbinic literature. The part quoted is merely an allusion, and the Biblical context as a whole is regularly understood to be an integral part of the quotation (even when only a fraction of a verse has been brought).

Vermes, G., “The Symbolical Interpretation of Lebanon in the Targums,” JTS, NS 9 (1958) 9Google Scholar, quoting Sifre, to Numbers sect. 131, ed. Horowitz, p. 169, brings the somewhat similar principle of Jewish exegesis, “that a Biblical passage must be interpreted by a neighboring passage,” and he quotes a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud to illustrate this. He writes: “Isa 10:34 (‘Lebanon shall fall’) is followed in [the ensuing verse at the beginning of chapter] 11 by ‘There shall come forth a branch from the stem of Jesse.’ These two verses were bound together in an haggadic narrative preserved in the Talmud of Jerusalem (J. Ber. ii 5a).”

I suggest that in BT Gittin 56b, the verse fragment, “Lebanon shall fall,” actually included—for the “initiated”—the allusion to the ensuing Messianic verse with which it is Midrashically associated in the Jer. Talmud.

Though examples are legion, this phenomenon is particularly well highlighted by Margaliot's, Reuven article, “Tsiyunei Hapesukim Be'Talmud Ube'Midrash,” Sinai (Jubilee Volume, Mosad Harav Kook; Jerusalem: 1958, Hebr.) 226–36Google Scholar, where the author takes exception to the traditional identification of certain Biblical quotations on the grounds that the context in which the same verse fragment is embedded elsewhere is more appropriate. For example: in M. Peah 5:6 the phrase, “Remove not the ancient landmark,” which is brought in connection with the prohibition of reaping the corner of the field and gleaning after the harvest, is marked in the printed editions as referring to Prov 22:28, but he points out that it should rather be id. 23:10, where the ending of the verse fits the context much better (and cf. also, Tosafoth Yom-Tov, ad loc). Likewise, in BT Sanhedrin 27b, the quotation, “Visiting the iniquities of the fathers upon the children,” is assigned to Exod 34:7, whereas the continuation of the verse in id. 20:5 is, he points out, far more appropriate.

7 Leningrad: ME Saltykov-Schedrin, State Public Library, Antonin Collection 492. A photostat is in the library of the Hebrew University. For a discussion, see Z. M. Rabinowitz, “Geniza Fragments of Midrash Echa Rabba” (Hebrew), lecture delivered at the Sixth World Congress of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, and also his article, “Concerning the Ancient Form of Rabbinic Midrashim” (Hebr.), Proceedings of the Fifth World Congress of Jewish Studies (III, 1972) 321–25Google Scholar (particularly 323 bottom).

8 The Leningrad ms. reads “Martha” as in the tradition recorded in Gittin, while our printed editions bring the name “Miriam.”

9 The association of the Midrashic tradition concerning Martha b. Boethus in BT Gittin 56a, with the horror story related in JW 6:201ff., is not entirely new. Cf. Kohler, K., “Wer waren die Zeloten oder Kannaim,” Festschr. zu Ehren des Dr. A. Harkavy (St. Petersburg: 1908) 17, n. 1Google Scholar, and Jawitz, Ze'ev, Toledoth Yisra'el (Tel Aviv: 1933) 5.179:Google Scholar to which he appends a footnote (no. 10), where he states: [sic!] 2–4 without further comment or explanation. I hope to treat the different nomenclature given the heroine in the two sources in a separate study.

10 JW 6:214ff.

11 The writings of the Church Fathers abound in such arguments against the Jews.

12 Cf., e.g., the following discussion found in BT Pesahim 87b, which follows directly the attack of a Min (= Christian?) upon the morality of the entire people of Israel, in justification of the attempt to destroy all the Jewish inhabitants of the Roman Empire. We read: “R. Yohanan said on the authority of R. Simeon b. Yohai: What is meant by the verse, ‘Slander not a slave unto his master, lest he curse thee, and thou be found guilty’ (Prov 30:10)? And it is written [in the following verse], ‘A generation that curse their father, and do not bless their mother.’ Because they curse their father and do not bless their mother, therefore do not slander? But [it means] even if they are a generation that curse their father and do not bless their mother, yet do not slander a slave unto his master. Whence do we know it? From Hosea [who was rebuked for slandering Israel to G-d, though they had indeed sinned].”

More generally, see Urbach, Ephraim E., The Sages, Their Concepts and Beliefs (Jerusalem: 1969), ch. 16Google Scholar, sect. C, 494–502 (Hebrew edition).

13 Sanhedrin 104b also has another echo of our section in Gittin. Sanhedrin 104b reads: ”‘Her adversaries are the chief’ (Lam 1:5). Rabbah said in R. Yoḥanan's name: Whoever distresses Israel becomes a chief …” to which cf. Gittin 57b (a continuation of our Haggadic section).

14 Likewise, as Prof. David Flusser of the Hebrew University has pointed out, when Josephus represents Maria as proclaiming her deed to be a “tale as alone is wanting to the calamities of the Jews,” he is also alluding to the Deuteronomic Toḥaḥa, and presumably expects his Jewish readers to recognize this.

15 Aram. Soncino reads: “thus giving effect.”

16 MaHaRShA (Rabbi Samuel Adels or Edels—Poland 1555–1631) notes this in his comments ad loc.

17 MaHaRShA, ibid., suggests the allusion to Yoma to be the phrase in Ezekiel, ibid., . To this might one perhaps add the association id. 16:33? The issue of the purchase of ecclesiastical preferment was a live one in his own day. In 1590 he participated at a session of the Council of Four Lands, which pronounced a ban on those who purchase Rabbinic office.

18 A. Hyman, Toledoth Tannaim Ve'Amoraim, s.v. Joshua b. Gamla, places this incident in the days of Shime'on b. Shetaḥ, but he himself admits that modern scholarship virtually unanimously thinks otherwise. As Epstein points out in his note ad loc. to Yebamoth 61a (English transl.—Soncino), “the name Jannai is often employed in the Talmud as a general patronym for Hasmonean and Herodian rulers. Here it stands for Agrippa II …,” and see Tosafoth to Yebamoth 61a, to Yoma 18a, and to Baba Bathra 21a, which write in the same vein.

Apropos of Joshua b. Gamla's scholastic reform, cf. Dio Cas. 66 (or 65) 12 (in smaller print at end), where we read that “Vespasian … established in Rome, teachers … who drew their pay from the public treasury.” If our dating of Joshua b. Gamla is correct, then both reforms are contemporary.

19 In an oral communication.

20 . This is the reading of the Pnei Moshe, ad loc.

21 A high priest is normally forbidden to marry a widow (which was Martha's status)—cf. Yebamoth 6:4, and Lev 21:13.

22 The Leningrad ms. reads: The superiority of the Leningrad ms. in this section is further illustrated by its reading rather than the simplified of our printed text.

23 See, e.g., Life 65 §362ff., where Josephus mentions that he presented an author's copy of the Wars to Agrippa, who on his part wrote some sixty-two letters of recommendation in praise of the work. So too, cf. id. 41 §204. Jesus b. Gamla is there called “an intimate friend” in connection with the vital help he rendered Josephus during the period of internal intrigue during the early days of the hostilities.

24 Ant. 20.9, §211–12.

25 Id. §213–14.