Friday's Orality/Rhetoric Lesson
Alexander, Elizabeth Shanks. "The Fixing of the Oral Mishnah and the Displacement of Meaning." Oral Tradition 14:1 (1999), 100-139.
Alexander observes that "ancient students of the Mishnah, a third-century legal handbook, failed to note and respond to the Mishnah's prima facie straightforward meaning" (Alexander 1999, 100). She then attempots to explain how the different interpretations may have been reached and why one became prominent over the other. Of particular interest is that these materials were oral in their composition and performance. It may well be that interpretation of oral materials occurs in a specific and possibly different manner than interpretation of written materials (Alexander 1999, 101). The two schools of thought are the Tannaitic and Amoraic schools.
Among the ancient Mishnaic scholars, training largely consisted of repetitive recitation of different legal scenarios and their respective rulings (Alexander 1999, 102). During the Tannaitic period the materials were generally loosely configured and the recitation patterns appear to be more varied. In the Amoraic period the collection of texts was more clearly defined and the text was taken to relate specifically to another text in a relatively precise way. However, in the Amoraic period the parallels and juxtapositions were based on fragments of the texts, rather than on the entire text (Alexander 1999, 103). This allowed for creating new interpretations based on the same scenarios.
Alexander considers that the fluidity of the collection of texts during the Tannaitic period allowed the legal scenarios to signify broad principles. "However, when the materials became fixed, an inquiry began as to what they meant. In other words, fixing Mishnaic materials initiated the task of commentary" (Alexander 1999, 104). This further led to an apparent discovery of different legal principles. Additionally, Alexander takes this phenomenon to exemplify "how a theory of overlapping oral and written registers may be more useful than the previous Great Divide theory of orality versus literacy" (Alexander 1999, 104). The oral register tends to show influences of prior oral performance, while the written register tends to comment on a fixed body of information in specific ways. Alexander suggests that the fixed interpretations which emerged represent "competing effects of oral and written registers during the Amoraic era. Even though the text's fixity provided an impulse for commentary, meaning was still assessed as if the text were fluid" (Alexander 1999, 105). This further suggests to Alexander that the Amoraim may have missed the connections of the Tannaitic period because they were understanding orality through the lens of a literate register.
Alexander goes on to speak about the fluidity of the text concept during the Tannaitic period (Alexander 1999, 106). Meaning of a "text" which is extremely fluid is a difficult thing to construe. The ideas must be constructed in order to find meaning. However, knowing how the "compositional building blocks" (Alexander 1999, 106) work is a challenge. They are used in particular relationships and formulations, not simply according to random chance. Alexander provides an example from M Shev. 3:2, in which the person who swears he will not eat and then eats is liable for one count, but the person who swears he will not eat three specific things then eats them is liable for three counts. In the narrative. there are basic elements, the oath and the breaking of the oath. The order of events is also a stable element. The oath is made, the oath is broken, the conclusion is made (Alexander 1999, 107). Alexander notes that the basic structure illustrated, that of two cases with slight contrasts, appears many times. Providing examples which have contrast through the change of one variable is common in the Mishna and in other Tannaitic materials (Alexander 1999, 108). Alexander provides an extended illustration of this idea through a quotation of a case used for instruction and debate. The case provided, from the midrash works out legal signifncance in a similar way to te Mishnah (Alexander 1999, 111). The mechanics are similar, but the outcome of the case is open to divergent interpretations, based on the shifting of one variable at a time in the case.
Alexander sees an instability in the comparison of the Sifra and the Mishna, namely the variable which is shifted. "In the Sifra, the shifting variable is conceptual...In the Mishnah the shifting variable is the position of the phrase: 'wheat bread, barley bread, and spelt bread'"(Alexander 1999, 113). This may well have come from differences in the performative process, and be explained by differences in the latitude inherent in the performative process in different settings. The tradition may well have held implications of what elements could be related to one another (Alexander 1999, 114).
Alexander provides another example of Mishna (Shev 3:4) which provides some of the Mishna's meaning but doesn't explain the dispute very clearly. The oath is made, the person eats or drinks something not generally eaten or drunk, and is exempt. However, when the person eats unclean itesm it is considered purposeful and a violation of the oath (Alexander 1999, 116). Alexander brings up another passage in the Tosefta, dealing with the same kind of situation (T Shev. 2:1-2). Again, it is constructed from the same idea but with a shift of one variable (Alexander 1999, 117). The outcome of the case is routinely based on the contrast between two different terms of the argument and the law (Alexander 1999, 119). Alexander sees this as difficult to perceive when there is only one element of the argument present, or when a law is presented without a contrasting law. However, many of these situations found in the Mishna can be found in other sources which provide more structural information. Alexander illustrates this with a parallel from the Tosefta, again describing an oath (Alexander 1999, 120). The oral process follows a predictable pattern of fixed relationships among different elements. The contrasts are seen more clearly through commentary and expansion of the briefer of the passages. The commentators apparently understood the relationships to be used (Alexander 1999, 121). Based on Alexander's ideas of structural patterns, she goes on to suggest that M Shev 3:7 and 3:9 originally were "products of the same performative series." The similarities with a repeated element signal consistency, though they are not tied together clearly in current redactional analysis (Alexander 1999, 123).
Alexander's overall conclusion is that it is necessary to be sensitive to the relationships among different elements which can be identified in composition. This particularly applies to Mishnaic statements and the apparent fluidity of their early development (Alexander 1999, 124). The traditional relationships among different passages can direct our attention to their origins.
By the time of the Amoraic period, the Mishnaic text was more clearly fixed (Alexander 1999, 124). Yet the interpretation given it often reflects an understanding of the ideas as more fluid. Alexander considers it particularly important that the Amoraic interpreters work with smaller fragments of the text, rather than what she would consider to be "compositional building blocks" (Alexander 1999, 125). For example, rather than drawing the ccontrast between a valid oath and a false oath, these interpreters might draw a contrast between eating and drinking. This is a more fragmentary approach to the Mishnah (Alexander 1999, 126). Further, it is possible to fuse eating and drinking together into one element and use a contrasting element such as working on a holy day. The referent of the action itself changes, while the idea of a valid oath does not (Alexander 1999, 127).
The fragmentation during the Amoraic period "necessarily severs the resonances with other configurations of the compositionl elements. The relationship from the original performative traditions are even further obscured as new relationships come to the fore, relating our Mishnaic fragment to others with a similar theme" (Alexander 1999, 129). The relationship of different themes become more abstract. Oral exercise then tried to draw additional connections among the different areas of the law. This would broaden the legal significance of the various fragmentary elements (Alexander 1999, 131). Alexander illustrates this with several examples, again dealing with oaths of fasting and subsequent eating. The most clear change in interpretation is that each word is given equal weight, rather than each idea being analyzed. The variability in wording which is natural to oral composition is now seen as a variability in overall meaning (Alexander 1999, 135).
Alexander summarizes that although the Tannaitic and Amoraic periods emphasized oral performance, the foundation for that oral practice changed. In the Tannaitic period the Mishna was seen as fluid. This led to interpretations of overarching ideas. In the Amoraic period the Mishna was seen as a fixed text. This led to interpretations based on smaller groups of words. The basis upon which the interpreations were made did not essentially change, but a secondary level of interpretation appears to have been imposed, likely based on a difference between oral and literary assumptions (Alexander 1999, 137).