Friday's Orality/Rhetoric Lesson
Elman, Yaakov. "Orality and the Redaction of the Babylonian Talmud." Oral Tradition 14:1 (1999), 52-99.
Elman attempts to show that the Talmuds were transmitted orally and that redactional materials were also orally composed. He sees this particularly in the case of the Babylonian Talmud, existing in a more highly oral culture than that of the Palestinian work (Elman 1999, 52).
Elman's argument begins with the concept that Middle Hebrew has linguistic date markers. Because the dating of the language can be identified relatively clearly, developments can also be dated, particularly during the third through sixth centuries (Elman 1999, 53). He sees the redactors, known as the Stammaim, as operating "within an almost exclusively oral environment" (Elman 1999, 53). This type of scholarship could be surprising to a highly literate culture. However, Elman notes that Talmudic scholars often have exhaustive knowledge of large amounts of text.
Building on the work of Birger Gerhardsson, Elman notes that there was a strong oral tradition even among those who would write comfortably during this period (Elman 1999, 54). Even though there was abundant access to written texts, including Scripture, Amoraic masters were in the habit of quoting from memory rather than referencing a text in writing. Elman does observe that this went against Rabbinic counsel, which required scholars to read written texts and to quote from memory any orally transmitted material (Elman 1999, 55). Within the Amoraic culture, Elman reports the arts of writing, ritual slaughter, and carrying on circumcision were required of all rabbis. The scholar, however, rarely needed to do any actual writing. "There are hardly any cases in which legal texts are described as existing in writing in Babylonia" (Elman 1999, 55). Documents were produced by scribes, not by legal scholars. Accurate oral transmission appears to be the norm within the Amoraic culture (Elman 1999, 56).
Elman notes a difference beginning in the eighth century, known as the Geonic period. At this time, he sees oral transmission considered not only the norm but also to have held a privileged position. Creating written copies was permitted, but only in special cases (Elman 1999, 57). Of special interest to Elman is the fact that much of the current form of the Babylonian Talmud was established after the Amoraic period, about 500, and before the Geonic period, beginning in the late 500s or late 600s (Elman 1999, 58). Counter to Ong's view that writing is an important aid to analysis, Elman sees the oral skills of the Rabbis as an aid to their analytical abilities (Elman 1999, 59). It is significant to Elman's view that "we have a fully realized ideology of orality both before and after the period of redaction" (Elman 1999, 59). This suggests that the redaction itself was carried on primarily through oral means.
Elman notes the scope of the redaction. "The redactors not only gathered together some 45,000 attributed traditions, but approximately doubled the size of the nascent Babylonian Talmud in their (perhaps) 75 years of activity" (Elman 1999, 60). He does question whether this would be possible within an oral climate, but he concludes that it can be conceived. Especially given the higly oral Rabbinic culture of Babylon, it is possible, and the fact that the compiled material is in the form of dialog is significant. The dialogic structure is a strong mnemonic tool (Elman 1999, 61).
Elman further considers that the inclusion of variants is significant. Elman notes that variants are normally introduced with terminology indicating speech, rather than writing (Elman 1999, 61). The variants tend to show growth and adjustments over a period of time as well. For instance, Elman notes somediscourses which speak of cooking on fires set before the Sabbath but being used on the Sabbath. They show some development of idea within the listed variants. This suggests oral development rather than written development (Elman 1999, 63).
Elman continues to describe the Babylonian Rebbinic society as lacking a culture of books. References to writing almost uniformly point to the written words of Scripture or to copies of legal documents, not to other materials. References to speaking, however, refer overwhelmingly to non-Scriptural materials (Elman 1999, 64).
Another matter of interest to Elman is that the layers of the Talmud which come from the Amoraic period and afterward do not use terms "for copying, arranging, editing and redaction. It is almosti mpossible to imagine that the redactors, aware as they must have been of the ground-breaking nature of the activity to which they were devoting themselves, would not have adapted or devised some terminology to describe the activity in which they were engaged" (Elman 1999, 65). The terms for arrangement, which later came to be used for editing, are normally used for oral activity rather than written activity. This suggests to Elman that the work of redaction was carried on in the context of an oral culture, and was not done in writing (Elman 1999, 66).
Elman moves on to a discussion of the relative size of the Talmudic revisions and editions, particuularly in comparison to the Scriptural text. The Talmuds are several times as extensive as the Scripture. The increases in size during the redactional periods are themselves larger than the Scripture. Rabbinic law was considered to be too extensive to be kept in writing, at least as early as the middle of the fourth century (Elman 1999, 73). From a practical standpoint as well, Elman observes that the codex was not used within Jewish tradition until at least the eighth century. Locating passages within written scrolls was cumbersome at best. It may well have made more sense to keep these materials in an oral tradition (Elman 1999, 73). Copying the Talmud would have been possible, however, Elman considers it to have been a very significant amount of work. This would have encouraged preservation of the materials in an oral tradition (Elman 1999, 75).
Elman observes that there are words used in the Talmud which would likely have indicated emendation. However, in general he finds them to refer most naturally to creation of oral variations, not to written variants (Elman 1999, 76). Later practice shows that emendations of written texts are rarely preserved in margins, but are rather inserted directly into the text. This is not as likely a way to preserve a written text, but is consistent with oral practice, as there are no margins in oral communication (Elman 1999, 78). Again, Elman observes that language used to refer to the Mishnah is almost entirely related to speaking and hearing, not to writing and reading (Elman 1999, 80). This is the case both in Babylon and in Palestine.
Elman finally turns his attention to formulaic characteristics of the Mishnah, the Tosefta, and the Talmuds. The formulaic character strongly suggests an oral culture surrounding the transmission of the material (Elman 1999, 81). He concludes his paper by using a specific text for analysis. He finds that the formulas are used in a relatively dense nature with little variation when compared to other instances of similar formulas. The dialogical features likewise show high levels of repetition (Elman 1999, 84). From a literary perspective, the structure is relatively orderly and even intricate. However, this is not uncommon in a highly oral society (Elman 1999, 86). He notes this not only in Babylonian material, but also in Palestinian material (Elman 1999, 87).
Elman concludes very briefly that the redactional material is primarily and essentially oral in nature, though there may have been some written portions available at times (Elman 1999, 93).