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Rabbi Nosson Dovid Rabinowich published some years back an excellent translation of the book, "The Iggeres of Rav Sherira Gaon." It is a must in every Jewish library, as it contains invaluable information as to the development of our Oral laws and traditions. Nevertheless, as every good work, it is not without its flaws and errors.
I have submitted here a copy of a letter that I recently sent to Rabbi Nosson Dovid Rabinowich about those discrepancies.
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My dear Rabbi Nosson Dovid Rabinowich, Shalom!
While perusing through your excellent translation of the book, "The Iggeres of Rav Shrira Gaon," I came across three or four errors that I wished to bring to your attention.
1) In chapter 6: The Talmud (pg. 54) you wrote: "The source* of the law is in the way the Torah is read; the source of the law is in the way the Torah is written."
The asterisk had been given the following annotation: "Tradition tells us that certain words in the Torah should be pronounced differently from how they are written. Sometimes these differences affect the meaning of the verse. In such cases, one opinion holds that the written version (the Mesorah) should be the main basis of exegesis, while another opinion holds that the pronunciation should be the main basis."
Actually, there is no dispute as to the validity of both methods used in exegesis. Both are equally valid ways of expounding from the Torah, as we shall presently show.
This principle of logic, as you rightly noted, is properly called by us:
יש אם למקרא ויש אם למסורת
"There is a basis [for expounding a word], based on its tradition of reading (orthography) and there is a basis [for expounding a word], based on its tradition of writing." (Meaning, since the Law of Moses is written down in a scroll without the vowel markings beneath the words, one can theoretically read into the words any vowel marking that he chooses.)
The most notable example of this is brought down in Sifra (Leviticus 11:33), and repeated in the Jerusalem Talmud (Hagigah 18b), as well as implied by Rabbi Akiva in Mishnah Sotah 5:2. There, we learn that where the Torah says in Levitucus 11:33-34,
וכל כלי חרש אשר יפל מהם אל תוכו כל אשר בתוכו יטמא וכו' מכל האוכל אשר יאכל אשר יבוא עליו מים יטמא וכל משקה אשר ישתה בכל כלי וטמא וכו'
"Any earthenware vessel wherein shall fall from them (one of the dead vermin), all that which lies within it shall be unclean, etc.," the word יטמא (Heb. Yitma), wherever it is mentioned in these two verses, was traditionally understood to have the connotation of "shall become unclean," seeing that we received the tradition of reading (orthography) which assigns a "chiraq" beneath the letter "Yod," and a "qametz" beneath the letter "Mim."
But if we were to re-arrange the vowel symbols assigned to that word "Yitma"
that is, change the future form of the basic stem (Kal), "shall be unclean,"
so that it now reads "Yitamei,"
or what is now the regular form of the verb (Pi'el), "it shall render [a thing] unclean," we come-up with a different meaning altogether! This is permissible, seeing that we received the written law (Torah) from Moses when it carried no vowel markings whatsoever written therein, and therefore we are able, of ourselves, to assign phonetics to the Hebrew characters. In our case, assigning a "sheva na" to the letter "Yod," and a "patach" to the letter "Tet," and a "tzere" to the letter "Mim," which latter is also marked with a "dagesh," we are left with a teaching that water or foods contained in such earthenware vessels (wherein a dead vermin had once come in contact) are capable of conveying uncleanness to other things, besides being unclean of themselves!
It was for this reason, namely, this principle of logic, which prompted Rabbi Akiva to say:
" 'It shall be unclean,' and 'it shall render [a thing] unclean,' are both a teaching of the Law!" - Jerusalem Talmud, Hagigah 18b
יִטְמָא יְטַמֵּא דָּבָר תּוֹרָה
2) In yet another place, chapter 7: The Development of the Gemara (pg.77), the author had written as a marginal note:
In Beis Shean: Upper Galilee.
This should be corrected to read:
In Beis Shean: Lower Galilee.
Beis Shean is the same appellation given for the city of that name today, in lower Galilee near the Sea of Galilee southward. Proof of which is shown in the mosaic found at Rehob, near Beis Shean. Moreover, since Nimrin in trans-Jordan is mentioned in our Tosefta Shevi'is 4:11 as being one of the boundaries of Eretz Yisrael to the east, as far as tithes and seventh-year produce are concerned, it would imply that Beis Shean was within the natural borders of Israel proper. This, too, is attested by Rebbi's brothers who said unto him: "…Will you exempt the place which was regarded as subject to tithes by your fathers and your fathers' fathers?" (Chullin 6b) Rather, the novelty in Rebbi's declaring vegetables exempt from tithing in the immediate Beis Shean area lies not in the assumption that it was considered outside of the land of Israel, but rather in the fact that, from the standpoint of the Law, only grapes, oil and grain require tithing when the entire nation of Israel are settled in their own land. All other fruits and vegetables are only a rabbinic enactment. Rebbi, while relying upon R. Meir, cancelled a rabbinic enactment formerly requiring certain fruits and vegetables in the Beis Shean area to be tithed. While exempting tithes, on the one hand, the people still had it as a requirement to have the seventh-year laws applied to all fruits and vegetables in that area because of their doubtful nature. So, too, the separation of Demai produce in ordinary years would still apply to vegetables such as cucumbers, watermelons, musk melons, parsnip, mint that had been bound-up with only its own kind, black-eyed peas that had been bound-up in leaves of rush, wild leeks grown between the seasons of Shavous and Chanukka, yir'onin, black cumin, sesame, mustard, rice, cumin, dried lupines, large-sized peas which were sold by the measure, garlic, scallions belonging to the city and which were sold by the measure, as well as purse-tassels, whilst dates and wine and olive oil during the seventh year still had the seventh-year laws applied to them, while they were treated as Demai produce during other years. All this is explained in the mosaic of the ancient synagogue found at Rehob, near Beis Shean. The mosaic goes on to give the names of places in the immediate vicinity of Beis Shean and in its outermost purlieu which were also exempt from tithes.
3) The author had written in the glosses of his book, chapter 2: The Oral Law Before Rebbe (pg. 17), the following:
"Antoninus: Antoninus Pius was the successor of Hadrian as Roman emperor (138-161 C.E.). In many stories in the Talmud and Midrash, he is described as being in the company of R.Yehudah HaNasi. The Midrash makes reference to more than one emperor; it distinguishes between Antoninus senior and Antoninus junior. Modern scholarship, however, has difficulty fitting these accounts into the historical framework of the period of the Antinines, especially since Rebbe thrived mainly at the end of the second century."
Actually, the Antoninus who was contemporary with Rebbe is NOT Antoninus Pius at all, but rather the fifth line of Caesar after him, viz., Antoninus who is called Caracalla & Geta, the son of Severus. (cf. Avodah Zarah 10b). He died approximately in anno 192 C.E., or in 503 of the Seleucid Era, according to Epiphanius' chronology of the Caesars found in his book, "Treatise on Weights and Measures." (Published by the Chicago University Press). It should be noted here that according to Seder HaKabbalah LaRavad, Rebbe compiled the Mishnah in the year 500 of the Seleucid Era, a year corresponding with 189 C.E.
4) In chapter 8: The Work of the Savoraim (pg. 89), the author had written in footnote # 23 about Rabban Gamliel the Elder, saying: "Avos, ch. 1. Mishnah 16 might be a reference to him. Except for the Gemara in Yetzios HaShabbos cited below by RSG, we have no other references to him."
Actually, we do find other references to Rabban Gamliel the Elder. See, for example, Ketubbos 8b and Moed Katan 27b where Rabban Gamliel [the Elder] changed the practice and made it compulsory that all men, whether poor or rich, buy and make use of only plain woven, non-colored burial shrouds to bury their dead, so as not to shame those who were poor. There are also references about him in various Mishnah (e.g. Orlah 2:12, Rosh Hashannah 2:5, Yevamos 16:7, Sotah 9:15 and Gittin 4:2,3).
With this, I conclude my not-so-terse letter, wishing you and your family the best in your endeavors.
With deepest esteem and appreciation,