The Talmud is scrupulous about attributions — statements are painstakingly reported in the names of individual rabbis, and we often hear which rabbi or rabbis transmitted the original teaching as well. But in a work that was written down long after many of the statements were originally uttered, and transmitted as a hand-copied document for hundreds of years before it was printed, are such attributions reliably accurate? It’s hard to know.
On today’s page, the Gemara explores a case when a group of people join the residents of a courtyard on Shabbat, like when a wall collapses between two courtyards and residents from one courtyard move to the other:
Rav Hoshaya raised a dilemma: What is the ruling with regard to residents who arrive on Shabbat, do these residents render it prohibited for the original residents to carry in the courtyard, even if they arrive on Shabbat itself?
Rav Hisda said: Come and hear a resolution to the dilemma from the mishnah: With regard to a large courtyard that was breached into a small courtyard, it is permitted for the residents of the large courtyard to carry, because the breach is regarded like the entrance to the large courtyard, but it is prohibited for the residents of the small one to do so.
When Jews study Talmud today, most are studying a printed version of the Babylonian Talmud originally produced in Vilna in the early 19th century. But this is not the only version out there. There were earlier printed versions and hand-written versions, called manuscripts, also survived the ravages of history. And there are subtle differences between all of these.
In today’s text, Rav Hoshaya raises the question, and Rav Hisda answers it, which seems reasonable enough — Rav Hisda is a generation older than Rav Hoshaya and they both lived in Babylonia. But in his commentary on Tractate Eruvin, contemporary scholar Rabbi David Weiss Halivni notes two alternate attributions for Rav Hisda’s statement:
- According to Rabbi Yoel Sirkis, a 16th-17th century scholar, that statement should be attributed to Rav Hinena.
- Rabbi Raphael Nathan Rabinovitch, a 19th century scholar, suggests that the statement should be attributed to Rav Hananya.
Note that these names — Rav Hisda, Rav Hinena and Rav Hananya — are all quite similar. In fact, the last two are nearly identical in a language like Aramaic that is written without vowels. These alternate attributions are not frivolous suggestions. Sirkis, who lived just after the Talmud was printed for the first time, was known for correcting errors in the printed version of the text. His corrections became invaluable to students of the Talmud and were eventually included in printed editions. Likewise, Rabinovitch is known for a massive tome, Dikdukei Sofrim, in which he compared the printed edition of the Talmud to a 14th century manuscript, now housed in Munich, which is the oldest complete manuscript of the Talmud and includes passages that were later censored by the Church that are absent from most other manuscripts.
So who answered Rav Hoshaya’s question? Halivni suggests that since Rav Hananya is frequently in conversation with Rav Hoshaya in the Talmud, likely he gave the original answer. And this also has the advantage of favoring the Munic manuscript, which is older than the printed versions of the Talmud.
But even if Rav Hananya was likely what the text originally said, can we know whether he actually said this? Traditionally, Talmud scholars treated attributed statements as if they were direct quotes from particular rabbis passed down through the generations. But with virtually no extra-talmudic source to confirm anything reported in the Talmud, contemporary academic scholars are more hesitant to assume direct quotes are accurately attributed and have argued that such statements might say more about the final editors of the Talmud than the rabbis who came before. We’ll probably never know for sure.