Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Identifying Insertions in Rabbinic Texts

I'm continuing to work through Genesis Rabbah I.IV. As I translated the next few lines, picking up where I left off in the previous post, it struck me that this short section seemed out of place in the flow of thought. The section started with a discussion of the six things that came before the creation of the world, and it will continue with a discussion of which came first out of those six things. In between, we have this:
ר׳ אהבה בר׳ זעירא אמר אף התשובה הה״ד בטרם הרים וגו׳ (שם צ ב) מאותה השעה תשב אנוש עד דכא ותאמר שובו (שם שם ג,
R. Ahbah bar Zeira said, “Also repentance. This is as it is written, ‘Before the mountains [were brought forth or you had formed the earth and the world, from everlasting to everlasting, you are God’] (Psa. 90:2). From that hour: ‘You return man to dust and say, Return, [O children of man’] (Psa. 90:3).
This section appears to be a later insertion. I don't know how rabbinic scholars would determine this, but here's my reasoning. First, we started out with a list of six things. The list is complete: 1) the Torah, 2) the throne of glory, 3) the patriarchs, 4) Israel, 5) the Temple, and 6) the name of the Messiah. So, "repentance" is added here as the seventh item in the list. Second, the style shifted when an interloper entered the discussion - R. Ahbah bar Zeira. This interjection breaks the logical connection between what came before and what will come after. The use of Scriptural support is not as neat and succinct as the earlier items. It is as if a later reader was following the discussion and couldn't help but interject with yet another text that somehow seemed to him to be relevant. R. Ahbah reminds me a bit of Elihu in Job 33-37. Fortunately for us, Ahbah is not nearly the windbag and blowhard that Elihu is. He throws in his couple of lines and goes away, for the moment. I wonder if it just really bothered them to have a list of only six things when we all know that lists of seven are so much better.


  1. Perhaps not a later insertion, but a differing opinion that was recorded. Maybe this last item was rejected because the midrash used is not as compelling as the others.

    This style seems to be a pattern in Rabbinic literature. A list of items is completed or a question has been answered, and then an additional opinion is offered at the end of the passage. But this usually appears in the context of a halakhic discussion. So there could very well be merit to your theory.

    Here are some examples that I think might be similar to the midrash above in that an item is added to or subtracted from a list just given.
    Avot 5:5
    Sanhedrin 10:2

  2. You're right. It is an insertion (our terminology). There's no way of telling when in the transmission (oral and/or written) of the "six things" tradition it was inserted because Genesis Rabbah (with all rabbinic writings) is characteristically anthological (viz. Max), sometimes incorporating medium-size units that were themselves anthologically-composed.

  3. This is very characteristic of the Talmud. I know (even) less about the development of Midrash Rabba, but I imagine the Talmud as being like a set of lecture notes that have been passed down by generations of students. The core of each subject has been revised so many times that it is as terse and precise as it can possibly be. Later revisions bracket that with explanations, comments and so forth, but these expansions have themselves been redacted. It's only the notes left by the final recension that are at all easy to see.