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Scripture and Tradition

Analyzing the layers of interpretation in the Sifra and the transformation of Rabbi Akiva's portrayal in rabbinic literature more broadly, Azzan Yadin-Israel traces an ideological shift toward scriptural authority and away from received traditions.

Scripture and Tradition
Rabbi Akiva and the Triumph of Midrash

Azzan Yadin-Israel

2015 | 320 pages | Cloth $79.95
Religion / History
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Table of Contents


Chapter 1. The Sifra as Midrash: Hermeneutic Markedness
Chapter 2. The Sifra as Midrash: Vacuity and Semantic Discontinuity
Chapter 3. Terminological Identity and the Hermeneutics of Camouflage
Chapter 4. "On the Basis of This, They Said" (Mikan ?Amru) and the Role of Scripture

Chapter 5. Rabbi Akiva the Interpreter: From the Mishnah to the Talmud
Chapter 6. Rabbi Akiva, the Anonymous Sifra, and the Hermeneutics of Camouflage
Chapter 7. Rabbi Akiva's Biographical Transformation

Chapter 8. The Anomaly of Tannaitic Literature: Interpretation, Revelation, and Mysteries
Excursus. Oral Tradition as the Site of Esotericism
Chapter 9. Midrash and Extra-Scriptural Tradition: A Synchronic Model

Conclusion: Rabbi Akiva and the Ironic Triumph of Midrash

Appendix: Hebrew Sources
List of Abbreviations

Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]

The Sifra

The present work is, to a great extent, a companion to my study on the legal hermeneutics of the Rabbi Ishmael school and, like it, is situated within the scholarly tradition that recognizes a division between the approaches of Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Ishmael in the halakhic midrashim. The Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael (to Exodus) and the Sifre Numbers make up the subgroup associated with Rabbi Ishmael, and the Sifra (to Leviticus) and Sifre Deuteronomy make up the subgroup associated with Rabbi Akiva. The school division, initially based on the different terminology and interpretive canons of the works, has been adopted by broad swaths of the scholarly community—most notably, J. N. Epstein and his students (and their students)—and has recently found expression in Menahem Kahana's authoritative survey of the legal midrashim. A number of scholars have challenged the Rabbi Akiva-Rabbi Ishmael division, but recent scholarship has tended to affirm Hoffmann's original insight, often moving beyond matters of terminology or interpretive methods. I have in mind Tzvi Novick's suggestive analysis of the two schools' different assumptions regarding Scripture's relationship with the world, Marc Hirshman's discussion of the characterization of non-Jews in the two schools, and Ishay Rosen-Zvi's analysis of yetzer ha-ra' ("the evil inclination"). Hewing to the philological assumptions of this approach, the present study examines those sections of the Sifra identified as part of the Rabbi Akiva corpus, to the exclusion of a number of lengthy passages foreign to the Sifra in terminology, interpretive methods, and sages cited:

  1. The treatise on the thirteen hermeneutic rules (middot) that opens the Sifra

  2. The Mekhilta de-Milu'im on the dedication of the Tabernacle (Lev. 8:1-10:7)

  3. The Mekhilta de-'Arayot on illicit sexual relations (Lev. 18:7-23 and 20:10-21)

There is no complete critical edition of the Sifra. Louis Finkelstein began a critical edition of the Sifra, but it covers only the first two sections (dibbura' de-Nedavah and dibbura' de-ḥovah). Also incomplete is Avraham Shoshana's edition, of which three volumes have appeared, covering the treatise on the middot and, again, dibbura? de-Nedavah and dibbura? de-ḥovah. Absent a critical edition, I cite Isaac Hirsch Weiss's edition (by page and column) as well as what is widely considered the finest Sifra manuscript, MS Assemani 66 (also known as Vatican 66), a facsimile edition of which was published by Finkelstein under the name Torat Kohanim. Thus, "Tzav pereq 17.5, Weiss 40b; TK 177" includes the standard citation (tractate Tzav pereq 17, halakhah 5), the location in Weiss's edition (page 40, column b), and in Torat Kohanim, here abbreviated as "TK" (page 177). Manuscript comparison of the Sifra, and of all tannaitic literature, has been immeasurably facilitated by the online publication of searchable transcriptions of the major manuscripts, under the guidance of Professor Shamma Friedman.

Throughout the present study, I have benefited from the insights of the Sifra's classical commentators, foremost among them Hillel ben Eliakim, known as Rabbenu Hillel, an eleventh- and twelfth-century sage who lived in a Greek-speaking country, about whom little else is known. The standard edition of his commentary is that of Shachne Koleditzky. Other important commentaries are those of pseudo-Rabad (attributed to Rabbi Abraham ben David of Posquieres), Rabbenu Vidal Serfaty (sixteenth-century Fez, Morocco), pseudo-Sens (attributed to Rabbi Samson of Sens, twelfth- and thirteenth-century France), and Rabbi Meir Leibush ben Jehiel Michel Weiser, better known as Malbim (nineteenth-century Poland and elsewhere).

There is currently no satisfactory English translation of the entire Sifra. Jacob Neusner has translated the work, but the results are unreliable. A far superior translation is currently being produced by Rabbi Howard L. Apothaker—though to date, only one volume (covering the pericopes Behar and Beḥuqotai) has appeared. I have benefited from Rabbi Apothaker's translation, even when I have chosen another route in my own. The Hebrew sources drawn from the Sifra (and the Mishnah, when the two are juxtaposed) are appended to this book. These sources are marked in the body of the book and in the appendix with the section symbol (§) and numbered by chapter and source number: for example, §4.3 refers to the third source in Chapter 4. This allows readers who wish to examine the Hebrew texts of the Sifra to refer to the appendix at the corresponding number. The Hebrew sources in the appendix are based on MS Assemani 66 and represent a simplified version of the transcription found in the Ma?agarim database.

The modern study of the Sifra has been ably summarized by Apothaker. To the works listed there, I add Ronen Reichman's study of Mishnah and Sifra parallels, which I discuss in Chapter 9, and Yonatan Sagiv's dissertation, with its important findings regarding the named and anonymous Sifra passages. In the opening of his thesis, Sagiv maps out the Sifra's interpretation, matching every derashah to the word that it interprets, and finds that the Sifra interprets 69 percent of the words in Leviticus. That number increases significantly if we discount from the ranks of the uninterpreted such recurring phrases as "the Lord spoke to Moses, saying" and repeated themes interpreted in one section but not others. Sagiv concludes that the Sifra interprets almost every word in Leviticus and certainly every verse. A very different picture emerges if we distinguish named derashot—interpretations cited in the name of a particular sage—from their anonymous counterparts. In terms of quantity, named derashot exist for only 13 percent of the words in Leviticus, while the anonymous Sifra interprets 63 percent of the words. Equally significant is the variance in distribution, with the anonymous derashot distributed relatively evenly but the named passages congregating around a number of key verses. For example, clusters of named derashot are tied to Leviticus 23:15 ("And from the day after the shabbat . . . you shall count for yourselves seven sabbath-weeks") and 23:40 ("On the first day you shall take for yourselves the boughs of majestic trees: fronds of palms, branches of leafy trees, and willows of the brook")—both verses that were the focus of vigorous debate in Second Temple and post-70 Jewish literature. Sagiv concludes that "the tannaim, as best as we can ascertain, did not produce a systematic interpretation of the Book of Leviticus in its entirety, but rather focused on a narrowly delimited interpretation of select words and themes." The Sifra, then, is made up of a relatively small number of tannaitic interpretations concentrated around a limited group of verses, embedded in a much larger and more uniformly distributed set of anonymous derashot. The significance of these findings will be discussed later in this study.

A Note on Terminology

The reader of the Sifra must grapple with two sets of technical terminology: the Sifra's and that of Leviticus. For the latter, I have relied on the work of Jacob Milgrom, whose Anchor Bible translation of Leviticus provides the Sifra prooftexts. Some key terms in Milgrom's translation are:

  • shelamim: well-being offerings (others: "peace offerings")

  • ḥaṭa't: purification offering (others: "sin offering")

  • 'asham: reparation offering (others: "guilt offering")

  • tenufah: elevation (others: "wave offering")

  • terumah: contribution (others: "heave offering")

  • 'olah: burnt offering

  • qamatz: scoop a handful

  • bikkurim: first-processed offering

  • qodashim: sacred donations

The main hermeneutic terms of the Sifra are:

  • ribbui: inclusion

  • mi'utò: exclusion

  • peratò: except

  • lehavi?: introduce

  • lehotzi?: preclude

  • minayin: whence

  • yakhol: might it be

  • talmud lomar: Scripture teaches, saying

  • shome'a 'ani: I might understand

The Argument of This Book

Upon hearing that I was working on the Sifra, a colleague confided that he had taught a seminar on the book but "couldn't figure out what the hell was going on there." One argument of this book is that the Sifra is indeed a confusing book—not only in the confusion that it can elicit from some readers but in the etymological sense of confundere, "to pour together, admix, commingle." For it is an admixture of two different and not easily reconciled approaches to the biblical text and its interpretation. One of its constituent components, attested primarily in the derashot of the Sifra attributed to tannaitic figures, recognizes the authority of extra-scriptural traditions and, in a number of cases, represents midrash as an ancillary support to them. The other, prominent in the Sifra's anonymous derashot, is prima facie committed to a more scripturalist approach; however, deeper investigation reveals much of the midrashic terminology to be merely superficial, an effort to camouflage oral-traditional halakhot as though anchored in Scripture. This argument is set forth in Part I of this book.

It is, of course, problematic to claim that many of the named derashot in the Sifra—the midrashic work most closely associated with Rabbi Akiva—understand midrash to be ancillary to extra-scriptural traditions and even explicitly assert the primacy of the latter, while Rabbi Akiva is generally considered the greatest of all rabbinic interpreters. Part II addresses this apparent paradox, examining the ways in which different rabbinic sources portray Rabbi Akiva. The first two chapters (Chapters 5 and 6) trace a transformation in the portrayal of Rabbi Akiva as an interpreter: from a sober midrashist in tannaitic sources to charismatic interpreter of Torah secrets in later strata; and from a champion of extra-scriptural halakhot in named Sifra derashot to the implied author (or, at least, hermeneutic inspiration) of passages that seek to efface such halakhot. Chapter 7 presents a third transformation, this one in the biographical representation of Rabbi Akiva.

Part III situates the conclusions of Parts I and II within the broader context of rabbinic literature. Chapter 8 expands on the shift, outlined in Chapter 5, toward understanding Scripture as a repository of secrets and interpretation as their revelation. Chapter 9 addresses the claims made in Chapter 6 regarding the relationship between scriptural interpretation and received tradition—between midrash and extra-scriptural traditions. In 2006, I wrote of a shift from tannaitic to post-tannaitic views of midrash, a shift that "is not 'natural' or self-evident. It is rather the outcome of a struggle among different groups within what eventually came to be considered early rabbinic Judaism. The story of this struggle remains to be told." This book attempts to tell that story.

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