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Steven Fine. The Rehov Synagogue Inscriptions: The Earliest Preserved Text of the Talmudic Literature.

Rehov Synagogue MosaicThe earliest manuscripts of Rabbinic literature date to the middle ages, hundreds of years after many of the cardinal documents of the “Oral Torah” were initially promulgated. For example, the Mishnah, the basic document of the Rabbinic corpus, was completed around 200 CE. Fragments of the Mishnah that date to the 9 th -12 th centuries CE were discovered in the Cairo Genizah and the earliest and most reliable complete manuscript of the Mishnah was completed in the tenth or eleventh century (the Kaufmann Manuscript, now in the Hungarian Academy of Sciences in Budapest, Ms. A 50). Twentieth century archaeological discoveries have provided considerable evidence for the textual history of rabbinic literature between the time of its oral composition and the earliest extant manuscripts. These finds bridge the vast expanse between the literary formulation of the “Oral Torah” and the surviving manuscripts.

The earliest archaeological evidence for the history of Rabbinic texts derives from the Dura Europos synagogue in eastern Syria (244/5-c. 256 CE), where a parchment fragment discovered in 1932 is highly reminiscent of rabbinic prayer texts; inscriptions closely parallel Targumic paraphrases of Scripture in Aramaic; and the wall paintings suggest important parallels with midrashic sources. Numerous discoveries from the fourth to eighth centuries in the Land of Israel show parallels to liturgical, midrashic (“homiletical”) and halakhic (legal) texts. By far, the most significant archaeological evidence for the textual history of Rabbinic literature, and particularly of its halakhic component, was uncovered in the ancient synagogue of Rehov, a site located five kilometers south of the Decapolis city of Scythopolis (called in Hebrew Beit Shean and in Jewish Palestinian Aramaic as Beisan). Inscriptions found at Rehov contain extensive passages of legal material relating to Biblical agricultural law that are well known from Rabbinic sources. The Rehov inscriptions reformulate and apply these classical Rabbinic texts to life in the Beth Shean Valley during the Byzantine period, the closing years of the “Period of the Mishnah and the Talmud.”

The synagogue of Rehov was excavated by Fanny Vitto of the then-Israel Department of Antiquities and Museums between 1974-80. The synagogue of Rehov was built in three phases, consisting of a 4th century basilica, enlarged in the 5th-6th centuries, and destroyed as it was being enlarged and renovated during the 6 th -7th century– apparently by an earthquake. The 5 th – 6 th century synagogue contained a variety of unpublished inscriptions. The excavator notes that “the columns bore large inscriptions in red paint, some of them in a tabula ansata and a wreath. The inscriptions, in Hebrew and Aramaic on white plaster, included a variety of texts- benedictions, dedications, a list of the priestly courses and a copy of a letter dealing with the laws of tithes in the Sabbatical year” (1993- 1272-3). The so-called “letter” is of particular interest, as it is the earliest preserved halakhic text yet discovered. According to the excavator, this inscription begins with the word “Shalom” and contains texts that directly parallel classical Rabbinic traditions in Tosefta Shevi’it 4-8-11, Sifre Deuteronomy 51 and Jerusalem Talmud Demai 2-1, 22c-d and Shevi’it 6-1, 36c. The inscription concludes with the phrase- tyrf hbc kf kg ouka, “peace upon all the people of the town…” (Vitto, 1992- 1459). S. Lieberman suggests that this text may be a transcription of a letter sent by a rabbinical court (beit din) to Rehov adjudicating practical matters of Biblical agricultural law (1976- 74).

According to Vitto, an “almost identical” transcription of the 5th century inscription with important additions and without the concluding formula was set out in mosaic of the narthex in the 6 th -7th century synagogue. Z. Ilan (1991- 186) who apparently studied the earlier text, writes suggestively that this text it is “cleaner and better” than the later mosaic inscription. Twenty-nine lines in length, the narthex inscription measures 2.75 x 4.30 meters. Edited by Y. Sussman, this inscription is written in late Rabbinic Hebrew with numerous nouns reflecting Jewish Palestinian Aramaic. This is by far the longest Jewish inscription from late antiquity, and the most important physical evidence for rabbinic literature before the medieval era. The eight sections of the inscription are noted for the purpose of analysis-

A. Shalom! These produce are forbidden in Beit Shean during the seventh (sabbatical) year, and in other years of the sabbatical (cycle) are tithed as demai (foodstuffs brought from Jewish areas of Palestine that were suspected of not having been tithed properly)- the cucumbers (2) and the watermelons, and the melons, and the carrots, and the mint which is tied up by itself, and Egyptian broad beans which are tied (3) with shavings, and the leeks from the Festival (Sukkot) until Hanukkah, and the seeds, and the fennel, and the sesame, and the mustard, and the rice, and the cumin, and the dried lupine, (4) and the large chickpeas that are sold by measure, and the garlic and locally grown onions that are sold by measure, and the tassel hyacinth bulbs (5) and the late-maturing dates, and the wine, and the oil; in the seventh year they are seventh year (produce), in the (other) years of the seven (year sabbatical cycle) they are (tithed as) demai, and bread is always (subject to the removal of) dough-offering (in all years of the sabbatical cycle). These are the places (6) which are permitted around Beit Shean- from the south which is the gate of the qampon (campon, hippodrome?) as far as the white field; from the west (7) which is the gate of the (oil-) press tub (?) as far as the end of the paved road (cardo?); from the north which is the gate of the unctuarium as far as Kefar Qarnos, and Kefar Qarnos (8) is (treated) as Beit Shean; and from the east which is the dung gate as far as the funerary monument (nafshah) of Penoqtiyyah, and the gate of Kefar Zimrin and the gate of the meadow– (9) inside the gate is allowed and beyond it is forbidden.

B. The forbidden towns in the territory of Susita- ‘Aynosh, and ‘Ainharah, and Dambar, (10) ‘Iyon, and Ya‘arut, and Kefar Yahrib, and Nov, and aspiyyah and Kefar Tsemah, and Rabbi permitted Kefar Tsemah.

C. The towns about which there is doubt (as to the liability of their produce to Biblical agricultural law) within the territory of Naveh- (11) Tsir, and Tsayar, and Gashmai, and Zizun, and Ranev, and Arbata, and ’Igrei Otem, and Karkah of Bar Hereg.

D. The towns that are forbidden in the territory of Tsur (Tyre)- Shetset, (12) and Betset, and Pi Metsub’a, and Upper anutah and Lower anutah, and Beibarah and Rosh Mayyah, and A’mon and Mazah, which is Qasteilah, and all (the territory) that Israel (Jews) have acquired (13) is forbidden.

E. The boundaries of Eretz Israel- the territory that the returnees from Babylonia possessed- the Ashqelon junction, and the wall of Shroshan’s Tower (Caesarea Maritima), Dor, and the wall of Akko, (14) and the head waters of Gi’ato, and Gi’ato proper, and Kabr[atah, and B]eit Zenitah, and the fort (castrum) of Galilah, and Qob‘ayyah (miqvaot?) of ’Aitah, and Mamtsyyah of Yirketah, (15) and the fort of Kurayim, and Sahratah of Yati[r and the wadi] of Batsal, and Beit ‘Ayit, and Barshatah, and greater ’Oule and the gap (16) of ‘Iyyon, and Mesev Sefanhah, and the city of Ba[r S]angora, and Upper Tarnegola of Qisrion (Caesarea Paneas), and Beit Sabal, and Kanat (17) and Reqem of Trakon (Trachontis), Zimra of the territory of Bosrah, Yaboqah (Jabbok), and eshbon and the Wadi of Zered, Igar Sahadutah, Nimrin, (18) and Melah Razizah, Reqem of Giah (Petra) and the gardens of Ashqelon, and the great road leading to the desert.

F. These produce (19) are forbidden in (Caesarea) Paneas during the seventh (sabbatical) year, and in other years of the sabbatical (cycle) are tithed as complete demai- (20) the rice, and the nuts, and the sesame, and the Egyptians beans. Some say even early-ripening plums, (21) in the seventh year these are seventh year (produce) and in the other years of the seven (years of the sabbatical cycle) are tithed as vadai (definitely requiring tithing), and even (22) from Upper Tarnegola and beyond.

G. These produce are tithed as demai in Qisrin (Caesarea Maritima)- the wheat and the bread, (23) of which hallah is always (required), and the wine, and the oil, and the dates, and the rice, and the cumin, these are permitted in the seventh year in Qisrin (24) and in the other years of the sabbatical (cycle) they are prepared as demai. There are some who forbid white tassel hyacinth bulbs from (25) the Mountain of the King.

And how far around Qisrin (Caesarea Maritima, does this apply)? As far as Tsoranah, and the inn of the Gazelle and the Column, (26) and Dor, and Kefar Sabah, and if there is a place which was acquired by Israel, our rabbis are apprehensive of it (lest the produce of these newly-Jewish areas now requires tithing).

H. Shalom! The towns (27) permitted within the territory of Sebaste- ’Iqbin, and Kefar Kasdayah and Tsir, and ’Azilin, and Shefirin, and ‘Anninin, and Upper Bil‘am, and Mazharu, (28) and Dotan (Dothan), and Kefar Mayyah, and Shilta, and Pentaqomotah (Pentakomia), Liviah and Pardesliyyah, and Yazit, and ’Arbnorin, and Kefar Yehudit, and Monrit, and half of Shalaf.

Many of the vocalizations of place names suggested here are conjectural. Following upon the earlier inscription, the subject in the mosaic inscription is the application of Sabbatical year, tithing and preparation of the priestly dough offering within various regions of late antique Palestine. The text confronts the reality that much of Eretz Israel was inhabited by non-Jews, and the practical implications of this for Jewish compliance with Biblical agricultural laws.

Section A opens with Shalom, a common opening formula in preserved letters, for example, the letters of Bar Kokhba preserved in the Judaean Desert. This section focuses upon issues of immediate local concern- the treatment of produce brought to Beth Shean from Jewish areas of Eretz Israel and the precise mapping of halakhic agricultural boundaries in the principally non- Jewish region of Beit Shean. The mosaic’s specificity in describing the Beit Shean region reflects local interests, and does not appear in manuscript traditions. Sections B, C and D continue this geographic concern, mapping areas whose produce were not liable to agricultural law to the north and east, in the area of Susita on the eastern Sea of Galilee and Naveh, now in the Syrian Golan and the Phoenician coastal city of Tyre.

Section E is the heart of the inscription, setting the conceptual framework for the entire composition. This text briefly describes the parameter boundaries of Eretz Israel for the purpose of agricultural law. The baraita de-tehumin is well known from rabbinic sources, the version in Sifre Deuteronomy 51 being closest in form and content to the Rehov inscription. The general principle that underlies the inscription is enumerated in line E-13, whereby the established areas of Jewish settlement in late antique Palestine are projected back to the supposed territory “that the returnees from Babylonia possessed” and are the basis for determining where Biblical agricultural law was operative. This principle is attributed to Rabbi Judah the Prince in manuscript sources. This sage is mentioned in B-10. He is the only rabbi mentioned in this otherwise intentionally anonymous document. The baraita continues with a schematic description of the halakhic boundaries of Eretz Israel as a whole, encompassing the country beginning from Ashqelon northward along the Mediterranean to Tyre, eastward to Syria, southward to Reqem of Giah (Petra), and back to “the garden of Ashqelon.”

Sections F and G continue with lists of produce that must be tithed at Caesarea Paneas and Caesarea Maritima, before reverting to a discussion of the areas liable to agricultural laws near Caesarea Maritima. G-26 suggests that the halakhic definition of Eretz Israel was flexible and based upon the realities of Jewish land ownership during late antiquity. Accordingly, agricultural law must be applied to land in Eretz Israel not originally possessed by the returnees from Babylonia, but later procured by Jews.

Section H, which does not appear in either the earlier Rehov inscription nor in manuscript sources, deals with the area of Sebaste. Section H is distinguished from the body of the inscription by the word “Shalom” (which both concludes the previous section and introduces this one). Z. Safrai dates the composition of this section to approximately 600 CE.

The literary form of the Rehov halakhic inscriptions fits well with halakhic literature from Byzantine period Palestine that has been preserved in the Cairo Genizah. This post-Talmudic document cites classical Rabbinic texts, reformulating them to focus upon local concerns without the halakhic give and take of the original documents. It also takes up challenges that are unknown from the classical documents- the exact halakhic boundaries of Beit Shean and the inclusion of the Sebaste region among the areas that “the returnees from Babylonia” were not thought to have possessed, hence declaring this region exempt from Biblical agricultural law. This unique document of ancient Judaism, whether a letter from outside halakhic authorities or a local production, reflects the history of Jewish law between the close of the Talmudic era and the medieval period, bridging the expanse between the sages of the “Oral Torah” and extant medieval manuscripts of Rabbinic literature. The Rehov inscriptions are the earliest expansive literary evidence of classical Rabbinic tradition yet discovered. Rooted in the soil of the Land of Israel, the Rehov inscriptions vividly illustrate the centrality of the “Judaism of the Oral Torah” in one agricultural village during the period soon after the canonization of classical Palestinian Talmudic tradition, between the fifth and the seventh centuries CE.

Selected Bibliography

Feliks, Yehuda. 1989. The Jerusalem Talmud, Tractate Shevi’it Critically Edited- A Study of the Halakhic Topics and their Botanical and Agricultural Background. Jerusalem- Rubin Mass. Vol. 2.

Fine, Steven. 2005. Art and Judaism in the Greco-Roman World- Toward a New Jewish  Archaeology. Cambridge and New York- Cambridge University Press.

Ilan, Zvi. 1991. Ancient Synagogues in Israel. Israel- Ministry of Defense. Hebrew.

Lieberman, Saul. 1976. “On the Halakhic Inscription from the Beth-Shean Valley,” Shean,” Tarbiz 45- 54-63. Hebrew.

Safrai, Ze’ev. 1977. “Marginal Notes on the Rehob Inscription.” Tarbiz 41.1-2- 1-23. Hebrew.

——. 1978. “The Rehov Inscription,” Immanuel 8- 58-58.

Sarason, Richard S., tr. 1993. Talmud of the Land of Israel- Demai. Chicago- University of Chicago Press.

Sussman, Jacob. 1973-4, 1974-5. A Halakhic Inscription from the Beth-Shean Valley.” Tarbiz 43-88-158, 44-193-5. Hebrew.

——. 1976. “The Baraita of the ‘Boundaries of Eretz Israel.’” Tarbiz45- 213-57. Hebrew.

——. 1981. ”The Inscription in the Synagogue at Rehob.” In Ancient Synagogues Revealed. Ed. L. I. Levine. Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society. 146-51.

Vitto, Fanny. 1981. “The Synagogue at Rehob.” In Ancient Synagogues Revealed, ed. L. I. Levine. Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society. 90-4.

——. 1992. “Rehob,” New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. Ed. E. Stern. Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society. 4-1457-61. Hebrew.

——. 1993. “Rehob,” New Encyclopedia of Archaeological Excavations in the Holy Land. Ed. E. Stern. Jerusalem- Israel Exploration Society. 4-1272-1274.

Weiss, Ze’ev 2001. “”New Light on the Rehov Inscription- Identifying the ‘Gate of Campon’ at Bet Shean.” Tarbiz70.1- 35-50. Hebrew.

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