What Could (and Couldn't) the Rabbis Do?

What Could (and Couldn't) the Rabbis Do?

Ari Lamm

My esteemed Lehrhaus co-editor, Shlomo Zuckier, recently wrote about a passage in the Bavli (Shabbat 30b) describing Kohelet’s tortured path to acceptance. Engaged as I was by his very keen analysis of this text, it wasn’t until last Shabbat afternoon that I noticed something strange about it.[1] Namely, there’s a tendency among readers of this text[2] to translate it as follows:

בקשו חכמים לגנוז ספר קהלת מפני שדבריו סותרין זה את זה

The Sages sought to suppress the book of Kohelet on the grounds that its words are inconsistent with each other.

This translation comes from an article on Kohelet by Stuart Weeks, a professor of Old Testament and Hebrew at Durham University. It’s actually functionally identical to what you’ll find  listed under the entry for “גנז” in Jastrow’s dictionary.[3] “The scholars wanted to suppress (declare uncanonical) the Book of Kohelet.” The Soncino translation of this passage adds a note pointing readers to Isaac Hirsch Weiss’ multi-volume history of the Oral Law, Dor Dor ve-Doreshav, which characterizes the Sages’ suppression of Kohelet (and some other books) as taking place “at the time of the Synod [or, “rabbinic council,” = ועד חכמים] in the upper chamber of Hanania b. Hezekiah b. Garon.”[4] That is, the sages promulgated the ban at an official meeting. Even Michael Sokoloff’s acclaimed Dictionary of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic offers “suppressed” as one sense of the Aramaic root “גנז” (p. 295).

Why is this important?

Well, it’s important because the word “suppress” implies that the “suppressors” are setting public policy. They are taking a book in common use and removing it by fiat from public circulation. The ancient analogy - explicitly invoked by Weiss’ mention of a “rabbinic council” - would be to the church councils, often imperially-sponsored, that purported to legislate policy for ‘Christendom’ writ large. The image that one gets from translations like this is one of rabbis in control of late Second Temple era Judaism, deciding who gets to read what. Those who didn’t listen to them would not only have been in violation of the law in rabbinic theory (no small thing, of course!), but would have been understood by the larger Jewish public to have been lawbreakers. In other words, “suppress” as a translation adds a social element on top of the halakhic one.

The problem is that this is not a tenable view of Jewish history during this period. Hazal were by no means in charge of the Jewish people during the first century CE, nor is it clear how much, if any, influence over non-rabbis they had in practice. In any case, the notion that rabbis of the early first century had the power to effect a public “ban” of Kohelet or any other work is highly unlikely.

One might argue that this passage concerning Kohelet, appearing as it does in the Talmud Bavli, might merely reflect that later text’s conviction that the rabbis of a much earlier period did indeed have such power. But I don’t think this claim is sustainable either. In fact, the aforementioned translators and dictionaries appear simply to have invented “suppress” as a translation for “גנז,” even though the word never has that meaning in any other context. This invention itself is probably a product of the belief that the rabbis set Jewish public policy in and around the first century CE. But in general (and at the very least when it came to determining certain books’ scriptural status) my sense is that people far overrate the degree to which the ancient rabbis understood themselves to be in control of Jewish society.

So, in any event, what does גנז mean in other contexts? The answer is that the root “גנז” always means simply “to hide,” either in the sense of keeping something safe for later use (like in t. Peah 4:18), or preemptively preventing oneself or others from making improper use of something (as in m. Middot 1:6). It never seems to have the meaning, “forcibly take away something that is currently in widespread public use.”

Now, there certainly are times when rabbinic literature uses “גנז” in a condemnatory fashion. Here’s one example (t. Shabbat 13:2):

אמ' ר' יוסה מעשה שהלך ר' חלפתא אצל רבן גמליאל לטבריא ומצאו שהיה יושב על שולחנו של יוחנן בן נזיף ובידו ספר איוב תרגום והיה קורא בו אמ' לו ר' חלפתא זכור הייתי ברבן גמליאל הזקן אבי אביך שהיה יושב על גב מעלה בהר הבית והביאו לפניו ספר איוב תרגום ואמ' לבניו וגנזו תחת הנדבך

Rabbi Yose said: an incident occurred in which Rabbi Halafta visited Rabban Gamliel [of Yavneh; often called Rabban Gamliel II] in Tiberias. He found him sitting at the table of Yohanan ben Nazif, and in his hand was a scroll of Iyov in translation, and he was reading in it. Rabbi Halafta said to him: I recall Rabban Gamliel the Elder, your father’s father, sitting atop a step on the Temple Mount, and they brought before him a scroll of Iyov in translation; he instructed his sons and they buried it beneath a large stone block [presumably on the Temple Mount].

Doesn’t this passage use the root “גנז” to describe a sage ‘suppressing’ the Iyov translation? Well, not quite. First of all, Rabban Gamliel the Elder can’t have suppressed Ivov translations—in the sense of removing them from public circulation—since why, then, would his very own grandson not only still possess one, but even continue to study from it? Moreover, note whom Rabban Gamliel the Elder instructs to bury the scroll: his children, that is, only the members of his household![5] Rabban Gamliel the Elder  doesn’t appear to see himself in any immediate sense as setting public policy for all Jewish society. And no, Rabban Gamliel the Elder did not hold the position of nasi  - at least in the civic sense of Rabbi Yehudah ha-Nasi - that might (although wouldn’t necessarily) have justified such a conclusion.

So how should we translate the word “גנז”? I suggest that we translate it across the board simply as “hide” or “put away” in a very limited sense. As in, “The sages sought to put away [their own copies, preemptively, of] the book of Kohelet.” No first century CE public ban was attempted.


It should go without saying - although it always seems to need saying - that this should matter not a whit to those who affirm the binding nature of halakhah. Law and History are two different disciplines, each with its own standards, utility and significance. But what, then, are we to learn from this particular bit of history?


I suppose the principal moral of our story is: do not trust dictionaries without first checking their sources. But, perhaps more importantly, I would add the following: so much of the currently popular conception of ancient Jewish history is bound up with the notion that once upon a time, rabbinic authority was of a fundamentally different character than it is now; once upon a time, the narrative goes, Hazal possessed a degree of public authority that contemporary rabbis can only dream of. Now, surely in a spiritual sense there is much to recommend this story, the “decline of generations” being a sine qua non of Jewish memory. And there does seem to me a certain hubris required to assure ourselves that our best times must definitely be ahead of us.

That said, we should also concede that the actual study of history does not bear out the claim that once upon a time—while the Temple still stood—rabbis were in control of Jewish society… with a few marginal Sadducees, Essenes, or perhaps a Christian or two, hanging around the fringes. I plan to return soon to the question of what social position(s) Hazal actually occupied at this time (and in the following few centuries), but, for the nonce, it should suffice to say that the rabbis—and their families and students—were an educated group committed to preserving ancient traditions and learning, and who relied upon those traditions and learning in trying to shape the larger Jewish community. And they were in turn influenced by that very community—responding to its concerns, analyzing (sometimes rejecting, sometimes tolerating, and sometimes endorsing) its prevalent customs, and even sometimes learning from it. If this description hits very close to home for many contemporary Orthodox Jews, well, perhaps that’s for the better!

Wait … so is there anything perhaps more specific that Orthodox Jews might wish to tease out of this period’s historical record?

… Oh, come now. This post has gone on long enough.


[1] The text, that is. Not Shlomo’s analysis. Shlomo’s analysis was excellent, as always. Shlomo may or may not be editing this post.

[2] Not Shlomo, though! Seriously, go read his article. I’ll link to it one more time, just in case.

[3] Yes, Jastrow’s dictionary is online. You’re welcome.

[4] This seems as good a time as any to note that in the early 20th century, R. Elchanan Wasserman refused to set foot in Yeshiva Rabbi Isaac Elchanan—my rabbinic alma mater - on account of it being “a center of apikorsus [heresy] and sh’mad [conversion from Judaism] since the writings of Leopold Zunz, Abraham Geiger and Isaac Hirsch Weiss,” were studied there.

[5] Saul Lieberman, in his Tosefta Kifshutah commentary to this passage (p. 204), emends the text from לבניו (“to his sons”) to לבניי (“to the builders [i.e. construction workers on the Temple Mount]”). But Lieberman’s textual evidence for this emendation is all very late. And the historical conclusion he draws from his emendation (the nasi at this time would have been in charge of supervising all construction on the Temple Mount) suffers from—and may even have been motivated by—the same problems we’ve been talking about.

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