Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

The Oven of Achnai Re-Deconstructed

Academic journal article Hebrew Studies Journal

The Oven of Achnai Re-Deconstructed

Article excerpt

The enigmatic narrative of the oven of Achnai incident (b. B. Mesica 59b) has been explicated for its legalistic, historical, philosophical, theological, and mystical import. But it is also a very literary text, which can be read as a text in its literary context for its form, imagery, and allusions to other texts. The paper examines the signification of the narrative's constituent literary elements, motifs, and devices (symmetry, structure, parallelism, wordplay, oppositions, intertextuality, self-referentiality, allusion, and editorial framing) used to tell the story and create its meaning. The story has parallels as well as sequels about the aftermath and resolution in other Talmudic sources. Reading them as a composite whole reveals significant intertextual relationships and parallels

The interpreters of the enigmatic narrative of the oven of Achnai incident (b. B. Mesica 59b) attempt to explicate its halakic (and legalistic), historical, philosophical, theological, and mystical import. (1) But it is also a very literary text, which can be read as a text for its form, imagery, and allusions to other texts. (2) The debate of both traditional commentaries and modern historians over whether it is a "fictitious" allegory or a literal historical legal discussion is extraneous to reading the text and its elements, certainly a text so grounded in allusion and metaphor and with so much literary texture. (3)

The Achnai story is no less enigmatic for the meaning it conveys than for the way in which it conveys it. (4) Generally, interpreters of the story have, for good reason, concentrated on the legal/theological implications of its startling core metaphor ("It is not in heaven," "God laughing," "My sons have defeated Me") and core message, or classically, on the allegorical interpretation of the elements of R. Eliezer's miraculous proofs, etc. My interest here is simply to unpack and catalog the enigmatic constituent literary elements used to tell the story and create its meaning. Among these devices are its literary motifs and internal structure, symmetry, parallelism, wordplay, oppositions, self-referentiality, editorial framing, allusions to other Talmudic sources, and more. (5) Its import may be discerned in these if the story's form and devices are part of its own commentary. Furthermore, the story has parallels as well as sequels about the aftermath and resolution in other Talmudic sources. Reading them as a composite whole reveals significant intertextual relationships and parallels. (6)

While earlier commentators use "allegorical" exegesis in interpreting the narrative (and guardedly, concluding "all this is far fetched" (7)), it is possible to read it structurally or "semiotically" for what it says in how it says it. For example, there is the question of the literary relationship of the narrative elements to the underlying legal controversy. (8) The question of the status of an oven assembled from different pieces could reflect a literary question about the narrative's import in being, "symbolic of a question of unity within a diversity of opinions." (9)

The story is dense with allusions to other debates of its protagonists and mediators, some within several months of it, also involving deposings and questioning leadership at this crucial historical time. (10) And while the ban's narrative and parallels have a resolution of sorts, the narrative is structured to suggest that its issues are not at all resolved or finalized: the walls of the House of Study, "neither fall nor stand but still incline."

Perhaps this is what its literary devices imply. And as the text raises questions about authority of interpretation and interpretation of authority in a self-referentiality evoking deconstructive infinite regression, self-referentiality may be one of its strongest metaphors: in several connected halakic debates, their subjects become metaphors for the debates themselves. The story's form and devices may be its commentary if the details which demand interpretation are those that describe the catastrophic effects of interpretation winning out. …

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