Contemporary scholarship often treats classical rabbinic allusions to “reading” the Bible as evidence that late antique rabbinic culture valorized the written word as a source of religious knowledge and authority. However, the early rabbinic practice that we commonly refer to as “reading” actually consisted of reciting a precise oral formula from memory—with (or more often without) reference to a written text. When a rabbinic Jew “read” the Bible according to this practice, he did not extract words or meaning from written signs but rather pulled words and formulas from memory which could then be correlated with a written text for ritual performances. In contrast, classical rabbinic traditions treat the practices associated with acquiring information from written texts as an alien, even illicit, mode of engaging with written text and a locus of spiritual and social dangers.

You do not currently have access to this article.