This translation of the tannaitic midrash, Sifre Devarim (SD), is based upon the edition of Louis Finkelstein (1939). It is the third English translation of the entire text, preceded by the translations of Reuven Hammer (1986) and Jacob Neusner (1987), both of which I have consulted routinely. I have also benefited from the translations of large portions of SD by Steven Fraade (1991) and Herbert Basser (1990).

Each of these translations makes important contributions to the intelligibility of the text and are reliable guides to the rendering of the original Hebrew into clear English. But, in my judgment, these earlier English versions of SD share a common flaw: each fails to capture the unique literary and rhetorical style of rabbinic midrashic compilations, of which SD is an integral part. This midrashic style is the sum of rhetorical and formulaic traits that emerge from a text which is dependent upon oral-performative tradition for its diction, cadence, and modes of expression. A translation that ignores the performative dimension of SD fails to do justice to the achievement of the tannaitic community; it obscures the creative textual art of the tannaitic masters.

The present translation, then, intends to restore to SD a dimension of the text which has been obscured by translators who were, properly, concerned with the accurate negotiation of meaning between rabbinic Hebrew and modern English. but who, in many ways, failed to do stylistic justice to the text’s social matrix in an oral-performative milieu.

The Oral Texts of Rabbinic Judaism

In the classical age of rabbinic tradition the teachings of rabbinic masters were not read aloud from manuscripts. They were recalled from memory and delivered before audiences who, themselves, were skilled in the disciplines of rabbinic learning. In that milieu, texts grounded in oral tradition were composed, transmitted, and analyzed under the pressure of performance and in which written versions of the text were secondary to its orally-mediated character. This highly-interactive model of textual study, in which the aural (heard) and oral (spoken) word dominated the visible, written versions of texts, came by the third century CE to be called “Torah in the Mouth,” torah shebe`al peh. The Mishnah (composed circa 200-220 CE), a compilation of tannaitic legal tradition, was the first oral-performative composition to circulate as a canonical repository of Torah in the Mouth. But, by the end of the third century, other ambitious collections of rabbinic tradition joined the Mishnah as resources for oral-performative study.

The Mishnah, the Tosefta, the great collections of biblical exegesis (midrash) and the Talmuds of Babylonia and Palestine, all originate in texts that were developed in performance. SD is one of these compilations. It probably circulated in some form by the beginning of the fourth century CE among Palestinian rabbinic study circles.

Features of This Translation

While the present manuscripts of rabbinic literature were produced in medieval times by conventional scribal copyists, it is unlikely that the literary materials found in these finished “books” originated in the rabbinic scriptoria of the tenth or eleventh century CE. SD, like other texts that originate in and transmit oral content, is formulated in heavy dependence upon a variety of techniques that fix the text in the mind of the performer and enable him to deliver his performance without appearing to search his memory for passages of text. These very same techniques enable the performer of the text to create new texts out of the elements of previously-performed literary materials. In this translation, I employ a number of strategies that highlight this “performative” dimension of the text.

The most important of these, reflected everywhere in SD, is a high degree of formulaic speech. As students of oral performance have taught us, texts designed for oral formulation and transmission rely on a relatively narrow selection of verbal formulae that are used repetitively in the performance of the oral-performative text. In SD, as in most midrashic texts, these include standard formulae for quoting biblical texts (e.g., “as it is said,” “for it is written”), other formulae for quoting rabbinic traditions outside the boundaries of the biblical canon (e.g., “for they said,” “as we have learned,” “the Teaching states”), rhetorical structures that routinely model processes of rabbinic exegesis (e.g., “and this is simply a matter of logic,” “now why is this mentioned”), and standard patterns for the delivery of narratives (e.g., “the story is told,” “there was a king of flesh and blood”) . My translation attempts to reproduce the impact of these formulae by rendering each one in its distinctive diction, rather than varying the rendering so as to make the text more “readable” or less repetitive.

Indeed, repetitiveness is the essence of oral-performative literature. It is what makes the delivery of complex oral texts such as midrashic collections possible. Another crucial aspect of SD’s oral-performative character is the composition of the text out of small, pre-existing phrases and routine groups of words that are more or less loosely strung together into larger literary structures. The performer has mastered a veritable thesaurus of textual clichés that, in a process of “mixing and matching,” yields the exegetical discourse of the midrashist, who organizes the fund of orally-managed texts into fresh configurations. The performer’s “originality” lies in his mastery of an immense repertoire of verbal elements from which he chooses for a specific rendition of tradition.

The translation attempts to render this oral-performative method by breaking the text into small phrases and clauses that represent the stock of tradition out of which the performer choses to construct his discourse. Thus, instead of unbroken paragraphs that represent the text in the literary convention of prose, my translation presents the text as units of poetic constructions composed of easily recognized verbal patterns. Compare the opening lines of the Hammer translation (p. 23) with my own (Pisqa’ 1:1):

These are the words which Moses spoke (1:1). Did Moses prophesy nothing but these words? Did he not write the entire Torah, as it is said: And Moses wrote this Torah (31:9). Why then does the verse state, These are the words which Moses spoke? Hence we learn that they were words of rebuke, as it is said, But Jeshurun waxed fat, and kicked (32:15).

Hammer presents the text as a discursive paragraph. My own translation visually distinguishes scriptural sources from the oral traditional repertoire by assigning each phrase its own place in the verbal line. Each line of text represents an element of tradition—a biblical quotation, an exegetical comment, or a clause that encodes a formulaic pattern of speech. The result is a text that foregrounds the rhythmic and poetic conventions of the midrashic composition by forcing the reader to follow the compositional process. Thus:

These are the words that Moses spoke” (Dt.1:1).
Now, did Moses prophesy only these?
Didn’t he write the entire Torah?
For it is said:
“Now Moses wrote this Torah” (Dt.31:9)!

So what does the Teaching mean by
these are the words that Moses spoke” (Dt.1:1)?
It teaches that these [but not all] are words of rebuke,
for it is said [in Moses’ final oration (Dt.32:1ff.)]:
“Then Jeshurun grew fat, and he kicked” (Dt.32:15).

SD, like all the textual products of the rabbinic tradition, is intertextually connected to other materials that now appear in other written texts. These are part of the circulated tradition of oral-performance that now appear in the context of the textual page rather than the memory of the text-reciter. Thus it is very common for SD’s units of text to be paralleled in other earlier and later literary collections. A given textual tradition may appear almost identically in other rabbinic compilations or be radically revised in light of the new literary setting established by the performer. Therefore a text appearing in SD can appear in various forms as textual parallels in the Tosefta, other midrashic collections and the two talmuds. This is not an instance of “quoting” from a prepared written text. Rather, the quotation is from the performative tradition as recalled by experts in its memorization and formulation.

This translation signals such exact or near parallels by placing in bold-face type that material of SD that bears strong parallels to citations in other rabbinic compilations. The notes to the translation identify the parallel source.

In this way the protean nature of the rabbinic text as a living transmission becomes visually palpable. Not a few pisqa’ot (“chapters”) of SD are composed in large measure of texts culled from elsewhere in the performative tradition, aggregated together in fresh formulations. By highlighting the inter-textual quotations and echoes, I hope to effect in the reader a sensitivity to the highly traditional processes that govern rabbinic textual compilation.

A final element of the translation that is keyed to the oral-performative nature of SD stems from a desire to move behind the scribal texts of medieval manuscripts and modern printed editions, to present a more “raw” version of the text. Following Neusner’s translation (and unlike Hammer’s), my own embodies a certain freedom to take apart the edited textual units into smaller free-standing parts. For example, the 357 pisqa’ot into which all versions of SD are divided are not always self-evidently integrated literary units. Nor is there a standard length for a pisqa’; some are as brief as a sentence or two, while others continue over several pages of printed or manuscript text.

In my translation, I address this issue by preserving the pisqa’ot of the dominant textual tradition (both manuscripts and printed editions), even as I subdivide them into smaller units that are more “digestible” from the point of view of the reader’s comprehension. Thus Pisqa’ 1.1 refers to the first unit of the first pisqa’ of the section of SD that corresponds to the first verses of Deuteronomy. Pisqa’ 1.2 refers to the second unit in that series, and so on. Each pisqa’ of the translation corresponds to a pisqa’ of SD, but the sub-divisions into smaller units of tradition are based upon my analysis of the components of the text as performative tradition.

SD quotes hundreds of biblical verses. When rendering these verses into English, I have consulted the text of the Biblia Hebraica Leningradensia and the translation of the Jewish Publication Society. But I rarely reproduce the English translation of the JPS. In my view, translations of biblical verses in rabbinic midrash must render the text as the midrashist understands it, rather than aiming at the “original meaning” of the verse shorn of the layer of meaning supplied by incorporating the verse into the midrashic composition. As a convenience for the reader I have italicized the words in scriptural quotations that are the focus of the midrashic exegesis, as in the textual sample quoted above.

True to the oral character of midrash, scriptural citations in SD are often inexact; texts are cited in fragmentary form which can omit the part of a verse that is crucial to the interpretive aims of the midrashist. Where this is the case I cite the omitted material of the text from the Masoretic tradition. Where SD departs from the Masoretic text, I translate SD’s version, providing in a note the Masoretic text.

As a text rooted in an oral tradition, SD conveys the meaning of biblical verses by focusing on the sounds of words as well as their visual dimension. Thus wordplay and puns figure prominently in SD exegetical work. The notes to this translation routinely render the text so that the element of word-play is foregrounded.

Sifre: A Tannaitic Midrash to the Book of Deuteronomy

Finally, a few word about the relationship of SD, to the canon of rabbinic literature. In its received form, it is a line by line commentary to the majority of verses in the biblical book of Deuteronomy. The commentary is distributed among each of its 357 pisqa’ot, each of which cites a biblical verse from Deuteronomy which is followed by rabbinic commentary. For reasons difficult to explain, SD offers no commentary to Dt. 1:31-3:22, 4:2-6:3, 6:10-11:9, 26:16-31:13, or 31:15-31:30.

Whether this reflects an editorial judgment by the final redactors of the manuscripts, or whether the accidents of medieval literary transmission have resulted in some sections of the text going missing is not clear. Be that as it may, this has led to an odd imbalance in the received versions of the text. For example, the crucial section of Deuteronomy that expounds the book’s theodicy of divine judgment in horrific terms (26:16-28:68) receives scant treatment in this midrash, even though the theme of divine rebuke is amply explored in other parts of SD (e.g. Pisqa’ot 1 and 306) as a matter of great interest.

For the most part, the midrashic commentary on the biblical verses is presented anonymously. But many comments, especially where disputes about the import of a verse are concerned, are ascribed to named rabbinic teachers. Most are familiar from other more or less contemporaneous tannaitic compilations; but some, such as the mysterious Abba Hadores (appearing at Pisqa’ot 308 and 352) are relatively unknown. Similarly, most named masters, such as Rabbis Eliezer b. Hyrkanos, Akiva b. Joseph, Shimon b. Yohai, Judah b. Ilai, Judah the Patriarch (and some 100 others who are mentioned by name) flourished from the last decades of the Second Temple until several decades after the Jewish revolt led by Shimon bar Koziva (roughly 20 BCE till 200 CE). The bulk of these named authorities are elsewhere in rabbinic literature associated with the academies of Yavneh (roughly 80-130 CE), Usha (ca. 135-170), and Sephoris (ca. 170-200) and are regarded as disciples of R. Akiva and his disciple, R. Shimon b. Yohai. So, it appears that SD reflects early rabbinic tradition as transmitted within disciple circles associated with the Akivan-Shimonian stream of tannaitic tradition, cultivated in the Patriarchal court which came to dominate rabbinic learning and political authority in early third-century Sepphoris.

Bibliographical Resources

Hebrew Texts and Commentaries

A. Dotan, ed., Biblia Hebraica Leningradensia (Peabody, MA, 2001)
L. Finkelstein, ed., Siphre ad Deuteronomium (Berlin, 1939; repr. NY, 1969)
C. Horowitz, ed., Sifre `al Sefer Bamidbar ve-Sifre Zut’a (Leipzig,1917; Jerusalem, 1966)
C. Horowitz, Y. Rabin, eds., Mekhilta’ derabbi Yishmael, 2nd edition (Jerusalem, 1960)
M. Ish-Shalom, ed., Sifre devei rav (Vienna, 1864; repr. NY, 1948)
D. Pardo, Sifre: Midrash halakhah lebamidbar vedevarim (Jerusalem, 1990)
M. Troyes Ashkenazi, Sifre `im perush toledot adam (Jerusalem, 2004)
Sifra devei rav, hu’ Sefer Torat Kohanim (Jerusalem, 1969)
Sifre (Venice, 1545-46; repr. Jerusalem, 1961)

English Translations and Studies

H. Basser, In the Margins of the Midrash: Sire Ha’azinu Texts, Commentaries, and Reflections (Atlanta, 1990)
S. Fraade, From Tradition to Commentary: Torah and its Interpretation in the Midrash Sifre to Deuteonomy (Albany, 1991)
R. Hammer, Sifre: A Tannaitic Commentary on the book of Deuteronomy (New Haven, 1986)
W.D. Nelson, ed. and tr., Mekhilta de-Rabbi Shimon bar Yohai (Philadelphia, 2006)
J. Neusner, Sifre to Deuteronomy: An Analytical Translation, Vol. 1-2 (Atlanta, 1987)

Literary Traits of Oral-Performative Literature

E.S. Alexander, Transmitting Mishnah: The Shaping Influence of Oral Tradition (Cambridge, 2009)
R. Bauman, Story, Performance, and Event: Contextual Studies of Oral Narrative (Cambridge, 1986)
G. Bennison, “Repetition in Oral Literature,” Journal of American Folklore 84 (1971)
R. Chartier, Forms and Meanings: Texts, Performances and Audiences (Philadelphia, 1995)
Y. Elman, Authority and Tradition: Toseftan Baraitot in Talmudic Babylonia (Hoboken, 1994)
R. Finnegan, Literacy and Orality: Studies in the Technology of Communication (Oxford, 1988)
J.M. Foley, The Theory of Oral Composition (Bloomington, 1988)
J.M. Foley, The Singer of Tales in Performance (Bloomington, 1995)
S. Fraade, “Literary Composition and Oral Performance in Early Midrashim,”, Oral Tradition 14 (1999)
B. Gerhardsson, Memory and Manuscript: Oral Tradition and Written Transmission in Rabbinic Judaism and Early Christianity (repr. Grand Rapids, 1998)
Goody, J., The Interface Between the Written and Oral (Cambridge, 1987)
M. Jaffee, Torah in the Mouth: Writing and Oral Tradition in Palestinian Judaism, 200 BCE-400 CE (New York, 2001)
W. Kelber, The Oral and the Written Gospel: The Hermeneuics of Speaking and Writing in the Synoptic Tradition, Mark, Paul and Q (repr. Bloomington, 1997)
J. Neusner, “Oral Torah and Oral Tradition: Defining the Problematic”, idem, Method and Meaning in Ancient Judaism (Missoula, 1979)
J. Neusner, What, Exactly, Did the Sages Mean by “the Oral Torah”? (Atlanta, 1979)