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Šumma izbu and Talmud (1)

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05 Scientific knowledge and scholarly lore

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Jewish philosophers and scholars

A prominent Akkadian omen series, known as Šumma izbu, was frequently copied in the scribal schools and is known from numerous manuscripts, but no Aramaic parallels have ever been noted for this text. It turns out, however, that the real nature of the Šumma izbu omens can now be explained more effectively through reference to the Babylonian Talmud.

The passage in the Tractate Niddah is not concerned with omens, but refers specifically to a miscarriage or stillbirth of a foetus (b. Nid. 23b). The lengthy discussion in the Talmud treats all manner of stillbirth, not as a predictive omen, but to try to determine whether the mother is unclean or not. The question is whether the discharge is actually a miscarriage or not, and as such it might be quite minute in size, but the discharged matter could take many different shapes. The passage of Niddah tries to give a complete list of various shapes the discharge could take, as a type of reference tool, probably drawn up from a list of gynaecological discharges or miscarriages, similar to the list found in the Akkadian Šumma izbu omens. Similar categoric distinctions appear in both Talmud and Šumma izbu omens. In Nid. 23a-24a, the initial discussion of an aborted foetus questions whether it takes the form of an animal such as a snake or type of bird, both of which types of foetus are also mentioned in Šumma izbu omens, 1.16 and 1.23. The Talmud then proceeds to ask about the status of an aborted foetus with two backs and two spinal columns, which is typical of an izbu or malformed foetus described in Tablet 6 of Šumma izbu omens as being ‘double,’ i.e. Siamese twins. In the same way, the Akkadian omens of monstruous births probably do not represent fantastic events or miraculous occurences, but the example of a woman giving birth to an elephant probably describes some shape of an ordinary discharge or miscarriage. Compare Nid. 23b: “According to R. Meir, ‘an aborted foetus, which is like an animal, wild beast, or bird is a genuine embryo.’ But the sages say that only if it has human features.” The juxtaposition of the two texts is therefore informative for both genres.

Sources (list of abbreviations) (source links will open in a new browser window)
Babylonian Talmud, Niddah 23a-24a
Šumma ālu 1.16
Šumma ālu 1.23
Šumma izbu 6


Geller 2000, 4-5Geller, Mark J. “The Survival of Babylonian Wissenschaft in Later Tradition.” In: S. Aro and R. M. Whiting (eds.). The Heirs of Assyria. Melammu Symposia 1. Helsinki: The Neo-Assyrian Text Corpus Project 2000, 1-6. [PDF]

Mark Geller

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