Divrei ben Abuya

In the Babylonian Talmud, Elisha ben Abuya was a great sage who lost his faith in God. So great was he that his and subsequent generations continued learning from him - to the extent that the authors of the Talmud needed to create a story that would serve to legitimise his teachings despite his apostasy. His lesson is a lesson for us all: that great stature is not contingent upon blind faith, nor high learning upon the observation of Torah precepts.

May 31, 2006

Elisha ben Abuya IV

As was noted in the previous installment, my translations of the Palestinian material are taken from Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 82-86. Rubenstein's scriptural quotations are all taken from JPS. Emphasis and parentheses are his.

וכל דא מן הן אתה ליה אלא פעם אחת היה יושב ושונה בבקעת גינוסר וראה אדם אחד עלה לראש הדקל ונטל אם על הבנים וירד משם בשלוה למחר ראה אדם אחר שעלה לראש הדקל ונטל את הבנים ושילח את האם וירד משם והכישו נחש ומת אמר כתיב שלח תשלח את האם ואת הבנים תקח לך למען ייטב לך והארכת ימים איכן היא טובתו של זה איכן היא אריכות ימיו של זה ולא היה יודע שדרשה רבי יעקב לפנים ממנו למען ייטב לך לעולם הבא שכולו טוב והארכת ימים לעתיד שכולו ארוך
pHag 77b

And why did all this happen to him?
Once he was sitting and learning in the plain of Genesaret and he saw a man ascend to the top of a palm and take the mother bird together with her young and descend safely from there. The next day he saw a man ascend to the top of the palm and take the young after shooing away the mother. He descended from there, and a snake bit him and he died. He said, "It is written, [Do not take the mother together with her young.] Let the mother go, and take only the young, in order that you may live well and have a long life (Deut 22:6). Where is the welfare of this man? Where is the long life of this man?"
He did not know that R. Yaakov had previously expounded it: "In order that you may live well - in the world to come that is all good. And have a long life - in the future that is all long."

[Note: It would appear from Rubenstein's translation that the text that he is using lacks the full scriptural quote. As I am taking his translation from him directly, I have copied it as he prints it, although the full quote from Deuteronomy is present in the Hebrew above]

We noted before in relation to the first of EbA's discussions with Rabbi Meir that theodicy appears to be an issue with which EbA struggles. This was apparant in his frequent laments over the passing of Rabbi Akiva, and it is especially apparant here in this (possibly) mythologised understanding of what had led EbA to apostasy in the first place. It is doubtful, should we take this story at face value, that the simplistic rationale of Rabbi Yaakov could have assuaged the concerns felt by EbA.

ויש אומר ע"י שראה לשונו של רבי יהודה הנחתום נתון בפי הכלב שותת דם אמר זו תורה וזו שכרה זהו הלשון שהיה מוציא דברי תורה כתיקנן זה הוא הלשון שהיה יגיע בתורה כל ימיו זו תורה וזו שכרה דומה שאין מתן שכר ואין תחיית המתים
pHag 77b

Some say [it happened to him] because he saw the tongue of R. Yehuda the Baker dripping blood in the mouth of a dog. He said, "This is Torah and this is its reward? This is the tongue that used to bring forth fitting words of Torah? This is the tongue that labored in Torah all its days? It seems that there is no giving of reward and there is no resurrection of the dead."

[Note: Again, the text that I have reproduced above appears to differ from Rubenstein's text. My text, as written above, repeats the phrase, "This is Torah and this is its reward?" prior to EbA presenting his conclusions]

The crucial part of this incident lies in EbA's exclamation. This same exclamation (זו תורה וזו שכרה) can be found in two other places, both in reference to the death of Rabbi Akiva. The first is in bMen 29b where the exclamation is made by Moses after having been shown both the teachings and the fate of Rabbi Akiva; the second is in bBer 61b where it is made by the angels after Rabbi Akiva dies. The connection to these two sources is clearly not accidental and, while it is Rabbi Yehuda's death that EbA is witnessing, it is certainly also to Rabbi Akiva that he is alluding.

EbA's remarks here are passionate but, at the same time, slightly inappropriate. There is no apparant connection between dismemberment and the impossibility of resurrection, save for the most simplistic understandings of the latter. That EbA has progressed from denying reward for the righteous to denying resurrection of the dead is illogical, and probably being presented as indicative of an irrational and easily excitable mind.

וי"א אמו כשהיתה מעוברת בו היתה עוברת על בתי ע"ז והריחה מאותו המין והיה אותו הריח מפעפע בגופה כאירסה של חכינה
pHag 77b

And some say that when his mother was pregnant with him she would pass by houses of idol worship and smell that stuff. The aroma seeped into his body like the venom of a snake.

Once more we are given a reason that pins the blame on somebody other than EbA himself: this time, his mother. The accusation that she used to walk past houses of idol worship and smell the emanating smoke (presumably of incense) implies deliberate action, and casts aspersions on her own level of piety.

לאחר ימים חלה אלישע אתון ואמרון לר"מ הא רבך באיש אזל בעי מבקרתיה ואשכחיה באיש א"ל לית את חזר בך א"ל ואין חזרין מתקבלין א"ל ולא כן כתיב תשב אנוש עד דכא עד דיכדוכה של נפש מקבלין באותה שעה בכה אלישע ונפטר ומת והיה ר"מ שמח בלבו ואומר דומה שמתוך תשובה נפטר רבי
pHag 77b-c

Years later Elisha became sick. They came and said to R. Meir, "Behold your master is sick." He went desiring to visit him and found him sick. He said to him, "Will you not repent?" He said to him, "If one repents, is it accepted?" He said, "Is it not written, You return man to dust (dakka'), [You decreed, Return you mortals] (Ps 90:3)? Until life is crushed (dikhdukha) it is accepted." At that point Elisha wept and passed away and died. R. Meir rejoiced in his heart and said, "It seems that my master died repenting."

This scene reminds me of the closing scene of Marlowe's Dr. Faustus, where Faust is encouraged to repent but, instead, seals anew his pact with Lucifer. In our case, however, there is every indication to assume that EbA repented, save perhaps the lingering doubt made possible by the narrator's failure to relate EbA's final words. If there should be any doubt (and it is my opinion that there should not), it may also be strengthened by the usage of the word, דומה ('it seems'): the same word that EbA employed in making his erroneous deduction concerning the resurrection.

A couple of points relating to Rubenstein's translation before we move on. The text does not specify that this occurred after some years but, rather, after 'days'. This is a reference to a passing of time that may have been measured in years, but may not have been. In a moment we shall see another example where Rubenstein renders it as "years" correctly although, in this case, it is equally likely that it occurred within a week of EbA's three conversations with Rabbi Meir. In addition to this, the word that the text uses to describe EbA's sickness is באיש, which literally means 'bad'. It is in a 'bad' state that Meir is told of EbA, and in a 'bad' state in which he is found. This word can also carry connotations of wickedness, and this ambiguity should not be passed over lightly.

מן דקברוניה ירדה האש מן השמים ושרפה את קברו אתון ואמרון לר"מ הא קבריה דרבך אייקד נפק בעי מקברתיה ואשכחיה אייקד מה עבד נסב גולתיה ופרסיה עלוי אמר ליני הלילה ליני בעולם הזה שדימה ללילה והיה בבוקר זה העולם הבא שכולו בוקר אם יגאלך טוב יגאל זה הקב"ה שהוא טוב דכתיב ביה טוב ה' לכל ורחמיו על כל מעשיו ואם לא יחפוץ לגאלך וגאלתיך אנכי חי ה' ואיטפיית
pHag 77c

After they buried him fire came down from heaven and burned his grave. They came and said to R. Meir, "Behold, your master's grave is burning." He left desiring to visit it and found it burning. What did he do? He took his cloak and spread it upon him. He said, "Stay the night... (Ruth 3:13). Stay the night (Ruth 3:13) - in this world that is similar to night. Then in the morning (Ruth 3:13) - this is the world to come that is completely morning. If he will redeem you, good (Ruth 3:13) - this refers to the Holy One, Blessed be He, who is good, as it says, He is good to all and his mercy is upon all his creatures (Ps 145:9). But if He does not want to redeem you, I will redeem you myself, as God lives! (Ruth 3:13)." And it was extinguished.

This section serves as something of a finale to the narrative. Once more (for the third time) "they" have come to inform Rabbi Meir of something relating to his master. Initially it was to tell him that his master was outside, then it was to inform him that his master was ill (lit. 'bad'), and now it is to tell him that his master's grave is burning. What is more, this burning is reminiscent of the fire in Abuya's household when Rabbis Eliezer and Yehoshua were turning words of Torah.

When Rabbi Meir spreads his cloak it is over EbA's grave, paralleling the request of Ruth for Boaz to spread his cloak over her in Ruth 3. The response of Boaz to Ruth is explained, line by line, as being a reference to Rabbi Meir redeeming EbA from some unmentioned post-mortem torment. In that sense, this section is an inverse of EbA's story concerning his father. In that story it was words of Torah that brought a fire so great that Abuya thought the sages had come to demolish his house, but in this story Rabbi Meir's words of Torah are powerful enough that they succeed in extinguishing a fire that came to wreak havoc on EbA's grave.

אמרון לר"מ אין אמרון לך בההוא עלמא למאן את בעי למבקרה לאבוך או לרבך אמר לון אנא מיקרב לרבי קדמיי ובתר כן לאבא אמרון ליה ושמעין לך אמר לון ולא כן תנינן מצילין תיק הספר עם הספר תיק תפילין עם התפילין מצילין לאלישע אחר בזכות תורתו
pHag 77c

They said to R. Meir, "If they say to you in that world, 'Whom do you desire to visit?' [will you say] your father or your master?" He said to them, "I will first approach my master and then my father." They said to him, "Will they listen to you?" He said to them, "Did we not learn, They save the casing of the scroll with the scroll, the casing of the phylacteries with the phylacteries (=mShab 16:1)? They save Elisha-Aher for the merit of his Torah."

This section, and the one following, serve as the climax to the Palestinian Talmudic story. It is here that we see the main concern rising to the fore, as we have tentatively sensed it already. If EbA is perceived as genuinely wicked (murdering children, violating the Sabbath, etc): why are his teachings preserved? May we preserve the nectar of a fruit that is rotten? Or - in this case - if the fruit is good, must the husk also be maintained? It would appear that the answer is in the affirmative. This is indicated, not only in Rabbi Meir's response here and in Rebbe's response in the following narrative, but in the very inclusion of these stories within the Talmud, and in the inclusion of EbA's teachings.

לאחר ימים הלכו בנותיו ליטול צדקה מרבי גזר רבי ואמר אל יהי לו מושך חסד ואל יהי חונן ליתומיו אמרו לו רבי אל תבט במעשיו תבט בתורתו באותה השעה בכה רבי וגזר עליהן שיתפרנסו אמר מה אם זה שיגע בתורה שלא לשום שמים ראו מה העמיד מי שהוא יגע בתורה לשמה על אחת כמה וכמה
pHag 77c

Years later his daughters went to ask for alms from Rabbi [Yehuda HaNasi].
Rabbi decreed and said, "May no one show him mercy, may none pity his orphans (Ps 109:12)." They said to Rabbi, "Do not look at his deeds. Look at his Torah."
At that point Rabbi wept and decreed that they be supported.
He said, "If this one, who laboured in Torah not for the sake of heaven - see what [children] he raised, he who laboured in Torah for its own sake, how much the more so!"

Elisha ben Abuya III

The Palestinian Talmud (pHag 77b-c) commences its narrative concerning EbA by quoting the Tosefta. There are a few differences in their version of the Tosefta but, as these are limited to the choice of verbs and the order of the sages involved, I shall only reproduce it here from the point where it begins by speaking of EbA himself.

Throughout this entire section, the translation presented is that of Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1999), 82-86. Rubenstein's scriptural quotations are all taken from JPS. Emphasis and parentheses are his.

אחר הציץ וקיצץ בנטיעות מני אחר אלישע בן אבויה שהיה הורג רבי תורה אמרין כל תלמיד דהוה חמי ליה משכח באוריתא הוה קטיל ליה
pHag 77b

Aher gazed and cut the shoots (=tHag 2:3).
Who is Aher? Elisha ben Abuya, who would kill the young students of Torah. They said: He would kill every student whom he saw distinguish himself in Torah.

It is clear that 'cutting the seedlings / shoots' in the Palestinian tradition is a reference to murdering students of the Torah. As we shall see, there is a great deal of animosity in the Palestinian Talmud directed towards EbA, although it goes without saying that there is no basis to any of the vicious claims made against him, as evidenced both by their extreme nature and by their absence elsewhere.

ולא עוד אלא דהוה עליל לבית וועדא והוה חמי טלייא קומי ספרא והוה אמר מה אילין יתבין עבדין הכא אומנותיה דהן בנאי אומנותיה דהן נגר אומנותיה דהן צייד אומנותיה דהן חייט וכיון דהוון שמעין כן הוון שבקין ליה ואזלין לון עליו הכתוב אומר אל תתן את פיך לחטיא את בשרך שחיבל מעשה ידיו של אותו האיש
pHag 77b

Not only that, but he would go to the meeting-place and see children in front of their teacher, and he would say, "What are these sitting and doing here? This one's profession is a builder. That one's profession is a carpenter. This one's profession is a hunter. That one's profession is a tailor." When they heard this they would leave him and go away.
About him scripture says, "Let not your mouth lead you into sin, [and do not say before the messenger that it was an error, else God may be angered by your talk and destroy the work of your hands (ma'ase yadekha)] (Qoh 5:5)." (=tHag 2:3) For he destroyed the works (ma'asei yadav) of that man (i.e., himself).

It may be that this discouragement of Torah scholarship (albeit almost certainly not having happened in so simplistic a manner) is the true origin of the Talmud's accusation that he murdered young scholars.

אוף בשעה שומדא הוון מטענין לון מטולין והוון מתכוונין מיטעון תרי חד מטול משום שנאמר שעשו מלאכה אחת אמר אטעוננון יחידאין אזלין ואטעונינון יחידיין והוון מתכוונין מיפרוק בכרמלית שלא להוציא מרה"י לרשות הרבים אמר אטעונינון צלוחיין אזלין ואטעונינון צלוחיין ר' עקיבה נכנס בשלום ויצא בשלום עליו הכתוב אומר משכני אחריך נרוצה
pHag 77b

Also, when there was a persecution, they made them (Jews) carry burdens, but they (Jews) arranged to have two carry one burden, on account of [the rule that] two who perform one labor [on the Sabbath are not culpable]. He (Elisha) said, "Make them carry individually." They went and made them carry individually, but they arranged to set [the burdens] down in a karmelit in order that they not carry out from a private domain to a public domain. He said, "Make them carry flasks." They went and carried flasks (which could not be set down, for they would break).
Rabbi Akiba entered in peace and went out in peace. About him scripture says, "Draw me after you." (=tHag 2:4)

The most interesting feature of this description, in my opinion, is the fact that the author has EbA completely separated from the Jews of his time. Not only does he not appear to be facing the same penalties as other Jews (under, presumably, the persecutions of Hadrian after the failed bar Kosiba rebellion), but his suggestions to the Romans are being obeyed to the letter. The fact that the Tosefta's description of Rabbi Akiva is appended to the end of this narrative would possibly indicate that this severing of his connection to the Jewish people is precisely the manner in which he was harmed by his experiences in the 'orchard'. Without intending to read too far into the story, this may be an alternative explanation for the enigmatic 'Akher cut the seedlings'.

From an historical perspective, however, the reference to Rabbi Akiva in this passage is also somewhat chilling. After the failed insurrection, of which Rabbi Akiva was a very vocal part, the Romans subjected the Jewish population to several torments. One of these was the execution of various religious leaders, Rabbi Akiva included. The Talmud contains some very confronting descriptions of Rabbi Akiva's torment, making this reference to him (at a time when we realise that he would be already dead) a very effective means of contrasting his pious mortality with EbA's sinful longevity.

ר"מ הוה יתיב דרש בבית מדרשא דטיבריה עבר אלישע רביה רכיב על סוסייא ביום שובתא אתון ואמרון ליה הא רבך לבר פסק ליה מן דרשה ונפק לגביה
pHag 77b

Rabbi Meir was sitting and expounding in the academy in Tiberias. His master Elisha passed by riding a horse on the Sabbath. They came and said to R. Meir, "Behold your master is outside." He ceased his homily and went out to him.

This is the first indication that we have so far been given (within a narrative) that EbA was a great scholar. Not only does Rabbi Meir cease his teaching in order to greet his master, but he does so regardless of the fact that his master is in the act of violating the Sabbath. The tremendous esteem with which he was held is a further indication that the stories regarding his murdering of children are unfounded. What follows next is the extended discussion held between the two of them.

א"ל מה הויתה דרש יומא דין א"ל ויי' ברך את אחרית א"ל ומה פתחת ביה א"ל ויוסף יי' את כל אשר לאיוב למשנה שכפל לו את כל ממנו אמר ווי דמובדין ולא משכחין עקיבה רבך לא הוה דרש כן אלא ויי' ברך את אחרית איוב מראשיתו בזכות מצות ומעשים טובים שהיה בידו מראשיתו
pHag 77b

He (Elisha) said to him, "What were you expounding today?" He said, "The Lord blessed the latter days of Job's life more than the beginning (Job 42:12)." He said to him, "And how did you begin it?" He said to him, "The Lord gave Job twice what he had before (Job 42:10) - that he doubled his money." He said, "Alas for things lost and not found. Akiba your master did not expound it like that. Rather, The Lord blessed the latter days of Job's life more than the beginning (Job 42:12) - on account of the mitsvot and good deeds that he had done from the beginning."

The expression that EbA employs here for the deeds done by Job literally translates to the deeds which were "in his hand" (שהיה בידו). There is a powerful allusion here to the notion of God having destroyed the work of EbA's hands (as alluded to in the Tosefta, and as will be explored later in more depth), and the commentary that EbA is providing in the name of Akiva appears deeply personal. Just as the latter days of Job's life were blessed on account of the deeds done in the beginning, so too should the latter days of EbA's life be blessed, despite his present apostasy.

The difference between EbA (/Akiva)'s exposition and that of Rabbi Meir's is an interesting one. While Rabbi Meir is actually providing an interpretation of the verse, EbA is merely providing a reason for it. In other words, Rabbi Meir explains what the verse is discussing, while EbA seems to take that discussion for granted and explain why it is that such a thing should have occurred. As we shall see in a moment, this is the way in which EbA appears to be intent on interpreting things.

The curious exclamation, "Alas for things lost and not found" is presumably a reference to the teachings of Rabbi Akiva himself. As we have noted, Rabbi Akiva had already been brutally murdered by the Romans, and all of his vast learning had been lost. That Rabbi Meir, his former pupil, does not appear to recall it is a cause of concern for EbA. As we shall see shortly, theodicy in general (the concern over how God functions in a world where bad things happen to righteous people) is a matter with which EbA appears to struggle. For that reason, it is especially interesting that the present topic of departure happened to be a verse taken from Job: the theodical Biblical text par excellence.

א"ל ומה הויתה דריש תובן א"ל טוב אחרית דבר מראשיתו א"ל ומה פתחת ביה א"ל לאדם שהוליד בנים בנערותו ומתו ובזקנותו ונקיימו הוי טוב אחרית דבר מראשיתו לאדם שעשה סחורה בילדותו והפסיד ובזקנותו ונשתכר הוי טוב אחרית דבר מראשיתו לאדם שלמד תורה בנערותו ושכחה ובזקנותו וקיימה הוי טוב אחרית דבר מראשיתו אמר ווי דמובדין ולא משכחין עקיבה רבך לא הוה דרש כן אלא טוב אחרית דבר מראשיתו בזמן שהוא טוב מראשיתו
pHag 77b

He (Elisha) said to him, "What else were you expounding?" He (Meir) said to him, "The end of a thing is better than its beginning (Qoh 7:8)." He said to him, "And how did you begin it?"
(a) He said to him, "[By comparing it] to a man who had children in his youth who died, and in his old age who lived. Behold, 'The end of a thing is better than its beginning.'"
(b) "[By comparing it] to a man who did business in his youth and lost money, and in his old age and earned. Behold, 'The end of a thing is better than its beginning.'"
(c) "[By comparing it] to a man who learned Torah in his youth and forgot it, and in his old age and fulfilled it. Behold, 'The end of a thing is better than its beginning.'"
He (Elisha) said, "Alas for things lost and not found. Akiba your master did not expound it like that. Rather, The end of a thing is better than its beginning (Qoh 7:8) - when it is good from the beginning.

[Note: my version of the text concludes the first of Rabbi Meir's three expositions with the verb ונקרימו. I have understood that to be an editorial error for ונקיימו]

Once again we can see the marked difference between Rabbi Meir's interpretative explanation and EbA (/Akiva)'s stipulatory explanation. While Rabbi Meir is concerned with providing examples that indicate exactly what sorts of situations the relevant verse discusses, EbA is more concerned with explaining when such examples would come into effect. In other words, EbA's explanation of this (and the former passage) is not at odds with the explanation of his student, and the only way to understand EbA's dissatisfaction with Rabbi Meir is in terms of his steadfast devotion to his deceased colleague. As Rabbi Akiva expressed an opinion concerning this verse, that is the opinion which should be maintained. While possibly heartwarming in its commitment to the teachings of Rabbi Akiva, EbA's understanding of Torah is presented as stagnant and academic: fixated on the works of a particular scholar yet out of touch with the living component.

וכי היה המעשה אבויה אבא מגדולי ירושלם היה ביום שבא למוהליני קרא לכל גדולי ירושלם והושיבן בבית אחד ולרבי אליעזר ולרבי יהושע בבית אחר מן דאכלין ושתון שרון מטפחין ומרקדקין א"ר ליעזר לרבי יהושע עד דאינון עסוקין בדידון נעסוק אנן בדידן וישבו ונתעסקו בדברי תורה מן תורה לנביאים ומן הנביאים לכתובים וירדה אש מן השמים והקיפה אותם אמר להן אבויה רבותיי מה באתם לשרוף את ביתי עלי אמרו לו חס ושלום אלא יושבין היינו וחוזרין בדברי תורה מן התורה לנביאים ומן הנביאים לכתובים והיו הדברים שמיחים כנתינתן מסיני והיתה האש מלחכת אותן כלחיכתן מסיני ועיקרו נתינתן מסיני לא ניתנו אלא באש וההר בוער באש עד לב השמים אמר להן אבויה אבא רבותיי אם כך היא כוחה של תורה אם נתקיים לי בן הזה לתורה אני מפרישו לפי שלא היתה כוונתו לשם שמים לפיכך לא נתקיימו באותו האיש
pHag 77b

And this matter happened to me: Abuya my father was one of the notables of Jerusalem. On the day he was to circumcise me he invited all the notables of Jerusalem and seated them in one room. [He invited] R. Eliezer and R. Yehoshua [and seated them] in a separate room. When they were eating and drinking and singing and clapping and dancing, R. Eliezer said to R. Yehoshua, 'As long as they are busying themselves with their own [business], let us busy ourselves with ours.' They sat and busied themselves with words of Torah. From the Torah to the Prophets and from the Prophets to the Writings, and fire came down from the heavens and encircled them. Abuya said to them, 'My masters! Have you come to burn down my house upon me?' They said to him, 'God forbid. But we were sitting and turning (hozrin) words of Torah. From the Torah to the Prophets and from the Prophets to the Writings. And the words rejoiced as when they were given at Sinai. At Sinai they were given primarily in fire, And the mountain was ablaze with flames to the very skies (Deut 4:11).' Abuya my father said to them, 'My masters: If that is the power of Torah, if this son of mine prospers (nitqayyem), I will dedicate him to Torah.' Since his intention was not for the sake of heaven, therefore it did not prosper (lo' nitqayyemu) for that man (= for me)."

This is the only extant narrative mentioning EbA's father, Abuya. The story appears to be serving an explanatory purpose, detailing the events that led inexorably to EbA's apostasy. While other, alternative, explanations are soon to be given, this one is especially interesting as it pins the blame squarely on the shoulders of somebody else. EbA, himself, was only eight days old when the events supposedly took place, but his father's inability (despite, himself, being one of the 'notables' of Jerusalem) to dedicate his son to Torah for the sake of heaven is enough to condemn his son to a life of sin.

This story is brought by EbA as an example of something, the end of which is only better than the beginning if its beginning were also good. Here, EbA's beginning is in the actions of his father and as they were bad, so too is EbA's future. This would appear to contradict other dicta concerning both free will, and the sins of the fathers not being visited upon the children, but such is not our concern. Of greater import here is simply the fact that EbA, himself, is decrying responsibility for his own actions. We shall see shortly how this is recorded as being something of a trend for EbA.

א"ל ומה הויתה דרש תובן א"ל לא יערכנה זהב וזכוכית א"ל ומה פתחת ביה א"ל דברי תורה קשין לקנות ככלי זהב ונוחין לאבד ככלי זכוכית ומה כלי זהב וכלי זכוכית אם נשתברו יכול הוא לחזור ולעשותן כלים כמו שהיו אף תלמיד חכם ששכח תלמודו יכול הוא לחזור וללמדו כתחילה: א"ל דייך מאיר עד כאן תחום שבת א"ל מן הן את ידע א"ל מן טלפי דסוסיי דהוינא מני והולך אלפיים אמה א"ל וכל הדא חכמתא אית בך ולית את חזר בך א"ל לית אנא יכיל אמר ליה למה א"ל שפעם אחת הייתי עובר לפני בית קודש הקדשים רוכב על סוסי ביום הכפורים שחל להיות בשבת ושמעתי בת קול יוצאת מבית קודש הקדשים ואומרת שובו בנים חוץ מאלישע בן אבויה שידע כחי ומרד בי
pHag 77b

He (Elisha) said to him, "What else were you expounding?" He said to him, "Gold or glass cannot match its value (Job 28:17)." He said to him, "And how did you begin it?" He said, "The words of Torah are as difficult to acquire as vessels of gold and as easy to lose as vessels of glass. But just as if vessels of gold and vessels of glass are broken one can return (lahazor) and make them vessels as they were, so a sage who forgets his Torah can return (lahazor) and learn it as at the beginning."
He said to him, "Enough, Meir, the Sabbath limit is up to this point." He said to him, "How do you know this?" He said to him, "From the steps of my horse which I have been counting. And he has walked two thousand cubits." He said to him, "You have all this wisdom yet you will not repent (hazar)?" He said to him, "I cannot." He said to him, "Why?" He said to him, "Once I was passing by the Holy of Holies, riding my horse on Yom Kippur that fell on a Sabbath. I heard a heavenly voice come out of the Holy of Holies and say, 'Return, rebellious children (Jer 3:22) - except Elisha ben Abuya, for he knew my power and rebelled against me.'"

There is much about this final part of EbA's conversation with Rabbi Meir that is deserving of mention. Firstly, we have already had occasion to note that Rabbi Meir's present exposition is the same as EbA's exposition in bARN 24:5. Without trying to read too far into a text that often conflates the opinions of its protagonists, it is possible that Rabbi Meir is deliberately utilising EbA's own famous opinion. Such may also be indicated in EbA's failure to correct Rabbi Meir as he has done in the previous examples.

Another reason for EbA's silence may be the pertinence of this particular homily to EbA's own personal situation. Rabbi Meir, by commenting upon the verse in such a manner, is effectively asking EbA to repent. The word for repent is the same as the word for return, hence the efficacy of the exposition. This bivalency is also reflected, poetically, in the manner in which EbA changes the subject. Telling Rabbi Meir that he should "return", for they have reached the maximum distance to which it is permissable to walk on the Sabbath, Rabbi Meir responds by asking for EbA's "return" (ie: repentance) as well. EbA refuses.

The reason given for the refusal is strange. When we read the Babylonian Talmud's version of the story, this reason will take on greater depth, but it appears as something of a tangent within the Palestinian tradition. Claiming that a divine voice issued an imperative for all rebellious children (according to the rest of the quoted verse) to return to God, but then stipulating that EbA himself is forbidden, we are left wondering why such should have been the case. As will become evident later in the story, EbA's repentance is considered desirable before God. The only reason given here, 'for he knew my power and rebelled against me', flatly contradicts EbA's prior explanation as to why he apostasied - ie: that his father failed in his service, but not he.

Another reason as to why this story is strange is in its mention of the Holy of Holies, which had been destroyed by the Romans some sixty or seventy years before EbA's conversation with Rabbi Meir. It is inherently ridiculous to assume that EbA could have been old enough to have ridden a horse past the Temple at such a time. Seeing as EbA's apostasy is also connected with the Tosefta's story, we know that his fate was bound up with that of Rabbi Akiva, whose journey to the orchard took place some years after the Temple's destruction.

How are we to understand this anachronism? Is it, perhaps, a reference to the place where the Holy of Holies once stood? The Babylonian Talmud (to which we will soon turn) makes specific mention of the curtain, indicating that such could not be the case. Of greater likelihood is the possibility that this statement is a further indication of EbA's inability to let go of the past. Just as he insists on clinging to the statements made by the late Rabbi Akiva, so too does he seem intent on reinventing himself during the time of the Second Temple. EbA's personality is again portrayed as stagnant and academic, seeking to blame others for faults of his own, whilst justifying his own apostasy with a patently ridiculous excuse. Before looking at the Babylonian version of the story, the Palestinian Talmud continues by offering other reasons for EbA's life of sin. It is to those that we will turn next.

May 30, 2006

On the Transmission of the MT

In the interests of equanimity, the following are the remarks of Dr Ian Young, of Sydney University, concerning Rabbi Gil Student's article on the precise transmission of the Masoretic Text (linked to in the previous post). These sentiments were obviously not intended for any form of publication, but were e-mailed to me in a private correspondence after I requested a scholarly opinion on the article.

First up, I was impressed that the author hung his whole argument on a fictional history of the text. Moses wrote 13 copies of the Torah. Does he get that from the Biblical sources? No, from Rabbinic midrash. The Torah was kept pure all through the pre-exilic period. Evidence? None. The only text he cites, the story of King Josiah’s astonishment and fear upon the discovery of the Torah in 2 Kgs 22, would seem to indicate that the Torah was unknown at that time. We have Biblical evidence that there was a goddess in Solomon’s Temple for most of its history, but no corresponding evidence for a true Torah scroll! In fact any evidence we have is contrary to this assertion. He says textual variations arose in the exilic period. Evidence? Radak! He was a great scholar, but did he have access to reliable historical traditions or was he just speculating? Scholars of Rabbinics would say the latter. Ezra restored the true text of the Torah? No ancient evidence for that, only an unusual reading of the 3 scrolls in the Temple story.

He asserts that in the late second temple period the true copy of the Torah was in the Temple and that the majority of Torah scrolls agreed exactly with it. This is possible, of course: everything is. But the fact is that all the evidence we have from the last centuries BCE indicates a variety of Biblical texts in use. He fails to mention that the Samaritan text is very similar to texts found at Qumran- indicating that that sort of text was at least being used by two quite different groups, even if he wants to condemn them as evil sectarians. The two other sources we have for the Torah are the Septuagint (LXX) and the Dead Sea Scrolls. If the LXX only deviates, as he sometimes claims, due to reasons of translation, how come it shares so many readings with the Hebrew texts of the Samaritan Pentateuch and the Qumran scrolls? He seems to assert that all these sorts of differences are deviations from the true MT, introduced erroneously. What basis does he have for judging that the MT is always more original? Only his presupposition that it is. There is no rational argument here - just an assertion that despite the evidence, his presuppositions may actually turn out to be correct.

His treatment of the Dead Sea Scrolls is bizarre. He says both that the scrolls were the property of an evil orthodoxy-hating sect, and that the majority of scrolls come from outside Qumran. You can’t have both. If the majority of scrolls come from outside Qumran (and they must), they represent at least to some extent the more general state of the Biblical text at the time. The most important piece of misinformation is his claim that 80% of the scrolls in any case are like the MT. I could see how you could get this from a superficial reading of Tov’s first edition. But what Student means by this is that 80% of the scrolls are identical to the letter with the MT. Note his conclusions: we can be confident that 99.99% of the letters of the Torah are what Moses wrote. In fact, only 3 of the 108 Biblical scrolls with 50 or more preserved words have no variations against the MT. If we take into account plene and defective spellings that number must be reduced to zero (although that could be said even of the authoritative medieval codices too). More than half of the scrolls have a non-orthographic variant every 20 or less words. So, if Student admits that most scrolls are not sectarian, the evidence would seem to suggest that the textus receptus was virtually unknown in the last centuries BCE.

How do we know whether the Qumran scrolls are typical of their time? All we can do is point to the evidence. The Samaritans used the same sort of Torah scroll as some of the Qumran scrolls. The LXX is a collection of Biblical scrolls of similar nature to Qumran: a mixture ranging from texts quite close (not identical) to the MT e.g. LXX Ruth, to texts representing different editions of Biblical books e.g. LXX Jeremiah. Student may still be right: the MT may have been the true text held by a majority of people in the last centuries BCE. It’s just that every single piece of evidence currently in our possession is contrary to his theory. In those circumstances, scholars usually admit that there is something wrong with the theory, rather than claiming that there is something wrong with all the evidence. (The foot is the wrong size for the shoe!)

The author claims that the textus receptus of the Torah is nearly letter perfect identical with the text Moses received on Mt Sinai. You should know that textual criticism is but one of the problems this theory has to face. You are probably aware that scholars usually consider the Torah to be the end result of a process of editing and re-editing, and that it only reached its current form long after Moses’ time. As a small example, how could Moses refer to the town of “Dan” in Genesis 14:14, when Judges 18:29 tells us that the town was not even named Dan until long after Moses time? An argument that is less often mentioned relates to language and spelling. According to everything we know, the language in which the Torah is expressed is completely inappropriate for Moses’ time c.1400BCE. As an example, the definite article (ha- in Hebrew) is unattested in any Semitic language before c.1000BCE. Likewise, all the evidence we have indicates that the spelling of the Biblical text in 1400BCE would have been quite different. For one thing, it is likely that only consonants would have been spelled. Even as late as our inscriptions from c.600BCE Hebrew is spelled with far fewer waw’s and yod’s marking vowels than in any Biblical text we know. Also our earliest evidence for spelling the suffixes for “his” as -w on singular and -yw on plural is the Dead Sea Scrolls. All our earlier evidence indicates Hebrew used -h for singular and -w for plural instead. These then are a couple of other big problems for a theory which claims that 99.99% of the letters of the current textus receptus are identical to the ones given to Moses on Mt Sinai.

I have no issue with someone who says “I believe God miraculously preserved the MT version of the Bible”. I do have problems with someone who claims that this sort of statement gives the best interpretation of the available evidence. While this theory is possible, I hope I have shown that none of the evidence is in favour of it.

- Ian Young

May 28, 2006


This is a fantastic article by Rabbi Gil Student, defending the belief in the immutability of the Torah.
This is another fantastic article, this one by Rabbi Nathan Lopes Cardozo, presenting a history of textual criticism and indicating its many flaws.

Has The Exodus Been Disproved?

The following is written by Prof. Lawrence Schiffman of New York University. I have not been able to find where it is that he says this (nor have I been able to prove that he actually did), but I received it in an e-mail from daatemet.org.il. Daat Emet, for those who are unfamiliar with it, is an Israeli organisation designed purely to convince Haredi Jews not to be Haredi. While they may be a very controversial organisation, some of their material is both informative and fascinating. This, for example, is an essay by Naftali Zeligman (also to be found on talkreason.org): one which I enjoyed. In any case, the following essay credited to Prof. Schiffman is not the usual sort of thing published by Daat Emet, and is perhaps a testiment to their growing intellectual honesty.

Has the Exodus been disproved? That there are people who do not believe the biblical accounts of the ancient history of the Israelites is not new. What is new in "Doubting the Story of the Exodus" (LA Times, April 13, 2001) is that doubt seems to have been turned into historical fact. Readers were told that there is a consensus of biblical historians and archaeologists that the Exodus did not happen. In reality, though, no such consensus actually exists.

Many archaeologists, Bible scholars and historians continue to conclude from the evidence that the Exodus did indeed occur, among them the editor of Biblical Archaeology Review, Hershel Shanks (Ha'aretz Magazine, Nov. 5, 1999).

Evidence for ancient events is very difficult to come by. Sometimes, to be sure, indications of an event's historicity is uncovered but more often all that can be done is to see whether the event can plausibly fit into what is presently known about the historical period. Lack of direct evidence does not disprove an ancient event. Nor can the existence of evidence only in later literary texts be taken as an argument against their reliability; the discovery of ancient Troy came about on the evidence of the much later writings of Homer.

The Exodus is dated by most of those who accept its veracity to about 1250 BCE. We know that for the previous few centuries, the period during which the Israelites are reported to have come down to Canaan from Egypt and to have become influential, there was indeed a rise in Semitic influence in Egypt, led by a group of western Semites known as the Hyksos, who were closely related to the Hebrews. At some point, ca. 1580 BCE, the native Egyptians rebelled against these foreigners, and this development can be taken to be reflected in the Bible's description of the Pharaoh "who did not know Joseph." As a result of this change, the Semites, including the Israelites, found themselves in the difficult position the Bible records, one which must have lasted for centuries. From this point of view, the story of the slavery and Exodus is perfectly plausible within the framework of Egyptian and Near Eastern history. Further, we have letters which describe the life of work gangs from Pharaonic Egypt and these seem to paint a picture very close to that of the biblical report.

The Bible describes the period immediately after the Exodus as one of extended wandering in the desert. This wandering was said to result from the fear of the Israelites that a direct route to Canaan, along the Mediterranean coast toward what is now the Gaza Strip, would be dangerous because of the Egyptian armies stationed there. This circumstance has been confirmed as historical by the discovery of the remains of extensive Egyptian influence, habitation and fortification in the Gaza region in this period, especially at Deir al-Balakh. Again, the biblical record is confirmed.

Further support for the historicity of the Exodus comes from a stele of the Egyptian ruler Merneptah (1224-1214 BCE). In reviewing his victories against the peoples of Canaan, he claimed, " Israel is laid waste; his seed is not." Here the text designated the people of Israel, not the land, as can be shown from the Egyptian linguistic usage. Many scholars believe that this text refers to the people of Israel before they entered Canaan --that is, in the period of desert wandering. More likely, it is a reference to Israel after they have entered Canaan, but before they established themselves as a sedentary population in the hill country in today's West Bank (Judea and Samaria). Since this view accords with the dating of the Exodus we suggested above, it seems that in this text, the only Egyptian document to mention Israel, we have a direct reference to the Israelites in the period of the Exodus and the conquest of Canaan.

Assuming the biblical account to be unreliable, some scholars have substituted a Marxist theory of class revolution to explain the formation of ancient Israel. According to this approach, the masses revolted against their Canaanite overlords and, after taking control, forged for themselves the new collective identity and mythology of the Israelites. Other scholars have suggested a process of differentiation in which some Canaanites began to see themselves as a separate people, and created an identity and a sacred history from whole cloth, thus inventing the Exodus and conquest narratives. But who would invent a history of slavery and disgrace?

Further, this theory must explain away the historical and archaeological evidence. Numerous cities from this period show a cultural change at precisely the point when the Israelites are said by the Bible to have appeared. Indeed, the newcomers, since they came from the desert, show a lower level of material culture than the Canaanites whom they displaced. This situation fits well the notion of Israelite conquest and infiltration. Second, the Israelites, throughout their history in the land, were concentrated in those areas easiest to defend against the superior arms of the Canaanites, a fact that supports the notion that they were invaders. Third, the doubters have claimed that few cities from this period show evidence of armed destruction. But careful consideration of the biblical narrative, with due attention to the account in Judges and the evidence that the Canaanites were never entirely displaced, eliminates this inconsistency fully. Indeed, the archaeological record supports a reconstruction of the historical events of the conquest when both Joshua and Judges are studied together. Finally, these scholars often claim that the Bible is the only source supporting the Exodus. But they forget that several different accounts of the Exodus exist in the Bible, in books written at different periods, thus providing corroborative evidence for the basic scheme of events.

We may not possess, at least at present, conclusive proof that the Israelites left Egypt en masse as the Bible describes. What we do have, though, are several indications of the Exodus' historicity, and ample evidence that the biblical account is entirely plausible.

It is a simple matter to claim that lack of clear, decisive external confirmation of the biblical account is itself a disproof, but no rational person believes that what has not been proven is false. What can be stated with certainly, however, is that there is no consensus that the Exodus is a myth.
- Prof. L. Schiffman

May 26, 2006

"How To Write Screenplays. Badly."

I think that this might just be the single funniest blog I've ever seen. You know what? I'm going to add it to my link list!

The Evolution of Dance

May 25, 2006

Elisha ben Abuya II

תניא מעשה ומת אביו של רבי צדוק בגינזק והודיעוהו לאחר שלש שנים ובא ושאל את אלישע בן אבויה וזקנים שעמו ואמרו נהוג שבעה ושלשים וכשמת בנו של רבי אחייה בגולה ישב עליו שבעה ושלשים
baraita, bMo'ed 20a

My translation:
It is taught: It once happened that Rabbi Tzadoq's father died in Ginzaq and they informed him [of the fact] after three years. He came and he asked Elisha ben Abuya and the sages who were with him and they said, "Observe thirty-seven days".
And when Rabbi Ahiah's son died in Babylonia [lit. 'in exile'], he sat over him for thirty-seven [days].

This is the sole attributed halakhic statement of EbA. While what he says may be of some import, of greater significance is the fact that the editors of the Talmud saw fit to include it - despite traditions to which we will soon turn.

אלישע בן אבויה אומר הלומד ילד למה הוא דומה לדיו כתובה על נייר חדש והלומד זקן למה הוא דומה לדיו כתובה על נייר מחוק רבי יוסי ברבי יהודה איש כפר הבבלי אומר הלומד מן־הקטנים למה הוא דומה לאוכל ענבים קהות ושותה יין מגתו והלומד מן־הזקנים למה הוא דומה לאוכל ענבים בשולות ושותה יין ישן רבי אומר אל תסתכל בקנקן אלא במה־שיש בו יש קנקן חדש מלא ישן וישן שאפילו חדש אין בו
mAbot 4:20

My translation:
Elisha ben Abuya says, "To what is a child who learns to be compared? To ink written on a fresh sheet; and to what is an old man who learns to be compared? To ink written on an erased sheet [ie: a used and re-used sheet]".
Rabbi Yosi, son of Rabbi Yehuda (from the Babylonian village [or, Kfar HaBabli]), says, "To what is one of the little ones who learns to be compared? To one who eats unripe grapes and drinks wine from the winepress [ie: which has not yet matured and is still sour-tasting]; and to what is one of the old people who learns to be compared? To one who eats ripe grapes and drinks aged wine".
Rebbe says, "Don't focus on the vessels, but what is within it! There are new vessels full of old wine and old vessels that don't even have any new wine in them".

This is the sole attributed statement of EbA in the Mishna. Again, while what he says may be of some import, of greater significance is its inclusion. Let us look next at some of the later traditions for, as the narratives in the two Talmuds are the lengthiest and the most deserving of attention, they are better dealt with last.

The commentary on Pirqei Aboth known as Aboth deRebi Nathan features a chapter on EbA. It is not necessary for us to write the whole section out here, as the content is not of great importance. The chapter (chapter 24) consists of a variety of similes portraying the difference between those who learn Torah and do good deeds and those who do neither, followed by a lengthy description of the ease with which Torah can be forgotten. The exhortation that bridges these two sections is an interesting one, and I produce that short sentiment here:

הוא היה אומר קשין דברי תורה לקנותם ככלי זהבים ונוחין לאבדם ככלי זכוכית שנאמר לא יערכנה זהב וזכוכית מקיש זהב לזכוכית מה כלי זהב לאחר שנשבר יש לו תקנה וכל כלי זכוכית אין להם תקנה כשנשברו אלא א"כ חזרו לברייתן ומה אני מקיים ותמורתה כלי פז לומר לך כל העמל בהן ומקיימן פניו מצהיבות כפז וכל העמל בהם ואין מקיימן פניו משחירות כזכוכית
bARN 24:5

My translation:
He [ie: EbA] used to say, "Words of Torah are as difficult to acquire as vessels of gold, and as easy to lose as vessels of glass - as it says, 'Gold or glass cannot match its value [nor vessels of fine gold be exchanged for it]' (Job 28:17, acc. to JPS). Gold and glass are compared for, just as a vessel [lit. 'vessels', although the rest of the sentence is in the singular] of gold has a means of being prepared when it has been broken [so too, vessels of glass have a means of being prepared when they are broken] - only, vessels of glass have no means of being prepared when they are broken unless they are returned to their natural state. And what can I establish [from the juxtaposition of 'glass' with] 'vessels of fine gold be exchanged for it'? It is to tell you that all who labour over them [ie: study Torah laws] and fulfil them, their faces will shine like gold. But all who labour over them and do not fulfil them, their faces will darken like glass".

This section is of particular textual interest because, as we shall see in both Talmudic stories, the same exposition is related. In the Palestinian Talmud, Rabbi Meir (EbA's student) is credited with having said it and, in the Babylonian Talmud, he is credited with the first part to which EbA reacts and corrects him with the second. Of interest as well is the position of this chapter within Aboth deRebi Nathan. Chapters 23, 25 and 26 deal with statements made by ben Zoma, ben Azzai and Rabbi Akiva respectively. The grouping together of these four sages indicates a degree of familiarity with the narrative from the Tosefta and the baraita (as discussed previously).

Before we are ready to read both of the Talmud's stories concerning EbA, there is one final source to look at. This is found within the Babylonian Talmud but, as will be especially clear when we have finished with the broader Babylonian Talmudic text, this section is a later addition.

אחר מאי זמר יווני לא פסק מפומיה אמרו עליו על אחר בשעה שהיה עומד מבית המדרש הרבה ספרי מינין נושרין מחיקו
bHag 15b

My translation:
[This passage continues on from a short discussion concerning two other men who had fallen from greatness to sin]
What about Akher [ie: what was it that he had done which had led him to apostasy]? Greek songs never ceased from his mouth.
It is said about him (about Akher) that whenever he would stand in the study hall, several heretical books would fall from his lap.

Rosh Shel Yisrael

If you turn to Bava Batra 29a you can see the point where the commentary of Rashi is finally brought to an end, and the task is turned over to the Rashbam. The Talmud (Yoma 38b) explains Qoheleth 1:5 ("the sun rises and the sun sets..."), in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, to mean that God does not allow a tzaddiq to die until another tzaddiq is there to take his place. Tradition states that Rashi was born in 1039/40 (4800), right after the death of Rabbeinu Gershom. So too, when it was Rashi's time to die, the Rashbam was there to take his place.

But I think that this section of the gemara is a lot deeper than that. If you look to the right of the notice in the above picture, you'll note that some printings of the Talmud contain a different text. Their ones say, כאן מת רש"י ז"ל - Here died Rashi, of blessed memory. It's fascinating to notice the different types of post-mortem interment. Some people have illustrious tombs, others ornate graves - others still, very simple tombstones to note the place where they have finally come to rest. It is almost ironic that the simplest should also be the most majestic: a single notice on a page of gemara.

Perhaps that is why Rashi is so revered. 800 years after he put down his quill, scholars and laymen alike continue to search deep into the heart of his words. Because it is here, in the pages of the Babylonian Talmud, that Rashi finally died. And that is why he is of blessed memory.

May 24, 2006

Elisha ben Abuya

The following document is designed to serve as an analysis of Elisha ben Abuya (henceforth, EbA) and his role throughout the Rabbinic literature. While it is not strictly necessary for an appreciation of EbA's personality, I have provided a preface that deals with the antediluvian ("pre-flood") character, Enoch. We had occasion to note at the end of that preface that Enoch, in his afterlife, became an angel known as Metatron (מיטטרון). In our upcoming appraisal of the main EbA narrative, this association will have interesting connotations.

There are several texts that are relevant to an understanding of EbA and we shall endeavor to approach them in a chronological order. For the purpose of clarity, I shall list those texts here:
1. mHag 2:1 - m = Mishna
2. tHag 2:1-3 - t = Tosefta; Hag = Hagigah / חגיגה
3. baraita, bHag 14b - b = Babylonian Talmud
4. baraita, bMo'ed 20a - Mo'ed = Mo'ed Qatan / מועד קטן
5. mAbot 4:20 - Abot = Pirqei Aboth / פרקי אבות
6. pHag 77b-c - p = Palestinian Talmud
7. bHag 15a-15b
8. bHag 15b, additions
9. bARN 24 - ARN = Aboth deRebi Nathan / אבות דרבי נתן

There is some debate over which came first: the Tosefta or the Mishna (cf: Judith Hauptman, "The Tosefta as a Commentary on an Early Mishnah", JSIJ 3 (2004), 1-24), although the tradition assumes that the latter derived from a body that contained the former as well. As the Tosefta is somewhat more detailed than both the Mishna and the baraita in this instance, we shall use the former as a launching pad to discuss the latter two as well.

אין דורשין בעריות בשלשה אבל דורשין בשנים ולא במעשה בראשית בשנים אבל דורשין ביחיד ולא במרכבה ביחיד אא"כ היה חכם מבין מדעתו
tHag 2:1

The following is my translation:
One should not expound upon the [forbidden] sexual matters to three people, although one may do so to two; nor [may one expound upon] the work of creation to two people, although one may do so to a single person; nor [may one expound upon] the chariot [of Ezekiel's vision] to a single person - unless he is wise, discerning in his knowledge.

The Tosefta then goes on to relate an incident that led Rabbi Yohanan ben Zakai to appreciate the stature of Rabbi El'azar ben Erekh and to agree to expound upon 'the chariot' in his presence. The correlating Mishna (mHag 2:1) is effectively identical, save for the the stipulation that the former two matters may be discussed at all. The Mishna is also lacking the concluding narrative.

כל המסתכל בארבעה דברים ראוי לו כאלו לא בא לעולם מה למעלה מה למטה מה לפנים ומה לאחור
tHag 2:3

My translation:
All who consider [these] four things, it is better for them had they not come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is before and what comes after.
[The Tosefta then continues by deducing this principle from Deut 4:32]

כל המסתכל בארבעה דברים ראוי לו כאילו לא בא לעולם מה למעלה מה למטה מה לפנים ומה לאחור וכל שלא חס על כבוד קונו ראוי לו שלא בא לעולם
mHag 2:1

The following is my translation:
All who consider [these] four things, it is better for them [some manuscripts, 'it would be a mercy to them': רתוי instead of ראוי] had they not come into the world: what is above, what is below, what is before and what comes after. And all who are not considerate regarding the honour of their creator, it is better for them [/ 'it would be a mercy for them'] had they not come into the world.
[This is the second half of mHag 2:1, following on from the section mentioned above]

This forthright ban on speculative thinking served as the crux of Charles' argument that apocalyptic writing died in the Jewish tradition and was replaced by the immutability of the Law (cf: R.H. Charles (ed.), The Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha of the Old Testament, Volume Two: Pseudepigrapha (Berkeley: The Apocryphile Press, 2004), ix). Whether or not Charles was correct, traditions such as those espoused by the authors of Daniel 7-12, Ezekiel 1 and Enoch (to name only a few) received their death-knell in mishnayot like mHag 2:1. Proceeding to the next source, we see where this idea is given narrative expression.

ארבעה נכנסו לפרדס בן עזאי ובן זומא אחר ורבי עקיבה אחד הציץ ומת אחד הציץ ונפגע אחד הציץ וקיצץ בנטיעות ואחד עלה בשלום וירד בשלום בן עזאי הציץ ומת עליו הכתוב אומר יקר בעיני ה' המותה לחסידיו בן זומא הציץ ונפגע עליו הכתוב אומר דבש מצאת אכול דייך אלישע הציץ וקיצץ בנטיעות עליו הכתוב אומר אל תתן את פיך לחטיא את בשרך רבי עקיבה עלה בשלום וירד בשלום עליו הכתוב אומר משכני אחריך נרוצה
tHag 2:2

My translation:
Our Rabbis taught: Four people entered an/the orchard [without the vocalisation, it is impossible to tell whether this is לְפַרְדֵּס or לַפַּרְדֵּס. Tradition assumes the definite article]: ben Azzai and ben Zoma, Akher and Rabbi Akiva. One looked and died; one looked and was wounded; one looked and cut the saplings; and one ascended in peace and descended in peace. Ben Azzai looked and died. Concerning him, the passage says, "The death of His righteous ones is valuable in the Lord's eyes" (Ps 116:15). Ben Zoma looked and was wounded. Concerning him, the passage says, "If you found honey, eat [only] until you're full [lest you overly sate yourself and vomit it up]" (Pr 25:16). Elisha looked and cut the seedlings. Concerning him, the passage says, "Do not let your mouth cause your body to sin [and do not say before the angel that it was unintentional. Why allow God to be angry by your talk? For He will destroy the work of your hands]" (Ecc 5:5). Rabbi Akiva ascended in peace and descended in peace. Concerning him, the passage says, "Draw me after you, let us run! [The king has brought me to his chambers]" (SoS 1:4, acc. to JPS).
[The Tosefta continues with two parables regarding the nature of the orchard, but they are not of relevance to our discussion.]

ת"ר ארבעה נכנסו בפרדס ואלו הן בן עזאי ובן זומא אחר ורבי עקיבא אמר להם ר"ע כשאתם מגיעין אצל אבני שיש טהור אל תאמרו מים מים משום שנאמר דובר שקרים לא יכון לנגד עיני בן עזאי הציץ ומת עליו הכתוב אומר יקר בעיני ה' המותה לחסידיו בן זומא הציץ ונפגע ועליו הכתוב אומר דבש מצאת אכול דייך פן תשבענו והקאתו אחר קיצץ בנטיעות רבי עקיבא יצא בשלום
baraita, bHag 14b

My translation:
Our Rabbis taught: Four people entered an/the orchard [as above, tradition assumes the definite article] and they were ben Azzai and ben Zoma, Akher and Rabbi Akiva. Rabbi Akiva said to them, "When you reach the stones of pure marble, do not say, 'Water! Water!' For it is said, "He who speaks lies will not stand before my eyes" (Ps 101:7). Ben Azzai looked and died. Concerning him, the passage says, "The death of His righteous ones is valuable in the Lord's eyes" (Ps 116:15). Ben Zoma looked and was wounded, and it is concerning him that the passage says, "If you found honey, eat [only] until you're full, lest you [overly] sate yourself and vomit it up" (Pr 25:16). Akher cut the seedlings, but Rabbi Akiva left in peace.

This is a fascinating passage and it merits closer examination. Who is Akher? What happened to each of the protagonists? Why was Rabbi Akiva not harmed? The question of what happened in relation to Akher (whose true name is divulged in the Tosefta's version of the story) is soon to be discussed at greater length by the Talmud. The other issues go unresolved.

Tradition states that פרדס, a Persian word meaning 'orchard', is actually an allusion to Torah. Many consider it an acronym for P'shat, Remez, Drosh, Sod: four modes (apparantly) of Torah study. P'shat ('straight, simple') refers to the basic meaning of the text. Remez ('hint, allusion') is a level deeper than the P'shat. Drosh ('scratching, searching') is a level deeper still, and one which is characterised by the so-called Midrashim. Finally, Sod ('secret') is the deepest level and one which is epitomised by the study of the Qabbalah. It is particularly in relation to the Qabbalah that this passage is commonly understood, with some even suggesting that the protagonists were practising an ancient form of meditation.

Whatever the case may be, it is apparant that this 'orchard' is a somewhat mystical place, as Rabbi Akiva's enigmatic warning would testify. The 'pure marble', which would appear to be at the highest point of their journey, is both a wonderful and a terrible place. So pure is this marble that one may even mistake it for water, yet so deadly that one may be destroyed for doing so. Such is the fate, it would seem, of two of Rabbi Akiva's fellows (as we will see, Akher's fate is somewhat more complex).

Ben Azzai and ben Zoma appear to be guilty of looking. We are not told if their looking by itself was a crime, or if it had been accompanied by something else. Perhaps, although we cannot be sure, they were guilt-free but simply incapable of containing that which they saw. Whatever it was, the verb utilised in both instances is הציץ, which is rare. In form, it is a hiph'il (ie: causative) of √צוצ, which means 'bloom' or 'sprout'. It is related to the noun ציצית, which are the fringes worn on the corners of garments. While it certainly means 'look', it may also be establishing a parallel structure with Akher's experience. The verb used in reference to him is קיצץ ('he cut'), which sounds similar to הציץ ('he looked'). Also, while the verb for looking used in relation to the other two also has connotations of sprouting, Akher is guilty of cutting that which has already sprouted: the seedlings.

Finally, there is the issue of Rabbi Akiva. The text states that Rabbi Akiva ascended in peace and descended in peace, although it is difficult to know what this means. Presumably it means that the others did not enter in peace, and were perhaps not ready for what they were going to encounter. This unreadiness should not be mistaken for ignorance for, as we are about to see, Akher was one of the greatest scholars of his generation.

The Baal HaTanya's Yarmulke

Just think: what sorts of thoughts went on beneath this?

May 23, 2006


Gen 5 is a genealogy of the descendants of Adam through his third son, Seth. There is a particular formula: so-and-so lived x years and sired such-and-such. After siring such-and-such, so-and-so lived y years and sired sons and daughters. The total number of days of so-and-so's life was x+y years, and he died. There is one exception: Gen 5:21-24 speaks of Enoch (חנוך). We are told that once Enoch had lived 65 years, he sired Methuselah, and after doing so "he walked with God" for 300 years, siring sons and daughters. The total number of years of Enoch's life were 365 and then "he was no more, for God took him".

What strange terminology! While everybody else simply lives their lives, Enoch does his walking with God; while everybody else simply dies, Enoch is taken by God and is no more. What are we to make of this? A quick look at some other traditions concerning Enoch will shed light on what the Enoch tradition may actually involve.

The first place to look would be the Books of Enoch themselves. Of these, 1 Enoch (also, 'Ethiopic Enoch') is the most relevant for our purposes, although 2 Enoch (also, 'Slavonic Enoch') and 3 Enoch belong within the tradition as well. These texts treat Enoch as a hero of sorts, alongside heroes like Noah and Adam. These three figures have received very little attention outside of the 'Enoch tradition' as they feature prior to the exclusivity of the covenant tradition. God's covenant with Abraham, which takes its strongest shape after Moses' reception of the Law, is not in effect prior to the flood. For that reason, traditions such as those which revered Enoch may have become marginalised after the normalisation of Rabbinic Judaism.

Another reason for this may be the terminology employed in the narrative. Where I have here translated "walked with God", the Hebrew reads "ויתהלך חנוך את־האלהים". Elohim is a word that could be translated in a variety of different ways. Where it refers to God, it generally takes a singular verb (although not always: witness Gen 1:26) but, as it serves here as the object of the verb, we have no way of knowing if God is indeed the referent. The Enoch tradition (typified mainly by 1 and 2 Enoch, as well as Jubilees and 1QapGen) understands אלהים to mean "gods". They may even be a reference to the giants that roam the earth in Genesis 6:1-7 - another theme to feature strongly in Enochic literature.

The assertion that Enoch had little to no appeal in Jewish circles is testified to in the unpopularity of Enoch in later Jewish traditions. While 1 Enoch may have been very popular at Qumran (as was Jubilees, a work that appears to revere Enoch as the founder of the calendar), it was not popular elsewhere. Aramaic translations of the Bible ('targumin') refer rather dismissively to Enoch. Onkelos says that, at the end of his life, Enoch "was not, for God killed him", and various other translations (such as Neofiti, Fragmentary Targum msV and Pseudo-Jonathan) present this idea as well.

The Midrash is explicit. Genesis Rabba 23:6 states that humanity was only in the image and likeness of God until the generation of Enosh (Enoch's great-great-grandfather), after which the generations successively worsened and produced destroyers (which is probably a reference to the giants of 6:1-7). Genesis Rabba 25:1 even goes so far as to declare that Enoch was a hypocrite - sometimes righteous, sometimes wicked - until such time as God removed him from the earth and wrote his name in the scroll of the Wicked. Two short stories follow, the purpose of both of which is to emphasise the fact that Enoch truly died. Enoch is not mentioned so much as once in the entire Talmud.

In the New Testament, however, Enoch receives a facourable report in both Hebrews 11:5 and Jude 1:14-16, not to mention the Christian "Testament of Levi", chapters 14 and 16. The apocryphal Jesus ben Sirakh ("Ecclesiasticus") sees Enoch as a model of repentance for all generations (44:16). Why was Enoch detested by the Jews? The answer may become apparant if we have a look at Jubilees 4:17-23. There, Enoch is credited with the development of the calendar (amongst other things). Many of these things (writing and knowledge and wisdom) are ascribed to the giants in Midrash Avkir. This conflation of roles may indicate that Enoch was perceived as one of the "destroyers", alongside the giants themselves.

Jubilees is also famous for being a work that emphasises a solar calendar - indeed, much the the book is effectively a polemic against those who utilise the moon in calendrical observations. Some scholars have argued, on the basis of the utilisation of dates in the Pentateuch, that the Israelite calendar was initially a solar calendar, and that the luni-solar calendar of the Pharisees was a corruption of the same (cf: Ellis Rivkin, "The Book of Jubilees - An Anti-Pharisaic Pseudepigraph?", ארץ ישראל v16, 1982 - pp193*-198*). A quick comparison of Enoch with the other antediluvian patriarchs may indicate that the connection between Enoch and the solar calendar was well known. The following is a list of Adam and his descendants, up until the flood, with the age at which they died written alongside.

Adam - 930
Seth - 912
Enosh - 905
Kenan - 910
Mahalalel - 895
Jared - 962
Enoch - 365
Methuselah - 969
Lamech - 777
Noah - 950

None of the ages of the other individuals appear to represent anything. Enoch, however, with his 365 years, appears to match up to the solar calendar exactly. Well, not exactly. Jubilees suggests 364 days to the year (Jub 6:32). Some have suggested that the author of Gen 5 is deliberately subverting the Enoch tradition but, even if that's the case, it proves the existence of the tradition nonetheless.

While we have had occasion to note that Enoch is not mentioned so much as once in the Talmud, a statement made by Pseudo-Jonathan in his Aramaic translation of Genesis is relevant here. He argues that when Enoch ascended to heaven, he became an angel named Metatron (מיטטרון). This is also reflected in 3 Enoch 4:2 - another late Jewish text (no earlier than 100 CE). There are different theories concerning the provenance of this name, one popular one being that it is the conjunction of two Greek words, μετα and θρονως, and that it literally means, 'alongside the throne'.

Whether or not this is the case, Metatron's role within the Rabbinic tradition is an entirely passive one, serving effectively as the mouthpiece of God. This subversion of the Enochic tradition is the means by which the Rabbis allow the tradition to live on, albeit in a thoroughly harmless way. Such may also have been the intentions of the author of the genealogy in Genesis: to include references to Enoch and the giants, but to render them meaningless within the broader tradition. As Michael Stone noted,
"...there is no reason to think that the body of literature that is transmitted as the Hebrew Bible is a representative collection of all types of Jewish literary creativity down to the fourth century. It is a selection of texts and the process of transmission and preservation that created this selection reflects the theological judgement of certain groups"
Selected Studies in Pseudepigrapha and Apocrypha: With Special Reference to the Armenian Tradition (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1991), pp195-196.

May 22, 2006

The Book is Dead: Long Live the Book!

An excellent article on the future of the printed word. Thanks, mentalblog for this one.

i am shocked

This is an amazing blog. As Gil Student put it, "If this doesn't make you cry in sympathy and scream in outrage then you should check to make sure you have a pulse". It is one incredibly brave man's recounting of the sexual abuse he suffered at the hands of a perverted Rabbi.

I'm not religious, but I cannot believe how close a prayer is to my lips. This should never happen.


I recently went and saw The DaVinci Code. I was shocked. Not by the film itself (which wasn't bad), but by the pathetic disclaimer at the beginning. It seems that the Catholic Church, threatened as they are by what they claim is not a threat to them, has paid a substantial sum of money to have a little clip shown prior to the film that encourages people to find out "the truth" for themselves. Aside from the fact that this clip spoils some key elements in the plot for moviegoers who have not read the book (a demographic that, I am prepared to admit, is pretty small), it is an absolute insult to their intelligence.

Can you imagine: you've just gone to see Mel Gibson's The Passion of the Christ. You're very excited - should be a good film. Suddenly, lo and behold, there's a little disclaimer before the film can start. The Jewish Board of Deputies would like you to know that they think that what you are about to see is fiction. Do I care!? Do they really think that I give a damn!? NO, they don't! And they wouldn't be so stupid as to presume that I did!

Where on earth does the Catholic Church get off, ramming their blind religion down my throat? Why are they so threatened that a generation of Christians is going to turn their back on them? They feel forced to get up and condemn the book, producing god knows how many pamphlets and spin-offs trying to discredit it, and then they have to subject cinema audiences to a further earful of holy Catholic trite! Because they think that Christians may watch the film and then disbelieve in Jesus? That people might renounce their faith in the Gospels? In all honesty, I don't think that this is what threatens them.

Instead, the Church is terrified that people are going to renounce them. That the Christian world is finally going to stand up and say, "We don't need the clergy. We're sick of your dogma; we're fed up with your hackneyed prejudice; we're tired of your control". They're worried that Christians might find and love another Jesus. And, as these are no longer the days when the Church can exercise their control with a good old-fashioned burning (either of the book or its author), they have to reason with it instead.

Ian McKellen said it best, in a recent interview, when he suggested that it is the Bible itself that should feature a disclaimer, warning its readers that what ensues is fiction. I wonder how many more people there would be in the world if that were the case.

May 20, 2006

Mountain Climbing: It's A Man Thing

The Omer: Why Do We Mourn? - part II

This post continues on from this one.

What then ensues, after this brief passage, is a lengthy description of Hadrian's seige, and a long-winded depiction of the seige's aftermath. This depiction is both grisly and exaggerated (making a claim that 800 million people were killed). I reproduce part of it here:

pTa'an 69a

The following is the translation of Peter Schafer, The History of the Jews in the Greco-Roman World (London: Routledge, 1995), p158 - emphasis and parentheses are all his:

They [= the Romans] continued to slay them [= the inhabitants of Bethar] until the horses sank up to their nostrils in blood. And the blood rolled boulders weighing forty seah [forwards] until [after] four miles it reached the sea...

They said: The brains of three hundred small children were found on one rock. [Likewise] three baskets were found containing phylacteries [with a capacity] of nine seah each. Others say: Nine [baskets with a capacity] of three seah each.

It is taught: Rabban Shimon b. Gamaliel says: There were five hundred schools in Bethar, and in the smallest of them were not less than five hundred children. They used to say: If the enemy comes upon us, we shall go out to meet them with these pencils and bore out their eyes. When however sin caused this to happen, [the Romans] wound every one of them in his own scroll and burnt him...

Hadrian the blsphemer had a great vineyard of eighteen square miles, as much as the distance from Tiberias to Sepphoris. He surrounded it with a fence made from those slain at Bethar as high as a man with outstretched arms. And he commanded that they were not to be buried until another king arose and ordered their burial.

Can we learn history from this story? Not entirely, but there is also corroboration to be found in other sources. The midrash, Genesis Rabba (64:10), speaks of the revolt under Hadrian (although it does not name Shimon bar Kosiba) and the Tosefta (Shabbat 16:6) speaks of bar Kosiba but does not mention the revolt in which he participated. Sources that mention both are, unfortunately, scanty within the Jewish tradition.

There are Roman sources for the revolt, such as (Pseudo-)Spartianus and Dio Cassius - the latter mentioning bar Kosiba as well - and Christian historians Eusebius and Justin also relate their version of the events. It would be impossible to know anything for certain were it not for a few remarkable archaeological discoveries.

Coins issued by bar Kosiba's followers testify to his real name - in opposition to the bar Kochba of Rabbi Akiva, the bar Koziva of his detractors, and the Barchochebas of the Christian historians. They would also seem to indicate that, even if only briefly, his role of deliverer was somewhat promising. Leasehold agreements from Wadi Muraba'at use the formula, 'In the x-year of the Redemption of Israel by Shimon bar Kosiba, the Nasi of Israel', and the coins address their hero with the same term. What is more, collections of the man's letters have been found in Nahal Hever, testifying to the existence of his rebellion as well.

The language employed in these sources raises eyebrows. It is easy to see the tendentious nature of the Roman, Jewish and Christian sources (the last of which have bar Kosiba forcing Christians to renounce their Lord), but we must also learn to read between the lines of bar Kosiba's texts themselves. References to the liberation of Jerusalem (as found on some of the coins) do not necessarily indicate that he had been successful in liberating that particular city, and the despotic tone within his letters belie a great general's true success.

However bitter-sweet the all-too-brief moment of victory may have been, history has demonstrated to us its tragic end. The death of bar Kosiba himself was but a small thing compared to the destruction that ensued after his rebellion, and the overall catastrophe serves as a lens through which to understand the two Talmudic takes. The Palestinian Talmud, not content with grossly over-exaggerting the scale of the rebellion and its aftermath, reduces itself to snide name-calling and dubs the architect of the revolution a "liar". The Babylonian Talmud's response is somewhat more breathtaking.

Rather than reading the story of Rabbi Akiva's disciples as history, we should read it as what it truly is: a deep grief that can find no better expression than to completely eradicate bar Kosiba and his fateful insurrection from the annals of history. However moving this Talmudic response to crisis is, let us not perpetuate the Babylonian lie. Let us not condemn so many thousands of people to a second death every year by mourning their passing for an incorrect reason. And let us honour the memory of Rabbi Akiva, not by making him the mythological leader of a non-existent 24,000 disciples, but a true disciple himself. And one who did not mind declaring his allegiance in the face of widespread Rabbinic antagonism.

Horny Jew

So, what's with the horns on Michaelangelo's Moses? An ancient European anti-Semitic slur? A mistake, the result of reading the Bible incorrectly? Neither, in my opinion. This is simply the result of being heir to a tradition that does not centralise the Masoretic text of the Bible. To explain:

There are lots of Bibles. Even if we assume that there had once been such a thing as an 'original' Bible, there ended up being many developments from it. In the 3rd century BCE the Pentateuch was translated into Greek, producing several Greek versions; the Greek was translated several times into Latin, producing different versions there; by the 2nd century CE, the Hebrew was again translated into Syriac and, at some stage, into a variety of Aramaic translations; by the 5th century CE, the Hebrew was translated directly into Latin. Then there are all of the further translations into Coptic, Ethoipian, Armenian, English, German, etc. Many of these translations are, themselves, made from translations and not the 'original' text. In fact, even the Hebrew today does not represent an original for a very simple reason.

In putting together the standard text of the Hebrew Bible, 9th century CE scholars in Tiberias (known as the Masoretes) chose readings based on majority texts. To put it simply, if there were two Hebrew manuscripts with a particular reading and three with a different one, then they would side in favour of the three scrolls over the two. That's all well and good, but it means that they ended up with a text that does not represent any ancient text. It's a conglomerate. A text designed by a committee. And it's known as the Masoretic text.

Now, the Masoretic text (or MT) also features something that previous Biblical texts lacked: a system of vocalisation and punctuation known as the מסרה (Masorah, 'tradition'). This was a purely Tiberian development (although there were cognate developments in both Southern Palestine and Babylonia). I mentioned in the previous post that such vocalisation can also serve a disambiguating role. Let's have a look at Exodus 34:29-30:

My translation:

29. And when Moses was coming down from Mt. Sinai, the tablets of testimony were in Moses' hand during his descent down the mountain. But Moses did not know that קרן עור פניו from having spoken to Him.
30. Aharon and all the Israelites saw Moses, and look! קרן עור פניו! And they were too scared to draw close to him.

It is obvious that an understanding of the passage (which continues in v33 with Moses needing to cover his face before speaking to people) depends upon an understanding of the clause קרן עור פניו. What was it that happened to Moses' face? Let's look at each word in turn.

קרן is a word meaning 'protuberance', but is here vocalised as a verb - 'he/it protruded'. (Verb. √קרן Qal 3ms perfective)
עור is a word meaning 'flesh'. (Noun m.sg. Either const. or abs. See discussion below)
פניו is a word, פנים, meaning 'face'. It is followed by the 3rd person masculine singular pronominal suffix: 'his face'.
(Noun m.pl.abs. - pl. in form but sg. in meaning, it sometimes takes a sg., sometimes a pl., verb - cf: GKC §145h)

In English, one of the ways that we express the genitive case is with the word 'of'. The hand of the king, for example. Hebrew, on the other hand, utilises what's known as the construct chain. Sometimes (generally, with singular masculine nouns or plural feminine nouns) the noun itself does not change. Hand is יד and the king is המלך. Hand of the king is simply יד המלך. Of course, 'hand' is actually a feminine word, but I refer here to the form rather than the meaning. A word which is feminine in form (say, מלכה - 'queen') will change its form if it is in a construct chain. Queen (מלכה) of the land (הארץ) becomes מלכת הארץ and the ה changes to a ת. So too with masculine plurals (such as בנים - 'sons'): the ם drops away altogether and leaves us with clauses like בני המלך, the sons of the king.

The confusion in verses 29 and 30 rests on this issue. Does the word עור ('flesh') serve as the object of the verb קרן ('it protruded')? Or is it in construct with the word פניו ('his face')? The truth is, from a purely consonantal reading of the text, we don't know. Because עור is a singular masculine word, it could actually be either: the form wouldn't change to alert us. What is the difference in meaning? Well, let's look at what the Masoretic scholars did with the text and we'll see.

In both instances, they've placed what's known as a disjunctive accent under the word קרן. The two accents are different from each other, but they are both equally disjunctive: they both separate that word from the words following (much like a comma in English). In other words, they don't want us to see עור as the object of the verb. Under the word עור (both times), they have placed a conjunctive accent - indicating that we are to read the word עור as being in a construct chain with פניו. The meaning:

It protruded: the flesh of his face OR (as it is traditionally read) "The flesh of his face radiated". Moses, in speaking with God, began to shine from the pores of his skin and his appearance was so blinding that people feared to draw close to him unless he covered himself up.

That's great, but what's the alternative? What happens if we read עור as the object of the verb instead, and פניו as the sole subject?

"His face protruded flesh". Pretty different, hey? So, it seems, that Michaelangelo was neither an anti-Semite (necessarily) nor incapable of reading Hebrew (again: necessarily). Instead, he was simply heir to a different and equally valid reading tradition.


I've started reading an important text for my Honours work, but I'm having difficulty maintaining my interest in it. Entitled, A Search for Method: A Study in the Syntactic Use of the H-Locale in Classical Hebrew, it is a study from the 1980's that deals in depth with this particular grammatical feature. I've read the introduction and have only scratched the surface of his methodology, but now have to get through a further 250-or-so pages of his analysis. I guess that's not much. And, after all, there's no problem that caffeine can't solve.

This is, at least, the best of the thesis topics that I've alighted upon so far, so I should be pleased. My favourite one (and one which, I was told, I may wish to pursue later) was to be an analysis of disambiguation techniques in unvocalised literature. Vocalised literature (being anything with vowels and other diacritical markings) can employ subtle means of clarifying the meaning of clauses in a text. I will post up examples of this later. Unvocalised literature, on the other hand, would have to rely on things like repetition (I suspect). Genesis 40:5 and 41:7 might be two good examples of this phenomenon at work. But I don't know if any studies have been done on this, and there might not actually be anything to follow up on.

The Seventh Fridge

A man, making aliyah, is taking advantage of the customary lifting of import tax for returning Jews by bringing in a total of seven fridges. Naturally, the Israeli clerk is somewhat surprised and wants to know why anybody would need so many.

"Well, let's see," explains the young man. "I have a fridge for meat, a fridge for dairy, and a fridge for parve."
"O-kay," responds the clerk, "but you have seven fridges."
"Oh, well when Pesakh comes around, I need a fridge for meat, a fridge for dairy, and a fridge for parve."
"That's all very well," notes the clerk, "but what is the seventh fridge for?"
"Well," answers the young man. "Sometimes I eat treif..."

May 19, 2006

The Omer: Why Do We Mourn?

I would certainly be remiss if I limited my 'Omer observations' to comments on other peoples' blogs and failed to reproduce them here, on my own. These observations are not my own, except insofar as I have adopted them, and they are based on both archaeological and textual evidence. The following is the tradition as it has been handed down:

bYeb 62b

The following is my translation:

Rabbi Akiva says, "He who learned in his youth will learn in his old age; he who had disciples in his youth will have disciples in his old age, as it says: 'Sow your seed in the morning', etc." [Qoh 11:6. The full quote, courtesy of JPS, reads: "Sow your seed in the morning, and don't hold back your hand in the evening, since you don't know which is going to succeed, the one or the other, or if both are equally good". This passage in the Talmud appears as part of a baraita and Rabbi Akiva is effectively disagreeing with Rabbi Yehoshua, whose opinion concerning the meaning of this verse is the reason for the Talmud mentioning the baraita in the first place.]

They said, "Rabbi Akiva had 12,000 pairs of disciples between GBT and 'NTYPRS [two cities, according to Rashi] and they all died at one time for they did not respect one another [lit. 'because they did not practise respect']. The world was desolate [due to its lack of Torah scholars: Rashi] until Rabbi Akiva came to the Rabbis of the South and adorned Rabbis Meir, Yehuda, Yossi, Simon and Elazar ben Shamua. And they were the ones who re-established Torah at that time."

[Note: I am unsure of the word ושנאה, which I have here assumed to be √נאה and have taken the ש to be a prefixed relative particle - hence, "and adorned".]

It is taught [concerning Rabbi Akiva's former students] that they all died between Pesakh and the reaping [עצרת, normally a reference to the last day of Sukkot, is here referring to Shavuot instead].

Rav Hama bar Aba (some say, Rav Hiyya bar Abin) said that they all died a horrible death. What was it? Rav Nahman says that it was by choking.

The Talmud then continues by declaring Rabbi Yehoshua correct in this instance and we hear no more of the related incident. Was it history? A resounding no. Aside from the fact that the story of Rabbi Akiva's disciples is brought as part of an ethical aside ("he who has students in his youth..."), are we really to believe that Rabbi Akiva possessed a staggering 24,000 students? There are a little over 4,000 today in Lakewood - one of the world's largest yeshivot! And what is this of a 'choking' plague that wiped them all out "at one time"?

Part of the answer lies within the Palestinian Talmud's version of the story (which is considerably longer). I reproduce here two of the relevent sections:

pTa'an 68d

My translation:

Rabbi Shimon ben Yohai taught that Akiva, the Rabbi, used to expound upon "a star has gone forth from Jacob" [Num 24:17. Many translations understand the verb as being an imperfective in meaning: 'a star shall go forth...']: "Kosiba has gone forth from Jacob". [This is a play on the similarity of the Hebrew word for star, כוכב, and the name כוסיבא]

When Rabbi Akiva saw bar Kosiba he would exclaim, "It is official that he is the king Messiah!"
Rabbi Yohanan ben Torta said to him, "Akiva! Grass will sprout from your cheeks and the son of David will have still not come."

It is to Rabbi Akiva that we owe the pseudonym "bar Kochba", by which Shimon bar Kosiba is traditionally known. The Rabbis who opposed bar Kosiba (strenghtened, no doubt, by his failure to lead the Jews to victory against the Roman army) named him "bar Koziva" instead. While R' Akiva's designation means 'son of a star', the Rabbis effectively named him 'liar'.

[To be cont.]