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.

June 30, 2006

Those cultured Philistines

Discovered a mere ten years ago, the so-called "Eqron Inscription" constitutes the sole extant Philistine-language text. While the Philistine names given in the Bible all appear to be Aegean, the language of this text is undeniably Semitic. Aside from the fact that the script is closely related to the Phoenician script (also dubbed the paleo-Hebrew script due to it being likewise used by the authors of Hebrew inscriptions prior to their adoption of the Aramaic script), the syntax is also Semitic. The inscription is (unfortunately) very short but it is complete and, due to it having been stratified, has been dated with a reasonable degree of certainty to the early seventh century BCE. The following is a word-by-word analysis of this important inscription.


בת - Equivalent to the Hebrew בית, this means either 'house', 'dwelling', 'palace' or 'temple'. As the inscription was found in Eqron (one of the five major Philistine cities) at the site of a temple, the latter English term would be the most applicable. The plene spelling (lacking the central vowel, yodh) indicates that this word features a contracted diphthong (ie: beit as opposed to bayit). It should not be read as a construct noun ('temple of...') but in the absolute and, it should be noted, emphatic. It is interesting to note that, from this word alone, it may appear that definate articles were absent in Philistine.

בנ - Equivalent to the Hebrew בנה, 'he built', although probably pronounced bani, due to the fact that this verb was historically √בני. We should have expected a relative particle here (Hebrew אשר; in Phoenician a preformative ז), so its absence is strange. In meaning, "The temple that he built".

אכיש - This is the subject of the verb, a proper name. The pronounciation of this name is disputed, although it is certainly an Aegean name. Some have drawn parallels to the name Anchises (from Homer's The Iliad), although this may be too forceful a reading. The Bible makes reference to a king from Gath (another of the five Philistine cities) with the name Akish, and many have speculated that this is the king referred to by the Biblical text (cf: 1 Sam 21:11). If that is the case, Akish is merely the Hebraic pronounciation of an Aegean name which was probably pronounced Akhayus - lit. 'Aegean'.

בנ - A good Semitic word! With a final consonant, this would be written בן and it makes up four of the twenty-one words in the inscription.

פדי - Another proper name. Probably Padi.

יסד - This would appear to be a good Aegean name: Hesiod.

אדא - Probably Iddo.

יער - Ya'ir. A Semitic name.

So far: "The temple that Akhayus son of Padi son of Hesiod son of Iddo son of Ya'ir built..."

It is a shame that so much of this already tiny inscription is made up of personal names. Fortunately the rest is a little more revealing, both culturally and grammatically. The following two words are in construct, and that may be the reason for them lacking a word divider.

שר - In Hebrew, this word means 'governor', but the context (should we assume Akhayus to be the same Akish as mentioned in the Biblical text) demands that it be read as 'king'. For that reason, it was probably vocalised with a שׁ (shar) and is cognate to the Akkadian word for king, šarru.

עקרנ - Another proper name, this time the name of the city-state, Eqron.

לפתגי.ה - Interesting! The lamed at the beginning is a particle denoting 'to, for'. The following appears to be the name of a goddess, although much ink has been spilled in ascertaining exactly which goddess it is. The pre-emptive word divider would seem to indicate a simple scribal error, and the medial gimmel looks as though it had originally been started as a nun. The name has been rendered by some scholars as Pytho-Gaia, or Pythian Gaia.

אדתה - This is a feminine noun with a masculine suffix. The noun itself is the feminine form of אדון, 'lord, master'. The final nun has elided with the taw, the taw being a feminine marker for singular nouns. This marker persisted in Hebrew for plural forms (בנות, for example) but dropped away for singular nouns in favour of a final heh. Phoenician also utilised the final taw, showing another point of similarity between the two languages. Finally, the heh at the end looks like an Aramaic suffix (אדתֵה) but is actually of the same stock as the Hebrew/Phoenician waw, and would have been pronounced אדתֹה. It means, "his lady".

To recap: "The Temple that Akhayus son of..., king of Eqron, built for Pytho-Gaia, his Lady."
In other words, this stone seems to have stood as a foundation stone for the temple that stood on this particular Philistine site, marking the name of the king who commisioned its construction. The final section marks a blessing for the king in the name of this illustrious goddess.

תברכה - This is a verb, the second so far. The root of this verb is √ברכ, meaning 'bless'. In form, it is a feminine jussive with a masculine suffix - 'may she bless him'. Again, the final heh was probably vocalised in the same manner as a final waw in Hebrew/Phoenician and not as a final heh in Aramaic.

ותש(מר)ה - Another verb, this time slightly difficult to make out. It would appear to be from the root √שמר, meaning 'guard, keep', but the form is the same as the previous verb save the usage of a waw conjunctivus ('and') affixed to the beginning. It has been noted that this verbal root is very rare in Phoenician, indicating a similarity this time to Hebrew. It has also, however, been noted that the Phoenician corpus is very small and the Hebrew corpus so very large, so one must be wary of drawing too hasty a conclusion.

ותארכ - Another verb, also with a waw conjunctivus at the beginning. With the root √ארכ ('lengthen'), this verb takes as its object the following word:

ימה - A noun, presumably plural. The noun itself is equivalent to the Hebrew יום, meaning 'day', and this formula is a common formula - as evinced by its usage in various Phoenician inscriptions. The Hebrew plural would take an extra yodh (ימיו) so one is left here with one of three possibilities. Either the noun is singular ('his day'), the yodh is pronounced although not written, or the plural form is the same as the singular form - without a yodh.

ותברכ - Another verb of root √ברכ, this time without the suffix. The object lies on the final line:

ארצה - A noun, with the masculine suffix: 'his land'.

The entire inscription reads as follows:
The Temple that Akhayus son of Padi son of Hesiod son of Iddo son of Ya'ir, king of Eqron, built for Pytho-Gaia, his Lady. May she bless him and may she guard him, and may she lengthen his day(s) and may she bless his land.

The formula of blessing and guarding, while also utilised in various Phoenician inscriptions, is strikingly reminiscent (to my mind) of the formula in Leviticus:

יברכך ה' וישמרך
May the Lord bless you and guard you


I have now started studying Classical Ethiopic (Ge'ez) and I thought that I might use this post as an opportunity to write down some basic information about the language.

There are several ways of distinguishing between languages, one of which is on the basis of script. Alphabets feature a set number of characters, each of which is useful as a building block in the construction of words. Cuneiform and hieroglyphic languages have a much larger variety of such blocks, where each one could either represent a word, a syllable or a determinative (ie: an indicator as to the type of word that either follows or precedes this particular symbol. For the purposes of clarification, some words in English could be thought of as determinatives. For example, "number" in "number one" or "year" in "the year 2000". In both instances, the second word - be it 'one' or '2000' - is what conveys the primary meaning, with the first serving the disambiguating role of clarifying just what that meaning is). A third type of language is the syllabary, within which symbols represent a particular syllable.

Ethiopic is a curious language, for it is effectively an alphabetic syllabary. There are only twenty-six primary letters, but each one possesses seven forms, yielding a total of 182 symbols altogether. These different forms exist for the purposes of vocalisation, to explain:

The basic consonant may be represented as C. The forms of this consonant are Ca (ie: with a short a-vowel; this is the standard means of representing a consonant by itself - say, in a dictionary entry), Ci, Ce, Co, Cu, Cā (ie: with a long a-vowel) and Cə (ie: with a shewa - the sound produced between the t and the l in the English "bottle"). The following will serve as an example of this phenomenon.

በ is the Ethiopic ba.
ቢ is bi
ቤ is be
ቦ is bo
ቡ is bu
ባ is and
ብ is

For this reason, Ethiopic words are also remarkably terse (although no moreso, it must be admitted, that languages like Hebrew and Syriac, etc that don't indicate vowels within the body of the text). Some of these words are very similar to Hebrew. Compare, for example, ወረደ (warada) with Hebrew ירד (yarad), both meaning 'he descended'. With other words, however, Ethiopic is very different. Compare ኔጉሥ (neguš) with Hebrew מלך (melekh), both meaning 'king'. Languages should never be related to each other on the basis of lexicon and, with a great deal of syntactic overlap, it is easy to see why Ge'ez is classified as Semitic.

The chief difference that does lie, however, between Ge'ez and Hebrew is in the direction of the script: moving from left to right as English does, rather than the right-to-left movement so common amongst Semitic languages. Some of the letters appear to have more in common with Greek and Latin over Hebrew as well - መ is ma, ለ is la (Greek λ), for example. There only appears to be one letter in the alphabet that looks akin to the Hebreo-Aramaic alphabet, and that is ሠ (ša) for Hebrew ש (šin). A few of the letters have much in common with proto-Hebrew, however, and this probably comes down to the time at which the languages separated - Hebrew abandoning the Phoenician alphabet in favour of the Aramaic and Ethiopic adopting the Arabic monumental script.

A curious pehnomenon, and one which I am prepared to chalk up to being a bizarre coincidence, is in the similarity between a letter in Ge'ez and letter in Thai! Thai is a south-western Tai-Kadai language with no common ground with Semitic, so it does seem odd that ከ (ka) looks so similar to the Thai ก (kai)...

Gaster, redux.

Published in 1961, Gaster's magnum opus still has relevance today. Entitled, Thespis, this book presents the thesis that all festivals are owed, initially, to seasonal concerns. Based upon the work of other scholars who dealt with the English mummers' play, the Rig Veda, ancient Chinese folk songs, the Grail romances, the Scandinavian Elder Edda and Greek tragedy, Gaster applies the same formulae to an appreciation of cultic festivals in the ancient Near East. His argument: that there are four types of festivals, falling into two clear categories.

The first category is that of Kenosis ('emptying'). This category contains the following two rites:

1) Rites of Mortification: An example of this would be the festival of the 9th of Ab (תשעה באב). This was originally a festival to the Babylonian god of fertility, Tammuz. Occurring in the driest part of the Palestinian year, the festival aims at encouraging rainfall through encouraging tears. Such rites were common throughout the region, making the Psalmist's declaration that "he who sows in tears will reap with joy" (Ps 126:5) a pertinent one indeed.
2) Rites of Purgation: An example of this would be Yom HaKippurim. It is common for rites of purgation to precede rites of jubilation (dealt with shortly), and Gaster refers to the contemporary practise amongst Orthodox Jews of fasting on their wedding day.

The second category is Plerosis ('filling'). This category contains the following two rites:

1) Rites of Invigoration: These rites celebrate the onset of the harvest and are frequently marked with overt sexual practises. Passover is the classic example, an indication of its sexual nature lying within the circumcision performed by the nation prior to eating the paschal sacrifice (Jos 5:2-11), as well as the association between Passover and Song of Songs.
2) Rites of Jubilation: Once the harvest is assured, festivals take on a greater sense of celebration. An example of such a festival is Shabuot, not to mention Sukkot (which follows on from Yom HaKippurim, as mentioned) - the first day of which is referred to as being the most joyful day in the Hebrew calendar.

Every one of these festivals also possesses an added historical reason. The 9th of Ab commemorates the destruction of the two Temples in Jerusalem; Shabuot celebrates the reception of the law at Sinai; Passover celebrates the exodus from Egypt; etc. These (pseudo-)historical reasons are supplementary to the festival, and were associated with the festival at such a time as the Israelites saw fit to distance themselves from the cultic practises of their forebears. While they were not able to eradicate the observance of the seasonal festivals from popular consciousness, they were able to subvert them. While it may come as a surprise to some, the celebrations of our world lie steeped in purely practical (not to mention, climatic) concerns.

June 28, 2006

שר הטבעות

שָׁלֹשׁ טַבָּעוֹת לְמַלְכֵי עֲלָפִים תַּחַת שְׁמֵי הַטְּלָלִים
שֶׁבַע לְשַׂרֵי גַּמְדָּאִים בִּנְקָרוֹת עוֹטוֹת־צֵל
תֵּשַׁע לִבְנֵי־הָאָדָם, בְּנֵי־תְּמוּתָה אֻמְלָלִים
אַחַת לְשַׂר הָאֹפֶל עַל כִּסְאוֹ הָאָפֵל
בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹרְדוֹר, שָׁם רוֹבְצִים הַצְּלָלִים
טַבַּעַת אַחַת לִמְשׁוֹל בּכֻלָּן, טַבַּעַת אַחַת לְמָָצְאָן
טַבַּעַת אַחַת לְהָשִׁיב אֶת כֻּלָּן, בָּאֹפֶל לְכָבְלָן
בְּאֶרֶץ מוֹרְדוֹר, שָׁם רוֹבְצִים הַצְּלָלִים

מתרגם: אוריאל אופק

Not normally political...

I am finding myself increasingly frustrated with the Palestinians. They complain that they don't have valid leadership and that their woes are not of their own devising. But the leader is not just the one who stands up the front; leadership manifests itself at every level of the community. Why do they spend so much time and effort training suicide bombers and missile-manufacturers? Why don't they spend this time training doctors, so that they don't have to rely upon Israeli hospitals? Or training teachers, so that the next generation will not be as irretrievably stupid as the current one?

Israel has left Gaza, but due to typical Palestinian belligerence (firing missiles, kidnapping an Israeli serviceman, etc), Israel is now threatening to go back in. And, of course, the Palestinians are loudly bemoaning their fate in true Islamic fashion. What is preventing them from declaring a state? They could declare a state in Gaza, and that would give them the political leverage they need to force Israel out of the West Bank. But they are lazy, and their laziness will prevent them from declaring a state even if the Israelis were to leave them the entire region.

Israel will, eventually, withdraw from the West Bank. They have no choice. But still the Palestinians will complain. They will complain that Israel needs to establish a state for them, that Israel needs to supply them with buses, banks, schools, hospitals. That Israel needs to train their army, raise their children, cook their dinner. Are they ever going to do anything for themselves? In a move that was strikingly similar to Joshua's hamstringing of the enemy horses, the Palestinians burned to the ground every item of Israeli infrastructure in Gaza. Rather than utilise pre-existent businesses, they preferred to loot and ransack them. We could always build them schools, but they'd probably only steal the pens and burn the building.

June 18, 2006


קרב דומה בראשו אל יפיפה
אשר כל איש לשחק בה יאוה
וסופו כזקנה המאוסה
אשר כל שוחרה יבכה וידוה

War is at first like a beautiful girl
With whom all men long to play,
But in the end like a repulsive hag
Whose suitors all weep and ache

- by Samuel HaNagid (993-1056)
The Penguin Book of Hebrew Verse (trans. and ed. T. Carmy; New York: Penguin, 1981), 291.

June 14, 2006


Q: I recently attended a Passover seder and was rather confused by the fifth cup of wine, poured for Elijah at the end of the meal. Aside from the fact that, as an adult, I find it difficult to believe that Elijah is really supposed to come and drink this cup of wine, wasn't there supposed to be some significance to the number four? We tell the story of four sons, we ask four questions in Mah Nishtana and - I thought - poured (only) four cups of wine. Please explain this strange fifth cup to me.

The answer to your question is bound up with matters concerning the Messiah. This is a Hebrew word (in Hebrew, משיח) which means 'anointed'. Kings and high priests used to be anointed with oil and the reference to a Messiah is really a reference to a (future) king who will be anointed and will rule over the entire world. Tradition states that this king must be of the Davidic dynasty but, old though this tradition may be, all traditions have an origin.

If we look at the New Testament, we see that this tradition is very old indeed. Remember, all four Gospels were written by Jews. Luke was a convert to Judaism, but Matthew, Mark and John were all Jews by birth. Their texts (the Gospels) were committed to writing even before the Mishna and are an excellent source of information on Jewish beliefs 2,000 years ago. Of course, much may needed to be taken with a grain of salt (a consideration that even needs to be borne in mind when dealing with the Rabbinic literature!), but a quick glance shows us that this tradition was in effect even then. Matthew commences his Gospel by demonstrating Jesus' lineage back to King David, and the Greek word used for Jesus' position throughout all four texts is χριστος (Christos, 'anointed').

To get any dissent on this matter, we have to go back to the Hebrew Bible itself and, when there, we have to read between the lines. There are numerous statements concerning redemption, but they don't all fit into the 'traditional' mould. Many of them speak of God as effecting the redemption: bringing back all of the remnants of his nation to the land of Israel, returning them to an era of peace and prosperity. Isaiah's famous vision of the end of days when the wolf shall lie down with the lamb, says nothing about a king. On the contrary, it speaks about all the peoples of the world flocking to the mountain of God. This is understood to be a reference to the Temple mount, but it does not have to be. It may, instead, be a reference to Sinai - when God was the only king.

Of course, if references were limited to either God or a Davidic monarch, things would be pretty simple. Things, however, are never that simple. Malachi 3:23-24 uses a different expression again, this time promising the arrival of the prophet Elijah. As Malachi states, "Lo, I shall send Elijah the prophet to you before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord. And he shall reconcile the hearts of fathers with their sons and of sons with their fathers, lest I come and smite the land with destruction". Jewish liturgical tradition has the synagogue leader repeat the first part of this proclamation ("Lo, I shall send...") so as not to end the reading on a sour note.

But what is the proclamation foretelling? It would appear to be a messianic redemption at the hands of Elijah the prophet! Perhaps this is not so strange for, of all the prophets, Elijah is the only one who scripture records as having ascended alive to heaven (II Kings 2:11) - in a fiery chariot, no less, which is reminiscent of Ezekiel's vision of the throne of God. That such a tradition may have existed is likely, though by no means certain. By the time the germ of the messianic idea attains fruition, this verse is utilised to show that God will send Elijah the prophet before sending the Davidic Messiah.

This is certainly a very old tradition as well, as can be testified to (again) by the New Testament. When John the Baptist is questioned regarding his identity (John 1:21-23), the first question that he is asked is as to whether or not he is Elijah. Although he answers in the negative, he is elsewhere identified as the same (cf: Matthew 17:10-13; Mark 9:11-13). Jewish tradition also perceives Elijah as the harbinger of the messianic era and captures this belief in a popular children's song which, sung to a simple tune, recounts various names of the prophet. The lines of the song are as follows:

"Eliyahu HaNavi" - Elijah the prophet
"Eliyahu HaTishbi" - Elijah the Tishbite (ie: resident of Toshav)
"Eliyahu HaGileadi" - Elijah of the Gileadite clan
"Bimheirah yavo eleinu" - May he come speedily to us
"Im Mashiakh ben David" - With the Messiah, son of David.

Now, there is one more issue of relevance before I am able to answer your question concerning the fifth cup of wine. The Babylonian Talmud utilises a couple of interesting expressions in those rare instances where it is unable to arrive at a conclusion. These expression are the work of the Talmud's 7th and 8th century editors, whose role it was to compile the various opinions and to indicate whose opinion was to emerge as the consensus in any given situation. Some of the arguments are rather protracted and a clear victor is difficult to determine; in others, there is no victor.

One of these expressions, utilised specifically in monetary debates, is יהא מונח עד שיבא אליהו (Let it rest until Elijah comes). In other words, when Elijah comes to herald the messianic era, such matters will become clear to us. Another expression is תיקו, and this one is understood in a couple of different ways. One is to read it as an abbreviation for תיקום (Let [the question] stand), but another is to read it as תיק"ו, where the inverted commas in the Hebrew indicates that it is an acronym. People who read it as such are inclined to understand the words as being תשבי יתרץ קושיות ובעיות (Let the Tishbite [ie: Elijah] solve all complications and questions).

Now: on to your complicated question! There are two parts to the tradition and, therefore, two answers. The first and easy part involves the opening of the door. This is the result of an unfortunate calendrical coincidence. As Passover happens to (roughly) coincide with Easter, European Jews found themselves persecuted during their own festivities. Blood libels under the ridiculous premise that Jews were utilising Christian blood in their celebration of Passover were propagated by intoxicated Christians, returning home from incendiary Passion plays. The opening of the door was mandated by the local authorities as a means of ensuring that nothing untoward would be occurring within Jewish homes.

As for the fifth cup of wine, the answer is slightly more complicated. The tradition of drinking wine at the Passover seder is related to the tradition of sanctifying the festival. As the Talmud states (in Tractate Pesakhim), every festival must be sanctified with both fire (candles) and wine. But how many glasses of wine are we expected to drink? The answer given by the Talmud is four: one for each expression of redemption in Exodus 6:6-7:

So say to the children of Israel that I am the Lord and that I shall take you out of Egyptian travails, and I shall rescue you from their servitude; and I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with mighty judgements. And I shall take you to me as a nation and I will be your God; and you will know that I am the Lord your God who brings you out of Egyptian travails.

For each of these expressions of redemption, we should drink one glass of wine. But wait! What about verse 8? The text continues:

And I will bring you into the land which I have raised my hand [ie: swore] to give to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; and I will give it you as an inheritance for I am the Lord.

Does this not constitute a fifth expression of redemption? Of course! But there is a problem. Since the Romans destroyed the Temple and exiled the Jewish people, this promise is no longer expressed in actuality. While we are supposed to believe that such will one day be the case again, not everybody in the Talmud agrees that we should memorialise it by drinking a glass of wine. Glasses, which are smashed under a wedding canopy to symbolise the fact that our joy can never be complete when we are in exile, are not fitting to house wine in celebration of this particular promise.

And the argument goes unresolved to this day. Some sages declared that a fifth cup should be drunk, while others argued that it should be left until such time as the Temple is rebuilt and a Davidic king rules over Jerusalem. The solution of the editors: תיק"ו. Let Elijah come and the matter will be resolved - it is not for us to ponder it. And to this very day, this is the tradition. Four cups of wine are drunk, but the fifth cup (Elijah's cup) is merely poured and then left. Not so a phantom Elijah can walk in our door and drink the cup, but as a purely legalistic formality that requires the pouring of five cups but is unresolved concerning the drinking of the fifth.

June 13, 2006

A Stone's Throw From Jerusalem

Every now and then you hear another story about some crazy idiot on Bar Ilan St, throwing rocks at passing motorists and yelling, "Shabbos!" I've seen these people yelling (because, obviously, the driver is simply unaware of the gravity of their inexcusable sin), but have fortunately never witnessed the throwing of rocks - some of which have caused serious injury and even death.

What can their excuse possibly be? A story is told of a Rabbi who emigrated to America from Poland along with all of his disciples. One Shabbat morning, while walking to shul, he saw a Jewish man mowing his lawn. Immediately, the Rabbi burst into tears. When his disciples wanted to know why he was crying he told them that this was the first time he had ever seen a Jew break Shabbat. The following week, however, he saw the same man doing the same thing on the same day and again he burst into tears. When his disciples wanted to know why he was crying this time he told them, "Already I am becoming used to it."

It's an interesting story, and very serious for many people. I was told once, by some bokhurim on Bar Ilan, that when they say "Shabbos!" they are seeking to remind themselves, lest they should ever forget. Interesting. That might account for those who mutter it under their breath, but it certainly doesn't account for those who scream furiously at the passing cars, eyes wide and mouth foaming. And nothing excuses the throwing of a rock.

Again, why do they do it? A rock, after all, is muqtzeh, meaning that it cannot be picked up on Shabbat anyway. That would mean that the rock had to have been put aside before Shabbat with the intention of being used in this manner. Is that really what people do? I doubt it. It's more likely that they see this as more important than a simple law of "מוקצה מחמת גופו" (the specific category of muqtzeh into which a rock falls).

Perhaps there is permission to throw rocks on Shabbat, granted by some Rabbi in Bnei Brak. I was thinking about where such proof could come from, and I think I've found the answer! [WARNING: The following is not meant to be taken seriously. Really.]

In Mishna Sukkah (4:9) a story is told of a Sadducee who did not comply with Rabbinic law. The law in question related to the pouring of water on the altar during Sukkot, but this Sadducee poured it on his legs instead (thus serving as the origin of the stipulation that the priest must pour the water in full view of the congregation). The outcome? All of the people standing around picked up their etrogim and threw them at the Sadducee, stoning him to death.

This story is also related in the Babylonian Talmud (Sukkah 48b-49a), but the Talmud's version of the story is typeset slightly differently, running Mishnayot 4:9 and 4:10 together into one. As Mishna 4:10 commences with the words, "כמעשהו בחל כך מעשהו בשבת" ('as it was done during the week, so was it done on Shabbat'), this could also be taken to refer to the stoning of the Sadducee. Such an understanding relies on taking the clause completely out of context, but this is not unheard of within the Rabbinic system of exegesis.

What is more, Rashi comments on the clause in a very strange way, indicating the existence of alternative 12/13th century Talmudic manuscripts. In his words, the congregation witnessed the Sadducee pouring the water on his legs, picked up stones and proceeded to throw them at him...

Permission granted?

June 11, 2006

How 'bout THEM Apples?

Another brilliant exposition by DLC.

June 10, 2006

The End of Television

I found myself in an interesting conversation last night with my grandmother. An elderly lady of 82, she spends most of her nights sitting and watching television. One night, not so long ago, she happened to change over to Big Brother. She has since decided to get in touch with the network executives of the television station responsible for "this filth" and tell them what she thinks of it. Her actions would be futile, and I told her so. Television networks do not care for the opinions of individuals on a matter such as this, they care for ratings. Big Brother, as a hugely popular television programme, will remain on the air despite the protests of an individual who, it should be noted, does not belong to their targeted demographic. Yet, despite all this, she has a powerful point.

"Reality TV", the new craze to sweep our television-infatuated generation, is a misnomer. The programs that fall into this category constitute neither an adequate reflection of reality, nor a satisfactory form of 'TV' entertainment. They are, as my grandmother so succinctly observed, "filth". The days of shows like Leave it to Beaver and The Brady Bunch are over. Today, television audiences want to see the limits of the media pushed ever further into what they deem to be 'real'. The family-oriented sit-coms of the '70s and '80s are unreal: the lifestyles that they promote and the values that they advertise are as false as the smiles and the hairdos of their polished protagnonists. But does Big Brother truly represent a viable alternative?

My grandmother, along with others of her generation, feels that Reality TV is encouraging vice. It promotes sexual promiscuity, pornographic voyeurism and (although perhaps only indirectly) drug-abuse and violence. The reason for the rise in crime over the last few decades falls squarely (in her opinion) on the media. If television shows continued to present the same plastic decency as they had in the past, our lives would be greatly improved. She is wrong.

Art is as much a product of its surrounding environment as it is a catalyst of the same. Oscar Wilde, in his brilliant The Picture of Dorian Gray, dealt precisely with this issue. His conclusion: art imitates life, imitating art. While the films that present (or attempt to present) violence and sexual abuse in all of their gritty reality may be promoting such activities, they are moreso driven by the rise of such activities in our society. The real cause lies with population explosion and STDs - the latter of which has promoted frank and honest discussion of sexual matters.

So, what's wrong with Big Brother?

While Reality TV may not be (directly) promoting the sorts of problems that are tearing our society apart, it is encouraging another vice: stupidity. Ours is a generation raised on television. People today are more comfortable vegetating in front of a screen - irrespective of what is being shown - than they are reading a book. A book requires effort, it's not going to sit there and read itself. It requires skill. Television programmes make few such demands and, as time progresses, they make even fewer.

The West today is experiencing a cultural phenomenon much like the decline of the Roman Empire. The height of our glory marks also the very depths of our depravity. Reality TV is proof of the fact that audiences are no longer discerning. Toilet humour and sexual lewdness are sufficient to keep somebody glued to the set. Lines do not need to be memorised, themes do not need to be portrayed; so long as somebody takes off their clothes, the show is a winner. Is this a taste of the future of television? It is merely an exaggeration of what television has been all along, and I see no salvaging of the industry at all.

Mind Over Matter

How can you be sure that I am typing this post with my hands?

June 09, 2006

On the Pleasures of Smoking...

It is official: I have started smoking a pipe! Is there any way to fully describe the pleasure of sitting and thinking, with soft music playing in the background and curls of sweet-smelling smoke rising in twisting grey towers and floating out the window? When I first put a pipe to my lips (a month ago now), it took a short time before the smoke tasted smooth and aromatic. At first, as with cigarettes, the smoke was acrid and burnt my tongue. The subtleties of its texture were lost on my untrained palette. With time, I learned to appreciate the smoke and to pack my pipe properly so as not to overheat it with every drag.

The chief difference between pipes and cigarettes lies in the quality of tobacco smoked. Cigarette tobacco is, in a word, foul. I do not fear offending smokers for I was a cigarette smoker once and throughout all the years that I drew habitually upon each cigarette it never once tasted pleasant. Nobody has ever, in the protracted history of cigarette smoking, enjoyed the 'taste' of a cigarette. The tobacco is generally poor quality, dried to point of being brittle and chalk-like, and nasty in its odour. The cigarette smoker sucks desperately at the filter, eager to achieve the hit for which they thrive. This burst of nicotine is the sole reason that a cigarette smoker smokes.

Not so with pipe tobacco! Fresh, moist and springy, it conveys a pleasing smell while even in the packet. When burning, its odour is sweet and delightful, it's taste smooth and pleasant. Any seasoned pipe smoker can immediately tell the difference between poor- and high-quality tobacco, long before they have even begun the process of packing their pipes. Even a novice such as myself is not blind to the inherent qualities that pipe tobacco possesses over its dried-out cigarette cousin. But which tobacco does one choose?

I have only, as yet, savoured two different brands - both produced by the good folks at Sol Levy: Tobacconist Extraordinaire (George St, Sydney). The first, Levy's #4, was of a mild pistachio nut flavour and the second, Light and Dark, is of vanilla "with a hint of chocolate". A man who calls himself The Professor has a detailed (and, I suppose, reasonably exhaustive) review of each of the major pipe tobacco brands and flavours. As well as providing links to various sites aimed at facilitating the learning process for a beginning smoker, his site also offers enjoyable descriptions of the pleasures of pipes.

The pipe that I chose for myself, similar in appearance to the one pictured above, was also purchased at Sol Levy, and was chosen for its provocative style - reminiscent of depictions of Sherlock Holmes, lost in thought. That, for me, sums up the major appeal of pipe smoking. It is not just the taste nor the smell of the smoke that arouses my curiosity, but the pensive lifestyle promoted by the activity. Smoking is not a means of passing the time before making an appointment; it can not be done (comfortably) while driving a car or dancing at a club. Smoking a pipe is an activity to be performed while sitting. What is more, the gentle noise of crackling embers in the polished briar, along with the lilting strains of orchestral music, should be the only noises to invade the smoker's mind.

June 06, 2006

"Killing Me Softly": Cultic Infanticide in Ancient Israel

There is no doubt that people feel an aversion to the issue of infanticide. Despite several indicators within the Hebrew Bible that some people were murdering their children, as a 'sacrifice' or otherwise, Rabbinic literature insists on employing euphemisms (cf: bTa'an 4a - "שאלו שלו כהוגן") and some mediaeval commentators avoid the issue entirely. The Bible itself appears uneasy, as can be seen by contrasting the suspense in leading up to the non-sacrifice of Isaac (Gen 22) with the brevity of the actual sacrifice conducted by Jephtha (Jud 11). This would seem to indicate that ancient audiences felt a similar aversion to the issue.

So far as the narrator's description of Jephtha's sacrifice is concerned, mediaeval exegetes employed the brevity of the text to support the notion that, as with the Pentateuchal aqeidah story (Gen 22:1-14), Jephtha's daughter had not actually been sacrificed at all. This is despite the fact that other ancient witnesses to the story appear to accept the sacrifice as having occurred. Instead, some commentators decided that she had merely been forced to lead a life of pious seclusion - an assertion made possible through the narrator's repeated reference to the girl's virginity (Jud 11:37, 38, 39).

Although we have already mentioned the non-sacrifice of Isaac, the story nonetheless testifies to the possibility of human sacrifice, as does the story of Jephtha's daughter (irrespective of what became of her). The following is a list of places within the Hebrew Bible that speak of this same phenomenon. For the sake of completeness, I have included the Isaac and the Jephtha stories.

1) Gen 22:1-14 (Abraham is told to sacrifice his son. He already knows what to take with him and what to do. Assumedly, the audience is also familiar with the procedure);

2) Lev 18:21 (You may not pass your seed through the fire to Molekh: for a range of classical interpretations, see G. Vermes, "Leviticus 18:21 in Ancient Jewish Bible Exegesis", Studies in Aggadah, Targum and Jewish Liturgy in Memory of Joseph Heinemann (Jerusalem, 1981), 108-124);

3) Lev 20:2-5 (All those who give their seed to Molekh must be executed);

4) Deut 18:10 (Nobody may consign their son or daughter to the fire, or practice divination);

5) Jud 11 (Jephtha swears to sacrifice the first thing to leave his house; Jephtha's daughter runs out to greet him; Jephtha is said to fulfil his vow);

6) 2 Kgs 3:27 (Moabite king sacrifices his son on the city wall. It appears to work, as the Israelite armies then return home);

7) 2 Kgs 21:6 (Menasseh consigned his son to the fire, and practiced divination);

8) 2 Kgs 23:10 (Josiah destroyed the Topheth in the valley of Ben Hinnom so that nobody may consign their son or daughter to the fire of Molekh);

8a) 2 Kgs 23:14 (Josiah shattered the pillars, cut down the sacred posts, and covered the site with human bones. It is in my opinion that this verse may be read to imply that the breaking of the pillars and the posts was what caused the site to be covered with bones, ie: human remains had been stored within these casings);

9) Isa 28:15, 18 (Jerusalemites made a covenant with death: a reference to child sacrifice, according to J. Day, Molech: A God of Human Sacrifice in the Old Testament (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989), 58-64).

In light of references to the Ammonite God Milcom/Molekh (1 Kgs 11:5, 7 and 2 Kgs 23:13), it appears reasonable to assume that this may have been an Ammonite - and not an Israelite - phenomenon. This could account for familiarity with the practice, as well as the implicit irony in Jephtha's sacrifice (having returned from conquering the Ammonites). Is this a reasonable assumption?

Archaeological evidence for this practice in Palestine is scanty, but literary evidence does exist. If the Israelites had not practiced cultic infanticide as had their neighbours (not only the Ammonites: evidence exists to likewise incriminate the Phoenicians and the Carthaginians), then there would be no need to forbid it in such harsh terms.

The strongest evidence (omitted above) lies in Ex 22:28-29. I reproduce the two verse below:

מלאתך ודמעך לא תאחר
בכור בניך תתן־לי
כן תעשה לשרך לצאנך
שבעת ימים יהיה עם־אמו ביום השמיני תתנו־לי

The first clause is of dubious translation, but is rendered by JPS as:
"You shall not put off the skimming of the first yield of your vats"

This clause is probably a metaphorical allusion to the following (my translation):

"You shall give me your first-born son;
Such shall you do with your ox(en), (and) with your flocks:
Seven days will he be with his mother, (but) on the eighth day you shall give (him) to me"

At first glance, this appears to be of the same nature as other laws that mandate the sacrifice of first-born livestock (Ex 13:12-13; Ex 34:19-20; Num 18:15). Upon deeper investigation, however, we notice a problem. The subject in the first line is in the singular (your first-born son) and singular in the third (he will be with his mother), but plural in the second (oxen, flocks). What is more, the connective clause כן תעשה (such shall you do) is noted by Fishbane to be an example of a later editorial edition (M. Fishbane, Biblical Interpretation in Ancient Israel (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 2004), 181). Once we realise this, we also notice that two of the other parallel verses - Ex 13:12-13 and Ex 34:19-20 - also feature additions. Not content with merely stipulating the law that relates to livestock, they also hastily add that such is not the case with human offspring.

What are we to make of this? Several academics perceive this to be a clear indication that cultic infanticide was practiced in ancient Israel. This would explain references to it, familiarity with it, laws against it, editorial work to cover it, and exegetical discomfort with it. It would also do much to indicate that such, indeed, was the fate of Jephtha's daughter, robbed of name and robbed of future, for her father uttered a vow to the Lord and it could not be retracted (Jud 11:35).

A Time For Everything

לכל זמן ועת לכל־חפץ תחת השמים
עת ללדת ועת למות
עת לטעת ועת לעקור נטוע
עת להרוג ועת לרפוא
עת לפרוץ ועת לבנות
עת לבכות ועת לשחוק
עת ספוד ועת רקוד
עת להשליך אבנים ועת כנוס אבנים
עת לחבוק ועת לרחק מחבק
עת לבקש ועת לאבד
עת לשמור ועת להשליך
עת לקרוע ועת לתפור
עת לחשות ועת לדבר
עת לאהב ועת לשנא
עת מלחמה ועת שלום

Ecc 3:1-8

A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven:
A time for being born and a time for dying,
A time for planting and a time for uprooting the planted;
A time for slaying and a time for healing,
A time for tearing down and a time for building up;
A time for weeping and a time for laughing,
A time for wailing and a time for dancing;
A time for throwing stones and a time for gathering stones,
A time for embracing and a time for shunning embraces;
A time for seeking and a time for losing,
A time for keeping and a time for discarding;
A time for ripping and a time for sewing,
A time for silence and a time for speaking;
A time for loving and a time for hating,
A time for war and a time for peace


June 05, 2006

10 Things I Hate About Commandments

"My Soul Thirsts"

This may be the new Satmar Rebbe of Kiryat Joel, but his song sounds a little familiar... Perhaps the revolution will be televised?

June 02, 2006

Elisha ben Abuya VI

We now move on to the second and somewhat more complex component of the Babylonian EbA narrative. As before, all translations (unless indicated otherwise) are my own.

כי נח נפשיה דאחר אמרי לא מידן לידייניה ולא לעלמא דאתי ליתי לא מידן לידייניה משום דעסק באורייתא ולא לעלמא דאתי ליתי משום דחטא אמר ר"מ מוטב דלידייניה וליתי לעלמא דאתי מתי אמות ואעלה עשן מקברו כי נח נפשיה דרבי מאיר סליק קוטרא מקבריה דאחר אמר רבי יוחנן גבורתא למיקלא רביה חד הוה ביננא ולא מצינן לאצוליה אי נקטיה ביד מאן מרמי ליה מאן אמר מתי אמות ואכבה עשן מקברו כי נח נפשיה דרבי יוחנן פסק קוטרא מקבריה דאחר פתח עליה ההוא ספדנא אפילו שומר הפתח לא עמד לפניך רבינו
bHag 15b

When Akher died, they said, "He should not be judged and he should not be brought into the world [to come]. He should not be judged because he busied himself with Torah, but he should not be brought into the world [to come] because he sinned".
Rabbi Meir said, "It is better that he be punished and not brought into the world [to come]. When I die, I shall cause smoke to rise from his grave". When Rabbi Meir died, a column of smoke ascended from the grave of Akher.
Rabbi Yohanan said, "Is it a great deed to burn one's master? One who was amongst us, and we are not able to save him? If I take him by the hand, who will tear him away from me? Who?" He said, "When I die, I will extinguish the smoke from his grave". When Rabbi Yohanan died, the column of smoke departed from the grave of Akher. The eulogiser [of Rabbi Yohanan] commenced [his discourse] concerning him, "Even the guardian of the gate would not have stood before you, Our Rabbi".

From the sequence of events, it would seem that "they" in the first section refers to the heavenly court. Condemned to a form of eternal limbo, EbA is neither to be punished for his sins, nor rewarded for his good deeds. In the Palestinian version we saw how EbA was punished automatically and the column of smoke, a symbol of that punishment, was removed by Rabbi Meir. In the Babylonian version we see how Rabbi Meir, after his own death, instigates EbA's punishment himself. One can assume that this is simply in order that EbA may, later on, enter the world to come.

Rabbi Yohanan has a different approach, and that is to bring EbA into the world to come with him. He succeeds in negating the punishment and, from the words of his eulogiser, we can assume that he also succeeded in bringing EbA into the world to come. The reference to the guardian of the gate, so far as that is concerned, could be either a reference to the gate of Paradise or the gate of Hell, although the latter probably makes more sense in context. It is curious, not only that Rabbi Yohanan is fulfilling the role of redeemer and Rabbi Meir of accuser, but that Rabbi Yohanan's statement is the first indication within the Babylonian story that Rabbi Meir was EbA's disciple. As we shall soon see, the Babylonian Talmud is markedly more reserved about acknowledging the validity of EbA's teachings.

בתו של אחר אתיא לקמיה דרבי אמרה ליה רבי פרנסני אמר לה בת מי את אמרה לו בתו של אחר אני אמר לה עדיין יש מזרעו בעולם והא כתיב לא נין לו ולא נכד בעמו ואין שריד במגוריו אמרה לו זכור לתורתו ואל תזכור מעשיו מיד ירדה אש וסכסכה ספסלו של רבי בכה ואמר רבי ומה למתגנין בה כך למשתבחין בה על אחת כמה וכמה
bHag 15b

Akher's daughter came before Rebbe [Yehuda HaNasi]. She said to him, "Rebbe, support me".
He said to her, "Whose daughter are you?"
She said to him, "Akher's daughter".
I [ie: he] said to her, "Is there yet of his seed in the world? Behold, it says, 'He has no seed or breed among his people, no survivor where he once lived' (Job 18:19, acc. to JPS)".
She said to him, "Remember his Torah and do not remember his actions!"
Immediately, a fire descended and singed Rebbe's bench. Rebbe cried and said, "And what [a thing] for those who dishonour her [ie: Torah]! How much more so for those who respect her!"

Once more, there are some interesting differences between this version of the story and the one in the Palestinian Talmud. There, we were encountering EbA's daughters, while here it is a sole girl. There it was but their admonition that won them Rebbe's respect but here we see a repeat of the fire motif where, due to the girl's tremendous piety, heaven itself attempts to demonstrate the validity of her suggestion. While the Palestinian version was strong enough to seal the narrative, our version here is merely being used as a segue to a broader discussion about the viability of learning from a sinner.

ור"מ היכי גמר תורה מפומיה דאחר והאמר רבה בר בר חנה אמר רבי יוחנן מאי דכתיב כי שפתי כהן ישמרו דעת ותורה יבקשו מפיהו כי מלאך ה' צבאות הוא אם דומה הרב למלאך ה' צבאות יבקשו תורה מפיהו ואם לאו אל יבקשו תורה מפיהו אמר ר"ל ר"מ קרא אשכח ודרש הט אזנך ושמע דברי חכמים ולבך תשית לדעתי לדעתם לא נאמר אלא לדעתי רב חנינא אמר מהכא שמעי בת וראי והטי אזנך ושכחי עמך ובית אביך קשו קראי אהדדי לא קשיא הא בגדול הא בקטן כי אתא רב דימי אמר אמרי במערבא ר"מ אכל תחלא ושדא שיחלא לברא
bHag 15b

As for Rabbi Meir, how could he learn Torah from Akher's mouth? Did not Rabba bar bar Hana say in the name of Rabbi Yohanan, "Why does it say, 'For the lips of a priest guard knowledge, and Torah is sought from his mouth; For he is the angel of the Lord of Hosts' (Mal 2:7)? If the master is like the angel of the Lord of Hosts, Torah may be sought from his mouth. But if he is not, one must not seek Torah from his mouth!"
Reish Laqish said, "Rabbi Meir found a verse and expounded it: 'Incline your ear and hear the words of the sages, and pay attention to my wisdom' (Pr 22:17). It does not say 'to their wisdom', but 'to my wisdom'."
Rav Hanina said, "From here: 'Listen, daughter, and look. Incline your ear; and forget your people and the house of your father' (Ps 45:11)."
(These verses contradict each other! There is no contradiction: [one speaks of] an adult, [the other speaks of] a child.)
Rav Dimi came along and said, "They say in the west [ie: in Palestine], 'Rabbi Meir ate a partially ripe date and he threw the skin away' ".

We commenced this section with a principle learned from Rabbi Yohanan, that if one is not sufficiently like the angel of the Lord, one is also not a fitting teacher for Torah. This would seem to be a clear indictment of Rabbi Meir who, we are now reminded, learned Torah from EbA. What follows, however, are three attempts to salvage Rabbi Meir's reputation. In the process, they also serve to legitimise EbA's teachings. The message of each of these expositions is effectively the same. Rabbi Meir indicates that the Torah taught by EbA was still the Torah of God, even if EbA himself was an unworthy vessel for such wisdom. Rav Hanina stresses a focus on the teachings and a lack of concern for the man's lineage and personal history. Rav Dimi effectively expresses both notions again with the metaphor of a partially ripe fig. While the contents are still edible, the exterior is only worthy of being thrown in the street.

This is a fairly harsh indictment of the man himself, but it is one which is true to form. It adequately represents the manner in which the Talmud perceived him but, from the obvious care and deliberation that went into the Talmud's story (as shall become evident shortly), we can read sufficiently between the lines to detect the extent to which the man's teachings were truly cherished.

דרש רבא מאי דכתיב אל גנת אגוז ירדתי לראות באבי הנחל למה נמשלו ת"ח לאגוז לומר לך מה אגוז זה אע"פ שמלוכלך בטיט ובצואה אין מה שבתוכו נמאס אף ת"ח אע"פ שסרח אין תורתו נמאסת
bHag 15b

Rava expounded, "Why does it say, 'I went down to the nut grove to see the budding of the vale [to see if the vines had blossomed, if the pomegranates were in bloom]' (SoS 6:11, acc. to JPS)? To what end is a sage compared to a nut? It is to teach you that, just as with a nut, if it is soiled with mud and with excrement, its contents are not filthy; so too a sage, even if he spoiled [ie: sinned], his Torah is not filthy".

אשכחיה רבה בר שילא לאליהו א"ל מאי קא עביד הקב"ה א"ל קאמר שמעתא מפומייהו דכולהו רבנן ומפומיה דר"מ לא קאמר א"ל אמאי משום דקא גמר שמעתא מפומיה דאחר א"ל אמאי ר"מ רמון מצא תוכו אכל קליפתו זרק א"ל השתא קאמר מאיר בני אומר בזמן שאדם מצטער שכינה מה לשון אומרת קלני מראשי קלני מזרועי אם כך הקב"ה מצטער על דמן של רשעים ק"ו על דמן של צדיקים שנשפך
bHag 15b

Raba bar Sheila came across Elijah. He said to him, "What is the Holy One, Blessed be He, doing?"
He said to him, "He recites traditions from the mouths of all of the Rabbis, but He does not recite from the mouth of Rabbi Meir".
He said to him, "Why?"
"Because he learned traditions from the mouth of Akher".
He said to him, "Why? Rabbi Meir found a pomegranate, he ate the interior, [and] he threw away the husk".
He said to him, "Now He says, 'Meir, my son, says, 'At a time when a man is aggrieved, what terminology does the Shekhina employ [lit. 'what language does the S.. say']? 'I am pained in my head, I am pained in my arm'. If the Holy One, Blessed be He, can be so aggrieved over the blood of the wicked, how much more so over the blood of the righteous which is spilled!' ' ".

This story concludes the Babylonian Talmud's version of the narrative. Raba bar Sheila, in encountering Elijah, is upset to find that God himself has dismissed the teachings of EbA - to the extent that he will not even justify the teachings of Rabbi Meir. After presenting the same defence that we heard before (in strikingly similar terminology to that of Rav Dimi), God acquiesces and Elijah relates this fact. We are informed of it by hearing a tradition in Rabbi Meir's name (taken from mSan 6:5) being recited by God. The tradition in question is not necessarily attributable to EbA's influence, but its usage here is deliberate. As it speaks of the pain that God feels even over the death of the wicked, we are reminded of EbA's death and the pain felt by the sages who respected him enough that it was necessary for them to legitimise his teachings so.

This story has a "chiastic" structure. This means that, like the shape of the Greek letter χ (chi), the first part of the story corresponds to the last, the second to the second-last, and so on. A schematic of the Babylonian Talmudic narrative is as follows:

[I] EbA rejected by God and angel (Metatron)
[II] Sins of EbA (with prostitute)
[III] Rabbi Meir learns Torah from EbA:
3 expositions
[IV] God rejects EbA (13 synagogues); EbA murders child (13th synagogue)
[V] 3 narratives:
EbA's death (neither judged nor rewarded)
EbA's punishment (Rabbi Meir)
EbA's reward (Rabbi Yohanan)
[IV'] God accepts EbA, bringing life to a child (EbA's daughter)
[III'] Defence of Rabbi Meir learning Torah from EbA:
3 expositions
[II'] Defense of EbA's Torah (Rava)
[I'] EbA accepted by God and angel (Elijah)

(I am indebted to Rubenstein for his observation of this phenomenon; J.L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore, 1999), 69)

It is impossible to believe that the authors of the Babylonian Talmud cared little for EbA. Despite their display of ambivalence - or, at the worst, open antagonism - the care and deliberation that went into forming their narrative belies these emotions. While not always referred to by his real name, EbA (aka Akher) is known intimately by the protagonists of our stories. We have seen how his teachings (both halakhic and homiletic) are preserved by the literature, and even how he himself came to fulfil a key halakhic and homiletic role within the same.

Ultimately, EbA's personality is a complex one. He is neither good nor bad, wise nor foolish. As with all real people, EbA exhibits elements from different extremes. It is not up to us to either admire or reject him as a person; ours is to merely appreciate the intellectual honesty of a man who (even if wrong) acted upon what he truly believed, irrespective of the opinions of others. At the end of the day, it may have been that aspect of his personality that won him the respect that he deserved.

Dr Dan Streetmentioner's Time Traveler's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations

"One of the major problems encountered in time travel is not that of accidentally becoming your own father or mother. There is no problem involved in becoming your own father or mother that a broad-minded and well-adjusted family can't cope with...
The major problem is quite simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's Time Traveler's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.
Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all the pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs. The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy skips lightly over this tangle of academic abstraction, pausing only to note that the term "Future Perfect" has been abandoned since it was discovered not to be."

- D. Adams, The Restaurant at the End of the Universe, pp145-309 (213) of The Ultimate Hitchhiker's Guide (New York: Wings Books, 1996).

Thesis Title

June 01, 2006

Elisha ben Abuya V

We now turn to the version of the story as it is recorded by the Babylonian Talmud. Much of this may appear repetitive, as many of the traditions recorded here are also to be found in other sources at which we have already looked. Nonetheless, this story is more developed than the others and it behoves us to look at it in its own right. The translation throughout is my own.

אחר קיצץ בנטיעות עליו הכתוב אומר אל תתן את פיך לחטיא את בשרך מאי היא חזא מיטטרון דאתיהבא ליה רשותא למיתב למיכתב זכוותא דישראל אמר גמירא דלמעלה לא הוי לא ישיבה ולא תחרות ולא עורף ולא עיפוי שמא חס ושלום ב' רשויות הן אפקוהו למיטטרון ומחיוהו שיתין פולסי דנורא א"ל מ"ט כי חזיתיה לא קמת מקמיה איתיהיבא ליה רשותא למימחק זכוותא דאחר יצתה בת קול ואמרה שובו בנים שובבים חוץ מאחר
bHag 15a

[The Talmud begins by quoting the Tosefta:]
"Akher cut the seedlings". It is concerning him that the verse 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).
What did he see? Metatron, to whom was given permission to sit and write the merits of Israel.
He said, "It is taught that on high there is no sitting and no rivalry and no division and no weariness. Perhaps, God forbid, there are two powers?"
They took Metatron away and lashed him with sixty discs of fire. He asked them, "What is the reason [for this]?"
"When you saw him, you did not stand up before him!"
He was then given permission to burn the merits of Akher.
A heavenly voice came forth and said, "Return, rebellious children (Jer 3:22): except for Akher!"

Here we see the extended version of the narratives indicated in the Tosefta, the Mishna and the baraita. Once more, we are told that Akher "cut the seedlings", and once more we are given the verse from Ecclesiastes. This verse is somewhat more applicable in this narrative for, just as Ecclesiastes had warned, Akher's mouth led him into sin (by suggesting that there may be more than one god) and God also set about destroying the work of his hands (ie: his every merit). The proclamation at the end may also align with the verse's admonition not to declare the statement an error: a possible suggestion that repentance may be disallowed.

What exactly was it that encouraged Akher to consider the existence of two gods? We had occasion to mention Metatron at the end of the preface, noting that he was considered by various traditions to have been the post-mortem manifestation of the ante-diluvian Enoch. We also had occasion to consider the sectarian nature of the Enochic tradition, one that had been thoroughly rejected by Rabbinic Judaism. It is no accident that the instrument of Akher's demise in this passage is none other than Enoch himself (aka Metatron). It is also no accident that Metatron serves no real function in this narrative other than to be severely beaten.

אמר הואיל ואטריד ההוא גברא מההוא עלמא ליפוק ליתהני בהאי עלמא נפק אחר לתרבות רעה נפק אשכח זונה תבעה אמרה ליה ולאו אלישע בן אבויה את עקר פוגלא ממישרא בשבת ויהב לה אמרה אחר הוא
bHag 15a

He said, "Since that man [ie: I] has been banished from that world [ie: the world to come], I shall enjoy myself in this world!"
Akher went out: he went out to a wicked lifestyle. He found a prostitute [and] propositioned her. She said to him, "Are you not Elisha ben Abuya!?" He uprooted a radish from the ground (it was on Shabbat) and he gave it to her. She said, "He is someone else."

Here we learn, not only Akher's real name, but the reason for the pseudonym. Having been prohibited from repentance (and having had all of his deeds erased), EbA decides to enjoy himself in this world without any fear of further reprisals in the world to come. The word employed for 'lifestyle' (תרבות) literally means 'growth'. There is a particular irony affected here, as EbA has thus far proven himself to be one who cuts things down, rather than allows them to grow. When we are first introduced to him it is to be told that he "cut the seedlings". Soon afterwards we are informed of the fact that all his deeds in life have been destroyed. In a moment we are also to be told that he desecrated the Sabbath by uprooting something. The only thing that is actually allowed to grow in EbA's life is wickedness.

It is of no small importance to our profile of EbA that the prostitute is depicted as knowing his name. As we have already seen, EbA was one of the greatest sages of his time, and it is likely that after his death, the eponym Akher was also widespread. The origin of the name, as given here, may be fanciful. Nonetheless, it adequately reflects the message that the name conveys.

שאל אחר את ר"מ לאחר שיצא לתרבות רעה א"ל מאי דכתיב גם את זה לעומת זה עשה האלהים אמר לו כל מה שברא הקב"ה ברא כנגדו ברא הרים ברא גבעות ברא ימים ברא נהרות אמר לו ר"ע רבך לא אמר כך אלא ברא צדיקים ברא רשעים ברא גן עדן ברא גיהנם כל אחד ואחד יש לו ב' חלקים אחד בגן עדן ואחד בגיהנם זכה צדיק נטל חלקו וחלק חברו בגן עדן נתחייב רשע נטל חלקו וחלק חברו בגיהנם אמר רב משרשיא מאי קראה גבי צדיקים כתיב לכן בארצם משנה יירשו גבי רשעים כתיב ומשנה שברון שברם
bHag 15a

After having turned to a wicked lifestyle, Akher asked Rabbi Meir, "What does it mean when it says, '[So in a time of good fortune enjoy the good fortune; and in a time of misfortune, reflect:] The one no less than the other was God's doing (Ecc 7:14a, acc. to JPS)'."
He said to him, "Everything that God created, He also created its opposite. He created mountains, He created hills; He created seas, He created rivers".
He said to him, "Your master, Rabbi Akiva, did not say this! Rather, He created righteous people, He created wicked people; He created heaven, He created hell. Everybody has two portions: one in heaven and one in hell. Should a righteous man merit it, he shall take his portion and the portion of his companion in heaven. Should a wicked man deserve it, he shall take his portion and the portion of his companion in hell".
Rav Mesharshia said, "What is the verse concerning righteous people? It is written, 'They shall have a double portion in their land' (Is 61:7). Concerning wicked people it is written, 'Shatter them with double destruction' (Jer 17:18)".

Here we have the first of our recorded conversations between EbA and Rabbi Meir. We are not informed of EbA's status relative to Rabbi Meir until the end of the narrative, so it is harder to perceive here the respect in which he is being held. As with the Palestinian version, however, EbA is intent on disagreeing with Rabbi Meir's opinion, citing the opinion of Rabbi Meir's late teacher. In this case, Rav Mesharshia comments at the end of the discussion, ratifying the validity of EbA's opinion over that of Rabbi Meir. While it appears possible that Rabbi Meir is avoiding the opinion of Rabbi Akiva, due to its possibly offensive nature, such is unlikely given the version of the story presented by the Palestinian Talmud.

In this instance, Rabbi Meir's interpretation of the verse is remarkably simplistic. The breaking of clauses in EbA's interpretation is enough to indicate that the breaking of clauses is the same in Rabbi Meir's. In other words, Rabbi Meir perceives mountains and hills as being opposites, as well as oceans and rivers. Not only does this appear to be an almost child-like appraisal of the natural order, his interpretation of the verse lacks any form of ethical clarification.

שאל אחר את ר"מ לאחר שיצא לתרבות רעה מאי דכתיב לא יערכנה זהב וזכוכית ותמורתה כלי פז אמר לו אלו דברי תורה שקשין לקנותן ככלי זהב וכלי פז ונוחין לאבדן ככלי זכוכית אמר לו ר"ע רבך לא אמר כך אלא מה כלי זהב וכלי זכוכית אע"פ שנשברו יש להם תקנה אף ת"ח אע"פ שסרח יש לו תקנה אמר לו אף אתה חזור בך אמר לו כבר שמעתי מאחורי הפרגוד שובו בנים שובבים חוץ מאחר
bHag 15a

After having turned to a wicked lifestyle, Akher asked Rabbi Meir, "What does it mean when it says, 'Gold or glass cannot match its value, nor vessels of fine gold be exchanged for it' (Job 28:17, acc. to JPS)?"
He said to him, "These are words of Torah which are as difficult to acquire as are vessels of gold and vessels of fine gold, but as easy to lose as are vessels of glass".
He said to him, "Your master, Rabbi Akiva, did not say this! Rather, just as vessels of gold and of glass have a means of being repaired when they have been broken, so too does a sage have a means of being repaired even though he has sinned".
He said to him, "So you too should repent!"
He said to him, "I have already heard from the other side of the curtain, 'Return, rebellious children: except for Akher'!"

In this instance it is Rabbi Meir who provides an interpretation which may be critical of EbA but, yet again, it proves too simplistic. A sign of its simplicity is in the fact that it disregards the natural parallelism of the biblical verse, which contrasts vessels of gold and glass with vessels of fine gold, by grouping vessels of gold and fine gold together in a contrast with vessels of glass. EbA's interpetation, which protects the parallel structure, is again a clever interpretation. Interestingly, it opens up the possibility of his own repentance, and we are reminded of the divine decree that forbade this act.

The exposition presented here is an interesting one, for it is only here that we see it presented in such a manner: Rabbi Meir delivers the first part and EbA corrects him with the second. In the Palestinian version (pHag 77b), we saw how the entirety was credited to Rabbi Meir; in the later Babylonian tractate (bARN 24:5), we saw how the entirety was credited to EbA himself. We suggested before that it is possible that the entirety was, indeed, EbA's exposition, and that Rabbi Meir's presentation of it in pHag 77b may have been the reason that EbA, in that instance, did not correct him. While that may be the case in relation to the Palestinian Talmud, it is unlikely to be the case here where Rabbi Meir only delivers a part and the rest is credited to Rabbi Akiva. Of greater likelihood is that the editors of the Talmud conflated the tradition.

ת"ר מעשה באחר שהיה רוכב על הסוס בשבת והיה רבי מאיר מהלך אחריו ללמוד תורה מפיו אמר לו מאיר חזור לאחריך שכבר שיערתי בעקבי סוסי עד כאן תחום שבת א"ל אף אתה חזור בך א"ל ולא כבר אמרתי לך כבר שמעתי מאחורי הפרגוד שובו בנים שובבים חוץ מאחר

Our Rabbis taught that Akher was once riding on his horse [lit. 'the horse'] on Shabbat while Rabbi Meir was walking beside him in order to learn Torah from his mouth. He said to him, "Meir. Go back, for I have already measured out the footsteps of my horse: the Shabbat boundary is thus far."
He said to him, "So you too should return!"
He said to him, "Have I not already told you? I have already heard from the other side of the curtain, 'Return, rebellious children: except for Akher'!"

In the Palestinian Talmud, all three discussions take place while EbA is riding his horse on the Sabbath; in the Babylonian Talmud, this occurrence appears to be at a separate time. It is our first indication of EbA's stature: that, despite his flagrant violation of the Sabbath, Rabbi Meir is still intent on learning Torah "from his mouth". A certain poetic justice is affected here for, a moment ago, Rabbi Meir is recorded as having suggested that words of Torah may be easily lost. Despite EbA's lifestyle, we see here that he is still in full possession of his knowledge. Not only is he wise, but he is able to measure out the distance to the Shabbat boundary while in the act of teaching Rabbi Meir about something else (something that Rabbi Meir, even as a passive recipient, was incapable of doing).

Another major difference between this story and the one in pHag 77b is that this one is presented in the form of a baraita. This would imply that it is a particularly old tradition that the two Talmuds were quoting. Being an earlier source, it is reasonable to suppose that the version in the Palestinian Talmud may have been more accurate. In the Palestinian version, reference was made to having heard God's voice from the Holy of Holies, and we noted the anachronistic nature of this assertion. In our case, reference is made to the "curtain" which, while most probably a reference to the partition within the Holy of Holies, may also be a more chronologically viable reference to the partition between the Torah and the congregation of a synagogue.

תקפיה עייליה לבי מדרשא א"ל לינוקא פסוק לי פסוקך אמר לו אין שלום אמר ה' לרשעים עייליה לבי כנישתא אחריתי א"ל לינוקא פסוק לי פסוקך אמר לו כי אם תכבסי בנתר ותרבי לך בורית נכתם עונך לפני עייליה לבי כנישתא אחריתי א"ל לינוקא פסוק לי פסוקך א"ל ואת שדוד מה תעשי כי תלבשי שני כי תעדי עדי זהב כי תקרעי בפוך עיניך לשוא תתיפי
bHag 15a-b

He took hold of him and he brought him to a study house. He said to a youth, "Recite your verse [ie: a verse that you are studying] to me".
He said to him, "There is no peace, said the Lord, for the wicked" (Isa 48:22).
He brought him to another synagogue. He said to a youth, "Recite your verse to me".
He said, "Though you wash with natron and use much lye, your guilt is ingrained before me [- declares the Lord God]" (Jer 2:22, acc. to JPS).
He brought him to another synagogue. He said to a youth, "Recite your verse to me".
He said, "And you, who are doomed to ruin, what do you accomplish by wearing crimson, by decking yourself in jewels of gold, by enlarging your eyes with kohl? You beautify yourself in vain. [Lovers despise you, they seek your life!]" (Jer 4:30, acc. to JPS).

Here we see Rabbi Meir actively attempting to convince EbA to repent his sins. He is brought to one synagogue/study hall after another and, in each of them, a child is encouraged to recite a verse. Each time, the verse happens to be one which prophecies ruin to one who sins. The third verse is difficult, however, to understand. Addressed to Jerusalem, it likens the city to a woman who beseeches her lovers (ie: allies) yet finds herself betrayed. It may be that the relevance of this verse to EbA lies in his 'beautification' of himself with Torah knowledge: all in vain if he fails to maintain the Torah's teachings. Alternatively, we may be forced to suggest that this is a very personal accusation made against EbA who may have been in the Hellenistic habit of beautifying himself literally.

עייליה לבי כנישתא אחריתי עד דעייליה לתליסר בי כנישתא כולהו פסקו ליה כי האי גוונא לבתרא א"ל פסוק לי פסוקך א"ל ולרשע אמר אלהים מה לך לספר חקי ההוא ינוקא הוה מגמגם בלישניה אשתמע כמה דאמר ליה ולאלישע אמר אלהים איכא דאמרי סכינא הוה בהדיה וקרעיה ושדריה לתליסר בי כנישתי ואיכה דאמרי אמר אי הואי בידי סכינא הוה קרענא ליה
bHag 15b

He brought him to another synagogue until he had brought him to thirteen synagogues. They all [ie: the youths within each synagogue] recited for him in a similar manner. At the final one, he said to him, "Recite your verse to me."
He said to him, "And to the wicked, God said: Who are you to recite my laws [and mouth the terms of my covenant]?" (Ps 50:16)
Now, that youth stuttered with his tongue. It sounded as though he said to him, "And to Elisha, God said: [Who are you to recite my laws, etc.]".
Some say that he [ie: EbA] had a knife with him and he cut him up and sent him to thirteen synagogues. Others say that he said, "If I had a knife with me, I would cut him up".

It is in this final story that we see the strongest indication of divine control over the events. Not only has each of the children recited a verse pertinent to EbA, the final child accidentally mentions EbA by name. The climax of this story is, from an historical perspective, patently absurd. Not only is it unlikely that EbA had ever murdered a child, but it is ridiculous to assume that, had he ever done so, there would be disagreement as to whether he had gone through with so heinous an act or had merely spoken of it. What is more, the similarity of this story and the story of the concubine at Gibeah who was cut into twelve pieces (Jud 19:29) is enough to suggest that this part of the story is designed to bring the Babylonian account into line with the Palestinian.