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.

September 05, 2006

An Argument of Cosmic Proportions

lu•na•tic |'loōnə¸tik|
a mentally ill person (not in technical use)
• an extremely foolish or eccentric person

ORIGIN Middle English : from Old French
lunatique, from late Latin lunaticus, from Latin luna 'moon' (from the belief that changes of the moon caused intermittent insanity).
- Oxford American Dictionary
In Genesis 1:16, we are told:
ויעש אלהים את־שני המארת הגדלים את־המאור הגדל לממשלת היום ואת־המאור הקטן לממשלת הלילה ואת הכוכבים
And God created the two large luminaries: the large luminary to rule by day and the small luminary to rule by night, along with the stars
Faced with the obvious question (why are we told that the sun and the moon are both large, only to then be told that the sun is large and the moon is small?), the Rabbis come up with a curious explanation. In Tractate Ḥullin of the Babylonian Talmud (page 60b), they wrote:
אמרה ירח לפני הקב"ה רבש"ע אפשר לשני מלכים שישתמשו בכתר אחד אמר לה לכי ומעטי את עצמך
"The moon spoke up before the Holy One, Blessed is He: 'Master of the World, is it possible for two kings to share a crown?' He said to her, 'Go and reduce yourself'."
For the moon's impertinence, she is reduced to being a minor luminary, while the sun is granted supreme dominion over the day. The midrash takes this even further by demonstrating that the nations of the world (who are many times more numerous than the Jewish people) shall mark their calendar by the sun, while the moon shall be utilised for the calendrical observations of the Jews. The text was written some time before the rise of Islam (which utilises a solely lunar calendar and which now may boast numbers surpassing the global population of Christians), but the implication is that the sun is used by those with many adherents to their faith while the moon is used by those with few.

The Talmud goes on to relate the benefits of being small by listing a variety of important personages in the Bible who happened to either be the youngest in their families or the shortest in physical stature. Among such greats are Jacob (whose epithet Israel became the name given to all of his descendants) and David (whose reign typified the commencement of Israel's glory-days and who is taken as a model of piety and stature).

Every month, religious Jews bless the new moon and express their hope that one day the moon will be granted its former status and will actually eclipse the sun. On that day, Judaism shall be the recognised truth and all of the nations of the world will come to the mountain of God in Jerusalem to praise the creator of heaven and earth. Like the editors of the Oxford American Dictionary supposed, perhaps we're all a little mad...


At 10:16 AM , Blogger Billie Jean said...

Yes, we're definitely a bit mad. I realised that when I tried to explain why I wasn't listening to music during Sfira.

On a side note, the theme of the younger son triumphing is repeated many times in the Torah. I'm an oldest child and I was always annoyed that I couldn't think of a single example of where the oldest child does OK. Shet, Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, Yosef, Efraim, and Moshe are all younger sons. Can you think of one?

At 10:24 AM , Blogger Simon Holloway said...

You could argue, if you want to go by the mother instead of the father, that Joseph is Rachel's eldest. Her youngest, remember, was Benjamin. Otherwise, yes, it does seem to be a bit of a trend. No other counterexamples (through the father) spring immediately to mind...


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