A Little Harsh?

10 02 2007

Seeing as I am still procrastinating the writing-up of my paper (odd, considering that I must deliver it tomorrow morning and I know that I am going to be stressed about it tonight), I thought that I would add one more reference to the childish xenophobia of the Babylonian Talmud. The following quote is taken from Tractate Berakhot, folio 58a, and I cannot help but feel that it has a rather humorously Pythonesque feel to it…

ת”ר הרואה קברי ישראל אומר ברוך אשר יצר אתכם בדין וזן אתכם בדין וכלכל אתכם בדין ואסף אתכם בדין ועתיד להקימכם בדין מר בריה דרבינא מסיים בה משמיה דרב נחמן ויודע מספר כולכם והוא עתיד להחיותכם ולקיים אתכם ברוך מחיה המתים קברי עובדי כוכבים אומר בושה אמכם

The Sages taught, “One who sees the graves of Jews should recite: Blessed is He who formed all of you with justice and fed all of you with justice and sustained all of you with justice and gathered all of you in with justice and who, in the future, will cause all of you to arise with justice!”
Mar, the son of Rabina, completed this [prayer] in the name of Rav Nahman: “And who knows the number of all of you and who, in the future, will revive all of you and cause all of you to rise. Blessed is the one who revives the dead!”

[And when you see] the graves of non-Jews you should say, “Shame on your mothers…”

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5 responses

10 02 2007
Daniel

עובדי כוכבים means “non-Jews”? How do you get from “workers of the stars” to “non-Jews”? Is it a commonly used phrase?

10 02 2007
Simon Holloway

Haha, workers of the stars! Sorry, I’m not mocking you, I just think that’s great. עובדי כוכבים ומזלות is “worshipers of the stars and planets” or some such thing. It’s normally abbreviated as עכו”ם and is a means of referring to Christians without having to worry about someone burning your book.

12 02 2007
Joe in Australia

This passage does not refer to Christians. It probably refers to Zoroastrians.

Mar lived in Babylon during the religious persecutions of the Sassanid reign. The practice of Judaism was outlawed, and many of Mar’s colleagues were killed. The smallish Christian community of Babylon was persecuted along with the Jews. We can tell that the “shame on your mothers” bit is meant to apply to the persecuting Sassanids and not the persecuted Christians because it’s actually a Biblical reference. It refers to the Book of Jeremiah ch. 50 which prophesies about the fall of Babylon, and it quotes part of verse 12: “Your mothers will be disgraced, humiliated the ones that bore you. Behold the last of the nations – desert, desolation and waste.”

The last words (which I suspect were added by a redactor) explain the presence of an obvious gap in the text. Here’s a prayer for Jewish graves, what about the graves of non-Jews? “There’s no need to compose a prayer over Babylonian graves,” the redactor notes bitterly, “Jeremiah already composed one. These corpses are dead and never to rise – their mothers labored in vain. The nobility that persecuted us has been reduced to nothingness. The graves are empty of life.”

I don’t mean to suggest any malicious intent on your part, but I’m amazed to see your flippant attitude to the passage. Surely you can see that it was written by real people with real emotions who experienced tragedies that you and I (I hope!) will never have to live through. If it reminds you of Monty Python it is only because you lack an historical context for it. Someone anonymous writer has reached out through fifteen centuries and expressed his pain through a finely-chosen pair of words. It’s quite an achievement.

12 02 2007
Simon Holloway

I never meant to imply that it was speaking about Christians – sorry, my comment to Daniel was slightly ironic. I agree with you in suggesting that this passage is not about Christians but my knowledge of the Talmudic period(s) is not astute enough to be able to suggest an alternative as well as you do. You write very nicely in defence of the passage – and thankyou especially for having pointed out the provenance of the quote at the end; I omitted that because I felt that it detracted from its punchiness, but you have incorporated it very nicely into your argument.

I’m afraid that, at the end of the day, I don’t share your sentiments. I still find humorous the manner in which the passage has been put together, irrespective of your (legitimate) form-critical concerns that render it more solemn than I would have perceived it to be. Still, I must ask: you derive historical meaning from the passage from the fact that it is penned (apparantly) by Mar, but also go on to note that the addition that speaks of non-Jewish graves was a later insertion. Is this not contradictory?

12 02 2007
Joe in Australia

you derive historical meaning from the passage from the fact that it is penned (apparantly) by Mar, but also go on to note that the addition that speaks of non-Jewish graves was a later insertion. Is this not contradictory?

I don’t think the persecutions in the area subsided until the fall of the Sassanids, so the addition (if it is indeed one) would have been made within the same historical context as Mar’s comment.

I agree that the translation you used makes it look a bit funny, but that’s because it immediately reminds you of people playing the dozens. (“Yo mamma so fat …”). To someone attending a Babylonian yeshiva, it would immediately have reminded him of the verse of Jeremiah. Once again, it’s all about context. Things sound different to us.

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