An Elusive Midrash

9 10 2011

Not so long ago now, I found myself teaching a four-week course on the development of the Kabbalah. Not my area of expertise (an understatement, to say the least), I found it necessary to bury my head in some wonderful literature by the likes of Gershom Scholem and Isaiah Tishby – not to mention getting stuck into some truly fascinating passages from the Sefer Yetzirah, Sefer Bahir, Sefer haZohar, etc. As Rosh haShana was coming up, I also sought to tie in some material each week that pertained to the contributions made by the Kabbalists to the development of this festival and their interpretations of it. In researching that particular component of the topic, I happened to alight upon the following midrash, recorded in a recent acquisition of mine, entitled חגי ישראל:

חכמינו מסבירים: בראש השנה, שהוא יום הדין, מתעוררים הכחות המבקשים להרע לישראל ולהרשיעם בדין. אומר להם הקדוש-ברוך-הוא: לכו והביאו עדים לאשור דבריכם. הולך השטן ומביא את השמש הצופה על כל מעשי האדם, שתבוא ותעיד. רוצה הוא להביא גם אם הלבנה (הירח), שתעיד אף היא, כי צריך שני עדים לאשור דבר. והולכת הלבנה ומתכסית ומסתתרת. ומכיון שהשטן אינו מוצא שני עדים שיאשרו את דבריו, אין טענותיו מתקבלות
– חגי ישראל, p110

Before I translate this midrash, it’s worth noting a curious feature of Rosh haShana, and one that distinguishes it from the other festivals. Hebrew months (which, unlike months in the Gregorian calendar, are not simply divisions of the year) are synodic. That is, they represent the length of time between one new moon and the next. Jewish festivals tend to occur either in the middle of the month, when the moon is at its fullest, or towards the end of the month, as the moon is waning. Pesach occurs on the 15th of Nisan, Yom Kippur on the 10th of Tishrei, Sukkot on the 15th of Tishrei, Simchat Torah on the 23rd of Tishrei, Hanukkah on the 25th of Kislev, and Purim on the 14th of Adar. The only other festival to come close to the beginning of the month is Shavuot, which occurs on the 6th of Sivan, at a time when the moon is a sliver. But Rosh haShana, to which the psalmist is traditionally believed to be referring in Psalms 81:4, is the day of the moon’s utter concealment.

I translate the midrash that I quoted above as follows:

Our sages explain: On Rosh haShana, which is the day of judgment, the powers that seek to harm Israel and to cause them mischief in judgment are aroused. The Holy One (blessed is he) says to them, “Go and bring witnesses to confirm your words!” The adversary (the “Satan”) goes and brings the sun, who watches over all the deeds of man, that she might come and bear witness. He also wants to bring the moon, that she might testify as well, for one requires two witnesses to confirm a matter. But the moon goes and conceals herself and hides herself away. Since the adversary cannot find two witnesses who will confirm his words, his claims are not received.

Truly fascinating, and yet – like so many of the midrashim recorded in this excellent book – there is no source! So, guessing that the actual midrash in question most probably quotes Psalms 81:4, I whipped out my copy of Torah haKetuvah vehaMesorah, which was gifted to me by my excellent friend, Rivqa. Under this verse, the following sources are listed:

Babylonian Talmud, Beitzah 16a;
Babylonian Talmud, Rosh haShana 8a, 11a-b, 34a;
Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 11b, 96b;
Tosefta, Rosh haShana 1:10;
Mekhilta deRebi Ishmael, Bo 14;
Leviticus Rabba 29:6;
Tanchuma Bo 9;
Pesiqta deRav Qahana 152b, 154a;
Pesiqta Rabbati 40;
Pirqei deRebi Eliezer 7;
Yalqut Shimoni I:177, 210, 645, 646, 782, 860;
Yalqut Shimoni II:278, 419, 436, 534, 831, 923, 1071;
Sheiltot deRav Ahai Gaon Bo 46;
Zohar I:114b;
Zohar II:135b, 184a, 267b;
Zohar III:86a, 98b, 100b, 121b, 231b, 275a.

It is with great pleasure that I am able to declare that every single one of these texts is in my bedroom, and it was with great pleasure that I devoted a full hour to trying to discover which of them contained this particular midrash. Would you believe it? It was the very last one on the list. Rosh haShana may be over for another year, but the midrash in question is so interesting that I thought I would share it. This is how it appears in the Zohar, together with my translation:

ולא עוד אלא שמשא וסיהרא סהדין על בר נש כמה דאוקמוה תקעו בחדש שופר בכסה ליום חגנו מאי בכסה ביומא דסיהרא מתכסת ואמאי מתכסת בגין דכד מטי ראש השנה יתי סמ”אל למתבע דינא לבנוי קמי קדשא בריך הוא והוא ימא לה דיתי סהדין והוא יתי לשמשא עמה אזל לאיתי סיהרא והיא מתכסית באן אתר מתכסת אלא סליקת לההוא אתר דאתמר בה במכוסה ממך אל תחקור לפיסא לה על בנהא

Not only this, but even the sun and the moon testify against a person, as they established: “Blow the shofar at the start of the month, at the concealment, on the day of our festival”. What does “at the concealment” mean? On the day when the moon is concealed. And why is the moon concealed? Because as soon as Rosh haShana arrives, Samael comes to indict his children before the Holy One, blessed is he, and he tells him to bring witnesses, so he brings the sun with him. He goes to bring the moon, but she is hidden. Where is she hidden? She has gone up to that place, of which it is said, “Do not investigate that which is concealed from you”, in order to conciliate him concerning her children.
– Zohar III:275a

In the original version, as you can see, the adversary is Samael and not the Satan, although the role that he plays is the same. If you are interested, the Jewish Encylopedia has an article on him. For my part, I find far more interesting the quote that is employed, concerning the place to which the moon has gone.

במכוסה ממך אל תחקור (“Do not investigate that which is concealed from you”) may appear to be a straight quote from the Babylonian Talmud, Hagigah 13a. In fact, in my version of the Zohar al-haTorah (published in three volumes by Mossad haRav Kook), it is Hagigah 13a that is listed as the source. But if you consult this particular source, you will find that the full quote is במופלא ממך אל תדרוש ובמכוסה ממך אל תחקור (“Do not seek out that which is too wondrous for you, nor investigate that which is concealed from you”). Are you curious? It’s not from the Hebrew Bible, but from Ben Sirach 3:21.

Given that a major part of my focus during this course was on the ways in which the “apocryphal” literature resurfaced in the Kabbalah, this was a real find. We witnessed the emergence of the Enoch traditions and their utilisation in the Heikhalot of Rabbi Ishmael, and we considered the possible role of the calendar from Jubilees in the very early mystical literature. It seems a curious feature of the kabbalistic tradition that it came to serve as a storage house (a metaphysical geniza, of sorts) for all that was marginalised and rejected. It is likewise a curious feature of this tradition that it was to internalise the anti-mystical tendencies of halakhic Judaism, even after its normativisation in the 16th century, and to develop a certain anti-mysticism of its own. Before that could happen, and long before the extreme popularisation of the Kabbalah under the aegis of the Hasidic movement, texts like the Zohar were to straddle both worlds.

On the one hand, they serve as a veritable cornucopia of the esoteric and the bizarre. They feature characters and traditions from the farthest flung reaches of unorthodox Jewish thought, and reference on more than one occasion books that are well outside the established rabbinic tradition. On the other hand, however, they are closed books to all save the initiated, amongst whom I cannot even begin to imagine including myself. By closing themselves off from the eyes of outsiders (a tradition that I believe originated with the prophetic guilds, during the movement from prophecy to apocalyptic), they not only internalised the ban on studying mystical matters, but they testified to the need for such a ban in the first place. It is ironic that Ben Sirach’s warning against investigating that which is hidden and obscure (a warning which finds its parallel in Deuteronomy 29:28) should have been utilised in a text that, to all intents and purposes, could have constituted the subject of the warning itself.




4 responses

9 10 2011

This is a great post. The fact that you could disclose all of that just using your own books makes your room pretty awesome, and certainly answers the dilemma of bed space.

I agree that it’s strange for a mystical movement to draw on the idea of not seeking out things that are too wondrous. It seems to create an aesthetic that mimics value through exclusivity, although the pride involved seems to obscure the sentiment of humility and contented trust in those original statements.

I’m left curious about the last paragraph particularly. On what do you base your thoughts regarding the closing-off of prophetic guilds during the movement towards the more apocalyptic? I’ve been interested in these things recently, though I haven’t had the time to look into them yet. Ari sent me a reading list on apocalyptic literature that I look forward to December because of!

10 10 2011
Simon Holloway

Thanks, Annelise. Just an idea that I’m toying with, and not one that I’ve actually investigated. If people are correct in supposing that bnei hanneviyim (בני הנביאים; “sons of the prophets”) denotes the members of prophetic guilds, then one has to wonder what happened to those groups with the eventual dissolution of the prophetic movement.

To my mind, it’s reasonable to suppose that the members of such groups continued to transmit their teachings, but that the focus of those teachings merely shifted from the art of oratory to the science of interpretation. If that is so (and it’s a big “if”), then you have a fairly neat explanation for the rise of apocalyptic.

One way or another, you’re still left with a lot of questions, but I’m keen on any theory that accounts for the demise of the prophetic guilds, the appearance of the apocalyptic genre, and the similarities that exist between the two. Maybe one day I’ll think about it in more depth than that, but in the meantime I can continue speaking about it as though it were true ;)

(For the record, there is much within the kabbalistic literature that relates to passages whose literal interpretation is anathema to the genre. The best example that comes to mind is one that formed the subject of a series of posts I wrote in 2006 on Elisha ben Abuya:

The Tosefta warns strongly against teaching, or even considering too deeply, certain mystical matters, and delivers by way of a cautionary tale a story of three rabbis who each suffered for their mystical proclivities. The same story, void of its context, resurfaces again and again in a prescriptive manner, as though what they did was something that could be emulated, were one to possess the requisite training. At first, this is just part of the way in which the Kabbalah internalises opposition to the Kabbalah, but it ends up becoming part of kabbalistic “culture”, so to speak. One sees it particularly frequently in Hasidic literature.)

11 10 2011

Ah, that’s all really interesting to me, though I don’t know enough to have much of a response. I’d like to look into it more, with both these prophetic guilds and the rise of apocalyptic. Perhaps we could finish this conversation sometime in the future!

I’d particularly like to know about the perspectives and conversations of those who were actually involved. What freedom was there to consciously mix revealed prophecy with your own sense of literature and convention, or what relationship was there between the two? Also, in periods where true prophecy was said to have been stopped (and everyone knew it), what was happening? That in itself is an interesting phenomenon, with so much that may not be accessible to us in depth through the writings we have. I guess there could be many theories to account for these things, though it takes much more to really look into them.

18 03 2014
John Simpson

The phrase במופלא ממך אל תדרוש apparently exists in modern Hebrew as well, meaning ‘Don’t seek what is beyond your reach/capability/comprehension’ in a less spiritual sense. See ‘Barron’s 501 Hebrew Verbs'(2nd Ed, p551, פל”א)

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