The Divine Prankster

24 06 2014

Fairly recently, Marc Shapiro wrote an interesting post about censorship in Miqraot Gedolot haMaor. There, it appears as though the editors saw fit to expurgate an observation of R’ Shabbetai Bass (1641-1718), recorded in his commentary on Rashi (“Siftei Chakhamim”). For the benefit of anybody who’s not sure what the hell I’m talking about, Miqraot Gedolot is known as a rabbinic bible: it features the biblical text on the upper right page, surrounded by targumim, commentaries and (in some case) meta-commentaries. A number of different versions exist, but the one to which I’m referring was published by an institute called Hamaor and spans seventeen beautifully typeset volumes. It is also, at least in this one small instance, censored.

Since I have Miqraot Gedolot haMaor on one shelf and HaMeorot haGedolim on another (the latter being a seven-volume rabbinic bible published by Torah Mefureshet, featuring Rashi and a dozen-or-so meta-commentaries on him), I was able to check and to confirm that, yes, the version published by Hamaor has indeed suffered a tiny excision. The passage to have come under the knife, as you can read in Marc Shapiro’s post, was Siftei Chakhamim on Exodus 33:13. If you look at the biblical text you will see that in the verse immediately before this one, Moses quotes God as having declared that Moses has found favour in his eyes, and in this verse stipulates that if he has found favour in God’s eyes, God should reveal his ways to Moses.

The tautology is striking – did God not already say that he was pleased with Moses? Does not the phraseology suggest that Moses wondered whether or not this assertion was true? Such indeed was suggested by Rashi, who emphasises that Moses is really asking whether or not it is true what God had said to him, and the Siftei Chakhamim draws this point out even further:

דק״ל דבפסוק משמע שהיה ספק למשה אי אמר הקב״ה שמצא חן בעיניו והא אמר משה מתחלה להקב״ה איך שאמר אליו מצאת חן בעיני. לכ״פ אם אמת הוא שמצאתי חן דלמה מה שאמרת מצאת חן בעיני מצחק היית בי כדרך בני אדם

This verse seems to suggest that it was doubtful to Moses whether or not God had said that he had found favour in his eyes, yet Moses said at the outset that God had said, “You found favour in my eyes”! The interpretation, therefore, is “if it is true that I have found favour in your eyes… perhaps, when you said, ‘You have found favour in my eyes’, you were joking with me, as people are wont to do”.

The part that the editors at Hamaor evidently found offensive, and their reason for reducing everything from “perhaps” onwards into a simple וכו׳ (“etc”), was the twofold implication that God might joke with people, and that God’s joking might be in a human fashion (כדרך בני אדם). Really, it’s rather absurd to retroject one’s own exegetical discomfort onto the 17th century literature that one is supposed to be publishing, but cutting something off is a lot better than rewriting it, and you can see some of Prof. Shapiro’s other posts if you want examples of the latter.

For the moment, I find the notion of God as a divine prankster rather interesting and it’s got me thinking about other rabbinic depictions of God as a practical joker. Here’s one from the midrash, which I stumbled across a couple of years ago while looking, as usual, for something else.

The midrash is in Tanchuma (Parshat Vayyeishev, §4), and concerns a verse in Psalms. That verse (found in Psalm 66:5) ascribes עלילה to God, which I shall translate below as “machinations” and as “trickery”. The term might, in a harsher context, denote treachery or deception, while in a gentler context might simply mean “deeds”. It is as “deeds” that the NRSV translates it on this verse, although I think the midrash lends to it a somewhat stronger resonance:

זה שאמר הכתוב לכו חזו מפעלות אלהים נורא עלילה על בני אדם (תהלים ס”ו). אמר רבי יהושע בן קרחה אף הנוראות שאתה מביא עלינו בעלילה את מביאן. בא וראה כשראה הקדוש ברוך הוא את העולם מיום הראשון ברא מלאך המות. מנין. אמר רבי ברכיה משום שנאמר וחשך על פני תהום זה מלאך המות המחשיך פניהם של בריות. ואדם נברא בששי ועלילה נתלה בו שהוא הביא את המיתה לעולם שנאמר כי ביום אכלך ממנו מות תמות. משל למה הדבר דומה למי שמבקש לגרש את אשתו כשבקש לילך לביתו כתב גט נכנס לביתו והגט בידו מבקש עלילה לתנו לה. אמר לה מזגי לי את הכוס שאשתה. מזגה לו. כיון שנטל הכוס מידה אמר לה הרי זה גטך. אמרה לו מה פשעי. אמר לה צאי מביתי שמזגת לי כוס פשור. אמרה לו כבר היית יודע שאני עתידה למזג לך כוס פשור שכתבת הגט והבאתו בידך. אף כך אמר אדם לפני הקדוש ברוך הוא רבונו של עולם עד שלא בראת עולמך קדם שני אלפים שנה היתה תורה אצלך אמון שכך כתיב ואהיה אצלו אמון ואהיה שעשועים יום יום (משלי ח) שני אלפים שנה וכתיב בה זאת התורה אדם כי ימות באהל (במדבר י”ט). אלולי שהתקנת מות לברות היית כותב בה כך אלא באת לתלות בי את העלילה. הוי נורא עלילה על בני אדם

My translation:

This is as the verse says: “Come and see the acts of God! His machinations (עלילה) against humanity are awe-inspiring!” Rabbi Yehoshua ben Qorcha explained, even the awe-inspiring things that you bring against us, you do so by way of trickery (עלילה).

Come, see: when the Holy One, blessed is he, saw the world on the first day [of its creation], he created the angel of death. How do we know this? Rabbi Berekhiah explained, because it says: “And darkness was upon the face of the deep” (Genesis 1:2). That is a reference to the angel of death, who darkens the face of all creatures. Yet Adam was created on the sixth day, and was tricked into thinking that he had been the one to bring death into the world, as it says: “On the day that you eat of it, you shall definitely die” (Genesis 2:17).

To what can this be compared? To one who seeks to divorce¹ his wife. As soon as he readies for home, he writes a document of divorce, enters the house with it in his hand and then tries to trick her. “Pour me a cup,” he says, “so that I can drink”. She pours him a cup. As soon as he takes it from her, he says, “Here is your document of divorce”.

“What have I done wrong?”, she asks him.

“Get out of my house,” he replies, “for the cup that you poured me is cold!”

“You must have already known that I would pour you a cold cup,” she tells him, “since you wrote a divorce document and carried it here by hand!”

Likewise, Adam spoke to the Holy One, blessed is he: “Master of the world! Two thousand years before you created your world, the Torah was like an architect before you – as it is written, “I was by him an architect, and I was a delight daily” (Proverbs 8:30). For two thousand years! And it is written in it, “This is the law concerning a person who dies in a tent” (Numbers 19:14). You could not have written that had you not already established death for all creatures – you only came to trick me!”

“His machinations against humanity are awe-inspiring…” (Psalm 66:5)

¹The example given here is interesting, since the verb used for “divorce” (גרש) literally means to drive away, or send forth. The first instance in which this word appears within the Torah is in Genesis 3:24, in which it is Adam and Eve who are being “divorced” from the garden by God.

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One response

29 06 2014
Benny

Great post!

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