Cholent: A Heated Issue

16 02 2015

A little while ago, David Curwin over at Balashon mused upon the etymology of cholent. He offered a variety of different suggestions, and is no doubt correct in relegating all of them (or almost all of them) to the status of “folk etymologies” (“etymythologies”, as I have heard one scholar put it).

He does not note, although perhaps should, that the earliest reference in text to this food as “cholent” (known by Sephardim as chamin, “hot food”) is in the 13th century Or Zarua II:8, by Rabbi Yitzhak of Vienna, who mentions it in relation to the Jews of France. Whether or not that lends itself to one of the etymologies that derive the word from French, I cannot say.

Reference to cholent is fairly ancient, even if the Franco-Yiddish terminology cannot be traced back before the 13th century. In fact, not only is it ancient but it is something of a cause célèbre in rabbinic circles.

While the Torah does not expressly forbid cooking on Shabbat, it does prohibit the lighting of a fire. What is more, the textual proximity of the description of the tabernacle’s construction to a repeated stipulation that concerns resting on the seventh day was enough to suggest that anything required for the former must be prohibited on the latter. And, since the preparation of dyes for the tapestries required a process of heating and stirring, that effectively prohibits cooking on Shabbat.

While one might need to be a rabbinic Jew to accept the logic underlying this conclusion, one certainly need not be a rabbinic Jew to accept the conclusion itself. In fact, all available evidence would suggest that non-rabbinic Jews also abstained from cooking on the seventh day, be it for any reason other than the most obvious one: that cooking simply feels like “work”.

This is where things get a little complicated, since the rabbinic predilection for casuistry has resulted in careful delineations of precisely which aspects of cooking are to be so labelled. And while stirring is indeed a problem, in the event that the food is already at least one-third cooked, and so long as it is placed upon the flame before Shabbat has come in, and so long as one does absolutely nothing to adjust the flame in any way, to change the rate at which the food is being heated or to add anything further to it, it will be possible to eat a nice, hot meal for Shabbat lunch.

Understandly, this is something that non-rabbinic Jews can simply not accept. And equally understandably, the decision to make cholent has come to be viewed as a powerful statement as regards one’s faith in the rabbinic sages.

As such, Rabbi Zerachiah haLevi of Gerona, in his 12th century commentary to Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi’s Sefer haHalakhot, declares that all those who abstain from eating cholent should check their lineage, lest they turn out to be descended of sectarians! No doubt he had in mind the anti-rabbinic Karaites, who at the time that he was writing comprised some 40% of the world’s Jewish population, and with whom the rabbis frequently engaged in heated polemics of this nature. Only those who do eat cholent, Rabbi Zerachiah haLevi continues, are to be considered believers, and it is only they who will merit to see the end of days (Maor haQatan, Shabbat 38b).

These statements are quoted in a number of important rabbinic texts – such as Sefer Abudirham (§177) and Sefer Kol Bo (§31) – and their sentiments are adopted in several others. So, for example, in the midst of the Shulchan Arukh’s description of those items that may and may not be used to cover a pot (the concern being whether or not they will cause it to emit steam), Rabbi Moshe Isserles – a 16th century Polish scholar and contemporary of the Shulchan Arukh – interjects with a gloss:

ומצוה להטמין לשבת כדי שיאכל חמין בשבת כי זהו מכבוד ועונג שבת. וכל מי שאינו מאמין בדברי החכמים ואוסר אכילת חמין בשבת חיישינן שמא אפיקורוס הוא

We are commanded to cover [hot vessels] in advance of Shabbat, that we might eat hot food [chamin] on Shabbat, since this is [a fulfillment of the twin commandments of] honouring and delighting in Shabbat. And anyone who does not believe in the words of the sages and who forbids the consumption of hot food on Shabbat is suspected of being an apikorus.

– Orach Chayim 257:8

The apikorus is a curious category of person, but for all practical purposes he (or she) is somebody who has forfeited their right to inherit the world to come (mSanhedrin 10:1). The suggestion that one might be suspected of being an apikorus on no stronger ground than an aversion to cholent is a powerful one, but it is not the fiercest statement made in cholent’s defence.

That dubious honour belongs to another contemporary of the Shulchan Arukh: Rabbi Mordekhai Yoffe. One of a number of people who disliked the Shulchan Arukh, Rabbi Yoffe is almost alone in having utilised his dissatisfaction with the text to produce an alternative. It is known as Levush Malkhut and it spans ten volumes, the first five of which only are devoted to an exposition of rabbinic law.

To properly understand the nature of this work, it is important to appreciate that it effectively functions as a commentary upon another. The text that serves as its foundation is the monumental Arba’ah Turim of Rabbi Yaakov ben Asher: a 13th century German scholar, who condensed all of rabbinic law into four broad categories – the first of which, “Orach Chayim”, covers the laws of Shabbat (amongst other things).

Rabbi Mordekhai Yoffe was far from being the only person to have authored a commentary on this magisterial work. Rabbi Moshe Isserles, whom we have already mentioned, wrote a commentary on the Tur called Darkhei Moshe. And Rabbi Yosef Caro, who was later to pen the Shulchan Arukh, wrote a commentary on the Tur called Beit Yosef.

The Beit Yosef is a vast and thoroughly comprehensive exposition of rabbinic law – too vast for the average person to make good use of, and more comprehensive than a text of that nature may be required to be. It is a tremendous resource and encyclopedic in scope, but thoroughly in need of an abridgement. Rabbi Caro’s Shulchan Arukh is precisely that abridgement: an expurgated and abbreviated version of his Beit Yosef, designed for easier use.

It was the opinion of the Levush that this abridgement was a little too abbreviated, and he sought to create a work of Jewish law that would fall midway between the Beit Yosef and the Shulchan Arukh: a commentary, in other words, upon the Tur that would not be too encyclopedic, but would neither be too casual in its presentation of the sources.

It is a masterful work and, sadly, too little studied. The section that corresponds to the laws of Shabbat is titled Levush haChur and there, in Orach Chayim 276:8, he concludes rather strikingly:

מצוה להטמין לצורך שבת כדי שיאכל בשבת מאכל חם וזהו מכבוד ועונג שבת. וכל המפקפק על התמנת חמין לשבת שאינו רוצה לאכול חמין בשבת משום טעמא שנתבשל בשבת ואינו מאמין בדברי חכמים הרי זה נקרא מין ומלעיג על דברי חכמים וחייב מיתה

We are commanded to cover [hot vessels] for the sake of Shabbat, that we might eat hot food on Shabbat, and this is [a fulfillment of the twin commandments of] honouring and delighting in Shabbat. And anybody who casts aspersions on the covering up of hot food [chamin] in advance of Shabbat, since he does not wish to eat hot food on Shabbat – for the reason that he considers it to be cooking on Shabbat – and who does not believe in the words of the sages is called a sectarian and one who scorns the words of the sages, and is deserving of death.

One wonders what a person ought to do if he doesn’t like cholent! Fortunately, such people have long existed, and it has long been noted that if the consumption of hot food is disagreeable to somebody than he is forgiven for eating cold food on Shabbat. That’s something of a relief, but strong words require strong counter-words, and so it is fitting that Rabbi Eliyahu Shapira (a 17th century Polish scholar who authored a commentary on the Levush) has the following to append to Rabbi Mordekhai Yoffe’s sentiments:

אבל מי שכואב לו החמין ועונג שלו לאכול צונן לא יצער נפשיה באכילת חמין. ומי שאין אוכל כהאי גוונא צונן עליו נאמר כסיל בחושך הולך – קהלת ב:יד

But one who is pained by eating hot food, and for whom eating cold food is enjoyable, should not cause anguish to himself by eating hot food. Concerning somebody who under these circumstances doesn’t eat cold food, scripture states: an idiot walks in darkness (Ecclesiastes 2:14).

Who would have known that cholent could be so polemical!



7 01 2011

The story is told of a questioner who pressed Reb Hayyim about a certain difficulty. Reb Hayyim referred the questioner to a certain Tosafot. Upon examining it, he was amazed to find that it was only a small section, opening with teima as an expression of difficulty, offering no subsequent resolution, and, what was worst, wholly unrelated to the topic about which he had asked. Puzzled, he returned to Reb Hayyim, who explained, “I just wanted you to see that one does not die of a kashya.”

– Aharon Lichtenstein, “The Conceptual Approach to Torah Learning: The Method and Its Prospects”. Pages 1-44 of לומדות: The Conceptual Approach to Jewish Learning (ed. Yosef Blau; NYC: Yeshiva University Press, 2006), 22.

Bearing our Tradition

29 11 2010

There is an utterly hilarious video that has been doing the rounds of the blogosphere, featuring two cartoon bears arguing about whether or not the biblical patriarchs observed all of the mitzvot of the Torah:

What is most interesting about this is the defensive response that it has provoked from various conservative circles, who feel that their religion is being mocked and that the absurd beliefs being ridiculed in this cartoon are inherently defensible. In an attempt to justify them, Rabbi Gil Student has written a post that concerns the number of rishonim who adopted this particular view. Well, I suppose that settles it then. His argument in many respects boils down to a few lines, which are expressed in varying ways throughout his different posts, and which constitute the key to his particular religious philosophy:

The view that the Avos observed all of the mitzvos occupies a hallowed place in Jewish tradition, with Rashi in particular adopting it… Someone who mock [sic] this position, mocks Rashi. Think about what that says about you.

Well, I’ve thought about what that says about me and I still think that R’ Student is missing the point. What he fails to realise is that the video is not actually mocking rishonim like Rashi at all. Whatever Rashi believed, and however Rashi believed it, is one thing. Worthy of study, certainly, and a corpus from which we may choose to subscribe to individual sentiments ourselves. Never has anybody suggested that the writings of Rashi constitute empirical truth (never, that is, until relatively recently), and so it’s important to be clear about who here is being mocked. While R’ Student can come loudly to the defense of Rashi, it is R’ Student (and others like him) who are the subject of the cartoon’s derision, and not the mediaeval rabbis themselves. But perhaps, in his eagerness to carry their standard, R’ Student has forgotten how to differentiate between himself and them.

More than Words

3 11 2010

[I encourage those of you who are interested to participate in the comments beneath this post as it appears on Galus Australis, where a discussion is underway as regards the hypothetical nature of Jewish theocracy.]

On November 7th, this coming Sunday, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz will be completing his forty-five year project of translating the entire Babylonian Talmud into Israeli Hebrew. Abigail Leichman, writing for the New Jersey Jewish Standard, notes that completion ceremonies (siyyumim) are going to be held in several locations around the world, including Mumbai, Miami, Rio de Janeiro, Washington, Moscow, and Melbourne, Australia. But as Sue Fishkoff of JTA notes, there has been a great deal of attendant controversy.

Most important among the various criticisms of Rabbi Steinsaltz is the fact that, in June of 2005, he accepted an appointment to the post of Nasi on Israel’s fledgling Sanhedrin. As makes very clear, this is a body that expects to usher in the redemption of the Jewish people with a return to the state of play two millennia ago. It is fascinating to read their account of various of the other rabbis who make up the Sanhedrin and who were voted on for Nasi, which is a list that includes the founder of The Temple Institute in Jerusalem (an organisation that has already started building vessels for the third temple), the founder of Nachal Hareidi (a branch of the army that allows for participation from ultra-orthodox youth), and the brother of Rabbi Meir Kahane. For a considerably less positive view of them, Kobi Nahshoni reports at Ynet on their attempts to impose Torah law upon the Israeli population, their public boycotting of the Beijing Olympics, and their continued agitation for war with Hamas.

And in the midst of all of this, Rabbi Steinsaltz is translating the Babylonian Talmud. We would none of us doubt that he is a pious man, but that he is also tremendously learned is beyond reproof: he has published fifty-eight books on a wide range of topics, and has been releasing tractates of the Talmud as he has been producing them. Simply vocalising and punctuating the Aramaic text would have been an incredible achievement in itself (if not a slightly audacious one), but his translation is both lucid and precise. He lost much in the way of support in the early days, when he made the decision to visually replace Rashi’s commentary with his own translational commentary, and to move Rashi in with the Tosafot. Since causing a stir, new editions of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s “Vilna Edition” maintain the traditional typesetting, with the rabbi’s translation and commentary on the facing page. As it stands today, despite whatever opposition it may receive from certain circles, his translation is the best translation on the market: it significantly supersedes Artscroll for both its readability and its precision, and it is no surprise that it is being celebrated in so many locations around the world. Given the tension caused by his election to the head of Israel’s “self-appointed supreme court”, it is unsurprising that not one of those locations is in Israel.

Rabbi Yosef Blau of Yeshiva University, while supportive of the project, notes that one must expect controversy when a single individual wishes to translate a vast and variegated corpus of literature, composed by multiple authors over the course of a few centuries. But an appreciation of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s perspective indicates that he not only sees himself as fitting for the task, but as a kind of 21st century Ezra, returning Torah to the people and laying the groundwork for the rebuilding of the temple. In an interview given to JTA, Rabbi Steinsaltz has the following to say:

“The Talmud is the central pillar of Jewish knowledge, important for the overall understanding of what is Jewish… But it is a book that Jews cannot understand. This is a dangerous situation, like a collective amnesia. I tried to make pathways through which people will be able to enter the Talmud without encountering impassable barriers. It’s something that will always be a challenge, but I tried to make it at least possible.”

This simple statement is a profound indicator of Rabbi Steinsaltz’s governing philosophy. For a start, he perceives the Talmud as “the central pillar of Jewish knowledge”. We can all of us agree that the Talmud is a central pillar, although some of us might prefer the indefinite article to the definite. Is the Talmud truly at the centre for all Jews, or have there always been Jews who elevated other corpora? As the man whose most popular publication was The Thirteen Petalled Rose, Rabbi Steinsaltz is undoubtedly aware of the existence of Jews throughout history who have venerated the mystical tradition over and above the halakhic; were he adamant that the kabbalah can only be understood by Talmudic scholars, it is unlikely that he would have composed a popular introduction to Jewish mysticism.

And yet, he here describes the Babylonian Talmud as crucial for “the overall understanding of what is Jewish”. Well, what is Jewish? For Rabbi Steinsaltz, over and above every possible manifestation and expression of Judaism, there is one application of the faith that possesses authority. Delineated by a strict interpretation of the Talmud, and governed by a rigorous application of Torah law, Rabbi Steinsaltz’s Judaism is anything but pluralist.

But then, as Rabbi Meir Kahane once noted, democracy is not a Jewish phenomenon. Any Jew who hearkens for a return to the monarchy, a re-establishment of the temple and a resumption of sacrificial offerings must reckon with the crucial reality of life under theocracy. No amount of wishful retrojection changes the very real and very nasty images that the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah provide for us. The forced exile and execution of religious dissidents, the expulsion of non-Jews from Judea, the repeated and deliberate confrontation with Israel’s enemies, the cursing and the spitting and the tearing out of hair. These are all phenomena, whether good, bad or ugly, that heralded in the era of second temple Judaism, in all its sectarian glory. For those of us who shudder at the thought of such a contemporary revolution, it is fortunate that Israel’s infant Sanhedrin has enemies on every side of the religious divide. Nonetheless, it goes without saying that their establishment, like the Nasi‘s translation of the Talmud itself, says much as regards the expectations of many. If they were ever to succeed in their aims of uniting the religious parties beneath their authority and of establishing themselves as the upper house of Israel’s Knesset, we will have more than words from Rabbi Steinsaltz. And more than words from his detractors as well.

[Addendum: It has recently been drawn to my attention that the list of locations that was published by the Jewish Standard was not exhaustive. Those who are interested can have a look at the exhaustive list. I apologise for the unintentionally misleading remark that I made, concerning Israel’s absence from the list of countries that are celebrating Rabbi Steinsaltz’s incredible achievement. There are no fewer than nine such locations in Israel, four of which are in Jerusalem.

You will also be pleased to note (I know that I was!) that, in addition to Melbourne, there will also be siyyumim in both Cairns and Sydney! The Sydney siyyum is being organised by a friend of mine, and will be held on Sunday evening at Coogee Synagogue.]

The Curious Case of Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai

13 04 2010

As promised, here is the literary analysis of bShab 33b-34a. This narrative concerns Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai, and I include it both in its original Aramaic and in English (my translation). After a brief discussion that is precipitated by a quote from Rabbi Yehuda, “the first of the speakers on all occasions”, the Talmud asks a question and delivers a story by way of an answer. For those who are interested in such things, I have placed the Hebrew sections of this passage in bold, and left the Aramaic portions in a regular font:

Why is he called “the first of the speakers on all occasions“?

Rabbi Yehuda, Rabbi Yosi and Rabbi Shim’on were sitting, and Yehuda ben Gerim [“the son of converts”, acc. to Rashi] was sitting by them. Rabbi Yehuda spoke up and said, “How glorious are the deeds of this nation! They built marketplaces, they built bathhouses, they built bridges…”

Rabbi Yosi said nothing, but Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai stirred and said, “Everything that they built, they built for their own gratification. They built marketplaces in order to place prostitutes in them, bathhouses in order to pleasure themselves, and bridges in order to exact tolls.”

Yehuda ben Gerim went and repeated their discussion, and the Romans [“the kingdom”] heard. They said, “Yehuda, who exalted, shall be exalted. Yosi, who was silent, shall be exiled to Sepphoris. Shim’on, who censured, shall be killed.”

He and his son went and hid in the academy. Every day, their wives [lit. “those of their house”] brought them bread and a pitcher of water, and they ate. When the decree was strengthened, he said to his son, “The minds of women are weak. Perhaps, by torturing her, she will give [us] away?

They went and hid in a cave. A miracle occurred for them: a carob tree and a spring of water were created. They sat up to their necks in sand. During the day, they sat and learned, and would cast off [their clothes]. At the time of prayer, they got up and dressed, and covered themselves, and left, and prayed. Then they cast off [their clothes] again, lest they wear them out. They dwelt in the cave for thirteen years.

Elijah came to the entrance to the cave. He said, “Who will tell Bar Yochai that the Caesar is dead and his decree annulled?”

They went out and saw people reaping and sowing. He said, “They discard eternal life and labour in the life of the moment!” Everywhere they cast their eyes immediately burned.

A heavenly voice came out and said to them, “Is it to destroy my world that you came out? Return to your cave!

They dwelt there twelve months, saying “The judgment of the wicked in Gehennom is twelve months.

A heavenly voice came out and said, “Leave your cave.

They went out. Every place that Rabbi Elazar struck, Rabbi Shim’on cured. He said to him, “My son, you and I are enough for the world.”

They saw an old man who was holding two bundles of myrtle, and who was running at twilight. They said to him, “What are these for?

He said to them, “To honour Shabbat.

They said to him, “Is not one enough for you?”

He said to them, “One corresponds to “Remember [Shabbat]” (Exodus 20:8) and one corresponds to “Observe [Shabbat]” (Deuteronomy 5:12).”

He said to him, “Look at how the [divine] commandment is precious to Israel!” They were appeased.

Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair, his son-in-law, heard and went out to greet him. He took him to the bathhouse. He was massaging his flesh. He saw that there were creases in his flesh and was crying, and as the tears fell they were hurting him. He said, “Woe to me that I should see you like this!

He replied, “Blessed are you that you should see me like this! Were you not to see me like this, I would not find such within me!” (Previously, Rabbi Shim’on ben Yochai would ask a single question and Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair would solve it with twelve solutions. After [his experience in the cave,] Rabbi Pinchas would ask one question and Rabbi Shim’on ben Yochai would solve it with twenty-four solutions.)

He said, “Since a miracle occured, I shall fix (אתקין) something! For it says, “Jacob came whole to the city of Shechem (Genesis 33:18a). (Rav said, “Whole in his body, whole in his wealth, whole in his Torah.) “And he encamped before the city” (Genesis 33:18b; understood here as “And he looked favourably upon the city). (Rav said, “He established [ie: “minted”; תקן] coins for them.” Shmuel said, “He established (תקן) marketplaces for them.” Rabbi Yochanan said, “He established (תקן) bathhouses for them.”).”

He said, “Is there something I can fix (דלתקוני)?”

They said to him, “There is a place of doubtful impurity and it is difficult for priests to go around it.”

He said, “Is there somebody who knows whether there was a presumption of purity here?”

An old man said, “Here and there, Ben Azzai cut down lupines [acc. to Jastrow] for ritual use.”

He did likewise: everywhere that was solid was clean; everywhere that was soft, he marked.

The old man said, “Ben Yochai has purified a cemetary!”

He said to him, “Had you not been with us, or had you been with us and not voted with us, you would have spoken well. Now, since you were with us, should people say ‘Prostitutes paint each other [ie: make each other look favourable in public]; should not the disciples of sages even moreso?’” He looked upon him, and his soul departed.

He went out to the marketplace and saw Yehuda ben Gerim. “Is someone like this still in the world!?” He looked upon him and turned him into a heap of bones.

To recount:

The Talmud is, initially, concerned with the reason behind Rabbi Yehuda being labelled “the first of the speakers on all occasions”. It would appear, on the basis of this story’s introduction, that this is not only because he spoke first on one particular occasion, but that he was subsequently extolled by the Romans, and possibly promoted to a position of influence that necessitated his opinion being heard before the opinions of other people. This conclusion is based solely upon the passage under consideration.

In any case, the Talmud goes on to relate the after-effects of this discussion having reached the ears of the Romans. The three opinions given (it is reasonable, I think, to construe Rabbi Yosi’s silence as representing an opinion midway between those of his colleagues) are mirrored by the three decrees that the Romans enact. Yehuda ben Gerim’s role is ambiguous here. Rather than display an opinion of his own, his function within the narrative is to expedite the events leading to Rabbi Shim’on bar Yochai (henceforth, RSBY) living in isolation from society. He is not a villain, although he may be viewed as the unwary catalyst of dire events.

Once the Roman decree against RSBY is given, we are told that he has a son (Rabbi Elazar) and that the two go into hiding together. It becomes apparant later in the story that he also has a daughter (Rabbi Pinchas ben Yair is introduced as his son-in-law), and we shortly discover that both he and his son have wives. Their wives provide them with food but, when the decree intensifies, RSBY fears the fickleness of women and flees again. It would appear that he suspects the Romans of being prepared to torture his wife, and she is not mentioned in the ensuing narrative. The possibility of her being tortured is only troublesome to RSBY insofar as it may lead to his discovery, and he settles instead in a cave.

While RSBY and his son were previously dependant upon their wives for food, a miracle occurs in the cave and both a carob tree and a spring of water are called into existence. So as not to wear out their clothes, RSBY and his son learn naked – covered only with sand. In Tractate Berachot (bBer 25b), a discussion ensues as regards the permissability of reciting the “Shema” in a situation when one can see (or when one’s heel is touching) one’s penis. It may be that RSBY and Rabbi Elazar covered themselves with sand in order that they might pronounce the name of God in their studies without actually wearing clothes. Nonetheless, when it is time to pray, they both “get up, get dressed, cover themselves, go out and pray”.

In my translation of this clause, I have conveyed נפקו variously as “got up” and “went out”. It would appear to me that the first instance of the verb refers to themselves leaving the sand in which they had been sitting, while the second instance refers to them leaving the cave. I do not know which manuscripts were employed in the publication of my personal version of the Talmud (Jerusalem: Torah LaAm, 1957), but it lacks the second instance of this verb, which makes more sense to me. The implication that they might have left their hiding place daily in order to do something so visible as pray strikes me as bizarre, given their previous reticence to remain within the academy.

After thirteen years (twelve years, in my version), Elijah the prophet appears at the entrance to the cave and declares, in a roundabout fashion, that the Caesar is dead and that the decree is void. More likely, the word “Caesar” here is a reference to the local governor, rather than to the emperor in Rome, who (we would assume) was not particularly interested in the fate of an individual rabbi, responsible for privately criticising his administration. The appearance of Elijah is a familiar trope, found throughout the rabbinic literature, and serves as a means of providing protagonists with information otherwise unobtainable by them. Elijah’s single line of dialogue is, until this point, the first line of dialogue spoken in Aramaic.

RSBY and his son leave their cave and immediately see people engaged in agriculture. After twelve/thirteen years devoted solely to learning, this infuriates them. Presumably, RSBY is under the impression that all Israel can behave likewise and expect, in return for their piety and devotion, miraculous sustenance of the nature that he and his son received. Their tilling of the earth, in the expectation that such activity is the sole means of obtaining food, may be an implied dimension to RSBY’s ire. Whatever the case, he makes the presumption that they are not suitably engaged in Torah study and, with the powers gained during his sojourn in the cave, his son and he set fire to every place they look.

The ability of RSBY and his son to burn the world with their eyes must be, in context, the result of their having achieved a higher stature through asceticism, learning and prayer. While the rabbinic literature often strongly disparages separation from the community, it nonetheless appears to be treating RSBY and his son with favour. What is more, the post-Talmudic tradition came to adopt the notion that, while in the cave, RSBY (though not his son) was revealed the mystical elements of Torah, which he wrote down in the form of several manuscripts, later collected together as the Zohar. While there is much academic debate concerning the origins of this work (the entirety of which appears on linguistic, stylistic and theological grounds to be medieval), there is uniformity in at least one issue: none of it dates to the Tannaitic period (c.1 BCE/CE to c.200 CE; cf: H.L. Strack & G. Stemberger, Introduction to the Talmud and Midrash (trans. M. Bockmuehl; Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1996), 76; see also G. Scholem, Major Trends in Jewish Mysticism (New York: Schocken Books, 1995), 163-168 for a linguistic analysis, 168-172 for a literary analysis).

Elsewhere in the Talmud (bBBat 134a), a baraitha (a text of Tannaitic provenance, not included in the Mishna) is produced, which lauds the disciples of Hillel the Elder. One of his disciples (the greatest of those who are described as being “of intermediate stature”), named Yonatan ben Uzziel, is said to have set fire to the birds that flew over his head, simply by sitting and engaging with Torah. The fire motif appears also in the Palestinian Talmud’s account of Elisha ben Abuya’s apostasy (pHag 77b; likewise in the Mishna to Ruth: RutR 6:4). In that instance, it is after being impressed by the manner in which two rabbis were consumed with fire while studying that Elisha’s father sought to dedicate his infant son to the academy. In both places, the notion of calling down fire is directly related to one’s lofty learning, but the situation in our passage is a little more nuanced. Here, while RSBY and his son are both able to immolate on command, the true elevation of RSBY’s status comes about through his learning to control the new skill, and this is only achieved through an additional year of isolation.

We are told at this point in the story that twelve months is the allotted time for sinners in Gehennom, and it is possible that the cave is here serving as a representation of death/rebirth. Such might accord with the decree against RSBY’s life at the start of the narrative, and certainly accords with his reference to Gehennom at this stage in the story. His statement, to the effect that his punishment is akin to the postmortem torment that the rabbis envisaged for those who sinned, is the starkest example in this text of language shift from Aramaic to Hebrew. The preceding clause, which narrates RSBY’s subsequent seclusion as being twelve months, uses the Aramaic ירחי (“months”), while the following clause uses the Hebrew חדש (“month”). In addition to the lexical shift, there is the concomitant morphological shift: Aramaic numeral + plural noun vs. Hebrew numeral + singular noun. The emphasis thus far (to the exclusion of Elijah) on characters specifically speaking Hebrew is shortly lost, when RSBY addresses his second question to an old man in Aramaic.

Prior to this occurring, RSBY and his son are again addressed by a heavenly voice and they again leave their cave. This time, while Rabbi Elazar appears to still be on the same spiritual level as before, RSBY is now capable of healing all that his son destroys. His enigmatic statement (“My son, you and I are enough for the world”) most probably refers to the fact that their Torah learning is now sufficient for all of humanity, and RSBY is no longer disturbed by the fact that it is apparantly neglected by others. No sooner are we told this, then we are also informed of their witnessing an elderly man, rushing to get home before the onset of Shabbat (“running at twilight”), but with two bundles of myrtle in his hands. He informs them that they are supposed to correspond to the two different injunctions that concern the observation of Shabbat, as recorded in the two different versions of the decalogue (Exodus 20:8 and Deuteronomy 5:12). While RSBY is presumably still contemptuous of the ignorance of his fellow Jews, the manner in which the old man goes beyond the letter of the law in order to beautify its observance is impressive for him and, even though we had previously been told that he was at peace with their ignorance, he is now thoroughly appeased.

It would appear that this line concludes the second division of the story. The first division concerned the elevation of Rabbi Yehuda and the decree against the life of RSBY, while the second concerned RSBY’s subsequent attainment of a status loftier than all of his peers. A key word that surfaces throughout the first two sections is the Aramaic verb יתב, which means “sit” (the rabbis in the beginning, RSBY and his son in sand), “dwell” (RSBY and his son in the cave) and “appeased” (the minds of both RSBY and his son, on hearing the old man’s answer). It characterises the first two sections as being more or less sedentary: while RSBY undergoes a change of some description, there is not much activity to characterise it. On the contrary, the first two sections of this story are more focused on inner developments, speech and study. Even the violence of RSBY’s anger is characterised by speech, the movement of his eyes (and the consequences that brings) and his passive return to the cave. The only person who exhibits haste within the story is the old man, whose running to perform a commandment marks the conclusion of the second section.

The third section of the story is characterised by action. RSBY has his skin massaged by his son-in-law, we receive exposition on a biblical verse related to the construction and establishment of various civic realia, and RSBY performs active services for the local population. It is more ambiguous than the previous two sections – an ambiguity that is indicated straight away by RSBY visiting a place that he had previously disparaged for its debauchery. The recording of this activity is indicative of the fact that the narrative has taken a turn and that RSBY is not the same person that he had been at the story’s beginning. It is doubtful that he has come to perceive the Romans in a more positive light, but it is entirely possible that he has now come to view their institutions from a utilitarian perspective. That is, while Rabbi Yehuda praised Roman institutions (presumably on the basis of their function), RSBY censured them on the basis of their abuse. Incapable of appreciating the world for what it could be, and mired in the perception of things as they are, RSBY dismissed the advances of the Roman empire absolutely. After his experience in isolation and his second encounter with the outside world, RSBY now has an appreciation for the good in things. While bathhouses might be places of debauchery for many, they serve a utilitarian purpose that he is happy to exploit.

It is in the bathhouse, while having his sandworn skin massaged by his son-in-law, that we are given another indication of the extent to which he had been transformed. Previously none too bright (if we are to presume that being corrected at length by one’s youngers is an indicator of this), RSBY has actually increased his knowledge despite having been away from the academy. There is a connection between his intellectual status and the frailty of his physical body: Rabbi Pinchas laments the latter, but RSBY corrects him by suggesting that, were it not for him being in so poor a state, he would not be possessed of the inner achievements that he has gained. While previously Rabbi Pinchas could provide twelve different answers for each of RSBY’s questions, RSBY can now provide twenty-four different answers for each of the questions of his son-in-law.

So great is this “miracle”, as it is phrased, that RSBY now feels that he should give something back to the world. RSBY’s desire to do something practical – through activity, rather than the passivity that earlier characterised him – is relayed to us by means of a scriptural analysis. The passage, taken from Genesis 33, describes the situation after Jacob’s encounter with his estranged brother. While originally fearful for his life, Jacob is relieved at the manner in which events turn out, and arrives at Shechem “whole”. RSBY was likewise in fear of his life, so the passage is an apt one. What follows is an analysis on the word “whole”, which is given by Rav. The section is an interpolation, brought for its concluding sentiment, which concerns what Jacob did after arriving. The verse states that he “encamped towards the city”, but the lexical similarity between the verb חנה (“encamp”) and חננ (“show mercy”) allows the rabbis to conceive of Jacob as having shown mercy to the residents of Shechem. His mercy was precipitated by his life being saved and, according to Rav, Shmuel and Rabbi Yochanan, was characterised by his having established various things.

RSBY, therefore, his life having been spared, is also keen to “establish” something, although the usage of the verb תקן in this context has the implication of “fixing”. Given his new mental strength and his new spiritual transformation, RSBY wishes to repair something, the reparation of which is presumably beyond his contemporaries. Again, it is an old man that brings about the import of this task – in this instance, one who appears after RSBY is informed of a place that is suspected of having dead bodies beneath the soil. On being asked whether or not there was a precedent for suspecting any of it as being pure, the old man informs RSBY that another rabbi of the Tannaitic era, Ben Azzai, once gathered lupines that grew from the soil and consecrated them for ritual use. The story is problematic, given the possibility of bodies being interred subsequent to Ben Azzai’s horticultural activity, but RSBY takes it on face value and, on the presupposition that solid ground indicates the absence of a corpse and soft ground (perhaps by virtue of it having been moved and repacked) indicates the presence of a corpse, RSBY signposts the impure areas and renders a valuable service to the local priests, prohibited from entering a cemetary by Levitical law.

Had the story concluded here, we would have a clear development of RSBY’s character and a conclusion that demonstrates an application of his new abilities. On the contrary, the story now provides us with a troubling indictment of his fiery temper. The same old man who previously assisted him by indicating the fact that some of the ground might be pure, now slights him by declaring that he has permitted a cemetary. RSBY, who views this as a disparagement of his ruling, accuses the old man of having been present when the sages voted on RSBY’s decision and of therefore lacking the right to voice any complaint. The expression used is a striking one: lowly prostitutes take the time to beautify one another; how much moreso should disciples of the sages make one another look pleasing to the public eye? By having insulted RSBY, the old man has apparantly brought the edifice of Torah learning into disrepute and must be punished. His punishment? RSBY looks upon him and the old man dies.

Our story has now been brought full circle. In addition to featuring a bathhouse and making reference to prostitutes (who, as RSBY stated at the outset, were put in marketplaces by the Romans), the story now concludes with RSBY’s visit to a marketplace as well. The fact that he encounters Yehuda ben Gerim there only serves to indicate that we are now back to the beginning and, in an effort to redress the wrong that was originally done to him, RSBY incinerates him on the spot. How one is supposed to understand this action – especially given the fact that Yehuda ben Gerim’s “crime” was one of thoughtlessness only – is unclear. All that seems certain is that RSBY’s transformation is not one that has affected his inmost character after all, but merely his attitude towards the world around him. As we noted earlier, RSBY commenced by disparaging civic institutions and proceeded, even after a lengthy process of meditation and prayer, to disparage active, worldly behaviour. Then, in addition to having a newfound respect for bathhouses and, one presumes, marketplaces, RSBY feels compelled to do something active and productive for the community.

Jeffrey Rubenstein (Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999), 120) presumes that, after exiting his cave for the first time, RSBY was responsible for murdering a farmer with his gaze. Although the text does not specify a human casualty, Rubenstein’s subsequent observation is acute: if his first victim was somebody engaging in temporal life, his second victim is somebody who objects to RSBY’s engagement in the same. This, if nothing else, indicates the transformation taken place, although it is worth noting that a fundamental transformation (eg: from somebody who kills to somebody who does not) is lacking. If anything, perhaps, the final murder serves to reinforce that point. As Rubenstein observes, the tension between Torah and the outside world remains, even at the conclusion of the narrative.

There is much within RSBY’s character that contemporary readers may find objectionable. In addition to those elements that may have been so viewed by the text’s intended audience, we might also add RSBY’s attitude towards women and his willingness to leave his wife behind, despite already having suggested that the Romans were liable to torture her. The extent to which such opinions reflect on the authors and the extent to which they are employed in order to develop a character remains impossible to determine with certainty. Likewise difficult to determine is what the text is actually trying to tell us, although it seems certain that the issues with which the passage is concerned involve the relationship between Torah study and worldly existence, and the elevation of one’s intellect as a result of diligence. It is perhaps unsurprising that the tradition should have developed that RSBY was a mystic, as the relationship between study and action has been fraught for mystics throughout the ages.

On Lag BaOmer, thousands of Jews visit RSBY’s tomb on Mount Meron. Considered the anniversary of his death, and based on the tradition that his life brought the mystical secrets of Torah into the world, it offsets the preceding period of mourning – itself in commemoration of the thousands slain after the failed Bar Kochba revolt (c.132 CE). But that’s another story.

[It needs to be noted that the foregoing analysis is based solely upon the passage under consideration, and has not taken into view other information about RSBY, gleaned from elsewhere in the rabbinic literature. Those who are interested in reading more material that relates to him might consider A. Kolatch, Masters of the Talmud: Their Lives and Views (New York: Jonathan David Publishers, 2003), 347-349; G. Bader, The Encyclopedia of Talmudic Sages (trans. S. Katz; New Jersey: Jason Aronson, 1993), 352-361. Both texts provide an overview, although the second is without enumerated sources.]

The following is the text in its original language, acc. to manuscript Munich 95, and as reproduced in Jeffrey L. Rubenstein, Talmudic Stories: Narrative Art, Composition, and Culture (Baltimore: John Hopkins University Press, 1999), 289-290. Some differences exist between this and my printed copy of the Talmud (Jerusalem: Torah LaAm, 1957), although I have relied solely upon the manuscript version as reproduced here:

ואמאי קרו ליה ראש המדברים בכל מקום

הוה יתיב רבי יהודה ורבי יוסי ורבי שמעון הוה יתיב יהודה בן גרים גבייהו פתח ר’ יהודה ואמר כמה נאים מעשיהם של אומה זו תקנו שווקים תקנו מרחצאות תקנו גשרים ר’ יוסי שתק נענה ר’ שמעון ואמ’ כל מה שתקנו לצרכם תקנו תקנו שווקים להושיב בהן זונות מרחצאות לעדן בהן גשרים ליטול מהם מכס הלך יהודה בן גרים וספר דבריהם ונשמעו למלכות אמרו יהודה שעלה יעלה יוסי ששתק יגלה לצפורי שמעון שגינה יהרג

אזל איהו ובריה טשו בי מדרשא כל יומא הוה מייתי להו דביתייהו רפתא וכוזא דמיא וכרכי כי תקיף גזירתא א”ל לבריה נשים דעתן קלות עליהן קמצערי לה ומגליא אזל טשו במערתא אתרחיש להו ניסא ואיברו להו חרובא ועינא דמיא הוו יתבי עד צוורא בחליה ביומא יתבי וגרסי והוו משלחין מנייהו לעידן צלויי נפקי ולבשי ומכסי ונפקי ומצלו והדר שלוחי מנייהו כי היכי דלא ליבלו אותיבי במערתא תליסר שני אתא אליהו אפיתחא דמערתא אמ’ מאן מודעיה לבר יוחי דאמית קיסר ובטל גזירתא

נפקו חזו אינשי דקא כרבי זרעי אמרין מניחין חיי עולם ועוסקין בחיי שעה כל מקום שנתנו עיניהם מיד נשרף יצתה בת קול ואמרה להחריב עולמי יצאתם חזרו למערתכם אותיביה תריסר ירחי שתא אמרו משפט רשעים בגהינם שנים עשר חדש יצתה בת קול צאו ממערתכם

נפקו כל היכא דהוה מחי ר’ אלעזר הוה מסי ר’ שמעון אמ’ לו בני דיי לעולם אני ואתה חזו ההוא סבא דהוה נקיט תרי מדני דאס’ וקרהיט ואזיל לבין השמשות אמרו ליה הני למה לך אמ’ ליה לכבוד שבת א”ל ותיסגי ליה בחד א”ל חד כנגד זכור וחד כנגד שמור א”ל חזי כמה מצוה חביבה עליהם דישראל יתיב דעתייהו

שמע ר’ פנחס בן יאיר חתני’ נפיק לאפיה עיילי לבי בני הוו קא אריך ליה לבשריה חזיא דהוה ליה פילי בבישריה והוה קא בכי וקא נתרו דמעיה ומצערו ליה א”ל אוי לי שראיתיך בכך אמ’ לו אשריך שראיתני בכך שאלמלא לא ראיתני בכך לא מצאתי בי כך דמעיקרא כי הוה מקשי רבי שמעון בן יוחי חד קושיא הוה מפרק ליה ר’ פנחס בן יאיר תריסר פירוקי ולבסוף כי הוה מקשי ר’ פנחס קושיא הוה מפרק ליה ר’ שמעון בן יוחי עשרים וארבעה פירוקי

אמ’ הואיל ואיתרחיש ניסא אתקין מילתא דכתי’ ויבא יעקב שלם עיר שכם ואמ’ רב שלם בגופו שלם בממונו שלם בתורתו ויחן את פני העיר ואמ’ רב מטבע תקן להם ושמואל אמ’ שווקים תקן להם ר’ יוחנן אמר מרחצאות תקן להם אמ’ איכא מילתא דלתקוני אמרו ליה איכא דוכתא דאית ביה ספק טומאה ואיכא לכהני צערה לאקופי אמ’ איכ’ דידע דאיתחזיק טהרה הכא א”ל ההוא סבא כאן וכאן קצץ בן עזאי תרמוסי תרומה עבד איהו נמי כל היכא דהוה קשי טהריה כל היכא דהוה רפי צייניה אמ’ ההוא סבא טהר בן יוחי בית הקברות א”ל אלמלי לא הייתה עמנו ואי נמי הייתה עמנו ולא נמנית עמנו יפה אתה או’ עכשיו שהייתה עמנו יאמרו זונות מפרכסות זו את זו תלמידי חכמים לא כל שכן יהב ביה עינא נח נפשיה נפק לשוקא חזייה ליהודה בן גרים עדיין ישנו לזה בעולם נתן עיניו בו ועשאו גל של עצמות

“Such is My Will”: Musings on the Torah and its ‘Reward’

2 12 2006

In musing over the origins of the ‘crowns’ appended to certain letters within the Masoretic tradition of writing Hebrew Torah scrolls, the Talmud takes an opportunity to digress in relation to Rabbi Akiva’s greatness, and the fate that he suffered at the hands of the Romans. Like several passages within the Talmud, the prose is tight and the emotions of the author are well conveyed despite their brevity of expression.

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The Rabbis

27 09 2006

שמונים תלמידים היו להלל הזקן שלשים מהם ראויין שתשרה עליהם שכינה כמשה רבינו ושלשים מהם ראויין שתעמוד להם השמש כיהושוע ועשרים בינונים גדול שבכלם יונתן בן עוזיאל קטן שבכלם רבן יוחנן בן זכאי. אמרו עליו על רבן יוחנן בן זכאי שלא הניח לא מקרא ולא משנה ולא תלמוד ולא הלכות ולא הגדות ולא דקדוקי תורה ודקדוקי סופרים קלין וחמורין גזרות שוות תקופות וגימטריות וממשלות כובסין וממשלות שועלים שיחת דקלים שיחת שדים שיחת מלאכי השרת דבר גדול ודבר קטן דבר גדול מעשה מרכבה דבר קטן הוייא דאביי ורבא לקיים מה שנאמר ˚להנחיל אוהבי יש ואוצרותיהם אמלא וכי מאחר דקטן שבכולם כן גדול שבכולם על אחת כמה וכמה אמרו עליו על יונתן בן עוזיאל
בשעה שיושב ועוסק בתורה כל עוף שפורח עליו נשרף

“Hillel the Elder had eighty disciples:
Thirty of them were worthy of having God’s presence rest upon them as it had upon Moses, our Master;
Thirty of them were worthy of having the sun stand still for them as it had for Joshua;
And twenty of them were of intermediate stature.
The greatest of all of them was Yonatan ben Uzzi`el;
The least of all of them was Our Master Johanan ben Zakkai.
It is said about Johanan ben Zakkai that he never disregarded Scripture, nor Mishna, nor the commentaries on the Mishna, nor the legal discussions, nor the homiletic interpretations, nor the minutiae of Torah, nor the minutiae of the scribes – both light and heavy matters: exegesis, astronomy, letter permutation, the proverbs of washer-women, the parables of foxes, the conversation of palm trees, the conversation of devils, the conversation of the ministering angels, the “great matter” and the “small matter”.
The “great matter” is the Work of the Divine Chariot [a branch of mysticism concerned with Ezekiel’s vision];
The “lesser matter” is the discussions of Abayyei and Rava.
(This is to fulfil that which is written: ˚[Proverbs 8:21, acc. to JPS] “I endow those who love me with substance; I will fill their treasuries”.)
In the manner of the smallest of all of them, so too is the greatest of all of them – so much and more!
It is said about Yonatan ben Uzzi`el that whenever he sat and laboured in Torah, every bird that flew above him was consumed with fire.”
bB.Bat. 134a