A Purim Parody (though not by me)

4 03 2015

In the spirit of Purim, which begins at sundown this evening, I would like to share a piece of satire that must surely take its place as one of the greatest Purim parodies ever composed. It was shared by Dr Shai Secunda in 2012, although the author’s identity appears to be a carefully guarded secret. I am extremely impressed and would love to see more of his/her work!

It is written in the style of the Babylonian Talmud, together with a commentary on the right-hand side of the page in the style of Rashi, and one on the left-hand side of the page in the style of the Tosafists. The Mishna, which commences here with “כלל גדול” concerns three separate (mock-)rulings on Purim, which the ensuing analyses thresh out and, in so doing, provide a rather hilarious mockery of the haredi political establishment in Jerusalem:

Masekhet Purim
(Clicking makes it BIGGER)

This piece is really just too good to be presented without any form of translation or commentary of my own, and I’ll admit to having spent quite some time enjoying it since it was first published online. The following constitutes my presentation of its very many highlights.

The mishna reads as follows: “They state a rule in relation to Purim: all costumes are permissible except for those of the Holocaust. They state another rule: all ears convey impurity in a tent save for the ears of Haman, although those ones do convey food impurity. In actuality, they said: all rabbinic supervisions are invalid, save for that of the Eda haChareidis.”

The terminology here is reminiscent of the actual Mishna (“they state a rule”, “they state another rule”, “in actuality”, etc), and the content of the second rule pertains to an area of legislation that concerns the impurity conveyed by different types of corpses. Something’s being “in a tent” (either together with you, overhanging you in the manner of a tent or being underneath you with you forming a tent, so to speak, over it) is one of three ways that corpse impurity can be conveyed. The other two are those of touching something and of carrying it (perhaps upon a tray).

The subject matter of the first rule sets the scene, being reminiscent of a political stunt at the conclusion of 2011, in which haredi children were dressed up as victims of the Shoah in order to protest the state’s treatment of its ultra-Orthodox citizens. The Rashi-style commentary on this mishna is for the most part straight to the point, but the explanation of this ruling (that all costumes are permissible except for those of the Holocaust) is brilliant: “you would think [based on this mishna] that those ones are forbidden due to derekh eretz” – a term that denotes tastefulness, propriety and the acceptable social morés of our society.

Indeed, you would think!

On the contrary, the gemara commences by asking a question: Is this so? Behold, the pious ones (נקיי הדעת; Rashi: “the Eda haChareidis”) of Jerusalem dressed in Holocaust costumes! Rav Tuvia says: “All costumes are permissible except for those of the Holocaust, which are an obligation“.

As the Rashi-style commentary explains, Rav Tuvia is a reference to Rabbi Yitzhak Tuvia Weiss, who is the head of the Eda haChareidis (and who has been since his predecessor’s death in 2003). Rashi’s comment concludes, however, by referencing a passage in the Talmud from פרק המדיר את האשה in Tractate Nedarim. המדיר את האשה (haMadir et-haIsha), in Mishnaic Hebrew, refers to prohibiting a woman from her husband by means of an oath. Taken on its own however, it is an allusion to the exclusion of women in general, both from public life and from positions of authority.

The “Talmud” then continues to extrapolate from biblical texts precisely why dressing in Holocaust-related costumes might be construed as an obligation, deducing that it is in order to mourn for the work of the Zionists, who anger God as much as idolatry and murder. This last point is made in the name of Rav Aharon Hasida – Rav Aharon “the hasid”, that is: an allusion, of course, to Rabbi Aharon Roth. Reb Arleh (as he is known) was the founder and rebbe of Shomer Emunim, which has since split into Toldos Avraham Yitzhak and Toldos Aharon. The “Rashi” commentary here references Tractate Bava Maaseh in support of this observation!

The Talmudic explication of the second rule within the mishna commences with a question: is it possible that all ears convey impurity in a tent? Have we not learnt that the ears of pigs and rabbits convey impurity by touching and by carrying only? To this, Rav Shakh responds by noting that the Zionists have already eaten all of the pigs and rabbits, and that (as is pointed out by Rabbah in Chullin 71a) a swallowed impurity does not further contaminate.

The allusion here is beautiful: in 1990, Rav Shakh (who was then the leader of the Lithuanian political party, Degel haTorah) delivered a speech that was televised around the country. In it, he accused secular Israelis of having strayed from Judaism, of not even knowing what Yom Kippur is, and of being “breeders of rabbits and pigs”. [This infamous speech, which has come to be known as the rabbit and pig speech, can be viewed online here. The subtitles are none too accurate at times, but I intend to provide a transcription at a later date.]

Finally, the Talmudic analysis concludes with an explication of the Mishna’s third and final rule – that, “in actuality, they said: all rabbinic supervisions are invalid save for that of the Eda haChareidis”. According to Rav Rubin (an allusion to Rabbi Avraham Rubin, who heads the Edah’s kashrut authority: Badatz Mehadrin), this is to exclude the supervision of the Israeli rabbinate in particular. As “Rashi” points out, the hatred of the rabbinate has its source in the first chapter of Avot. This is a reference to Avot 1:10, in which Shemaiah declares that one should despise positions of authority (ושנא את הרבנות) – or, that one should “hate the rabbinate”.

But is it not obvious that the supervision of the rabbinate is invalid? After all, the rabbinate is comprised of Zionists! Rather, says Rav Landau (perhaps an allusion to Rabbi Moshe Yehuda Leib Landau – the Av Beit Din of Bnei Brak), the mishna’s ruling is designed to exclude the supervision of Rav Ovadiah Yosef, whose bet din (in the Rashi-style commentary) is deemed a “permissible” bet din.

And yet, this also poses problems to our gemara, since Rav Ovadiah was a Sephardi and should certainly excluded on those grounds as well. After all, the Torah says “Beit Yaakov” (Exodus 19:3), which would exclude all Sephardim! This passage (which can also be read as stating that “Beit Yaakov is to exclude all Sephardim!”) is an allusion, of course, to the school Beit Yaakov, in the Israeli settlement of Imanuel, which attracted some much-deserved notoriety in 2007 when they insisted on segregating girls of Sephardi families, leading to the allegation that they were seeking to exclude Sephardim altogether. This allusion is made even stronger by its being attributed to Rav Imanuel – which is to say, the rav of Imanuel.

Taken as a whole, this is a truly beautiful piece – a somewhat brilliant piece – and I would be thoroughly remiss if I didn’t relate some of the hilarious passages found in the mock-Tosafot commentary on the left-hand side of the page. I encourage people to read it for themselves, and warn that the following may constitute a spoiler.

Much of what they write (as with a great deal of what “Rashi” has to say here) is of a fairly literal nature, and the extent to which it is parodic hinges on its dealing with a fictitious mishna and a desire to harmonise it with other passages within the real (and, occasionally, fictitious) Talmud. In some cases they have tweaked those other passages in order to incorporate a condemnation of the Zionists – which is to say, of those who would condemn them in reality.

Thus, they commence by noting an incongruity: how can the Zionists, who are evil-doers, have named themselves for the holy city of Zion? Their solution is that the word tziyoni refers not to Zion but to those who are “exemplified” (metzuyanim) through acts of wickedness. Their source for this is a fictitious sugya in the Talmud Yerushalmi’s Tractate Sheviit, which concerns heter mechirah – an allusion to a psak by a number of rabbonim (including Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan Spektor), which is ironically followed by religious kibbutzim throughout the country but which is rejected by the haredi establishment. [This article gives a very good overview of the halakhic issues involved with this particular psak, and the reasons for its ongoing controversy.]

Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan gets a second mention as well, when the “Tosafot” go on to question the gemara’s usage of a verse in Jeremiah, wondering whether or not there could have been Zionists during the time of that prophet. This passage is a lovely combination of the literal and the absurd (perhaps of the literally absurd), in that it both comprises a serious attempt at tosafist-like pilpul, while at the same time serving as a deliberate parody of the texts that it is quoting.

In that regard, it references the conclusion of Tractate Sotah, which laments the deaths of individual rabbonim by remarking upon the decline of the generations since their passing and the concomitant increase of troubles. The quote, however, is a fabricated one: “since the death of Rabbi Yitzhak Elchanan [Spektor], the Zionists have increased”. If the Zionists have increased, there must have been some Zionists even before Rav Yitzhak Elchanan, and so possibly even in the days of Jeremiah?

The cleverest passage in my opinion is their second-to-last one, which concerns the exclusion of Rav Ovadiah’s kashrut supervision. There, while referencing a non-existent tractate (there is no Talmud on Tractate Uqtzin), “Tosafot” puzzle over a logical inconsistency in the invented Talmud to their right. Rav Ovadiah is to be excluded because he was Sephardi, and yet Rav Ovadiah was also in the Israeli rabbinate!

Rav Ovadiah’s inclusion in the rabbinate (of which he served, for a time, as Chief Rabbi) is proven by means of an invented passage that makes reference to the stellar work that he did in releasing agunot and in “repairing” mamzerim, together with the absence of all such work in the years since his appointment. In the words of this passage, “Since I became Chief Rabbi, I did not permit a mamzer” (כד הוינא רב הראשי לא שרינא ממזירי). Since the “Talmud” does not exclude Rav Ovadiah’s supervision for the obvious reason (being that he was head of the Israeli rabbinate), and since it relies instead on the less obvious reason of his not being Ashkenazi, the Tosafot-style commentary concludes brilliantly: there must be two Rav Ovadiahs.

Other highlights, which you can read for yourself, include their reference to secular Israelis being lenient on sandals but strict on socks, and on their inclusion of a well-known Israeli anti-joke that involves two elephants in a bathtub. But perhaps the part that made me laugh most of all was in the very conclusion of the Talmudic section, and its “teaser” (so to speak) as to what the next page concerns.

The Mishna there commences with six words (found more fully in “Rashi”, on the right) to the effect that “all spittings are permissible, save for the spitting of women”. Again, the language here is thoroughly reminiscent of the actual Mishna (see, for example, Sheqalim 8:1), but the suggested allusion is to the disgusting incidents that transpired in Bet Shemesh just a couple of years ago. This is borne out by the Rashi-style commentary, which commences by noting that “you might think that [“the spitting of women” refers to] women who spit…”, and yet we suspect it refers to something far uglier than that.

Yes, I laughed out loud, and yes I know that it’s an atrocious thing to laugh at. But then, isn’t that the point of this piece as a whole – and the point of Purim parodies in general? After all, the very origin story of Purim is incredibly funny and has more than its fair share of the horrific.

For my taste, if I ever find a finer Purim parody than this one I shall be most impressed. The work that went into creating this is astonishing to me, and I am not in the least embarrassed by how much time I have spent reading it. It was time thoroughly well spent.

Wishing you all a very happy Purim, and one with lots of laughter.


Kosher Blood

27 02 2012

In July of last year, Allan Nadler (Professor of Religious Studies at Drew University, and author of The Faith of the Mithnagdim) wrote an article for Jewish Ideas Daily, in which he discussed the correlation between vampirism and Judaism. Nadler’s post is a review of a book by Sara Libby Robinson, entitled Blood Will Tell: Vampires as Political Metaphors Before World War I.

In Nadler’s article, he indicates the fact that Dracula is nowhere described as having been Jewish himself, although he does remark upon the similarities that he has to Jewish stereotypes:

“Rootless, of East European origin, dark-complected, and lustful for the money and blood of others. Assessing a wide range of themes in which blood and vampirism were evoked in late-19th-century European “scientific” thought (Social Darwinism and criminology in particular), Robinson argues that Stoker’s depiction of Dracula exploited widespread anxieties about the dangers posed by the flood (and the blood) of Yiddish-speaking immigrants to Great Britain.”

Is it a coincidence, then, that the individual whom Dracula enlists to assist him in his escape from England be none other than Immanuel Hildesheim: “a Hebrew of rather the Adelphi Theatre type, with a nose like a sheep, and a fez. His arguments were pointed with specie – we doing the punctuation – and with a little bargaining he told us what he knew” (Bram Stoker, Dracula, XXVI). Is it a coincidence that Dracula’s facial features may appear stereotypically Semitic, that his greatest concern lies in his accent divulging his East European origins, or that the vampire motif had long been employed for the characterisation of Jews as usurers? Nadler, in his review of Robinson’s book, seems to think that it is not. In fact, he even notes with interest the connection that Robinson creates between the fear of kosher slaughtering in the ethnic German population, and the ineradicable blood libel.

In the 1880s, for example, there was a widespread campaign in Germany to forbid any form of animal slaughter that was not preceded by electrical stunning. As Robinson notes (and I quote from Nadler’s review), “Jews supposedly took pleasure in their method of slaughtering, which strengthened their insensitivity and brutality. Propaganda depicted them as a “blood-drinking people,” erroneously positing that Jews drank the blood of their slaughtered animals.” I am sure that it goes without saying that animal blood is not something that religious Jews have ever consumed, and it is an unfamiliarity with Jewish religious law that strikes at the heart of such a depiction, as unfamiliarity strikes at the heart of all racial prejudices.

And yet, while it has long been contended that this same consideration automatically falsifies that version of the blood libel that is of greater antiquity – that Jews slaughter Christian children and use their blood for making food – such is not to be the case. While the libel is most certainly that, the reason that religious Jews would shun such a practise is the more commonplace aversion to murder, together with the fact that drinking human blood – if not necessarily unkosher – just sounds a little bit off.

With the approach of Purim, it is customary to deliver a “Purim Torah”: an halakhic or Talmudic exegesis, designed for the purposes of mockery. This year, I would like to share one of the most enjoyable halakhic exegeses (of this genre) that I have read: Yitayningwut’s discussion of kosher blood for Jewish vampires, found on his The Beis Medrash Blog. Rather than reproduce it below, I encourage you all to have a look at it in situ, for there are many other posts there that are also very interesting. For my part, I don’t think that I’m about to avail myself of this surprising leniency any time soon, but it pleases me to know that my options are open.

Esther’s Mirror

1 03 2007

Esther is a strange book, to say the least. Of all of the books within the Hebrew Bible, Esther is the only one not to be represented at all in Qumran. Or, at least, it is the only one that is believed to have not been represented at all in Qumran. There are several hundred unidentified fragments, many of which might have been Esther, but most scholars hold the possibility to have been unlikely. While other Biblical texts are represented substantially (either in the number of manuscripts or in the size of the available text), Esther appears to have been ignored. Traditionally, this is assumed to have been because of the absence of God’s name in the text, although one would also do well to remember the absence of God’s name in Song of Songs as well. Besides, while Song of Songs is a purely secular text (ignoring for the moment the reams of religious commentary that were imposed upon it), God might be argued to be operating ‘in the background’ within the book of Esther.

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