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.

Nowhere to Sleep

27 09 2011

As per the title of this post, I have had to start putting books on my bed. This is becoming a problem. And yet, when I walked into shul yesterday afternoon (a kid whose bar-mitzvah is coming up wanted to “interview” me about his parasha, vaYeitze), I couldn’t help but ransack three boxes of old books that were on their way to the Chevra Kadisha for burial. The things that people just throw away.

Because I know how much you like to read about my acquisitions (you do, don’t you?), I have decided to share.

The above box, which is about 32cm in length, sports a depiction of two lions atop two pillars, holding between them a crown. Alongside the crown are the letters כ and ת, for כתר תורה (“Crown of the Torah”). Between the two pillars is a quote from Deuteronomy 4:44 – וזאת התורה אשר שם משה לפני בני ישראל. At the bottom, a declaration that this is the product of an Israeli publishing house called Sinai. What might be inside?

It’s a scroll! As you can see from the picture, the actual scroll itself is only about 25cm in height. It is, of course, machine-printed and on paper, though the paper is quite thick and soft. The garment in which it is clothed is fraying, but the scroll itself appears to have suffered no damage at all. The depiction is of the tablets of the law, numbered from א to י, with a crown above them and, again, the letters כ and ת. The inscription beneath the tablets reads מזכרת ירושלים, meaning “a remembrance of Jerusalem”, in which Jerusalem has been spelt in accordance with rabbinic orthography (ירושלים, not ירושלם). Below is an image of the scroll itself.

As you can see, it is in excellent condition, and entirely legible. I reproduce a somewhat more magnified portion below:

Because I don’t want to fiddle too much with unrolling and rerolling it, I didn’t look through too much of the text. I did check to see whether Leviticus 1:1 featured a small aleph at the end of the first word (it did), and I did confirm that Exodus 15 was typeset as “brickwork”. I would have liked to look at Deuteronomy 32 as well (although I have every reason to suppose that it will be presented in columns), and would especially like to confirm that the ketivim are all written as ketivim, the inverted-nunim are to be found in their appropriate places, and there are dots above the correct letters, etc. Perhaps another time.

In the meantime, this is a most sensational find, and while I am sure that such things can be acquired at (reasonably) minimal expense, I am gobsmacked that it would have been so casually thrown away. Who could simply bury such a thing?

Secondary to the scroll, I also acquired another two siddurim. One beautiful little pocket siddur, titled שפת אמת, was printed in Warsaw in 1927. Another, beautifully ornate and hardcover siddur, printed in London in 1864, features the Hebrew text (נוסח פולין) and a translation into English by Rabbi Abraham Pereira Mendes. Titled “Daily Prayers”, this volume is also replete with halakhic and ritual notations from Rabbi Ya’akov Lorberbaum‘s דרך החיים.

On the subject of law, I nabbed an English translation of the קיצור שלחן ערוך (Kitzur Shulchan Arukh). I have two copies of the Kitzur in my room: one with glosses from the Shulchan Arukh haRav, and one with glosses from the Mishne Berurah. This translation dates from 1927, and was composed by Hyman Goldin, in New York.

Likewise, on the subject of historical curios (if these volumes count as historical curios), I grabbed three works by celebrated historians and social critics:

• Heinrich Graetz, History of the Jews: Vol. I. This volume spans from the patriarchs until the death of Simon the Maccabee (c.135 BCE), and was printed in 1891, the year of Graetz’s death. It was translated by Bella Löwy;

• Hilaire Belloc, The Jews. There are many fly spots on this volume (which is a first edition, published 1922), but the pages are of cloth, as all pages should be. Belloc was infamous at times for having possibly been an antisemite (that word, it seems, was no less frequently bandied about before the Shoah), though there appears to be little within this particular text that could possibly substantitate that. His seventh chapter, “The Anti-Semite”, when one considers the year of publication, is frighteningly prescient;

• Max Margolis and Alexander Marx, A History of the Jewish People. Spanning from the patriarchs until the opening of the Hebrew University in 1925, and despite occasional moments of silliness as when the authors remark upon the development of the “Cabala” with no real understanding of the kabbalistic literature (I blame them not; the world was different before Gershom Scholem’s Major Trends), their breadth of knowledge is inspiring. Nonetheless, despite concluding with a mention of the publication of the infamous Protocols, and the fact that people in Germany and Austria are beginning to unite “with the swastika as their badge”, the sanguine tone with which they conclude their volume is frighteningly unprescient.

And speaking of the Shoah, as I very nearly was, somebody else (whose name is in the front of it, but whom I won’t embarrass by mentioning) threw away a beautiful and heartbreaking book, entitled “The Children We Remember”. The author is Chana Byers Abells, and the photographs therein are all from the archives at Yad Vashem, Jerusalem. A children’s book, if you can believe it, this volume features photographs of European Jewish children in the years immediately prior to the Shoah, as well as in the ghettos and in Christian homes, in hiding. In one instance there is even a (somewhat famous) photo of a woman clutching her baby in the moments before an officer with a rifle took off their heads. Do people really show these things to their children? I thought that my education was explicit.

To happier things! I also took three other volumes of pictures – two of photographs, and one by illustration:

• Franz Hubmann, The Jewish Family Album: Yesterday’s World in Old Photographs. After an introduction, pages 17-79 are of the ghettos and the shtetls in the years before the Shoah; pages 79-225 are of “the emancipated” (with photos from Vienna, Prague, Paris, London, Amsterdam and Berlin, as well as of the Rothschilds and “the world of film”); pages 225-271 are of “the New World”; and pages 271-317 are of Palestine before and under the British Mandate;

• Published by the Old Yishuv Court Museum in Jerusalem, חצר הישוב הישן: Old Yishuv Court is a lovely collection of photographs of Palestinian Jews of Ashkenazi, Sephardi and Mizrachi descent (the musta’arabim), as well as some interesting pictures of Palestinian synagogues from before the state;

• Gustave Doré, תנ”ך בתמונות: The Bible in Pictures. With 140 illustrations taken from books of the Tanakh (as well as, most interestingly, I Maccabees, II Maccabees, Judith and Susanna!), this is another wonderful volume in excellent condition that should really never be thrown away. For a sample of Doré’s beautiful work, the Wikipedia article has some lovely selections. The copy that I have is hardcover, embossed with an image of Moses descending the mountain with the tablets of law in his hand, and was published in 1954 by Sinai.

It is a curious fact of Jewish life that nobody really knows, nor ever has really known, which books can be discarded and which must be buried. I can understand somebody deciding that they no longer want a particular text, but to assume (for no other reason than the fact that its content touches somehow upon Judaism or Jewish history) that it should go to the Chevra for burial is absurd. Not that I am complaining, of course. Were people more in the know, the vast bulk of the Cairo Geniza would have disappeared centuries ago, and my room would have more walking space in it today. For “academic” purposes (although, of what precise benefit these texts will be, I don’t know), I also took the following items, only one of which possibly falls into the category of “sacred literature”:

• William Foxwell Albright, The Archaeology of Palestine (London, 1960);

• Yigael Yadin, The Message of the Scrolls (London, 1959);

• Fritz Reuter, Warmaisa: 1000 Jahre Juden in Worms (Worms, 1984). It was my growing interest in mediaeval Ashkenaz which inspired me to take this one, and it will hopefully be my growing interest in mediaeval Ashkenaz that sees me able to read it before too long;

• חגי ישראל: חלק א. The first volume of a two-part series by an Israeli organisation that neither wanted to disclose their name, the place in which they published it, nor the year in which they saw fit to do so. This volume deals with the laws of Shabbat, Rosh haShana, Yom haKippurim, Sukkot, Simchat Torah, Chanukka and Tu biShevat.

It remains for me now only to mention what appears to be a tremendously entertaining read, written by (Rabbi) John S. Levi and George F.J. Bergman, entitled Australian Genesis: Jewish Convicts and Settlers, 1788-1850. I had the very good pleasure of listening to Rabbi Levi last year, when he presented a lecture in Sydney on the history of non-Orthodox Judaism in Australia. The first “home-grown” Australian rabbi, he impressed me with his breadth of knowledge no less than his wit. The history of Australian Judaism is not something for which I usually care, although I found myself intrigued with his presentation and look forward to reading his book. Chapter headings include “The Honest Jew of Parramatta”, “The Man They Couldn’t Hang”, “The Redemption of Sydney Sam” and “The Jewboy Bushranger and Family”. I love a good yarn.

And if I had to choose between these sixteen acquisitions and a place to rest my head? I can always sleep on the couch.

Damn You, Spammers

27 09 2011

I don’t get many comments on this blog, but an increasing number of them are from spambots who wish to offers me pills to increase my height (unless I am misreading something), photos of “nubile teens” (does the word “nubile” even exist in a non-porn context anymore?), and congratulatory remarks for having written a “ssenbational artilcle”, or for being the “enemy of conffusion”. As a result, future comments from unknown personages are going to be withheld until I can approve them. It seems that the sins of the few must inconvenience the ever-so-slightly more than a few.

Should anybody wish to contact me directly, I can be reached at…
Hmm. Maybe another time.

Compare and Contrast…

9 09 2011

The world was young, the mountains green,
No stain yet on the moon was seen,
No words were laid on stream or stone
When Durin woke and walked alone.
He named the nameless hills and dells;
He drank from yet untasted wells;
He stooped and looked in Mirrormere,
And saw a crown of stars appear,
As gems upon a silver thread,
Above the shadow of his head.

… A king he was on carven throne
In many-pillared halls of stone
With golden roof and silver floor,
And runes of power upon the door.
The light of sun and star and moon
In shining lamps of crystal hewn
Undimmed by cloud or shade of night
There shone for ever fair and bright.

… The world is grey, the mountains old,
The forge’s fire is ashen-cold;
No harp is wrung, no hammer falls:
The darkness dwells in Durin’s halls;
The shadow lies upon his tomb
In Moria, in Khazad-dûm.
But still the sunken stars appear
In dark and windless Mirrormere;
There lies the crown in water deep,
Till Durin wakes again from sleep.

- J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings (London: HarperCollins, 1995), 308-309.


אדון עולם אשר מלך בטרם כל יציר נברא
לעת נעשה בחפצו כל אזי מלך שמו נקרא
ואחרי ככלות הכל לבדו ימלוך נורא
והוא היה והוא הווה והוא יהיה התפארה
והוא אחד ואין שני להמשיל לו להחבירה
בלי ראשית בלי תכלית ולו העז והמשרה
והוא אלי וחי גואלי וצור חבלי בעת צרה
והוא נסי ומנוס לי מנת כוסי ביום אקרא
בידו אפקיד רוחי בעת אישן ואעירה
ועם רוחי גויתי יהוה לי ולא אירא

- Adon ‘Olam


13 08 2011

That so many things I despise so deeply about the modern-day blockbuster should be listed within the one paragraph is truly astonishing. The following is a brief list of reasons as to why the folks at IMDB’s Summer Movie Guide think that Final Destination 5 won’t be absolute garbage:

One reason that this franchise is on its fifth installment is that audiences (of which we’re included) get an entertainingly visceral, now three-dimensional, thrill watching the innovative, grisly ways the filmmakers come up with to knock off most of the very attractive cast of up-and-comers.

Why is it always pretty young starlets that get killed for my ‘entertainment’? I can think of some producers whose last moments might be more interesting to watch.

The Mob

24 06 2011

For some reason, I tend to discover things several years after the rest of the world does. Whether it’s first seeing George Lucas’ Star Wars trilogy in 2004, or only discovering Coppola’s The Godfather in 2005, it’s not strange for me to wait until the hype has completely died down about something, and all but the most hardcore of fans have stopped enthusing over it, before I give it a go. Such has certainly proven to be the case with television programs for, as an avid non-watcher of television, I can easily go for years without knowing about such excellent series as The Office (BBC) and The West Wing. Imagine my sheer and unadulterated delight when, some time ago now, I discovered The Sopranos. A longstanding fan of gangster films, from Donnie Brasco to Once Upon a Time in America, the premise of this 86-hour television series really struck a chord. From The Godfather to Goodfellas, there have been gangster movies that have inspired me, excited me, uplifted me and intrigued me, and yet The Sopranos beats them all.

I know that nobody has the time to sit down and watch an 86-hour long television series in anything briefer than half a year, but for those of you who have seen the genius that is David Chase’s creation, the following advertisement is stirring indeed. Made by the very talented Lyle over at, I cannot think of a better and more fitting tribute to this remarkable series.

And for those of you who, like me, find the conclusion to the last episode a real punch to the stomach, “MasterofSopranos” has composed a lengthy defence of his interpretation, which I think is well worth a read. His general conclusions are the same as mine were, but his observations as regard POV, smash-cutting and the types of visual imagery that David Chase employed were all new to me, and much appreciated. The first page of his lengthy analysis can be found here.

Numb, Benign

14 06 2011

This is old news now, but some may not know it. John Lennon’s incredible 1971 interview with Rolling Stone magazine is available as a free podcast download from the Apple iStore. Over three hours in length, John speaks candidly (and shockingly) about his relationship with Paul, the life and death of Brian Epstein, his experiences with drugs, his feelings about music, his feelings about Yoko and his plans for the future, which were sadly to go unrealised. Occurring only shortly after the release of his greatest album, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, John was still employing the psychological techniques that he had learned with Dr Arthur Janov, the net result of which was a brutal, scathing honesty. Declaring Paul’s music to be pathetic and the Beatles in general to be utter garbage, John proceeds to alienate everybody who might have counted themselves amongst his former friends. Uncomfortable at times, and nothing short of genius at others, I encourage anybody who is interested in John Lennon to have a listen.

In the meantime, the following is an amateur recording by the fourteen-year old Jerry Levitan, who gained access into John’s hotel room in 1969. With artwork by James Braithwaite and Alex Kurina, the short film produced is as entertaining as it is provocative:

And as for the lesser Beatles, the upcoming third wedding of Sir Paul McCartney inspired me to look through the interwebs, and I was most shocked to discover a disclosure of his, when speaking with Uncut Magazine back in 2004. Are you ready for it? “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” was about LSD! While I couldn’t find the interview in question, BBC News commented upon it here. There’s a whole lot of the usual nonsense (cannabis, heroin, cocaine … smoking tea?), but you’ll find the relevant information in the fifth paragraph. And to think: all these years, I have been completely defending their continued insistence that it had nothing to do with LSD at all, like an absolute idiot.

I mean, they made no excuses for the fact that “Yellow Subarine” was about smoking cannabis, nor that “Doctor Robert” was about the man from whom they had obtained acid in the first place, so it seemed reasonable to assume that if they were going to insist that a particular song was not about drugs, then surely it was not. And now it turns out that they were lying all along. I feel scandalised.

Is This Going Too Far?

7 06 2011

Like most yidden I know, I am a big fan of the Coen Brothers. And like most fans of the Coen Brothers, I was very disappointed with True Grit excited with A Serious Man. But unlike most people who enjoyed that film, I keep coming back to various discrepancies between the fantasy that they concocted and the fantasy that undergirds its invention. For to riff on Jewish mysticism is one thing, but to get that mysticism wrong is another thing entirely. And when it’s as wrong as the Coen Brothers got it – well, I have to feel that their mistakes might have been deliberate.

Not everybody that I have spoken with enjoyed A Serious Man at all. A film so Jewish that it’s practically balding, you truly need to be familiar with the cultural iconography in which it is steeped in order to fully appreciate it. Like Blood Simple, Fargo, No Country For Old Men, and maybe even Miller’s Crossing and The Big Lebowski, this movie seems intent on staying just beyond the confines of any traditional genre. That alone makes it interesting and worthy of analysis, although the question always remains as to how far beneath the surface one is supposed to pick. Most people – most normal people – watch films a couple of times, enjoy them, speak about them, maybe even have an argument about them, and then walk away and live for another sixty years or so without them. I just can’t leave this one alone. Call me psychotic, but I have become convinced that there is something funny going on here, just below the surface…

Now I’m not about to tell you that I think the Coen Brothers are attempting to communicate with me personally, but I do suspect that they are trying to say something to Jews in their audience who, while not being Rabbi Marshak, “know… a thing or two about the Kabbalah.” And while this might be going a bit too far for the average cinema-goer, I’ve compiled a few examples of this phenomenon at play.

Witness the opening scene. While it’s still up on YouTube, you can observe it here. (Embedding was disabled by request: my apologies.)

While the Coen Brothers famously (and stupidly) declared this scene to have nothing to do with the rest of the film, it certainly sets the mood. An eeriness, familiar to viewers of their many movies, producing a lingering doubt as to which of the characters was wise and which was deceived. What is more, the opening quote (“Receive with simplicity everything that happens to you”) applies to the entire movie as a whole, and might even be seen as underscoring every one of the major characters’ personalities, each of whom suffers in some way for not being able to follow its advice. Is the quote really from something that Rashi wrote? It does not sound in any way familiar, and I would not put it past them to have made it up completely¹.

The opening scene is in Yiddish, and there are two lines in it that perplex me. They can be heard between 1:33 and 1:38 on the video’s timer, and I have included the screenshots below:

The problem is, if you listen to the video, this is not what he’s actually saying. While the subtitles state that Traitle Groshkover studied Zohar with the Krakow rebbe, the audio clearly says that what he studied was Talmud. And while the subtitles assert that he can recite any passage from the Mishna, it is of the Gemara that he is said to have photographic memory. Why the switch? Is it presumed that their audience may recognise the words “Zohar” and “Mishna”, but not “Talmud” and “Gemara”? In my experience, “Talmud” is the only word in that list that almost everybody I speak to, Jew and gentile alike, recognises as a text. Or are they trying to say two things at the same time? Trying to present something to a non-Jewish audience, while at the same time winking at Jews in the crowd and intimating that there is something else going on here?

Okay, okay, you say. Don’t put down to sly ingenuity what can easily be explained by a case of poor editing. Consider then the following scene. This is the best scene in the entire film, but as embedding here was also disabled by request, you are unfortunately going to have to view this one on YouTube too, for as long as it’s there.

The famous “Goy’s Teeth” scene, this segment of the film involves a story told by Rabbi Nachtner about a hapless dentist named Leon Sussman. Having discovered a Hebrew message inscribed into the teeth of one of his non-Jewish patients, Dr Sussman loses his ability to think about anything else. The message is הושיעני: “Help me. Save me,” as Rabbi Nachtner translates it. You can see it clearly in the following image:

So what does Dr Sussman do? Can Dr Sussman sleep? Dr Sussman cannot sleep. Can Dr Sussman eat? Dr Sussman doesn’t eat. Does Dr Sussman think of actually asking his patient? God forbid. Instead, he consults a mystical treatise and proceeds to write down the numerical value of each of the letters. The treatise that he removes from the shelf, as can clearly be seen in the following image, is the third volume of a five volume Zohar al-haTorah:

Now, the Zohar al-haTorah is traditionally printed in three volumes and not five, but that this is a five-volume set can be seen from the fact that the volume immediately after the one that he is taking has a ד on the bottom:

I can deal with this. As can be seen subsequently, the volumes that he owns feature commentary in the margin. This is sufficient to make of three volumes five, but he arranges them from left to right, and while that’s hardly the equivalent of hearing my neighbour’s dog telling me to kill people, I cannot help but feel that this is yet another clue.

What about the gematria that he employs? Aside from the fact that he is not going to learn gematria from any of the volumes of the Zohar at all, the numbers that he produces are absolute nonsense:

3744548? That would be the “gematria” (and I use the term loosely, given that he is only writing out the values of the individual letters and not adding them) of גזדדהדח – not הושיעני.

So, I am perplexed. I approached this film in good faith. I have tried to be a serious man, but I don’t understand what the Coen Brothers are trying to say to me. Are they trying to indicate that nothing within this film is real? That it is a metaphor for something else? The Book of Job, as some wry pundits have it, or a contemporary midrash about life in American exile?

The walking stereotypes that are the gun-toting neighbour, the Korean student, the Korean student’s father and the hapless patient of Dr Leon Sussman all nicely counterbalance the walking stereotypes that are every Jew within the movie. Whether it is the quick grimace on the face of the man doing hagbah, the bizarre paraphernalia in the study of Rabbi Marshak, or the sappy obsequiousness of the synagogue’s junior rabbi, the Coen Brothers have struck chords that will resonate with anybody familiar with Judaism in the 20th century. And yet the presence of such glaring incongruities must make us pause. Is the Orthodox Rabbi Marshak somehow affiliated with the Reform temple and its rabbis? Was the decision to bar-mitzvah their son in a non-Orthodox shul made by Prof. Larry Gopnik, whose wife demanded a gett before moving in with the bare-headed Sy Abelman? Does the Mentaculus work??

I must retire from this one defeated. The Coen Brothers work in mysterious ways. How do they communicate with us, indeed? That is a good question.

¹ Addendum: It turns out that the quote is from Rashi’s gloss on Deuteronomy 18:13: “תמים תהיה עם יהוה אלהיך”. With thanks to David Bassin for having pointed this out to me.

Listen to Yourself

4 06 2011

The above is an advertisement for a particular brand of condoms, which appeared at bus shelters recently in Brisbane, the capital city of Queensland, Australia. Following a coordinated campaign by the Australian Christian Lobby, the offending posters were removed, and a barrage of hateful, homophobic nonsense was given loud expression. Not everybody who objected to the advertisement had a problem with homosexuality (some of them merely had a problem with public displays of sexuality in general), but in an attempt to mock those of them who did, a group of actors put together a selection of the worst and most ridiculous statements that had been made and set it to film.

This video constitutes part of a counter-campaign to have the ads reinstated – successfully, I might add, as of the start of this month. For an overview of the brouhaha, the Brisbane Times features this article. It is certainly true, as interested readers may observe, that the video was not mocking everybody. Nonetheless, the opinions that it utilised speak loudly for themselves, and prove too well a useful adage: there is something more effective than arguing with idiots, and that is giving them a microphone.

A good friend of mine recently observed that such hilarity might be produced in all situations in which one sets textual online comments to film. While I am not meaning to have a go at Christians in particular, the following video is a comedy staple.

What can I say. Perhaps if there were a program that enabled our computers to read our comments back to us before we committed them to the internet, much stupidity might be avoided. I realise, of course, that I am not the first person to consider this…

This is going to hurt me a lot more than it hurts you…

11 02 2011

Today’s xkcd, titled “(“, presents what I am guessing to be one of Randall Munroe’s pet peeves.

Can’t say that I agree. I find far more infuriating the lone closed parenthesis, without any indication of where the parenthetical statement might be said to have begun.)


(All jokes aside, when I was in yeshiva, we were once learning a ma’amar by the fifth Rebbe of Lubavitch (who was known as the Rebbe Rashab) entitled “Kuntres haTefillah” (קונטרס התפילה, “or “Tract of Prayer”). The discourse concerned the elevation of prayers through the various supernal realms, and constituted an apt meditation before “davvening Shacharis” in the morning. A great fan of parenthetical statements, the Rebbe Rashab used to drive me nuts with his subordinate clauses within subordinate clauses, and I would be constantly flicking back, counting parentheses, to ensure that we had closed them all and were not still dwelling within a tangential remark.

I do not know if this could specifically be said to be a feature of Ukrainian Hassidut (I am being a little tongue in cheek: I suspect that it cannot), but the Rebbe of Breslov, Rebbe Nachman, was himself a great fan of embedded clauses, and his stories are a testimony to that. Most confusingly, they do not always end back on the surface level. (Those who are particularly interested in texts that embed subordinate clauses, without providing “an exit strategy”, would do well to read Douglas R. Hofstadter’s erudite Gödel, Escher, Bach. It comes highly recommended. The section on subordinating narratives can be found in §5 (“Recursive Structures and Processes”), but most especially in its introductory narrative, “Little Harmonic Labyrinth” (pp103-126))


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