Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Megillah 17 - The order of blessings

Obviously, one should read the Megillah from the beginning to the end. However, obvious things are not stated in the Talmud, and instead we deal with exceptions. If one reads the Megillah in the wrong order of words, verses, or paragraph, he has not fulfilled the mitzvah. He should read it from a scroll; reciting by heart is also invalid.

Other things that must be recited in proper sequence are praises (Hallel) and the central part of the daily prayer, "Amidah", or "Eighteen blessings." The Talmud then discusses the reason for each of the eighteen blessings, and why each one takes its place in the proper order. After these words, one should not praise God on his own, making them an additional part of the Amidah. Why not? Because he certainly cannot enumerate all the praises, and by saying only some of them he in fact detracts. By right, this argument should apply to the Amidah itself: how can we start praising God, knowing that we won't do it adequately - for this one has an excuse, since the early Sages established this text and required it to be said daily.

Art: Praising The Gods by Roman School

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Megillah 16 – Mordechai and Haman

King Ahashverosh asked Haman, “What should be done for a man whom the king wants to honor?” Haman, thinking of himself, said, “That man should be made to ride on king's horse, in king's garments.” The king said “Do this for Mordechai.”

Haman tried to argue, “Why do you need to do all of this? If you want to thank Mordechai, just give him a village or a river, to collect taxes.” Ahashverosh answered, “This, too, do for him.” That is why the Megillah states, “Do not leave out any word of what you have said.”

Haman went to Mordechai, to put him on king's horse. However, Mordechai said that he was weak from the fast, and could not mount the horse by himself. Haman had to bow down and allow Mordechai to step on him. As he was mounting the horse, Mordechai also kicked Haman. Haman asked him, “How can you do this? Your own king Solomon tells you, 'When your enemy falls, do not rejoice.'?” Mordechai answered, “That is said about a Jewish enemy. But about you it says, 'You shall tread upon their high places.'”

The Talmud then turns to the story of Benjamin, from whom Mordechai descended. When Joseph received his brothers in Egypt, he gave to Benjamin five portions of food and five garments, thus showing preferential treatment. How could he do this, seeing that Jacob's preferential treatment of him earlier led to brothers hating and selling him? The answer is that Joseph was thus influencing the future for Mordechai, who would wear five royal garments.

Art: Joseph Receives His Father and Brothers in Egypt by Salomon de Bray

Megillah 15 – The teachings of Rabbi Chanina

The four most beautiful women in history were Sarah, Abigail, Rachav and Esther. Some say that Esther was of unhealthy complexion, and only Divine intervention made her beloved by all; they take out Esther from the list, and put in Vashti.

Rachav inspired lust by the mere mention of her name. In fact, one who says “Rachav, Rachav” would emit a seminal discharge. Rav Nachman said to Rav Yitchak, “I said it, and I was not concerned.” Rav Yitchak answered, “I meant, only those who knew her.”

Rabbi Elazar retold the following teaching of Rabbi Chanina: Whoever transmits a teaching and mentions who he heard it from – brings redemption to the world, just as Esther, who “told the king about a plot against him – in the name of Mordechai.”

More teachings from Rabbi Chanina follow.

Haman said, “All my wealth is not worth anything to me when I see Mordechai.” Why? – Because of an incident when Haman sold himself as a slave to Mordechai, and “all that belongs to the slave really belongs to his master.”

Another teaching: in the future God himself will be the crown of beauty on the head of every righteous. The Attribute of Justice then said, “How are these (Israel) different from the others?” God replied, “They study the Torah, and the others do not.” Then the Attribute of Justice said, “But the wrongdoers among them will still have to give an account,” and to this the Talmud does not give here any answer.

Art: Esther's Banquet by Salomon Koninck

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Megillah 12 – Explanation of the Megillah

What does it mean that king Ahashverosh displayed “the riches of his glorious kingdom?” – that he put on the garments of the High Priest, about which it also says “glory.”

Why did Ahashverosh invite the subjects from distant lands first? Some say that it was because he was clever – the people of his own capital city Shushan he could appease any time. Other says that he was stupid: he should have invited his closest people first, and in case of rebellion they would have protected him.

The students of Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai asked him, “Why were the 'enemies of Israel' (euphemism for the Jewish people) on the brink of extinction?” He said, “You say the reason.” They answered, “Because they ate at the feast of Ahashverosh.” He questioned, “If so, only the people in Shushan should have been punished.” They then asked, “And what is your reason?” Rabbi Shimon told them, “Because they bowed down to an idol.” The students then asked, “If so, they should not avoid punishment!” He told them, “They did not mean it, and lacked conviction. So too, God did not mean it and only scared them.”

What does it mean, “On the seventh day the king's heart was merry with wine.” And before it was not? – However, this was Shabbat, when people relaxed. When the Sages relax, they discuss knowledge and praise God. But his guests, when relaxed, started discussing which women, Persian or Midian were the most beautiful. This lead the king to tell them that his wife Vashti was from the nation of Chaldeans and was the most beautiful. They asked to see her, in crown but nothing else, but she would not come. Why would not she? Because the angel Gavriel came and made her grow a tail.

Art: The Arrival Of The Guests by Georges Jules Victor Clairin

Monday, July 21, 2014

Megillah 9 – There is no difference between mezuzah and other scrolls...

There is no difference between mezuzah and tefillin on one hand and other scrolls on the other  – except that mezuzah and tefillin need to be written in Hebrew, while other scrolls (such as prophets) can be written on parchment in any language.

In other places, however, there are different, seemingly contradicting rules. The Talmud distills this as follows: tefillin and mezuzah need to be written in Hebrew, because in their text there is a phrase “these words will be for you,” - that is, they will be as they are in the Torah, without change. Megillah, too, has an instruction, “according to their script and according to their language,” that is, it should not be changed.

Other books can be written in other languages – but Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel disagrees and allows, among all foreign languages, only Greek. Why Greek? Because of the story of the king Ptolemy, who sequestered seventy-two Sages in seventy-two houses, and commanded them to translate the Torah into Greek. Without communication, they translated word for word, and made occasional emendations in the same places. They changed the name of God from plural into singular, such as instead of “let us make man,” - “let Me make man.” They also changed the “rabbit” into “creature with short legs,” because Ptolemy's wife was called “rabbit,” and the Sages did not want Ptolemy to think that the Jews were mocking him by inserting the name of his wife among non-kosher animals.

Greek also had the distinction of being the most beautiful language. Now that it has become corrupt, one cannot write the Torah in Greek.

Art: A Forest Floor With A Rabbit And Mushrooms by Franz Werner von Tamm

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Megillah 8 – There is no difference

There is no difference in the laws of the first and second months of Adar, except for reading the Megillah and giving gifts to the poor. For other laws – such as reading the four special Torah portions reminding of important events – they are equal. From here on, we have a series of “there is no difference” statements.

There is no difference between the laws of Shabbat and Holidays, except that on Holidays one is allowed to cook for people's consumption.

There is no difference between Shabbat and Yom Kippur, except that for doing work on Shabbat one may get punished by the Sanhedrin, and for the same on Yom Kippur – there is only “being cut off from one's people.”

There is no difference between a vow prohibiting one all benefit from the other person and a vow prohibiting food benefits – because many things lead to food – except for the permission to pass through his property.

There is no difference between vowing to bring a sacrifice and designating a specific animal, except that when he vows and then buys an animal, and it is lost or dies, he has to buy another one.

There is no difference between a zav (see here) who had two emissions and one who had three, but that the latter needs to bring a sacrifice.

A metzorah (spiritual leper) may be quarantined and then declared a definite metzorah. There is no difference between the two states, except that the latter also needs to let his hair grow and to tear his garments as a sign of grief.

Art: An old lady cooking apples by Johannes Weiland

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Megillah 7 – One must get inebriated on Purim

If a year has an extra month added to it, this month is Adar. It is on this second Adar that Purim must be observed. However, some say that it must be on the first Adar, and both derive their opinion from the same words in the Megillah, “each and every year.” This means, “connect the redemption of Purim with that of Passover" – and designates the second Adar). Others say it means to do like very year, where Adar follow the previous month of Shvat.

Esther of Purim told the Sages, “Record my holiday in the Megillah,” but the Sages replied that it would be politically incorrect, and would lead to wrath from the nations over which the Jews were victorious. She replied then, “Anyway this is already recorded in the chronicles of Persia,” and they acceded.

Here are the ancient proofs that the Book of Esther was written with the prophetic spirit: it knew what “Haman said in his heart,” that “Esther found favor in everybody's eyes,” and that “nobody took any booty.” However, Shmuel later added a proof: “They confirmed and undertook to read the Megillah every year.” Who confirmed? – The Heavenly Court. Rava said that he can find faults with all ancient proofs, but not with Shmuel's proof. He applied a proverb, “One sharp pepper is better than a bucketful of melons.”

One must get so drunk on Purim as not to know the difference between the evil Haman and the righteous Mordechai. Rabbah invited Rav Zeira to a Purim feast, and when they were drunk, he slew Rav Zeira. The next day he prayed for mercy and Rav Zeira came back to life. Next year, though, Rav Zeira declined the invitation, saying “A miracle does not occur every time.”

Art: The Drunkard by Charles de Groux