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

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Megillah 6 – The teachings of Rabbi Yitzchak

The Talmud discussed the names of places in the Land of Israel, then the teachings of Rabbi Yitzhak on the qualities of various nations, and then continues with his other teachings.

If someone tells you, “I worked to study Torah but did not succeed” – do not believe him. Also don't believe if he says “I did not work on my studies and nevertheless succeeded.” However, if he says, “I worked hard and I succeeded” - believe him, because the two go together. That is only true in understanding, but retaining the knowledge – that is a gift from Heaven. With regards to business, it is all luck and help from Heaven.

If you see a bad person with luck on his side – “do not contend with this wicked man.” However, Rabbi Shimon taught just the opposite, that it is permissible to contend with the wicked in this world, following “Those who forsake the law praise the wicked, but the righteous will fight them.” In fact, if someone whispers in your ear the verse of Rabbi Yitzhak about not contending – that is your spirit weakened by your errors, but what it really means – do not try to be like them.

Nevertheless, it looks like a contradiction!? – Not really, fight with the wicked in spiritual matters, but allow them to have the things of this world. Or, it could refer even to this world, and "do not fight" applies only when he has luck on his side.

Art: Hard Work by Georges Laugee

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Megillah 5 – What is a large town?

We mentioned that people living in villages can read the Megillah a day or two before Purim, but those who live in larger towns cannot advance the reading, and should do it in its proper time. What is considered a large town? – A place that has “ten idlers.” Some say, these are people supported by the community who study in the synagogue at all times, and others – that they don't have to be supported, as long as they are available for prayer.

By contrast, commemoration of sad events may be pushed back, when required, but never forward. For example, if Tisha b'Av occurs on Saturday, it is observed on the following Sunday. There are also other cases where the events are pushed back, such as a personal Holiday offering – which cannot be brought on Saturday – but for a different reason: if the time to bring this offering has not arrived yet, one cannot possibly fulfill the mitzvah by bringing it early.

Rabbi Yehudah the Prince did three unusual things: he planted a tree on Purim, bathed on the fast of the Seventeenth of Tammuz, and sought to abolish the fast of Tisha b'Av, but the Sages did not agree to this. Each of his actions is analyzed by the Talmud. For example, how could he do work on Purim? Actually, there is nothing wrong with it, but if the community has the custom to abstain from work on this day (as many communities do nowadays), then one should follow. However, Rabbi Yehudah planted a special tree for a joyous occasion, which is permitted.

Art: A French Harbour Town by Adrien Gabriel Voisard-Margerie

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Megillah 4 – Why is the Megillah never read on Shabbat

Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “Women, too, are included in the mitzvah of listening to the Megillah.” Why? – Because they were included in the miracle of Purim. Some say, it means that they were in danger, and some – that the salvation came through them.

The people living in villages used to hear the Megillah earlier than those living in cities. But what is a city? Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi said, “Any place that does not have ten men always present in the synagogue and learning Torah, and available for prayer - such place is not called a city.” But it is a known rule, why repeat it? – To tell us that passers by through the city don't count.

We mentioned that the people who lived in villages can read the Megillah earlier, such as if they come to a city on the day of court assembly, that is, Monday or Thursday. Who does this enactment benefit? Mostly, the people in the cities, because their brethren living in villages supply them with food and will be available for this on the day of Purim; but also partially it benefits the villagers, for they won't have to make a second trip, having visited the city before.

Why is the Megillah never read on Shabbat? – Because all are obligated to hear it, but not all are experts in reading. Thus, one can take it to the Sage on Shabbat, to learn with him, and come to carry it in the public area, which is forbidden on Shabbat. It is also for the benefit of the poor people, who expect food and presents on Purim, and it would be harder to do this on Shabbat.

Art: Villagers Celebrating a Wedding Feast Outside a Country Tavern by Matheus van Helmont

Megillah 3 – Which is more important

Purim is to be celebrated “in every province, every city, and every family.” Since the intent is already clear, what do we want from each word? --- That even the Kohanim and the Levites leave their Temple service and go to listen to the Megillah. We can deduce that the Torah scholars, whose service is not as stringent, certainly close the books and go read the Megillah.

But is this really true and the Temple service is more important that the study of the Torah? Don't we have the story of Joshua, where an angel came to him and said, “You are guilty of two transgressions: yesterday you neglected the daily sacrifice and today – the study of the Torah, but I, the angel, came today because of this last, which is more important?” So the study of the Torah is more important, and perhaps the Sages should not close their books and go to read the Megillah? There is a difference: the Torah study of Israel is more important than anything else, but the Torah study of an individual gives the right-of-way to the sacrifices, and certainly to the reading of the Megillah.

Rava asked a question: both reading the Megillah and burying the unattended corpse are more important than the sacrifices, but of these two, which has precedence? Then Rava himself gave the answer: human dignity overrides even Torah prohibitions, so burying the unattended corpse is certainly more important than listening to the Megillah.

Art: Interior with a scholar and an old lady spinning by Jacob van Spreeuwen