Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 3)

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Ner Israel (The candle of Israel) - Selected texts of Rav Hai Gaon by the 19th century Hamagid of Koznitz

The third and last (albeit slightly belated) installment of the series on Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 1, Part 2).

In the days of the Geonim (i.e., the Babylonian sages that followed the rabbis of the Talmud), individuals and communities sent to these rabbinic authorities halakhic queries and other questions concerning Jewish life. The replies of the Geonim were preserved in what is known as the Responsa literature. One of the most prominent sages of that period was Rav Hai Gaon, who headed the Pumbedita Yeshiva during the early 11th century. In one of his replies we read:

And concerning your question about the Hanukkot (Heb. inaugurations); we have heard about them in the Haggadah and the payytanim enumerated seven of them: the inauguration of heaven and earth after the six days of creation, and the inauguration of the alter in the days of Moses, and the inauguration by David… and the inauguration in the days of Solomon, and the inauguration in the days of Ezra, and the inauguration in the days of Matityahu son of Yohanan – these are six, and the seventh will take place in the future (i.e., with the coming of the Messiah)”. But those who count the one who built a new house, how can they know how many there were? But it must be said that the inauguration of a new house is called like a Mitzvah (= a religious law), and its name is celebration of the house, and it is not one of the public Hanukkot. And the inauguration of the idol, how come [one associates the inauguration] of Avodah Zara (=idol worship) with that of the house of the Lord that hopefully will be built in our days, amen.

There are several intriguing elements in this reply; first, it is curious that someone addressed Rav Hai with a question concerning the proper count of the Hanukkot. Usually, the Geonim received questions concerning laws and related religious practices. We learn then, that for some, the proper count of the seven inaugurations was meaningful. In fact, from the reply by Rav Hai we learn that it was a matter of dispute, a point to which I shall come back to shortly. Second, we should pay attention to the list itself; it consists of several “historical” Hanukkot: that of the Tabernacle (the altar in the days of Moses), of Solomon’s (first) temple, of the second temple in the days of Ezra, and finally the one in the days of the Maccabees. To this list of four Hanukkot Rav Hai adds one by David, based on Psalms 30:1 “A Psalm of David, A Song at the dedication of the Temple,” and a metaphorical one – the creation of the universe. Finally, Rav Hai mentions the seventh Hanukkah of the future (third) temple. After Rav Hai concludes the list we encounter the third intriguing fact. It turns out that Rav Hai is familiar with an alternative count that adds ‘the building of a new house’; truly, it is not quite clear what Rav Hai means here, and his explanation is even vaguer. At any rate, we realize now that the question concerning the proper count was in place. The last sentence of the response probably contains the most intriguing detail; it seems that Hai Gaon had heard of a custom to count among the seven Hanukkot an inauguration of some sort of a idol-worshiping place. Who might be the person or community that would do that? Some sort of a Christian sect? Karaites? Other non-rabbinic Jews? Muslims? I must admit that in this regard we are in the dark.

At this point, I’m sure many of you may be asking- “but what does Piyyut have to do with all of this?!” Well, as far as we know, the tradition of the seven Hanukkot emerged from the poetry of our beloved Elazar Birabi Qilir of seventh century Palestine! In several of his piyyutim for Hanukka the Qiliri elaborates quite lavishly on the seven Hanukkot. The typology of the seven inauguration makes perfect sense; it brings together six occurrences in the past, in which a sacred place was either created or rebuilt and it connects the past with the messianic hope for the completion of the series in the world to come. The inclusion of the Hanukkah of the Maccabees among these Hanukkot fits perfectly into the liturgy of the feast of Hanukkah. It is worthwhile mentioning that the list of seven Hanukkot appears also in the ninth century Pesiqta Rabbati. Interestingly enough, the list in this Midrash differs from the list known from the piyyutim of the Qiliri. Perhaps even more revealing is the fact that the list brought by Rav Hai is similar to that of the Qiliri. It would seem then, that the case of the seven Hanukkot is yet another example of the rich and complex relationships within the polysystem of Hebrew literature in Late Antiquity and the Early Middle Ages.

Life in a Day

I don’t generally get to watch movies, and to say the least, my media intake is
wanting, eclectic and uneven: An occasional Israeli drama about Orthodox Jewish singles living in the Jerusalem ‘swamp’, minimalist Iranian art-house flics, and a film about the Hebrew University Talmud department – that pretty much sums it up. But on a recent trip, after grading some papers and reading a bunch of articles, the illuminated edges of a humming, nocturnal transatlantic flight seemed like the right setting to get myself ‘up to date’ – cinematically speaking. Contagion struck a bit too close to home, given the coughing passenger sitting directly behind me. And so it would have to be Life in a Day , the Youtube movie formed from thousands of hours of amateur video sent in from all over the world that filmed life on July 24, 2010. The movie is about 90 minutes long and is a work of art – that is to say, a cultural creation that asks to be assessed primarily for its aesthetic value.  Instead of 90+ minutes of typical Youtube fare (inane banter, insane children, deranged dogs), some of the cinematography is quite skilled, and beautiful too.  Far more important is the texture of the finished work. It is redaction at its best, with allusive juxtapositions and mournful pairings. A most suggestive craft.

Ultimately, Life in a Day asks its readers to consider the relationship between the finished film and the global human society it depicts, as well as the chain of producers and consumers that brought it to life. How does this cultural artifact reflect, represent, and interact with the humans who produced it and who appear within it. And how do other intricately redacted works, like the Bavli, intersect with its numerous communities of reciters, listeners, editors, scribes, and readers? If the Stam sent out video cameras to capture intellectual, ritual, and ethnographic life in Jewish Babylonia, what would the final product look like? I suppose the answer is that it would look like the Bavli as we have it.

Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 2)

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The world as a tabernacle according to an illuminated manuscript of Cosmas Indicopleustes' Christian Topography

In the first part of this series I discussed an intriguing “historical” tradition in a piyyut by Elazar Birabi Qilir. In this second part I turn to an interesting juxtaposition of the cosmos and the Tabernacle in another piyyut for Hanukkah by the Qiliri.

The interrelation between the cosmos and the Tabernacle is hinted already in the Hebrew Bible, and it became a central theme in Jewish thought of the first century of the Common Era in the writings of Philo and Josephus. Philo, as expected, offers an allegoric interpretation in which various elements of the Tabernacle correspond to parts of the cosmos. In classical rabbinic literature the relation between the Tabernacle and the cosmos is hardly mentioned but in contemporaneous payytanic literature it is widespread. It is attested in a piyyut for Hanukkah by Yannai (6th century) and more elaborately in the following Hanukkah piyyut by Elazar Birabi Qiliri (7th century):

בזה נתחדש עולם / ובזה בוסס והוכן עולם / כי כנגד יצירת עולם / הוכן אוהל בעולם / מכוונים בו כל מפעלות עולם… שבעת עננים מול שבעת מעונים / מנורת המאור מול שמש ומאור / שבעת הנרות מול שבעה אורות / קרסים וענובים מול כוכבים…

In this the world was renewed / And in that the world was established /For against the creation of the world / A tent was prepared in the world / In it are reflected the elements of the world… Seven clouds corresponding to seven skies / The bright lampstand corresponding to the sun (and moon) / The seven candles corresponding to seven stars / Clasps and loops corresponding to the stars…

The basic premise of the section is that without the Tabernacle the creation is not complete, or, in other words, that the construction of the Tabernacle is the final stage of creation. This idea is expressed in a very clear fashion in midrash Pesiqtah de Rav Kahana (5th/6th century), which indicates that “until the Tabernacle was set up, the earth was unstable. After the Tabernacle was set up, the earth became stable.”(1:4) The specific details of the comparison between the cosmos and the Tabernacle (included here only in part) are similar to many found in Philo, Josephus, in a few rabbinic sources and also in the piyyut by Yannai. It is crucial, though, to stress that the comprehensive list appears for the first time ever in this poem by the Qiliri. Interestingly enough, a similar list is known from the medieval Midrash Numbers Rabbah that is associated with Moshe Hadarshan  (Heb. “Moses the Preacher”), the eleventh-century composer and compiler of midrashic literature. This specific piyyut by the Qiliri was known in the days of Moshe Hadarshan and it probably influenced this medieval midrashic composition.

Finally, I would like to mention a similar Syriac liturgical poem by Narsai of Nisibis, the fifth century celebrated poet of the Church of the East. In his “piyyut” Narsai elaborates also on the correspondence between the cosmos and the Tabernacle:

A second creation did the Creator create through Moses / that man learn that it is He who created the creation in the beginning… Corresponding to the inhabited world, the Tabernacle was extended to the four corners / and it was disposed according to the disposition of the months of the year… As a symbol of the luminaries was the candelabrum looking at them with its flames / and they towards it as seedlings in the direction of the sun…

(Trans. Judith Frishman)

Narsai bases his poem on a longstanding exegetical tradition within Syriac Christianity, and narrates for his audience the many resemblances between the cosmos and the Tabernacle, which also represents the Church. In the sixth century, Jacob of Serugh, another prominent Syriac poet, elaborated further on the consequences of the cosmos-Tabernacle relationships.

Indeed, the relations between Jewish and Christian liturgical poetry have become a hot issue among scholars recently and I promise to enlarge upon it in the blog in the near future. Until then, don’t forget to look for the third and final part of this Talmud Blog series on Hanukkah and Piyyut.

Hanukkah and Piyyut (Part 1)

A tenth century illuminated manuscript of the first book of Maccabees; Leiden University Library

Hanukkah begins today and since I have been working for some years now on Hebrew liturgical poems for this feast, I thought it would be nice to share with the readers of the Talmud Blog some interesting bits and pieces of these verse compositions. Here is the first installment.

Late antique piyyutim for Passover elaborate on the Exodus, those for Shavuoth on the giving of the Torah at Sinai, those for Purim on the story of Esther and Mordecai, and those for Hanukkah… on the inauguration of the Tabernacle! Neither the Maccabees, nor the Seleucians are mentioned; rather, one finds lengthy descriptions of the desert dwelling and the sacrifices that were brought on the occasion of its inauguration.

Why is this so? Simply put, the piyyutim follow the liturgy, and since the reading of the Torah during Hanukkah focuses on the inauguration of the Tabernacle as narrated in the book of Numbers, the poets followed that lead. It is no coincidence, of course, that this biblical episode is read at the synagogue. In the absence of a canonical book that relates the Hasmonean revolt, the rabbis and the payytanim chose the closest biblical episode to the historical event that they could find. Indeed, once the so-called Scroll of Antiochus (מגילת אנטיוכוס) was introduced to Jewish culture in the early Gaonic period, the piyyutim were filled with “historical” description of the battles of the Hasmonean agains Antiochus Epiphanies.

But at least in once case we find a payytan from late antique Palestine who sought to (re)collect some “historical” data concerning the Maccabees, and this payytan is no other than the by-now Talmud Blog favorite, Elazar Birabi Qilir. Here is one interesting and somewhat amusing example of what the Qiliri came up with. In one place he writes:

קינאו חמישה / להקים דת חמישה / כממים נימשה // רצו עד מודעית / יוונים שם להבעית / על נקמת שביעית

The five [sons of Matityahu] were zealous / and sustained the law of the five [books] / like the one whom from the water was drawn [=Moses] // They ran all the way to Modi’in / in order to terrify the Greeks / and to take revenge of the seventh [land (= Israel)]

But why does the Qiliri indicate that the Maccabees had to run all the way to Modi’in, the place in which one of the major battles against the Seleucians took place? This mystery is solved in the next couplet:

ארבעת ראשי נמר / ריצצו פרחי אימר / בגזירת שומר // לבשר בחוצות יבנית / כי קיצצה חנית / כל לשון יוונית

The flowers of Immer / smashed the four headed tiger [=the Greeks] / by the decree of the Guard [=God] // To announce in the streets of Yavnit / that the spear chopped / every Greek tongue

According to the Qilir, the Maccabees were part of the priestly division called Immer that dwelled in a village called Yavnit (יבנית). Already in the Bible the Israelite priests were said to be divided into twenty four divisions, Immer being one of them. Interestingly, according to Josephus (and other historical sources) the Maccabees belonged, in fact, to the Yehoyariv order that was located in Judaea. But as was mentioned above the order of Immer dwelled in the Galilee. So now we can begin to appreciate the finesse of the Qiliri: the name of the village is pronounced almost the same as the Hebrew adjective for Greek (יוונית), and the Qiliri brilliantly plays on this similarity in the last verse quoted above. But this complicates things for the Qiliri, geographically-wise. If the Maccabees dwelled in the Galilee surely they had to rush all the way to Modi’in, which is located in Judaea, and of course soon thereafter to rush back north in order to bring back the happy news to their Galilean hometown.

Much more can be said about these verses (and those of you who read modern Hebrew can read this Ha’aretz article on this piyyut by Joseph Yahalom) but let me conclude with the following quote from Aristotle’s Poetics, part four:

It is, moreover, evident from what has been said, that it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen, what is possible according to the law of probability or necessity. The poet and the historian differ not by writing in verse or in prose. The work of Herodotus might be put into verse, and it would still be a species of history, with meter no less than without it. The true difference is that one relates what has happened, the other what may happen. Poetry, therefore, is a more philosophical and a higher thing than history: for poetry tends to express the universal, history the particular.

So who do you prefer – Josephus or Elazar Birabi Qilir?

Halakha in the Holiday Season

While vendors here in the open-market already began selling sufganiyot a few months ago, the recent displays of hanukiyot are a sure sign of the impending holiday season. Veteran readers of The Talmud Blog may recall Shai’s classic 2009 post “Hanukah at Scholion“. For others, the Holiday of Lights might bring to mind memories of family gatherings, Youtube videos, and fried delicacies. This year, Israel based readers are encouraged to attend Yad-Ben Zvi’s Hanukah conference on Halakha. Here’s a brief description by one of the events’ organizers:

Yad Ben Zvi’s upcoming conference on ”Halakhic Revolutions – Then and Now” (December 25) is intended to serve a double purpose: it will provide an opportunity for four authors of recently published historical studies on halakhic topics (Aharon Shemesh, Cana Werman, Vered Noam and Hillel Newman) to discuss their work, and it will also serve in the same vein as a forum for other scholars to address questions of halakhic change and dynamics from antiquity to the present. The additional speakers include Rami Reiner, Adiel Schremer, Maoz Kahana, Hanan Gafni, Yair Sheleg and Moshe Halbertal.

Announcements Regarding The Talmud Blog Book Club (TBBC)

Talmud Blog reader Yael Fisch prepares for the TBBC

A little over a month ago we announced the first session of our “Book Club”.  While I’m sure many of our readers are just waiting for the moment to share their thoughts on Ishay Rosen-Zvi’s Demonic Desires, over here in Israel the first copies have only recently reached the desks of Talmudists.  For this, and other reasons, the discussion will not begin on December 15th as originally planned, but rather on January 2nd.

While everyone who has read the book and has what to say is encouraged to share, we have a few people in line to respond already: Eva Kiesele, from the Free and Hebrew Universities; Amit Gvaryahu, from Hebrew U. and The Talmud Blog; and Raphael Magarik, who has already reviewed the book for Jewish Ideas Daily. Other tentative respondents include Simcha Gross from Yale University and Noah Greenfield from UC Berkeley.

Shai will be MC’ing the discussion, and we’re hoping that the the author himself will respond once it finally winds down.  And of course you, dear reader, are invited to weigh in as well.

The Academy

A lot has changed since my father called me into his office at Children’s Hospital, some two decades ago, to show me something called “The World Wide Web”. The adolescent gaming nerd that I was, I pictured some kind of apocalyptic computer game about venomous spiders that harbored imperialistic designs. Actually, the truth was far more eschatological, and depending on your perspective, apocalyptic, than I could ever have imagined. The Internet has changed Everything. It is the proverbial dramatic event that casts a shadow over every utterance, every thought in its wake.

Since its inception, the Talmud Blog has endeavored to create a new kind of discourse in the field of Rabbinics, and hopefully beyond. It partially grew out of a dissatisfaction with the spaces available for scholarly communication. For some of us, the sparring articles in journals and books, the hidden footnotes, the local symposia, and the bigger conferences, are too slow and not dynamic enough. With the development and perfection of social networking tools, the future is now.

As a portal to the future, The Talmud Blog is now hosting a number of “Special Projects.” Here, we’ll be presenting new spaces for dialogue. One is The Book Club, where we will be discussing recent books.  Another project is a new kind of forum for scholarly conversation among Talmudists, called ‘The Academy‘.  It is essentially a closed ‘circle’ on Google+, where free-flowing conversation can take place among specialists. We started a pilot version (The Academy 1.0) with a dozen guinea-pig Talmudists, and it has been quite a success. We’re now opening up the Beta version. If you’re a critically trained and producing (that is, publishing) Talmudist, now is the time to participate in this cutting-edge endeavor. And we need you to make this project a success.

To get started, open a Google+ account for yourself, and fill in your areas of expertise and/or academic interest in the relevant spots in your profile. Make sure you activate the ability to receive messages.  Create a Google+ circle called ‘The Academy.’  Then, search for “Resh Metivta”  in the Google+ search bar, and add him as a friend in the academy circle. Once you do that we’ll send you an e-mail with further instructions.  We look forward to seeing you at the Academy, where you can spin your own talmudic web.

Captivated

Last night, Dr. Youval Rotman of Tel Aviv University lead the inaugural discussion of Hebrew University’s  Group for the Study of Late Antiquity. The Group, which was started by Uriel Simonsohn and I in order to create an active scholarly community for researchers working on different corners of late antiquity, will be meeting monthly for group text-study and conversations, topped off by cheese, crackers, and Israeli wine as robust as the discussions.

Rotman’s topic was “Captives and Redeeming Captives in Late Antiquity: The Law and the Community,” and a crowd upwards of 30 (that’s in quantity, though I suppose also in age) read texts by Ambros, Tertullian (and more), along with rabbinic sources from the Mishna, Tosefta, and Babylonian Talmud (sources are available here).  A number of interesting trends were noted, included an apparent development in communal solidarity that turned captive redemption from a more private, family affair into a public,  community-based activity.  A connected issue that came up was the role of the state, or lack thereof, in redeeming captives.  Apparently, once you hit late antiquity Roman and Byzantine legislation forbids the state from redeeming prisoners of war.

I wonder whether the following, fascinating anecdote about Ifra Hormiz somehow reflects  those two points:

איפרהורמיז אימיה דשבור מלכא שדרה ארנקא דדינרי לקמיה דרב יוסף אמרה ליה ליהוי מצוה רבה יתיב רב יוסף וקא מעיין בה מאי ניהי מצוה רבה אמ’ ליה אביי מדתני רב שמואל בר יוסף אין פוסקין צדקה על היתומים ואפלו לפדיון שבוים שמע מינה פדיון שבוים מצוה רבה היא

Ifra Hormiz the mother of King Shapur sent a moneybag of dinars to Rav Yosef. She said to him: Let it be for a great mitzvah. Rav Yosef was sitting and looking into it –  what could be a great mitzvah?  Abaye said to him: Since Rav Shmuel b. Yosef taught that we do not levy money for charity from orphans even for the redemption of captives, it may be concluded that the redemption of captives is a great mitvah. (b. Bava Batra 8a-b; according to MS Hamburg).

The story is fascinating for a number of reasons. But in the meantime it is noteworthy that the talmudic storyteller has the queen-mother essentially delegating (and funding) rabbis to redeem (Jewish?) captives – as opposed to having the Sasanian state take care of it by itself. And it is the rabbis as a group who are in charge of captive redemption – as we also find at b. Taan 22a, where a case of captive redemption (apparently – though see the MSS) “visits upon” the rabbis, again apparently as a group.

Next up is Prof. Shaul Shaked, who will be speaking on January 3rd on “Zoroastrianism: A Religion of the Book.” For that I leave you with the following, thought-provoking picture – courtesy of my friend Dan Sheffield who has been digitizing a treasure-trove of photograph’s by the late Mary Boyce.