Karaite Mishnah (and other friends too)

Ofra Tirosh-Becker, Rabbinic Excerpts in Medieval Karaite Literature, 2 Vols. Jerusalem: Mossad Bialik, 2012, 1219 pp., NIS 111.

Everyone knows about the Karaites. They need little introduction: Ninth century Jews tired of geonic hegemony, going back to scripture to find law and independence. But there is very little beyond that which has trickled outside of the academic circles that busy themselves with the Karaite movement, despite its great importance to the study of rabbinic Judaism.

There is much Karaite material waiting to be read. Simply read.  The great age of Karaite scholarship – in Jerusalem and its environs in the tenth-eleventh centuries – produced a great mass of work, fascinating and useful not only for students of Karaism. However, most Karaite commentaries lack editions of any kind; the Karaite communities have little interest in their own literature, and not much of it was published, while even less is in print today.

“It is one of the ironies of fate […] that the Karaites, the great fighters against the oral Torah, allowed me, with the grace of God, to reconstruct a new segment of the literature of the oral law.” Thus Menahem Kahana in his introduction to Sifre Zutta Deuteronomy (Jerusalem: Magnes, 2003). Kahana discovered this midrash by mistake in a survey of Hebrew manuscripts in Russian libraries, during the first days of Soivet perestroika. Kahana identified fragments catalogued as “Midrash on Deuteronomy,” as belonging to the commentary on Deuteronomy by the Karaite Yeshuah b. Yehudah. But he also discovered a long-lost tannaitic midrash quoted in them as well: Sifre Zutta Deuteronomy, which he proceeded to publish, with an extensive commentary and study.

This is just one dark corner of the Karaite world that Kahana helped expose. But he was not alone in this enterprise. Ofra Tirosh-Becker, a linguist by training, has been working on one aspect of this Karaite material for many years. Her doctoral dissertation – under the same name – was approved in 2000.  In it, she discusses as many quotations of rabbinic works in Karaite literature as she could find.

Our book is an expansion of this dissertation, both in terms of the breadth of the corpus of quotations in vol. 2 and in terms of the “philological and linguistic discussions,” in vol. 1. Tirosh-Becker discusses such questions as the ways in which Karaite scholars treated rabbinic material, whether or not they forged it for their own purposes (usually not, but there is one fake barayta forged by Sahel b. Masliah, mentioned on p. 106-107), and what they called it when they quoted it (usually, “the first ones said”, qâl âlâwalûn). She also devotes an extensive chapter to the question of the script employed in Karaite works: Karaite writers used both Hebrew and Arabic scripts, and wrote both languages in both scripts. This is of importance to the linguist, as many rabbinic sources are transliterated into Arabic script, allowing for the reconstruction of the reading tradition of certain words (e.g.: the reading ribbi is attested, as in all other rabbinic sources – and not rabbi; the letter ג is transliterated as jim and as ghain, depending on its positon in the word: gevul but reghilim).

Additionally, the Karaites employed some Hebrew diacritics in their Arabic to signify phonemes that do no exist in Arabic, like Hebrew vowels, and the rafe sign over the Arabic bah. But this is of importance to the cultural historian, too: why did Rabbinites use only Hebrew script, and Karaites Arabic? Was it an economic divide, or an ideological one? Tirosh-Becker discusses some previous research cursorily, but essentially leaves the field for others to till. She makes that work easier, too: a description of all the manuscripts employed is appended to vol. 1 (chapter 14), and it allows for a survey of material where interesting discussions of rabbinic material might show up. More such discussions abound – the chapters on nikkud (10) and cantillation marks (9) are fascinating as well. Tirosh-Becker also identifies errors that testify both to the oral recitation of the texts, as well as some errors that clearly point to a written provenance of the same texts (I wonder if Karaites stopped copying from the rabbinic texts themselves at some point and started copying from each other; we do know that many rabbinic texts were owned by the Karaite synagogue in Cairo – but the fake barayta was copied over and over as well).

But the great treasure of the book is vol. 2. Spanning over 800 pages, this volume  includes all the quotations of rabbinic literature in Karaite works Tirosh-Becker was able to find.  She was careful to leave the script as she found it – no transliterations for you! – with or without all the diacritics. In a feat of typesetting (it seems the book was created entirely on MS Word), she was able to reproduce the Hebrew diacritics, Arabic diacritics, and scripts accurately and precisely. She also points out where the quotations diverge from the MS chosen by “Maagarim” to represent the work. This is another area where a Talmudist should intervene, and check the quotations to see if they match any one text-type of the Mishnah.

Tirosh-Becker also publishes a large number of quotations from the previously-lost Mekhilta of Rabbi Shimon b. Yohai. This is a real find, and the author promises an article soon with Menahem Kahana on their value (see pp. 112-115 for a discussion, and pp. 856-882 for the quotations). There is a disproportionately large amount of quotations from this Mekhilta in the corpus, pointing to its prominence in Babylonia (indeed, the Mekhilta of Rabbi Ishmael was sometimes called “the Palestinian Mekhilta”). Many of these quotations are from parts of the Mekhilta not attested in known Genizah fragments, and were reconstructed from the fourteenth century Yemenite Midrash Hagadol twice: by D. Z. Hoffmann, and by J. N. Epstein. The latter was more conservative in his reconstructions, but several quotations discovered by Tirosh-Becker actually support Hoffmann’s more extensive reconstructions. However, these quotations, as far as I could see, are not marked in any way as derived from the Mekhilta, and in some cases (see e.g. pp. 859, 860-862) I’m curious why the author thinks they are from this work and not simply from one of the Talmuds, which contain similar material.

There is also one quotation from the lost Mekhilta to Deuteronomy (1124), a handful of quotations from the Palestinian Talmud (Talmud llshâm), and a long quotation with the story of the Oven of Aknai – a rallying point for laughing Karaites everywhere (1172-1175). The rest of the rabbinic library is proportionately represented too: Mishnah, Sifra, Sifre (Num and Deut), Bavli, Midrash Agada and even some Tosefta.

The unimaginatively named Rabbinic Excerpts in Medieval Karaite Literature is now another resource scholars of rabbinics must consult on matters of text, readings and reception history of the rabbinic text. But it is also a repository of a culture negotiating its relationship with revered predecessors represented in this world by bitter enemies; a story of cultural appropriation and literary positioning. In that sense, Tirosh-Becker’s book is a collection of artifacts still waiting to be read.

Between Words and Ideas in the Reading of The Bavli

Amidst much fanfare, immigration lawyer and daf-yomi class teacher Daniel Retter published his index of the Babylonian Talmud, dubbed HaMafteach in both Hebrew and in English. As someone who often studies Talmud on the Sabbath and misses the various digital search engines while doing so, I fit the New York Times’ profile of someone who may want to purchase a copy. At 65 NIS, the price was right, but I would have to wait for the book’s second printing until I managed to get a copy from my local seforim store.

Despite the fact that the book overlooks its predecessors, the volume is indeed impressive, and the author is clearly a talmid chacham who put countless hours into it. When reading the introduction I was particularly struck by one aspect of the book that I don’t think has received that much attention so far. Retter writes that the index is not one of words, but of ideas. In order to explain the importance of sifting through Talmudic sugyot thusly, the indexer cites the example of “pidyon haben“- which in one important discussion in the Talmud is refered to as “yeshua haben” (BK 80a). Needless to say, a casual search via an electronic database for “pidyon haben” would fail to turn up this source, and the importance of organizing the index by ideas is felt.

In some- if not all- cases, this organizing principle can get rather subjective and even problematic. For example, the phrase “mitzvah haba’ah b’aveirah” comes up three times in the Vilna edition of the Bavli, at Ber. 47b, Suk. 30a and BK 94a (certain MSS also have it at Suk. 35a), yet the Mafteach cites five sugyot: the three sugyot in which the phrase occurs, and then two sugyot in which a similar concept is supposed to emerge - San. 6b and Meg. 32a.

In actuality, these cases are cited because they are parallels. The Sugya at San. 6b parallels the BK sugya- both discuss one who “steals a seah of wheat, grinds, bakes it, and separates from it hallah“. Part of Meg. 32a is indeed paralleled in the sugya at Ber. 47b, but not in a way that seems particularly relevant to mitzvah haba’ah b’aveira (based on the Soncino translation):

BT Ber. 47b

BT Meg. 32a

…But this is a religious act which is carried out by means of a transgression? — A religious act which affects a whole company is different. R. Joshua b. Levi also said: A man should always rise early to go to synagogue so that he may have the merit of being counted in the first ten; since if even a hundred come after him he receives the reward of all of them. ‘The reward of all of them’, think you? — Say rather: He is given a reward equal to that of all of them. R. Huna said: Nine and the Ark join together [to be counted as ten]… …R. Shefatiah further said in thename of R. Johanan: If ten have had a reading of the Torah, the senior among them rolls up the sefer torah. He who rolls it up receives the reward of all of them, since R. Joshua b. Levi said: If ten have had a reading of the Torah, the one who rolls it up receives the reward of all of them. The reward of all of them, think you? Say rather, he receives a reward equal to that of all of them. R. Shefatiah further said in the name of R. Johanan: Whence do we know that we may avail ourselves of a chance utterance [as an omen]?…

The bold lines show why these sugyot were brought together. Both deal with why “someone receives the reward of all of them”, but only the one in Berakhot includes a discussion of mitzvah haba’ah b’aveirah. My guess is that the sugya from Megillah was cited not because of its direct relevance to our topic, but rather, because of a somewhat cluttered reference area in the Mesorat haSha”s on our page from Berakhot:

The indexer seems to have relied, at least in this case, on the references found in the Mesorat haSha”s. Working with “ideas” can be tricky business…

My immediate reaction to Retter’s organizing principles was one of surprise. While reflecting on that reaction of mine, I came to consider the rules that govern my own decisions with regards to which sugyot of the Bavli I choose to bring into discussion with one another. Philology, the love of words, has a tough time utilizing ideas, often deemed too subjective, in study and in text-editing. From the other end of the toolbox, one could argue that at least since De Saussure language has often been the grounding for Theory, leading, therefore, to an emphasis on words.

Both the philological and theoretical modes of reading may have instilled a stronger focus on words, but more importantly, current search-engines are really what have been changing the way we approach the bavli. “Change”, because whereas Bar-Ilan, Ma’agarim, the Lieberman database (and still other computer programs) use words, generations of Talmud readers, have, like Retter, used other aspects of the Talmud to decide which sugyot are speaking to one another. To be sure, the virtues of the electronic revolution are numerous. Search engines have allowed corpora like the Tosefta, Midrash Halakha, and the Yerushalmi to enter into discussion with greater ease. But which sources have we lost along the way?

The Talmud Blog- Now on Facebook

A few weeks ago, we created a Facebook page for the Talmud blog. Our hope is that we can use the page in order to keep our readers up-to-date on Talmudic goings-on that might not merit blog posts. We would also like the page to serve as a forum for discussion, although we ask that you try to keep comments on ‘proper’ blog posts to the “comments” section located on the blog itself. Those who don’t have Facebook can follow what’s going on via the widget located on the blog’s right sidebar.  But if you do have Facebook (and if you haven’t done so already) why don’t you go right on over to the “like” button on the sidebar, and click! We’ll see you on the Facebook page soon!

Prof. Avraham Goldberg ז”ל

The world of Talmud scholarship mourns the passing of Avraham Goldberg, professor emeritus at Hebrew University’s department of Talmud and Halakha.  Professor Goldberg was born in Pittsburgh, PA in 1913, served as a US Army chaplain in the Second World War, and moved to Israel in 1946.  At JTS in New York and at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem he studied with the leading scholars of the mid-twentieth century, including L. Ginzberg, S. Lieberman, J. N. Epstein, and Ch. Albeck.  A recipient of the Israel Prize in 2000, he authored dozens of articles, studies and reviews in both English and Hebrew and edited a number of tractates of the Mishnah.  A collection of his essays entitled “Literary Form and Composition in Classical Rabbinic Literature” was just recently published by Magnes Press.

More information on Prof. Goldberg can be found here:

יהי זכרו ברוך

Piyyut and Modern Hebrew Poetry – The Passover Connection

Amir Gilboa
(1917-1984)

It is well known that modern Hebrew poetry makes extensive use of the Bible and to a lesser extent of rabbinic literature. What is less known is the role of liturgical texts and poetry in the modern poetic corpus. In what follows I exemplify how a piyyut for Passover by the late antique poet Yannai influenced Amir Gilboa, a prominent Hebrew poet who began publishing poetry in the 1950′s. The piyyut by Yannai opens with the declaration: אז רוב ניסים הפלאת בלילה (‘Then You performed many miracles at night’) and then enumerates the many miracles that occurred according to the Bible and rabbinic tradition at midnight. Here are some lines from the Piyyut (the alphabetical acrostic is highlighted):

וישר ישראל לאל ויוכל לו לילה
…זרע בכורי פתרוס מחצת בחצי הלילה
נושע מבור אריות פותר בעיתותי לילה
שנאה נטר אגגי וכתב בספרים בלילה
…עוררת נצחך עליו בנדד שנת לילה
קרב יום אשר הוא לא יום ולא לילה
רם הודע כי לך היום אף לך הלילה
שומרים הפקד לעירך כל היום וכל הלילה
תאיר כאור יום חשכת לילה

Israel wrestled with the angel and prevailed in the night,
The first-born of Egypt you did smite in the middle of the night…
Daniel, rescued from the lion’s den, interpreted the dread vision of night,
Haman, in his enmity, wrote his instructions against the Jews at night,
But You did conquer him by the king’s sleep departing at night…
Hasten the day of redemption, of which it is said “It shall be then neither day nor night”,
O Most High! Make known that to You belong day and night,
Appoint watchmen for Your city day and night,
Shed the brightness of day on the darkness of the night.

Originally, this Piyyut was composed by Yannai for the Sabbath in which the Torah portion from Exodus 12:29 (‘At midnight the Lord smote all the first-born in the land of Egypt’) was read in late antique Palestinian synagogues, but it became famous and widespread when it was included at the concluding parts of the medieval Passover Haggadah, where it is found until this day. Amir Gilboa alludes to this piyyut in more than one place and I shall discuss here one of the more interesting occurrences from a poem entitled ידעתי בחלום (I knew in the dream); here are the relevant verses from the poem:

.ידעתי בחלום החלום לא כחלום יעוף
.ידעתי בחלום החלום חולמים בי ריבואות
.נפקחתי. חצות. מי מאיר כאור יום חשכת לילה
.ושמש עומד דום בחלון בחלום כביום ההוא בגבעון אזכור
הנה הנה קרב הלילה אשר הוא יום ולא לילה
.ויום התמיד בא בחצי הלילה. וכבר הוא לא יעריב
.ובוקר אור מזהיב. נפקחתי. הנה הנה לפני, ירושלים
(אמיר גלבוע – כל השירים, תל אביב 1987, כרך ב’, עמ’ 83)

I knew in the dream the dream like a dream will not fade.
I knew in the dream the dream tens of thousands dream in me.
I woke up. Midnight. Who sheds the brightness of the day in the darkness of the night.
And the sun stands still in the window in the dream as it did at Gibeon, I remember.
Behold, behold the night, which is neither day nor night, is approaching
And the eternal day comes at midnight. And it shall no more dusk.
And the morning becomes gold. I woke up. Behold, behold in front of me, Jerusalem.

The poem opens with the dream of a speaker who wakes up at midnight. Interestingly, the midnight in the poem corresponds directly to the list of midnight miracles in the Piyyut. Gilboa fuses the language of his poem with that of the Piyyut; for examples the line ‘מי מאיר כאור יום חשכת לילה’ in the poem is a reworking of the payytanic verse ‘תאיר כאור יום חשכת לילה’, and similarly the line ‘הנה הנה קרב הלילה אשר הוא יום ולא לילה’ corrospondes to ‘קרב יום אשר הוא לא יום ולא לילה’. It is worth mentioning that in both cases we witness a process of secularization of the payytanic text; in the first example Gilboa wonders who is the one who performs the miracle and in the second he omits the appeal to God for salvation. Interestingly enough, Gilboa adds to the list of midnight salvations in the Piyyut another biblical scene that is not mentioned in the latter – the story about the battle of Joshua as narrated in Judges chapter 10. But like Yannai who concludes the Piyyut with Jerusalem ‘שומרים הפקד לעירך כל היום וכל הלילה’, itself a biblical allusion to Isa. 62:6), Gilboa too ends the dream sequence with the sacred city.

This poem is but one example of Gilboa’s impressive use of Piyyut in his poetry and there are many more. Before Yom Kippur – in exactly half a year – I plan to discuss another poem by Gilboa that correspondes to a famous Piyyut from the liturgy of the day that opens אכן מה נהדר היה מראה כהן (Indeed how splendid was the vision of the High Priest).

Until then have an inspiring holidays or at the very least a wonderful spring.

You Rejoice – though not Me: Some Notes on bMeg 10b and its Parallels

Lucas Cranach the Elder 'Untergang des Pharao im Roten Meer' (Germany, 1530)

Does God rejoice at the downfall of the wicked? Surely He wants the good to prosper and the wicked to perish. Yet, the destruction of God’s own creatures, regardless of some poor choices they may have made in the past, is also not a cause for Divine celebration. If one wishes to ascribe to a logical, binary scheme, the answer to this question can either be “yes” or “no”.  But this is the Talmud Blog, where a rabbinic “yes, but…” / “no, but…” will do just fine.  Indeed, rabbinic literature contains both views.  On the one hand, R. Ishmael confidently  responds to his students (preserved at Sifre Numbers 117) that indeed, God is happy when those who anger Him perish, while we also have a moving, anthropomorphic portrait of God’s pain at the wicked’s demise (mSan 6:5).

One of the better known talmudic passages that deals with this subject appears at bMeg 10b – towards the beginning of the so called Babylonian Esther Midrash (bMeg 10b-17a) which I am now teaching in the Hebrew University Talmud Department. The Babylonian Esther Midrash is a unique corpus. It is apparently the only complete midrash on a biblical book that was compiled in Babylonia, and as such it affords a rare window into Babylonian midrashic imagination. Scholars like Eliezer Segal have produced significant and lasting scholarship on the Bavli’s Esther Midrash. The primary tool in these scholarly endeavors is a kind of comparative criticism, that unfortunately ends up seeing the Bavli’s Esther Midrash as an essentially tone-deaf, pale reflection of Palestinian midrashic poetics.  Blame it on postmodernism, but I see in the Bavli’s ‘belatedness’ the beauty of the mosaic, pastiche – in short, a textual realization of Late Antiquity.

The passage that interests me appears towards the beginning of a long list of ‘petihtot’ to Esther, which Segal has demonstrated derive mainly from Palestinian exemplars. Indeed, the vast majority of tradents are Palestinian sages.  Further, in his assessment the full poetic punch of these petihtot is often effaced in the Bavli. This is true, but only if you consider Palestinian synagogal poetics as the sole form of legitimate poetry. Arguably, there is another kind of poetry that takes place in the processes of deconstruction and subsequent reconstruction which the Bavli performs on its Palestinian rabbinic heritage.

The point I have to make is a relatively, small, philological one.  But I do think that it partially explains a formerly incomprehensible Yerushalmi and also contributes to a deeper understanding of the development of two passages in the Bavli.  In any event, it has been far too long since the Talmud Blog had a post about a close, original reading of a sugya.

ר’ יהושע בן חנניה פתח לה פתחא להאיי פרשתא מהכא: והיה כאשר שש ייי עליכם להיטיב אתכם ולהרבות אתכם כן ישיש ייי עלי[כ]ם להאביד אתכם וג’

ומיחדי הקב’ה במפלתן שלרשעים 

והכת’ בצאת לפני החלוץ ואומרים הודו לייי כי לעולם חסדו ואמ’ ר’ יוחנן מפני מה לא נאמ’ כי טוב בהודאה זו לפי שאין הקב’ה שמח במפלתן שלרשעים

ואמ’ ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אמ’ ר’ יונתן מאי דכת’ ולא קרב זה אל זה כל הלילה באותה שעה ביקשו מלאכי שרת לומר שירה לפני הקב’ה אמ’ להן הקב’ה מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה לפני

אמ’ ר’ יוסי ביר’ חנינה הוא אינו שש אבל אחרים משיש דוקא נמי דכת’ ישיש ולא כת’ ישוש שמע מנה

R. Yehoshua b. Hanania introduced the section from here: ‘And it shall come to pass that as the Lord rejoiced over you to do you good, so the Lord will rejoice over you to cause you to perish’ (Deut 28:63). 

Now does the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoice in the downfall of the wicked?

Is it not written, ‘as they went out before the army, and say, Give thanks unto the Lord, for his mercy endureth for ever (2 Chron. 10:21)’, And R. Yohanan said: Why are the words ‘for he is good’ omitted from this thanksgiving? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked? 

And R. Shmuel b. Nahamani said that R. Yonatan said, What is the meaning of the verse, ‘And one came not near the other all the night (Ex. 14:20)’?   At that time the ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns before the Holy One, blessed be He, but He said, The work of my hands is being drowning in the sea, and shall you chant hymns before me?

R. Yossi b. R. Hinana replied: He himself does not rejoice, but he makes others rejoice.  This is indicated also by the text, which writes yasis and not yasus, which proves [what we said]. 

(bMeg 11a, following MS Columbia; translation based on Soncino)

The opening verse is taken from the so-called “rebuke” section of Deut 28.  The link between this verse and Esther seems to center on the threatening verb “cause to perish (להאביד)” in Deut 28:63 and its ubiquity in Esther, for example at 4:7.  Apparently, R. Yehoshua understood the near destruction of the Jews in Esther as a realization of the Deuteronomic rebuke.  Judging from the first three petihtot of Esther Rabbah which cite Deut 28:66-68 and other later Palestinian midrashic parallels, this was apparently not an unusual way of introducing the Scroll of Esther.

The rest of the passage, however, is somewhat peculiar, and as such has gained the attention of generations of scholars.  I will focus on two issues:  The Talmud objects to the depiction of God as rejoicing over causing the destruction of the wicked, since two midrashic interpretations demonstrate that God does not rejoice when the wicked are punished (following Yehoshafat’s defeat of the Moabites; and after the drowning of the Egyptians in the Red Sea – the latter an example of a startling Babylonian reversal which was used in medieval times to justify the absence of Hallel recitation after the first day of Passover, but that is for another time).  The contradiction is resolved via a closer reading of the original verse from Deuteronomy, where God is now said merely to cause others to rejoice yet not rejoice Himself.  In other words, the entire sequence was generated by an apparent misinterpretation of the original verse that did not conform to midrashic traditions about God not rejoicing at the downfall of the wicked, and the conclusion is essentially to read the verse more carefully.  Further, as others have already pointed out (for example, E. Segal), the formulation of the original question “Now does the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoice in the downfall of the wicked,” is somewhat jarring, since nowhere in rabbinic literature do we find an entire generation of Jews referred to as “wicked”.

The passage bears a strong connection to a parallel at bSan 39b:

ויעבר הרנה במחנה

אמ’ ר’ אחא בר ר’ חננא באבוד רשעים רנה ובאבוד אחאב רני רינה

ומי חאדי הקב’ה במפלתן שלרשעים

והא כתי’ בצאת לפני החלוץ אומרים הודו ליי’י כי לעולם חסדו

ואמ’ ר’ יוחנן מפני מה לא נאמר כי טוב בפרשה זו לפי שאין הקב’ה שמיח במפלתן שלרשעים

ואמ’ ר’ שמואל בר נחמני אמ’ ר’ יונתן מאי דכת’ ולא קרב זה אל זה כל הלילה באותה שעה שטבעו מצרים בים ביקשו מלאכי השרת לומ’ שירה אמ’ להן הקב’ה מעשה ידי טובעין בים ואתם אומרים שירה לפני

א’ר יוסי בר’ חנינה הוא אינו שש אבל אחרים משיש דוקא  נמי דכת’ ישיש ולא כתי’ ישוש שמע מינה

‘And there went out the shout throughout the camp’ (1 Kings 22:36).

R. Aha b. R. Hanina said: ‘When the wicked perish, there is song (Prov. 11:10)’, and when Ahab perished there was ‘song of songs’ (following MS Yemenite, hagadot hatalmud, and others).  

Now does the Holy One, blessed be He, rejoice in the downfall of the wicked?

Is it not written, ‘as they went out before the army, and say, Give thanks unto the Lord, for his mercy endureth for ever (2 Chron. 10:21)’, and R. Yohanan said: Why are the words ‘for he is good’ omitted from this thanksgiving? Because the Holy One, blessed be He, does not rejoice in the downfall of the wicked? 

And R. Shmuel b. Nahamani said that R. Yonatan said, What is the meaning of the verse, And one came not near the other all the night (Ex. 14:20)?   At that time the ministering angels wanted to chant their hymns before the Holy One, blessed be He, but He said, The work of my hands is being drowning in the sea, and shall you chant hymns before me?

R. Yossi b. R. Hinana replied: He himself does not rejoice, but he makes others rejoice.  This is indicated also by the text, which writes yasis and not yasus, which proves [what we said]. 

(b. San 39a according to another Yemenite MS, MS Herzog).

This passage appears at the end of the fourth chapter in tractate Sanhedrin, where the Mishna describes how, after conveying a sense of seriousness to witnesses, the court reassures them that their task is essential and worthy.  One of the verses recited for the witnesses is Prov. 11:10: “when the wicked perish there are shouts of joy”.  At bSan 39b, the Talmud cites a verse from I Kings (22:36) that describes the news spreading of (the wicked) King Ahav’s demise.  R. Aha b. R. Hinina cites the verse from Prov and adds that when Ahav died there was even greater rejoicing.  Note that the Yemenite MS Herzog is vocalized רִנֵי רִינָה.  This leads into the same sequence that appears at bMeg 10b.

It is now easier to understand why the passage refers to “the wicked” – for Ahav’s wickedness was infamous. Yet, in certain respects the bSan passage is even more problematic than its bMeg parallel. The verse from Deuteronomy is not even quoted, but is nevertheless presumed in R. Yossi’s closing exposition.  And the opening question (‘Now does the Holy One…rejoice in the downfall of the wicked’) is almost incomprehensible, for where do we see God himself rejoicing at Ahav’s death?  On the other hand, there is reason to assume that the bSan passage is “primary” to the one in bMeg in the sense that the initialbuilding blocks of the passage were composed within the discursive context of bSan (yes, I am aware of Zvi Septimus’ article). This can be demonstrated since specifically bSan seems to have developed out of a parallel Palestinian passage preserved in the Yerushalmi that also appears as a comment on the same Mishna:

כת’ “ויעבר הרינה במחנה”.

מהו “הרינה”. הריני.

וכן הוא או’ “בצאת לפני החלוץ” וגו’. ללמדך שאף מפלת הרשעים אינה שמחה לפני המקו’ם.

It is written ‘And there went out the shout throughout the camp (1 Kings 22:36)’. 

What is “the shout” – hareni.

And it also says, ‘as they went out before the army (2 Chron. 10:21)’ etc. To teach you that even the downfall of the wicked is not a joy before Omnipresent. 

It seems clear that there is some relationship between the ySan and bSan passages. The Yerushalmi comments on the same Mishna, quotes the same verse from 1 Kings and then cites the same midrash on 2 Chron 10:21 (which first appears in the Mekhilta Beshalah, Shira parsha 1, p. 118).  Yet, on the whole, the meaning of this short Yerushalmi passage has eluded interpretation, particularly the first line.  What does the word הריני mean here, and what does it add to the verse from 1 Kings?

Not surprisingly, the traditional commentators try to apply the Bavli parallel to the Yerushalmi, and they suggest that the definite article (הרינה - the shout of joy) is interpreted here to refer to the great joy felt at the demise of the wicked.  Neusner’s translation emends the text accordingly “What is this cry (HRYNH)? Lo, it is a song (HRY RYNH).” On the other hand, the Mohr Siebeck translation suggests a reading of חרון – anger.  This seems to be based on the second line of the Yerushalmi, which cites the Mekhilta about God not fully rejoicing at the defeat of Moab.  Since the latter is apparently linked to the first line with the words “and it also says (וכן הוא אומר),” one might assume that the first line about “the shout” should also convey the same message of Divine displeasure at the downfall of the wicked.

In fact, the words “וכן הוא אומר” should actually be read “וכאן הוא אומר” (“and here it says”), and they merely represent a direct though shortened quotation of the Mekhilta passage according to the best witnesses. As for the first sentence “מהו הרינה – הריני”  the final word might perhaps be read as הרינו and represent a regressive assimilated form of הפעיל צווי הרנינו – ‘(you, pl.) Rejoice!’  As such, the Yerushalmi interprets 1 Kings 22:36 to mean that God is telling the Jews to rejoice (הרנינו) at Ahav’s death.  This then is juxtaposed to the midrash from the Mekhilta where God does not fully rejoice at the defeat of Moab.  The tension between these two positions, however, is unresolved.

This brings us back to the bSan parallel. If the original, Palestinian set of amoraic comments on mSan 4:5 contains two apparently unreconciled views of the Divine reaction to the demise of the wicked, the Bavli turns this material into a dialectical sequence.  Thus, originally, the comment on the verse from 1 Kings attributed to R. Aha b. Hinina (אחא בר חננא  - a name which looks suspiciously close to “” אחאב רני רינה as indeed is made clear in a variant preserved in geniza fragment CUL: T-S Misc. 28.201) apparently refers to God commanding rejoicing at the demise of the wicked Ahav. Notwithstanding the vocalization of MS Herzog, perhaps originally the term was to be read רנו רינה and similarly represent a regressive assimilation, now of the פיעל צווי form רננו.  Either way, the Bavli explicitly interrogates this midrashic understanding of 1 Kings, since in two places God is seen as not rejoicing at the downfall of the wicked.  The Bavli’s answer, based on Deut 28:63, now works perfectly.  God himself does not rejoice, but he causes others to rejoice – precisely as we see in the midrashic reading of 1 Kings 22:36 explicitly preserved in the Yerushalmi though only residually in the Bavli.

In short, we have a passage at bSan 39b that seems to, artfully, make use of a cryptic Palestinian text that juxtaposes God’s command to rejoice at Ahav the wicked’s death with his lack of joy at Moav’s defeat. This is turned into a series of questions that clarify where Divine joy at the downfall of the wicked is to be located – not within the godhead itself, rather in divine encouragement to rejoice. A philosophically fascinating proposition.

At last, this sequence intersects with bMeg 10b, where the citation of Deuteronomy 28:63 as a frightening petihta to Esther seems to elicit the need to ‘soften’ the troubling notion that God Himself rejoiced at the near destruction of the Jews in the Purim story.  No, God Himself did not rejoice. But he did encourage others to do so in carrying out their awful, destructive task.