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.

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

  1. Pingback: Shave and a Hair Cut | The Talmud Blog·

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