Suicide in the Bible, in the Light of the Attitude toward Suicide in Secular Culture and Jewish Tradition

by Yael Shemesh

The Bible mentions six cases of suicide: (1) Abimelech son of Gideon (Judg. 9:54); (2) Samson (Judg. 16:25); (3) Saul (1 Sam 31:3 and 1 Chron. 10:3); (4) Saul’s armor-bearer (1 Sam. 31:5 and 1 Chron. 10:5); (5) Ahithophel (2 Sam. 17:23); (6) Zimri (1 Kings 16:18). The article examines the biblical narrator's attitude toward suicide, studies the common denominators of and differences between the incidents, and presents the literary role of the suicide story in the broader context of the accounts of those who took this fatal step. In two cases, those of Samson and Saul, the psychological factors behind their suicides are considered. The picture presented by all the stories about these two figures indicates that their personalities put them at high risk for suicide.

The Talmudic Proverb in Its Cultural Setting

by Shamma Friedman

“Proverbs are short sentences drawn from long experience”. Thus spoke Cervantes. The Talmudic proverbs are short Aramaic sentences drawn from a variety of literary and cultural sources. Analysis of a pithy and puzzling aphorism may lead us through lands and languages, parables and fables, whose morals lie behind our maxim.

Aramaic animal fables with epigrammatic morals are already represented in A?iqar, with roots in ancient Babylonian literature. This genre became well known through Aesop’s fables, some of which are already quoted by Aristophanes in the fifth century BCE, and is an example of the rich reciprocal interchanges between the Ancient Near East and classical cultures. The Talmudic proverb is heir to this tradition, probably through Aramaic collections.

Thus hamra lemareh tivuta leshaqyeh (bBQ 92b) “the wine is the master’s, the thanks [belong] to the butler” recalls both Accadian “nad?nu ?a ?arri tubbu ?a ?aq?” – “to give is the king’s prerogative, to show favors the steward’s,” and Latin “vinum dominicum, ministratoris gratia est”.

Exact talmudic parallels to some of Aesop’s fables were already noted by Azaria de Rossi, Jacob Reifmann, and Y.L. Gordon. Talmudic sources refer to this genre as ‘fox parables’ mishle shualim (bSuk 28a, bBB 134a), and their origin in universal wisdom literature seems to be acknowledged by Rashi, who mentions “proverbs about fullers and proverbs about foxes composed by the ancients as exempla for their ethical teachings”. The late tanna Bar Kappara recited 300 fox parables. In Bereshit Rabbah (p. 924) the fox himself knows 300 parables about lions! The Aesop-type fable has a fixed tri-part structure: 1. Title. 2. Body. 3. Aphorism. Talmudic passages reflect use of each of these, in various types of integration with the local passage. A highly condensed allusion to an Aesop-type fable can appear fully integrated in the talmudic dialogue, or remain as a foreign body, whose external origin may be betrayed by concepts or lexemes unusual in their current setting.

The well-known talmudic tale (bBQ 60b) of the man whose younger wife plucked his gray hairs and older wife his black ones, until he became “bald from both sides” (kereah mikan umikan) has an exact parallel in Aesop § 52. The language and style in the Bavli is more polished, but the Greek probably contains a play on words: mesopolios means ‘middle-aged’ and ‘half gray’. “Bald from both sides” for a person who loses out on all options takes on an identity independent of the story and becomes so completely integrated into technical talmudic dialectic, that it is even used for a woman! “With the result that she is bald from both sides” (bBB 132a) = ‘loses both options’.

The body of this paper deals with two proverbs concerning shepherds. The shepherd persona must have played a key role in the parables that are epitomized in these proverbs. None-the-less, the shepherd disappeared from some textual witness of the first proverb due to difficulties of interpretation, and dropped out of the second proverb in a pre-talmudic stage, leaving only his fingerprints. This paper investigates the disappearance of the two shepherds.

a. In Vayyiqra Rabbah (4, pp. 75-76; Qoh. Rabbah 3,16) we find the following proverb: han di tela mare zaineh qulbai ra’ya tela qulteh. The traditional translation renders: “Where the master hangs up his armour, the base shepherd hangs up his pitcher”. Of the two occurrences of this proverb in the Babylonian Talmud, Sanh. 103a repeats the midrashic context, and BM 84b applies it to a new context. Both talmudic passages are quite secondary to the midrash in terms of the language in which the proverb is cited. None-the-less, interpretation of this proverb has largely been carried out in the BT context.

The nexus of the problem is the word qulbai (some read qublai) and its relationship to ra’ya (shepherd). Rashi took the phrase as ‘the base one, the shepherd”, two nouns in apposition. The appositive construction, though awkward, was adopted by most authorities. Its pervasive use underscores the main difficulties: not only is qulbai a crux interpretum; there appears to be an extra word in this proverb, inelegantly solved through construing the nouns in apposition. Others have seen here a rare example of adjective before noun.

Terseness, proverbial for proverbs, should have called for one word less, and indeed textual witnesses, anthologists, and commentators tend to eliminate one of the words, ra’ya or qulbai. However, it would be especially unfortunate to eliminate the shepherd, who seems to be inherent to the rhetoric of the genre.

The issue of the proper reading and parsing of this proverb is related to the correct division between the apodosis and protasis. Some versions inserted the divider taman (“there”) after “weapon”, perpetuating the syntactic bond uniting qulbai ra’ya, R. Meir Abulafia took “Qulbai” as the shepherd’s personal name. W. Bacher sought to identify qulbai with qolev, ‘hook’, and moved the word to the beginning of the sentence.

The key to the riddle lies in the fact that mare zaian is found as a fixed phrase in Syriac meaning ‘man of arms’, ‘nobleman’. Thus it was not his weapon that the nobleman hung on its place, and the object of the verb in the first stich is missing according to the traditional parsing. Clearly, qulbai, standardly assigned to the protasis, must step forward and serve this function.

In the place where the master would hang X, the shepherd hung Y.

X should be a garment. This is supplied by kolobion, ‘a sleeveless tunic’ or ‘coat’. Cf. Vayiqra Rabbah 37 (p. 896-97): deanan ba’ayin mizbun qlov lehada yatmeta “For we wish to buy a garment for this orphan girl”

If the master of the manor is usurped by the shepherd what does the shepherd hang on the hook where the master used to hang his noble garment? Clearly, his crook. In another proverb in VR (15, p. 337; 16, p. 362) qulta meaning of “stick” is preserved: uvematla amri deakhil bahade qura laqi bahadi qila (“He who eats the heart of the palm tree is beaten with its stick”. Cf. Midrash Tehillim 22 (p. 183): ze shehamashal omer ha qura veha qulta akhaltun bequra lequn bequlta “Here is the palm-heart, here its branch; you have eaten the heart, now be smitten with the branch”.

These apothegms epitomize unrecorded parables about the thief who ate the heart of the palm tree and gets his just deserts from another part of the tree, which provides the rod to beat him. They derive from a literary source used by Vayiqra Rabbah, a source that contains vocabulary that is rare or otherwise absent in the rest of the talmudic-midrashic corpus. qulta is a stick or rod, which can also serve as the shepherd’s staff. Translate accordingly: ‘In the place where the master of the manor would hang his cloak, the shepherd hung his crook’.

We have not been able to recover the story abstracted by this maxim, but we can supply a purely hypothetical reconstruction, by way of example only:

Once there was a wealthy livestock magnate who was interested only in seeing his holdings grow, but lacked the gift of enjoyment from his bounty, either for himself or his dear ones. He drove his shepherds mercilessly, and ignored their well-founded pleas, fending off their appeals with excuses. “I have already taken off my tunic. How can I put it on again?” In contrast to the lord of the manor stood an honest and faithful shepherd, who knew how to rejoice with the little he had. The master’s meanness dragged him into a melancholia, which led to his death. Then the brave shepherd courted the unfortunate widow and won her heart, converting the main house into a place of life and laughter.

As the adage would have it: “In the place where the master of the manor used to hang his cloak, the shepherd now hangs his crook”.

b. Several years ago I discussed the talmudic claim formula damit alai kearya arba (bBQ 85a, BM 101b, BB 168a), usually translated ‘you seem to me like a lion lying in ambush’, used by a litigant who refuses to accept cooperation or contact with the other due to danger or damage which may ensue. However, lexicographic and textual considerations (vearba for arba) led me to derive this word from the Syriac ‘erba = lamb, and hypothesize that a fable about the lion and the lamb stands behind the imagery that the Talmud uses for this stylized legal claim. At that time I wrote “The Babylonian Talmud makes use of a well-known fable for the formula with which a litigant rejects his opponent’s offer, saying, ‘to be under your control would be like the story of the lion and the lamb for me’” (“Talmudic Lexicographical Studies 5: ‘arba’ = ‘sheep’” (Hebrew), Tarbiz 67 (1998), pp. 245-50).

The construction “lion and the lamb”, two nouns joined by “and”, seemed typical of fable titles, and although no such fable was known to me, the speculation seemed reasonable. Due to a Syriac version (see below) which served as a missing link, it is now possible to identify Aesop § 74 as the fable referred to.

The Cowherd and the Lion

A cowherd who was pasturing a herd of cattle lost a calf. He looked everywhere for it in the vicinity, but could not find it. So he made a vow to Zeus that if he ever managed to discover the thief, he would sacrifice a kid to the god in thanks.

Shortly after making this vow, he went into a wood where he saw a lion eating the lost calf. Terror-stricken, he raised his hands to the sky, crying out:

“Oh great Lord Zeus, a short time ago I made a vow to sacrifice a kid to you if I found the thief. But now I will sacrifice a bull if only I can escape from the thief’s claws!”

It is the cowherd, and not the lamb, who wishes to escape from the lion. None the less, the fable is indeed the source of our claim formula. In a Syriac version of Aesop’s fables, first published by Berl Goldberg in Chofes Matmonim, Berlin 1845, the title is ra’ya, ‘erba wearya – the shepherd, the lamb (= “kid” in the above), and the lion. In this version the cowherd is converted into a shepherd, the herd is sheep and not cattle, and the economic logic of calf -- kid -- bull, underscoring the man’s present danger, is completely lost. However, it is clearly the same story.

The last two words of the Syriac title, ‘erba wearya, “the lamb and the lion”, are used in the talmudic diction (in reverse order), to refer to the well-known tale. damit alai kearya arba – “to be in your power would be as in the fable ‘the lion and the lamb’. “The shepherd” (ra’ya) is left out of the abbreviated title. None-the-less, the Talmud is referring specifically to the shepherd, the hero of the story, whose plight in escaping from the lion’s jaws provides the intended symbolism.

An appendix presents in synoptic form the salient and most compelling parallels of Aesop’s fables in talmudic literature.

A Jewish Theory of Biblical Redaction from Byzantium: Its Rabbinic Roots, Its Diffusion and Its Encounter with the Muslim Doctrine of Falsification

by Richard C. Steiner

By the beginning of the eleventh century, the Rabbanites of Byzantium had developed a rudimentary theory concerning the work of the biblical editors. They attributed literary and textual anomalies in various biblical books to Ezra or to an anonymous individual identified only as the sadran “editor.” The text-critical component of the theory is firmly rooted in rabbinic sources from the Land of Israel. It describes Ezra’s methodology in dealing with conflicting manuscripts. When Ezra (so according to a little-known version of a well-known baraita) had three witnesses to a text, he selected the majority reading. When he had two, he was conservative rather than eclectic, preserving both readings in some fashion. If one of the two witnesses attested to the presence of a word that was absent in the other, he marked the word with dots.

The theory spread to Germany and Northern France, and some of its characteristic terminology came with it. It appears to have been a standard tool there for dealing with the literary and textual problems of Chronicles. In Provence, we find fainter echoes of the theory in the commentaries of Moses and David Qimhi. Radaq knew the theory from the commentary to Chronicles attributed to Rashi, but he felt the need to alter it, in both form and content. The result was Radaq’s well-known explanation of the Masoretic ketib-qere, thanks to which he has been called a “pioneer of lower criticism.”

In Spain, we find little or no awareness of the theory and its terminology. Ibn Ezra minimizes the editorial role of Ezra and the men of the Great Assembly, while stressing their sublime, divinely inspired wisdom. Moreover, as noted by U. Simon, Ibn Ezra rejects the concept of the “corrections of the scribes,” and he avoids a range of topics related to textual variation. All of this appears to be a reaction to the Muslim claim that Ezra falsified the Torah. This claim received its fullest and most strident expression in polemical works written in eleventh-century Spain by ‘Ali Ibn Hazm. It has long been known that R. Abraham Ibn Daud of Toledo and R. Solomon Ibn Adret of Barcelona responded in writing to Ibn Hazm’s attacks and even (in the case of Rashba) quoted them in Hebrew translation. However, it has not been noted that Ibn Ezra too exhibits awareness of Ibn Hazm’s charges: a polemical question that Ibn Ezra cites in the name of “the Muslim scholars” is very similar to a question asked by Ibn Hazm in arguing that the Torah was falsified by Ezra. Ibn Ezra’s sensitivity to this issue suggests that the Palestinian-Byzantine theory of biblical redaction was rejected in Andalusia under the pressure of Muslim polemics.

“At First Day Light” – Ibn Gabirol’s Diwan and the Transmission of His Secular Poetry

by Joseph Yahalom

The article examines the credibility of ancient manuscripts transmitting relatively long sequences of Ibn Gabirol’s poems in succession as real representatives of original lost diwans of his secular poetry. Although these were held in high esteem and widely demanded during the Middle Ages, only a few fragments survived to this day. Some of those significant fragments have reached us lately from the Firkovich Collection of St. Petersburg. In the article their value is examined and an effort to reconstruct these old diwans is made. Meanwhile, the editing principles of Brody and Schirmann in Solomon Ibn Gabirol: Secular Poems (Jerusalem 1974) are scrutinized. Although this book is the most authoritative and up-to-date edition of the diwan, it still has its flaws and it fails in its selection of texts and considerations. The problem is demonstrated using the poem “At First Day Light,” which is identified here as a secular poem that should have been included in the diwan. This fact is established on the basis of external traits of the original Geniza fragments that preserved the poem as well as on the basis of internal traits linking this poem to other well-known Gabirolian poems. Incidentally an attempt is made to reevaluate the creative powers of the great poet.

Between Worldliness and Traditionalism: Eighteenth-century Jews Debate Intercessory Prayer

by David Malkiel

The Pahad Yizhak, Isaac Lampronti’s encyclopedia of Jewish law and lore, documents a controversy that took place in Trieste in 1727 over intercessory prayer, that is, the tradition of petitioning angels to intercede before God. In an exhaustive exchange of halakhic and metahalakhic arguments, the charge is raised that this practice is idolatrous, because God has no need of intercessors, and this thrust is parried with a variety of responses. As the article demonstrates, the issue had been aired repeatedly throughout the Middle Ages, although earlier writers never tackled it on this scale or adduced such a variety of sources. In Trieste, however, the antagonist actually sought – unsuccessfully – to eliminate the piyyut “Ushers of Mercy” (Makhnisei Rahamim), the classic example of intercessory prayer. In this respect, the Trieste controversy anticipates the struggle over Haskalah and Reform, which is also adumbrated in its focus on the issues of rationalism (echoing the Maimonidean Controversy) and the sanctity of custom (including nonrational religious practices). By coincidence, Trieste was later to play an important role in the struggle over Wessely’s program of educational reform, and then, too, the rationalist initiative met with resistance rooted in a staunch conservatism.

Samuel David Luzzatto’s Critique of Rabbinic Exegesis Which Contradicts the Plain Meaning of Scripture

by Shmuel Vargon

This article discusses the approach of the nineteenth-century Jewish biblical exegete Samuel David Luzzatto to rabbinic exegesis of the Bible which contradicts the plain sense of the relevant biblical verses.

ShaDaL attributed paramount significance to the plain meaning of Scripture, so he often objected to rabbinic interpretations of biblical verses. Even so, ShaDaL accepted rabbinic exegesis as legally binding, unflinchingly affirming the status of the rabbis as the sole legitimate arbiters of halakhah. In spite of his reservations about rabbinic exegesis which contradicts the plain meaning of Scripture, ShaDaL routinely attempted to explain why the rabbis deviated from the plain meaning of the biblical text.

This article discusses numerous passages in which ShaDaL discusses rabbinic interpretations of biblical legal texts which contradict the plain meaning of the Bible.

ShADaL stands out among traditional exegetes for his bold attempts to explain the factors which led to contradictions between rabbinic biblical exegesis and the plain meaning of the biblical text. This dissonance, ShaDaL maintained, resulted from the shift in historical circumstances between the period of Moses, when the Torah was given, and the post-biblical period, when the Oral Law predominated. ShaDaL explained that the Oral Law developed within a milieu different from that of the written Torah, and rabbinic biblical exegesis accordingly reflected the conditions of the time. Thus, rabbinic “exegesis” should not be considered an attempt to explain the plain meaning of Scripture. ShaDaL claimed that the rabbis sometimes deviated intentionally from the plain meaning of biblical passages to further goals addressing the needs of their time and place.

ShaDaL frequently cites rabbinic interpretations of legal passages in the Bible which, in his opinion, reflect the “deep sense” of the biblical text. ShaDaL believed that the ideas underlying these interpretations were correct, as they reflect the Torah’s true intentions, although he rejected these interpretations as biblical exegesis because they contradict the plain meaning of the biblical text.

The Rebirth of Omnisignificant Biblical Exegesis in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries

by Yaakov Elman

James Kugel has proposed the term "omnisignificance" to describe the essential stance of the rabbinic exegesis of Scripture. According to him, "omnisignificance" constitutes the basic assumption underlying all of rabbinic exegesis that the slightest details of the biblical text have a meaning that is both comprehensible and significant. Nothing in the Bible...ought to be explained as the product of chance, or, for that matter, as an emphatic or rhetorical form, or anything similar, nor ought its reasons to be assigned to the realm of Divine unknowables. Every detail is put there to teach something new and important, and it is capable of being discovered by careful analysis (The Idea of Biblical Poetry: Parallelism and Its History, pp. 103-04).

If we equate Kugel's "something new and important" with aggadic or halakhic truths, his definition is a restatement of the rabbinic interpretation of Deut 32:47 - "For it is not an empty thing for you, it is your very life, and if [it appears] devoid [of moral or halakhic meaning] - it is you [who have not worked out its moral or legal significance]" (Yerushalmi Ketubot 8:11 [32c], based on Deut 32:47).

In an earlier paper, I examined the methods adopted and adapted by the influential thirteenth-century exegete, halakhist, and mystic, Nahmanides, in his search for a solution to some of these problems. After the fourteenth century, concern with the biblical text receded, and those interested in biblical commentary concentrated their efforts on the Pentateuch, first and foremost, and to a great extent on producing supercommentaries on Rashi. However, towards the end of the eighteenth century - prompted by the rise of the Haskalah and the challenges it presented - attention once again began to turn to the biblical text itself. Was every word of Scripture, every turn of phrase, significant - and in what way? The purpose of the following is to examine some of the approaches employed by various figures in answering that question.

Among others, the views of Malbim (1809-1879), R. Zadok Hakohen of Lublin (1823-1900), Netziv (the acronym of R. Naftali Zevi Yehudah Berlin, 1817-1893), and R. Meir Simhah of Dvinsk (1843-1926). A fifth figure, not usually considered alongside these champions of Eastern European Orthodoxy, who was indeed a German Reform rabbi, nevertheless furthered the omnisignificant enterprise to an important extent - Benno Jacob (1862-1945), whose massive commentaries to Genesis and Exodus do far more than combat the Documentary Hypothesis. Each of these men, in his own way and to a varying extent, responded to the challenge outlined above.


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