We’ll be starting at 7:30 PM Jerusalem time (12:30 in New York). For those of you joining us virtually, Adam’s source sheet is available here and the original Syriac texts can be found here. The Google Hangout can be accessed here. And below you’ll be able find the video stream on YouTube. Questions can be asked either over Google Hangout or in the comments section.
The Talmud Blog Live: Adam Becker in Conversation with Ishay Rosen-Zvi on the Evil Inclination in Syriac Literature and its Implications for the Bavli
It has been quite some time since the virtual community known as the Talmud blog has gotten together. So we’re thrilled to announce yet another TalmudBlog “live” event, which will take place next Thursday, May 15 at 7:30 PM at Ohel Moshe 5, Jerusalem. We’ll be hosting Professor Adam Becker of New York University who will be talking on the Evil Inclination in Syriac and its implications for the Bavli, with a special focus on the fifth century Syriac writer Narsai, and his homilies on Lent. Professor Ishay Rosen-Zvi of Tel Aviv University, author of Demonic Desires: “Yetzer Hara” and the Problem of Evil in Late Antiquity, will be responding to the talk.
Reader’s interested in attending are strongly encouraged to RSVP either by emailing us (thetalmudblog [at] gmail [dot] com) or for those with facebook, preferably via the Facebook event page. For those who will not be able to make it, the talk will be streamed here on the Talmud Blog and on Google Hangout (add thetalmudblog [at] gmail [dot] com to your circles).
Given this blog’s general preference for piyyutim of the Qaliri, it seems like the approaching holiday of Passover would be an appropriate time to discuss the work of his predecessor (and according to some traditions, his teacher) Yannai. Thanks to the placement of his piyyut “קרב יום” in the Ashkenazic Haggadah, Yannai is perhaps the classic payytan most heavily associated with the holiday of Passover. Interestingly, despite the fact that it is now sung on Passover, Yannai did not write that piyyut for the holiday. Rather, it is part of a larger composition that the payytan wrote for the Palestinian Torah reading that started at Exodus 12:29, “ויהי בחצי הלילה.”
However, Yannai did compose a whole slew of piyyutim for the holiday of Passover itself: Rabinovitz’s edition of Yannai’s piyyutim includes two works written for Shacharit of the first day of the holiday; an additional two poems for Musaf or Aravit, which riff off of the Song of Songs; and another work written for the Sabbath of Chol haMoed. Here, I’d like to share some notes on his “first” composition for the first day of Passover.
1) The reading for the first day of Passover in the Palestinian tradition was the section beginning with “שור או כשב,” Lev. 22:27. For Yannai, this meant that he had to connect some relatively esoteric sacrificial laws- e.g., the need to wait until the animal’s eighth day before bringing it as a sacrifice, and the prohibition against sacrificing a parent and its offspring on the same day- with a discussion of the holiday at hand. Yannai manages to do so by culling nicknames from these verses as he “songifies” parts of the Exodus narrative, specifically the section on the plague of the first-born. In Yannai’s idiom, the Israelites become the “שְׁוֹמְרֵי מִצְוַות שׁוֹר וְכֶשֶֹב וְעֵז כִּי יִוֶלֵד” (line 5) and the “תְּמֵידֵי מִלִּשְׁחוֹט מוֹלִיד וְנוֹלָד בְּיוֹם אֶחָד” (line 18).
Similarly, we read lines like the following (6): “זַעַם נָגוֹף שַׁתָּה לְעוֹבְדֵי לִבְהֵמָה // חֶמְלַת רָפוֹא שַׁתָּה בְּעוֹבְדֵי בִּבְהֵמָה”; those who worship animals- that is, the Egyptians- were killed, while those worship through animals were saved. A similar tactic is used by Yannai in his composition for the first day of Rosh haShanah, when the same Torah portion was read. There, Yannai hopes that just as God accepts animals after their eighth day, so too will he accept those who are circumcised on the eighth day (pg. 202, line 6): “כְּבַשְׁמִינִי וְהָלְאָה יֵירָצֶה // לַחֲתוּמֵי בְרִית הַיּוֹם תְּרַצֶּה.”
2) Stronger parallels can be found in Yannai’s aforementioned “ויהי בחצי הלילה.” At lines 5 and 15 of the Passover version of “שור או כשב”, Yannai builds off a midrash according to which the sons killed during the plague of the first-born son included also those who were not-yet-born:
Yannai’s language in “ויהי בחצי הלילה” is extremely similar (14): “פְּגָרִים מֵתִים לָמוֹ עָשִֹיתָ // צוּרַת כָּל בְּכוֹר גַּם בְּמֵעֵיהֶם לֹא חַסְת.” In a note, Rabinovitz references the earliest extant midrash that contains such a theme- the Tanhumic section of Exodus Rabbah, written at least a few hundred years after Yannai:
.ומהו שאמ’ “לנגוף”? מלמד שאף המעוברות שהיו ראויות לילד הפילו ומתו האמהות; והמשחית יצא וחבל כל מה שמצא ואין נגוף אלא עוברות, שנאמ’ ונגפו אשה הרה ויצאו ילדיה
The midrash connects the root “נג”פ” used in Exodus 12:23 with the use of the root in 21:22 in order to make the plague even harsher. Still, what we find in Yannai is a bit different. Unlike the midrash, Yannai doesn’t discuss the mothers of the first-born, nor does he get into the complicated question of “Who Brought the Plague of the Firstborn?”
3) As an exegete, Yannai looked for a way to rationalize the harshness of the tenth plague. Rabinovitz terms Yannai’s reasoning as “measure-for-measure,” according to which the Egyptian killing of the Israelite children justified the killing of the Egyptian offspring (14): “שַֹמוּ לְמוֹלִידִים תַּחַת אֲבָנִים // עוֹד לַיְאוֹר הִשְלִיכוּ וַולדֵי בָנִים.”
While this reasoning seems most natural, one would be hard-pressed to find it used by the rabbis. Louis Feldman, in an article comparing the rationale for the tenth plague offered by the rabbis and others, cites a rabbinic tradition from the fifth-century Pesiqta de-Rab Kahana according to which the first-born Egyptians killed some 600,000 of their own in response to Pharaoh’s refusal to release the Israelites and avert their deaths. This seems to be one of the few “justifications” for the deaths of the first-born found in the early rabbinic corpus, and it doesn’t really even seek to do that explicitly. Tellingly, the rabbinic traditions surrounding the tenth plague actually do more of the opposite, enlarging the number of those killed and creating an image of God as more powerful. Adding to those mentioned by the Torah, the rabbis include: first-born daughters, first-born children of second marriages and of illegitimate relationships (one is reminded of Abdu, the protagonist of an early Etgar Keret story…), the oldest of every family regardless of whether or not he or she was born first, the first-born children of non-Egyptians living in Egypt- even first-born children who were already dead.
זרק אין הוא / בנהרה מיינוקייה
[חשבן אחשב עמיה / במה דחשב [..ייה
טירנוס אין הוא / על כל בנייה
יתיב משעבד להון / בטינה ובליבנה
כל בכוריו אתקטל / בפלגות לילייה
If he throws \ the children in the river
I will reckon with him \ like he reckoned with the [bo]ys
If he is tyranical \ with all of the boys
As he sits and enslaves them \ with bricks and mortar
All of his first-born I will kill \ in the middle of the night
The rabbis, Yannai, and the anonymous author of this Aramaic poem all view the tenth plague more as a punishment for the Egyptians than as a way of convincing Pharaoh to free the Israelites. Yet unlike the rabbis, the poets rationalize the punishment by showing how it was met out measure-for-measure. It is worth highlighting how the Aramaic poem goes as far as depicting God as not necessarily even wanting to punish the Egyptians in such a manner: God says that he will punish the Egyptians if (“אין”) Pharaoh throws the children in the river.
[Also in Aramaic, the Syriac church father Ephrem used an imagery that similarly rationalized the harshness of the punishment in his commentary to Exodus, ad loc: “ܕܐܬܡܠܝ ܢܗܪܐ ܒܘܟܪ̈ܝ ܥܒܪ̈ܝܬܐܼ܂ ܐܬܡܠܝܘ ܩܒܪܝ ܡܨܪ̈ܝܐ ܡܢ ܒܘܟܪ̈ܐ ܕܡܨܪ̈ܝܬܐ”- “Just as the river had been filled with the firstborn of the Hebrew women, Egyptian tombs were filled with the firstborn of the Egyptian women.”]
4) Lastly, so as not to end on such a dismal note, here’s my favorite rendition of Yannai’s “קרב יום,” featuring the hassidic serenades of a somewhat distant side-curled relative of mine:
Some new sites have gone up over the past couple of weeks that might be of use to our readers.
The first, brought to our attention by Talmud Blog reader and commentor Zohar, is the Israel National Library’s new website of Rabbinic Manuscripts. This site replaces the old one (www.jnul.huji.ac.il/dl/talmud) with a new interface and- perhaps most importantly- the Leiden manuscript of the Yerushalmi, browasable by the pagination of the Venice edition.
The site is still in beta version and they are looking for feedback. Feel free to leave your thoughts on the interface here in the comments section and we’ll make sure to pass them on to the library. Personally, I would prefer an option to search the Yerushalmi by chapter and halakha, and also that they list the folio numbers of the manuscripts. Regardless, users should be aware that much higher quality images of the Leiden manuscript are availble on the website of its home library (easily accesable here). The only problems with that site is that it’s hard to navigate and the pictues take a long time to load- ideally one could find the folio that she needs using the NLI interface, and then just open up the bigger picture on the Leiden site if need be. Also, for manuscripts with wide lines (like Leiden), the viewing window is relatively small. [The site still isn’t linked to that of the Munich library, whose manuscripts can be accesed from there or via the NLI catalog].
The Syriacists over at Harvard’s Dumbarton Oaks research institute have compiled a useful site: “Resources for Syriac Studies– an annotated collection of free and open source books, journals, and more related to the study of Syriac.” Kishmo kein hu– the site lists and describes dozens of PDFs of books available for free online that relate to all aspects of Syriac. I haven’t gone through everything yet, but it seems like they did quite a good job of finding all that’s out there. Many of these items should be of interest to Talmudists, from those who are just getting interested in Syriac (for whom I’d suggest starting with Brock’s A Brief Outline of Syriac Literature), and to those who already turn to Syriac frequently (see R. Payne Smith’s Thesaurus Syriacus).
We’ll be back to blogging as usual, although the discussion of Demonic Desires will continue. Stay tuned for Ishay’s response and for announcements regarding the next Book Club.
A group of mainly British scholars have started to put together an online resource for the teaching and study of Jewish/Non-Jewish Relations. From the announcement:
The complex relationship between Jews and non-Jews lies at the heart of teaching Jewish Studies at university level. A new online teaching resource provides access to a broad range of primary sources and high-quality commentaries by experts in the field, addressing the perceived lack of an easily accessible body of sources, which specifically deal with relations between Jews and non-Jews from a historical and contemporary perspective.