Wednesday, November 26, 2008

An ass walks into a bar and orders a glass of wine

I spent many hours of my childhood learning with my grandfather. He was a very precise person , and did everything he could to counter my childish tendency to accept generality and 'basically getting the gist,' whether in terms of pronunciation, phrasing or translation. All three were very much neglected in my formal education, and he posed a frustrating but valuable counterweight. He always used to say that you have to pay attention to where the חמר is. Is it in the barn or in a barrel?*

Midrash Kohelles Rabbah i. iv

חנינא בן אחי ר' יהושע אזל להדיה כפר נחום ועבדון ליה מינאי מלה ועלון יתיה רכיב חמרא בשבתא, אזל לגביה יהושע חביביה ויהב עלוי משח ואיתסי, א"ל כיון דאיתער בך חמרא דההוא רשיעא לית את יכיל שרי בארעא דישראל, נחת ליה מן תמן לבבל ודמך תמן בשלמיה

As another illustration we quote the following from Midrash Koheleth on Ecclesiastes i 8 Rabbi Hanina nephew of Rabbi Joshua went to Capernaum and the Christians bewitched him and made him ride into the town on an ass upon the Sabbath When he returned to his uncle Rabbi Joshua gave him an unguent which healed him from the bewitchment But Joshua said to him Since you have heard the braying of the ass of that wicked one you can no longer remain on the soil of Israel Hanina went down to Babylon and there died in peace Farrar who quotes this story in Expositor Vol VI 1877 p

I found this footnote here, a publication from 1910 called The Monist, a Quarterly Magazine Devoted to the Philosophy of Science, Vol. XX..

The footnote continues, and it's amazing:

peace quotes story p 423 says The expression the ass of the wicked one is only too plainly and sadly an illusion to the ass ridden by our Lord in his triumphal entry into Jerusalem and the suppression of the name Jesus is in accordance with the practice of only mentioning Him in an oblique and cryptographic manner Lowe Fragment of the Talmud Babli Cambridge 1879 p 71 translated for ass wine in the Talmud both words are expressed the same and thinks that the Christians intoxicated him with the wine of the agapai which they seem to have celebrated on Friday night More probable perhaps is the meaning of Delitzsch Em Tag in Capernaum Leipsic 1873 p 25 who says that the ass of that wicked refers to the foolish preaching of the crucified

In other words, Lowe saw the חמרא--which חנינא was riding, no less (רכיב חמרא)--and put it in the barrel, or in the wine goblet as the case may be. Wow!

Unfortunately not every dusty old tome is online in digital form (yet) and I don't have any scheduled appearances in a great library for a little while, so I did not get the chance to see what exactly William Henry Lowe's The Fragment of Talmud Babli Pesachim: Of the Ninth Or Tenth Century in the University Library, Cambridge says. So I'm taking the Monist's word for it (for now).

What of W.H. Lowe? He is quoted in this very book in JQR vol. xiii, 1901 The Talmud in History by Abram Isaacs of NYU:

one of a number of Christian scholars in England can exclaim in editing a fragment of the Talmud The Talmud is a closed book to those who are content to skim the scum which rises to the surface of its troubled water Closed doubly closed is it to those who come
with a blind hatred of Judaism and whose chief delight it is to cry impious Jew I foolish rabbi when its

That is, he was a friend of the Talmud. Just not necessarily one who allowed his love of חידוש to get in the way of common sense.

* Thinking about it, this doesn't sound like the sort of quip that is original. I wonder, if it is not original, when and from whom did he hear it?

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