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Don’t Debate a Rabbi Unless You’re Serious

Michael Bird and I have similar tastes in stories from the Talmud, as this has long been one of my favorites as well:

It has been taught: On that day R. Eliezer brought forward every imaginable argument for his teaching about the cleanness of ovens made with sand, but the other rabbis did not accept his teaching. So R. Eliezer said: ‘If the halakhah agrees with me, let this carob tree prove it!’ And immediately the carob tree was uprooted and thrown a hundred yards out of its place – some said it was thrown four hundred yards! But the other rabbis retorted: ‘No proof can be brought from a carob tree.’

So R. Eliezer said to them: ‘If the halakhah agrees with me, let this stream of water prove it!’ And immediately the stream of water began to flow backwards. But the other rabbis retorted, ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water.’

Again R. Eliezer said to them: ‘If the halakhah agrees with me, let the walls of the school house prove it.’ And immediately the walls of the house began to bow and bend inwards. But R. Joshua rebuked the walls saying: ‘When scholars are engaged in a halakhic dispute, what right have you to interfere!’ And so out of respect for R. Joshua the walls did not fall, but they did not resume to being completely upright either out of respect for R. Eliezer.

Again R. Eliezer said to them: ‘If the halakhah agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ And immediately a heavenly voice cried out: ‘Why do you argue with R. Eliezer since the halakhah agrees with him in all matters!’ But R. Joshua stood up and quoted Scripture: ‘It is not in heaven’ (Deut 30.12). What did R. Joshua mean by saying this? According to R. Jeremiah: Since the Torah had been given at Mount Sinai, we pay no attention to a heavenly voice, because G-d has long since written in the Torah at Mount Sinai, ‘One must follow the majority’ (Exod 23.2).

Later R. Nathan met Elijah and he asked Elijah: ‘What did the Holy One, Blessed be He, do in that hour when R. Joshua challenged the heavenly voice?’ According to Elijah, G-d laughed with joy and he replied, saying, ‘My sons have defeated Me, My sons have defeated Me.’ On that day all the objects which R. Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burnt in fire. The rabbis then took a vote and excommunicated him. (b.Baba Mezia 59b, slightly paraphrased).

What If?

You may or may not be eager to delve into the ritual details of the Jewish Day of Atonement, but Adam Kirsh’s latest blog at the Tablet offers an important insight into what the Talmud is all about generally. In “What Happens When the Talmud Asks, ‘What If?’” Kirsh highlights something about how the early rabbis used hypothetical situations to probe the essence of things. He writes,

Throughout the Talmud’s description of the Yom Kippur ceremony—the ongoing subject of Tractate Yoma—the rabbis have displayed what might seem like an excessive concern for what might go wrong. In the whole history of the Temple, for instance, it seems unlikely that a single high priest died during the performance of his duties in the Holy of Holies. But the Talmud worries repeatedly about what to do if this should happen. Such attention to unlikely or purely hypothetical cases is highly characteristic of the Talmud, and it can make the reader impatient: Why did the rabbis bother with such remote, academic speculations?

I’ve found it useful, in the course of reading Daf Yomi, to think of these kinds of questions as the rabbis’ indirect way of asking about definitions and essences. In laying down the Shabbat laws, for instance, one rabbi asks whether transporting saliva in one’s mouth is considered “carrying,” in which case one would have to spit it out every few paces. The point of the question, it seems to me, is not whether a Jew should go around spitting all the time, but exactly how to define a substance: Is matter within the body a separate entity, or part of the body itself? This kind of speculation about substances and their qualities was central to classical and medieval thought, including Jewish thought. Because Jewish law deals with everyday matters, it produces a kind of everyday metaphysics.

It’s a really enlightening read.

Fairies in the Bible?

Joel Hoffman is blogging today about unicorns and other mythological creatures in the Bible—or at least in the King James Version. As he usually does, Dr. Hoffman raises an intriguing question about how the original Hebrew words the KJV rendered as “dragon,” “unicorn,” and so forth should be handled. Did the original writers intend their readers to understand these as real-world creatures (e.g., as serpents, rhinoceroses, etc.) or did they mean to depict creatures of fantasy? He writes,

More generally, I think the real translation question with all of these creatures is whether they were intended to be mythic or — for want of a better word — real.

Even if they were intended to be real, “dragon” and “unicorn” may have been right once. It seems that people thought that both existed. (As late as the 17th century, scholars in Europe argued that griffins were real, and the only reason we didn’t see them was that, quite naturally, these magnificent creatures tended to stay away from people who would steal their gold). But now those translations wrongly take the real and turn them into fantasy.

On the other hand, if they were not meant to be real, then attempts to identify the exact species may be misguided, and maybe we should stick with “dragon” and “unicorn” and so forth.

Hoffman deals mainly with “unicorns” (re’em) and “dragons” (tannin), although he makes passing reference to a possible merperson in the character of Dagon, the god of the Philistines.

Along these same lines, I would suggest that there are a handful of possible reference to fairies in the Bible—at least if the rabbis of the medieval period were interpreting these passages rightly.

Two Hebrew words are of interest: shedim and se’irim, both translated daimonia (“demons”) in the Septuagint. Shedim only appear twice in the Hebrew Bible, both times in the plural (although the singular form would be shed). Psalm 106:37 says, “They sacrificed their own sons and daughters to demons!” (CEB). In a similar context, Deuteronomy 32:17 says,

They sacrificed to demons, not to God,
to deities of which
they had no knowledge—
new gods only recently on the scene,
ones about which your ancestors
had never heard.

Shedim are therefore obviously bad news in the Bible. Oddly enough, the term seems to be related to the Akkadian shedu, a benevolent or protective spirit, perhaps something we might think of as a guardian angel. Then again, people around the world have made offerings to various local protective spirits to secure their goodwill. The biblical writers were obviously interested in discouraging such a practice. Thus, in the Bible, they are depicted not as helpful minor spirits but as false gods to be avoided.

The next word is se’irim (singular se’ir), meaning “hairy beings” or “shaggy beings.” In the KJV, the word is translated “satyrs.” There are a few more references to se’irim than there are to shedim. According to Leviticus 17:7, “The Israelites must no longer sacrifice their communal sacrifices to the goat demons that they follow so faithlessly. This will be a permanent rule for them throughout their future generations.” The LXX renders se’irim as mataiois, “to empty or vain things.”

Se’irim dwell in the desolate wilderness and are apparently fond of dancing. According to Isaiah 13:21,

Wildcats will rest there;
houses will be filled with owls.
Ostriches will live there,
and goat demons (LXX, daimonia) will dance there.

And again in Isaiah 34:14:

Wildcats will meet hyenas,
the goat demon will call to his friends,
and there Lilith will lurk
and find her resting place.

I saw you wondering about Lilith in that verse. We’ll come back to her in a minute. It should be noted, that the Septuagint translation removes Lilith from the picture but possibly gives us a completely new mythological creature. My fairly wooden translation of the Greek is as follows:

Demons will meet onocentaurs
and they will shout one to the other,
There onocentaurs will rest
for they found a resting place for themselves.

If you’re not up to speed on medieval bestiaries, let me quickly explain that an onocentaur is part man, part ass. (And please refrain from any comments about half-ass blog posts. Thank you.)

According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, the se’irim are “are satyr-like demons, described as dancing in the wilderness…identical with the jinn of the Arabian woods and deserts.” Azazel, the goat-like wilderness demon (Lev 16:10ff) and Lilith (whom we already encountered in Isa 34:14) are said to be of the same class of beings. Further, it should be noted that some see in Lilith a prototype for later vampire legends. The Jewish Encyclopedia also raises the possibility that “the roes and hinds of the field” (gazelles and wild deer in the CEB) in Song of Songs 2:7 and 3:5 are “faunlike spirits similar to the se’irim, though of a harmless nature.”

How does all this apply to fairies? Thomas Keightley argued in The Fairy Mythology (1870)  that the prototypes of European fairy legends were to be found not only in the nymphs and satyrs of Greco-Roman mythology but also in Near Eastern stories of jinns and peris (or jinn and parian, to use the correct Arabic and Persian plurals). He even argued  that our English word “fairy” derives ultimately from Persian pari (or peri). This linguistic argument may or may not hold, but anyone who looks at Persian peri-stories will find many parallels to what was believed about fairies in rural Europe until fairly recent times.

If Keightley is correct, then the European conception of fairies owes a good deal to the Mediterranean and Near Eastern world(s) in which the Bible was written. It therefore would not be unusual to find references to the such creatures in biblical and other early Semitic materials.

After tracing the fairy mythology throughout northern Europe, Keightley makes quick reference to Jewish legends about similar creatures found in the rabbinic corpus. These beings are in fact called shedim and seirim (although Keightley transliterates them shedeem and shehireem). Another term, maziqin (or mazikeen in Keightley’s transliteration), is Aramaic and applies specifically to a malevolent spirit. According to rabbinic tradition, all these beings are in fact directly analogous to the jinn of Arabic folklore. Keightley writes,

It has long been an established article of belief among the Jews that there is a species of beings which they call Shedeem, Shehireem, or Mazikeen. These beings exactly correspond to the Arabian Jinn; and the Jews hold that it is by means of them that all acts of magic and enchantment are performed.

The Talmud says that the Shedeem were the offspring of Adam. After he had eaten of the Tree of life, Adam was excommunicated for one hundred and thirty years. “In all those years,” saith Rabbi Jeremiah Ben E’liezar, “during which Adam was under excommunication, he begat spirits, demons, and spectres of the night, as it is written, ‘Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and begat children in his likeness and in his image,’ which teaches, that till that time he bad not begotten them in his own likeness.” In Berasbith Rabba, R. Simon says, “During all the one hundred and thirty years that Adam was separate from Eve, male spirits lay with her, and she bare by them, and female spirits lay with Adam, and bare by him.”

These Shedeem or Mazikeen are held to resemble the angels in three things. They can see and not be seen; they have wings and can fly; they know the future. In three respects they resemble mankind: they eat and drink; they marry and have children; they are subject to death. It may be added, they have the power of assuming any form they please; and so the agreement between them and the Jinn of the Arabs is complete.

Keightley shares three Jewish legends about the shedim: “The Broken Oaths,” “The Moohel,” and “The Mazik-Ass.”

As with dragons and unicorns, there are probably some who will pounce on “rational” or “scientific” explanations for fairies. Some do, in fact, attribute European fairy-lore to dim memories of diminutive tribes driven underground—and ultimately to extinction—by later invaders with the advantage of iron weapons (in both Europe and the Middle East, iron is a potent weapon against the Fair Folk).

In my experience, however, I think most interpreters would see shedim and se’irim as terms intended to describe supernatural or otherworldly beings and not merely misidentified pygmies or “wild men”—whether or not they judge such creatures to be “real.”

What Do You Get When You Cross the Talmud with a Spreadsheet?

Some interesting numbers on the frequency of biblical citations in the Talmud, which Michael Satlow is presently at a loss to adequately explain.

As I slowly gain more familiarity with the many extraordinary but poorly documented powers of Excel, I’ve just begun to analyze this data.  Here are a couple of preliminary observations:

1.  The Bavli cites somewhere in the neighborhood of 5900 discrete verses of the Hebrew Bible.  The Hebrew Bible contains approximately 23,700 discrete verses.  That equates to about 25% of the Bible; meaning, of course, that 75% of the Bible is never cited.  It is worth noting that 3,295 verses are cited only a single time in the Bavli.  I am not yet sure what to make of this – one next step is to analyze the density of citations by biblical book.  Does the Bavli prefer citing from certain books, especially when the size of the book is also taken into account.

2.  The seven most-cited verses (with NRSV translations, and some surrounding material added for context) are: [probably not what you’d expect]

(H/T: Jim Davila)

Rabbinic Awesomeness

Web Yeshiva has links to a cornucopia of rabbinic texts (Hebrew and English): Mishnah, Talmud, Midrash, etc.

(H/T: James McGrath)

Wise Women 2: Mediators


Israel’s wise women held authority. The very use of the title “wise woman” without any further identifying comment in 2 Samuel 14 and 20 suggests that this was a familiar role at least to the original hearers of the stories (Claudia V. Camp, “The Female Sage in Ancient Israel and in the Biblical Wisdom Literature,” The Sage in Israel and the Ancient Near East, ed. John G. Gammie and Leo G. Perdue [Eisenbrauns, 1990] 187).

Wise women in the mold of the women of Tekoa and Abel provide clear evidence of what might be called tribal or family wisdom. At the same time, their words and deeds suggest there is no absolute distinction between the tribal wisdom of the patriarch or matriarch and the courtly wisdom of the royal sage or diplomat. Camp notes that “[W]e must be alert to inter- and intra-tribal negotiation and conflict as possible Sitze im Leben for specific sapiential genres” (Camp, 188-89).

Deborah is clearly an authoritative figure in the same tradition. She was both a prophetess and a judge, and “tribal negotiation” seems to be an important aspect of her leadership. According to Judges 4:5, “She used to sit under the palm of Deborah between Ramah and Bethel in the hill country of Ephraim; and the Israelites came up to her for judgment.”

Furthermore, these stories depict women whose roles overlap with those of other Israelite leaders. The dramatic subterfuge of the wise woman of Tekoa has obvious parallels with the prophet Nathan’s parable of the ewe lamb (2 Sam 12). The verbal diplomatic tactics of the wise woman of Abel “are identical to those used by military leaders in three different incidents (2 Sam 2:18-23, 24-28; 2 Kgs 18:17-36).” To this we must add Deborah arbitrating disputes as well as her military involvement in recruiting Barak to lead Israel’s resistance to King Jabin of Hazor and even accompanying the troops into battle (Jdg 4). As Camp states, “These women, especially she of Abel, seem to be doing what we would expect elders to do, in particular, representing their people in national political-military situations” (Camp 189).

Wise women speak with authority. Indeed, their words are often their most powerful tool. The wise woman of Tekoa told the tale that Joab prompted her (2 Sam 14:1-12), but her accusing rhetorical question in 14:3 reveals one who seems accustomed to delivering this kind of rebuke—even to a king! Similarly, the wise woman of Abel is confident in her authority. The rebel, Sheba, has taken up residence in her city. David’s general, Joab, is conducting a siege. The wise woman negotiates with Joab, promising to hand over Sheba in return for Joab’s peaceful withdrawal. But she doesn’t tell Joab that she will consult with the (male) elders and get back with him. On the contrary, she boldly promises, “His head shall be thrown over the wall to you” (2 Sam 20:21). Then she goes to the people and convinces them of her “wise plan” (v. 22) (see Athalya Brenner and Fokkelien Van Dijk-Hemmes, On Gendering Texts: Female and Male Voices in the Hebrew Bible [Brill, 1996] 50).

Conflict Resolution

What is the nature of wise women’s leadership? Several scholars have suggested that wise women primarily lead out of their roles as mediators. After surveying the functions of wise women in ancient Anatolia, Michael S. Moore concludes

[T]he Anatolian wise woman enacts many roles for many reasons, but fundamentally she is a mediator, a culturally recognized expert in the art of conflict resolution. Behind all the rituals, incantation, and divinations, the reason that kings and commoners come to her is their fundamental need to resolve disputes with warring enemies. (“‘Wise Women’ or Wisdom Woman? A Biblical Study of Women’s Roles,” Restoration Quarterly 35/3 [1993] 152)

This observation is in perfect harmony with what has already been noted about the importance of wise women in tribal negotiations and conflict resolution. In fact, several of the Bible’s wise women undertake a mediatorial role. Joab calls upon the wise woman of Tekoa to attempt to mediate the conflict between David and his rebellious son Absalom. Perceiving that this family rift has the potential to paralyze the entire nation, he does what other ancient leaders might do in such a crisis: he calls for a wise woman to help resolve the conflict (Moore, 153). We might easily imagine Deborah rendering similar services, although we never see her “in action” in this capacity in the book of Judges.

Often the wise woman’s mediation has the effect of protecting her family or community from outside threats. The wise woman of Abel manages to negotiate an end to a siege of her city by bargaining with Joab for the head of the rebel, Sheba. It should also be noted that nothing is said about the fate of Sheba’s followers. Are we to infer that the wise woman somehow won them a pardon in exchange for handing over their leader?

A further example of this theme is Abigail (1 Sam 25). Though never called a “wise woman,” she is “clever” (literally, “good of understanding,” v. 3) and has “good sense” (or “discernment,” v. 33). Like the wise woman of Abel, she takes on the role of “wise mediator” between David and her husband, Nabal. Though the story doesn’t end well for Nabal, Abigail’s initiative positions her to enjoy a favorable personal outcome.

Also to be considered are the daughters of Zelophehad (Num 27), hailed as “wise women” by later rabbis. The Talmud states,

It was taught: The daughters of Zelophehad were wise women, they were exegetes, they were virtuous.

They [must] have been wise, since they spoke at an opportune moment; for R. Samuel son of R. Isaac said: [Scripture] teaches that Moses our master was sitting and holding forth an exposition on the section of levirate marriages, as it is said, If brethren dwell together. They said unto him: “If we are [to he as good] as son[s], give us an inheritance as [to] a son; if not, let our mother be subject to the law of levirate marriage!” And Moses, immediately. brought their cause before the Lord.

They [must] have been exegetes, for they said: “If he had a son we would not have spoken.” But was it not taught: “a daughter”? — R. Jeremiah said: Delete, “daughter” from here. Abaye said: [The explanation is that they said]: “Even if a son [of his] had a daughter, we would not have spoken.”

They were virtuous, since they were married to such men only as were worthy of them. (Baba Batra 119b)

In other words, the daughters of Zelophehad fulfill a mediatorial or intercessory role on their own behalf and on behalf of their deceased father. Like the wise woman of Abel, they “speak at an opportune time” for the sake of their father and his legacy. Like Deborah, they are competent jurists with astute legal prowess.


Wise women did not merely serve as mediators between individuals, families, and tribes. They also often served as “go-betweens” at the crossroads of life. In the ancient world wise women were present at most rites of passage. People also called upon them in times of crisis, plague, war, illness, and calamity. They are thus associated with liminal or “threshold” moments, the transition points between past and future states where the normal order of things is upended and spiritual, creative possibilities impinge upon the ordinary world.

Preindustrial peoples were acutely aware of the spiritual potentials and dangers of such times. For that reason, they consistently and universally marked the natural turning points of life—birth, death, marriage, puberty, etc.—with rituals of passage. These rituals continue to exist in many conservative cultures throughout the world. Whether the “official” theology or ecclesiology endorses them is irrelevant. Women in particular seem to take on an important role during these crises of life.

Thus (to foreshadow a theme I’ll take up in later posts) the avowedly Christian inhabitants of rural Appalachia continue to practice a “folk religion” that involves a body of lore about good luck, romance and marriage, healing, and protection from malevolent forces. It is naïve to assume that such was not also often the case in ancient Israel.

One particular liminal moment at which wise women seem to have present is the birth of a child, a topic I’ll address in my next post.