A Talmudic reading - Brachot 48a

Ok, as promised, some real Torah (at least I think so).
We start with the Gemara Brachot 48a, which relates the following narrative (my translation):

King Yannai and the Queen broke bread together. Since he had killed all of the Rabbis, there was nobody to lead the post-meal benediction.
He said to his wife, "would that we had someone to bless for us".
She said to him, "Swear to me that if I bring you someone, that you won't torment him!"
He swore.
She brought him her brother, Shimon ben Shetach.
He (Yannai) seated him (Shimon) between himself and his wife, and said to him, "You see how much honor we're giving you?"
He (Shimon) replied, "You are not honoring me; rather, the Torah is honoring me, as it is written, 'caress it and it will exalt you; it will honor you when you embrace it (Proverbs 4)'. "
He (Yannai) said, "I see that you don't recognize authority".
They gave Shimon a glass of wine to propose the blessing over.
He asked, "How shall I bless? Blessed is He from whom Yannai and his pals partook?" He drank that glass. They brought him another, and he proposed the blessing.

Ok, really weird story, right?
I think that this is the Talmud's version of a political cartoon; it uses a kernel of historical truth to satirize social phenomena. The following exposition is based on R' Kook's commentary on this passage in Eyn Ayah, his work on the non-legal sections of the Talmud, but I've adapted it and made it my own. Here goes:

The characters are real. King Yannai and his wife, Shlomzion or Alexandra Salome ruled in the first century BCE, and were part of the Hasmonean dynasty. He also really had a bone to pick with the Pharisees, or proto-Rabbis. Salome's brother, Shimon b. Shetach, a leading Pharisee, began some sort of grass-roots campaign for universal education and judicial reform which left a lasting mark on the emerging Rabbinic culture. That's the historical kernel of this narrative.

I operate under the assumption that this text was composed much later than the time in which the story is set. This for several reasons:
1) in general that's how Talmudic narrative operate
2) talking about 'Rabbis' is anachronistic at the time of Yannai.
3) The Talmud itself, several lines after this narrative, assumes that any Halakhic implications of the story are purely coincidental not to be taken seriously. although the Bach emends the text because he's troubled by the Talmud's blatant disregard of one of Shimon b. Shetach's halakhic position, the thrust of the sugya and the understanding of the rishonim indicates that they were not troubled by this. v'acamo"l.

I also operate under the assumption that once the surface meaning of the Talmudic passage in sufficiently clarified, it is legitimate to attempt to discover new and even contemporary meanings within the texts, and that any number of literary techniques can be brought to bear on the sugya. R' Kook elaborates on this in his intro to eyn Ayah. A great read if you're supremely confident in your Hebrew skills, v'acamo"l.

Ok, then, so what exactly is going on in this narrative?

The opening image is almost comical. King and Queen dining (breaking bread) together w/ their whole entourage, and all of a sudden, OOPS! Nobody to lead bentching! Too bad we offed the Rabbis. Darn!

This is an exaggeration of an all too common phenomenon. People complain about the Rabbi, talk behind his back, spread rumors, etc., etc. Ultimately, he may lose his job over it. for a few months there's usually a 'ding-dong the witch is dead' kind of attitude. no speeches. we're free to talk during davening and all kinds of other more or less mild forms of prikas ol. in fact, rashi here mentions that yannai had the rabbis killed because they had cast doubt upon his lineage with ramifications for whom he can and can't marry. the gall! the rabbis telling me how to run my life! i'll show them! but all of a sudden there's a bris or a bar mitzvah or r"l a funeral, and "hey where's the rabbi?"

"breaking bread" is the quintessential mundane act (chayei sha'ah). this is borne out in other talmudic passages, in the Torah itself ("man can not live by bread alone, rather by the word of God shall man live"), in contemporary culture (money = 'bread', 'breadwinner', 'bread and butter'), and let's face it, it makes sense.

so for Yannai, the non-religious jewish leader par exellence (i.e., the symbol of a non-religious Jewish leadership), everything's dandy as long as everybody's busy rendering unto caesar what is caesar's, going about their daily lives and business. who needs a rabbi during the week? thus, there are yannais big and small within the ranks of the lay leadership.

yannai can go about breaking his bread just fine, until he reaches a point where somehting's telling him that there's a moment here that calls for some type of religious expression, which he feels wholly unqualified to carry out. he's reflecting an attitude which is still prevalent. it's called "the shul that i don't daven in is orthodox". yannai knows where to go to scratch his religious itch. ok, there are moments in life that i need a rabbi, i'm going to go find a frum one.

this attitude is rampant in contemporary judaism. at the founding of the state of israel, one of the greatest mistakes that the religious community made was accepting jurisdiction over weddings and kashrut. they essentially conceded that there's a complete bifurcation of realms, of like. there's normal life of 'breaking bread' for which we have nop use for rabbis or religion, and then there are the times that we acknowledge a religious moment, for which we want as 'authentic' an experience as possible. the rabbi's got to be orthodox. for some reason, the more irrelevant the religious component is, the more 'authentic' it's perceived to be. for the sake of nostalgia, the 3 times in my life that i have a need for a rabbi, i want to make damn sure that he looks like he just stepped out of the 17th century. that's authentic. that's tradition. that's the type of thinking that our Gemara attributes to Yannai. unflattering to say the least! here's to all you balabatim who look to us rabbis to make you feel all warm and fuzzy and religious when it's convenient for you! to provide the sabbatical cherry atop your secular sundaes (pun intended)!

ok we last left yannai with this religious itch that he needs to scratch. so he negotiates with his wife to bring in her brother. shimon and shlomzion are smart enough to know that if there's ever a time to get a concession from a board led by the likes of yannai, it's right at the beginning. once he starts to take you for granted again, it's all over. forget any concessions, you're lucky to keep your job! get everything up front! contracts are important!

so yannai gives shimon the place of honor at the table. why? to demonstrate his esteem for shimon or to keep him on a short leash? perhaps a bit of both. with a big smile and a warm embrace for he public, nobody notices the knife you're holding to his ribs.

then our beloved king yannai turns to shimon and comments on the great honor that he has chosen to bestow upon him.

Shimon's response? get real. let's face it. you have a need. an itch. you brought me here to scratch it. it's not honor any more than you'd honor a prostitute by hiring her for a one-night stand. however - if i'm honored, i'm honored by the Torah. vos maint dos? the fact that yannai needs to fill some kind of religious void means that he needs to turn to someone who can authentically represent the Torah and its values and institutions. the fact that shimon is the address is a testament to shimon's capacity as an ambassador of the Torah, not of yannai's esteem for shimon. shimon is being brutally honest with yannai. let's call it what it is and dispense with the nonsense. it's tough to stare down a yannai like that.

yannai reacts by suggesting that shimon has no respect for authority. IRONY OF IRONIES! who has no respect for authority? who had to eradicate the one remaining balance on his power (the Hasmonean kings were preists as well; they usurped those two bases of power - kingship and preisthood - leaving the rabbis, heirs of the prophets, as the only other somewhat legitimate power base)? who refused to submit before the law? the problem with yannai is that he thinks he's doing shimon some kind of favor. look at the honor i give him, and he pays me back with this kind of ingratitude! boy, there are still a lot of yannais out there. rabbonim and mechanchim can work 100 hours a week and there will always be balabatim who feel like they're owed something because they didn't fire you or because they pay the bills.

until now, the relationship described between rabbinic and lay leadership, symbolized by yannai and shimon, is really pretty bad. the finale of this gemara gives direction for a possible solution.

so it's time for shimon to lead the mezuman and he can't. he hasn't eaten anything.
the institution of zimun is the antidote to the entire problem described above. zimun happens within a communal context. it is a communal obligation which only devolves upon an actual community. this community has come together for a ather mundane purpose- to eat. to fress. the obligation to be mezamen mandates that food not be the sole basis for this community. if we eat together as a group, then we have an obligation to pray togethr as a group, to learn together as a group. there are responsibilities that each individual has for his own betterment, and there are responsibilities that a community has as a whole, as a single entity.
furthermore, zimun rejects the thinking that life is divided in to the realms of God and caesar, of religious and secular, or spiritual and material. it's all one. if there's no bread there's no torah, and if there's no torah, there's no bread. a communal meal without torah is pagan. it divorces God from our everyday existence.

In light of the earlier part of this narrative, shimon's message is loud and clear. a rabbi is not a functionary. he's not someone who services our needs on weekends. he's not a temple prostitute. rabbinic leadership means that the rabbi can't be providing guidance and leadership from the 'outside', as a consultant on religious matters. he must be part of the community in the fullest sense. he must be part 'balabos'. this is shimon's question - how can i lead this community spiritually if i'm not part of it materially? takka - a good kasha. he must partake before he can lead.



Anonymous said...

interesting read on an interseting story
agreed that this piece can't be taken too historically (as with many of the "historical" aggadot)
though this story certainly deals with lay leaderships attitudes towards the rabbanim, there are certain questionalbe statements regarding the rabbis' views of the world of the ba'ali battim.
i recently gave a shiur to the teachers in my school comparing the tefila of r' nechunia ben ha-kaneh (bekinssa uvyitizia mibeit hamidrash) and the tefilla of hachmei yavneh in brachot 19a (?) of mah ani briya af hen briya (see rav kook there too for a real breath of fresh air of how the ivory tower must LEARN from those on the outside)
anyway, so the fault lies on both sides, but you already pointed that out...
...as you did with most things i would say five minutes after you had already figured them out...
... a one time hevruta (and fellow israeli rabbinate dude) mi-tel-talpiot

ADDeRabbi said...

thanks for the comments, ace (it's you?)
gemara w/ RShb"i on brachot 33b-34a can be very instructive about the 'ivory tower' phenomenon as well.
perhaps around lag b'omer would be a good time to write it up.