On Tuesday, the fifth of Nisan, 1843, in the town of Boisk, a little way outside of Riga, the Hevrat Aggadeta, a society for the study of talmudic legends, had a party:
We rejoiced in the joy of the commandment [simcha shel mitzvah] that God had helped us to study and to teach and to finish the Aggadeta . . . We celebrated for two whole days. On Tuesday we finished . . . and we made a party, a joyous occasion and a festival day. We invited 123 guests, not counting the musicians and the 15 waiters. There were four fancy courses, and [there was so much food that] every plate had at least a little left over, so that if a man hadn’t eaten in three days he would have been satisfied and full . . . Our joy was an exceedingly great one in the joyousness of the mitzvah. We poured the wine like it was water—some pouring it down their throats and others on the floor.
Then, like Chuck Berry, they decided to do it again:
On Wednesday, we began anew the study of the Aggadeta, and we took upon ourselves the obligation to learn and to teach the books of the Ein Ya’akov. So we made another great feast to rejoice yet again in the joy of the mitzvah. And all the people made merry with trumpets and fiddles, and the earth split with the noise. And the people who stood outside and saw our joyousness envied us the joy of the mitzvah.
This passage crossed my mind as we were wrapping up our 5th Anniversary conference and celebration at the Yeshiva University Museum a couple of months ago. A great, edifying time was had by all—and we will certainly do something like it again soon—but we did not party like it was 1843 in Boisk. Then again, who does?
I teach at a liberal arts college, and I’ve never seen a Bloomsday at which undergrads gloried like this in the completion of Ulysses. The difference, of course, is in that recurring phrase simcha shel mitzvah, the joy of the commandment, but the boisterous, bodily joy these Boiskers took in fulfilling the commandment to study Torah is still surprising, and that may have something to do with the Torah they chose to study. To be brief, it was the lore, not the law. In fact, it is easy to imagine that the envious people “who stood outside and saw our joyousness,” were actually talmudic elitists, who looked down upon their elation at having finished a bunch of stories. “Well, we showed them what real simcha shel mitzvah was,” one imagines the members of the society saying.
The work that the members of the Hevrat Aggadeta rejoiced in concluding and committed themselves to re-reading is a curious set of books. In the early 1500s a scholar named Ya’akov ibn Habib, who had been expelled from Spain in 1492 and then from Portugal five years later, found himself in the Ottoman city of Salonica with access to the great library of the famous Benveniste family and had a radical literary idea. The Babylonian Talmud had often been stripped, in one way or another, of its anecdotes, legends, myths, folk wisdom, jokes, and sermons, leaving only the halakha, the law unadorned. This is what Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi had done in his classic Sefer ha-Halakhot, which was the basis for all of the halakhic codes of the Middle Ages. What if one did precisely the opposite and kept only the aggada?
In her excellent, recent study of Ibn Habib, Marjorie Lehman argues that he intended his Ein Ya’akov (Well of Jacob) to be a source of religious faith for a community that needed it after years of forced conversions (including that of his son) and exile. Lehman makes a strong case for the project as an attempt to bolster the faith of a traumatized Sephardic community. But I wouldn’t underestimate aesthetic joy as a motive for the collection.
The bitterness of exile and the bright glitter of literary beauty come together in the brilliant first lines of Ibn Habib’s introduction. All of the midrashim, he says, are lost, “scattered” about the Talmud, where they shine like stars in a luminous firmament. The Ein Ya’akov, then, is a kind of literary ingathering, beginning with Rabban Gamliel waiting impatiently for sons to get back from a late-night party through everything from the famous stories of Rabbi Akiva’s marriage and Elisha ben Abuya’s apostasy to Pinchas ben Yair’s remarkable donkey, God’s comportment in the heavenly academy, and on and on, until it closes with a mishnah, in which Rabbi Yehoshua ben Levi promises the righteous “310 worlds” in the afterlife, based on a fanciful reading of a verse in Proverbs.
Some 50 years after the Hevrat Aggadeta’s big party, a young Abraham Isaac Kook took the job as the rabbi of Boisk. He had studied at the yeshiva of Volozhin, where there was a controversy between those who thought that the curriculum should be largely devoted to the study of the Talmud in its legal, halakhic aspect and those who wanted to supplement such study with an intense regimen of spiritual self-reflection (or even castigation), known as mussar. I don’t know if the Hevrat Aggadeta was still active in the 1890s, but in Boisk Rav Kook began writing a commentary to the Ein Ya’akov. Yehudah Mirsky, his leading biographer, describes it as an attempt to show that the religious life was neither entirely a matter of halakha, nor a perpetual battle with one’s evil inclination, but rather “a lifelong effort at self-cultivation that would bring one’s morals . . . into alignment with the divine ethos” that structures the universe.
Of course, the reason that the Ein Ya’akov was so popular is because, whatever Ibn Habib’s intentions or Rav Kook’s interpretations, the carnival of its actual contents could never be contained under one tent, theological, ethical, or otherwise. Curiously, two of Rav Kook’s fellow alumni from Volozhin, Chaim Nachman Bialik and Micha Yosef Berdichevsky, self-consciously compiled modern rivals to the Ein Ya’akov, both of which also attempted to make the aggada tell, as it were, a single story. Bialik’s Sefer Ha-Aggada is elegant, classicizing, and compiled in the service of a secular-nationalist vision of Jewish tradition. Berdichevsky’s various translations and anthologies are a raucous, Nietzschean attempt to rewrite the tradition from its own suppressed sources. (In one text he recovered, creation begins with the flatulence of Leviathan.)
I ran across the description of the party in Boisk in Simha Assaf’s classic collection of primary sources on the history of Jewish education years ago. Assaf, who was a generation younger than Kook, was another Lithuanian prodigy who made aliyah. He eventually sat on the first Israeli Supreme Court as its halakhic expert. I once heard a story about his arrival in Palestine, though like most of the stories of talmudic sages, it’s probably apocryphal. Before Assaf went to present himself at one of the great yeshivot, a friend warned him not to boast that he knew “all of Shas,” that is the entire Talmud, so he told the rosh yeshiva that he knew “half of Shas.” “Which half?” the rosh yeshiva asked. “Which half do you want?” Assaf replied.
In Jacob & Esau: Jewish European History Between Nation and Empire, Malachi Haim Hacohen provides a dense but lucid account of how the history of this typology of sibling rivalry unfolded, first in the later books of the Bible and then, following the invention of a linkage between Edom and the Roman Empire, in rabbinic literature, and, finally, in later Jewish and Christian writings, down to modern times.
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