Sunday, August 11, 2013

How Many Jews Followed those Rabbis?

Menachem Ellon passed away a few months ago. He was 89. As a mark of respect I took upon myself to finally read his magisterial two-volume study of Jewish Law, which has been on my shelf for decades but which I never read cover-to-cover. Since it's more than 1,500 pages long and makes no pretensions of being a beach-book, I gave myself the entire year of mourning to get thru it. So far I'm behind schedule, but I have finally gotten the hang of it and it's fascinating, so I may yet stay on target. It may even be the case that I'm getting more out of the reading now, than I would have had I read it back when I bought it; important books can be like that.

One of the very first things I learned from the book is the importance of Jewish law as a living and developing legal system from 2nd temple era right up until the 18th century in Europe, and even into the 20th century in Arab lands. I hadn't given this much thought, but the claim that Jews are a nation, not only a religion, is strongly bolstered by the fact that until just yesterday in terms of history, Jews were running their own nation with their own laws and their own legal system, and the system was mostly common to them all while distinct from their surroundings.

Which then raises the question about the numbers: OK, so the elite studied the common literature throughout the millennia. But what about the broad public? Hundreds of thousands of us study Daf Yomi these days, but how common was such an education a thousand years ago? Two thousand?

Actually, just the other day we daf-yomi-folks passed a troubling section in Pessachim (page 49 a and b). The Gemara had been talking, in an idle sort of way, about how marrying into a family of Cohanim could be a smart move; then, suddenly, it veered into a discussion about how the scholars and the general public couldn't stand each other. One should spend as much as it takes, even one's entire fortune if need be, to have one's daughter marry a scholar. If that's not possible, then the son of a just man; Not that, then the son of a leader of the community. Not that, then the son of a philanthropist. If even the son of a philanthropist couldn't be found, one should marry off one's daughter to a teacher. But in no case should one ever have his daughter marry an Am Haaretz, a coarse "man of the land", probably best translated as an unschooled yokel. This then set off a string of invective against the Ami Aratzot. Rabbi Akiva, perhaps the greatest of the scholars of his age, told how in his days as an Am Haaretz (he began learning only at 40) he wanted to bite the scholars like a donkey - and why a donkey rather than a dog? Because a donkey, unlike a dog, breaks the bone when he bites. His disciple, Rabbi Meir, then added that marrying one's daughter to an Am Haaretz is like binding her and laying her in the path of a lion, because the Ami Haaretz, like a hungry beast, tears apart his woman and has no shame. The Braita then continues: Ami Haaretz hate us scholars even more than the gentiles hate Jews; and worst of all are those who once learned with us and then left, since they know our opinion of all the others.

The sources for all these harsh sentiments are Mishnaic, i.e 1-2 century Tana'im in Israel; the Babylonian Amoraim of the following centuries who created the bulk of the Gemara seem simply to have passed on the story with no comment, which is unusual. On the other hand, no-one ever censored it, either. The section is still there, and as I said, we passed it last week.

This thread is presented and explained here.

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