Thursday, April 28, 2005

Kalmin on Rav Shesheth

Pieces of notes from Prof. Kalmin's שיעור, in which he dealt with the story of Rav Shesheth and the מין.

Yonah Fraenkel. “Bible Verses in the Tales of the Sages”, Scripta Hierosolymitana 22 (1971). pp. 80 ff.

I. Thesis: Quotations from Scripture placed in the mouths of aggadic figures are in­trinsic parts of the story, and they show “that the sages perform all their work with absolute confidence, that all their endeavors are directed toward truth, and that the source of the spiritual power of their actions derives from the Bible. (99)

IV. Rav Shesheth and the min (Berakhoth 58a):
a. Conspicuous external phenomena do not accompany the king, because he derives his sovereignty from God; therefore, the king’s arrival will be like God’s arrival.
b. How do we know the manner of God’s arrival? From Scripture, of course: צא ועמדת בהר לפני ה' והנה ה' עובר ורוח גדולה וחזק מפרק הרים ומשבר סלעים לפני ה' לא ברוח ה' ואחר הרוח רעש לא ברעש ה' ואחר הרעש אש לא באש ה' ואחר האש קול דממה דקה (I Kings 19:11 f.).
c. The min denies the connection between the heavenly and earthly worlds. His punishment is that he is annihilated.

What does this story mean?
•The correct reading in this story is not מינא, but מינא בר־בי־רב (certainly not צדוקי!) The expression "מינא בר־בי־רב" is unparalleled, and seems to mean something like “a heretic Rabbi”.
•Rav Shesheth is the archetypical Babylonian blind sage. What is he doing talking with a min? We never elsewhere find a Babylonian Amora speaking to a min. (In one place, we find a sage named רבא speaking with a min, but רבא could be a Palestinian רבי אבא.)
•Because this story involves a min, and because it uses the expression "גל של עצמות", Kalmin argues that it was originally a Palestinian story. When it reached Babylonia, Babylonians plugged in the name of Rav Shesheth, the archetypical Babylonian sage. However, it was strange for a Babylonian sage to be talking to a min, so the min became a "מינא בר־בי־רב" (“heretic / rabbi”).
•Kalmin says: This story, too expresses rabbinic anxiety. The issue around which this story revolves is who has the ability to interpret reality? The min has the senses of sight and hearing, whereas the rabbi has only the sense of hearing. However, the rabbi has scripture, which the min does not, so only the rabbi has the ability to interpret reality.
•Kalmin reads this story as an allegory: The rabbi, who is blind, represents the Jews, who are physically powerless. The min, who has sight, represents the gentiles, who have power. However, only the Jews have scripture, which gives them the ability to perceive the king, who represents either הקדוש־ברוך־הוא or the Messiah. (If the king represents the Messiah, then the story could be an anti-Christian polemic. The Christians say: “Look, the king has come already.” The Jews respond: “No, we know more than you, because we have scripture. The king is not here yet.”)

*The religious polemics with gentiles with regard to how to interpret reality were a great source of anxiety for the rabbis.
•If we emphasize the fact that the min is a מינא בר־בי־רב, the story represents the power (or lack thereof) of rabbis over other people in the rabbinic movement. This, too, was very anxiety-provoking.

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