Sunday, May 14, 2006

Not everything Thought...

This week’s Makor Rishon featured an article (not yet online) about an Israeli Rosh Yeshiva, who is also an historien de dimanche. So far, so good. The news was his ‘startling’ discovery that the celebration of Lag Ba’Omer is based upon a ‘mistake.’ More specifically, he claims that it’s the result of a sixteenth-century scribal error. What was the nature of this error? He claims that in the authentic transcriptions of the writings of R. Haim Vital, the premier disciple of R. Isaac Luria זצוק"ל (a.k.a. the Arizal), Lag Ba’Omer is listed not as the day that R. Shimon bar Yohai died (יום שמת), but as the day of his ‘joy’ or ‘celebration’ (יום שמחת). His conclusion is that the whole idea of celebrating R. Shimon’s yahrzeit on that day is a mistake. As proof, he invokes the Hatam Sofer’s objections voiced by the (Resp. Hatam Sofer, II: Yoreh De’ah no. 233) against the entire institution of the Lag Ba’Omer celebrations in Meron. In addition, he notes that in the time of the Ge’onim Lag Ba’Omer was observed as a fast day, as evidenced by the survival selihot that were then recited. Finally, he notes that the tradition that the disciples of R. Aqiba stopped dying on Lag Ba’Omer is first mentioned by R. Menahem ha-Meiri, at the turn of the fourteenth century.

Now, far be it from me to object to the integration of history into the framework of Limmude Qodesh. Furthermore, the discussion of the possible error in the writings of R. Haim Vital is very plausible. There is any number of ways in which יום שמחת could morph into יום שמת. The reading יום שמחת could also be seen as a lectio difficilior.

Still and all, I have deep reservations about both the substance of the objection, and the wisdom of its publication.

First, the fact that Meiri is the first source that has survived to limit the period of mourning during Sefirat Ha’Omer, only tells us that it was an established tradition. Medieval halakhists did not, repeat, did not play fast and loose with customs unless they were convinced otherwise. The researcher has no idea whence came this idea (though, there were attempts to explain it textually). So, Lag Ba’Omer as a unique (and potentially festive) day is not thereby impugned.

Second, the author conjectures that the fast day referred to above is connected to the failure of the Jews to rebuild the Temple in the days of Julian the Apostate (360-363 CE). He bases this conclusion on the fact that according to some Christian sources, an earthquake (363 CE) hit the city on the evening after Lag Ba’Omer in the year that undid the preliminary work on the rebuilding. Julian’s death in battle, later that year, ended the project entirely. The problem is that Christian sources could have been expected to invoke an earthquake in this context, since that could be seen as an ‘Act of God.’ Less involved sources, like Ammianus Marcellinus, claimed that a fire destroyed the construction site (which, of course, raises the possibility of arson). This shows serious lack of homework. Furthermore, and I’m sorry to say this, the leap of conjecture that he undertakes reminds me of the mode of argumentation that characterizes Holy Blood, Holy Grail.

Third, and most seriously, what difference does it make whether the celebrations in Meron are in honor of R. Shimon’s yahrzeit or his celebration (according to the Arizal via R. Haim Vital ). In both of these instances, R. Shimon’s life and persona is being celebrated at the place most closely associated with him. Is a lexical error enough of a reason to inveigh against the very event? Is an academic insight a reason to throw cold water (even indirectly) upon a popular custom (something the Hatam Sofer explicitly refused to do)?

I am not a fan (to put it mildly), of the cult of sacred graves, and certainly not of the excesses that adhere to it. However, the events at Meron (and their equivalents), are a major part of the intense relationship to Judaism, spirituality and God that is maintained by an enormous part of the Jewish population of Israel, across the boards. Before someone goes and discredits them, it would be wiser to use the opportunity to bring the visitors closer to Torah and to ongoing growth in observance and Jewish commitment. [Those who know the story of the Bais ha-Levi and the ‘stupid shayla’ know to what I am referring.] Folksreligion is a valuable element in Judaism. We should nurture it, as a form of religious, spiritual and national growth before we try to deflate it (even out of good intentions).    


Ben Bayit said...

WADR I have to disagree with you here. First of all whatever happened to the whole Kotzker thing you quoted a few posts ago on truth - especially as regards Jewish history?

Second of all, I think that the Rabbi/Historian in question made it pretty clear that he was not out to slaughter sacred cows and that in fact he viewed positively the "folk" aspects of Meron and Lag B"Omer. He was just seeking to re-connect the the day to the forgotten Mikdash and nationalism aspects of the day. All legitimate I would think.

Let's not forget that the 18th of Iyar was also the "cornerstone" laying day of the second bayit and according to some the day that Bar-Kochba captured Jerusalem (all of which was mentioned in the article).

The fact is that many religious Jews - including Religious Zionists (espec. from the RYBS school as opposed to the RAYK school) - are distinctly UNCOMFORTABLE when it comes to issues of the Mikdash and/or Bar Kochba. That's what he's trying to accomplish here - not slaughter sacred cows.

One can see similar developments in the history of Hanuka as well. I.e. 25 Kislev originally as a day celebrating the dedication of the Second Temple, then the re-dedication by the Maccabbees and celebration of national sovereignty, only to be changed after the 4th century to a "spiritual" holiday.

Jeffrey said...

I disagree all round...

1) I didn't say to distort history. I said that the take he had was taken too far. His 'discovery' does not justify his conclusion.

2) I was trying to be nice, but there is absolutely no reason to accept his speculation about starting to rebuild the Bes HaMiqdash on 18 Iyyar. Furthermore, there probably was no earthquake. Follow the links.

3) Where did you come off with the RYBS 'uncomfortable' with the Bet HaMiqdash? I learned three massechtos in Qodoshim with RYBS and saw no such thing.

4) Furthermore, he allowed himself to be manipulated into a sensationalist headline which is totally unjustified, based upon the content.

I applaud his study of history. I think it's part of Torah. One must, however, learn the arbeit before making bold declarations.

Anonymous said...

Can you please share with us the "stupid shayla" story?

Out of Step in Kfar Saba said...

I got the impression from the article that he was trying to clarify a reason as opposed to oppose a practice. The fact that his historical methodology is suspect should come as no surprise since it seems that his training is from Mercaz (in which case kol hakavod that he has gone this far).
As to Lag B'omer, Meron and grave worship - I would tend to agree with you if this were the one time a year that Israeli Jews visited graves and alleged graves, but this seems to have become the main source of religious practice for all too many.
What is amazing to me is that in my MTA/YU education I never once remember any of this Rashbi, ARI, Qabalistic stuff - rather only the R. Akiva story. It is only when I made aliya did I realize what a mitnagdic place YU is (or at least was).

Ben Bayit said...

I wrote RYBS school, not RYBS. I think its a legitimate disctinction to be made between the two schools. In the book reviews section of the same issue of MR, there is a discussion regarding an article Hana Kehat makes in the recent Matan journal regarding distinctions between the two schools as regards another area of Jewish life. This is a legitimate way of looking at things.

You are probably the only student of RYBS that I can think of that went up on the Har Habayit and publicized it. This issue was never discussed when I was in YU - period. From my understanding of how Kodshim was learnt in YU circles, it was a purely intellectual excerise offering fertile ground to apply the conceptual approach to Limud HaTorah (see Mr. Ben Chorin's post from today). I'm willing to be corrected on this as I have an open mind, but that's the impression I took with me from when I left YU and beyond. Places like the Machon HaMikdash don't seem to be viewed all that positively amongst this school of Religious Zionism. Naturally, I could be wrong. I apologize if any offense was taken - I meant none. I went to YU after RYBS had already left and my exposure to him is through books, and the written and spoken words of his students.

If Makor Rishon has any journalistic integrity (and I'd like to believe they do with Amnon Lord at the helm) then there is no reason they should have allowed the interviewee any leeway to dictate the terms of the headline or content of the article. Once he agreed to be interviewed, he was basically at their mercy. That's the nature of the media. So far be it from to decide it he was "manipulated into sensationalism" or not.

What I took away from the article after reading it was that 1) Lag Ba'Omer was connected to the bar Kochba revolt and possibly the attempt to rebuild the Bayit. 2) The linkage with Rashbi and establishment of the date as Rashbi's petira date was later in time and 3) There were poskim that didn't like all the celebrations surrounding a yahtrtzeiht. I didn't see any sacred cows being slaughtered.

BTW, do you believe that Lag Ba'Omer is indeed somehow NOT connected with the Bar Kochba revolt? I find it difficult to believe that it isn't. The plastic cowboys & indians bow and arrow we used get on Lag Ba'Omer each year in cheder don't really make sense otherwise. The story about the kids playing with bows and arrows in front of the cave to hide the limud hatorah that was taking place inside was nice for cheder kids, and perhaps nice midrash, but is it historical truth?

Ari Kahn said...

I didn't read the article - thanks for saving me the time - but if his big chiddush is the mistaken girsa - the Birkai Yosef 493:1,4 points this out at length as do later authorities.


Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

I understand the objection to inveighing against this practice on grounds that it isn't becoming of scholarship. But all of us frum Jews who are interested in what actually happened as opposed to the mythos, whether we're Sunday historians or real historians, are constantly in a state of tension over these kinds of issues. The objective observer in me is willing to go "Isn't that interesting," but the frum Jew who has stock in the direction Judaism takes and doesn't want the train spiraling out of control does entertain opinions about these matters, and I suspect the same is true of the rosh yeshiva who wrote this piece and the same is true of any historian or scholar who is both an observer of the community and part of the community.

Anonymous said...

Sefer Minhag Tov mentions Lag B'Omer without any details, saying only "mishum nes shehaya". Clearly something happened he didn't really want to put in print (if you'll excuse the anachronism)

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the interesting post. However, re your words "throw cold water (even indirectly) upon a popular custom (something the Hatam Sofer explicitly refused to do)?", I think that is an inaccurate description of the position of the Chasam Sofer. He did figuratively 'throw cold water' on it, at least indirectly, by writing what he did in a teshuvah (responsum) which was published, albeit perhaps not too much 'in their faces' or on site.

Note also that Rav Elyoshiv shlita has never gone to Meron, despite living in EY for a while.

Also, FYI, Satmar and Dushinsky Chassidim oppose the lag baomer Meron thing as well.

Moshe Rosenberg said...

An interesting source regarding both the different girsaot in the kitvei ha-Arizal, as well as the spiritual dangers of the Meron scene is Yehaveh Da'at V:35.

Avi P. said...

Ben Bayit wrote "You are probably the only student of RYBS that I can think of that went up on the Har Habayit and publicized it."

Might I add Rabbi Riskin to this list?

I have heard (second-hand) that a few years ago, Rabbi Risin became an outspoken advocate of going up to Har Harayit (betahara, of course), and quite a few people did so in his footsteps.

Awaiting redemption,
Avi P.

Lurker said...

He bases this conclusion on the fact that according to some Christian sources, an earthquake (363 CE) hit the city...
The problem is that Christian sources could have been expected to invoke an earthquake in this context, since that could be seen as an ‘Act of God.’...
This shows serious lack of homework...
...there probably was no earthquake.

I'm not sure whether this comment will be seen, seeing as I'm writing it 3 1/2 years late, but I felt compelled nonetheless to respond to this point as soon as I saw it:

Your criticism of R. Kosman in regard to the earthquake is quite unfounded: The earthquake of 363 is a matter of historical record, and is also attested to by archaeological evidence. See here, for example, and the sources listed there under References.