Saturday, March 28, 2009

Chanina Ben Dosa: Jewish Shaman

Occasionally, the Talmud will include stories about particularly pious or inspired individuals who never attain a title, such as rav, abba, or chacham. One such charismatic layman was the miracle worker Chanina (or Hanina) ben Dosa.

[Bronze figurine of a man and his donkey from the Ancient Near East]

I bring him up in response to a question asked last post about a Talmudic figure who lived off of vinegar. Chanina may be the person the reader is thinking of, but let me expound for a while.

Though a person of no particular social standing -- indeed, he and his family were grindingly poor -- many recognized Chanina's spiritual genius. His primary gift was as a wondrous rainmaker. When the heavens refused to rain in order to ease his way while on the road, Ben Dosa prayed:

Master of the universe, shall all the world be grieved while Hanina enjoys his comfort? Thereupon copious showers descended. With reference to his rain-governing powers it was said, "Beside Ben Dosa's prayers those of the high priest himself are of no avail" (Ta'anit, 24b).

The contrast between his impoverished status on earth and his exalted reputation in heaven was the subject of many comments. When someone was shocked that a prominent rabbi's prayer for rain was ignored by heaven, while Ben Dosa's prayers were heeded, this exchanged was recorded:

"Is Hanina greater than you?" To this he replied, "There is this difference between us: he is like the body-servant of a king, having at all times free access to the august presence, without even having to await permission to reach his ears; while I, like a lord before a king, must await an opportune moment" (Berachot 34b).

Like people often do today, his contemporaries found it difficult to look past a humble and shabby outward appearance.

He explained his rain-making talents in terms of a capacity for kavvanah (focused intention) to some skeptical agents who approached him:

I am neither a prophet nor the son of a prophet; but experience has taught me that whenever my prayer flows freely it is granted; otherwise, it is rejected." The messengers thereupon noted down Hanina's declaration, and the exact time when it was made; on reaching the patriarch's residence they found that Hanina had spoken truly (ibid., Yerushalmi Berachot, 9d).

In another water-related story, a spring miraculously appeared under his feet, cleansing the wound of a poisonous lizard (Yerushalmi Berachot 9a).

More on point with the question, one Shabbat when his daughter accidentally filled the lamp with vinegar instead of oil, and then told him of her mistake, he remarked, "He who given oil with the power of burning may give vinegar the same power." The lamp burned on throughout the whole of the next day (Ta'anit, 25a).

Inspired by his example, even his donkey was pious, refusing to eat grain that had not been tithed (Avot of Rabbi Nathan 8:8)

To learn more consult the: Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Akiba: Mystic and Miracle-Worker

[Lied der Lieder, by E.M. Lilien]

Of all the esoteric heroes of the Talmud, Rabbi Akiba (1st-2nd Century) stands alone. Mentioned no less than 250 times in the Mishna alone, legends about him are legion, beginning with the story that he began life as an illiterate shepherd, only began his Torah studies in middle age, and went on to become the outstanding Sage of his generation (with 24,000 students who followed him around like the Verizon guy). His relationship with his wife, Rachel, is one of the few love stories told in the Talmud.

He is most important for his significant contributions to the shaping of Jewish law. But he is also the archetypal rabbinic mystic. His declaration: "The whole Torah is Holy….but The Song of Songs is the Holy of Holies." (Mishna Yadaim 3:5) is the locus classicus for the interpretation of this book as an erotic theology of the love between God and Israel and inspired generations of spiritual seekers to probe the meaning of that strange book of the Bible.

There are also a number of manifestly paranormal stories about him, including the cryptic tale of the Four Sages, one of the most analysed narratives of the Talmud:

Four men entered pardes [literally, “paradise,” but its connotation is debated]: Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Acher [that is, Elisha ben Abuya], and Akiba. Ben Azzai looked and died; Ben Zoma looked and went mad; Acher cut the roots; Akiba entered in peace and departed in peace (Chagigah 14b).

Variant forms of this legend add details, some clarifying, some as obscure as the stripped-down original. My favorite has Akiba adding this cautionary warning before they begin: "When you come to the place of pure marble stones, do not say, 'Water! Water!' for it is said, 'He who speaks untruths shall not stand before My eyes' (Psalms 101:7)." Eh?

I can’t even begin to summarize the diverse explanations offered for the terms “pardes” (Ascent into heaven? Entering the mystical secrets of Torah? A critique of different rabbinic strategies for interpretation?), or “cut the roots” (Apostasy? Gnostic heresy? Auto-castration?), or the “pure marble stones.” This may be the Holy of Holies of mystical fables.

Other stories make him out to be a miraculous rain-maker (Taanit 25b) and able to commune with ghosts and exorcise them (Seder Eliyahu Zuta). All of them indicate he was a person of towering spiritual achievement.

To learn more consult the: Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Friday, March 20, 2009

Lamed Vavniks: The thirty-six righteous who sustain the world

[One of the 36 hidden?]

A slight digression from my earlier entries on esoteric masters of the Talmud, but not much of one. Think of it as a byway on the theme. A congregant asked me about the Tzadikim Nistarim (Heb.) or Lamed Vovniks/"Thirty-Sixers" (Yiddish).
The Thirty-Six [Righteous] are the minimum number of utterly moral people in each generation that are necessary to sustain the world. The legend evidently evolved from an earlier tradition of interpreting the “thirty shekels of silver” mentioned in Zechariah 11:12 as an allegory for godly people; God ensures there will always be thirty righteous people in every generation.
It also may have roots in the story of Abraham's efforts to save Sodom (Gen. 18), where it becomes evident that any society must have a minimum number of decent people in order to survive (Gen. R. 49:3; Zohar I:105b; Tikkunei Zohar, 21).

In the earliest version of this idea in rabbinic literature, found in Gen. R. 49:3, there are forty-five, “fifteen in Babylon, thirty in the land of Israel.” There is no firm explanation for how the tradition settles upon the number thirty-six (Sanh. 97b). Perhaps it is symbolic of "abundant life": double the number eighteen, the number value of the word chai / "life." According to the “thirty-six” legend, most of the thirty-six are nisterim, unknown, anonymously doing their good work unnoticed by the world. A esoteric prooftext for the number is found in Isaiah 30:18 - "For the Eternal is a God of justice; fortunate are those who wait for Him." In Hebrew, the pronoun "for Him" has the numeric value of 36. Thus the verse is read as "...fortunate are those who wait - [the] 36"
(Thanks to the anonymous reader who called my attention to this Isa. verse)

The reward for their anonymous labors is that they are privileged to directly experience the Shekhinah. One of them in each generation is suitable to be the Messiah (Sanh. 97b; Chul. 45a; Gen. R. 35:2; Mid. Teh. 5:5; Zohar 2:151a).

The fine Holocaust novel by Andre Bart-Schwarz, The Last of the Just, employs this legend, but "christianizes" this Jewish tradition in that the book claims that the 36 are destined to suffer for the sake of sustaining the world. Suffering and myrtrdom is not a big element of the lamed-vavnik tradition

To learn more consult the: Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Rav Aha ben Jacob: Dragon Slayer, The Jewish Beowulf

[Sumerian image of a man or god battling a seven-headed beast. Appearing at: http://www.jewishjournal.com/up_front/article/]

So in my continuing effort to explore Talmudic esoteric masters, I now want to call attention to Rabbi Aha (or Acha) ben Jacob (Yaakov), a 4th Century Babylonian born Amora who later settled in the Land of Israel.

In a famous extended discussion of Job, Aha expounded on the nature of ha-Satan, the adversary, explaining that both "Satan and Peninah have a pious function [in their roles as adversaries/antagonists]" This insight on the divine necessity of spiritual obstacles inspired Satan to appear before Aha in person and kiss his feet (it must be tough to be so misunderstood) (Baba Batra 16a). But Aha was no coddler of evil:

"...Jacob the son of R' Aha bar Jacob: his father sent him to Abaye [to attend Abaye's house of study]. When he [Jacob] returned, he [R. Aha] saw that his lessons weren't sharp. He said to him, "I take priority to you; you return [home] so I can go [study]". (faced with limited resources, the most capable student is should study - perhaps too Aha wanted to see what was wrong). Abaye heard that he was coming. There was a sheid in Abaye's Rabbinical academy, such that when they [students] entered in pairs, even during the day, they would be hurt. He [Abaye] said to them [his community], "Let no person offer him lodgings [forcing him to stay at the academy]. Perhaps a miracle will occur [because of Aha's merit]." He [R. Aha] entered and slept in the academy. It appeared to him as a seven-headed serpent. Every time he prostrated himself [prayed], another head fell off. In the morning he said to them, "Had a miracle not occured, you would have endangered me. (Kiddushin 29b)"

A strange story, for sure. Reminds me a little of Beowulf, where the hero delivers his benefactor from a night-terror that has penetrated into his innermost abode. Most modern interpretations see this as an allegory, that the hydra-like dragon was some kind of educational or interpersonal dysfunction in the institution that Aha resolves through his healing piety. I like that mythic take on how evil can worm its way into a sacred institution, but I also think it was understood on a more factual level. The motif of the seven-headed monster is transcultural. And while infrequent, there are other Talmudic tales of haunting spirits which a sage exorcises by various means. Like in the tales of Rabbi Joshua ben Levi, there is an element of chutzpah and tricksterism to the behavior of Abaye. Why didn't he just tell Aha and ask for his help? It is something of a test for our hero, perhaps to make him an example for Abaye's students, but its a rationale that Aha doesn't much appreciate at the time.

Aha's end is also a cautionary tale of the dangers of the Evil Eye (See the earlier entry Reading the Bible with an Occult Eye). According to Baba Batra 14a, he made a Torah scroll so perfect in form and dimensions that his colleagues were overwhelmed with envy, causing his death.
To learn more consult the: Encyclopedia of Jewish Myth, Magic, and Mysticism: http://www.amazon.com/Encyclopedia-Jewish-Myth-Magic-Mysticism/dp/0738709050