Wednesday, February 20, 2013

The Purim murder

BT Megillah 7b tells a shocking story of murder most foul:

אמר רבא מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
רבה ורבי זירא עבדו סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי
איבסום קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא למחר בעי רחמי ואחייה
לשנה אמר ליה ניתי מר ונעביד סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי
אמר ליה לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא"

Rava said: A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until he does not know the difference between 'Cursed Be Haman' and 'Blessed Be Mordechai.'

Rabba and Rabbi Zera made a Purim feast together They became intoxicated. Rabba rose up and slaughtered Rabbi Zera. The next day, he asked for mercy for him, and restored his life. The next year, [Rabba] said to him, 'Will your honor join me for Purim again?". [Rabbi Zera] said to him: Not at every hour does a miracle come.'"

Let's count the strange-to-impossible things about this story? For instance:

(1) Rabba kills someone

(2) Afterwards, he waits a whole day to do something about it.

(3) And whatever he did worked!!

(4) But still he invites the victim back the following year

(5) And, the victim seems cool about it. "Sure, I'd love to come to your party and possibly get murdered for a second time," he says, "only I don't think your magic reincarnation powers are reliable."

For all these reasons, let's stipulate that Rabba did not actually kill Rav Zeira, and that Rav Zeira was not actually brought back to life. (and for the good of Judaism can we please find a way to gulag all the school teachers and pulpit Rabbis who present this story as if it was a literal, historical event?)

So, what happenedt?

Maharsha says that Rabba's sin was not murder but provocation. He compelled Rabbi Zeira to drink too much, until he was on the brink of death.The point of the story is to warn us to drink responsibly, or perhaps to refute the idea that getting drunk on Purim is a good thing (indeed Meeir says drinking on Purim was outlawed as a result of this story) Though Maharasha's reading takes the story out of the realm of the miraculous, it leaves us with two problems. (1) In what sense did Rabba bring his colleague back to life; and (2) Why does Rabbi Zeira refer to a miracle?

Rabbi Avraham (son of Rambam) says the story is hyperbole Perhaps Rabba smacked Rav Zeira around a little bit, and perhaps even sliced his neck, but no murder took place.

The Lubovitcher Rebbe reads the story this way:
Rabba and Rabbi Zera made a Purim feast together.  They became intoxicated [resulting in an outpouring of intellectual conversation including the revealing of deep, mystical secrets] Rabba rose up [to a higher level of understanding and tried to bring along his intellectual inferior. This proved impossible, and by attempting to teach Rabbi Zera things he could not comprehend he] slaughtered Rabbi Zera. The next day, he asked for mercy for him, and restored his life. The next year, [Rabba] said to him, '[Maybe you've gotten more intelligent over the last 365 days so] Will your honor join me for Purim again?". [Rabbi Zera] said to him: [I'd love to try to learn those secrets again but if it kills me a second time, I may not come back to life because] Not at every hour does a miracle come.'"
The advantage of this reading is that it doesn't present an Amora as a drunken murderer. Also, it addresses the strangeness of "rose up" and the use of the word "slaughter" which implies a ritual killing, instead of the more ordinary word "kill" (shachat vs katal.). Still, the reading is not without problems: For instance (1) Ideas can not kill you; and (2) People can't bring each other back to life.

My hunch, is that there was an actual fight, but no murder, and that the story is retold here as a polemic against Purim intoxication, specifically the Purim intoxication recommended by Rava in the Talmud passage that immediately precedes the telling of this anecdote. So why hasn't this reading (which, for those who need approbations   combines Rabbi Abraham and the Maharsha) become popular?  Simple. Nowadays we Jews take it as articles of faith that (1) Amoraim never fought and (2) getting piss-drunk on Purim is one of the best things a Jew can do. As a result, a story that suggests Sages behaved badly or that Purim drinking was discouraged has become impossible to recognize. 

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