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Zevachim 11
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UNEDITED DRAFT of Megillah Daf 3

Submitted by Andrew M. Greene on 2008-08-05Z03:10:05.618217

Yesterday’s daf ended with a teaching credited to Rabbi Yirmiyah (and some say it was Rabbi Chiya bar Abba). The Gemara, in a classic “That reminds me…” non sequitur, is going to digress from the topic of our Mishna to discuss other teachings with the same attribution: about the shapes of the letters, about the origins of certain translations of the Bible, and about the book of Daniel. We’ll get back to the Megillah itself on 3b.

(We’re starting at the end of 2b, third line from the bottom.)

Rabbi Yirmiyah (and some say it was Rabbi Chiya bar Abba) also said: The prophets established the letters mem, nun, tzadi, pey, and kaf. These five letters are written differently when they occur at the end of a word. For example, here is a mem ? and here is a final mem (mem sofit): ?

The Gemara raises two challenges to this teaching.

Does that make sense? For it is written: “These are the commandments….” (Lev. 27:34) “These” implies that the complete set has been given in the Torah, thus a prophet does not have permission to innovate henceforth. In fact, a distinction is traditionally made between laws that are “d’Oraita” (from the Torah) and “d’Rabbanan” (Rabbinically instituted); the latter must have a basis in a d’Oraita.

And, also, hasn’t Rav Chisda said: “The mem and samech that are in the tablets — it was a miracle that they stood.”? The tablets of the Law that God carved at Sinai were special in that the letters were carved not only into the surface of the stone, but all the way through to the other side. There are only two letters in the Hebrew aleph-bet that have what typographers call a “counter,” i.e., a completely closed interior area such as the middle of an “O”. Those letters are the samech and the final form of the mem. So just as when you’re making a stencil for our Latin alphabet, you need something to attach the middle of the “O” to the sides of the stencil, if you were to try to carve the tablets all the way through you’d have a problem with the counters of the samech and the mem sofit. But God doesn’t have that problem.

So that teaching of Rav Chisda demonstrates that the mem sofit must have been in use at the time of the Sinaitic revelation, and cannot have been a later innovation of the prophets.

The Gemara resolves both of these objections: Yes, they both existed, but they did not know which went in the middle of a word and which went at the end of a word. Or, suggests the later commentary “P’nei Yehoshua,” it didn’t matter which one was used, much as we don’t distinguish between the two ways of writing lowercase “a” and “g”. And then the prophets came and decreed: the open ones in the middle of a word and the closed ones at the end of a word.

That adequately explains away the second objection, but we’re still left, in the end, with the objection “These are the commandments….”; thus a prophet does not have permission to innovate henceforth. Can we revise the explanation to address this one as well? Instead, let us say, they had forgotten which version of the letters was to be used where; until the prophets restored the rules.

(Andrew’s turn again. I don’t see why the Gemara needs this last piece. If the rabbis are entitled to make enactments that are based on Torah law, why couldn’t the prophets make an enactment that refines the Torah’s use of letterforms?)


The next teaching with the same ascription discusses the Targum (translation) of the three sections of the bible: the Torah, the Prophets, and the Writings. The Targum is the definitive translation of the Bible into Aramaic, which was the common tongue at the time. As the oldest extant translation, it is still used today to pin down the meaning of certain difficult passages in the Hebrew.

Rabbi Yirmiyah (and some say it was Rabbi Chiya bar Abba) also said: The Targum of the Torah was promulgated by Onkelos the Convert, from the mouth of Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Yehoshua. The translation of the Prophets was promulgated by Yonatan ben Uziel, from the mouth of Chagai, Zechariya, and Malachi. In this case, given the number of generations involved, “from the mouth of” means “through an oral tradition originating with” those three prophets.

The teaching continues by telling of what happened when the Targum of the Prophets was promulgated: And the Land of Israel quaked: 400 parsas by 400 parsas (which is the entire area of the Land), and a voice from Heaven came out and said: “Who is this, that revealed my concealed things to the children of mankind?” Yonatan ben Uziel got to his feet and said: “I am he who revealed your concealed things to the children of mankind! It is revealed and known before you that it was not for my own honor that I acted, nor for the honor of my father’s house, but instead it was for your honor that I acted, that there should not increase disagreements in Israel.”

As Rashi explains, Yonatan ben Uziel was promulgating the oral tradition so that the “correct” interpretation would not be lost among other interpretations that might arise if people who did not know the oral tradition tried to come up with their own explanations of difficult passages.

The teaching continues: And, also, Yonatan ben Uziel requested permission to reveal the Targum of the Writings, but a heavently voice came out and said to him: “You have done enough.” What was the reason that he was denied permission? Because in it (the Targum of the Writings) is information about the endtimes and the Messiah. Rashi specifically identifies this as being in the Targum for the book of Daniel.

(Subsequent to this, a new Targum of the Writings was written, omitting Daniel and presumably eliding the other “hidden parts.”)


Now the Gemara questions the first part of the last teaching: And the Targum of the Torah: We’ve suggested that Onkelos the Convert promulgated it? But Rav Ika bar Avin said that Rav Chananel said that Rav said: Why is it written “And they read in the book, in the Law of God, with explanation, with the use of intelligence, and they made it clear in their reading.”

This verse from Nechemia (8:8) will now be parsed out, word by word.

“And they read in the book, in the Law (the Torah) of God…” — this is the reading of the text as it appears written in the Torah scroll.

“…with explanation (meforash)…” — this is the Targum.

“…with the use of intelligence (sechel)…” — these are the division into verses

“…and they made it clear in their reading.” — these are the division by cantilation marks (taamim) The Torah is chanted according to a system of tropes that function both musically and grammatically to subdivide verses. There are five levels of ta’amim, and they basically function like a parse tree. Sometimes a given verse could be interpreted differently depending on how the reader renders it into clauses; the tradition specifies a particular parsing. And there are those who say this refers to the tradition of which vowels to use in ambiguous cases. (Recall that the Torah scroll only contains consonants.)

So now we’ve parsed out Nech. 8:8, and it indicates that long before the time of Onkelos, they were already explaining the Torah by use of the Targum. That would contradict the earlier assertion that Onkelos promulgated it. It was forgotten, (or neglected) and he returned it and restored it to public use.


A question about something earlier on this page: Why the difference, that when the Targum of the Torah was promulgated, the land of Israel did not quake, but when the Targum of the Prophets was promulgated, it quaked?

The contents of the Torah are open and the Targum didn’t reveal any concealed meanings, but in the Prophets there are topics that are open and there are topics that are closed

For example, Zechariah 12:11, As it its written: On that day (a phrase which usually is taken to refer to the end of days) there will be a great mourning in Jerusalem, like the mourning of Hadadrimon, in the valley of Megiddon. Nowhere else in the Bible is Hadadrimon mentioned.

Rav Yosef said: if we lacked the Targum on this verse, we would not know how to read it.

The Gemara then quotes the Targum of the same verse: On that day there will be a great mourning in Jerusalem (so far, it’s the same) like the mourning of Achav bar Amri, who was killed by Hadadrimon ben Tavrimon at Ramot Gil’ad which is a cross-reference to I Kings 22:32. or like the mourning on Yoshiyah bar Amon, who was killed by the lame Pharaoh in the valley of Meggido which is a cross-reference to II Kings 23:39.

(Andrew interpolating: OK, so there’s an eschatological verse that was “closed” and is now “opened.” But the Gemara is still talking in allusions here, and I think they’re still trying to keep the details as hidden as they can.)


Almost done with 3a… Hang in there! Recall that we’ve been on a digression about teachings by Rabbi Yirmiyah (and some say it was Rabbi Chiya bar Abba) — and there’s one more to go before we return to the main topic of our Mishna.

Daniel 10:7 says: “I saw it, I, Daniel, I alone saw the vision; and the men who were with me did not see the vision. Yet a great terror fell upon them, and they fled into hiding.” Who were these men? Rabbi Yirmiyah (and some say it was Rabbi Chiya bar Abba) said: There were Chaggai, Zechariah, and Malachi. They were prophets who were contemporary with Daniel, and since the verse tells us that they did not see the vision we can assume that they would be people who would normally be expected to see a vision.

The Gemara compares the three prophets with Daniel: They were better than him, and he was better than them. They were better than him, because they were prophets and he was not a prophet. He was better than them, because he saw the vision and they did not see the vision.

But if they did not see the vision, what is the reason for their fear? The verse said “Yet a great terror fell upon them,” implying that their terror was linked to the vision although they didn’t see it. How could that be?

Despite the fact that they did not see the vision, their mazals saw the vision. Although mazal literally means “star” or “constellation” and is often taken astrologically, it can also mean one’s guardian angel in the Talmud’s worldview. (Andrew will interpolate here that I’m personally uncomfortable with both of those interpretations, but right now my task is to record what the Talmud says.)

Ravina said: Learn from this that one who is affrighted, even if he did not see whatever caused his fear, and he doesn’t know why he is suddenly afraid, his mazal saw it. How can he fix it? He should recite the recitation of Shema; and if he is standing in a place of filth where one is not allowed to recite Shema he should jump from where he is a distance of four cubits – four cubits being the Gemara’s standard definition of what we would today call one’s “personal space” – and otherwise he can say thus: “The goat at the abbatoir is fatter than I am.”

(Andrew again: Huh? The Gemara occasionally worries about demons, and I think that’s the idea here. If one is taken by a sudden inexplicable fear, the Gemara assumes that one’s guardian angel has spotted a demon that is about to attack one. The recitation of the Shema, with its statement of belief in God’s unity, was believed to drain the demons of their power, since demons supposedly thrived on people’s misapprehension that there were two divine beings: one in charge of good and one in charge of evil. Jumping four cubits would remove one from the “place” which the demon was targeting. And if all else fails, one tempts the demon with the idea of a better target, a la The Three Billy Goats Gruff.)

When we continue with page 3b, we will return to the discussion of when the megillah is read.

— COMMENTS —

MC writes:

Instead, let us say, they had forgotten which version of the letters was to be used where; until the prophets restored the rules.

(Andrew’s turn again. I don’t see why the Gemara needs this last piece. If the rabbis are entitled to make enactments that are based on Torah law, why couldn’t the prophets make an enactment that refines the Torah’s use of letterforms?)

Why is the torah’s use of letterforms open for debate? V’zot ha-torah doesn’t just mean the teaching; it means the people got this exact text, from God through the hand of Moshe. At the end of D’varim Moshe writes it out (a copy, I presume, as we’ve already got the tablets) and gives it to the kohanim. From there it’s copied down through generations. That text includes final forms of letters. So according to traditional understanding, there has been a reference copy all along – if anyone was confused about which form of mem is which, just have the kohanim go look. What am I missing?

AMG replies:

Well, by one reading, the Torah might have used the open and closed forms interchangeably until the prophets decreed that henceforth the closed form should be used at the ends of words.

And I’m not sure if I agree that according to traditional understanding, there has been a reference copy all along — during the Babylonian exile a lot was lost, only to be recovered when they returned to the Land of Israel. I’m reminded of the rediscovery of Deuteronomy, for example. So the other reading of the gemara, in which the people forgot until the prophets reminded them, would be consistent with that narrative: The people are hauled off to Bavel. While there, they forget which mem is which. Meanwhile, the authoritative text is languishing in the rubble of the Temple. The prophets remind the people of the correct usage of the two forms, Ezra and Nechemia bring the people back to Israel, and wow! they were correct.

And there are other places in the Gemara where it talks about how our Torah scrolls are not letter-perfect. When it talks about finding the exact midpoint of each book, for example, it admits that we’re not sure about all the cases where a defective vs. full spelling is to be used. (I forget if that was back in Berachot or if it’s going to be in the fourth chapter of Megillah. I think it’s ahead of us….) So if we’re not sure when to put a vav or a yod in the middle of a word, I can certainly see us not having been sure in the past which shape of mem to write where.


Back on 2b, we’d analyzed the clause “land and land, city and city.” Immediately preceding it is the double “family and family” – why are they there?

Rabbi Yose bar Chanina said: To include the families of the Kohanim (priests) and Leviim (priestly assistants), that they should nullify their service in the Temple and go to listen to the reading of the megillah. That is, if they have not yet fulfilled either the commandment to offer the daily sacrifices nor the commandment to hear the reading of the megillah, the latter takes precedence. There are exceptions, of course; there always are. But that’s the general principle.

The Gemara now brings as support other teachings that say basically the same thing in the name of other sources. As Rav Yehudah said Rav said: Kohanim doing their service, and Leviim on their platform, and Israelites in their position — all of them nullify their service and go to hear to the reading of the megillah. And a baraita also says: Kohanim doing their service, and Leviim on their platform, and Israelites in their position — all of them nullify their service and go to hear to the reading of the megillah.

(The Gemara repeats the teaching, even though the wording is identical. Perhaps this is to teach that no source differs. Perhaps it’s to show that the sources are each to be accorded respect, much as the princes in the Torah passage describing the offerings at th ededication of the tabernacle. Perhaps it’s because the same teaching came down in different sources, and when the later rabbis assembled the Gemara from the various oral traditions they brought them back together by concatenating them but they felt that altering the wording of any of them would be inappropriate.)


So we’ve established definitively that listening to the reading of the megillah normally takes precedence over the sacrificial service in the Temple. Now we’ll derive other rules from that one:

From here, the rabbis of the house (academy) of Rebbi found support for the following additional ruling: one nullifies Torah study and goes to listen to the reaading of the megillah. (The commentators point out that reading the megillah is, of course, Torah study, so what this ruling refers to is the “wasted” time traveling from one’s place of Torah study to the place of the public megillah reading, and the time “wasted” between one’s arrival and the time that the reading begins)

How can the rabbis of Rebbi’s academy justify this ruling? By a kal vachomer — the first and simplest of the thirteen exegetical methods used in the Talmud. Kal vachomer literally means “light and heavy” or, more precisely in this context, “lenient and strict” and is a kind of proof by induction. So we’re going to use a “lenient to strict” argument based on the Temple service: If the Tepmle service, whose rules are stringent, is nullified when it conflicts with hearing the megillah read, Torah study: not even more? That is, should not Torah study, which is subject to less restrictive rules in general, be even more certainly nullified?

A challenge: But is it actually the case that the service is stricter than Torah study? Is it not written: “And it was that when Joshua was in Jericho, he raised his eyes and looked, and there was a man who is presumed to be an angel standing opposite him…” and he fell prostrate on his face….

(And here we are back in demonology. Before proceding, the Gemara asks how Joshua could prostrate himeself to a stranger who might have turned out to be a demon. One may not even greet another at night with “Shalom”, which is one of the Names of God, for we worry that it might be a demon. The Gemara assures us, though, that in Joshua’s case the stranger had said “I am an officer in the army of God.” And maybe he was lying? Demons do not say a divine Name in vain.)

Now the gemara tells a Midrash, a non-biblical narrative that relates to the biblical narrative. The angel said to him: This afternoon, you skipped the sacrificial service, and now, you have skipped the study of Torah. Joshua said to him: For which of those have you come? He said to him: Now is when I have come…. Rav Shmuel bar Unya said: Torah study is greater than the daily sacrifices, for (the angel) said: Now is when I have come.

So based on this midrash, we would deduce that Torah study is actually more strict than the daily sacrifices, which challenges the “lenient to strict” argument above. The Gemara solves the difficulty by declaring this an exceptional case: The entire nation had neglected their Torah study that night, and it was the universal scope that caused it to be treated as a more significant lapse than the neglect of that afternoon’s sacrifices.


Rava said: It is obvoius to me that the reading of the Megillah overrides the sacrificial service, based on the teaching of Rabbi Yose bar Chanina which we just concluded studying. Furthermore, reading the megillah overrides Torah study which we also just learned.

Rava continues: Between Torah study and burying a corpse of obligation, the corpse of obligation takes precedence. If there is a corpse and no relatives to arrange for the burial, or if the identity of the dead person is not known, it becomes the obligation of the person who found the corpse to see to its immediate burial. This is taught in a Baraita: The obligation of Torah study is nullified for the taking out of a corpse and for accompanying a bride

One more straightforward case: A corpse of obligation takes precedence over the sacrificial service.

Now Rava concludes with the hard one: The reading of the megillah and a corpse of obligation: which one takes precedence? The reading of the megillah, because of publicizing the miracle? (There is an obligation to tell the Purim story in public.) Or burying the corpse of obligation, because of human dignity?

After he asked, he answered his own question: The corpse of obligation takes precedence, because Mar said: So great is human dignity that it pushes aside a prohibition explicitly stated in the Torah.


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