Friday, September 7, 2012

More Snippets from Hebraic Literature

[ Originally written and posted on MySpace on  August 9, 2009 ]

Hebraic Literature is one of the volumes in the "Universal Classics Library," published in 1901 by W. M. Dunne in various editions.  Single volumes from the set of 30 are frequently held by public libraries. [ I ] recently bought [a] copy at a local library book sale.  Although the book was published in 1901, its pages were still uncut, as was the case with other volumes of this set which were for sale.   

The volume Hebraic Literature was edited and annotated by Maurice H. Harris, a Reform rabbi, and includes selections from the Talmud, Midrashim, and Kabbala. Here and there, Hebraic Literature has passages that are remarkable and puzzling.

Consider the following from page 191:

"  Most donkey-drivers are wicked, but most sailors are pious. The best physicians are destined for hell, the most upright butcher is a partner of Amalek. Bastards are mostly cunning, and servants mostly handsome. Those who are well-descended are bashful, and children mostly resemble their mother's brother. Rabbi Shimon ben Yochai bids us "kill the best of Gentiles" (modern editions qualify this by adding, in time of war), "and smash the head of the best of serpents." "The best among women," he says, "is a witch." Blessed is he who does the will of God!
Sophrim, chap. 15, hal. 10.  "

One can understand calling butchers the partners of Amalek, but what can be the meaning of asserting that the best physicians are destined for hell or that the best among women is a witch?  Many of the foremost rabbis, most famously Maimonides, distinguished themselves as physicians.  This passage reminds one of some of the sayings attributed to the Cynics, such as Diogenes.

The following, even more paradoxical, is taken from page 181:

"  Rabbi Shemuel says advantage may be taken of the mistakes of a Gentile. He once bought a gold plate as a copper one of a Gentile for four zouzim, and then cheated him out of one zouz into the bargain. Rav Cahana purchased a hundred and twenty vessels of wine from a Gentile for a hundred zouzim, and swindled him in the payment out of one of the hundred, and that while the Gentile assured him that he confidently trusted to his honesty. Rava once went shares with a Gentile and bought a tree, which was cut up into logs. This done, he bade his servant go to pick him out the largest logs, but to be sure to take no more than the proper number, because the Gentile knew how many there were. As Rav Ashi was walking abroad one day he saw some grapes growing in a roadside vineyard, and sent his servant to see whom they belonged to. "If they belong to a Gentile," he said, "bring some here to me; but if they belong to an Israelite, do not meddle with them." The owner, who happened to be in the vineyard, overheard the Rabbi's order and called out, "What! is it lawful to rob a Gentile?" "Oh, no," said the Rabbi evasively; "a Gentile might sell, but an Israelite would not."
Bava Kama, fol. 113, col. 2.  "

The following is Rabbi Harris's annotation:  " This is given simply as a sample of the teaching of the Talmud on the subject both by precept and example. There is no intention to cast a slight on general Jewish integrity, or suggest distrust in regard to their ethical creed.  "

One can see how training in argumentation re the Talmud would be a good exercise preliminary to the study of the jurisprudence of the gentiles.


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