Tuesday, March 22, 2005
Hazal and Biblical Characters
I saw elsewhere that the question was raised why the Sages, in a far-fetched manner, equated the characters from the book of Esther, Memukhan and Haman (Megillah 12b). This question is very timely, and not only because Purim is this week.
A few days ago, I was speaking with R. David Shapiro, the former principal of Maimonides in Boston, and mentioned to him my plans to reprint R. Zevi Hirsch (Maharatz) Chajes' Mevo Ha-Talmud in English -- The Students' Guide through the Talmud, and he immediately said what a classic it is, particularly chapter 20. Standing there at the time, I could not for the life of me remember what was in chapter 20, but the moment I returned to my office I looked it up and saw that it does, indeed, it contains a very important lesson. The book is split into two parts, the first dealing with halakhic history and methodology in the Talmud and the second with aggadic methodology. Chapter 20 is an important statement of one of the principles of Aggadah (keep in mind that this is about aggadah and not peshat study of the Bible):
The Rabbis had likewise a tradition, as far as possible to praise the conduct of godly men, to demonstrate their worth and weigh it against their failings in the scales of merit, and to endeavour in every way possible to justify the doings of the good. It is in view of this principle that they state that anyone who maintains that David sinned is in error, and similarly anyone who maintains that Solomon sinned... [T]he Rabbis teach us that we ought to stress the good deeds of the righteous and show that all their acts were performed in the most perfect manner...In other words, in order to teach religious lessons the Rabbis stressed the religiosity of biblical heroes and the wickedness of biblical villains. R. Chajes does not say this, but it seems to me that his theory can be traced to the Mishnah in Avos 1:6 to judge a person fairly. The Rambam, in his commentary to that Mishnah, writes that we are obligated to assume that a person we know to be righteous does not sin, and even if it appears that he did we must assume that this appearance is incorrect. However, regarding a person we know to be evil, we must assume that he acts wickedly even if his actions appear to be good. This, it seems to me, is very similar, if not identical, to R. Chajes' principle of aggadic interpretation.
On the other hand, they follow a similar important principle when referring to the evil doings of the wicked, viz. they charge them with all other possible abominable deeds, deducing their charges from the context in each case. Thus, for example, they charge Achan also with the desecration of the Sabbath and with the violation of a betrothed damsel (Sanhedrin 44a)...
The motive which prompted the Rabbis to adopt this method in these aggadic expositions was their desire to strengthen in the people's minds the great principle, which the authors of the Mishnah had laid down, that 'precept draws precept in its train, and transgression draws transgression'. Consequently, the Rabbis charged the public lecturer with the duty of inculcating this idea as thoroughly as possible, and of teaching the people that the man who walks in the way of the Torah finds it becomes second nature to him, so that it is easy for him to practice all other good deeds and nothing causes him any difficulty any longer. Even when we find these people doing something wrong we should try with the help of the exegetical method to put a favourable construction on their action and to adduce such mitigating circumstances as to show that there was, indeed, no crime at all committed as, for example, in the case of David and Bath-Sheba...
They wished, in the second place, to teach by this method another important lesson--viz. that as soon as a man deviates, however slightly, from the way of the Torah, he at once needs more caution and more encouragement, because of the threatened danger that one transgression will draw after it another and, if he is not on his guard to resist the temptation to evil that threatens him, and which has already seduced him to taste of the forbidden fruit, he will expose himself to the practice of all sorts of abominations.
Now, with this introduction in hand, to our point. Rabbi Chajes addresses it specifically in chapter 21:
For the reason quoted above, namely that the Rabbis had the definite principle in their homiletic interpretations of praising, so far as possible, the deeds of the virtuous and of disparaging the doings of the wicked in every available way, they further adopted as one of their methods that of calling different personages by one and the same name if they found them akin in any feature of their characters or activities if they found a similarity between any of their actions. Even where there was only some resemblance in the names of different persons, they blended the two in one, as we see in the following cases (Meg. 15a): 'Malachi and Ezra are one and the same person, for, in the prophecy of Malachi, it is written "He hath married the daughter of a strange God", while in the book of Ezra, it is written "We have broken faith with our God and have married strange women!" Similarly, they held that Hathach and Daniel are one; that Pethahiah is the same as Mordecai, and Sheshbazzar the same as Daniel. Again, they said that Cyrus, Darius, and Artaxerxes are all one (R.H 3b)...To summarize, the equation by Hazal of different biblical characters is in line with their general homiletic methodology of heaping praise on the righteous and scorn on the wicked. They did not intend to state the these characters are literally one and the same, but only used this as a homiletic device for their important religiosu message.
De Rossi, in his Me'or `Enayim, chap. xviii, has collected the statements quoted above, showing how the Rabbis identified several different persons with the name of one man who was outstanding either in virtue or vice...
The main reason for this method is to be found in the chief principle which the Rabbis laid down as a cornerstone or basis for their exegetical expositions, viz. that the lecturer may in all possible ways enhance the praise of righteous and pious men, and wherever he finds reference in Holy Writ to the worthiness of a particular righteous man he should attribute any other virtue to him which is found in any other outstanding personality, if only this can be given Biblical support, however far-fetched. In this way we find the 'righteous' adorned with every worthy quality and virtue.
Similarly in the case of the wicked man, the Rabbis strove to expatiate upon his sinfulness as far as they could and, even in cases where wickedness was not expressly stated, they derived it from other cases where wickedness was categorically affirmed, to prove that an evil man is capable of anything, and they supported their expositions even with the slightest and remotest of indications...
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