Sunday, October 16, 2005

Baby, you got the tzara'at

Now that we're between Yom Kippur and Sukkot, I'm blogging about a masechet about Purim (Megillah 8b-9b) as it talks about Pesach.

The list of "ein bein" continues.

6a) This one is all about the metzora. If someone has a skin disease that appears to be tzara'at, s/he is quarantined for a week, like Schrodinger's cat. During this time, s/he has the status of a metzora musgar, who has the superposition of the wavefunctions of tzara'at and non-tzara'at. At the end of the week, the priest collapses the wavefunction, and if the patient is found to still have tzara'at, s/he becomes a metzora muchlat: a definite metzora. But, the Mishnah teaches here, there is no difference between the metzora musgar and the metzora muchlat, except that only the latter is required to tear his/her clothes and let his/her hair go loose (Leviticus 13:45).

This means that both the maybe-metzora and the eigen-metzora have to go sit in the corner by themselves (Leviticus 13:46), and they are both tamei until they take the requisite action to make themselves tahor. So the metzora musgar isn't really treated like Schrodinger's cat at all.

Why the distinction between the musgar and the muchlat? Because 13:46 says "kol yemei asher yihyeh bo hanega'" - "all the days in which the plague is in him", so this refers to the muchlat, whose status depends on his body (he is a metzora until his body heals), and not to the musgar, whose status depends on time (he is a metzora for 7 days, and then we'll go from there). In that case, why does the musgar still mostly treated the same as the muchlat? Because it says "kol yemei"("all the days"), not just "the days".

6b) There is no difference between the recently-acquitted metzora musgar and the recently-healed metzora muchlat, except that the latter has to shave and bring an offering of birds (Leviticus 14). But, in order to be tahor, they both have to dunk and wash their clothes.

7) There is no difference between [biblical] books (on the one hand), and tefillin and mezuzot (on the other), except that books can be written in any language, and tefillin and mezuzot must be written in Hebrew, specifically in the "Assyrian" script (not to be confused with the old-school Hebrew alphabet). But they all have to be sewn with sinews, and they all make the hands tamei (I've heard that this was a safeguard so that you don't store food near your books so that rodents will chew the books up).

The ensuing discussion about languages and scripts in biblical texts includes a catalog of all the Aramaic words in the Torah (yegar sahaduta, Genesis 31:47) and Esther (pitgam and yekar, Esther 1:20). The former is clearly intended as a foreign name, used by Lavan the Aramean, but the latter words are used as normal words, indicating that the rabbis weren't in the dark about the loan words that had been creeping into Hebrew.

Then the famous story about the Septuagint: Ptolemy gathered 72 elders to translate the Torah into Greek, and put each of them in isolation, and through divine intervention, they each came up with identical translations.

We go through a list of differences between the Septuagint and the original, and a number of these (it is claimed) were put in so that the non-Jews wouldn't get the wrong idea about the Torah. For example, "Bereishit bara Elohim" ("In the beginning created God") was changed to "Elohim bara bereishit" ("God created in the beginning"), so that they wouldn't think that something called Bereishit created God. "Let us make humans in our image" became "I will make humans with an image", so that God wouldn't appear to be plural or to have a physical form. "God finished on the seventh day and rested on the seventh day" became "God finished on the sixth day and rested on the seventh day", so it wouldn't look like God was breaking Shabbos. And so forth. Finally, Ptolemy's wife was named Arnevet (rabbit), so the animal that you're not supposed to eat (Leviticus 11:6) was changed from "rabbit" to "the one with small legs", so that Ptolemy wouldn't think that his wife was being mocked.

The rabbis clearly had a soft spot for Greek, which they trace all the way back to the lovefest between Yafet (representing Greece) and Shem (representing Israel) in Genesis 9:27.

8a) The high priest used to be anointed with the special oil (Exodus 30:30). Yeah, not anymore. The secret formula was lost, so in later times, the high priest was set apart from the other priests only by wearing lots of extra clothing (Exodus 28). But there's no difference between the high priest anointed with oil and the one with lots of extra clothing, except that only the anointed priest brings the bull mentioned in Leviticus 4:3 (a sin-offering when the high priest himself sins, as distinct from the goats that regular people bring). But they both bring the bull of Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16 - hey, this is actually topical again!) and the daily meal offering of 0.1 eifah (Leviticus 6:13 - hey, 613! 613!!!). Anyway, not everyone agrees that they have even that one difference.

8b) The high priest might have to be subbed out, and then a new high priest is brought in from the bullpen (as it were). But then the old high priest might come back! Two high priests! There's no difference between these two, except the aforementioned bull of Yom Kippur and daily 0.1 eifah. Because jeepers, you can't have two copies of those, so only one of them can do it. Again, not everyone agrees. Rabbi Yosei holds that the relief pitcher, after the starting pitcher returns, can't serve as either high priest (because of jealousy) or a regular priest (because we ascend in holiness and don't descend).

9) The rabbis construct their halachic system so that it extends backwards and forwards in time to include all of history, and some of the rules are constructed to be time-dependent functions (on the large scale of history, not just on the usual daily, weekly, and yearly scales). Before the Temple was built, there was no ban on sacrifices outside the Temple -- sacrifices could be brought to the local bamah (altar). A distinction is made between big bamot (semi-centralized places, though nothing with the status of Shiloh or Jerusalem existed) and small bamot (in your backyard). Actually, according to this mishnah, there is no distinction between them, except for pesachim. The pesach offering (and any required offerings) could only be brought to the big bamot, and the small bamot were just for voluntary offerings.

According to a baraita in the Gemara (from Masechet Zevachim, which details this historical construction of halacha in a way that is as amazing as it would be if the Supreme Court were to rule next week on how the First Amendment applied to Native Americans before Columbus), even the large bamot could only be used for timebound required offerings, but non-timebound required offerings (such as the par he'lem davar shel tzibbur) just had to wait for the Temple.

Next time: the final mishnah in this "ein bein" series, and then over 7 uninterrupted dapim of Gemara, most of which will presumably deal with topics other than the difference (or lack thereof) between Shiloh and Jerusalem.

1 comment:

  1. Chazal were certainly wrong about the purported mistranslations in LXX. The first line certainly preserves the word order of the Torah. Greek, with its grammatical cases, certainly lends well to the mixing of word orders. (Compare: En arxh [bereishit] epoihsen [bara] O 8eos [Elohim] ton [et] ouranon [hashamayim] kai thn [v'et] ghn [ha'aretz]) And the part about changing the plurality of "let us make" is preserved (poihswmen). However, they may very well have been correct about the seventh day. As for Lev.11:6, I'm not quite sure what "xoigryllion" is, so I can't vouch for the truth of the "arnevet" issue. Many English translations render it as "hare", so I'd guess it was correctly translated.
    I'd have to ask a Greek and Hebrew scholar to vouch for the claims in the Gemara, for sure.