Wednesday, September 20, 2006

"The battles are so bitter because the stakes are so low." Three men who should know better scheme to appear important.

In Talmud study this week we read a tale worth of Charlie Chaplin.

It comes in a section about "Honors," and takes place in the Sanhedrin - a council of judges convened regularly in Jerusalem a couple thousand years ago or so.

(The passage immediately previous - the group must have read it while I was in Massachusetts - dictates that a man who must leave the council room to poop can't come back that day. The footnote explains that wise men trained themselves to defecate in the morning and the evening so the important work of the day wouldn't be disturbed - therefore a man who must leave his bench to defecate shows himself to be unworthy.)

Anyway, today's story was about the Nasi (#1 guy) and #2 and #3. All the other judges used to stand up when any of these three guys entered the hall. But #1 got to thinking: "Why do #2 and #3 receive honors equal to me, #1?" So one day (when #2 and #3 were absent!! Very sly!) #1 got a new rule passed - henceforth the judges would rise only for #1.

So the next time #2 and #3 came into the hall, nobody rose. They accosted a guy and asked why. He said more or less: "Don't blame us, #1 makes the rules." So #2 and #3 concocted a crafty plan in retaliation.

Well I've been watching "ROME" (the HBO series) on DVD lately and I know how the Romans would have dealt with this. They would have taken out their swords and stabbed each other dead. But that was not the Jewish way.

This, instead, is the crafty plan #2 and #3 came up with: The following day, they would ask #1 to read and expound upon UTZKIN, a notoriously difficult tractate. They were pretty sure he would not be able to do it. Then they would say, "A man who is #1 should know every bit of the writings," and so #1 would be deposed and therefore #2 would become #1 and #3 would become #2 (actually #3 was going to become #1 but the reason is too complicated to go into).

However, their evil plot was foiled! A fourth fellow, we'll call him #4, overheard their crafty plan (they, like the villains in the telenovelas, were probably shouting the details of this plan to each other in a public place). #4 snuck upstairs and, in a room behind #1's private chamber, began reading and reviewing, reading and reviewing, tractate UTZKIN. (That's what the Talmud said, "reading and reviewing, reading and reviewing." And #1 got the idea, hmm, maybe I should study tractate UTZKIN. So he did.

And the next day when #2 and #3 implemented their crafty plan, #1 was able to expound satisfactorily upon UTSKIN, and then he told them: "If I had not been tipped off, I would have been shamed," so he banished them beyond the walls of the Sanhedrin.

OK, but this is the first really good part. #2 and #3 didn't just leave in disgrace. They camped out in the hallway outside. They wrote questions on tablets and lobbed the tablets over the wall into the meeting room! "If the students could answer the questions, they answered, but if they could not answer, [#2 and #3] wrote the answers on tablets and threw them over the wall."

(I was wondering with my friend in Atlanta whether these were stone tablets, chiseled in great haste, which would certainly cause damage if they hit somebody inside - think "javelin catcher" - or if they were soft clay tablets, which would shatter if they fell.)

Eventually one of the judges in the room said, "What, we are all here in this room and the Torah is outside in the hallway?" and they told #1 he better let #2 and #3 back in.

Here's the other really good part: #1 said ok, but from now on #2 and #3 won't get their names attached to any of their wise explanations and rejoinders. "From now on, #2's remarks will be prefaced: 'Others said:' and #3's remarks will be prefaced: 'Some have said that:'"

We had to leave before we finished. If anybody would like to leave an opinion of what the moral of this story is, I'd be grateful.

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At 7:34 AM, Anonymous Hypatia said...

Could they have been wax tablets (with a wood backing and cover)? I know those were commonly used in teaching in the days before paper was cheap, but I don't know if the Sanhedrin used them...

As for the moral... "People are petty"? "Persistence pays"?

At 9:07 AM, Blogger cnedaria said...

I too was going to say they were probably wax tablets. Years and years ago when I got my library degree I did a paper on the use of wax tablets in the middle east, but it was pre-computer era and I just have it buried in a box somewhere. There are lots of interesting links on the web about them. I made my own once: very useful item. Here's one link I looked at briefly to tell you how to make your own:

Sorry, the story confused me, though. Power struggles and religion....


At 4:41 PM, Anonymous ksa-la said...

When a person puts his/her own ego before the task at hand (in this case, interpreting important issues), s**t happens; conversely, when a person has his/her priorities straight (i.e., keeps the ol' ego in check), THAT person won't have s**t happen. Examples: Judge #1 "got his" -- or nearly did -- when he got caught up in the issue of who is/isn't entitled to a standing ovation... and clearly, Judges #2 & #3 "got theirs." The one Good Guy (who quietly/altruistically helped #1 to save face) probably lived a long & happy life. At least, I'd like to think so...


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