Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Р. Кипервассер

Р. Кипервассер
08 Aug

So, we are reading texts from the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Baba Batra, where tales about sailors appear by association in the chapter about the laws of buying and selling ships There is a large set of stories, in which one could notice a definite structure with specific language and stylistic unity

So I would like to read this set as an independent piece of literature, as a literary component, included in this tractate during editing Before we start reading, let us introduce the narrator: his name was Rabba Bar Bar Hannah This is a slightly strange name, probably created by merging two words: rav or ravva and abba together become Rabba This phonetic writing is a specific property of the Babylonian Talmud His name is Bar Bar Hannah – we do not really know why

There are different ideas on this subject The word Bar is mentioned twice, it means “son” He is the son of Hannah's son Apparently, he was orphaned early, and his father's name was not known and did not attach to his name We know very little about his biography

This man is mentioned in both Talmuds: the Babylonian one and the Jerusalem one, because he spent many years in the land of Israel However, in the Palestinian Talmud, he is an absolutely ordinary and respectable man, and in whose name halakhic statements are quoted In these texts, however he appears as a character and a narrator of stories, in which imagination beats reality, so to say “Rabba Bar Bar Hannah said: one day we went sailing to sea and saw that fish” The word used here is “kara” This is quite an ancient word

If I remember correctly, this is an Accadian word It is encountered already in very ancient Babylonian texts, indicating various mythological fish — (voice) Please repeat the name again! — Kara Basically, we could use that word as a common noun or a proper noun because the narrator does not refer to usual fish he buys in the market as “kara” “Kara” is “that” fish

So, having found themselves in the middle of the sea, in a remote space with unusual waves and enormous fish, they saw that particular fish But! “A worm entered into its nostril, and it died” The expression used in the original is “ahva tina”: these are very small sea animals, not at all mythological What does he mean to say in this picture? It is like saying that Moby Dick died from pricking its tail with a needle He means to say that this huge mythological fish, no matter how scary it seems, dies from some trifle, a small crustacean, which fishermen usually throw out of their nets

This way he wants to lower the mythological solemnity a little We can only guess what role the “kara” fish played in the Iranian folklore of that time Unfortunately, we know little about this because their literature, their entire epic heritage survived only in fragments However, there is a fragmentary text that came down to us from Sogdiana, about a man who came to the sea with his son, and a “kara” fish was there and snatched the son We do not know what happened next because the text is cut off

However, we see that in some narrative cultures, the “kara” fish played a role It is big and scary Here, the narrator means to say that even huge threatening forces of nature may actually die of natural causes “And it was pulled out of the water and thrown on the shore and it destroyed 60 cities” It means that the miraculous fish was so big that even on the shore it was extremely dangerous and destroyed 60 cities

“And 60 cities were fed with it” — another 60 cities were eating the flesh of this fish, and it made them full “Enough of it was salted to feed 60 cities, and 300 skins of fat were pumped out of its orbits” You remember, like Moby Dick: whales produce oil, which is so important for these people “A year later, when we returned, we cut its bones to rebuild the cities out of them” The same 60 cities that had been destroyed

So we see that our narrator is extremely optimistic, to the point of giddiness He says that whatever disasters may occur in nature, they are essentially positive The fish, which when thrown on the shore may destroy 60 cities, can nevertheless be good for something The same cities can be rebuilt out of it, and life will carry on as usual We will find an almost identical idea in the other chapters of this series, the last ones, to which we shall not get, the ones about the Leviathan, another mythological beast from the Jewish bestiary

There the story tells us that in the eschatological era various important things will be made out of the Leviathan’s skin But it is a different motif, a different metamorphosis, though the theme is similar “Rabba Bar Bar Hannah said: One day I walked in the desert and saw those geese Their wings had fallen from an excess of fat, and fat was dripping from them” I

e, passing through the desert, he sees some very large, extremely mythological geese These geese were so large, and the amount of fat was so excessive that it could not stay within the big body of the goose, trickled down its feathers and caused a progressive loss of wings What for? Obviously, these huge geese with their very important fat are kept in the desert for a purpose What kind of purpose? A feast

Geese are being fattened in the desert for the eschatological feast But the feast is far away — (voice) Why the desert? — Good question As we shall see later, while water contains elements of the primordial chaos, meaning that there lives the past, called Uhrzeit in German, the desert contains elements needed for the eschatological era, for the future And here is one of them: the narrator tells us that a feast is awaiting us, the very feast Isaiah talked about

Isaiah has a prophecy about a feast, at which various wines will be served This text is as mysterious as any prophecy It has been interpreted in rabbinic culture and in earlier Jewish cultures It probably influenced the early Christian authors, Matthew’s parable of the feast Thus, there are certain ideas about the tradition of the eschatological banquet, which will be a meal for the living people, for the resurrected

They will have to restore their energy with substantial refreshment And now it turns out that the geese for this purpose are being grown in the desert I should mention that the geese will appear later in the other texts of this series of Baba Batra There will be a more detailed description of the upcoming banquet, the accompanying amusements, with the participation of the mythological creatures Leviathan and Behemoth, whom you’ve probably heard of Here is the first element of the eschatological menu

Walking in the desert, Rabba Bar Bar Hannah meets these geese, which suffer from an overabundance of fat, but there is nothing to be done about it “I asked them: do we have in you a share of the upcoming world?” This is a very interesting question It very much reminds me of Douglas Adams, if you like The story about the travelers arriving to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe and experiencing what is called “Meet the Dish” A four-legged creature comes to them and proposes any part of its body they like

The people find it extremely inhumane, to which the four-legged animal responds that it is even more inhumane to eat animals who do not want to be eaten In this case we have something very similar to Douglas Adams: the geese They are in the desert They are well aware of their eschatological mission Our traveler is also aware of it when he asks: which part of your wonderful fat-dripping body belongs to my colleagues and me? Then one shows its wing and the other its hip

— (voice) Would you prefer a wing or a leg? — Yes, I expected all sorts of references to our “mythological” literature such as “Advance at a goose” and so on but I did not use them “When I came to Rabbi Eleazar, he said: Israel is destined to be accountable for them” This is a very interesting move Our enthusiastic traveler makes his journey through the desert, meets there the elements of the future eschatological feast and has a short conversation with them He finds out what part of the bird's body he may get in favorable conditions

He then returns home Remember, we asked: When a person goes on a journey, what is the goal of it? It is to come back to the starting point When he returns to the starting point, his journey and his initial state are re-evaluated against each other How is his journey re-evaluated here? His wandering becomes meaningful only after he returns to the house of learning, to the academy He comes to Rabbi Eleazar

What does Rabbi Eleazar say to him? Instead of expressing his admiration and saying: “A wing for me, a leg for you!” he says: “We are destined to be accountable for it” We are destined to be accountable for the suffering of the geese The geese are suffering in the desert dripping with fat because the world goes in the wrong way The world is behaving improperly and therefore does not get to achieve its goals, to enjoy the eschatological banquet, the proper order of the society when all can come together at a table and begin to live the way people should live Our narrator takes a rather ironic view of the character’s journey

He sends our character on an epic journey, but it's really a parody of an epic journey Ultimately, our character does not bring back anything important or essential, finds no answers to any question Indeed, he sees the elements of the future and the elements of the past, he realizes that the world is ruled by God, that God cares about the world But those people who do not leave the house of learning — don’t they already know it? asks the narrator Although our character has walked around the whole world, who explains the world, who gives meaning to it? It is not the wandering character, but the people whom he had left in the house of learning, to whom he came to speak about his travels

Thus we see that the collision between the world of chaos and the world of order; between the wild world and the human world eventually becomes a collision between the Talmudic culture and the other culture, between the Talmudic sages and the others Even if we select the travels of Rabba Bar Bar Hannah as an example of travel fiction from the Babylonian Talmud, we will notice that it is a unique example of this kind of story, this genre being a means of self-reflection in Talmudic culture It self-actualizes through the story of the journey It sends the character on a long journey not in order to tell the readers travelers’ stories In Christian literature of that time there are also stories about travels

There is one Madam Yegeria who comes from Greece to the land of Israel and tells long stories about going form one holy place to another “We came and offered our prayers, and people met us, and everything was good” Most likely, the purpose of this story is not to speak about the great mysterious surrounding world, but to look closer at the world where they live and to feel its value To say that it is much more valuable than the world about which you know nothing

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