Thursday, December 1, 2011

Double-dipping and the Talmud

Of the many memorable episodes of Seinfeld, who can forget the double-dipping scene in Episode 59, where George is confronted by his girlfriends brother at the reception: "That's like putting your whole mouth in the dip! From now on, when you take a chip, just take one dip and end it!"

I mentioned in a recent post that not many Jewish people of my generation are able to read our national literature in its original language. Because I am one of these chosen few, I sometimes come across things that I feel duty-bound to share with my less literate co-religionists. Todays article concerns one such topic.

We Jews are not so well-educated any more in our old traditions. I'm not talking about the ultra-orthodox in their enclaves, I mean the run-of-the-mill modern assimilated Jews who go to synagogue and send their children to Hebrew School. It's an education, granted, but it's far from being a Jewish education in the sense of our real "old-time religion".

In Imperial Russia, every eleven-year-old Jewish boy was immersed to the point of despair in the study of Jewish Law, specifically thosee mythological tomes referred to collectively as The Talmud. People sometimes think Madonna is studying the Talmud when she goes off to her Kaballah Center and meditates on the nature of God and consciousness and whatever. I'm sorry to say, but that's not the Talmud. The Talmud is concerned with the fine details of Jewish Law, as typified by the archtypical case of "the ox who gores the neighbor's cow". Our eleven-year-old Jewish child was expected to be able to explain all the different degrees of liability which applied to the owner of the offending beast, depending on such circumstances as the animal's previous history of violence. That's what the Talmud is all about.

What else does the Talmud contain? In addition to the rules of civil litigation there are of course dietary regulations, the rules of consecrating a marriage, etc. there is also an auxilliary portion of the Talmud known as The Agodah which has a rather different nature. The Agodah is a collection of folkloric tales largely devoted to stories about the great rabbi's who codified the Talmud in the aftermath on the destruction of the Temple by the Romans. In the course of my personal study of  Jewish culture, I was some years ago bequeathed a small volume of excerpt from the Agodah, translated into Yiddish from the original Aramaic. I was recently amazed to discover that this volume includes a cautionary tale on no less than the dangers of double-dipping. I'm not kidding.

For the benefit of my many readers in Germany, I'm going to include the relevant passage in full. Yiddish is of course written in Hebrew characters, so I've taken the liberty of latinizing it according to my own orthographic system which is designed to be German-friendly. Here is how it goes: (I've italicised those words which derive from the Semitic component of the language to make it less confusing. If you know both German and Hebrew, you should be able to read this passage without difficulty!)

"A mensch soll nischt trinken vun a kos un nâchdem geben an anderen zu trinken vun dem, weil dâs kenn sein schädlech zum gesund. Es is amâl gewe’en asa maysseh mit Rebi Akiva, wen er is gewe’en zugast bei einem. Der balebus (=ba’al habayit)  hât ihm derlangt a becher wein âber zuerst hât er alléin früher a sup getân vun dem becher. Hât Rebi Akiva gesâgt: “Trink dâs aus alléin”. Nehmt der balebus un giesst aus far Rebi Akiva a zwéiten kos un hât wieder früher versucht vun dem alléin. Sâgt Rebi Akiva noch amâl: "Trink dâs aus alléin.” Ben Azzai, welcher is derbei gesessen hât dann ausgerufen zum balebus: “Bis vannen westdu altz geben zu Rebi Akiva trinken vun dein maul?”

For those who are unable to follow the Yiddish, this is what happened: the venerable Rabbi Akiva was a guest at the home of some wealthy man, who offered the Rabbi a glass of wine from which he had previously taken a sip. Rabbi Akiva declined, the host then poured him a second glass, but again took a sip before extending it to the Rabbi. At this point Ben Azzai, who was also present, was unable to contain himself: “Why don’t you just let Rabbi Akiva drink straight from your mouth?”

Granted, this is a translation of a translation, and we must admit the possibility that the flavor of the original Aramaic might have been somewhat altered in passing first to Yiddish and then to English. But for me, I have no doubt. I’m pretty sure this is how the story has been understood for two thousand years, and I just can’t help  seeing in my minds eye Keiran Mulroney (who played Timmy in the Seinfeld episode) as Ben Azzai, his face contorted with rage and his voice seething with anger, coming to the defense of the too-polite Rabbi Akiva and laying on the line for the boorish balebus (played by Jason Alexander!):  “When you take a sip from the wine, it’s like you put your whole mouth in the wine!”

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