Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Purim Torah: A Web Journey

With Purim just a week away, one can imagine how many Eliot Spitzer costumes are being spun as we speak. Purim's message is all about the fragility of fate, the illusary nature of power, the hypocrisy of the powerful and the speed in which everything can be turned upside down.

Before we set out on our way in exploring Purim Torah, some basic Purim links, for background on the holiday: A nice selection can be found at (Jacob Richman's Hot Sites) and also at Some excellent articles from Yeshivat Har Etzion can be found at, and at Torah From Dixie at

Among the most popular aspects of Purim is the satiric genre known as Purim Torah. On Purim everything is turned upside down. Even those phenomena that are normally venerated are turned on their heads, even the study of Torah itself. Purim Torah is rabbinic logic gone haywire, otherwise known as "pilpul" ( It's the Wise Men of Chelm ( taking over the Yeshiva. It comes from a little too much wine ("Adloyada", combined with a little too much of our natural Jewish irreverence. It's Rashi (, meets Mel Brooks

Come to think of it, Brooks' hit "The Producers" is a classic Purimspiel (Purim Play) -- a classic reenactment of the story of Purim in a different context. "Springtime for Haman in Shushan" has a ring to it, but this journey is about Purim Torah, not Purimspiels. There is a connection, though, which is explored at Some more about Purim Torah as it relates to the Megilla can be found at
Purim Torah takes many forms. Political commentary is almost always part of it, whether the politics be internal or global. Last week at services we discussed the Talmudic incident where Rabbah followed commandment to get so drunk on Purim that he couldn't tell the difference the evildoer Haman and the good guy Mordechai. As a result he "slaughtered" his drinking buddy Rabbi Zera. Fortunately, he was able to revive Zera. He then asked Zera whether he might like to join him next Purim and Zera replied that he'd pass, but thanks anyway. You had to be there -- it was funny to those who heard it here, and it must have been funny to the rabbis of the Talmud too. The sages probably knew Rabbah in the way that "Saturday Night Live" knows George W. Bush, and they also understood that even mandated rabbinic laws can be dangerous when taken to excess. So this story was what one might call an internal satire, a joke by the rabbis about their own methodology. For a more modern version, check out the 2006 Purim edition of Sh'ma, where the whole genre of rabbinic wisdom gets satirized smartly:

Rab Shamllel (who had been thrown out of both the House of Hillel and the House of Shammai at one time or another) used to muse, "You know, it's not what you know and what you don't know. What matters more is whether you know what you know and what you don't know. To know what you know opens the gates to confidence. To not know what you know opens the gates to indecision. To know what you don't know opens the gates to wisdom. And to not know what you don't know opens the gates to catastrophe. You know what I mean?"

He used to sigh, "There are four kinds of car mechanics in this world: The first can fix your car, but can't take you until the Tuesday after Tu B'Shvat. Of these there are but few and what can you do? The second can take you today but are incapable of fixing your car. Of these there are many and they are to be avoided. The third can't take you until the Tuesday after Tu B'Shvat AND are incapable of fixing your car. They are called 'dealers.' The last can fix your car and can take you today, but none of them dwell within a five-hour drive from here."

Purim Torah can be sophomoric ( -- is about the Schlitzer Rebbe. Get it?, and just plain fun (a new Talmudic tractate on how to eat ice cream: Rabbi Nahman said in the name of Rab, "It is forbidden to eat ice cream with the fingers." But the sages say, "[when it is] in a cone*, it is permitted [to eat this way]. But was it not taught, "Ice cream is finger food, you fool!" [Renee, Sig 2a]?# There is no difficulty. Here it is talking about ice cream, here frozen yogurt. One may not consume premium ice cream for it is written, "Only The butterfat you must not eat, [For it is to be burnt on the altar for atonement, (Lev. 17:10a-11a)]. Rav Sheset says, [this applied only] when the Temple is standing. *According to Rashi. Other Rishonim explain this as meaning a sandwich.)

In the end, Jews do on Purim what we do the rest of the year as well -- we poke a little fun at ourselves. On this most topsy turvy of days, we understand that the secret of life is to enjoy the ride -- and laugh a little all the while.

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