Wednesday, May 25, 2022

Megillah 14a contains discussions of reciting Hallel for miracles, such as Purim, which happened in the Diaspora. It begins with a citation by Rabbi Chiya b. Avin, a third-generation Amora and student of Rav Huna who traveled between Bavel and Israel. He cites Rabbi Yehoshua b. Korcha, who draws a kal vachomer from the exodus from Egypt. If upon the transitioning from slavery to freedom we recite songs of praise (Hallel), upon Hashem’s delivery from death to life, all the more so!

I was initially unjustly suspicious of this curious citation that skips several generations. Rabbi Yehoshua b. Korcha was a fifth-generation Tanna. He’s mentioned as equal to other fifth-generation Tannaim.When Rabban Shimon b. Gamliel II (fourth generation) and Rabbi Yehoshua b. Korcha were sitting on benches, Rabbi Eleazar b. Rabbi Shimon and Rabbi (Yehuda HaNasi, fifth generation) would respectfully sit before them upon the ground (Bava Metzia 84b). True, Rabbi Yehoshua b. Korcha had an exceptionally long life, which he credited to never having gazed at the visage of a wicked person. However, on his deathbed, he blessed Rabbi (who lived 82 years, 135-217 CE), presumably somewhat young at the time, to have half his lifespan (Megillah 28a). Rabbi Chiya b. Avin is still out of reach.

However, I see that Hyman notes that Rabbi Chiya b. Avin cites Rav and Shmuel on several occasions, yet we never see him directly interact with either. He takes this as evidence that, while not a direct student, he received traditions in their names. Hyman compares this to Rav Nachman b. Yaakov, who was young when Shmuel died, though we see him often quoting Rav and Shmuel. If Rabbi Chiya b. Avin’s citations are often non-direct, I’d suggest this is the case of Rabbi Yehoshua b. Korcha as well. Indeed, he seems to have received a corpus of this Tanna’s statements (Megillah 14a, Gittin 57b, Nazir 23b, Yoma 39b, Horayot 11a; also Bava Kamma 38a, changing “Abba” to “Avin”). In Sanhedrin 30b, he cites Rav that we rule like Rabbi Yehoshua b. Korcha. Another third-generation Amora, Rabbi Chiya b. Rav of Difti, cites Rabbi Yehoshua b. Korcha (Ketubot 68a), that one who averts his eyes from giving charity is as if he worshiped idols. Hyman also notes that Rav Chaim Vital cites the Arizal that there were two rabbis named Rabbi Yehoshua b. Korcha. This could fix the citation awkwardness, but perhaps the awkwardness was the Arizal’s impetus.

Still, this awkwardness of citation presumably prompted some scribal errors. For instance, Columbia 294-295 has only Rabbi Chiyya b. Abba saying this and then, in a marginal gloss, changes Abba to Avin, and then ואיתימא, that other versions have alone, Rabbi Yehoshua b. Korcha.

Two Babylonian Amoraim, Rav Nachman (b. Yaakov) and Rava, react to Rabbi Yehoshua b. Korcha’s kal vachomer. Rav Nachman performs halachic Jiu Jitsu, redirecting the argument’s force toward reading the megillah aloud. Rava responds directly to the kal vachomer. In Hallel, we declare that we are servants to Hashem, implying to Hashem solely. Upon redemption from Egypt, they were servants to Hashem and no longer to Pharaoh. Yet after the Purim salvation, we’re still slaves to Achashverosh!

This argument holds more force in Babylonia than in Israel. Rava said אַכַּתִּי עַבְדֵי אֲחַשְׁוֵרוֹשׁ אֲנַן, “we” still are. If this is personal, then the contemporary Achashverosh was the Persian King Shapur II, who was seemingly—as far as his colleagues knew—on friendly terms with Rava, but privately coerced many bribes from him (Chagigah 5b) and once sought to execute him (Taanit 24b). If personal, then Rava played the role of Mordechai, a member of the rabbinic leadership interceding on behalf of the Jewish people.

It could be interesting to review Rava’s derashot in tractate Megillah in this light, especially as most seem to relate to the dynamics of Mordechai and the royal family. Are these exegesis or eisegesis? For instance, Rava (Megillah 13b) notes the progression in Esther 3:6 of targeting Mordechai alone, then Mordechai’s nation, and finally all the Jews. Rava suggests that Haman contemplated attacking first Mordechai, then the Sages, and then the Jews generally. Given Rava’s relationship to Shapur’s family and court, did he see himself as standing in the breach? Was he thinking of intrigue in Shapur’s court? Rava also interprets אֲשֶׁר הׇגְלָה to mean that Mordechai exiled himself; he wasn’t forced into exile but knew the exiled people needed religious leadership (13a).

He weighs in on why Achashverosh was so wrathful at Vashti’s refusal, having to do with interpersonal dynamics and legitimacy (12b). He notes how poisonous Haman’s slander was, cleverly crafted to convince the king. He condemns both Achashverosh and Vashti as perverted in their intent when making the feast (12a).

When Achashverosh commanded they do like the pleasure of each man (ish va’ish) at the feast (Esther 1:8), Rava (12a) takes the text hyper-literally: the two men were Haman and Mordechai, and Achashverosh was being persuaded one way or another. This might fit in with Rava’s role as shtadlan. We might also consider Rava’s explanation (7b) of the requirement of intoxication on Purim until one cannot distinguish between ארור המן and ברוך מרדכי. When “the king’s” sleep is disturbed (Esther 6:1), two interpretations take this allegorically, as Hashem or angels being disturbed. Rava (16b) insists on a literal interpretation, perhaps appreciating the impact of a physical Persian king.

Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

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