Commentary Magazine


The Pharisees

To The Editor:

Irresponsible quoting out of context has all too often provided misleading and damaging information to readers who may not have the time or resources to check. . . .

An example of such quoting is found in Rabbi Jakob Petuchowski’s article “The Pharisaic Tradition Today” (February Commentary). Rabbi Petuchowski, to illustrate the scorn of the Pharisees toward the am ha-aretz, quotes Rabbi Eleazar as having stated (Babylonian Talmud): “It is permitted to stab an am ha-aretz on a Day of Atonement which coincides with the Sabbath.” Out of context, this appears as a dreadful, merciless, vituperative remark, which reflects in an ugly manner upon Rabbi Eleazar and the tradition he represented.

In fact, however, the passage goes on in such a way as to leave not the slightest doubt that Rabbi Eleazar spoke in jest, as is proved by the impossible question his disciples pose next, and the answer Eleazar gives to it. Not by any stretch of the imagination could his words have been taken seriously.

The word “stab” is translated by Rabbi Petuchowski from the Hebrew nahor which, in the passage from Pesachim 49, must imply. to put to death by piercing the windpipe. Nahor is used in contradistinction to shahot, which is the drawing of a knife across the throat of an animal, with a clean cut (ritual slaughter).

The whole text reads: R. Eleazar said: “An am-ha-aretz, it is permitted to stab him [even] on the Day of Atonement which falls on the Sabbath.” His disciples said to him: “Master [rather than stabbing him in the windpipe—nahor], say to slaughter him [ritually—shahot]?”

He replied: “This [shahot] requires a benediction, whereas that [nahor] does not require a benediction.”

The tradition that taught, in the name of R. Gamaliel: “He who has mercy on God’s creatures will obtain mercy from heaven” (Shabbat 151b), in the last analysis could not have excluded the unlearned creature of God.

Stanley M. Kessler
West Hartford, Conn.

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Rabbi Petuchowski writes:

When, after quoting Rabbi Eleazar and Rabbi Akiba, I added the remark: “No doubt, the bark was fiercer than the bite,” it should have been obvious to all who, like Mr. Kessler, prefer to read statements in context that I did not put a literalist interpretation on these statements. And. we need hardly refer to the fine sentiment in Shabbat 151b in order to realize that the Rabbis did not seriously contemplate a breach of the fundamental Biblical law that prohibits murder! But whether, as Mr. Kessler insists, we are dealing with a mere jest is quite a different question. These “jesting” statements are introduced in a page of the Talmud which lays it down as law that a man must not marry the daughter of an am ha-aretz. Such “intermarriage” is then described—“jestingly,” as Mr. Kessler might say—as being analogous to bestiality. Further illustrations from the realm of sexual aberrations are then adduced to evaluate other instances of such “intermarriages,” as well as the act of studying Torah in the presence of the am-ha-aretz. We also read about various legal disqualifications of the am ha-aretz. This, Mr. Kessler will have to agree, is the context in which we find Rabbi Eleazar’s statement. I am convinced that he did not mean it literally; but I happen to think too highly of that rabbi to credit him, as Mr. Kessler apparently does, with the sort of sense of humor which would construe the statement in question as “funny.”

Apparently Mr. Kessler failed to realize that I cited the statement in order to highlight a characteristic aspect of Pharisaism, one in sharp contrast to that present popular view of the Pharisees which sees them as democratic levelers. That I personally do not condemn the Pharisaic renunciation of am ha-aratzut, but regard it rather as a desideratum for modern Jewish life, might have been obvious to Mr. Kessler had he read the quotation from Rabbi Eleazar in the full context of my articles.

Jakob J. Petuchowski
Washington, Pennsylvania

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