Ari Belinkiy
Men Who Laughed, p.3

A bald secretary, reminding him of a clown in his new general’s uniform swallowed the first syllable: almud? Yes, his wife was Jewish but...Talmud at night, sorry, in which language? He decided not to comment on the stupid question: a usual set, issued in Tiflis in 1903 -- and made an impatient gesture with his hand. He remembered this particular edition and a small print-shop conveniently located almost in the center of the city which held an official permit to print old Jewish manuscripts. It was just after the pogrom in Kishinev, and at night, when the air was full of spring and hatred, the printer, an old Jew with gray hair growing from the depths of his giant ears, along with his son, a student of the local yeshiva, did some extra jobs for his Party group: some hastily written revolutionary pamphlets which informed the public about torn-out feather blankets and pregnant bellies and called for immediate and horrible revenge. He, then a young leader of the local group and author of those pamphlets, did the proofreading while discussing their text with the yeshiva student, aiming to add some Biblical quotations to the pamphlets. He did not remember what he hated more: the obnoxious odor from the mouth of the printer or the smell from the freshly printed pages of the Talmud which were piled everywhere: on the chairs, on the floor, even in the toilet. This disorder served as a greeting for the unexpected visit of the local police. This odor followed him for a while, together with the Hebrew alphabet and Rashi’s commentaries on the margins. He still remembered the daughter of the printer, who often came to the print-shop and whispered about something with her father. He stopped her once when they were alone and tried to persuade her to help his Party just here, on these numerous pages scattered all over the floor. She refused, he grasped her hand... The knock on the door awoke him, he sucked his lips, trying to restore a slipping image. Then he fetched his pipe from the table, stuck it under his mustache and touched the bell.

The bald secretary entered rolling a cart full of giant volumes, silently unloaded them on the table and disappeared. He looked at his watch: the Talmud had been brought in 40 minutes, and he counted how many people this night were awakened from their soft dreams and humid beds to fetch these dozen volumes from the innermost depths of the library which he called by the name of the Bald Man. (London and Zurich public libraries were temporarily spared this honor.)

He did not expect to see so many volumes and opened one at random. Seder Nezikim, Damages, was on the top and he turned over a few pages. It was Tractate Makkot, Lashes, where Rava said that stupid are those who bow before the Torah but not before the Sages because the Torah specified 40 lashes but the Sages diminished the number to 39. He smiled: Sages had to add -- not to diminish punishment. No, that’s all right, Sages can do whatever they want. How stupid are those who bow before Das Kapital and do not quote the last – he smiled: the latest! - decision of the Politburo. He turned some more pages, yawned and almost closed the volume when another story suddenly grabbed his attention.

Four Jewish sages visited a site where only one of them had ever had a right to enter, and only after being thoroughly purified in the ritual bath and dressed in special garments. A holy place. The place where their forefather Abraham unsuccessfully tried to sacrifice his son to the One who revealed Himself in the form of Three Men. The place where King Solomon built an edifice to the One who dwelt in the deep shadow between the wings of two Seraphim on the cover of the Holy Ark. The place which was burnt down by Babylonians to be rebuilt later and rededicated by the last king of Israel, Herod the Great. A place already heavily polluted by the boots of the Roman legions, by the sperm of its victorious conqueror Titus Vespasian, by the blood of thousands of innocents. A place where foxes made their permanent home in the holes between the stones and remnants of wood.

Three of the Sages cried without fear of rebuke. The eldest was an old blacksmith, one of the pillars of Halakha, the Jewish law. It was he who assured all Israel a portion in the World to Come in the sharp discussion with an obese Levite, his former intimate friend. Together they carried on their shoulders their teacher, a wise man with a big wart on the top of his forehead, who provoked a great rebellion only to escape later from besieged Jerusalem in a coffin. Together they founded a new Academy of Halakha in the vineyards of Yavneh , together breathed Halakha into Jewish life, defining the New Moons and intercalating the leap years. Together they breathed life into Halakha and every question was within the scope of their power: the Day of the Creation and the order of the daily prayers, the status of children born out of wedlock and the laws of property lost in the last war, the number of the sacred books in the Bible and the size of a Mikva, a ritual bath. Those were happy days, and a glass of grape wine was their reward for the ingenious solution of a makhloket, a disagreement on a Halakhic issue. Later their roads diverged: they had different views on freedom of discussion and on what was the Oral tradition which they received from their teachers and which they had to transmit further to their disciples. Three of their disciples stood here, nearby. Two also bitterly cried. One of them was the young leader of the Academy in Yavneh, a man of Davidic lineage. Another was a young scion of precious priestly origin: he stood tenth after Ezra the Scribe, who brought the remnant of Israel out of Babylon, dissolved intermarriages, and, on busy market days, taught the Torah to people who had forgotten Hebrew.

However, the third disciple did not cry but rather laughed. That disciple was a convert, he converted at the time when the star of Israel shone extremely bright and high in the Roman Empire sky. He came to the vineyards of Yavneh just after the destruction of the Temple and soon proved to be the keenest expert in Halakha. At first they despised his timid efforts to play their game: what right have you to deal with Aggada? Deal with laws of marriage and diseases! But he persisted and was noticed. An old priest who spoke as if he had nuts in his mouth appreciated the convert’s ability to learn from everyone and introduced him to the inner circle. An obese Levite taught him the delicacies of Jewish magic, of which 300 methods of getting cucumbers from the air was the most enjoyable. From the blacksmith he learned the Secret of the Chariot, which Jewish tradition did not allow one to transmit to more than one disciple. He mastered 70 languages. He found the meaning of the crowns above the letters in the sacred scroll. He had hundred of disciples who flocked to him from all over the country. Still, his laughter was too conspicuous and outrageous for this holy place and his three comrades harshly rebuked him. What could he answer? Could he tell them about the strange warm feeling in his breast which he experienced on hearing of the Temple being burnt? About his first words with blessings to the One who alone permits and forbids things to happen? About his first thought: his time had come?! He kissed his wife, saddled his donkey and rode off to watch some learned people gesticulating like clowns, trying to understand who and what they were. In a few years he knew all the weak and strong points of his colleagues and more -- he knew what they called Jewish law better than they did.

The Man with Mustache walked over the room recalling some pieces from his memory. The son of printer liked talking about that man. Already his patronymic – Ben Joseph – made the Man who Laughed feel warmly toward him and justified that laughter unconditionally. That man had also started from nothing, without any support, like himself. His rise to the leadership was slow; he had to concede to the wealth and long genealogy of his comrades. The most dangerous of these was an obese Levite, a popular and learned man. It was believed that the Heavens could not resist his pleas when he hurled them, with his head reclining on his right arm. On his shoulders he carried the tradition from Mount Sinai. BatKol, the implacable voice from the Heavens, confirmed: Halakha is always due to him, my beloved son, in all cases of disagreement... The tree was accordingly uprooted, the river went uphill. It could have become a moment of the Levite’s triumph but it did not. It was impossible, it destroyed everything that they had patiently built for years: the Law. There can be no proof from the tree, no proof from the river... And eventually: the Law is found not to be of the Heavens. They found a valid pretext and excommunicated the obese Levite and he, a convert, took it upon himself to inform the old man about it. It was a heavy blow for the Levite: he was an old man and excommunication cut him off from his disciples. The Man who Laughed saw tears in his teacher’s eyes but still looked straight at his face, studying it: behavior in difficult situations was an integral part of Halakha and he was allowed to learn it from his teachers, to remember it and to teach. The suffering is precious...

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Image: Randy Zucker, Talleisim 2

January 2005

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Abba Kovner: The Warrior in Old Age
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Men who Laughed
Ari Belenkiy

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