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Sex, Wine and Sacrifice: Jewish Holidays Used to Be Wild, Dramatic Affairs

Why are four cups of wine imbibed at the seder, and what’s the real reason for dressing up on Purim? A Talmud scholar has a few surprising things to tell us


By Ofer Aderet. Haaretz, april 7th

Reverting to misogynistic, crass language, Tractate Ketubot of the Babylonian Talmud explains why women are forbidden to drink wine to excess. “One cup of wine is good for a women, two cups is a disgrace,” the text states. After the third cup “she will become lustful” [per the Davidson Talmud, Ketubot 65], meaning she will demand explicitly to have sexual intercourse. And after the fourth cup, God help us, “She will even request intercourse from a donkey in the marketplace” – in other words, she will be so intoxicated that she won’t be particular about whom she has relations with. Prof. Ishay Rosen-Zvi, who heads Tel Aviv University’s department of Jewish philosophy and Talmud, used this text to to resolve a conundrum that puzzled him every year at this time, in connection with Passover: the obligation to drink four cups of wine during the seder. He devotes three chapters of his new Hebrew-language book, “The Secret Life of the Jewish Holidays,” to the seder, deconstructing the festive meal as he goes about answering the four-cups question and several others as well. To begin with, he notes, the seder format is not a Jewish invention and is hardly unique to the Chosen People. The seder is, at bottom, a prestigious Hellenistic banquet, which is based on the model of the Greek symposium – a term whose literal meaning is “drinking together.” Rosen-Zvi: “There are other types of symposia too, not just philosophical ones. There are ritual symposia, urban ones, or those held by the members of a guild. What they all have in common is that they are a social event in which the participants eat, drink wine and talk. In modern academia, by the way, the drinking and the fun have long since been expunged from the symposium, leaving us with only the talking.” The symposium was also a feature of life in Roman Palestine (also known as Eretz Israel). A mosaic uncovered at Tzippori (Sepphoris), in central Galilee, for example, displays all the elements of a symposium: the participants seated at a table for a meal, the servants around them, and the drinking. The mosaic also shows how this institution was reshaped in the Roman world: The guests are sitting and not reclining, they drink during the meal itself and not only after it, and the wine is mixed with warm water (the water urn is visible on the side). How many cups of wine would have been consumed at such a symposum? Four? “We know that in the Greek symposium there was a person, called a symposiarch, who presided over the event. He decided how many rounds of wine there would be. There was no fixed model, certainly not of four cups.” What, then, is the origin of the custom of drinking four cups of wine at the seder? Some argued that it derived from the halakha (religious law): Each of the mitzvot associated with the seder – kiddush, Haggadah, Hallel (songs of praise) and birkat hamazon (grace after the meal) – is marked by the downing of a cup of wine. Another explanation, which appears in the Talmud, is that the cups of wine stand for the four words of redemption that appear in the Book of Exodus (6:6-7): “free you,” “deliver you,” “redeem you” and “take you.” “But those are explanations in retrospect, after the number of cups of wine had already been set,” Rosen-Zvi notes. In the book he offers a new explanation: The four cups signify excess and exaggeration, and are meant to remind us that the seder is not a regular meal, as indeed every child realizes when chanting “Why is this night different from all other nights?”. A Passover Seder at the White House in 2014. The format wasn't a Jewish invention.Credit: The White House To ground this hypothesis, Rosen-Zvi draws on several ancient sources. In addition to the talmudic explanation, which views four cups of wine as dangerous exaggeration, certainly where women are concerned, Rosen-Zvi cites the Greek scholar Athenaeus of Naucratis. Around the year 200 C.E., he wrote “The Deipnosophistae” (“The Gastronomers”), which is the most detailed anthology we have about symposia in ancient times. Athenaeus cites a tradition according to which three rounds of drinking were considered reasonable, but the fourth “is mine no longer, but belongs to hubris.” On the seder night, Rosen-Zvi says, the exaggeration and excess in drinking wine are deliberate and are intended to convey a message: This is a night of freedom. But wine is not the only ritual item at the center of the seder. Before the destruction of the Temple, the focus was on eating a sacrificial animal, a lamb, in order to thank God for having passed over the homes of the Israelites in the course of slaying the firstborn of Egypt. The apocryphal Book of Jubilees states, “And all Israel was eating the flesh of the paschal lamb, and drinking the wine, and was lauding and blessing, and giving thanks to the Lord God.” The most famous seder meal in history – the “last supper” of Jesus and the disciples – included the consumption of a sacrifice (later identified with Jesus himself). Remnants of that custom crop up every year, when members of the Temple Mount Faithful try to ascend to the Mount, in Jerusalem, with a lamb for sacrifice, but are rebuffed (or have been, to date) by the authorities.

What happened to that custom? Why do we make do with matza and bitter herbs at the seder and are not required to slaughter an unfortunate animal? “A Passover seder that resembles ours, which does not have a sacrifice at its center – because there is no Temple – appears for the first time in the Mishna, which was created in the second century C.E. Its goal was to move the holiday from the Temple, which had been destroyed, to the home. The model the sages emulated when they reinvented the festival was that of the celebratory banquet, with which they were familiar from their Hellenized neighbors.” In contrast to other scholars, Rosen-Zvi believes that the ceremony was not adopted outright, but rather took the form of an intentionally artificial imitation. “How is the festival of freedom celebrated? By imitating the truly free, the rulers. On this night we are Romans,” he writes. The sages redesigned the Festival of Freedom in the format of the banquets of those who were truly free, namely the Romans.It was clear to them that this was a game. On this night, we are enjoined to pretend. Everyone takes part in this game, including the poorest of the poor. According to Tractate Pesachim in the Mishna, the earliest source that sets forth the rules of the seder, “Even the poorest of Israelites should not eat the meal on Passover night until he reclines,” nor be given fewer than four cups of wine, “even if he [is so poor that he takes it] from the charity plate.” In other words, reclining is not merely an option, it is obligatory for everyone, including the destitute. And the destitute are also enjoined to drink four cups of wine, to which end they must be given wine from the municipal charity reserves, which are not meant to be used for the fulfillment of religious commandments. Indeed, Rosen-Zvi notes, reclining while eating was a characteristic of sumptuous banquets in antiquity. “The poor don’t tend to recline, and they don’t have divans for that purpose,” he says. The key to these peculiar obligations is that on the seder night we are “playing a game.” To feel that we have gone from bondage to freedom, we put on lordly airs. The sages redesigned the Festival of Freedom in the format of the banquets of those who were truly free, namely the Romans. “It was clear to them that this was a game. On this night, we are enjoined to pretend,” Rosen-Zvi sums up. (The period of the sages stretched from the Second Temple period to the sixth century C.E.) Some readers may feel cheated when reading about the “foreign” sources that penetrated one of the most important festivals of the Jewish calendar. Are you out to spoil the celebration for us? To join the trend of the myth debunkers? “Not really. I am not dealing with questions like what really happened, whether the Exodus from Egypt was an actual event. I am looking for the ancient layers of the festivals not because that is the ‘origin,’ but because that is where additional dimensions of the tradition are uncovered. And the more colorful they are, the more exceptional, the more prone they are to be censored and forgotten because of their boldness. Peeling away the later layers reveals concealed strata that contain huge dramas.” Where do you find the remnants of these dramas? “In some cases in the Bible itself, or in traces that remained in the literature of the ancient sages, in the Mishna and the Midrash. But often in the literature that came between the Bible and the sages – the apocryphal books, which are less well known in our time – such as the Book of Jubilees, the Wisdom of Solomon, the Scroll of Fasting, and First and Second books of the Maccabees.” Who should we blame for the fact that we are not familiar with these versions? “The Jewish festivals ‘suffer’ from the fact that we already begin learning about them in preschool, so the version that is implanted in us is usually the broadest common denominator, which has been censored and adapted for the whole family. In school, we are taught that the shofar is intended to instigate repentance, that the four species [of plants required for Sukkot] stand for different types within the Jewish people and that on Hanukkah we light candles to commemorate the miracle of the cruse of oil. “Those explanations,” he continues, “are based on traditions of the sages, but in the hundreds of years before the sages – and in their time as well – other stories about the Jewish festivals were also recounted. They bore a very different character, they were more diverse and wilder, more open to the world. The festivals, even in their later incarnations, still contain their primeval roots, so it is possible to reconstruct them. These layers are hidden from the eye, but they have not completely vanished. They can be dusted off.” Like in archaeology. “Like in digging in a tel, when you discover the remnants of a wall jutting out, attesting to the fact that there was once something large here that needs to be uncovered. I use texts in the same way.” ‘Sinful intentions’ Ishay Rosen-Zvi, 51, is the son of the jurist Prof. Ariel Rosen-Zvi (1944-1996), whom the late legal analyst of Haaretz Ze’ev Segal described as “a one-man bridgehead between religion, whose precepts he upheld, and secular society, in which he shaped his judicial-social creative work.” He dealt with many of the issues that are at the center of public discourse in the country today, such as religion and state, a democratic vs. a Jewish state, and the like. “The duality reflected in the intertwined pair ‘Jewish and democratic state’ poses a unique challenge to Israeli society,” Ariel Rosen-Zvi wrote. “The secular public must struggle to understand Judaism and its Jewish roots. The religious public must assimilate the values of democracy and aspire to adjust to them out of love and not only out of convenience.” From his father, Ishay absorbed the left-leaning, liberal approach to religion, but took it a few steps further. He grew up in Tel Aviv; in his youth he attended a yeshiva in Kfar Haro’eh, a religious-Zionist moshav, and afterward attended Har Etzion Yeshiva in the West Bank settlement of Alon Shvut. Following military service within the hesder framework – combining religious studies with service in a combat unit – he sought to expand his horizons, abandoning yeshiva studies in favor of academic research into the Jewish sources. Today, he lives in the north Tel Aviv neighborhood of Ramat Aviv. He has shed the kippa, and terms himself radical left. Initially he tried to distance himself from Judaic studies by concentrating on philosophy and general literature, in which he began work toward a doctorate at Tel Aviv University. Midway through, however, he felt as if he had forsaken his first love, and so he returned to the Jewish sources, focusing on the cultural history of the Mishna, which is the earliest compilation of the literature of the rabbinic sages. The topic of his doctoral thesis, which he completed at the university’s Cohn Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science, is the “sotah ritual,” a bizarre act, which is described in detail in the Mishna, in which a woman whose husband suspects that she has been unfaithful to him undergoes a humiliating trial in the presence of an audience in the Temple esplanade. In his book “The Mishnaic Sotah Ritual: Temple, Gender and Midrash” (published in English in 2012), Rosen-Zvi argues that the mishnaic ritual was never actually performed, but is a theoretical Midrashic concept developed in the second century C.E. The imaginary ritual was intended as a means to contemplate the “dangers” posed to sages by women and how to cope with them. In all of his successive books and articles, Rosen-Zvi has always proposed a critical reading of the rabbinic sources, in order to lay bare new worlds that are concealed in them. After the fourth cup of wine, the Talmud asserts, a woman ‘will even request intercourse from a donkey in the marketplace’ – in other words, she will be so intoxicated that she won’t be particular about whom she has relations with. Prof. Ishay Rosen-Zvi

In 2018, together with the political philosopher Adi Ophir, Rosen-Zvi published the book “Goy: Israel’s Multiple Others and the Birth of the Gentile.” In it the authors examine when, how and why the “goy” came into being as the term and status of the non-Jew as such. They maintain that before the advent of rabbinic literature in the second century C.E., there was no such binary division between Jews and gentiles. In addition to his position in Tel Aviv University – he has headed the department there since 2021 – he is a research fellow at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. Asked to evaluate the knowledge of Israeli high-school students about Judaism, he is careful not to fall into clichés about the dire state of “young people today.” He maintains that secular and religious youths alike display ignorance and lack of knowledge, caused in part by lacunae in their education about the Jewish sources. The state secular education system generally makes do with having its charges studying only the Bible, thus depriving adolescents of a broader acquaintance with the world of rabbinic literature. The fear, he says, is that making Talmud a required subject would lend a religious character to secular schools, and deter the secular public. However, the present state of affairs leaves them ignorant of the principal building blocks of historic Judaism and, consequently, unable to understand the implications of Jewish tradition today. What matters, he maintains, is not what is studied but how it is studied. “I want them to study both Talmud and halakha and also the siddur and prayer,” he says. “Not as Yiddishkeit [folklore], but as central cultural creations that they should be acquainted with. Ignorance is not strength. If you don’t know, others can deceive you, tell you that this is the one and only Judaism.” But in Rosen-Zvi’s view, the graduates of most of the army preparatory programs for Orthodox youth and of the so-called high yeshivas, institutions from which sprang the new leadership of religious Zionism, also emerge with very limited knowledge of the Jewish world. It is confined, he avers, to insular and particular aspects and ignores many other elements of the tradition. “Judaism that is wholly subjugated to the land, to sovereignty, in addition to not being moral, is also mistaken about the lion’s share of the tradition that was created in the Diaspora, out of a Diaspora mentality. In that tradition, the Land of Israel is marginal, the focus is on the beit midrash [house of study], the text became a shrine, and the use of force was always viewed with apprehension. All that has disappeared from religious Zionism.” Rosen-Zvi expresses left-wing political views on many platforms, verbally and in written form. He votes for Hadash, an Arab-Jewish party, is a member of the board of the anti-occupation organization Breaking the Silence, and during the second intifada, in the early 2000s, he was jailed for refusing to do reserve service in the territories. These days, he can be found participating in the demonstrations against the government’s “reform” plan, trying to connect the campaign for democracy with the struggle against the occupation. He is the father of five children, three of them from his first marriage, and two younger daughters from his second marriage, to the historian Yael Sternhell, who teaches American history at Tel Aviv University. It was one of his older daughters who provided Rosen-Zvi with the spark for his current study of the origins of the Jewish festivals. One June day around 20 years ago, she came home from her religious primary school and asked him who it is was that wanted to kill the Jews in the Shavuot festival. “It took me a few minutes to understand that they had been learning about the festival of the first fruits; that after teaching them about Antiochus at Hanukkah, Haman at Purim, Pharaoh at Pesach, and then preparing for Holocaust Remembrance Day and Memorial Day, this kind of odd festival appeared, in which dairy products are eaten, the classroom is decorated with wheat stalks and there is not even a single story about being saved from terrifying enemies,” he writes at the start of the new book. Rosen-Zvi quickly reassured his daughter that no one wanted to kill us on Shavuot, though he also points out that behind this festival too there are stories that differ from the ones that Israeli children are raised on. What do we do on Shavuot? In the kibbutzim they bring the first fruits, as one of the names of the festival indicates. In the synagogues, they study Torah, as this is the holiday of the giving of the Torah on Mt. Sinai. Who is “right,” or rather, how did this identification of the harvest festival, originally an agricultural celebration, with the giving of the Torah, arise? The Torah states that the “festival of the harvest” shall be marked 50 days, seven weeks, after the sheaf offering made at Passover. In other words, Passover is also the onset of the harvest period, and the festival of the harvest is its conclusion. Hence also the name of the festival, Shavuot (“Weeks”), referring to the counting of the seven weeks. And what about the giving of the Torah? Of that event, the Torah states only that it took place in the third month after the Israelites left Egypt. Which is to say in the Hebrew month of Sivan. But there is no exact date. When, if so, did the identification between Shavuot, held on the 6th of Sivan, and the giving of the Torah begin? To answer that question, it’s necessary to become acquainted with the lacuna created by the biblical festival. The Torah cites three pilgrimage festivals on which the Temple is visited. All three are agricultural at base and are connected with the harvesting of the wheat: the festival of the start of the harvest, the festival of the end of the harvest and the festival of the ingathering. “In the Torah, the festival of the start of the harvest and the festival of the ingathering acquired historic significance beyond the local agricultural context,” Rosen-Zvi explains. “The former became the time of the Exodus from Egypt – Passover – and the latter the time of the wandering in the desert, Sukkot. And what about Shavuot? It was not vested with a historical context in the Bible, and later commentators therefore had to make up for this,” he says. The name “Shavuot” (weeks) reminded the exegetists of the similar-sounding word “shevua,” or “oath,” and thus the festival was interpreted as the time of the sealing of the covenant (the brit) between God and the Israelites. According to the apocryphal Book of Jubilees, all the covenants were sealed at Shavuot: the Noahite covenant, the “covenant between the parts” made with Avram (Genesis 15), the covenant of the circumcision, etc.. In the separatist Qumran sect at the Dead Sea, this festival became the annual ceremony of renewing the covenant. “It is, then, a commemorative date that became the festival of the covenants,” Rosen-Zvi notes. So it is only natural that the giving of the Torah, the covenant that was sealed at Mount Sinai, would also be identified with this date. This approach also influenced early Christianity, which adopted the holiday of Pentecost, a commemorative day that occurs 50 days after Easter, as the date of the crucifixion. The New Testament book Acts of the Apostles relates that on that day, the holy spirit descended on Jesus’ disciples and in the wake of the revelation, they “began to speak in other tongues” as preparation for turning to the various nations to spread the Gospel. In other words, here too, there is a festival of “giving of the Torah,” but this time to all the nations and not just to Israel. “So actually, when we celebrate the festival of the giving of the Torah, we are marking a sectarian holiday, which was accepted in early Christianity long before it was accepted in rabbinic Judaism,” Rosen-Zvi notes. “The festivals are like living beings,” Rosen-Zvi writes in his new book, “changing form and taking on new form.” Passover, as we saw, evolved from a festival of sacrifice into an event at the center of which is a story, as told in the Haggadah. Yom Kippur was initially a day of ritual atonement and only afterward became a day of spiritual repentance. Similarly Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, was not always a day of fasting to mark the destruction of the Temple. Rosen-Zvi shows how the day, which indeed began as a fast day commemorating the destruction of the First Temple, became, during the period of the Second Temple, a celebration that was later marked on Tu B’Av (the 15th of Av), the festival of love, while Tisha B’Av reverted to being a fast day only after the Second Temple was razed. It was a day that went from being an occasion of mourning to a holiday, and back again. A surprise of a different sort lurks in the chapter of the book that’s devoted to Purim. Rosen-Zvi tells how the Babylonian Talmud suffuses the story of the Book of Esther with eroticism. According to this reading, Esther’s predecessor as queen, Vashti, planned to hold an orgy. Esther is also depicted in lewd terms in the Talmud, as being the companion of Mordechai and of King Ahasuerus simultaneously. It looks as though the Babylonian midrash has itself become part of the Purim carnival. “Every holiday and its surprise, nowhere near what we were taught in school,” Rosen-Zvi quips.

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