Thursday, September 22, 2005

Rav Shemaya and Rav Ovadia

Rav Shemaya is a figure hidden in the shadows of Jewish intellectual history, though his contribution was probably quite profound. He was, as Abraham Epstein described him, the secretary of Rashi (on this term, see Simcha Emanuel's recent lecture at the Rashi conference). He played a central role in the ongoing evolution of Rashi's work, emending and editing his teacher's commentaries and decisions.

The nature of his work was that he would insert short comments into the text of Rashi's exegesis, usually marked with some kind of introduction or endnote. Several of these comments are listed and discussed in an article by Aharon Ahrend on additions to Rashi's commentary on Tractate Megillah (Sidra 14). However, copyists often failed to understand the meaning of Shemaya's markers, and assimilated them as part of the commentary itself. This only made it easier for generations of Jewish scholars to overlook Rav Shemaya and his contribution, which was from its inception framed in an extremely self-effacing medium.

I noticed an additional example of this in one of Ahrend's examples, something he didn't remark upon in the article. He quotes a line from a manuscript of Rashi's commentary on Megillah, a line found only in a manuscript fragment from Pappenheim. The lines begins:

הג"ה אני שמעתי כך אמרתי לר'...
Gloss: I heard, thus I said to Rabbi (a reference to Rashi).

The illogic of the sentence (I heard that I said) is self-evident. I think it is clear that the text originally read:

אני שמעיה כך אמרתי לרבי
I Shemaya said this to Rabbi

but the copyist misunderstood, and Rav Shemaya's name was lost. But somehow, I don't think Rav Shemaya would have resented that. He made his contribution to his master's work, and that contribution was preserved.

I see a different kind of humility in a book recently published and launched in Jerusalem. Rav Beni Lau (son of Naftali Lavie) wrote his PhD on the halachic work of Rav Ovadia Yosef. That work has just been released as a book titled MiMaran ad Maran, a reference to both the similarity and special relationship between Rav Ovadia, a former Chief Rabbi of Israel, and Rav Yosef Karo, 16th century author of the Shulhan Aruch.

The first page of this book, published by Yediot Aharonot and aimed at a non-academic, mainstream Israeli audience, is a letter sent to the author by the subject of the book. Rav Ovadia tells Rav Beni that he has read his work and enjoyed it, and wishes him good luck. This is a graphic testimony to the cooperation Beni Lau received from the rabbi during the course of his work - more substantive support came in the form of private journals and unpublished writings that the rabbi and his son shared with the doctoral student.

It may seem strange to view this response as showing humility. But I think it does. True humility requires a healthy apprecation of one's own worth. Rav Ovadia clearly does not underestimate his own importance. But he is confident enough in his own identity to welcome critical scrutiny. That is a rare quality, especially in contemporary rabbinic circles. It creates an atmosphere of openness, a willingness to engage other opinions and a responsibility for the influence he wields in the public sphere.

Unfortunately, that level of responsibility and humility does not seem to carry through to his comments on current events.

Update: I made a quick tour of the Geulah bookstores this week, and found Beni Lau's book for sale in ALL OF THEM!


Blogger Lipman said...

From here:

The story is told of the Chofetz Chayim (which means "the one who takes delight in life"), who was traveling home in his horse-drawn carriage. Suddenly he spotted a man walking along the road. He stopped his carriage and inquired as to where the man was heading. He learned that the stranger was headed to his own town, and therefore the Chofetz Chayim offered the man a ride. They began to converse and the man said that he was on his way to meet the greatest sage of the era, the Chofetz Chayim, for the first time. The Rabbi, was extremely humble and modest, and hence did not tell his companion who he was. He simply shrugged his shoulders. "Why would you want to see him? He’s just an ordinary person like everyone else." The man became infuriated. "How dare you speak so disrespectfully about the greatest holy man of our time!" And with that he slapped the Chofetz Chayim across the face. When they arrived at their destination, the man was shocked to discover that the person he had slapped was none other than the Chofetz Chayim himself. He began at once to apologize profusely. The Chofetz Chayim smiled. "There’s really no need to apologize," he said. "After all, you were defending my honor. But this has taught me something very important. I have been preaching for a long time how wrong it is to speak disparagingly about others. Now I know it is also wrong to speak disparagingly about oneself."

3:13 PM  
Blogger Lipman said...

(Disclaimer as in the original post.)

3:14 PM  

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