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Saturday, February 23, 2013

The Purim Song (Part 4: More Svara)

We'll now discuss the מחלוקת as to whether or not the events of the Purim story demand הלל.

רב נחמן held that there is an obligation to recite הלל which is fulfilled through the reading of the מגילה, while רבא argued that that there is no obligation, in so far as we were still servants of אחשורוש even after the salvation.

רב נחמן: The events of the Purim story had a greater relative change in the state of the Jews than that of the redemption from Egypt.  By the redemption from Egypt we were saved from servitude to freedom, but by Purim we were saved from death to life. It is therefore a קל וחומר that there should be הלל on Purim.

רבא: It is true that the miracle of Purim itself produced a greater relative change in the state of the people, and we are therefore obligated to publicize and memorialize these events just as the events of the redemption were publicized by the אז ישיר.  However, on an absolute level, the result of the Purim story was lacking as we remained servants of אחשורוש.  This state of servitude is מעכב (prevents) the full expression of praise which is found in הלל.

Thus, the מחלוקת is whether or not the objective state of servitude is מעכב the recitation of הלל which would be necessitated by the great change in our status (from death to life) brought about by the salvation.

In the next post we'll try to analyze the novel position of רב נחמן, that the reading of the מגילה is a viable substitute for the singing of praise that is normally fulfilled through the singing of הלל.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

The Purim Song (Part 3: Svara)

We think that the solution to the two main problems discussed in the previous post can only be answered if we expand our understating of the function and purpose of אז ישיר, the song by the sea.  Our questions were based on the premise that אז ישיר was merely a joyous song in response to our miraculous salvation with the drowning of the Egyptian army.  This would seem to be a one time expression of praise, which is entirely different than the permanent annual mitzva of reading the story of the מגילה.

It would seem from the gemara's comparison that there were two separate functions of the song of אז ישיר.  One function was the emotive response of singing praise, but the second aspect was the formulation of a song as a vehicle of publicizing the miracle that God performed in His victorious destruction of the Egyptian army (ה' אִישׁ מִלְחָמָה ה' שְׁמוֹ).

In ancient times, before widespread recording of written history, the great deeds of kings and their epic battles were recorded in poetic verse and maintained through oral tradition.  The ancient poets were very skilled in using specific formulations that helped transmit oral records of these events.  One of the main tools available to the ancient poet was song.

The Redak interprets Tehillim 40:4 (וַיִּתֵּן בְּפִי, שִׁיר חָדָשׁ תְּהִלָּה לֵאלֹהֵינוּ - יִרְאוּ רַבִּים וְיִירָאוּ וְיִבְטְחוּ בַּיהוָה) as saying that a person is obligated to formulate a new song and praise on every miracle that is done for him, through which many people will awed and confident in Hashem.

(As a side point - the theory of oral-formulaic composition, as first proposed by Milman Parry in the 1920's, also helps explain how this information could be faithfully transmitted exclusively through oral means over many generations.  This theory is particularly useful in explaining the peculiar nature of certain phrases in epic poetry, as mnemonic aids that ensured the fidelity of oral transmission across generations.)

In this framework, it makes sense to view אז ישיר as a song that was designed by Moshe to be a vehicle of oral transmission, in order to accurately depict the miraculous events that were witnessed by the sea.  This is born out by the very first verse in the song:
אָז יָשִׁיר משֶׁה וּבְנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל אֶת הַשִּׁירָה הַזֹּאת לַה' וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר
Rabbi Avraham ibn Ezra explain this phrase of "וַיֹּאמְרוּ לֵאמֹר", as meaning that the song should be recited by all future generations.  The Chizkuni actually interprets this phrase to be the source for saying אז ישיר every day (which is a custom that is brought down by the Rambam and is widespread today).  Additionally, Chazal instituted the annual obligation for the entire congregation to publicly read אז ישיר on the seventh day of Passover, which is the date when the miracle occurred.  (See Rashi to Shemos 14:5וליל שביעי ירדו לים, בשחרית אמרו שירה, והוא יום שביעי של פסח, לכן אנו קורין השירה ביום השביעי)

Based upon this idea, we can explain the first part of the gemara which draws a comparison between  the song of אז ישיר and reading the מגילה.  Both אז ישיר and the מגילה are essentially vehicles of publicizing a miracle, and both were meant to be recited by all future generations in order to maintain the memory of their respective miracles. If when we were miraculously redeemed from slavery, Moshe made sure to formulate a song that would publicize this epic event to the world's future generations, surely when we were miraculously saved from certain death, we are certainly obligated to formulate and institute a way of publicizing the salvation!

The next question of the gemara naturally follows:  The song of אז ישיר was more than just a means to publicize the miracle - it was also a song of praise.  It would seem that due to the political climate, the מגילה itself could not be formulated as an explicit song of praise to God.  Rather, it had to be written as letter to the kingdom of אחשורוש, in which the miracle is only implicit.  However, based upon the comparison between  אז ישיר and מגילה, why didn't Chazal also set up an additional obligation of reciting הלל (a song of praise) alongside the reading of the מגילה.  In the next two posts, we will address the gemara's answers to this question.

Monday, February 4, 2013

The Purim Song (Part 2: Questions and Methodology)

What bothered us most in this sugya was the first part of the gemara which derives the mitzva to read the מגילה based upon a comparison to the Jews saying שירה at the sea.  At first glance, this comparison makes no sense at all!

True, after the sea was split and the Egyptian army destroyed, the Jews sang אז ישיר.  But that was a one time event of singing אז ישיר.  What right does the gemara have to extrapolate from this singular event, the obligation to read the מגילה annually for all future generations?  At best, we could posit that those Jews of the particular generation that was saved should sing שירה once, but in no way does this comparison seem to justify the establishment of a permanent mitzva!

Secondly, even if we were to somehow answer the first problem, how does the fact that the Jews sang שירה justify the establishment of reading the story of the מגילה.  If anything, it should obligate us in singing שירה, but reading a story does not appear to be the same as singing praise.

(It is true that רב נחמן, later on in the gemara, does say that reading the מגילה is in the place of הלל, but the gemara at this point wasn't holding that.  Also, רבא disagrees with the equation between מגילה and הלל, and yet he too has to learn the original derivation of reading the מגילה from the שירה at the sea.  Also, it is clear that the gemara does not initially believe מגילה to be equal to שירה, or else its subsequent question of why we don't recite הלל would make no sense.  Based upon these three facts, we conclude that the gemara apparently believes itself to be justified in deriving the telling of a story from the singing of praise, even though these are two different activities.)


To summarize our two questions:

1) How does the gemara compare the one time event of singing אז ישיר to the permanent mitzva of reading the מגילה?

2) How does the gemara compare the singing of אז ישיר to the reading the מגילה, being that they are totally different activities?

It would seem that in order to satisfactorily answer these questions, we have to revise our basic understanding of either אז ישיר, reading the מגילה, or both.