Rava's Murder of Rabbi Zeira: A Pro-Mordechai Purim Shpiel

For a narrative explanation of this source sheet, see Where do Purim 'Spiels' Come From? by Ayalon Eliach in Ha'aretz, March 16, 2016, available at: http://www.haaretz.com/jewish/the-jewish-thinker/.premium-1.709231.

As background for this source sheet, please review Mordechai the Villain: Rava's Shocking Reason for Drinking on Purim.

אמר רבא: מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי. רבה ורבי זירא עבדו סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי. איבסום. קם רבה שחטיה לרבי זירא. למחר בעי רחמי ואחייה. לשנה אמר ליה: ניתי מר ונעביד סעודת פורים בהדי הדדי. אמר ליה: לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא.

Rava said: A person is obligated to become intoxicated with wine on Purim until one does not know how to distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai. The Gemara relates that Rava and Rabbi Zeira prepared a Purim feast with each other, and they became intoxicated to the point that Rava arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, when he became sober and realized what he had done, Rava asked God for mercy, and revived him. The next year, Rava said to Rabbi Zeira: Let the Master come and let us prepare the Purim feast with each other. He said to him: Miracles do not happen each and every hour, and I do not want to undergo that experience again.

This story about Rava* killing Rabbi Zeira is bizarre. If understood literally, how was Rava able to revive Rabbi Zeira from the dead? And why would Rava kill Rabbi Zeira in the first place? If interpreted figuratively, why does the Talmud tell the story at all? Further, why would it want to portray Rava acting out of control while following his own prescription to drink alcohol on Purim?

The answer is that the story is a response to Rava's instruction to drink on Purim. As explained in another source sheet (Mordechai the Villain: Rava's Shocking Reason for Drinking on Purim), Rava's goal in this prescription was to help people realize that Mordechai was not a hero, and actually did the wrong thing by refusing to bow to Haman, thereby endangering all of Persia's Jews.

Many people were unhappy when Rava first made this argument, over 1,500 years ago. Instead of attacking Rava, one of the greatest sages of the Talmud, they wrote a satirical story one that would likely have been called a shpiel if they spoke Yiddish – about him and his views.

*In the Hebrew/Aramaic text, you will notice that the story is about the third-generation Talmud sage Rabbah (רבה) rather than the fourth-generation sage named Rava (רבא). This is a typographical error in the printed Vilna edition of the Talmud, demonstrated by many earlier manuscripts that tell the story about Rava (רבא).

Gottingen Manuscript

London Manuscript

Vatican Manuscript

I. The Characters

Encyclopedia Judaica

AMORAIM (Aram. אָמוֹרָאִים), designation of the scholars in the Land of Israel and Babylonia who succeeded the tannaim and preceded (in Babylonia) the savoraim and geonim.

RAVA (d. 352 C.E.), Babylonian amora.

ZE'EIRA (in TB Zeira; c. 300 C.E.), amora. Ze'eira was a Babylonian amora but later immigrated to Ereẓ Israel.

Rabbi Zeira and Rava lived at different times and in different places. Rabbi Zeira lived primarily in the land of Israel (following his youth in Babylon) and was among the third-generation of sages recorded in the Talmud; Rava lived in Babylon his entire life and was among the fourth-generation. There are few places in the Talmud in which the two are presented as being in conversation with one another. Why then are they placed together in such an intimate setting in this story?

מתקיף לה רבי זירא: אונס רחמנא פטריה.

Rabbi Zeira attacked this position, saying: The merciful Torah does not hold someone liable for worshipping idolatry under coercion.

Rabbi Zeira, like Rava, held a minority position that it is permissible to worship idolatry under coercion. Accordingly, the two of them share the ideological framework for suggesting that Mordechai made the wrong choice in refusing to bow to Haman. The story about the two of them getting drunk on Purim thus mocks Rava for encouraging the use of alcohol to help others agree with their position about Mordechai, specifically, and idolatry, more generally.

II. The Plot

רבא אמר: ״אל תרא יין כי יתאדם״ (משלי כ״ג:ל״א) - אל תרא יין שאחריתו דם...

דאמר רבא: חמרא וריחני פקחין.

Rava said: The verse "Do not gaze at wine when it is red" (Proverbs 23:31) teaches us that you should not look at wine, for it leads to bloodshed...

Rava said: Wine and good scents make me wise.

The plot of this satirical story about Rava mocks him by showing the tension between two of his statements about wine. On the one hand, he said that wine made people wise (the reason he recommended drinking on Purim so that people would have insight into recognizing Mordechai's true role as a villain). On the other hand, Rava also noted that wine could lead to murder. The authors of this story highlight this tension by suggesting that Rava's attempt to use wine to achieve deeper insight would - following Rava's own thinking - eventually leads to murder, in this case of Rabbi Zeira.

III. The Authors

One of the stranger elements in our story is Rabbi Zeira's response to Rava's request to have another Purim feast the following year: "Miracles do not happen each and every hour/ לא בכל שעתא ושעתא מתרחיש ניסא." A miracle just happened when Rava revived him! Why then is he so incredulous about another one occurring?

ומ"ד מ״איש יהודי״ (אסתר ב:ה) מה ראה מרדכי דאיקני בהמן?

״על ככה״ דשוי נפשיה ע"ז. ״ומה הגיע אליהם״ דאתרחיש ניסא.

And according to the one who said that the Megilla needs to be read from “There was a certain Jew” (Esther 2:5): What did Mordechai see that made him incite Haman?

"Because of this" (Esther 9:26) refers to the fact that Haman had made himself an object of idol worship. “And that which had befallen them” (Esther 9:26) refers to the fact that a miracle occurred because Mordechai refused to bow down to him.

This anonymously authored excerpt of Talmud directly links the suggestion that Mordechai did the right thing in refusing to bow to Haman with the proposition that miracles occur (precisely what Rabbi Zeira is afraid won't happen for him and Rava) because of actions like this. It uses the same exact language for miracles occurring (א/מתרחיש ניסא) as our original story. This is clearly not something Rava would say (he said it was a mistake that Mordechai incited Haman), so who would suggest something like this?

אמר ליה רב פפא לאביי: מאי שנא ראשונים דאתרחיש להו ניסא ומאי שנא אנן דלא מתרחיש לן ניסא?...

אמר ליה: קמאי הוו קא מסרי נפשייהו אקדושת השם, אנן לא מסרינן נפשין אקדושת השם.

Rav Pappa said to Abaye: What is different about the earlier generations, for whom miracles occurred and what is different about us, for whom miracles do not occur?...

Abaye said to Rav Pappa: The previous generations would martyr themselves for the sanctification of God’s name, while we do not martyr ourselves for the sanctification of God’s name.

The answer is found here in Abaye's response to a question with almost identical language: "What is different about the earlier generations, for whom miracles occurred, and what is different about us, for whom miracles do not occur/ מאי שנא ראשונים דאתרחיש להו ניסא ומאי שנא אנן דלא מתרחיש לן ניסא?"

Abaye's response is that Jews are not willing to die to sanctify God's name. This is precisely what those who view Mordechai as a hero think that Mordechai did. Our original story thus mocks Rava and Rabbi Zeira for not being able to rely on miracles because they do not recognize the importance of the martyrdom represented by Mordechai.

The fact that Abaye is the one who presents this alternate view is not surprising:

איתמר: העובד עבודת כוכבים מאהבה ומיראה, אביי אמר חייב, רבא אמר פטור. אביי אמר חייב דהא פלחה. רבא אמר פטור אי קבליה עליה באלוה אין אי לא לא...

אמר אביי: מנא אמינא לה? דתניא ״לא תשתחוה להם״ (שמות כ:ד) להם אי אתה משתחוה אבל אתה משתחוה לאדם כמותך. יכול אפילו נעבד כהמן? ת"ל ״ולא תעבדם״ (שמות כ:ד).

והא המן מיראה הוה נעבד.

ורבא: כהמן ולא כהמן. כהמן דאיהו גופיה עבודת כוכבים. ולא כהמן דאילו המן מיראה והכא לאו מיראה.

It has been taught: If one engages in idolatry through love or fear of people, but does not actually accept the divinity of the idol, Abaye said, he is liable to punishment; but Rava said, he is free from a penalty. Abaye ruled that he is liable, since he worshipped it; but
Rava said that he is innocent: only if he accepts it as a god is he liable, but not otherwise...

Abaye said: What is the source for my position? It has been taught in an earlier rabbinic source:

"You shall not bow down to them" (Exodus 20:4): You shall not bow down to them (i.e., to other Gods), but you may bow down to a person like yourself.

Could a person like Haman therefore be worshipped?

The continuation of the verse in the Torah teaches that you may not: "And you shall not worship them" (Exodus 20:4).

After bringing in his proof text, Abeye explains how this rabbinic source proves his point: And Haman was worshipped through fear, which means that this earlier rabbinic source held that it was prohibited to bow to him even though it was done in fear.

Rava responds by reading the earlier rabbinic source differently: The prohibition in the source only applies to someone "like
Haman" but not altogether like Haman. To bow down to one "like Haman" is forbidden, since he set himself up as a divinity; but the prohibition only extends to someone not altogether like Haman for Haman was worshipped through fear, while the prohibition applies only to a voluntary action.

Abaye was the most direct opponent of Rava's position that Mordechai should have bowed to Haman. As seen above, he also believed that the unavailability of regular miracles to Rava and Rabbi Zeira was a result of their more moderate stance on martyrdom. Therefore, it appears as though this anonymously-written story was composed by sages of the Talmud who followed Abaye's school of thought about both Mordechai, specifically, and the importance of martyrdom, more generally. Read in light of all the allusions packed into it, the story is brought as a satirical shpiel of Rava's (and Rabbi Zeira's) position that one is permitted to worship idolatry under coercion, and the notion that wine could ease a person into concluding that Mordechai was a villain rather than a hero.