This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Rabbi Judah's Troublesome Wedding Guest*

It is dilemma that eventually confronts anyone who is planning a wedding:

What to do about those unpleasant individuals whom you would really prefer not to invite at all, but social obligation dictates that you must include them on the guest list?

Such was the awkward situation that Rabbi Judah the Prince was placed in when the time came to marry off his son Simeon.

Apart from his impeccable scholarly credentials as the renowned compiler of the Mishnah, Rabbi Judah was also a public figure, who held the highest political office in the Jewish community, as the head of the Jewish supreme court and the chief representative of world Jewry before the Roman imperial authorities.

As is the inevitable fate of political leaders, his decisions and policies aroused a measure of dissatisfaction among the populace. Some people were upset at how Rabbi Judah maintained a princely estate and allied himself with the wealthier strata of Jewish society. Many sages were particularly uneasy about his attempts to impose centralized authority over the individualistic scholarly culture of the rabbinic academies.

Foremost among Rabbi Judah's critics was the maverick scholar Eleazar Ha-Kappar, known as Bar Kappara. Bar Kappara's erudition as a Torah scholar was combined with a unique flare for rhetorical and poetic expression. When his indignation was aroused, this would be translated into biting satire, and woe to the victims of Bar Kappara's scathing wit!

Not surprisingly, Rabbi Judah the Prince figured prominently as a target of Bar Kappara's barbs. Therefore, one might well appreciate that Rabbi Judah entertained serious doubts about the prospect of inviting such a troublemaker to his son's wedding. In the end, Bar Kappara's prominence as a scholar made it impossible to exclude him entirely.

As his invitation was slow in arriving, Bar Kappara assumed that Rabbi Judah had indeed removed him from the guest list. He determined to get even.

For this purpose he employed the time-honoured method of graffiti.

"240 million denarii were spent on this wedding," he scrawled on the walls of the structure that housed the huppah, "but he did not see fit to invite Bar Kappara! If the Almighty is so generous to those who disobey his will, imagine how generous he is to those who obey him!"

Eventually, Bar Kappara discovered that he had been invited after all. He was now forced to reformulate his graffiti in a more positive spirit:

"If this is the reward for obedience in this world, imagine how great are the rewards that await the righteous in the next world!"

Later interpreters found it hard to accept that one of Judaism's most celebrated and pious sages could have been treated so disrespectfully, or that Bar Kappara should have been so zealous of his personal honor.

Confronted with these difficulties, the Maharsha's commentary proposed a radically different reinterpretation of the episode. In this version, Bar Kappara had never intended anything but respectful praise for Rabbi Judah. Initially, he had extolled Rabbi Judah by comparing him with lesser mortals, who must claim their rewards either in this world (as is usually the case with the wicked) or in the next world (like most of the righteous). Rabbi Judah the Prince, on the other hand, belonged to a rare group who could enjoy the benefits of both worlds, as indicated by the extravagance of his son's wedding feast!

Acccording to Maharsha, both of Bar Kappara's messages had the same purpose of lauding Rabbi Judah; however, he had to restate the point more explicitly because its subtlety had been misunderstood the first time round.

With all due respect to Maharsha, his pious rewriting of the story does not give due weight to Bar Kappara's track record as an iconoclastic prankster. This impression is amply confirmed by several anecdotes about him and Rabbi Judah.

For example, Bar Kappara seems to have taken particular offense in the fact that Rabbi Judah had allowed his daughter to marry an individual named Bar El'asah, an aristocrat whose material affluence was (to put it delicately) not matched by his intellectual abilities.

On one occasion, Bar Kappara persuaded Bar El'asah that he could impress his father-in-law if he posed ingenious questions to him, and the clever scholar generously even offered to compose an appropriate query for the occasion.

Bar El'asa commenced reciting the challenging and perplexing riddle that Bar Kappara had devised for him, a brainteaser that was replete with obscure biblical allusions and was obviously beyond El'asah's modest intellectual capacities. As he listened to the declamation, Rabbi Judah observed Bar Kappara smirking in the background, and expressed his strong disapproval of the prank.

At this point Bar Kappara now realized that he had ruined any hope he might of had of ever receiving rabbinic ordination.

Rabbi Judah did not enjoy laughing, and he was convinced that his lapses into levity would have dire consequences.Once he offered to pay Bar Kappara forty se-ahs of wheat if he would only restrain his jesting.

When the time came to claim the reward for his good behaviour, Bar Kappara approached Rabbi Judah with a basket ‚ which he comically turned upside down and wore on his head. Rabbi Judah could not withhold a painful chuckle.

At the same wedding where Bar Kappara wrote his audacious comments on the walls, he also bet Bar El'asah that he could get Rabbi Judah to dance and his wife to pour him wine. Of course he won his betăby refusing to regale them with his novel biblical interpretations unless they complied with his demands.

Bar El'asah was so upset by his adversary's success that he stomped out of the wedding in disgust.

From the perspective of the hosts, the social event of the year might well have been an appalling disaster. Nevertheless, thanks to the impudence of one eccentric and problematic guest, the wedding of Rabbi Simeon became one of the most memorable affairs of its timeăand we are still talking about it today.


This article and many others are now included in the book

A Meeting-Place for the Wise
A Meeting-Place for the Wise

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My email address is: eliezer.segal@ucalgary.ca

 

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