This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Moses the Mailman*

News Item:

September 1991--The Canadian Post Office workers are on strike.

The Free Press, like the rest of us, has been learning to cope with the recent postal strike. Efficient postal service is one of those things that is essential to modern society, but is not appreciated until it is disrupted.

Those of us who know some modern Hebrew will probably be familiar with the Hebrew word for mail: do'ar. The fact that there seems to be a "real" Hebrew word (as distinct from a Hebraized foreign term) should already suggest that the term goes back to our ancient sources. The origins of modern postal service, in the sense of the government-administered delivery of private letters, do date back to ancient times and it should not be surprising to find that mail service is mentioned in classical Jewish writings.

The word "do'ar" is taken from the Talmud, where it refers to a postal station. For example a passage in the Babylonian Talmud discusses how much time one ought to allow when sending a letter so that it will be delivered before Shabbat, and distinguishes between whether the recipient's town does or does not house a do'ar office. It is evident that the talmudic rabbis who debated the question were used to enjoying the benefits of the Persian mail system.

Ancient authors often spoke admiringly of the elaborate Persian network of mail couriers. In a frequently quoted passage, the Greek historian Herodotus writes:

There is nothing mortal that accomplishes a course more swiftly than do these messengers... It is said that as many days as there are in the whole journey, so many are the men and horses that stand along the road, each horse and man at the interval of a day's journey; and these are stayed neither by snow nor rain nor heat nor darkness from accomplishing their appointed course with all speed.

There was however a negative side to this efficiency. The Talmud makes frequent mention of an institution known as the "angaria," a forced conscription of pack animals by the government for purposes of mail delivery. The owner of the animal can never be certain that his beast will be returned, or in what condition it will be by then. It is as if the Post Office had the right to arbitrarily borrow your family automobile whenever it pleased. Jewish law has to deal with questions such as: Who bears the loss if the conscripted animal is a rented one?

The Midrash uses the image of a postal courier to illustrate the story of how Moses shattered of the tablets of the Torah when he saw the people worshipping the golden calf; on that occasion, Moses watched the holy letters flying away from the tablets, signifying that God had removed his sanctity from the tablets:

Moses [says the midrash] was like a postman who was delivering a royal decree to a certain town. As he was crossing a river the documents fell into the water and the letters were erased. What did the postman do? He tore them up [since they were no longer of any use].

It seems likely that the midrashic metaphor is rooted in the reality that then as now, not all letters got delivered intact.

This article and many others are now included in the book

Why Didn's I Learn This in Hebrew School?Why Didn't I Learn This in Hebrew School

by Jason Aronson Publishers

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First Publication:

  • Jewish Free Press, Sept. 27 1991.