This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

A Talmudic "Quiz Show"*

News Item:

1994--In his film "Quiz Show" director Robert Redford evokes the scandals surrounding the rigged television quiz shows of the 1950's.

Because I do not get to attend very many first-run movies, I have not yet had an opportunity to see the highly praised new film "Quiz Show." Though you would not believe it from looking at me, I am old enough to remember (but only barely!) the scandal that is dramatized in that film. I was one of those many viewers who were initially filled with adulation for the fraudulent "geniuses" whose spurious erudition was earning them huge fortunes on television quiz shows, until it was revealed that they were being provided with the answers in advance.

The story called to my mind an incident that is related in the pages of the Talmud, in which an ancient rabbi had to be provided with the answers to a quiz to which he was about to be subjected.

The episode occurred around the middle of the second century in the aftermath of the catastrophic Bar Kokhba uprising. The leaders of that generation were faced with the difficult task of reconstructing Jewish morale and religious institutions that had been shattered in the wake of the revolt and its ruthless suppression by the Romans.

The official head of the Jewish community at that time was the Nasi Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel who served as the head of the Sanhedrin, the council of sages that was acknowledged as the supreme authority for the interpretation and implementation of Jewish law.

Although he was a well-known scholar and heir to a dynasty of Patriarchs that traced its origins to the illustrious Hillel, Rabban Simeon seems to have been a less assertive leader than most of his princely forebears--or than his son, the renowned Rabbi Judah the Prince. Eventually his authority became a source of dissatisfaction among his colleagues.

We do not know precisely what the issue was that gave rise to the questioning of Rabban Simeon's leadership. The Talmud ascribes the conflict to his introduction of ceremonies and protocols that did not give suitable recognition to the senior sages of the Sanhedrin.

Whatever their motives, two of the prominent rabbis on the Sanhedrin became disgruntled with the Nasi's leadership and looked for a way to force him out of office.

They hit upon the idea of quizzing him about an obscure and rarely studied area of Jewish law known as "uktzin" (dealing with the purity status of the stems and handles of various plants and foodstuffs). If things went according to plan, then it was virtually certain that the Patriarch would be caught unprepared and would be unable to answer the questions that were posed to him.

The plotters hoped that the resulting humiliation would force Rabban Simeon to resign.

Fortunately for the Nasi one of his supporters, Rabbi Jacob ben Korshai, got wind of the conspiracy. On the night preceding the planned confrontation, Rabbi Jacob (in what might be the first documented use of subliminal teaching procedures) stationed himself outside Rabban Simeon's room and set himself to reciting the texts that would form the basis for tomorrow's "quiz." The Nasi, though puzzled at this exotic choice of subject matter, began to suspect that something might be afoot and decided to spend the night brushing up on the material.

Rabbi Jacob's stratagem accomplished its purpose. When the session convened the next day, the Patriarch breezed through the quiz to the amazement of the assembled rabbis, and to the distress of his opponents. The Nasi's authority was reinforced and the rebels were disciplined.

When the full story came to light, it was recognized that the principal blame lay not in Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel's actions, but in his rivals' readiness to disgrace the authority of the Patriarchal office.

Unlike the television quiz-show scandal, there is no suggestion that either party in the Talmudic dispute was motivated by greed, financial gain or personal ambition. As has often happened in the course of Jewish history, the animosities arose over differing perceptions about the proper honours that are due to the Torah and its representatives.

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: JFP, Oct. 13 1994.