This article originally appeared in the Jewish Free Press, Calgary

Of Lamps and Bushels *

From time to time I receive communications from my Adoring Public in which I am encouraged to seek a broader readership than can be reached through an obscure Jewish newspaper from the Canadian wilderness. Recently a reader expressed that sentiment by urging me "not to hide my lamp under a barrel."

The quaint expression caught my fancy. It is rarely heard today, and I doubt that many of those who do use it are aware that it originated in Christian scriptures. The author of the Gospel of Matthew has Jesus exhort his disciples not to be shy about spreading their message, since it makes no sense to light a lamp if you are only going to hide it under a bushel. Rather, it should be set up on a stand from which it can provide light for everyone in the house.

In our metric world, it should be explained that "bushel" translates the Hebrew homer, a container used to measure out a standard volume of grain.

The maxim is one of the few expressions from the New Testament to be cited in the Talmud. However the Rabbis cleverly incorporated the citation into a subtle word-play, as part of an anti-Christian satire that reflects the heated antagonisms between the rival religions in ancient times.

The Talmudic passage in question claims to relate an incident that occurred in the late first century. A local magistrate, described as a "philosopher," was known for his Christian leanings. Although he had acquired a reputation for incorruptible honesty, some of his Jewish neighbors suspected that he was not above being swayed by financial inducements.

Imma Shalom, the sister of the Patriarch Rabban Gamaliel, decided to have some fun at the judge's expense. She approached him one day with a fictitious claim that she was entitled to share in the estate of her recently deceased father. To strengthen her case she brought the magistrate a precious gift, a golden lamp.

Suddenly overcome by egalitarian ideals, the honourable justice acceded to her request and ordered that the inheritance be distributed equally between her and her brother, Rabban Gamaliel.

The latter pointed out that according to the law of the Torah sisters are not entitled to inherit when there is a male heir. To this the judge retorted "Since the day when you were exiled from your land, the Law of Moses has been rescinded and has been replaced by the `Evangelion' which states that sons and daughters inherit as equals."

Although no such rule is actually found in the New Testament, the judge's argument was very much in the spirit of the Christian doctrine that their new faith had rendered Jewish law obsolete.

The following day Rabban Gamaliel returned to court. This time however he did not come empty-handed, but bore a generous gift of his own: a choice Libyan donkey.

The appreciative judge suddenly became receptive to Rabban Gamaliel's point of view. He piously quoted Jesus' proclamation that he had come "not to destroy the Law but to fulfill it." Hence, he argued, the precepts of the Torah may never be abrogated.

From her seat in the courtroom, Imma Shalom blurted out the words "May your light shine like a lamp!" hoping to call the judge's attention to her original bribe--to which her brother quipped cynically:

"It appears that the donkey has come and extinguished the lamp."

To fully appreciate Rabban Gamaliel's gibe we must keep in mind that the Hebrew word for donkey, "hamor," is a homonym of "homer," a bushel. Thus Rabban Gamaliel was ingeniously punning on the well known Christian proverb (which happens to be found in precisely the same chapter that had just been quoted by the judge).

The above anecdote is constructed a bit too symmetrically to be fully credible, and it seems to reflect a considerably later stage in the development of Christianity, after it had effectively severed itself from its Jewish roots and evolved its own distinctive scriptural canon. However it does offer a vivid characterization of the kinds of disputes that could have arisen between Jews and gentile Christians in the third or fourth centuries.

At any rate it does inspire me to reconsider the wisdom of expanding my readership. While some might view such a course as freeing my light from the constraints of a provincial bushel, others will undoubtedly prefer to discourage this old donkey from plunging any more readers into darkness and confusion.

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, August 29 1996, p. 10.
  • Bibliography:
    • M. Güdemann, Religionsgeschichtliche Studien, Leipzig 1876.
    • E. E. Urbach, The Sages: Their Concepts and Beliefs, Cambridge (Mass.) and London 1987.