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April 25, 2014 / 25 Nisan, 5774
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Posts Tagged ‘Holy One’

Had Gadya: Harbinger Of The Future

Wednesday, April 28th, 2004

Had Gadya, the playful, threatening and ultimately reassuring song that ends many Seder evenings among Ashkenazi Jews, has a long history in the Haggada. It emerged from German folk songs to be first printed in the Prague Haggada of 1595. The classic commentators have equated the kid with the Jewish people and each succeeding animal as an oppressor of Israel, from the cat representing Assyria to the Angel of Death representing the Turks. In the end, the Holy One triumphs, thwarting death with the messianic redemption. Among the illustrious commentators are Jonathan Eybeschetz (1690-1764), the Vilna Gaon (1720-1797) and the Hatam Sofer (1762-1839). In the early 20th century, two artists, El Lissitzky and Menachem Birnbaum provided contrasting interpretations. One artist looks back to find Jewish hope, and the other peers darkly into the Jewish future.

El Lissitzky’s (1890-1941) Had Gadya is easily the most famous and frequently reproduced visualization of this song. He grew up in Vitebsk, Russia and after the 1917 revolution joined Chagall teaching in the Vitebsk art school. He was deeply involved in the movement to recreate Jewish culture in Russia, especially in the publication and illustration of Yiddish books. This Had Gadya of color lithographs published in Kiev in 1919 was limited to 75 copies, while a second edition in 1923 of 1,000 was printed in black and white. Soon after the 1919 edition, El Lissitzky turned his attention to the most radical modern art movement of the time, Constructivism. Along with fellow Russian, Casimir Malevich, he created a totally abstract visual language, merging aspects of painting and architecture. The seeds of this new vision are clearly visible in Had Gadya.

The first page, “My father bought…” exhibits the pattern that will repeat throughout. Each page is dedicated to one verse presented in Yiddish that is integrated into the architectural design arching over the main scene. The signature Aramaic phrase for the verse is creatively lettered at the bottom right to balance the elaborate pagination in the upper left. The lettering is
frequently color coded with a character, such as the green word tateh corresponding to the green in the father’s face. On the first page, a rainbow arches down from heaven with its promise of peace while the shtetl, the father, child and the goat reside innocently below. The ground is blood red.

“Then came the cat” releases a savage fury of the red feline, claws and teeth bared, leaping over the slain goat. The background has broken up into a disjunctive abstract design. Brutal nature has taken over as Heaven looks on passively.

The dog cowers, whimpering with its tail between its legs beneath the threatening stick. Mankind enters the narrative song violently, as a rooster-shaped fire (reflecting Yiddish slang for arson) devours the stick. The fire, erupting from the tops of the buildings, strongly suggests the shtetl and synagogue burning, a vision all too familiar to Russian Jews. Respite from the
violence is seen on the sixth page as a giant fish spews water to smother the fire. The image echoes with Shabbos peace as the village water carrier reacts in awe to the supernatural effusion.

“Then came the ox” is seen on the seventh page, the most placid, kind and gentle red ox slowly lapping up water from a stream. Nature, domestication and the little shtetl are in complete harmony until the shochet enters next, with his long slaughtering knife. He gestures Heavenward in explanation to the un-protesting ox, seeming to say, “It is all part of G-d’s plan…” Nonetheless the sky begins to darken.

The Angel of Death haunts the vision of the dead shochet as the candle flame is about to be blown out. Death is sudden and shocking. Finally “Then came the Holy One” asserts G-d’s sovereignty and power. Death is destroyed, the goat and the man are revived and the All Seeing Eye rules, brandishing a knife of power.

El Lissitzky has shaped the song into a traditional meditation on violence. In nature, it erupts spontaneously, spiraling out of control until anti-Semitic mankind’s intervention can actually make it worse. Nonetheless the Jewish Sabbath and the fixed patterns of Jewish life tame the violence until we all succumb to the Angel of Death that will be finally vanquished by the Holy

There are some interpretations that maintain that El Lissitzky meant to depict the new Soviet revolution as ultimate redeemer from death, but the symbols he allegedly used, pale next to the power of the traditional interpretations. His thoroughly radical form points resolutely to Western modernism and not to reactionary Soviet art.

A very different vision of Had Gadya is seen in the hand-colored plates Menachem Birnbaum (1893-1944) created in 1920 Berlin. He was a portraitist and graphic artist, the son of Nathan Birnbaum, Zionist ideologue who originated the term “Zionism.”

His work commences with a most beguiling image of a Chasidic father cradling a kid in his arms, his daughter reaching up to the helpless animal. Next, the broad black form of the cat is seen from above mauling the helpless goat in a pool of blood. A vicious dog swings the tiny figure of the cat in a blood-splattered trajectory that amplifies the horror of violence. Then an
enormous cudgel bloodily smashes the dog with a savage force that seems to echo contemporary political violence. While there is a respite in the cooling rain that extinguishes the fire the violence begins again as the ox is mercilessly slaughtered by a grim faced shochet. In what might be the most shocking image of the series, the Angel of Death claims his victim by simply covering his eyes from behind, his glistening wings and bony hands the only fatal
instruments visible.

With Birnbaum, we have entered a terrible world of mindless violence and death, one that reflects the unrelenting brutality of the First World War. It is – in spite of his rather traditional representation – the Modern Age. Birnbaum’s images are graphic, spare and unrelenting. In the years that followed, Birnbaum had some success working in two Jewish publishing houses, but he was finally forced to flee by the Nazis. He was captured in Holland, deported and murdered in Auschwitz. His Had Gadya was prophetic.

Birnbaum’s work sees darkly into the future, wrenching a terribly modern meaning from the ancient song of the Haggada, allowing G-d to appear only as a shaft of light in the final darkness. El Lissitzky’s optimism is based on Jewish tradition and a secular, revolutionary zeal that, the Messianic age could be brought about, by mankind. These two visions will haunt the
ending of this year’s Seder and many to come.

Had Gadya: The Only Kid; illustrated by El Lissitzky (1919), Facsimile published by Getty Research Institute, Editor, Arnold Band, Introduction, Nancy Perloff, 2004.

Chad Gadjo, illustrated by Menachem Birnbaum (1920). Courtesy Kestenbaum and Co. (January 27, 2004 Auction)

Richard McBee is a painter of Torah subject matter and writer on Jewish Art. Please feel free to contact him with comments at www.richardmcbee.com.

Q & A: Reincarnation?

Wednesday, September 10th, 2003
QUESTION: I am told that Eliahu was a reincarnation. Who was he?
R. Gold
Bronx, NY
ANSWER: We refer to a previous discussion, where we described Eliahu as being a reincarnation of Pinhas ben Eleazar ben Aharon HaKohen. But first let us delve into the matter of reincarnation.The term “reincarna-tion” refers to the re-establishment of the soul in a different body. In Hebrew it is called gilgul - the phenomenon of a soul that wanders and transmigrates into another body. This topic is discussed in sifrei Kabbala such as the Zohar, and by authors ranging from Nachmanides to the Ari (R. Isaac Luria) to name but a few. In his Sefer Hagilgulim, Rabbi Chayyim Vital, who was the great disciple of the Ari, attributes to his teacher great power of discernment in matters of gilgulim. The concept found its way into Hasidism as well (see Otzar Erchei HaYahadut p. 126). On the other hand, there  were great scholars, among them the Rambam and Raavad, who expressed opposition to this concept.

A related topic is the dybbuk, a term that is derived from “lehiddabbek,” to attach oneself. In this case a soul that is hopelessly wandering attaches itself to a living person. An incident of this kind is described in Shiv’chei HaAri, a collection of stories on the life of R. Isaac Luria. It involved his disciple, R. Chayyim Vital, also known as Chayyim Calabrese (the family originated from southern Italy). The story also appears in the monumental English work The Dybbuk by Gershon Winkler. Rabbi Chayyim Vital exorcised a dybbuk that was tormenting its host, an elderly widow. This incident appears to have taken place in the middle of the 16th century.

There is also a more recent incident, connected to the Chofetz Chayim, that is described by Rabbi Usher Katzman, Rosh Yeshiva in Mesivta Torah Vodaath, as well as in Gershon Winkler’s cited work. It concerns driving away a dybbuk from a young girl in Fascoli, a village not too far from Radun (Radin), in 1909. At the head of the group of sages “commissioned” by the Chofetz Chayim to effectuate the exorcism was the martyred sage, R. Elchonon Wasserman. Also involved were the famous R. Yeruchem Levovitz, the mashgiach ruchani in Radun and later in Mir; R. Elya Dushnitzer, a talmid of the Chofetz Chayim, and later the Rosh Hayeshiva of the Lomzhe Yeshiva in Petach Tikvah (Israel); and the Chofetz Chayim’s son-in-law, R. Hirsh Levinson. This story was independently confirmed to Rabbi Katzman by Rabbi Joseph Kahaneman, the late Ponivezher Rav in Israel.

The common trait in these two episodes was that the wandering souls were wicked ones that were destined to be at the constant whim of the “kaf hakela” (literally “the hollow of a sling,” used to indicate an instrument of torture to which the wicked are subject in the hereafter - see I Samuel 25:29).

In fact, the term gilgul, especially in its connection to a dybbuk, is seen as representing a soul that has not found an entry to the hereafter and comes back to this world for restoration and completion.

In light of the above we can hardly use the term “reincarnation” or “gilgul” in connection with Pinhas ben Eleazary ben Aharon HaKohen, since he, more than anyone else, exemplifies the fulfillment of obligations, as seen in the text of Scripture. We are told (Bamidbar ch. 25) of the terrible plague that befell the people because of the immorality of Zimri b. Salu, a leader of a father’s house of the Tribe of Shimon, and Kozbi b. Tzur, the daughter of the Midianite King: “Vayar Pinchas ben El’azar ben Aharon Hakohen vayyakam mitoch ha’eda vayyikach romach be’yado. Vayyavo achar ish Yisrael el hakubba vayyidkor et sheneihem, et ish Yisrael ve’et ha’isha el kovatah, va’tei’atzer hamagefa me’al bnei Yisrael.” “Pinhas son of Eleazar son of Aaron the Priest saw [what had happened], and he arose from among the assembly and took a spear in his hand. He went after the Israelite man into the tent and pierced them both, the Israelite man and the woman through her stomach, and the plague was halted from the Children of Israel.” Pinhas took action because he saw that Moshe was perplexed about the law that states that when an Israelite cohabits with a Gentile, “kana’im pog’im bo,” namely, a zealous one may slay him (see Rashi, Tractate Sanhedrin 82a).

The following portion, Parashat Pinchas, describes how Hashem was assuaged by this behavior of Pinhas (Bamidbar 25:11-13): “Pinchas ben El’azar ben Aharon Hakohen heshiv et chamati me’al bnei Yisrael bekan’o et kin’ati betocham velo chiliti et bnei Yisrael bekin’ati. Lachen emor, Hineni noten lo et briti shalom. Ve’hay’ta lo u’lezar’o acharav brit kehunat olam tachat asher kinei l(e)Elokav … ” “Pinhas, son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the Priest, turned away My anger from upon the Children of Israel when he zealously avenged Me among them, so I did not consume the Children of Israel in My anger. Therefore say, Behold, I bestow upon him My covenant of peace (i.e., the priesthood). And it shall be for him and his offspring after him a covenant of eternal priesthood because he was zealous for his G-d …” We have to understand this reward in the context of the fact that at the time that Aaron and his sons were designated as priests, Pinhas was in a “no man’s land” in regard to priesthood. He was not anointed because he was still a minor, and he could not qualify, like the unborn offspring, for priesthood from birth. It was with this zealous action that he acquired the priesthood that was rightfully his.

Ibn Ezra points to the word acharav, meaning “after him,” as proof that Pinhas eventually died and that he was not Eliahu. On the other hand, the Midrash (Bamidbar Rabbah 21:4) sees in the words “briti shalom,” “My covenant of peace,” that Pinhas lived on. It cites a verse from Malachi (2:5), “Briti hay’ta ito hachayyim ve’hashalom - My covenant was with him for life and peace,” meaning that he was given both everlasting life and everlasting priesthood.

R. Bachye notes that the word mila (circumcision) is an acrostic for “he will not die.” That would explain the tradition that “Pinhas is Eliahu” – Pinhas continued to live and eventually became known as Eliahu. The Alsheich also agrees that “Pinhas is Eliahu.” The Or HaChayyim deduces that “Pinhas is Eliahu” from the Prophet Elijah’s statement (I Kings 19:10), “Kano kineiti laShem Elokei Tzeva-ot ki azevu [b]rit’cha bnei Yisrael – I have been very zealous for the L-rd G-d of hosts (says Eliahu): for the Children of Israel have forsaken Thy covenant.” This is understood to mean that at the time of the wicked King Ahab the Israelites had abandoned the performance of circumcision. The similarity of terms (“bekan’o et kin’ati” and “kano kineiti”) is used to explain the Sages’ opinion that Pinhas is Eliahu, and he will be the bearer of good tidings at the conclusion of our final exile.

There are also Talmudic sources that seem to support the premise that Eliahu is Pinhas. Tractate Bava Metzia (114a) relates the incident of Raba b. Abbuha who encountered the Prophet Elijah in a cemetary of idolators and began to ask him halachic questions. When the questions were answered Raba asked him: Are you not a priest? Why, then, do you stand in a cemetery? (Priests are forbidden from entering a cemetery.) Whereupon Elijah asked Raba: Have you not learned a baraitha in the name of R. Shimon bar Yochai stating that the graves of idolators do not defile? Rashi (ad loc.) points out that this passage indicates that Eliahu is Pinhas.

It is stated in Tractate Kiddushin (70a): Rabbah son of R. Adda also said - others state, R. Salla said in R. Hamnuna’s name - that he who marries a wife who is not fit for him, Eliahu restrains him and the Holy One, blessed be He, lashes him. And a Tanna taught (in another baraitha) that concerning all these Eliahu writes (inscribes) and the Holy One, blessed be He, seals: “Woe to him who disqualifies his seed, blemishes his family and him who takes to wife one who is not fit for him, Eliahu restrains him and the Holy One, blessed be He, lashes him.” The Maharsha (ad loc.) states that this refers to bringing illegitimate children into the world.

This last Talmudic passage is consistent with Pinhas’ action of meting out punishment to Zimri, as recorded in Bamidbar.

Printed from: http://www.jewishpress.com/judaism/ask-the-rabbi/q-a-reincarnation/2003/09/10/

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