Pirke Avot Chapter Five, verse eight: accountability and purpose

This week’s verse is an … interesting verse about ten miracles (more or less miraculous) that transpired in the days of the Temple.

Ten wonders were done for our fathers in the Sanctuary. No women miscarried through the smell of the sacred flesh. The sacred flesh never stank. No fly was seen in the slaughter house; and no uncleanness befell the High Priest on the Day of Atonement; and no rain quenched the fire of the wood-pile, and no wind overcame the column of smoke and no defect was found in the sheaf and the two loaves and the shew bread; the people stood close together but had room to bow themselves. No serpent or scorpion did harm in Jerusalem. And no one said to his associate the place is too narrow for me that I should lodge in Jerusalem.

This is R. Travers Herford’s translation, but there doesn’t seem to be any significant disagreement among my translations about the meaning of any of the ten. Mr. Herford referred to other sources, by the way, that have different lists of ten wonders in Temple times, but this is the list that made it into the Mishnah and the liturgy.

The great thing about this verse, you know, from the point of view of rhetoric, is that it manages to do two nearly opposite things at the same time. First, of course, it pays homage to the Temple Times, when things were wonderful and miraculous and the rotten meat didn’t stink and cause miscarriages. Second, it clearly evokes in the reader a relief that we are not in Temple Times ourselves, where it’s only through Divine intervention that we don’t all pass out from the stink, but are unable to fall down because of the crush of bodies. This is one of those themes of rabbinic Judaism, one of the great achievements of rabbinic Judaism I would say: we can venerate our history while not wanting to return to it.

There are poor misguided souls who want to see the Temple rebuilt, who are breeding the red heifer and whatnot, who dream of destroying the Dome of the Rock to clear room for the construction, and so on and so forth. These people are schmucks. The heavenly Jerusalem, yes. Rotten meat and crowds and flies and smoke and wind and rain and scorpions and snakes, not so much. Of course, these schmucks count on the Divine miracles to resume the moment they dedicate the Third Temple, because these schmucks in the backs of their minds think that they should be able to call up miracles from a menu to suit their desires, that the Divine should do their bidding because they are doing the Right Thing, after all.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,

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