Posted by: Ken Brown | August 25, 2009

Fun with the Rabbis

Juggling TorchesImage by fretless88.

If your only knowledge of ancient Judaism comes from the New Testament, you may have an impression of the Rabbis as a stern and judgmental bunch, with no tolerance for fun of any sort. If you actually read the Rabbinic literature, however, a rather different picture emerges. Scattered among the legal and moral discussions are numerous humorous stories and quips.

One of those involves Simeon ben Gamaliel, who presided over the Sanhedrin for the two decades before the Jewish War and was chief of the Pharisees during the war with Rome. According to the Jewish Encyclopedia, he was “not merely a scholar, but a man of resolution and courage.” He was known especially for his insistence that no regulations should be imposed on people that they were unable to follow. That’s all important perspective, if you’re tempted to base your view of the Pharisees exclusively on Matthew 23, but that’s not the best part. I was reading the Tosefta‘s description of Feast of Tabernacles this week (for background on John 7-8), when I ran across this unexpected anecdote:

Simeon b. Gamaliel danced with eight flaming torches, and not one of them fell to the ground. (t. Sukkah 4:4)

I’m trying to picture the leader of the Sanhedrin juggling fire, but I’m not sure I can!

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