Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Remembering Pumbedita


Abaye haveh mesader seder Hamaracha...
Abaye listed the order of the alter service based on the tradition according to Abba Shaul.
The arrangement of the large pyre preceded that of the secondary pyre for the incense offerings; the secondary pyre for the incense offerings preceded the placement of the two logs; the placement of the two logs preceded the removal of the ashes from the inner alter...
Talmud Yoma 33a

This esoteric listing of the order of the alter service, virtually incomprehensible even to most Orthodox Jews who include the morning “Korbonot” service as part of their morning prayer service, has been completely dropped by Conservative Jews and is not even included in their prayer books.

Abaye (278-338 CE) listed this order at a time when the Temple itself had been destroyed over two centuries earlier. As the head of the Academy of Pumbedita in Babylonia, Jerusalem and the Temple were only distant memories.

The Academy at Pumbedita (pum=mouth, Bedita=a tributary of the Euphrates) was a major institution of Jewish learning for 800 years (220-1058). It lasted nearly as long as Plato’s famous academy (378-529 CE). The dialogues between Abaye and Rava (Havayot d’Abaye v’Rava) formed the foundation for the dialectic method of Talmudic study. In one such complicated debate over inheritance law between Rav Sheishet of Nehardea and Rav Amram, Rav Sheiset joked, “Are you from Pumbedita, where they push an elephant through the eye of a needle? (Bab Metzia 38b).

The last Rosh Yeshiva, Hezekiah ben David was tortured to death on orders of the Caliph. The Academy was closed, the Jews driven out and name of the city changed to Fallujah. Today, Fallujah is Judenrein, like much of the rest of Iraq.

And every morning, I am reminded of the order of the alter service and the great Academy of Pumbedita, where my intellectual roots were nourished on the dialectics between Abaye and Rava, and just as Abaye prayed for the restoration of the Temple, I dream of the restoration of that great institution of Torah scholarship that was once part of the thriving city of Pumbedita. I imagine a world were Jews can live in Mecca and Mexicans can live in Arizona.

Walter Benjamin writes, “Our image of happiness is indissolubly bound up with the image of redemption. There is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one. Our coming was expected on earth. Like every generation that preceded us we have been endowed with a weak Messianic power, a power to which the past has a claim. That claim cannot be settled cheaply. Historical materialists are aware of this.” (Second Thesis on the Philosophy of History).

For me, the most esoteric parts of the morning service are the most meaningful. We read recipes for incense that has not been burned in two thousand years, details of services abandoned for centuries, rescued from oblivion by the heroic efforts of teachers who believed that if the incense could not be smelled, at least the recipe could be recited. If the meal could not be eaten, at least the order of its preparation could be recalled, reminding us always of how much we have lost; of our hunger.

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