Wednesday, July 12, 2006

17th of Tamuz and Edgar Allan Poe

The Mishna in Tannit records that 5 bad events occured on the 17th of Tamuz, one being the cessation of the daily sacrifice, the tamid. However, the Bavli does not as it does for the other four events, tell the story of what happened. Only in the Yerushalmi does the complete story appear.

There, in the Yerushalmi, the Talmud records that the Jews were obtaining the necessary animals for their offerings by paying the Romans. Everyday they would lower down a basket full of coins, and in its stead, the Romans would return the animal. As Jerusalem was under siege, this whole process took place from a distance. One day, the 17th of Tamuz, however, after the Jews gave the requisite money, instead of the correct animals the Romans replaced them with pigs. Thus, the Jews were unable to bring the tamid and the sacrifice stopped from that time on.

As mentioned, this story only appears in the Yerushalmi and not the Bavli. Further, Josephus does not record it either. Although these works do not record it, Edgar Allan Poe does. Specifically, he has a story titled "A Tale of Jerusalem" which, more or less, is this story repackaged. You can read the whole story here. But, basically, it describes the two priest whose job it was to lower the baskets of gold. Poe ends with the pigs being raised instead.

Not only does Poe use this somewhat obscure story, he even injects some detail that one would need to be versed in the orignal story to fully appreciate. The priest in question are who belonged to the sect called "The Dashers (that little knot of saints whose manner of dashing and lacerating the feet against the pavement was long a thorn and a reproach to less zealous devotees–a stumbling-block to less gifted perambulators)." This is a play on the talmudic description of the priests - that they are quick - kohanim zerizim hem.

Poe assumes familiarity with the Hebrew alphabet to a degree that one would know the letter yud is the smallest. As he says "thou canst not point me out a Philistine–no, not one–from Aleph to Tau–from the wilderness to the battlements–who seemeth any bigger than the letter Jod!"

The question is where in the world did Poe get this. Now, it seems Poe got this from another novel from "1828, Zillah, a Tale of Jerusalem, by Horace Smith (1777-1849). Poe incorporated whole phrases and sentences from Smith's story: "Poe's story is more than a parody; it is literally a collage of snatches of the Smith novel, cut out and pasted together in a new order." That being said, it seems that Poe was still more familar with this story than Zillah and we are left to wonder did Poe study Talmud? He wouldn't be the first famous American author to do so. Thomas Jefferson had a copy of a volume or two of the Bavli. Although, here, it would appear Poe one upped Jefferson by being a baki in Yerushalmi as well.

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