Sunday, June 18, 2006

New Thing to Learn Today

There's no point to this post, just a little fact that I found to be interesting.

R. Sherira, Gaon at Pumbedita ( circa 969-998) reported in a responsum that he and his predecessors used secret police to spy upon people to be sure that they meticulously observed the Passover injunctions against leaven. (Mann, Jacob. The responsa of the Babylonian geonim as a source of Jewish history, p. 186)

Secret police, wow. It's amazing how things change and how things stay the same.

8 comments:

XVI (R) - NY said...

Not very surprising. war tactics havent changed in millenia and thats really all that this is. A response from the rabbinate to a situation. The better question, in my opinion, is what theyre response to the gleaned information was. Public debasement? Blackmail?

If that was the case, then my rabbis were all right. the mesorah IS strong.

Orthoprax said...

Xvi,

From my reading it seems that flagellation and excommunication were frequent punishments for ritual transgressions. Though public debasement and even cutting off people's hair and beards were used as well. Imprisonment was also used on occasion, often during the actual holidays when no other punishment could be given.

Jewish communities at that time were extremely powerful within their own sphere. Since Jews could hardly live outside of the community the punishments could be very severe. The loss of power to the beiti din after Jewish emancipation changed the whole structure of Jewish life. Cherem just didn't mean as much as it used to.

alex said...

"to spy upon people"
/Any/ people? Or just /specific/ people?

XVI (R) - NY said...

Ortho, that may clear things up a bit then.

Assuming that jewish law was THE law, the rabbonim were not merely responding to a religious threat but to a governmental one as well. Transgression of halakhic laws was a statement against society and the monarchy as well as a religious aveira. The secret police could then be considered an entity of the state acting as a government agency.

The comparison to todays strong-armed rabbinical tactics is a bit weaker for the argument as are their excuses for them.

Orthoprax said...

Alex,

I'm not sure, the source doesn't specify. I could imagine that they had their special suspicions on certain people.


Xvi,

"Transgression of halakhic laws was a statement against society and the monarchy as well as a religious aveira. The secret police could then be considered an entity of the state acting as a government agency."

Well, yes, though I wouldn't call it a monarchy per se, more theocracy. The harsh treatment for breaking ritual laws was less related to breaking societal norms as much as it was a reaction against the Karaite heresy. Rabbinical Gaonim had to crack down (from their perspective) to keep people from becoming Karaites.

"The comparison to todays strong-armed rabbinical tactics is a bit weaker for the argument as are their excuses for them."

While some of the punishments are different, the point is that modern insular Haredi and Hasidic communities still crack down in the sense to keep people from becoming modern day heretics - i.e. simply skeptical of Orthodox dogma.

Anonymous said...

What bothers me about this is a, the minutia of leaven is just that -- minutia, b, the people probably didn't have all that much to eat in the first place. and c, where would the secret police get their information and how does the beit din know that it's reliable?
Sheesh. It reminds me of some of the Inquisitions.
Makes you wonder if what was really going on was that someone had a brother in law in the hechsher business, and wanted to makes sure enough business got steered his way at Pesach.

Another anon.

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