Elijah the Thin-Skinned

The Talmud volume of Sanhedrin ends with an amazing contrast between the generosity of even the most elevated mortal – Elijah – and God’s. And it pivots on the hidden meaning of a most curious word.

Elijah is caricatured by Rabbi Jose as being a קפדן – kapdan– a defensive or easily offended character. Some translate it as “hot-tempered.’

When he hears this insult, Elijah gets deeply miffed, ironically confirming libel against him. Know anyone like that? When he gets accused of being defensive he gets defensive?

Why would the Talmud devote itself to dragging down the reputation of a prophet, and in such a dramatic way to end the tractate?

Sanhedrin is  devoted to untangling human from Divine Justice. Throughout, Sanhedrin implicitly – and sometimes explicitly – contrasts G-d’s sense of Divine punishment, justice and mercy and generosity with the desultory, vindictive ones of punitive humans. In short, much of Sanhedrin, and one could even say much of the whole Talmud, is devoted to tempering and restraining the impulse to punish beyond what an infraction deserves. The very last paragraph says that when an evil soul comes into the world, G-d is angry. The point is made. If even Elijah, the greatest of prophets, is given to taking things personally and is given to almost comical human frailty, how can ordinary humans judge when an evil soul comes into the world?

I was taken by the “literaryness” of the last, at first seemingly inocuous, juxtaposition of “Elijah the Kapdan” to HaShem’s anger and sense of justice that forms the finale. Remeber: HaShem says Elijah can only have one of the three “keys” to Divine power (birth, rain, resurrection) at the same time.  HaShem has to rein in Elijah’s peremptory desire to punish by withholding rain.

So I looked for the etymology of kapdan (קפדן). In doing so, we find deep confirmation of that the Gemorah is struggling with human vs. Divine mercy/justice.  By showing that even Elijah, the greatest prophet, is subject to a really weak human foible – excessive defensiveness (he gets really miffed that Rav accuses him of being easily miffed) – we see how failed and limited is even the best judgement of men when measured against HaShem, Who in His Omniscience measures the entire balance of good and evil in the world.

Here is a precis of the etymology of kapdan:

It  is a familar word from Pirke Avot, so I began there [2:6].

Our Sages continue with another important lesson: lo habayshan lamed, v’lo ha kapdan l’lamed. (A bashful person cannot learn, nor can an impatient (strict) person teach.

I then turned to Lewis Glinert, whom I edited a book with when I was at the Technion (he’s at Dartmouth).  He has a good Hebrew etymoloical guide, The Grammar of Modern Hebrew (Cambridge UP). He defines קפדן as “fussy.” (488) More to our point is the other occurrence of קפדן in the Talmud on Yoma 75 contrasting Hillel as just and humble but Shammai as just but harsh.

R. Eliezer was a Talmid of Beis Shamai. He held that the Halachah requires one to be a Kapdan (exacting) regarding matters of Kavod ha’Torah, like Shammai. He acted exactly as he should have. R. Akiva was a Talmid of Beis Hillel. Hillel held that one should always act with humility. Even though both acted according to what they believed to be the Halachah; there was a special reward to R. Akiva for being Ma’avir Al Midosav. Nowadays, after the Halachah was fixed like Beis Hillel, it is a great sin to be a Kapdan like Shamai. -[See http://www.dafyomi.co.il/yoma/halachah/yo-hl-075.htm ]

Rambam’s commentary (Hilchos Teshuvah 2:10) on this is particularly keen. He implies what HaShem’s temperament must be like compared to humans when he says

“It is forbidden to be cruel and to refuse to be appeased. Rather, one must be easy to appease and difficult to anger. When the sinner asks forgiveness, the hurt party should forgive with all his heart and desire. Even if the person sinned greatly, the victim should not bear a grudge or take vengeance.”

Finally, my own two cents:  the root etymology of the Hebrew word is really uncertain, though how the Talmud deploys it is quite clear.  Since it is about the limitations of even the best of the human “judgment brain” or “captaincy” (Elijah, Shammai) could it have its origins in a sly allusion to the Sanhedrin itself? Looking at the ancient Hebrew, it could be a mashup of  קפד (a gathering in Biblical Hebrew) and דן (judgment)? This is after all,  Sanhedrin, the whole of which concerns the composition of the Beth Din, and the measures of human privilege in dispensing judgment, retribution, and mercy.

In any case, I can’t imagine a more fitting and literary conclusion to the volume of Talmud than to juxtapose the human sense of justice with HaShem’s in such a compact and allusive way. It suggests that the Rabbis of the Talmud at least might have been conscious that they were playing Divine Telepathy, trying to read the mind of HaShem, and were cognizant of the limitations – and kedushah – of their activity. It is after all, Torah she be al peh, Oral Torah and thus an extension of what Moses heard from God on Sinai but didn’t write down. And, by further extension, in some humble way, of any Talmud class anywhere: an attempt to understand what was in God’s Mind on Sinai and Its unfolding through history.

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