When Louis Ginzberg died in 1953, he was recognized as the world's upstanding scholar in the field of Talmudic learning. His studies were carried on at the universities of Berlin, Strassburg and Heidelberg, and from 1902 at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where he served with distinction as Professor of Talmud for more than half a century. The following brief selection opened his lecture, "The Significance of the Halachah for Jewish History," delivered at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem during the academic year 1929-1930, which was later published as part of a collection of essays.

With your permission I shall commence my lecture by recounting an incident that happened to me. It is memory from boyhood, which means the time when I had already been liberated from the hard discipline of the master of the heder and, though yet a child of nine, had begun to study, in the traditional phrase, "by myself." I was then studying the tractate Baba Batra. When I reached the tales of Rabbah bar bar Hannah, doubts began to disturb my mind; my peace was particularly troubled by those geese who were so fat that they had streams of oil flowing from them and by the bird that was so big that the waters of the sea reached only to its ankles and its head split the heavens.

My joy was great when I came across a book by one of the "enlightened" of the older generation (if my memory is correct it was the Maphteah by Shatkes), from which I learned that these geese were neither fat nor thin and that the giant bird possessed neither feet nor wings, but that the whole tale was merely a flight of the imagination, or, as the ancients used to say, it was only a parable; the moral I have forgotten.

I was a child then; but when I reached maturity, I realized that in truth, the geese of Rabbah bar bar Hannah were real geese and the giant bird was literally a bird. When regarded as natural creations of folk imagination they lost their strangeness and incomprehensibility. On the contrary, it would be all the more strange if we possessed no such tales; in that case it would be extremely difficult to explain so striking a difference between our people and all others, one involving so great a triumph of reason over imagination that the latter had become completely atrophied.


From: On Jewish Law and Lore, by Louis Ginzberg (Jewish Publication Society of America, 1955; reprinted by Atheneum (New York, 1970).



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