After Purim, Whither Prophesy? The Legacy of the “Hidden Tradition” (And a New Schlemiel-Anniversary)

In the blog entry entitled “The Schlemiel as Prophet (Take 1),” I cited a passage from the Talmudic tractate Baba Batra (12b). The Midrashic passage made the claim that prophesy passed on from the prophets to children and fools. What I didn’t note is the date that prophesy ended: it ended on Purim. Yesterday. This means that today is the anniversary of the first day after the end-of-prophesy.

But what begins after the end of prophesy?

The answer to this question is not so simple. The Midrash from Baba Batra says that after prophesy ends it passes on to fools and children, but Talmud Yoma 39a says that end of prophesy is the beginning of the Oral Tradition.

Here is the passage:

Why is Esther compared to the dawn? To teach you that just like the dawn is the end of the night, so to is Esther likened to the end of all Miracles. But what about Hanukkah? We are talking about miracles mentioned in the prophets. (My translation)

Here, miracles are linked to prophesy. And the reason why Hanukkah is not included within the purview of prophesy is because the Book of Esther is the last recorded prophetic book in the cannon of the written Torah (the book of Prophets – Neveim). The miracles of Hanukkah, which happened chronologically after Purim, are not a part of that cannon and prophetic lineage.

In one of his reflections on Purim, the 18h century Hasidic Rabbi Levi-Yitzchak of Berdichev, who the Kabbalah scholar Gershom Scholem regarded as one of the most important Hasidic mystics, addresses the future of prophesy after Purim.

In this reflection, he begins by citing the line which says that the Jewish people “fulfilled and received”(Esther 9:26) the Torah on Purim. In a Midrash from Tractate Shabbath 88a, we learn that this passage marks a distinction between the acceptance of the Torah through Moses and its acceptance and fulfillment during Purim.

Upon receiving the Torah in Exodus 24:7, the Jews said “we will do and we will understand”(Na’sah v’nishma). In contrast, the Book of Esther says that the Jewish people “fulfilled and received it.” The obvious question is why is the acceptance of the Torah on Purim different? The answer some Rabbis give is that this reception, on Purim, is out of love while the first reception of the Torah was out of fear.

To illustrate, one of the Midrashim in Shabbath 88a details how God turned the mountain over the Jewish people “like a tub” and said if you do not accept it “here will be your grave.”

Rabbi Levi-Yitzchak of Berdichev reads “fulfilled and received” differently:

Mordechai was the last of the prophets as it says in the Talmud (Yoma 29a). We find that until Mordehcai the light of the Written Torah shined. From Mordechai on, prophesy stopped and the light of the Oral Torah began to shine. From Mordechai on begins the Knesseth G’dolah and the canonization of the prayer book. And this is the meaning of “they fulfilled and received” (the Torah): they received and accepted amongst themselves the Oral Torah from Mordechai onwards. Prophesy had ended and the oral tradition began because, in truth, all the time that there was prophesy, that prophesy was written down. When prophesy ended, it was no longer written down and the light of the Oral Torah took precedence. (D’roosh Purim; my translation)

What I find so fascinating about Rabbi Levi Yitzchak’s reading is that he, a mystic, would not mention anything about the “other” new beginning of prophesy; namely, that it is now taken on by children and fools. Moreover, many Hasidim see Purim as a holiday which is all about “turning the world over,” a holiday where foolishness is deemed, to some extent, prophetic. Nonetheless, he bears no mention of this other post-prophetic beginning.

By doing this, he is, in effect, teaching us that this tradition of passing prophesy on to fools and children is either not important or it is a “hidden tradition.” It is, to some extent, esoteric.

The term “hidden tradition” is an expression used by Hannah Arendt to describe the history of pariahs and schlemiels which, for her, starts with Heinrich Heine, in Germany (not in Eastern Europe, with the Hasidim or with Yiddish folklore and literature and not in the pre-modern period). I’d argue that Arendt could have gone back much further so as to understand the beginning of this “hidden tradition” of the schlemiel; namely, to the passage from Baba Batra I cited in “The Prophet as Schlemiel (Take 1).”

The question of what begins after the end of prophesy seems to have two answers that lead us in two different directions. The first answer, the one cited in Talmud Yoma and reiterated by Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev, is that after prophesy ends the oral tradition (the Talmud) begins. Now, Revelation (not prophesy, which is based on Revelation) is confined to learning and, as it says in the Talmud, the “four cubits of Halacha”(Jewish law). The other answer is that after prophesy ends a new type of prophesy arises, one that is given to fools, children, and, as I noted in previous blogs, the man-child, the schlemiel.

Perhaps we can offer a third answer and say that Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berdichev was hinting at this other answer? After all, what is an Oral tradition? If the Hasidim took the Kabbalah to be the Oral tradition, why wouldn’t they include, within that category, the prophesy of fools, children, and schlemiels? Don’t Hasidim record them in many of their stories? Is the schlemiel – in real life – and in its fictional life participating in this hidden tradition? Are Hasidic stories on the schlemiel parts of this hidden tradition? Were they meant to be esoteric?

The answers to these questions are thought-provoking since schlemiels were well-known to all Hasidim and to all non-Hasidim in Eastern Europe. They weren’t esoteric. However, their legacy, their secret, so to speak, is. It is a “hidden tradition” of sorts.

What new tradition begins today, then, the end of Purim? What new tradition should we celebrate on this anniversary?

On the Schlemiel Theory blog, let’s do something foolish. Let’s follow the Midrash in Talmud Yoma and declare the day after Purim to be the end of one kind of prophesy and the beginning of another! This can be the anniversary of the schlemiel’s birth into the Jewish prophetic tradition – the prophetic tradition of exile and the oblique, comic prophet. Today can be the anniversary of the “hidden tradition.”

Happy schlemiel-anniversary!

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