Wednesday, March 4, 2009

It Really is Quite Punny, Rabbi.

When I was in High School, my "diff" (that means "differentiated" or advanced) English class my junior year I think it was, had to do what we called an I-Search paper. The teachers schlepped us down to the university campus, acclimated us to the university library, helped us to become official prime researchers, and then we all completed a 10, 15, 20 whatever page paper on a topic of our choosing. For me, it was Etymology. Instead of focusing on the origins of words, though, I focused on names and the meanings of names. I was fascinated on the studies that concluded that naming your child with a suffix like John Charles Johns II or Steven Lee Jenkins Jr. would make your kid more susceptible to mental illness, or that giving your kid a name like Sergeant would make him more likely to end up in the military or law enforcement (does anyone actually use that name anymore?).

So, while digging and shuffling through papers in my Talmud class, trying without luck to figure out what my term paper would be on, I happened upon the topic of falsifications, fabrications, and downright unrealistic accounts in the Talmud. I'm not saying it to be blasphemous, for there really ARE cases in the Talmud where a story will be told, presenting a lesson or moral quandary, and at the end of the text the rabbis will say outright that the story is a falsification. Sometimes it's not completely outright, and in other instances it's plainly put. I was reading an article by Louis Jacobs on the topic and he said something that perked my interest even more, relating specifically to names.
"Of importance to our investigation is the peculiar phenomenon, found also in Midrash, of attributing rulings and sayings to teachers whose name is a pun on the subject matter of that particular saying e.g. when R. 'Abba bar Memel explains the meaning of the term memel in the Mishnah" (56-57).
Jacobs goes on to explain the possible reasons for this -- whether it was a name attributed to a rabbi because of the saying, whether the scholars were attracted to discussions where their name was an intended pun, or that it's a literary device in which the names of scholars were appended to the sayings because of the pun.

For someone who has always been obsessed with names, their etymologies and their stories, this is the perfect discussion! The question now is whether there is enough out there written about the topic (the signs point to not really right now), so that the professor will approve my research so I can get started.

Anyone know any other instances of such puns on rabbinical rulings/significant words within the ruling? Intriguing stuff!