Cucumber Magic, Cucumber Illusion

some notes/resources on the planting and reaping of cucumbers (by magic or illusion), “worship of stars,” R. Eliezer, and Christianity. (posted here for Temple Micah’s Hebrew Poetry group and anyone else interested — and to make use of WordPress’ memory, which is better than mine).

Magic Cucumbers and Shabbat

Cucumbers, it is assumed in this text, can be produced by magic/illusion (or, presumably, grown in the usual way). Given that assumption: Is creating magical/illusory cucumbers a violation of Shabbat? (Below the text considers what is permissible to “teach” or “understand.”)

Here’s Soncino’s translation of Sanhedrin 67a (anything parenthetical or bracketed is from Soncino eds, and note #13 is theirs), followed by my own footnote:

Mishnah. A maddiah is one who says, ‘Let us go and serve idols’.*** A sorcerer, if he actually performs magic, is liable [to death]. But not if he merely creates illusions [13] R. Akiva said in R. Joshua’s name: of two who gather cucumbers [by magic] one may be punished and the other exempt: He who really gathers them is punished: whilst he who produces an illusion is exempt.
— Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 67a

(13) I.e., the illusion of doing something, whereas in fact he does nothing.

***Note: The term translated as “serve idols” above is “avodah cochavim” [worship of the stars]. Here’s the Aramaic from e-Daf: the text above is the second Mishnah [מתני] on the page.


Failure of Transmission

The cucumbers re-appear in Sanhedrin 68a, the end of one of the saddest stories in the Talmud, IMO: R. Eliezer — the one who was excommunicated after the oven of Akhnai argument* — is dying. We learn that R. Eliezer had, in addition to his other knowledge, much to teach about cucumbers that was not shared because of the excommunication. Only R. Akiva asked about the cucumbers, and he did so only once. (Again bracketed or parenthetical material is Soncino’s, not mine; ALL CAPS IS MISHNAH quoted within the Gemara):

Moreover, I have studied three hundred, (or, as others state, three thousand laws) about the planting of cucumbers [by magic] and no man, excepting Akiba b. Joseph, ever questioned me thereon. For it once happened that he and I were walking together on a road, when he said to me, “My master, teach me about the planting of cucumbers”. I made one statement, and the whole field [about us] was filled with cucumbers. Then he said, “Master, you have taught me how to plant them, now teach me how to pluck them up”. I said something and all the cucumbers gathered in one place’

Thus from this story we see that he learned this [sc. the producing of cucumbers by magic] from R. Eliezer? — He learned it from R. Eliezer, but did not grasp it, then he learned it from R. Joshua, who made it clear to him.

But how might R. Eliezer do so?[16] Did we not learn, IF HE ACTUALLY PERFORMS MAGIC, HE IS LIABLE? — If it is only to teach, it is different. For it has been said, Thou shalt not learn to do after the abominations of these nations:[17] thou mayest not learn in order to practise, but thou mayest learn in order to understand.[18]

(15) I.e., I have many questions on Torah, but no one to answer them.
(16) Cause cucumbers to grow by magic.
(17) Deut. XVIII, 9. This introduces the prohibitions of necromancy and witchcraft.
(18) R. Eliezer’s action was likewise merely in order to teach.

Here’s the Aramaic from e-Daf. (“planting cucumbers — נטעת קשואין” — appears about four lines before the Aramaic text widens).

Dr. Devora Steinmetz offers an interesting, accessible discussion of Rabbi Eliezer, his learning, and what was lost: “The Death of Rabbi Eliezer – Sanhedrin 68a,” a Mechon Hadar lesson.


More on Eliezer, the Cucumbers, and Christianity
Emmanuel Levinas Nine Talmudic Readings, translated by Annette Aronowicz (Indiana Univ. Press, 1990), presents a long, complex essay on the cucumbers. Didn’t illuminate much for me, even after studying it for a full week with others at the National Havurah Committee‘s summer institute one year; but that doesn’t mean it won’t be useful to someone else.

R. Elie Kaunfer (also from Mechon Hadar, as it happens), shares some material on R. Eliezer’s involvement with Christians (or lack thereof: See BT Avoda Zara 16b).

There is also a fascinating look at Eliezer, with some reference to his relationship to Christianity, in Beruria the Tannait: A Theological Reading of a Female Mishnaic Scholar by Dalia Hoshen. Lanham, MD: Univ. Press of America, 2007.




Oven of Akhnai
Baba Metzia 59b: the popular story about the carob tree getting up and moving, and the river flowing backward, and the walls of the beit midrash nearly falling — all in support of Eliezer’s position about the oven not being kosher, a position he refuses to cede and the other rabbis refuse to accept. Finally a voice from heaven says: ‘Why do ye dispute with R. Eliezer, seeing that in all matters the halachah agrees with him!’ But the other rabbis don’t agree, and finally Eliezer is excommunicated…. Eliezer is so wounded that, when his wife, Ima Shalom, one day fails to prevent his “falling on his face in prayer,” he prays and her brother dies. (“All gates are locked, except the gate of wounded feelings.” )

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