May 2, 2005

by Andrew Silow-Carroll
Is Rumsfeld's quote really from Talmud?

You are one of those rare people who, as the Talmud puts it, would rather light candles than curse the darkness.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, bidding farewell to his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, at a Pentagon ceremony April 29.

Question: Is this really in the Talmud? Can anyone provide a citation? I've seen the expression attributed to an "old Chinese proverb"; alternatively, Adlai Stevenson is quoted as saying it regarding Eleanor Roosevelt.


The actual quote is: Some people would rather set the Talmud alight than curse the darkness.

Posted by: Yori Yanover at May 2, 2005 9:09 PM

I think the original was tiva d'n'hari bavlei mdi arirta hascha, which has been translated variously "Better to burn the Babylonian [Talmud] than to curse the darkness" or "Better to torch Babylon than to curse the darkies."

Not surprising that Rummy knows it.

Posted by: Larry Yudelson at May 3, 2005 10:42 AM

Thanks, jokesters, but before I print an item saying Rummy got it wrong, can you assure me that the Talmud says no such thing?

Posted by: andy at May 3, 2005 10:59 AM

None of the rabbis who use the expression on various web pages ever attribute it to the Talmud. Yitz Greenberg, to take one example, knows his Talmud.

If it is in the Talmud, I would think someone would have started working to correct the vague attribution to "Chinese saying".

But this Rumsfeld guy -- what's his track record on intelligence? I hear he specializes in attributing things to Babylonians that noone else can find.

Posted by: Larry Yudelson at May 3, 2005 2:29 PM

Oops! Just remembered that I have the Soncino Talmud CD-Rom installed on my computer.

"curse the darkness" is not a Talmudic phrase.

Here are the two passages which put curse and darkness in any near proximity:

And thus a Min1 said to R. Abbahu: ‘When will the Messiah come?’ He replied, ‘When darkness covers those people.’ ‘You curse me, he exclaimed. He retorted, ‘it is but a verse: For, behold, the darkness shall cover the earth, and gross darkness the people: but the Lord shall shine upon thee, and his glory shall be seen upon thee.’ [Sanhedrin 99a]

IF HE SPAT BEFORE IT, URINATED BEFORE IT. Whence is this? — Hezekiah said: Because Scripture stated, And it shall come to pass that, when they shall be angry, they shall fret themselves and curse their king and their god and turn their faces upward, and it continues, And they shall look unto the earth, and behold, distress and darkness etc. Thus, although [the heathen] curse his king and his god and turn upward [to the true God], he still looks unto the earth. [Avodah Zarah 53a]

Posted by: Larry Yudelson at May 3, 2005 2:34 PM

I think it would have been a lot funnier if Rumsefeld actually said:

"You are one of those rare people who, as the Talmud puts it, shall look unto the earth, and behold distress and darkness."

Posted by: Silow-Carroll at May 3, 2005 3:49 PM

Since a young age I've been troubled by the notion of opposites in our culture. Very few things are truly the opposite of one another. Take white and black, the ultimate notions in this area: white reflects all light while black absorbs the same. Are they opposite each other? Seems to me they're merely different.

This begs the question, which our Secretary of Defense may yet answer in his particular idiom: Can't we please both curse the dark AND light candles? Why should those two be mutually exclusive? Are we so deprived culturally that we can no longer imagine the luxury of both?

This is very much in line with the notion, popular among tall Democratic presidential candidates setting themselves up for the traditional November dust-biting: "I'm against the war, but I support our troops."

Can one be against the war AND against the troops and still win elections? How about supporting the war but being AGAINST the troops? We shouldn't disregard all those options as we "report for duty" in early August, a duty which, apparently, involves handing the reins of government to a long succession of Bush scions.

So, Mr. R may be surprised to discover that there are some Talmudic Jews who are rather fond of the dark and make it a habit to curse their candles, as in "This @#$%!& yahrzeit candle ran out and it's still full daylight, those cheap bastards!"

*No Talmuds were hurt in the production of this message.

Posted by: Yori Yanover at May 4, 2005 6:29 AM
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