Q: If God and the Israelites were to play Tic Tac Toe, who would be X and who would be O?
A: God would be X and the Israelites would be O. From where do we derive this? From Psalms 29:11, which says: “God gives strength (oz) to God’s people.”
This “midrash” is playful and punny and will earn you a well deserved groan if you tell it to the right crowd. But it’s not too dissimilar from interpretive methods we’ve encountered repeatedly in the Talmud. The Bible is the rabbinic playground. And as we have seen, the rabbis use their knowledge to construct creative midrashic readings of biblical verses all of the time. Some are easy to follow, others are far-fetched. But are there boundaries for midrash? Are there topics or techniques that are off limits?
This may be the question underlying the following story on today’s daf.
There were these two heretics, one named Sasson (meaning “joy”) and one named Simcha (meaning “happiness”). Sasson said to Simcha: I am superior to you, as it is written: “They shall obtain joy (sasson) and happiness (simcha), and sorrow and sighing shall flee.” (Isaiah 35:10)
Sasson seeks to prove his superiority over Simcha by noting that his name appears first in Isaiah 35:10. Not to be outdone, Simcha responds with his own prooftext:
Simcha said to Sasson: On the contrary, I am superior to you, as it is written: “There was happiness (simcha) and joy (sasson) for the Jews.” (Esther 8:17)
Sasson and Simcha employ a common midrashic technique: utilizing word order to establish priority. The pair are described as heretics, a label that places them outside the community. But how far out of the fold can they be if they are using biblical verses and accepted means of interpretation?
Some commentators suggest that Sasson and Simcha’s heresy is embedded in their midrashim: They read the verses as if they refer to themselves — a bold, self-centered and ultimately heretical approach.
You might indeed argue that their playful read is a display of frivolousness, making light of the rabbis and their interpretive tools. If so, perhaps their heresy is using midrash, a serious tool used to interpret our most sacred text, for a game of personal one-upmanship.
But don’t the rabbis sometimes use midrash in playful ways? Haven’t we seen examples of rabbinic discourse that is silly, competitive and even frivolous?
Maybe there is something else going on here. Let’s read on.
A certain heretic named Sasson said to Rabbi Abbahu: You are all destined to draw water for me in the World to Come, as it is written: “With joy (sasson) you shall draw water.” (Isaiah 12:3)
Sasson predicts that at the end of days the rabbis (or perhaps all Jews) are destined to serve him. Through this midrash he claims superiority over the entire rabbinic endeavor — a far greater claim than he made to his friend Simcha.
But Rabbi Abbahu beats him at his own game:
If it had been written: “for sasson“ it would have been as you say; but it is written “with sasson“ which means that the skin of that person, i.e. you, will be rendered a wineskin, and we will draw water with it.
That sounds painful! Rabbi Abbahu’s comeback turns Sasson’s midrash on its head. Noting that the verse uses the preposition “with” instead of “for,” he interprets the verse literally — Sasson himself will be used to draw water, a gruesome image but perhaps a fitting end for a heretic.
It seems unlikely that Simcha and Sasson are labeled heretics because they dared to be playful with midrash. Nor because they are products of a heretical world outside the rabbis’ sphere of influence. On the contrary — they are insiders who know the Bible and how to read it with midrashic eyes.
More likely they are reviled because Sasson uses midrash to degrade the rabbis — to suggst that their fate will be to serve him — and to assert that he will be rewarded in the World to Come. Given the sharpness of Rabbi Abbahu’s response, it’s not overreaching to suggest this is not the first time that Sasson has made such a claim. That he does so with midrash adds insult to injury, earning him Rabbi Abbahu’s rebuke.
So while the rabbi make room for a playful or lighthearted midrash, they are less tolerant of those who undermine their core beliefs.
Read all of Sukkah 48 on Sefaria.
This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on August 24th, 2021. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.