The Good Old Days: Subjective Memories of Weird Al Yankovic & The Talmud

November 5, 2012 at 4:57 am, by

Of course it is comedy, but “Weird Al” Yankovic has a point when he looks back at his sadistic youth (“Torturing rats with a hack-saw / And pulling the wings off of flies”), sung over James Taylor-esque music.

Mr. Yankovic names that era, “The Good Old Days.”

Weird Al’s point is: we all have different definitions of the word “good.”

FUN FACT: Al subliminally makes this point about the word “good” on his album titled Even Worse, reproducing the visuals of Michael Jackson‘s album cover for Bad, the music of which is parodied on “Fat.”

A month ago on the Jewish calendar, right between our two High Holidays (Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur), I was reminded of Weird Al’s questioning of how useful it is to use describe things in terms of “good” or “bad.”

You might be familiar with the Tzom Gedalyah, a fast day commemorating the day when–amidst political turmoil–Jews murdered Gedalyah, a Jewish governor, in the Land of Israel not long before the Destruction of the first Temple in the 6th Century BCE.

A lot of Jews–otherwise “observant” Jews–do not actually fast though on Tzom Gedalyah. For some people, it might be laziness (or hungriness), but actually there’s good reason not to fast these days.

There’s this funny verse in Zechariah that reads basically as follows:

Thus spoke the Lord of Hosts: the fast of the 4th month, the fast of the 5th month, the fast of the 7th month, and the fast of the 10th month will become joy and happiness. (Zechariah 8:19)

About a millennium later, the rabbis of the Babylonian Talmud admit to being puzzled by this verse. They know that there are fasts in each of these months: the 17th of Tammuz, the 9th of Av, Tzom Gedalyah, and the 10th of Tevet–which happen in the 4th, 5th, 7th and 10th months, respectively. The hard part is: how could a fast day turn into “joy and happiness?”

So one sage, Rav Chana bar Bizna, citing another sage (Rabbi Shim’on Chasida), says that the dates of these fasts aren’t always fast days. In times when there is no peace, these 4 dates are fast days. But, when the Jews are living in a time of peace, these will be days of great joy (Rosh Hashanah 18b).

Over the generations, commentators on the Talmud came to ask the obvious question: what qualifies as “a time of peace?”

Rashi (1040-1105 CE), in his notes here, likens the time of peace to the era in history when the Temple was still standing in Jerusalem, or to when there was Jewish autonomy in the Land of Israel.

But this begs the question: Really!?

If you’ve ever read the Books of Samuel or Kings, or mostly any Book of the Prophets, you might have noticed that there’s a lot of fighting. And a lot of these wars take place around the Temple, the Jewish monarchies, or both.

So, basically the rabbinic conceptualization of peace looks like this:

And one of Weird Al’s memories of the good old days resembles this:

I tied her to a chair, and I shaved off all her hair,
And I left her in the desert all alone.
Well, sometimes in my dreams,
I can still hear the screams.
Oh, I wonder if she ever made it home.

Weird Al and the Rabbis agree.

When it comes to nostalgia, we all look back fondly on the good old days, and our memories lead us to different visions of peace (or violence).

So maybe things haven’t gotten so much worse.

“The good old days weren’t always good, / And tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems.” – Billy Joel, “Keeping The Faith”

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