On few similarities in Plato and Talmud

Term Paper, 2006

11 Pages, Grade: A-


Short Index:

0. Short Introduction

1. The Tricky Waters – Illusion and Truth

2. The Case of Aher

3. A Greek Connection?

4. The Closeness of the Whole Difference

5. A possible Historical Conclusion

0. Short Introduction

In חגיגה יד-טו ע"א we learn of four Jewish sages[1] that entered the "Pardes" ( פרדס ). There is no nearer explanation in the text for what "Pardes" actually stands for, and there are different opinions about it,[2] only the described situations in this context can give us an idea about it.

In this short work I want to compare this passage and some of its images, symbols and features with some places in Plato's Phaedo that in my opinion can be fruitful for a better understanding for both texts vice versa - in the Platonic and in the Talmudic text.

1. The Tricky Waters – Illusion and Truth

"When you will come to the pure marble stones, do not say this is surely water!"[3] ( כשאתם מגיעין אצל אבני שיש טהור אל תאמרו מים מים! ) This is the advice Rabbi Akiva gives the other three sages when entering the Pardes. He justifies his saying with a sentence from Psalm 101 "he that speaketh falsehood shall not be established before my eyes."[4] Thus obviously the sages are cautioned not to lie in this connection. The first of the sages "looked" and died. The second one "looked" and get hurt.

About the sage that died Psalm 116 is quoted: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints." And about that one that get hurt Proverbs 25 is quoted: "Hast thou found honey? Eat as much as is sufficient for thee, lest thou be filled therewith, and vomit it." The third sage, who is called "the other" (Aher) gets less hurt, but "cuts the roots" and the fourth (Rabbi Akiva himself) leaves the Pardes without any noticeable change.

All together it seems that these sages saw something, which can be described as something quite positive, but which is not bearable in all cases. Especially from the quote of Proverbs 25 it appears that from what the sage (Ben Soma) got hurt, was nothing negative or hostile in nature, but something quite positive (the "honey") that he saw, just in a too high 'dose' for him. As we will see this is also the case for the third sage, the "other". Also the first sage (Ben Asai) that get killed by seeing it, is not mentioned in a negative manner, but is called a "saint", which death has some kind of positive connotation. So again, what has been seen here, is something potentially positive or "good", but which is quite dangerous and can hurt a person according to his character, since no outer difference is mentioned to us.

But how is this connected to the first warning of Rabbi Akiva not to claim that pure marble is actually water and the accompanying warning not to speak "falsehood"?

Before I will try an explanation, I want at this point to insert an abstract from Plato's Phaedo. Socrates – after trying to observe the world in a sensational way – describes a danger in the next step of knowledge:

"Socrates proceeded: I thought that as I had failed in the contemplation of true existence, I ought to be careful that I did not lose the eye of my soul; as people may injure their bodily eye by observing and gazing on the sun during an eclipse, unless they take the precaution of only looking at the image reflected in the water, or in similar medium. That occurred to me, and I was afraid that my soul might be blinded altogether, if I looked at things with my eyes or tried by the help of the senses to apprehend them. And I thought that I had better have recourse to ideas, and seek in them the truth of existence. I dare say that the simile is not perfect -- for I am very far from admitting that he who contemplates existence through the medium of ideas, sees them only "through a glass darkly," any more than he who sees them in their working and effects. "[5]

At this passage Plato lets Socrates point out an interesting point in his epistemology: The way to the truth - in Plato's texts often referred to as pure ideas, which are mostly like attributes of "negative theology" (ideal beauty, the ideal good, the ideal big) - is not to look at the world directly. Plato uses here the image of the sun. In Plato's texts we can find that the sun often symbolizes the highest truth and knowledge, and so also here.

Socrates warns his students: Never look straight into the sun, even if there are special circumstances, like an eclipse, that seem to offer the possibility to surely see the shape of sun. The only possible thing that can be done, is using a mirror-like medium like water and look at the images or reflections to study the real thing, although this is quite less "close" to the truth that looking right into it. There are only this two possibilities: See the truth "darkened", nebulous and in images or to see it for real and get blinded and hurt at the "eye of the soul". In this case one would strongly believe to know the truth (which would also be partly correct), but actually left all orientation and sight and would ultimately claim a wrong knowledge although in the full content to say the truth. Of course this is an image for reaching knowledge in general. Socrates points out his epistemological method, which is quite idealistic and disapproves materialism: "I first assumed some principle which I judged to be the strongest, and then I affirmed as true whatever seemed to agree with this, whether relating to the cause or to anything else."


[1] They are: Ben Asai, Ben Soma, Aher ("the other") and Rabbi Akiva.

[2] Some say it means "Paradise" or Heaven, others a mystical sphere.

[3] My own translation.

[4] All quotes in English, if not stated different from: Epstein, I.: Hagigah, Sonciono, London 1984.

[5] Plato: Phaedo, XLVIII.

Excerpt out of 11 pages


On few similarities in Plato and Talmud
The Politicsof the Talmud
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ISBN (eBook)
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A quite unconventional approach to understanding of few places in Plato's Phaedo and a place in the Talmud (Chagiga 14b...) that show various similarities.
Plato, Talmud, Politicsof, Talmud
Quote paper
Ulrich Becker (Author), 2006, On few similarities in Plato and Talmud, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/57428


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