Tractate “Prohibition”People of the Book: Great Works of the Jewish Tradition
Dr. Henry Abramson
“Reverend” Gershon Kiss of Brooklyn captured the spirit of Purim brilliantly in his 1929 parody of the Talmud, “Tractate Prohibition,” which pokes fun at both Rabbinic dialectic and American society. Written in a combination of Hebrew, Aramaic and the occasional Anglicism (“do not read for the Jews there was light and joy va-yikar, rather there was light and joy and liquor”) and formatted like a traditional Talmudic tractate with a “gemara” framed by a Rashi-like commentary, this little-known work makes for excellent reading and even study as part of the holiday festivities.
“Prohibition” refers of course to the bizarre social experiment of the 18th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Passed in 1919, it effectively banned the sale and distribution of alcohol, spawning a massive black market industry catering to the proclivities of large numbers of Americans who chose to flout the law of the land until the amendment was undone by the 21st Amendment (1933). Religious groups were allowed wine for ritual consumption, and Jews had an advantage over Catholics in that the latter only drank sacramental wine in Church, whereas Jews were free to do so at home.
Tractate Prohibition is best enjoyed by readers familiar with Talmudic terminology, who will appreciate its subtle allusions to classic passages Mishnah and Gemara (“ha-kol shokhtin,” the opening of tractate Hulin, is rendered as “ha-kol shotin:” “everyone is eligible to perform ritual slaughter” now reads “everyone is eligible to drink). Even readers with less experience in Talmud, however, will enjoy the social satire evident on every page. The text wonders, for example, if the mandated temperance extends to “Mar Vilson,” meaning President Woodrow Wilson, during whose term the 18th Amendment was enacted. The “Rabbis” conclude that President Wilson is exempted from prohibition “ki gavra rabah hu,” meaning “he is a great man.”
The author obviously had some concern about the legality of his publication, which openly (at least in Aramaic) spoofed American law. The text therefore replaces the traditional approbation (Haskamah) with a disclaimer that “the law of the land is the law.” Still, memorable passages include this hilarious passage that describe the subterfuges utilized by secret drinkers: “MISHNAH: How does one hide the drinks? One hides them in the walls and under the floor, in pits, ditches, and caves, in toilets, bathrooms, and any place out of reach of the police.” GEMARA: The rabbis have taught: The pious ones of olden days used to hide the drinks…but pious ones of our days have decided that there is no hope of storing them, so they immediately store them in their stomachs.”
Tractate Prohibition follows a traditional, jocular mode of “Purim Torah” that stretches back at least to the 14th century, when Kalonymus ben Kalonymus composed “Tractate Purim.” Few, however, have expressed this genre of social satire as well in the American context as well has Gershon Kiss in his classic Tractate Prohibition.
Dr. Henry Abramson is a specialist in Jewish Mystery and Naught, serving as Don at the mighty Avenue J campus of Touro College in Vatican City, Italy. He cannot be reached.
This article appeared in the Purim edition of the Five Towns Jewish Times on March 23, 2016.