Friday, December 31, 2010

The frog midrash

In this post, "Parshablog" notes the great similarity between several midrashim on frogs and verses in Shemot which describe the Israelite's experience in Egypt. As one possible explanation, he suggests that the rabbis in the midrash wanted us to see the plague of frogs as punishment for the oppression of Israel. Thus, they told various additional stories about the plague, which were not historically accurate, but serve to highlight the thematic connection they were drawing.

But where else do we see midrashim intended as literary parables, in which the authors make clear that the events in them did not actually happen? My impression is that's rare to nonexistent, much as it would make understanding midrash easier for lazy people like me.

Rather, let us note the pshat basis for saying that the frogs were punishment for earlier sins. The Egyptians tried to prevent being overrun by the Israelites' growth ("vayishretzu"), and they were punished by being overrun by frogs ("vesharatz"). They tried to throw the swarming Israelites into the Nile, and as punishment frogs swarmed out of the Nile and overwhelmed them. On a pshat level, the Egyptians were likely supposed to look at the content of the plague, and realize that it was a measure-for-measure punishment.

If so, then all the midrash adds is the assumption that the measure-for-measure-ness was complete and exact. With that assumption, it takes every available piece of information about Israel's experience, and concludes that the exact same thing must have happened regarding the frogs.

Why make this assumption?

Both modern and medieval Jews are often forced into a corner somewhat regarding our religious beliefs. The Rambam, based on his understanding of philosophy, was forced to say that many stories in the Torah (i.e. Bilaam's donkey talking) were allegorical. We are forced to say that the world was not actually created in six days. Pashtanim in general are forced to say that sometimes Tanach was grammatically irregular or imprecise. In all these cases, outside factors override what seemed to be the Torah's position, but we are willing to compromise since we believe that enough of the "core" issues remain unaffected.

Perhaps the distinguishing characteristic of midrash is that it is never willing to make such a compromise.* It is never willing to admit that a verse (or letter) of the Torah cannot be understood and thus is invalid as a source for halacha. Similarly, it is never willing to limit the number of miracles in a story based on considerations of reasonableness. Thus, once it decides upon an interpretation such as "the plague of frogs was a punishment for the attempts at population control, and the punishment should fit the crime", it proceeds to insert every single detail of the crime into the punishment. Once we have decided that the Torah's message is that the crime and punishment are related, how can any external factors impede or limit what the Torah is trying to convey?

*By the way, I think it's too simplistic to say that charedim today follow this approach. It might be more accurate to say that Chazal claimed to know everything, we claim to know something, and charedim claim to know nothing and thus repeat the Chazal's statements without presuming to fully understand them.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Pharoah's punishment

The question is often asked: How could God harden Pharaoh's heart, denying Pharaoh the right to repent and thereby avoid punishment? It is usually explained that in the first five plagues Pharaoh hardens his own heart, and only from the sixth plague onwards is his heart hardened by God. So in fact he had many chances to repent, but eventually the sin became so ingrained in him that it was not realistic to talk of his repentance.

While not incorrect, I find this to be a weak formulation of the real answer. For it was not only during the plagues that Pharaoh had things to repent for, and chances to repent. Were the plagues a punishment for not letting them go worship God in the desert right now, as Moshe requested? Is that the only thing Pharaoh did wrong? What about the slavery, the killing of babies, and so on?

It may be that the content of the plagues hints that they were punishments for these earlier and greater sins. One wonders if the Egyptians, confronted with a bloody Nile, remembered the babies they had thrown in it. Or when their food supply was destroyed by locusts and hail and they probably had to buy food from neighboring countries, if they thought of their ingratitude towards Yosef's descendants. These plagues seem like "measure for measure" punishment for injustices that reach back centuries.

After the plagues, letting the Jews go celebrate a holiday would not have been repentance, but rather self-preservation. God hardened Pharaoh's heart to prevent such an escape from punishment. But there was no need to harden his heart to prevent repentance for the earlier deeds, because Pharaoh never considered real repentance for them. Even before his heart was repeatedly hardened, he never offered to end the slavery, only to let the people leave for a few days and then return.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Esther's ethnicity

(This is an incomplete summary of a shiur from R' David Fohrman which I thought interesting. His book on Breishit is interesting as well.)

Three things are mentioned about the appearance Vashti was supposed to make at Ahashverosh's party. 1) She was to show off her beauty. 2) She was to wear a crown. 3) The audience was the assembled princes of the empire.

This strange request can be understood as follows. Vashti was a living symbol of the Persian empire - like the Statue of Liberty is nowadays for the US. Like in modern advertising where beautiful women are displayed to market cars or soft drinks, Vashti wearing a crown was shown off to market the beauty of the crown and the Persian empire. When she refused to do this, she implied that the empire had no beauty to show off. Thus Ahashverosh became so angry at her.

Vashti's replacement was supposed to fix her flaw, and successfully represent Persia. For this purpose, the replacement had to be identifiable as Persian. Mordechai asked Esther not to mention her origin. Precisely because she had no discernable non-Persian identity, unlike residents of the other 127 provinces, Ahashverosh was able to choose her as representative of the kingdom.

When Haman's decree became know, Esther was presented with a dilemma. If she spoke up on behalf of her people, she would lose the "non-ethnic" quality which was why she became queen in the first place. Thus, she did not directly request this, even when Ahashverosh promised her "up to half the kingdom". Instead, she attempted to trap Haman, and thus to get both him and his decree removed.

She was half-successful in this. Haman was discovered on her bed, but was immediately killed, before Esther could ask for any decrees associated with him to be revoked. Now Esther's only option was to ask directly for the decree to be revoked.

At this point, for the only time in the Megillah, she fell at Ahashverosh's feet and cried and begged. Despite this display of emotion, Ahashverosh refused! He did not divorce Esther for declaring her identity, but neither did he grant her request. He only allowed for a parallel decree to be issued allowing the Jews to defend themselves. Luckily this was enough, and the Jews lived happily ever after.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

Yad Vashem

...ונתתי להם בביתי ובחומתי יד ושם...
Thus says Hashem to the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, and choose what I desire, and uphold by covenant: I shall give them, in my house and my walls, a hand and a name, better than sons and daughters. (Yeshayahu 56:5)

I don't know if this post is more pshat or vort, but it sounds nice, so I'll say it.

The above verse is repetitive and hard to understand. What is the point of mentioning "wall" after mentioning "house"? And what is the relevance of a "hand" here?

Elsewhere, as in the Gemara, the word "yad" refers to a "handle", an implement by which an object is grasped. Perhaps that is the same meaning here: a "yad" is some sort of useful object. This is in contrast to a "shem", which conveys a message rather than being being used as a tool toward some objective. Thus, this phrase first talks about something practical ("yad"), and then something symbolic ("shem").

If so, then this phrase is parallel to the previous phrase: "my house and my walls". A useful object ("yad") is contained in your house, while a symbol ("shem") is posted on the walls of your house for everyone to see. The verse promises that the person who is loyal to God will receive both.

Similarly, when we want to memorialize someone, there are two things we must do. We must make a "shem" - by speaking of them and keeping their memory alive. And we must make a "yad" - by carrying out their intended mission in the world.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Shifrah and Puah

Were Shifrah and Puah the only two midwives at the time of Pharaoh's decree? If not, why are only they mentioned?

Let us assume the Jewish people grew from 70 to 600000 males over the course of about 200 years. To make this biologically possible, you have to assume roughly constant (and large, of course) family size throughout the period, which means exponential growth.

Let us assume the midwives' refusal happened midway through the 200 years - that is, 100 years before the end. It must have been at least 80 years before the end, since Moshe was born after the decree was instituted.

By the laws of exponential growth, at that time there were sqrt(70*600000)=6481 Jewish males, and a roughly equal number of females.

Let us assume that each woman alive at that time had 10 kids in her lifespan. That means 64810 births. Assuming a lifespan of 40 years (it was the ancient world), and 365 days per year, it follows that on average 64810/40/365=4.4 births occurred each day.

Would two midwives be able to handle 4.4 births a day? With that birthrate, I think I'd prefer to have maybe 5 to 10 midwives. But as physicists say, the answer has the correct "order of magnitude". We made several big assumptions in this calculation, and nevertheless, the results are not far from what we expected. Anyway, if there was a moderate shortage of midwives, no wonder births often occured before the midwives managed to arrive (Shemot 1:19).

In conclusion, it's within the realm of possibility that there were only two midwives at the time.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Shemot chapter 1

Every year, upon beginning parshat Shemot, I am struck by the same thing. The first few lines repeat things we already know from Sefer Breishit. But the style is different - extremely concise and abrupt relative to the original story. Here are four examples.

"Yaakov, him and his household came." (Shemot 1:1)

"They took their cattle, and their property which they acquired in the land of Canaan, and came to Egypt: Yaakov and all his offspring with him. His sons and grandsons, daughters and granddaughters and all his offspring, he brought with him to Egypt." (Breishit 46:6-7)

"These are the names of the sons of Israel, who came to Egypt: [...] Reuven, Shimon, Levi, Yehudah, Yissachar, Zevulun, Binyamin, Dan, Naftali, Gad, Asher. All those who came out from Yaakov's loins were seventy people, and Yosef was in Egypt." (Shemot 1:1-5)

Breishit 46:8-27 lists every son and grandson, categorizes them by mother, counts them up, and eventually reaches the total of 70 people. This whole process takes 20 verses.

"Yosef and his brothers and all that generation died." (Shemot 1:6)

Breishit describes Yosef's death, mummification, burial, and the oath his brothers made to eventually return his body to the land of Canaan. That, and the death/burial of Yaakov which is not even mentioned here, essentially fill a whole chapter (Breishit 50).

(It's interesting, by the way, that the Egyptians mourned Yaakov for 70 days, but not Yosef. Presumably they mourned Yaakov out of fear of Yosef. But when Yosef died there was nobody to fear. And since Yosef took their land, they weren't genuinely upset by his passing.)

"A new king arose over Egypt, who did not know Yosef." (Shemot 1:8)

From the one word "Yosef", we are supposed to have in mind all the events of parshat Miketz and Vayigash. The verse does not even say something like "the doings of Yosef", but just "Yosef".

(Actually, you could argue that "yada" implies a relationship rather than factual knowledge, so "the doings of Yosef" is not appropriate here. But that just begs the question of why Pharoah chose to reject the relationship so dramatically - a question which is answered nowhere.)


Why this incredible conciseness? I think its purpose is to indicate to us that we now telling the story of a nation rather than of individual people. Occasionally (as with Moshe in chapter 2) an individual's story is of crucial relevance to the nation. But when that is not the case, the narrative has no patience for individual stories. So it minimizes them or omits them entirely, and makes clear to us that it is doing so.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

18th generation Yerushalmi

Some people like to identify themselves as 6th-generation Yerushalmim, or 7th-generation Yerushalmim. I've never met such a person, but sometimes I read about them.

As a 0th-generation Yerushamli (I don't live there) I am not especially tolerant of this pretentiousness. If I ever met a person who introduced themselves that way, I think I would answer this way. "So what? Tzidkiyahu Hamelech was an 18th generation Yerushalmi, and look how evil he was. You think you're any better than he was?"

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Ben Gurion story

A young American rabbi, maybe age 30, with no real beard and not looking rabbinic at all, was having trouble with the airport security. The conversation went as follows.

Guard: What's your job?
Rabbi: I'm a congregational rabbi in the US.
Guard: Really? You don't look like one.
Rabbi: אל תסתכל בקנקן אלא במה שיש בו.
Guard: Hmm, OK, have a nice trip.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Yaakov's sons' sibling marriages

Note: All verse quotations are from Breishit unless otherwise specified.

1. Introduction

R' Yehudah says: Twin sisters were born with each tribe, and they married them. R' Nechemiah says: They [the wives] were Canaanites, and what does "his daughters" mean? His daughters-in-law, as a person does not refrain from referring to his daughters-in-law as his daughters. (Rashi, 37:35).

R' Yehudah brings a well known, but rather strange and disturbing, midrash. What could have motivated him to say it?

It seems the midrash was primarily developed as a response to the following textual problem.

At least two verses in Breishit mention Yaakov having multiple daughters: "And all his sons and all his daughters rose up to comfort him" (37:35), "...his sons, and his sons' sons with him, his daughters, and his sons' daughters, and all his seed he brought with him into Egypt" (46:7). But just one daughter (Dinah) appears in the list of 70 family members who went down to Egypt, in Breishit 46:8-27. How can only one daughter be listed, if more than one was alive at the time?

2. Pshat resolutions

Various ways have been suggested to resolve this contradiction using pshat. Here are several possibilities.

1) Rashi (46:7) assumes that the word "daughter" can also apply to other female relatives (the encounter between Yaakov and Lavan in Gilad is an example where terms for family members are used in this imprecise manner). Thus, Rashi says that in 46:7 "daughters" refers to one daughter (Dinah) and one granddaughter (Serach bat Asher). As quoted above R' Nechemiah in the midrash takes a very similar approach.

2) Ibn Ezra (46:7) suggests that "daughters" refers to Dinah's maidservants - women who grew up in Yaakov's house. (Similarly, in modern Hebrew "bat" means "girl" as well as "daughter". Perhaps Yaakov's household had one "daughter" but many "girls".)

3) Ramban (46:7) says that the plural word "daughters" can be used even if only one daughter is being discussed.

4) R' Elchanan Samet (shiurim on parshat hashavua, vol. 2, Vayigash) suggests that other actual daughters were present, but were not considered to be members of Yaakov's household, since once they got married they became members of other mens' households. This approach is especially attractive because it explains why one daughter (Dinah) IS mentioned. Quite likely she never got married, because most men wouldn't have wanted to marry a woman who had been raped.

But the midrash has clear reasons for rejecting all of these resolutions. Of the four resolutions I just mentioned, the first three
are all variations of "Nu, sometimes the Torah is a bit imprecise because that's how people naturally talked, just deal with it". Clearly the midrash, which makes a drasha from every extra vav in a verse, cannot accept such an answer. The fourth explanation seems to work more cleanly with the text. But it implies that Yaakov's daughters irrevocably assimilated into their husbands' pagan Canaanite or Egyptian families, which is obviously a potential source for discomfort.

3. The midrashic resolution

If none of these answers is acceptable, then how can the midrash resolve the contradiction? There is one remaining "out" which the midrash uses. According to 46:26, the list of 70 people in Yaakov's family excludes "the wives of Yaakov's sons". If Yaakov's daughters were ALSO his sons' wives, then we have a straightforward explanation for why the daughters are not listed. This answer implies exactly what the midrash says: that the sons (at least some of them) married their sisters.

How do we know that these sisters were twins of the brothers, and not born at some other time? I think the best explanation for this follows from the following chronological considerations.

Just 14 years passed between Leah's marriage and Yaakov's leaving Haran. For much of that time Leah was successively pregnant with the 7 children mentioned in the verses, and for some more of the time she was barren (29:35). She could have born additional daughters after leaving Haran, but not for too long after, because these daughters had to become old enough themselves to marry and have several kids before moving to Egypt. In short, the number of daughter/wives Leah could have mothered from additional pregnancies is limited. As for the other wives, they are unlikely to have had many more pregnancies. Rachel was almost continuously barren, and it is not clear that Yaakov slept with Bilhah and Zilpah except when the real wives requested it. In summary, the extra daughters the midrash requires could not have been born from twelve additional pregnancies. Rather, they must have been twins (or triplets, etc.) of each other, and/or of the previously mentioned sons.

To solve the above textual problems, it's sufficient to say that just one of Yaakov's sons had a twin daughter who married her brother. That daughter, plus Dinah, make up the plural "daughters" in 46:7. But the midrash says that there were 12 twin daughters who married their brothers. By saying this, this midrash avoids another difficulty: how did Yaakov's sons marry Canaanites, if Yitzchak and Yaakov had been forbidden to do this, and there is no hint that the 12 sons returned to Haran to find wives? As things now stand, the brothers married nice frum Jewish girls from an upstanding family, not idolatrous foreigners.

Of course, we have not succeeded in explaining every detail of the midrash. The above problems would all be explained if one brother had two twin sisters, the next brother had no twins, and so on. Here the midrash makes an assumption with no basis in the pshat: that each of the pregnancies was exactly the same, one son and one daughter. But that assumption is quite minor, given how much of the midrash has already been explained using logical considerations.

4. Incest

My guess is that people are troubled by this midrash less due to its implausibility than due to the implication of incest. I think our discomfort can be minimized if we assume that each brother married a sister from a different mother - that is, a half-sister. Elsewhere (20:12), Avraham explicitly told Avimelech that he married his half-sister. Either Avraham told the truth here and righteous people like him did marry their half-sisters, or if he lied, presumably he claimed a family relationship that Avimelech would consider permissible. Based on this verse, the gemara rules that Noahides are permitted to marry their half-siblings, but not their full sisters (Sanhedrin 58a). Perhaps Yaakov's sons made a point of marrying only half-sisters as well.

If so, we now have an interesting explanation for another midrash. Rashi to 30:21 says that Dinah was originally destined to be born as a son, but Leah prayed to God and the male fetus was miraculously changed into a female one. Rashi says Leah's motivation was to spare Rachel the humiliation of having fewer sons (one) than either of the midwives (two), since only 12 sons were to be born overall. We can suggest that Leah had a different motivation, one which is absolutely necessary given the halacha and the assumption of 12 twins. If more than 6 out of 12 pairs of twins were from one mother, then not all sons would be able to marry a daughter who was a half-sister rather than a full sister.

This understanding does contradict a different midrash. Rashi on 46:10 says that the sister whom Shimon married was Dinah. However, Shimon and Dinah were full siblings! Perhaps we can say that this midrash views Shimon and Dinah as evil people - Shimon as shown by what he did to Yosef (he and Levi were likely the ringleaders in capturing Yosef, see here) and the city of Shechem, and Dinah as shown by Rashi's comments on 34:1. Shimon and Dinah did violate the Noahide prohibition on incest, but due to their evil characters, they didn't care. For a slightly different approach to how Shimon and Dinah married each other, see here.

Wednesday, December 08, 2010

Negel wasser

The Mishna Brura (Orach Chaim 4:1,4:8) gives several different possible reasons for the three-time hand washing we perform each morning upon awaking. It does not decide which reason is correct, but says that we are careful to keep the stringencies that would be implied by each of the three reasons.

The reasons are:

1. Your hands move around at night. They may have touched dirty parts of the body and become dirty themselves. If that happened, they must be washed before praying or saying blessings.

2. Sleep is associated with death ("one sixtieth part of death" according to Brachot 57b). Death is associated with an "evil spirit" ("ruach raah") which supposedly can harm you if it enters your body (generally through an orifice). You must wash your hands each morning to remove the evil spirit that has descended upon your hands. If you touch a bodily orifice before washing your hands in the morning, the evil spirit will enter your body and harm you. If you touch food before washing your hands, whoever eats the food will suffer the same consequences.

This idea of evil spirits is an interesting parallel to the modern idea of infectious diseases, which could be contracted by touching a diseased corpse, and which hand washing would defend against.

3. Sleep is associated with death, and upon awaking one is effectively reborn.

This last reason has interesting parallels in other areas of halacha. 1) A convert must immerse upon being "reborn" as a Jew. 2) A woman must immerse when a new egg appears in her reproductive system, before having relations with her husband and converting that egg into a new living being.


"Ein mazal leyisrael" – "There is no constellation determining the fate of Israel" (Shabbat 156a)

This quote implies that the destinies of non-Jews ARE in fact determined by alignments of the stars and planets. This is just one of many places where Chazal display a belief in astrology. This belief carried on to many of the later rabbis – not only those who insisted on taking every word of aggadta as scientific truth, but also many of those who did not (for one example, see Ibn Ezra on Devarim 4:19). Rambam is a conspicuous exception (see here), but he is the exception that proves the rule.

The question arises: how are we supposed to respect religious authorities who believed something which is so clearly illogical, superstitious, and compatible with idolatry and rejection of Divine providence?

I think the answer is to argue that astrology was unsuccessful science, not pseudo-science. Astrology started with correct observation of some situations, and extrapolated to other, similar, situations. The data and conclusions were lacking, but the method was correct even by modern standards.

For the fact is that certain heavenly bodies do strongly influence events on earth. The best example is the sun. On a daily basis the sun's position determines the temperature and the amount of light we see. Over the course of months, as the sun's position in the ecliptic varies, other changes take place. Not only is weather affected, but in particular seasons plants grow, flower, and bear fruit, and in springtime most animals give birth. The moon affects the world as well, through the tides. Given all this evidence, can we not extrapolate and say that other, smaller heavenly bodies should have more subtle effects on earthly events? Particularly as those bodies (planets) have complicated and non-regular (as seen from earth) orbits, which correspond to the irregularity of life as we experience it?

Of course, modern science has found more precise theories to explain those situations. The sun releases radiation due to its high temperature, which warms air and water to create weather, and various life forms have adapted their life cycle to the regular changes in sunlight and weather. And any sufficiently large body has the power to create tides: if "Yo Mama" (the technical term for an extremely overweight person) were to go to the beach, the tide would rush up to meet her. Modern science allows that Jupiter and the Great Dipper have some influence on us, due to their gravity and radiation. But of course, practically speaking, that influence is completely negligible.

Nowadays, since we possess better scientific explanations, astrology is taken seriously only by idiots and frauds. But it's not fair to say the same about people who lived before the time of Isaac Newton, more or less. Until then, astrology provided the only plausible explanation for many natural phenomena, and there is nothing strange about its being almost universally believed and accepted.

Thursday, December 02, 2010

Carmel fire

One night a couple years ago, I was riding a bus on the Haifa-Tel Aviv freeway, when I encountered one of the most awe-inspiring things I've ever seen. Looking out the window towards the Carmel mountain range, I saw an entire hill being overrun by a forest fire. The flame was several hundred meters across, and almost as tall as it was wide. No lives were lost, and I could not find even a mention of it in the news the next day.

As I write this, a much larger fire is burning in almost exactly the same place. Already 40 lives have been lost, and thousands of people evacuated from their homes.

Along with my shock at the number of casualties, and concern over what may happen in the next few days, the following thoughts have crossed my mind.

1) The first rain in Israel normally falls a short time after Sukkot. Typically, by December, several heavy rainstorms have occurred. But so far this winter, just two small drizzles have occurred. Effectively, there has been no rain since March or April. As the sources suggest, the chief rabbinate has declared two fast days in the last couple weeks, and a special prayer for rain has been added to "Shomea Tefila" of each weekday shemoneh esreh.

There is an impulse nowadays to say that we don't need rain like we did in the past. After all, few people nowadays are farmers, and several large desalination plants are now operating. It's true that a drought will not cause widespread starvation like it once would have. But this fire is a good example of how the lack of rainfall can have consequences that are not easily forseen. A significant rainfall in the days before the fire would have kept it from spreading so fast (or at all). Nobody praying for rain had the possibility of forest fires in mind, yet this fire has killed more Israelis than any other single event in a number of years.

2) For many decades Jews have planted trees throughout Israel. Some even say the "green line" is so called because it separates green Israel from its non-green neighbors. Arabs - opponents of Zionism and people whose culture formed in the desert - have understandably opposed this greening of the land. Israel's landscape is susceptible to forest fires, but a high proportion of fires in recent years have been attributed to arson by those with "nationalist" motivations. If this is another such case, then it may effectively be the worst terrorist attack to occur in many years.

3) At the Chanukah party I was at tonight, the planned music was canceled. The dvar torah was about how fire is both a constructive force, enabling civilization to arise, and a destructive one. Tonight and tomorrow, let us pray that our constructive forces outweigh the forces of destruction, and that the damage caused by this fire be limited.