Sunday, April 25, 2010

Zachor and Shamor

The Ten Commandments appear twice in the Torah, in Shemot and Devarim. One of the most notable differences between the two appearances is in the 4th command, regarding Shabbat. In Shemot the command is introduced by the word Zachor ("Remember the Sabbath"), while in Devarim it is introduced by Shamor ("Guard the Sabbath").

Why do these two different verbs appear in what one would expect to be identical texts? Ibn Ezra (in Shemot) provides one, rather radical answer. He says that the Torah's text is reliable in terms of its ideas, but not in its wording. He also says that the words "zachor" and "shamor" have the same meaning. (After all, what does it mean to "remember", other than to "guard" a thought in your mind?) Thus, it doesn't matter which of the two words the Torah uses. One of the words is "wrong" in that God didn't actually say that word at Sinai. But because the written Torah only cares about meaning and not wording, that discrepancy is unimportant.

That is quite an interesting theory, but it is not the mainstream one taken by Chazal and later Jewish thought. The mainstream approach, immortalized in the song Lecha Dodi, is "Shamor vezachor bedibur echad". That is, the words Shamor and Zachor convey different meanings, and somehow both meanings were conveyed at Sinai. Furthermore, the meaning of each word can be identified. Zachor refers to the positive mitzvot of Shabbat, while Shamor refers to the negative ones.

I think we can explain clearly the reasons for this identification, as follows.

How do we know that Zachor refers to positive mitzvot? I suspect we can derive this by looking at cases in which the verb "lizkor" is used regarding God. For example, God remembers a covenant, remembers a barren woman, and so on. If a person remembers something, it is because they previously forgotten it. We cannot use the same interpretation regarding God. Rather, God was always conscious of the covenant and the barren woman. But only at this moment did God take action regarding them. Thus, to "remember" implies action, and by extension, the performance of positive commandments.

How do we know that Shamor refers to negative mitzvot? The answer comes from Vayikra 18:30, which states regarding the sexual prohibitions: "You shall guard my guard, to not do the abominable practices that were done [by the people living in Canaan] before you, and you shall not become impure through them, I am Hashem your God." Thus, to "guard the guard" means to "not do" - to avoid certain actions. In effect it means to guard yourself, to prevent yourself from doing certain things. This usage is extended to "Shamor et yom hashabbat", implying that one not do the actions which are prohibited on Shabbat.

Two Yudim

Last shabbat I heard the following dvar torah (from Y.C., age approx. 12), apparently in connection to the mitzva in last week's parsha of "veahavta lereacha kamocha".

A certain chasidic rebbe told the story of how he learned to read when he was a kid. In his school, or "cheder", they taught him to read from a chumash. He read correctly until he came to two letters yud, one next to the other. He pronounced this literally - at which point the teacher corrected him. "Whenever there are two yuds like that, it means to say the name of God." The kid did so, and kept reading.

Then, he got to the end of a verse. It was punctuated with a colon - two vertical dots, which looked like yuds. So he said the name of God again. And the teacher corrected him. "No, that's not the name of God. That's the end of the verse."

From this exchange, the kid learned a moral lesson. Whenever there are two yudim (=Yehudim) on the same level as each other, God's name is present in the world. Whenever there are two yudim, one above the other, it is like the end.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Yeshivat Shem VeEver

Rashi on Breishit 28:9 says that Yaakov spent 14 years in the yeshiva of Shem and Ever. I want to explain this Rashi and its implications, and also explain briefly how we can understand Breishit without adopting this Rashi.

According to Breishit 28:9, Esav married Machalat, "daughter of Yishmael son of Avraham, sister of Nevayot". Why does the verse mention both Machalat's father and brother?

The midrash's answer is that Yishmael died right around the time of Machalat's marriage. Thus, immediately beforehand she was part of the family run by Yishmael, and immediately afterwards she was part of the family run by Yishmael's oldest son, Nevayot. Thus she is mentioned in relation to both Yishmael and Nevayot.

If so, then Esav's marriage took place at the same time as Yishmael's death. It seems from chapter 28 that Esav's marriage took place shortly after Yaakov stole the blessings and fled home. How old was Yaakov when this happened? Yishmael died at age 137. Yitzchak, who was 14 years younger than Yishmael (they were born to Avraham at ages 86 and 100), was age 123 at the time. Yitzchak fathered Yaakov at age 60, thus Yaakov was age 63 when he left home.

How old was Yaakov when he arrived in Haran? When Yaakov arrived in Egypt he was 130 years old. Yosef was 39 years old at the time (30 years old when Pharaoh promoted him, 7 years of plenty, 2 years of famine.) Thus Yaakov was 91 when Yosef was born. Yosef was born right about the time Yaakov finished his 14 years of service to Lavan. Thus Yaakov was 77 when he arrived in Haran.

According to the above logic, 14 years (77-63) are missing between when Yaakov left and when he arrived. What did Yaakov do for this period? The logical choice for an "ish tam yoshev ohalim", one who dwelt in the tents of Torah as Chazal understand it, would be to learn in yeshiva for this period.

How do we know that the yeshiva was run by Shem and Ever? The assumption here seems to be that some holy tradition, let us call it "Torah", was passed down through the generations prior to Avraham. Noach passed the tradition to his (most righteous?) son Shem. When Shem died, his oldest living descendent was Ever. When Yaakov went to Haran, Ever was still alive (Shem had recently died). If Yaakov wanted to learn this tradition, he would do best to go to Ever, who himself had learned from Shem. Thus, the midrash refers to the yeshiva of Shem and Ever.

If you think the whole idea of 14 missing, unmentioned years does violence to the pshat of Sefer Breishit, there is hope for you. One can think of other explanations of the Yishmael/Nevayot verbosity, in which Yaakov went directly to Haran, and Yishmael died 14 years before Esav's marriage. Here are two possibilities:
  • Since Yishmael was dead, Nevayot is mentioned because he is the one who married off Machalat. (Yishmael is mentioned to indicate the family relation. Nevayot is an obscure character, and mentioning him would not make the relation clear enough.)
  • Yishmael had multiple wives, and verse 28:9 wanted to emphasize that Esav's wife came from the highest-status branch of Yishmael's family. (Verse 21:21 mentions only one wife of Yishmael [an Egyptian woman]. But the point is likely to illustrate Yishmael's distancing from Avraham's family, rather than to provide a complete description of his family life.)
Rashi did not use one of these explanations. But unless I am missing something, they work at least as well in terms of explaining the verses themselves. Rashi's midrash will always remain one possible understanding of how Yaakov's life progressed. But one who sees value in pshat should know that an alternative approach exists and may be preferable.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

250 plagues at the sea

        R' Yose Haglili says: How do we know that the Egyptians suffered 10 plagues in Egypt and on the see they suffered 50 plagues? In Egypt what does it say? “The magicians said to Pharaoh: It is the finger of God.” (Shemot 8:15) On the sea what does it say? “Israel saw the great hand which Hashem did to Egypt, and the people feared Hashem, and believed in Hashem and in Moshe His servant.” (14:31) How many did they suffer in Egypt? 10 plagues. Say thus: In Egypt they suffered 10 plagues; on the see they suffered 50 plagues.
        R' Eliezer says: How do we know that each plague that the Holy One (Blessed be He) brought on the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of four plagues? It says “He sent among them the fierceness of His anger: wrath, and indignation, and trouble, a sending of messengers of evil.” – wrath (1), indignation (2), trouble (3), sending of evil messengers (4). Therefore say: In Egypt they suffered 40 plagues, on the see they suffered 200 plagues.
        R' Akiva says: How do we know that each plague that the Holy One (Blessed be He) brought on the Egyptians in Egypt consisted of five plagues? It says “He sent among them the fierceness of His anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, a sending of messengers of evil.” – fierceness of his anger (1), wrath (2), indignation (3), trouble (4), sending of evil messengers (5). Therefore say: In Egypt they suffered 50 plagues, on the see they suffered 250 plagues.

This midrash, which we say each Pesach in the Haggadah, seems hard to accept. When did all these additional plagues take place, what did they consist of, and why are they not mentioned in the Torah? In this post I will try to analyze the meaning of this midrash.

From 10 to 50

The 10 plagues (or at least one of them) are referred to as "the finger of God" (8:15), while the splitting of the sea is called "the great 'hand' which Hashem did" (14:31). Each hand has five fingers, so the Haggadah concludes that the splitting of the sea was five times as great as the 10 plagues, i.e. 50 plagues.

The problem with this analysis is that the metaphor of God's hand is also used to describe the 10 plagues. The best-known example is in reference to the 5th plague: "Behold, the hand of Hashem is among your cattle in the field" (9:3). God's hand also refers to the 10 plagues in verses 3:20, 6:1, and 13:9. If the 10 plagues are a "hand" and the splitting of the sea also a "hand", shouldn't the latter be considered as 10 plagues rather than 50?

For this reason, I think the discussion of fingers and hands is simply a memory tool for an idea which actually derives from deeper, thematic reasons. Specifically, many of the 10 plagues were not especially miraculous. The splitting of the sea, on the other hand, was clearly miraculous. Therefore it is considered greater, and thus equal to many more plagues.

Proposed “natural” explanations for many of the plagues are well known. Here are some examples. Perhaps, the "bloody" Nile was caused by an abnormal growth of algae (a "crimson tide"). Frogs were forced to leave the algae-infested river, and many ended up in human habitations. When the frogs died (far from their natural habitat), the insects and animals feeding on their corpses made up the next two plagues. All the decaying flesh led to diseases which killed the cattle and then attacked humans. Hail and locusts are natural phenomena, and perhaps the darkness "which could be felt" refers to an intense sandstorm.

(Sometimes these explanations are brought in an attempt to show that God was not really involved in the Exodus. That conclusion is untenable. Certain aspects of the plagues – for example, the timing, and complete sparing of the Israelites – cannot be explained by any natural phenomenon. And even if they could, there is no way that Moshe could reliably predict them. Anyway, the fact that undeniable miracles occurred later on is sufficient evidence of Divine involvement. Unless you simply reject the truthfulness of the Biblical text, there is no way of avoiding God's role and intentions in the Exodus. Therefore, we should feel free to consider “natural” explanations of the plagues, without feeling that they may undermine our faith.)

Moreover, the Egyptians' reaction shows that the plagues were not so miraculous. The Egyptian magicians were able to duplicate the first few plagues (albeit on a smaller scale). Partly based on this, Pharaoh decided to ignore Moshe and Aharon's demands. Even later on, the complaint to Pharaoh is "Do you not yet know that Egypt is destroyed?" (10:7) rather than something like "Do you not yet know that Hashem is God and therefore worth listening to?" Perhaps the purpose of the non-miraculous plagues was to preserve Egyptian free will. If the plagues were obviously miraculous, nobody could avoid learning the desired lessons from them. With less miraculous plagues, stubborn and selfish Egyptians who did not want to lose their Israelite slaves would find some rationalization for ignoring the plagues.

After the Israelites left Egypt, this reason no longer applied. It was no longer necessary that the Egyptians have free will, so no limits were placed on the miraculousness of the ensuing events. This is most evident at the splitting of the sea. No natural phenomenon could conceivable cause the water to form “a wall for them, on their right and on their left”. That was a visible, ongoing, and dramatic violation of the law of gravity.

The magicians call one plague "the finger of God", yet the Haggadah refers to all 10 plagues as a single finger, rather than 10 fingers. Perhaps this implies that the "number of fingers" refers not to the count of miraculous events, but to the degree of miraculousness of whatever is taking place. That fits well with the splitting of the sea, which was one event rather than 50, but was certainly several times as miraculous as anything that preceded it.

From 50 to 200 or 250

How then do we understand the second part of the midrash, in which the number of plagues is multiplied once again by a factor of 4 or 5? To answer this we must provide the relevant verse in its full context (Tehilim 78:42-51):
They remembered not His hand, nor the day when He redeemed them from the adversary.
How He set His signs in Egypt, and His wonders in the field of Zoan;
And turned their rivers into blood, so that they could not drink their streams.
He sent among them 'arov', which devoured them; and frogs, which destroyed them.
He gave also their increase unto the caterpillar, and their labor unto the locust.
He destroyed their vines with hail, and their sycamore-trees with frost.
He gave over their cattle also to the hail, and their flocks to fiery bolts.
He sent among them the fierceness of His anger, wrath, and indignation, and trouble, a sending of messengers of evil.
He leveled a path for His anger; He spared not their soul from death, but gave their life over to the pestilence;
And smote all the first-born in Egypt, the first-fruits of their strength in the tents of Ham.

In total 7 out of 10 plagues are mentioned in this passage (plagues 3,6,9 are omitted, perhaps because they were the only plagues not announced to Pharaoh – see here). Alongside the relatively straightforward descriptions of the plagues, there is one verse which discusses no plague in particular. This verse, shown in bold above, is the same one used by the Haggadah.

If this verse is not a mention of one plague, perhaps it is a general description of what happened in each of the plagues. If so, then “fierceness of His anger; wrath; indignation; trouble; sending of messengers of evil” are five aspects of each plague. Thus the 10 plagues become 50, and the 50 plagues at the sea 250. That is the basis of R' Akiva's opinion.

According to R' Eliezer, though, “fierceness of his anger” is a general description of the other four aspects, rather than being an aspect of its own. (Presumably he says this because “fierceness of his anger” is not followed by the word “and”, implying that it is a prefix to the list of aspects, rather than part of the list. R' Akiva would reply that use of the word “and” in Tanach is not always consistent – see Ibn Ezra to Shemot 1:4. Note how my translations of the verse at the top of this post reflect each rabbi's interpretation.) Thus, according to R' Eliezer, each plague has only four aspects, and the numbers of plagues become 40 and 200 respectively.

You may object to this analysis, in that a plague remains one plague even if there is more than one aspect to it. Perhaps, but as we saw with the splitting of the sea, in this midrash numbers of plagues do not really refer to the number of events. Rather, they refer to how wonderful the plague was. And the whole point of these “multiplication tables” is to recognize the greatness of the existing plagues, not to introduce new plagues that were not mentioned in the text.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Women's names

In the charedi world, the idea has recently been popularized that it is immodest to mention a woman's name in public. Thus, on wedding invitations, the couples' parents are listed as “Aharon and his wife Cohen” (אהרן ורעיתו כהן), rather than “Aharon and Elisheva Cohen” (or, chas veshalom, “Elisheva and Aharon Cohen”). Omitting the bride's name is not yet common, but surely that is only a matter of time.

Now most us are probably wondering: what can possibly be wrong with mentioning a name? Are we now going to edit the Torah to remove the names of beautiful women like Sarah and Rivkah? After all, who knows how many men have been tempted into sexual fantasies by the mention of their names? Such an approach is just absurd.

Unfortunately, we cannot end this discussion here. Because we should not immediately dismiss even an apparent “absurdity” when it receives support from a gemara – in this case, Megilah 15a. There it says that Rahav the prostitute (from Sefer Yehoshua) was one of the most beautiful women ever to live. The gemara continues as follows:
R' Yitzchak said: Whoever says "Rahav, Rahav" immediately experiences a seminal emission.
R' Nachman said to him: I said "Rahav, Rahav" and it didn't affect me.
He [R' Yitzchak] said to him: What I said refers to a person who knows and recognizes her.

According to this gemara, saying a woman's name can be enough to send a man far, far into the realm of forbidden sexual thoughts!

Additional evidence for the charedi position comes from a source that they themselves would absolutely never consider looking at (I suspect that the best evidence for charedi positions is often from such sources). That source is Mambo No. 5, a popular song from 1999. It describes a bunch of women's names and what the singer does which each of them. The descriptions of these relationships are absolutely tame – Shir Hashirim is more explicit. But the fact that there are so many of them gives the impression that we're in the middle of a giant binge of orgiastic womanizing. A name represents a personality and thus a potential relationship to you. So mentioning each of the names helps us to imagine their relationships, much more so than would a simple running count (1, 2, 3... 56, 57) of how many women the singer has conquered.

By now, we can discern two contradictory approaches. On one hand, refusing to mention women's names feels absurd, and in fact even the Torah doesn't do it. On the other hand, there is some evidence that names can be sufficient to cause sexual thoughts. How do we reconcile our two hands with each other?

The only possible resolution is to say that the prohibition on sexual thoughts is not absolute. If we were really “serious” about avoiding sexual thoughts, we would prohibit one sex from ever stepping out into the street. (I'd suggest men, since women have to go to work each day, whereas men can learn Torah equally well at home.) The stimulation of seeing a physical person is surely greater than that of seeing a name in writing. Yet nowhere, not even in Mea Shearim, does anyone propose such a standard. The logical conclusion is that we do not aim to eliminate sexual thoughts, only to keep them below a certain threshold, which is high enough that we still have the freedom to pursue our other goals in life. And practically speaking, the mention of names is well beneath any conceivable practical threshold. On the contrary, in modern society the refusal to mention names is immodest, in that in it forces us to consider sexuality, in a context where otherwise you wouldn't have thought of it.

There may also be an simple explanation for the gemara in Megilah, in which the degree of sexual thoughts caused by mentioning a name is well above any threshold we'd consider setting. R' Yitzchak said that the person who ejaculates upon saying “Rahav, Rahav” is one who “knows and recognizes” her. The phrase “knows and recognizes” here is redundant. Perhaps “knows” (or else “recognizes”) is meant in the Biblical sense – to have had intercourse with her. If such a person says “Rahav, Rahav” – repeating her name over and over, not just saying it once – one can imagine it leading to vivid fantasies. That is hardly comparable to reading, once, the name of someone you've never had intercourse with and often have never met.

Paradise Lost

R' Aharon Lichtenstein is reported to have said that he envies anyone who has not yet had the experience of reading “Paradise Lost”. That is quite an endorsement, and I could not resist borrowing the book from a friend a couple months back.

It took me until recently to finish reading the book, so presumably R' Lichtenstein's envy is limited to people more intelligent and "literary" than myself. Because while I could understand a bit of the book's 300 pages of carefully crafted poetry, I could not really enjoy it, and there were certainly times when I got stuck and abandoned the book until the next Saturday night when I might have time and energy to read a bit further.

That said, there were certainly parts of the book that I appreciated. The descriptions of Satan in the first third of the book were quite powerful. My favorite moment was when Satan, flying to Earth to tempt mankind, momentarily considered repenting for the rebellion that had landed him in a newly-created Hell. But he rejected that possibility, with the argument that after repenting he would inevitably sin again with the same motivation, thus there was no reason for him to ask forgiveness, or for God to grant it. I saw this as a poignant description of how we all rationalize decisions that were actually made for improper emotional reasons.

But more than that, I enjoyed the second half of the book. Here the story closely followed the verses in Breishit – with, of course, long inserts and elaborations. The parts that copied Breishit served to pace me and give me a sense of structure, while the inserts gave me plenty of food for though. Here are a few of the ideas that Milton added in his elaboration of Breishit:

- How was the snake able to talk, which contradicts the laws of nature? The snake told Eve that he himself had eaten the fruit, and not only had he not died, but he gained this special “knowledge” of how to speak. Confronted with clear evidence that the fruit was beneficial rather than harmful, Eve was then tempted into eating it.
- Adam ate the fruit not in ignorance, but because he knew Eve had already eaten and was going to die, and he was so infatuated with her that he preferred dying with her to living without her. (An angel had previously told him not to lose his head over her, but that warning wasn't sufficient.)
- The "sons of God" who married the "daughters of man" (Breishit 6:1-4) were righteous people (thus "sons of God") who were tempted into marrying attractive but dissolute women. Enoch's "walking with God" meant to walk in heaven, after leaving the world.
- Noach's three sons had four wives. (Perhaps this detail is intended to prefigure Avraham, Yitzchak, Yaakov, and their wives? Through Noach, like through the Avot, the world was rescued from universal sin?)

These are all interpretations that are not in the Biblical text, but serve to explain it better or highlight ideas arising from it. Normally, we learn our "parshanut" in a highly analytical form. We read a commentary which cites some background, formulates a question, proposes a solution, and finally explores the implications of that solution. Paradise Lost accomplishes the exact same thing, but in a totally different format. As a person familiar with Breishit, I would read the parallel passage in Paradise Lost, note which details were duplicated from Breishit and which were NOT in Breishit, and think about the reasons for and implications of these additions. In short, I learned the same kind of thing I might have from a traditional commentary. And while I must admit to occasionally finding the book boring (I blame this on the 17th-century vocabulary, or else on my 21st-century attention span), overall the format does seem more interesting than an equivalent "analytical" commentary would be.

If the format of Paradise Lost seems familiar, it is because we have a Jewish parallel in the form of Midrash. The typical midrash in a text like Midrash Rabbah is only a few lines long, without sources, concise, and lacking in literary embellishments. I don't think midrash was originally like that. Presumably, a Talmudic rabbi would get up in front of his congregation or beit midrash, and give a long and vivid story which was an elaboration of something that happened in Tanach. What we have in Midrash Rabbah is a concise summary, omitting most of the literary devices of the original. You might think from the place of midrash in kindergartens today that such elaboration cannot be done intelligently. But Paradise Lost shows that it can, and in the case of the original midrash, presumably it was.