Friday, October 23, 2009

Noah (Aggadah)

The Raven and the Dove

Two denizens of the heavens—the raven and the dove—play a crucial part in the Flood story. When the waters stopped falling, Noah sent forth, first the raven, who flew around and returned to the ark (Gen 8:7), and then the dove, on two separate occasions a week apart; it was he who returned with the olive branch, symbol of renewed vegetative life (8:8-11), and in time symbol of peace.

The Talmud in Tractate Sanhedrin has a number of interesting things to say about these two birds. These stories appear in the tenth chapter of Tractate Sanhedrin, known as Perek Helek, a particularly important source of Talmudic aggadah. The opening mishnah of this chapter is perhaps the only one in the Mishnah to deal with theological issues and to establish halakhic categories of those who fail to accept certain cardinal doctrines. Hence, Rambam’s commentary on this chapter, or more particularly the Introduction to that chapter, is very important, serving as the locus for his Thirteen Principles of Faith. The aggadah on this chapter is also particularly rich, filled with aggadot about many well-known biblical stories, discussions of Messiah and the limitations on messianic speculation. b. Sanhedrin 108b:

“And he sent forth the raven” (Gen 8:7). Resh Lakish said: The raven answered Noah with sharp answers. He said to him: Your Master hates me, and you hate me. Your Master [i.e., God] hates me, [because he said to take] seven of each pure species, and [only] two of the impure species. You hate me: for you have left those species of which there are seven pairs, and sent [me], from a species of which there are only two. Should I be harmed by the demon of heat or of cold, will not the world be lacking in an entire species? Or perhaps it is my wife that you need [i.e. desire]? He said to him: Wicked one! She who is permitted to me [i.e. my own wife] has been prohibited to me [alluding to the well-known Rabbinic idea, inferred from comparison of the wording in 7:7 with 8:16, that sexual intercourse was forbidden aboard the ark the entire period of the Flood], she who is forbidden to me all the more so….

There are two interesting lessons here. First, the raven quite rightly accuses Noah, by sending him out on this dangerous mission, of ignoring the risk of rendering an entire species extinct! By sending out the only male raven in the entire ark, should he suffer some injury his entire species would be wiped out! The raven is the first advocate of wildlife conservation!

Second, he is portrayed as a jealous and suspicious husband: perhaps you want me out of the way because you want my female for yourself! (Rashi says that he circled around close to the ark to keep an eye on Noah!) Noah responds with insulted indignation: here I am living celibate because such is God’s command, with respect to normal relations with my wife from my own species, and you accuse me of perverted and unnatural desires! Perhaps he calls the raven “Wicked one” because those who accuse others of improper sexual thoughts are often those who are themselves most obsessed with sexual misconduct, because they secretly desire it themselves! The frequency of prurient puritans, so to speak.

“And he sent forth the dove from him” (Gen 8:8). Rabbi Yirmiyah said: From this [i.e., from the addition of the word “from him”] we infer that the pure birds dwelt with the righteous. “And behold, an olive leaf torn in its mouth” (v. 11). Rabbi Eleazar said: The dove said before the Holy One blessed be he: Master of the Universe, may my food be bitter like an olive, and from Your hand, and not sweet as honey, but dependent upon flesh and blood. From whence do we know that the word teref (here translated “torn”) refers to food? As is written: “Provide me (הטריפני) with my daily bread” (Prov 30: 8).

The dove, labeled here as “righteous,” is described here as being satisfied with little; more precisely, as having Spartan taste, or simply an iron self-discipline that has long since learned to do without any sort of pampering: better something bitter, but my own (i.e., directly from God) rather than that delicacies, but with strings attached—i.e., dependence upon other people.

Of course, the raven and the dove are not only birds. We can imagine them as representing human types: the brash, suspicious type, who constantly argues, challenges authority and suspects others of ulterior motives; and the righteous, modest person, who lives more harmoniously with the scheme of things. But in the end the raven also has his day. In the Elijah story, it is the ravens who befriend the prophet, bringing him food when he has to go “underground” at the Brook Kerith, near the Jordan Valley (1 Kings 17:4).

BERESHIT: Postscripts

Several interesting and valuable reader comments:

1. Mark Kirschbaum questioned my comment that the “educated Jew” in 19th century Europe knew Talmud, Midrash and Zohar, inferring from R. Zaddok ha-Kohen’s use of these sources with out foot-noting, as if his readers would infer from three words of a Zohar passage exactly what and where he was quoting. He was, admittedly, a genius, and quite probably more than a little eccentric, who wrote for himself and a small coterie of learned colleagues. But certainly at least his Rabbinic colleagues must have known what he was referring to.

2. David Greenstein: notes that the best English translation of Bialik-Ravnitsky’s Sefer ha-Aggadah is that of William Braude, The Book of Legends: Sefer ha-Aggadah; Legends from the Talmud and Midrash (New York: Schocken, 1992), 920 pp.; Chaim Pearl’s translation is a selection. I must admit being biased towards the memory of Rabbi Pearl, who was a regular study partner at one stage of my life; in any event, I didn’t know about the Braude translation.

3. Susan Marx mentions that there is a midrashic opinion that the etrog was the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Garden. She is correct: it appears in Genesis Rabbah 15.7 along with the three I mentioned, as well as, of all things, turnip. But I have chosen this year to focus on aggadah brought in the Talmud and not in other sources, since I have to limit myself in some way and cannot talk about everything.

I also mentioned that, apart from the fact that the apple/tapuah is not mentioned at all in the Biblical story, it’s not clear what tapuah meant in ancient Hebrew. This past week I had an opportunity to glance at two modern translations of Song of Songs. Chana and Ariel Bloch render תפוח as apricot—a full-bodied, luscious, moist fruit, quite possibly indigenous to Eretz Yisrael since ancient times. Marcia Falk translates it as “quince.”

4. About the verse זכר ונקבה בראם... ויקרא את שמם אדם (“Male and female He created tem… and he called their name ‘man’”; Gen 5:2). It has become de rigueur in politically correct circles to use the supposedly more “gender-inclusive” terms “human” and “humankind” rather than “man” or “mankind.” But it occurred to me on Shabbat Bereshit when hearing this verse that Adam is specifically the name of the species to which man and woman both belong. (Adam is not the personal name of the first man, except in a borrowed sense, but a generic term.)

I must admit that I find myself increasingly fed up with the PC language police, especially because for some reason they always seem to prefer longer and more awkward terms in place of simple ones: e.g., “African-American” rather than “black” or “Negro”: 7 syllables as against 1 or 2; 16 key strokes as against 5. For clumsy typists like myself, this is particularly irksome. Perhaps we Jews should insist on calling ourselves “Hebreo-Israelites” or even “Sisjordanian Hebreo-Israelites” and denounce anyone who refuses to use this term as a bigot and anti-Semite! (Sisjordan refers to the land west of the Jordan River”—i.e., the classical Eretz Yisrael)


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