Wednesday, November 15, 2006

parshat Chayyei Sarah: A Three Year Old Rivkah -- Plausible? Obscene?

Rashi understands that Rivkah was three years old when she married Yitzchak, that ten years later, at the age of 13, they tried having children, and ten years after that, at the age of 23, they prayed to Hashem, afraid she was barren, and then she had Esav and Yaakov.

There are various textual inputs into this chronology, yet other accountings are possible, depending on how one understands the pesukim, and these other accountings are offered by other commentators.

In short, for Rashi's accounting:
There are four verses mentioning age. Sarah has Yitzchak when she was 90. Sarah died at 127. Yitzchak married Rivkah at 40. Yitzchak had Yaakov and Esav when he was 60.

Since the Binding of Yitzchak adjoins word coming to Avraham of Rivkah's birth, an assumption is made that her birth occurred immediately after. Similarly, since Sarah's death adjoins the Binding of Yitzchak, an assumption is made that her birth occurred immediately after, according to one midrash as a result of hearing that Yitzchak was to be slaughtered.

Since arranging a marriage for Yitzchak adjoins the death of Sarah, and since Rivkah's presence comforts Yitzhak for the loss of his mother, we may assume that this happened some time after.

Now, the calculations. Since Sarah had Yitzchak at 90 and died as a result of the Binding of Yitzchak, Yitzchak must be 37 at the Binding. Since word of Rivkah's birth is assumed to occur at that point, when Yitzchak is 37, Rivkah is just born.

Assuming Yitzchak marries Rivkah when she arrives, and another verse says he was 40 when he married her, she must be 3 years old at this point, and halachically, kiddushin/nisuin is tofes
at that age.

Halachically, one must worry about barrenness after ten years of trying without results. We see from pesukim that they prayed when Yitzchak was 60. Thus, they were trying for 10 years. Earlier than that, she could not have become pregnant. Thus ends the calculations.

Note that one could challenge this based on questions of whether juxtaposition really proves that Yitzchak was 37 by the Binding, even if word of Rivkah's birth does in fact equal her being born just then. Or, one could question whether the juxtaposition of a genealogical section that Rivkah was born implies that she was actually born at that time. So we need not say that Rivkah was 3. And so on. Certain assumptions and constraints lead to certain conclusions, and other ones may lead to other conclusions.

Certain nuances of certain pesukim can also be taken to imply an older Rivkah.

However. There is a big difference between saying that there are various options, and one is more plausible than another, and stating that a specific option is entirely implausible and obscene to boot. I wish to address both charges in turn.

First, the implausibility. What exactly is implausible? I can point out several potential aspects of the story that seem implausible, at least assuming absence of miracles (which, by the way, a serious midrashist like Rashi would not discount.)

1) Could a three year old carry a pitcher, either empty or full of water?

I have a two year old son, and even before he turned two, he was able to carry, with some difficulty, a 1 gallon Poland Spring bottle across the kitchen floor. He liked doing this. And a three year old can be 3 years and 6 months.

Now, you might not have a baby, to be able to make such assessments. Or perhaps your baby is not doing it, and mine is atypical. But that does not mean it is impossible. And normal is different for different societies. Here is a composite of various children getting water. In particular, the one in the top left corner strikes me as being three or four years old.

Would anyone seriously send a child to fetch water from the well? Could a child hold his/her own?

Now, in New York City, one would be foolish to send a three year old to do this. But this reflects urban Western values of the 20th-21st centuries. In other countries, in rural areas, in more "primitive" societies, this might be perfectly natural.

When in Israel many years ago, I would see a 5 year old boarding the Egged bus taking her younger three year old sibling to school. In a trusting society (such that they are not afraid of kidnapping) where they have certain expectations of responsibility in children, the children might just live up to it.

There was a study a while ago, I think of Malaysian children, in which they found that these children did not go through a crawling stage. It was expected that these children would walk, much sooner than we expect children to walk in the West, and indeed they walked much earlier.

2) Is it logical to expect a three year old to carry on such conversation with Eliezer?

Well, my son is able to carry on conversation, perfectly grammatical (except consistently replacing "I" and "me" with "you"), in well structured paragraphs. And he is two. I'm sure some three year olds can do so as well.

Even if not, this may well be a paraphrase of the conversation. Do you think Pharaoh spoke Hebrew and said exactly the stilted speech attributed to him. It's a summary.

3) Would a three year old display such chessed? Doesn't that take some maturity?
Possibly. Yesterday I put my son in front of Sesame Street, and perhaps the volume was a tad too high. My wife was sleeping in the same room. When I came back, the TV was off. I asked him what had happened, and he told me he had turned it off "so that Mommy could sleep in the morning."

4) Would they really trust a three-year old to decide whether to marry Yitzchak?!
As Shadal points out, the question of whether or not to marry Yitzchak was not put to Rivkah. They already had said that the matter had come from God and that they thus could not divert to the right or left. This was most certainly an arranged marriage. The question they put to her was whether she wished to go with Eliezer immediately, or leave in a year or ten months (as classic Jewish translations go).

I would also point out that she brings her nursemaid, quite appropriate for a three year old. On the other hand, one can simply say (IIRC Shadal does) that the practice was that the nursemaid would act as a governess for years to come.

Isn't this obscene? That is the second consideration. And if it is obscene, then it is also implausible, for Yitzchak is not meant to be portrayed as obscene. Nor would Rivkah's family members agree to such an obscene arrangement.

To which I could answer: No, not really.

First, point out that it would seem that according to Rashi, they did not consummate at 3, but ten years later. Still, she is quite young! And he is 50!

Obscenity is relative to the culture in which you live. Nowadays we would not commend a man who married his niece, but this is a commendable practice in Talmudic times. And we would not say that this practice (of marrying a niece) is implausible as a result, such that one must reinterpret the gemara. Nor necessarily would we call it obscene, given the social mores at the time and place.

We must take be wary about judging obscenity and plausibility based on Western 21st century attitudes. The same folk who scoff at Chazal when they say the Avot kept the Torah, even the Rabbinic commandments, and consider this anachronism, do not think twice at raising objections to actions of the Avot from mores and practices of 21st century New York!

Differences in age did not necessarily matter so much back then, particularly in arranged marriages. And 12/13 was viewed as a perfectly fine time for consummation with one's spouse. Nowadays, we have different views, based on an understanding of emotional maturity and aility to have informed consent. (Maturity might differ or matter based on the society.) And we would consider this pedophilia.

On a related note, where do we see someone enter someone's household but the consummation happen years later? Well, we have Mohammed, who married one of his wives at the age of 6 and consummated the marriage when she was 9. And this is not related as a bad thing. It was accepted practice in his society at that time.

Look to the Torah. Our Sages' understanding of Amah Ivriyah (not practiced nowadays, I should note) is that she is taken as a maidservant into her master's house, and gets out either by developing signs of maturity, or her master or master's son marrying her. And there is some expectation that one of the latter two will take place, and a sense of betrayal if it does not. One could draw parallels to a Rivkah situation, with consummation when she reaches a certain stage of physical maturity.

Or look to kohen gadol and certain interpretations of the requirement of betulah, which I won't elaborate upon here.

In sum, I am a pashtan and favor the alternate explanations. But I do not think that Rashi's explanation is totally implausible/obscene.

Update: In the comments, Chaim B. of Divrei Chaim points out that Tosafot writes about how kiddushei ketana was common practice in the Middle ages. From Kiddushin 41a:


Chaim B. said...

One other mareh makom - Tosfos Kiddushin 41a writes that although Chazal advised against kiddushei ketana, it was common practice in the Middle Ages.

joshwaxman said...

A comment from Ariella from the Kallah Magazine blog (some difficulty posting, probably due to my template):

To strengthen the point that a 13 year old as a wife could have been perceived as quite the norm, I pointed out that Shakespeare sets the age of his tragic heroine, Juliet, at 14. Furthermore, her mother says that by 14, she was already a mother (suggesting Juliet is on her way to being an old maid at that age) Also from reading the bio of Dona Gracia Nasi, I see that it was standard to marry a girl in her teens to a man of middle age (of course the result was quite young widows, but I guess they were not very concerned about that)

Shlomo said...

Assuming that you are allowed to interpret midrash non-literally, I always thought the Rivkah midrash was just an allusion to the midrash that Avraham discovered Judaism at age three. Remember that Rivkah was not just getting married, but also leaving a somewhat idolatrous household for a Godly one, just as Avraham did. The point of the Rivkah midrash is to highlight this parallel.

As further textual basis, both Avraham and Rivkah left Haran for Canaan, and they are the only two people to get the blessing "vayirash zaracha et shaar oyvav".

P.S. Awesome photo composite.

Anonymous said...

Would you really say, about a 3 year old,
וְהַנַּעֲרָ, טֹבַת מַרְאֶה מְאֹד--בְּתוּלָה, וְאִישׁ לֹא יְדָעָהּ?

Also, does your son carry the water on his shoulder?

Yea, great collage of pictures.

joshwaxman said...

a) no, I wouldn't, and that is a large part of why I would say she was older. This is stylistic, though, rather than an outward contradiction. After all, it would be true of a 3 year (+X month) old. And one can mount an argument that this is part of the formula with tovat mareh meod.

b) My son is only two, so I don't know yet. ;)
This would depend on how much water was in the pitcher. And how much training it carrying it that way I would give him. Also, just to be nit-picky, the only verse that says it was on her shoulder was *before* she filled it up, though verse 18 would might well imply it.

I would also add to the side of an older Rivkah the dramatic scene at the end of the parsha, where she descends from the camel...

joshwaxman said...

in other words, I am not arguing in *favor* of adopting this specific peshat . But most any perush has pros and cons -- things which work well with the text and things which do not, which the specific parshan tries to optimize. Thus, Rashi was optimizing the features I mentioned earlier, and reading of the text is not *totally ludicrous*, as some people seemed to think, without considering the factors I mentioened. There is some element plausibility there.

Reb Chaim HaQoton said...

בדרך אגב, I mentioned this issue in my latest essay and I think I mentioned a fairly adequate answer. See here.

Nachman Levine said...

The question is: what does the Midrash of Rivkah being three MEAN? (I don’t mean the Seder Olam’s chronology or Rashi’s take on it.) If we read the strangest Midrash in the world and the archeologists come back and say, yup, it happened exactly that way, this will in no way free us from the obligation of asking what the Midrash means.

Does this Midrash mean this:

Rivkah is Avraham.
The clues are his sending the servant
ללכת, to אל ארצי ואל מודלדתי, (then later אל בית אבי) to find some who will תלך to the land of the Canaanim, and not the other direction.
Rivkah consistently runs (ותרץ) and hurries (ותמהר) to do to kindness to strangers, in the same verbs Avraham did last week.
Will she opt on her own to leave the evil family of Haran in Aram, as Avraham did?
She says, in a word: אלך.
Avraham (in the Midrash) was בן שלש היה כשהכיר את בוראו
Thus Rivkah is three.
The Midrash is to a large degree based on a close reading of the text and allusions implicit in it.

Nachman Levine

Milhouse said...

1. Where do you get the idea that "according to Rashi, they did not consummate at 3, but ten years later"? On the contrary, Rashi (and Chazal) is clear that 3 is "re'uya lebia", and that's why Avraham sent to fetch her at that age. Rashi also says that it was unusual in Charan to find a 3-year-old who was "betulah ve'ish lo yeda'ah", which is why Avraham was afraid if he waited much longer it would no longer be the case.

I don't see anything in Rashi to imply that Yitzchak did not consummate the marriage immediately. But for the first 10 years they didn't expect children, because that wasn't biologically possible. Chazal do say that in those days it was possible, and give actual examples from Tanach, but perhaps it was still unusual, and so her not having conceived was no reason to worry. Only when 10 years had passed since she reached a normal age of conception, and she still hadn't conceived, did they start worrying.

2. You say "Nowadays we would not commend a man who married his niece". Why on earth not? It's not very common, but then cousin marriages are much less common nowadays than they were 100 years ago too, but they still happen and nobody thinks them wrong. It's just that nowadays we have so many more people to choose from. Uncle-niece marriages were always less common, because generally they would only happen in families where there was a large gap between the oldest child and the youngest son, enough that by the time the youngest son was ready to get married the oldest child would have a daughter of a similar age. Nowadays with the age of marriage being later, this is far less likely. But it could still happen, and I don't see why anyone would object. It's still a mitzvah according to the gemara.

joshwaxman said...

1) I was incorrect in attributing this to Rashi. All Rashi says is that the the countdown of ten years started 10 years earlier (see my more recent posts on this, where I state exactly this), but we can then read this in to it.

2) "Reuya" lebiah does not (necessarily) mean that they considered it commendable and a fine thing for people to do. All it means is that at that age, an act of Biah would be *considered* biah, as opposed to "etzba beAlma." And e.g. they believed (correctly or incorrectly) that if the hymen were broken of one less than 3 years old, it would grow back. The idea is that since such an act would be categorized as such, then *kiddushin* can also take effect. Just as "kol harauy libila, ain bila meakevet bo" means that it is possible to do it, not that it is a good and encouraged thing to do. Indeed, sex outside of marriage and not for the sake of marriage is considered zenut (see here, from Gil Student)

and more than one gemara lays out that a ketana should not be married off by her father (indeed, that it is assur) until she grows up (to the status of naarah) and says "to Ploni I want to get married."

See Kiddushin 41a for this,
האיש מקדש את בתו כשהיא נערה:
נערה אין קטנה לא
מסייע ליה לרב דאמר רב יהודה א"ר אסור לאדם שיקדש את בתו כשהיא קטנה עד שתגדיל ותאמר בפלוני אני רוצה:
"A man may marry off his daughter when she is a naarah":
{The implication is:} A naarah, yes, but a minor, no. This supports Rav. For Rav Yehuda cited Rav: It is forbidden for a man to marry off his daughter when she is a minor, until she grows and says "I want to be with Ploni."

or else in this post.

And kiddushin al yedei biah is also ruled out, because of pritzus. How exactly do you imagine the nisuin, or kiddushin, of 3-year-olds happened in the time of Chazal if the mechanisms to facilitate this were declared forbidden?

3) Sociologically, people would typically find it "icky." (Perhaps because of the generation gap, but also because the uncle is often pretty close to the nuclear family.) You can feel free to disagree, because it is a subjective call. But anyway, many Orthodox Jewish people would avoid this nowadays because of Rabbi Yehuda haChassid, who declared it off-limits. (One of the things troublesome, since it goes against an explicit gemara.)


b said...

One thing is clear.Chazal and the meforshim had a diffrent world than we have today.Just for exampe.see how ramban was bothered why yosef is called a youth at 17!what we would consider normal.

b said...

I'm suprised you bring examples from your children.It's clear it was diffrent then.For example do you thing a 3 year old today would beleive in Hashem at 3 years old like avraham did.Or reuven would change his father's bed at probaly 8 or 9?

joshwaxman said...

ramban is likely bothered with the word naar for a 17 year old because halachically, naar has a specific definition. see what chazal and meforshim do with the naarah ketana of naaman.

avraham concluding the existence of Hashem and Reuven changing his parents bed, while not so impossible, may well be midrash. certainly you would admit the former. and this specific type of yeridas hadoros is not so clear.



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