Thursday, November 20, 2008

Rivkah's Age, Yet Again, And Apikorsus

This is not the first time this has made it to the Jewish Blogosphere. Rashi says Rivkah's age was 3. But there are other rabbinic positions which place her age as older - Tosafot quotes a Sifrei that she was 14.

Rabbi Avi Billet penned an article for the Jewish Star on this topic, basically talking about plausibility and how he would not accept Rashi as peshat here, but would follow other positions. And the idea behind this, I would assume, was to get people to think in general about the Biblical text, and not just stick with Rashi's peshat every time, and not grapple with it and think about it. The result is a more optimal type of learning Chumash. We learn Chumash as kids in yeshiva, but we don't approach the text as Rashi would, as Ibn Ezra would, as Abarbanel would, thinking about the text ourselves, the intertexuality, the grammar, etc. But we could, if we adopt a more sophisticated approach to the text and to the mefarshim.

There is a principle of Da Lifnei Mi Ata Omed. As used by Chazal, this means realize before Whom you are standing, which is Lifnei Melech Malchei HaMelachim, HaKadosh Baruch Hu. But we might reuse that phase to mean know your audience, and present it in a way they can accept.

And this is just what Rabbi Billet did when writing for the Jewish Star. But then it was carried over to Vos Iz Neias, which has a more chareidi audience. And this audience was perhaps not ready for this message, at least in the style it was presented. And so the comments stand right now at 168, many of them calling the author of the article an apikores for thinking he can argue with Rashi on the basis of plausibility. And a commenter, zb, left a lengthy comment addressing their points in a recent parshablog post. This also drew the attention of Streimel and of WolfishMusings.

Personally, I think that certain aspects of the story make more sense with an older Rivkah. But even so, I have written posts about the plausibility or lack thereof of Rashi's position.

For example, the Torah calls Rivkah a naarah, which in Rabbinic thought refers specifically to people of a specific age, an age much larger than 3. Here is a post demonstrating that while thus is true on the level of derash and even midrash halacha, on the level of peshat, this need not be so, as we see from the Naarah Ketana serving Naaman.

Second, Rabbenu Bachya notes the implausibility of Rivkah doing all that she did -- for she needs miraculous strength, and concludes it must have been with Divine assistance, and then notes that this is all the more so according to the position of the midrash that she was three. The implication is that one might say not like the midrash. But it is also that even as a three year old, we are already assuming miraculous Divine assistance.

In this post, I address whether Rashi's explanation is plausible, and whether it is obscene. I note that what is described is taking Rachel back for eventual nisuin, but that according to Rashi, that nisuin does not occur until 10 years later. And marrying at 13 is not unknown in ancient cultures, and was culturally acceptable. Indeed, as the author of the KallahMagazine blog pointed out, we see that Juliet was that age, and her mother says that she is an old maid -- at that age, Juliet's mother was already pregnant. And as the author of the Divrei Chaim blog points out, Tosafot writes how kiddushei katana was common in the middle ages. So it is not such a farfetched peshat as it might appear to us, living in the 21st century CE. When learning Biblical text, or when learning commentaries on the Biblical text, sometimes it pays to get past our own preconceptions, especially before judging various mefarshim's comments as ridiculous.

In that same post I also include a bunch of photos are really young children, about the age of three, getting water in buckets from water sources such as wells. And I know from my own son that he was capable of carrying gallon-sized Poland Spring waters (and large and heavy Shulchan Aruchs) across the room -- he did so on much more than one occassion.

In this post, I address what I would consider a more important issue. As I write there,
Those who take every midrash absolutely literally are missing the point. Those who try to harmonize competing midrashim are missing the point. Those who are upset at the midrash and rail against it because they think it improbable or against a literal reading are also missing the point.
If it is a midrash, what exactly is the point of the midrash? And based on the mechanism of deriving it, I suggest that an important message of the midrash is that this is a predestined marriage. Because making her three comes from the apparent fact (apparent because there are other ways of reading it, on a peshat level) that Avraham is informed of her birth right after Akeidat Yitzchak, now that Yitzchak has survived the ordeal. And then the betrothal occurs at the first available point, when betrothal could effectively work. And this bolsters the theme in the Biblical text of the Divine hand guiding Eliezer towards finding Yitzchak's soul-mate.

Finally, in this post, I continue analyzing the theme in terms of another midrash, about Rachel's age at the time of marriage.

Again, this is not to say that she was three. But one could argue that position while remaining a pashtan and plausible, or else one can dismiss it on the level of peshat while still appreciating the deeper thematic message the midrash is seeing and teaching in the Biblical text.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

I guess The author of the Sefer HAyashar(RABENU TAAM?) is an Apikores too as he says she was Ten I would love to know where the Number comes from?

Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

In discussing the midrash that Rivqah was three years old in the story, the Rambam is quoted by his son as stating that he "pushed away this interpretation with both hands".

And my great grandmother was married at age 12 in Iran, and this was par for the course then in the middle East and still is in some parts. Without this premise it is very difficult to understand a great deal of Masekhet Qiddushin, Yevamot and Ketubot, as they are all speaking in terms of this cultural reality.

zb said...

Thanks for mentioning my post Josh. Also in the middle ages people married very young, primarily because they died very young (30's and 40's). If we are going to argue that the life span of the Avot were in the mid 100's and then there wouldn't have been the catalyst of early marriage that the era of Romeo and Juliet had. Also I don't believe any rationalist would have a problem saying that a 3 year old Rivka only had kedushin with Yitzchok and nesuin only occurred by 14. However the question is does everyone teach it like this, or they just say point blank that Rivka was 3 years when she married Yitzchok? Also does the pshat in chumush seem to say that they waited 11 years till they got married, or is waiting 11 years till nesuin a result of our innate moral sensibilities that Hashem embedded into us. Obviously medrash (as you pointed out) is not to be taken historically, but when Rashi clearly states 3 years of age, and this is all what we teach our kids, its obvious why most people think that three is not drash but pshat in the posuk. Also it seemed a good many of the posts in VIN thought it was presumptuous to have an issue with Rivka getting married (both kedushin and nesuin) at three. This has everything to do with the concept of allowing ourselves to use our critical facilities when going through the chumash. This is a belief system that states that we have to accept everything, that every commentator (Rishon and Achron) wrote based on emunah peshuta, and c"v to (respectfully) have a different opinion then them (otherwise your a kofer!) This is probably a result of Chasidim with their Rebbe's and Charedim with Daas Torah. Because if we dare not disagree with anything a current gadol wrote then "kal v'chomor" who are we to argue with any previous gedolim who were 5000 times greater etc etc

joshwaxman said...

i don't know about "peshat" in chumash, but i do believe that it was more than just moral sensibilities that made them assume a 10 year gap. (indeed, I *could* read the relevant rashi as that the consummating some time in the intervening period.) There may also be textual cues to this. And also a scientific perspective, found in the gemara, that a woman cannot conceive before a certain age, and even there, initially, she would die as a result.

The motivating factor is that in perek 25, pasuk 18 says he was 40 when he "took" her, intervening psukim say that she was barren and so he prayed for her, and pasuk 26 says that he was 60 when Yaakov and Esav was born. And elsewhere, (from Sarah?) we know that one waits 10 years for a spouse. (And then, according to halacha not really in practice nowadays, one takes a different wife.) That he prayed for this after 20 years instead of after 10 years raises questions. But then, when it all combines together with an age of 3, waiting until 13 until she was able to conceive, and then waited an additional 10 years while trying to have children.

So it does have hooks into textual problems, rather than just coming up with it because of ideological difficulties. I believe the same holds true for most of midrash.

The Rashi in question, BTW, on Bereishit 25:26, is based on a Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, ch 32.

KT,
Josh

yaak said...

I know Rabbi Avi Billet personally, and can tell you he is brilliant and not an apikoras - he just takes the rational approach, which he has a source for too. I don't totally agree with him here, but his opinion is valid. (Maybe I should post this on VIN.)

Anonymous said...

KallahMagazine blog pointed out, we see that Juliet was that age, and her mother says that she is an old maid -- at that age, Juliet's mother was already pregnant. And as the author of the Divrei Chaim blog points out, Tosafot writes how kiddushei katana was common in the middle ages. So it is not such a farfetched peshat as it might appear to us.

Can you give MAreh makomos for these two I am unsure if there is a nebrewbook for Shakspere thought

joshwaxman said...

The Tosafot is at the end of the linked to post (in red) -- I put up a picture of the Tosafot. We just did it in daf Yomi two days ago. Kiddushin 41a, d"h assur.

Juliet I'll have to get back to you on.

KT,
Josh

joshwaxman said...

in terms of Juliet, we have e.g. this conversation between Capulet and Paris about Juliet:

http://www.gutenberg.org/dirs/etext97/1ws1610.txt

Cap. But saying o'er what I have said before:
My child is yet a stranger in the world,
She hath not seen the change of fourteen years;
Let two more summers wither in their pride
Ere we may think her ripe to be a bride.
Par. Younger than she are happy mothers made.

A bit later, Juliet's mother, referred to as Capulet's wife:

Wife. Nurse, where's my daughter? Call her forth to me.
Nurse. Now, by my maidenhead at twelve year old,
I bade her come. What, lamb! what ladybird!
God forbid! Where's this girl? What, Juliet!

and finally, where she says this:

Wife. Well, think of marriage now. Younger than you,
Here in Verona, ladies of esteem,
Are made already mothers. By my count,
I was your mother much upon these years
That you are now a maid. Thus then in brief:
The valiant Paris seeks you for his love.

Kol Tuv,
Josh

Wolf2191 said...

I once heard someone attempt to explain Sanhedrin 67b:

Then the magicians said unto Pharoah, This is the finger of God:21 R. Eleazar, said: This proves that a magician cannot produce a creature less than a barley corn in size. R. Papa said: By God! he cannot produce even something as large as a camel; but these [larger than a barley corn] he can [magically] collect [and so produce the illusion that he has magically created them], the others he cannot. (Soncino trans.
acc. to Rashi)

that R' Papa denied the existence of magic (as per Rambam). Rashi at any rate didn't learn that way as he interprets R' Papa as referring to what Sheidim can carry.

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