Sunday, June 04, 2006

The Dangers of Taking Midrashim Figuratively -- Esther's Green Skin

In my previous post, I took Rabbi Rosenthal to task for presenting a rather simplistic view that all midrashim are non-true as far as actual reality/history goes and should be understood as metaphorical.

While searching the internet, I discovered an earlier essay that Rabbi Rosenthal had written for the Jewish Times, also instructing people not to take midrashim literally. One of his two examples in this article is:
Esther, whom the Megilla describes as beautiful, the midrash portrays as actually having a bizarre green color. (Megilla 13a).
Later on, among the questions one should ask about this midrash, are the following:
Imagine that we could watch a video of the king’s “beauty pageant” the way we watch the Academy Awards. What do you think Esther looked like? Do you think that she was the most beautiful girl in Shushan? Do you think she was green?
Do you think Achashverosh would have been attracted to a “green” girl?
The impossibility of this situation and the general attitude of taking midrashim figuratively leads him to some conclusion in which Esther's wisdom factors in, as well as of Divine hashgacha. As he writes:
Esther, as the midrash points out, though good looking, was by no means a perfect “ten”. She had some distinct drawbacks as a beauty queen that normally should have disqualified her from the interest of a superficial person such as Achashverosh. In reality she had no more chance of winning the pageant than if she had been green.
Thus, of course the midrash did not mean that she was literally green. It is rather a schocking device to draw out a deeper lesson that it was not her beauty that saved the day.

I would note that the idea of Divine hashgacha is not off the mark -- in fact, the actual text of the midrash says this almost overtly, if he had bothered to cite it -- but that that does not necessarily mean that the midrash was not to be taken literally. Alas, I believe that Rabbi Rosenthal mistranslated the midrash, and proceeded from there. And his general attitude of taking midrashim figuratively led him astray and prevented him from delving deeper.

First, the mistranslation. The gemara actually says:
"Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha amar: Esther yerakroket hayeta, veChut shel chesed mashuch aleha."
The context is an analysis of the name hadassa, which Esther is given in the megilla. Many other explanations of hadassa are given, and then this one is given. hadassa, from hadas, meaning "myrtle." Thus, she was yerakroket, presumably like the myrtle. Indeed, Ktav Yad Oxford, which Jastrow cites, inserts kehadas, that she was yerakroket like a myrtle.

Now, since a myrtle is green, the natural inclination is to assume yerakroket means exactly the same deep green shade, and thus Esther is an alien or a lizard! yerakroket actually encompasses a wide range of colors, including yellow, blue, and green.

So what is yerakroket? The American Heritage Dictionary (cited at perhaps comes to the rescue, in its definition of the word "sallow":

A broad-leaved European willow (Salix caprea) having large catkins that appear before the leaves and tough wood used as a source of charcoal.


Of a sickly yellowish hue or complexion.

Looking at

Main Entry: 2sallow
Function: adjective
Etymology: Middle English salowe, from Old English salu; akin to Old High German salo murky, Russian solovyi yellowish gray : of a grayish greenish yellow color

This is for the willow, not for the myrtle, but we see comparisons of plant color to complexion.

Background on the Daf meanwhile notes that it could mean green or yellow, and here translates as "a pale complexion" (taking it to mean "yellow").

(Indeed, Prooftexts 22 #3 has an article which translates yerakroket as "sallow." See here.)

Thus, one need not leap immediately to the conclusion that Esther was green. Perhaps she was pale, or better, she had a sallow - that is, a sickly greenish-yellow complexion. The fact that such a word exists means that it is not uncommon to occur. Such people look sickly and are typically not the paragon of beauty. But at the same time, they do not look like space aliens, as Rabbi Rosenthal appears to read the midrash! She is not a bizzare green color!

Next, he contrasts the midrash which states that she was green, with the Megillah, which describes Esther as beautiful. To cite once again:
Esther, whom the Megilla describes as beautiful, the midrash portrays as actually having a bizarre green color. (Megilla 13a).
The derasha, however, is explicitly on the word hadassa, in Esther 2:7:
ז וַיְהִי אֹמֵן אֶת-הֲדַסָּה, הִיא אֶסְתֵּר בַּת-דֹּדוֹ--כִּי אֵין לָהּ, אָב וָאֵם; וְהַנַּעֲרָה יְפַת-תֹּאַר, וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה, וּבְמוֹת אָבִיהָ וְאִמָּהּ, לְקָחָהּ מָרְדֳּכַי לוֹ לְבַת. 7 And he brought up Hadassah, that is, Esther, his uncle's daughter; for she had neither father nor mother, and the maiden was of beautiful form and fair to look on; and when her father and mother were dead, Mordecai took her for his own daughter.
and that pasuk both states her name is hadassa and states that וְהַנַּעֲרָה יְפַת-תֹּאַר וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha certainly knew what the pasuk stated, yet he still stated his midrash.

A few pages later, in the gemara, the most beautiful women are listed, and Esther is among them, and the gemara states that according to the opinion that Esther was yerakroket, we need to take Esther out of the list and replace her with someone else.

Yet what happens to this verse? Does the midrash contradict the verse?

No, because that is not all Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha said. He said: Esther yerakroket hayeta, veChut shel chesed mashuch aleha.

Presumably, this is how explains the continuation of the same pasuk that states that she was "fair to look on" - that Hashem extended her "a strand of loving-kindness" which granted her a chein such that she was יְפַת-תֹּאַר וְטוֹבַת מַרְאֶה.

Rabbi Rosenthal no longer needs to look deeper for the hidden meaning of Divine Providence. Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha says it overtly.

But that does not mean that he did not also think that she actually had a sallow complexion.

Finally, Rabbi Rosenthal presented the idea that the midrash intended to shock us - the was not a perfect ten, but was not bizarre looking either. Yet that is not what Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha seems to be trying to say. He is saying that she was not pretty, but it was this chut shel chesed that did the trick. And indeed, if he is saying that she was middle of the road -- a beinonit, then compare with the midrashic interpretation which immediately precedes:
Ben Azzai omer -- Esther lo arucha hayeta velo ketzara hayeta ela beinonit hayeta hehadassa.
Ben Azzai and Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha are contemporary. One could say that this shows that indeed Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha also meant a beinonit. But I would ask - why then would Rabbi Yehoshua ben Korcha give an alternate explanation which does not present her as a beinonit? I believe this argues against this specific figurative explanation.

In sum, it is dangerous to assume that every midrash is meant figuratively, even if we ourselves do not choose to believe it. If we wish to reject this midrash, there are plenty others to choose from besides this "lucky" midrash (to borrow S.'s term), and these midrashim are on the very same amud in the gemara. But if we find a midrash implausible, we firstly might not be correctly understanding the midrash, and even if we are, perhaps the one who said it did find it plausible. Finally, any kind of explanation should ideally be based on a careful examination of thew Biblical and midrashic text, which can help us arrive closer to the truth, and perhaps in a less circuitous route.


Anonymous said...

Avi Goldstien has a article as a sort of followup to Rabbi Rosenthal on literalness of medrashim.
See page 22.

joshwaxman said...

thanks. I'll take a look at it.

I posted a comment on "On the Main Line," by the way.

ADDeRabbi said...

so does 'soloveitchik' mean 'small and greenish-yellow'?

joshwaxman said...

cute :)

Anonymous said...

who says that green skin is ugly. I hear that the woman who played the orion slave girl in star trek had fan mail years after that episode begging her to come to them wearing the paint.

joshwaxman said...

good point.
within the context of the midrash -- the way the midrash uses it, such that Hashem extends a chut shel chessed to compensate -- it would seem a negative attribute.


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