Wednesday, January 17, 2007

parshat Va`era: How Did The Egyptian Magicians Create Frogs?

The answer is obvious! Belateihim! As it states {Shemot 8:3}:
ג וַיַּעֲשׂוּ-כֵן הַחַרְטֻמִּים, בְּלָטֵיהֶם; וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת-הַצְפַרְדְּעִים, עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם. 3 And the magicians did in like manner with their secret arts, and brought up frogs upon the land of Egypt.
What are these secret arts? Magic?

I am not considering the issue of how Moshe managed to bring up frogs, or whatever tzefarde'im are. That was a nes, which either means Hashem's close control over nature to direct all those frogs, or else something outside the realm of nature, depending on how you take your miracles. But what about the chartumim?

Well, one could say that magic is real, and they practiced it. The rationalists amongst us won't like this much, though.

Shadal has an interesting suggestion, in which the secret art they knew was science, and, well ...

ויעשו כן החרטומים בלטיהם : לקחו כלי מלא מים שהיו בהם ביצי צפרדע, ובלטיהם (בחכמת הטבע) מיהרו יציאת הצפרדעים מן הביצים

"They took vessels full of water which had in them frog eggs, and with their lateihem (with scientific knowledge) they sped up the exiting of the frogs from the eggs."

Is such a thing possible? Indeed, it seems to be.

To cite a Wikipedia article on Frogs:
The eggs of some species laid out of water can detect vibrations of nearby predatory wasps or snakes, and will hatch early to avoid being eaten.[14]
The Wikipedia article was citing Warkentin, K.M. (1995). "Adaptive plasticity in hatching age: a response to predation risk trade-offs". Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 92: 3507-3510.

That article is available here.

A separate question was whether this scientific knowledge, or something akin to it, was available in the time of Shadal. And a separate question is whether such knowledge was available in ancient Egyptian times. And a separate question is whether this is a plausible explanation of the pasuk, given context. All these questions, I'm not addressing here.

16 comments:

Steg (dos iz nit der šteg) said...

wow, this is why i love Shadal.

Was it before or after his time when people started looking back at ancient civilizations as having mysterious scientific (or pseudo-scientific) knowledge that have since been lost?

Mar Gavriel said...

Was it before or after his time...?

Before.

Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. 1463-1494; Pico died under very mysterious circumstances in 1494. It was rumored that his own secretary had poisoned him, because Pico had become too close to Savonarola. (Wikipedia)

littlefoxling said...

A separate question was whether this scientific knowledge, or something akin to it, was available in the time of Shadal. And a separate question is whether such knowledge was available in ancient Egyptian times.

They could have known this by observing it.

And a separate question is whether this is a plausible explanation of the pasuk, given context.

Yes, especialy since we do know that these people did have magical powers from the other plagues

joshwaxman said...

"They could have known this by observing it."
I agree. Still, I would prefer some contemporary reference to this - something which simply might not be available, especially if it was regarded a secret art.

"Yes, especialy since we do know that these people did have magical powers from the other plagues"

I agree in terms of magical arts. I'm not sure though in terms of scientific knowledge - though the term lahateihem (lateihem) is mentioned by other makkot, so can be interpreted as such in those other contexts.

Chaim Markowitz said...

I wrote on this topic last year.
See here : http://nefeshchaim.blogspot.com/2006/01/vaeira-ii-black-magic-or-sheidim-which.html
and here: http://nefeshchaim.blogspot.com/2006/01/parsha-chabura-vaeiraunderstanding.html

The Maharsha undrstands that the Eygptians used sheidim to bring in the frogs.

Rafi Goldmeier said...

I thought I commented already - we tend tot underestimate the knowledge they had back then.. I see no reason to think they did not know the science...

On the other hand, we do nto understand magic anymore because it is so uncommon. We know from many sources that magic was very real, whether by "koach hatumah" or otherwise..

If they used vibrations and science to make the eggs hatch early, the frogs would have been born as babies (and even preemies posisbly) and be relatively small, insignificant, and unimpresive (especially relative to the frogs Moshe brought forth). If that was the case, I doubt it would have even rated a mention in the Torah..I think to get the mention they got, they must have been full size frogs that would have equalled or at least come close to the frogs of Moshe..That could only have been done by magic and not science..

joshwaxman said...

Clarke's famous third law:

"Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."

It actually is a fairly old dispute between rationalists and mystics whether magic is real. Thus, e.g. Shmuel ben Chofni Gaon explained the witch of Endor and Bilaam's talking donkey as dreams. A student of Rambam explained the witch of Endor as trickery. And of course others assume that magic is real. I.e. machloket. And I could quote many opinions on the other side, but they are readily apparent and people know them already, or have cited them already.

To argue Shadal's side, we might say that all that was required of the magicians was a proof of concept, because the point here was not to impress, but rather to deflate the impressiveness of Moshe's miracle. And making it seem as if they created frogs from water, which would soon develop into full frogs, was enough proof of concept.

zach said...

If you recall from your elementary science classes, tadpoles hatch from frog eggs (Rafi - not "frog babies"). Even if "vibrations" were used to hatch frog eggs, the tadpoles would hang around for at least a week before metamorphising into the frog stage.

It's a silly theory.

natschuster said...

Zach:

Some species of frogs hatch as froglets, not tadpoles. These species manage to skip the complete metamorphosis.

joshwaxman said...

Even if we assume tadpoles rather than froglets, this could be what Shadal intended. (After all, does he have a Hebrew word for tadpole that readers of his commentary would understand?) The point was perhaps that this was proof of concept, as I mentioned in an earlier comment.

zach said...

"Some species of frogs hatch as froglets, not tadpoles." Yeah, like microhylids. If you can give me an example of a species that is found in Egypt or the northern area of Africa, then I will grant this as a possibility (tho' unlikely).

In any event it is irrelevant to Josh's "proof of concept" point.

b said...

Then how does this wirk with the maccah of dam?where the chartimim did it as well.

joshwaxman said...

shadal writes:
כב ] ויעשו כן חרטמי מצרים : נ"ל כי מה שכתוב בפסוק כ"א ויהי הדם בכל ארץ מצרים, לא היה מיד, אלא שהכתוב מסיים סיפור הפיכת המים לדם; אבל באותו רגע שהיכה אהרן את היאור לעיני פרעה מיד נהפכו מימי היאור לדם, ומיד לקחו החרטומים כלי מים שלא מן היאור שעדיין לא נהפך לדם והפכו אותו בתחבולותיהם לדם, ואח"כ נתפשטה המכה בכל המים אשר בבתי מצרים ובכל מקוה מימיהם.

he doesn't explain the specific mechanisms they used to do this, nor is he obligated to.

without knowing the specifics of how they did it, here is one way that you, too, can accomplish this:
http://chemistry.about.com/od/chemistryhowtoguide/ht/waterwine.htm

kol tuv,
josh

b said...

Real blood is the peshat,not the color blood.Of course he is obligated to do so!if the peshat he's suggesting is to hold water.And why in the world would you need chartimim for a science feat?p.s.i find it amazing how you think people thousands of years ago were so advanced.

joshwaxman said...

"Real blood is the peshat,not the color blood"

there is a joke about the universal philosophical refutation that goes like this:
A philosopher once had the following dream.

First Aristotle appeared, and the philosopher said to him, "Could you give me a fifteen-minute capsule sketch of your entire philosophy?" To the philosopher's surprise, Aristotle gave him an excellent exposition in which he compressed an enormous amount of material into a mere fifteen minutes. But then the philosopher raised a certain objection which Aristotle couldn't answer. Confounded, Aristotle disappeared.

Then Plato appeared. The same thing happened again, and the philosophers' objection to Plato was the same as his objection to Aristotle. Plato also couldn't answer it and disappeared.

Then all the famous philosophers of history appeared one-by-one and our philosopher refuted every one with the same objection.

After the last philosopher vanished, our philosopher said to himself, "I know I'm asleep and dreaming all this. Yet I've found a universal refutation for all philosophical systems! Tomorrow when I wake up, I will probably have forgotten it, and the world will really miss something!" With an iron effort, the philosopher forced himself to wake up, rush over to his desk, and write down his universal refutation. Then he jumped back into bed with a sigh of relief.

The next morning when he awoke, he went over to the desk to see what he had written. It was, "That's what you say."


Do you get the point?

;)

josh

joshwaxman said...

"if the peshat he's suggesting is to hold water."
Shadal's suggestion is that since we know magic is not real, all of these tricks are done via sleight of hand. He is certainly not the first to say this. There are even Rishonim who say this.

His innovation was explaining, on the particular pasuk of frogs, how someone might have managed to do this. But these are, after all, secret arts. Do you think, if I explain how a magician at my kid's birthday party, is able to make a rabbit disappear, I must also explain how he accomplishes every single one of his other tricks? Some things, particularly explicitly described secret arts, are not necessarily knowable.

"And why in the world would you need chartimim for a science feat?"
because, according to Shadal, the secret art of these chartumim was scientific knowledge. (this is not so far-fetched. Pythagorean theorems were kept secret by his students, IIRC, on penalty of death.)

"p.s.i find it amazing how you think people thousands of years ago were so advanced."
you mean "how Shadal thought". who says I agree with him? maybe i do, maybe i don't. I certainly find his suggestion interesting.

certain things about the world, though, can be discovered through simple observation of nature.

kol tuv,
josh

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