Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Oz VeHadar Levushah: Did Rachel Really Cover Herself With Sheep Historically, And Does This Obligate Us Nowadays In Anything?

At the end of a section called "Pritzus of the Legs: Malady of the Last Few Decades," on pages 336-337, Rabbi Falk has the text pictured to the right. (Please read it first, before proceeding.) In this instance, while I believe that Rabbi Falk is incorrect, this is not due to misunderstanding any source, but rather because of his attitude towards the historicity of midrashim, and the historicity of late midrashim. But he does then use it to promote his specific agenda.

The author of Od Yosef Chai is the Ben Ish Chai, of Baghdad (1832-1909). And I do not have a copy of Od Yosef Chai in my library. But let us first analyze the pesukim in question, on a peshat level.

In Bereishit 29, in parshat Vayeitzei, we read:
א וַיִּשָּׂא יַעֲקֹב, רַגְלָיו; וַיֵּלֶךְ, אַרְצָה בְנֵי-קֶדֶם. 1 Then Jacob went on his journey, and came to the land of the children of the east.
ב וַיַּרְא וְהִנֵּה בְאֵר בַּשָּׂדֶה, וְהִנֵּה-שָׁם שְׁלֹשָׁה עֶדְרֵי-צֹאן רֹבְצִים עָלֶיהָ--כִּי מִן-הַבְּאֵר הַהִוא, יַשְׁקוּ הָעֲדָרִים; וְהָאֶבֶן גְּדֹלָה, עַל-פִּי הַבְּאֵר. 2 And he looked, and behold a well in the field, and, lo, three flocks of sheep lying there by it.--For out of that well they watered the flocks. And the stone upon the well's mouth was great.
ג וְנֶאֶסְפוּ-שָׁמָּה כָל-הָעֲדָרִים, וְגָלְלוּ אֶת-הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר, וְהִשְׁקוּ, אֶת-הַצֹּאן; וְהֵשִׁיבוּ אֶת-הָאֶבֶן עַל-פִּי הַבְּאֵר, לִמְקֹמָהּ. 3 And thither were all the flocks gathered; and they rolled the stone from the well's mouth, and watered the sheep, and put the stone back upon the well's mouth in its place.--
ד וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם יַעֲקֹב, אַחַי מֵאַיִן אַתֶּם; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, מֵחָרָן אֲנָחְנוּ. 4 And Jacob said unto them: 'My brethren, whence are ye?' And they said: 'Of Haran are we.'
ה וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם, הַיְדַעְתֶּם אֶת-לָבָן בֶּן-נָחוֹר; וַיֹּאמְרוּ, יָדָעְנוּ. 5 And he said unto them: 'Know ye Laban the son of Nahor?' And they said: 'We know him.'
ו וַיֹּאמֶר לָהֶם, הֲשָׁלוֹם לוֹ; וַיֹּאמְרוּ שָׁלוֹם--וְהִנֵּה רָחֵל בִּתּוֹ, בָּאָה עִם-הַצֹּאן. 6 And he said unto them: 'Is it well with him?' And they said: 'It is well; and, behold, Rachel his daughter cometh with the sheep.'
ז וַיֹּאמֶר, הֵן עוֹד הַיּוֹם גָּדוֹל--לֹא-עֵת, הֵאָסֵף הַמִּקְנֶה; הַשְׁקוּ הַצֹּאן, וּלְכוּ רְעוּ. 7 And he said: 'Lo, it is yet high day, neither is it time that the cattle should be gathered together; water ye the sheep, and go and feed them.'
ח וַיֹּאמְרוּ, לֹא נוּכַל, עַד אֲשֶׁר יֵאָסְפוּ כָּל-הָעֲדָרִים, וְגָלְלוּ אֶת-הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר; וְהִשְׁקִינוּ, הַצֹּאן. 8 And they said: 'We cannot, until all the flocks be gathered together, and they roll the stone from the well's mouth; then we water the sheep.'
ט עוֹדֶנּוּ, מְדַבֵּר עִמָּם; וְרָחֵל בָּאָה, עִם-הַצֹּאן אֲשֶׁר לְאָבִיהָ--כִּי רֹעָה, הִוא. 9 While he was yet speaking with them, Rachel came with her father's sheep; for she tended them.
י וַיְהִי כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָה יַעֲקֹב אֶת-רָחֵל, בַּת-לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ, וְאֶת-צֹאן לָבָן, אֲחִי אִמּוֹ; וַיִּגַּשׁ יַעֲקֹב, וַיָּגֶל אֶת-הָאֶבֶן מֵעַל פִּי הַבְּאֵר, וַיַּשְׁקְ, אֶת-צֹאן לָבָן אֲחִי אִמּוֹ. 10 And it came to pass, when Jacob saw Rachel the daughter of Laban his mother's brother, and the sheep of Laban his mother's brother, that Jacob went near, and rolled the stone from the well's mouth, and watered the flock of Laban his mother's brother.
יא וַיִּשַּׁק יַעֲקֹב, לְרָחֵל; וַיִּשָּׂא אֶת-קֹלוֹ, וַיֵּבְךְּ. 11 And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice, and wept.
Apparently, on pasuk 6, the Ben Ish Chai notes the phrase וְהִנֵּה רָחֵל בִּתּוֹ בָּאָה עִם-הַצֹּאן. Rabbi Falk's citation seems a bit off -- he replaced rachel bito with hi, but that is not a substantive difference. The Ben Ish Chai says that from the fact that it does not say vehinei hi meviah et hatzon, "behold, she is bringing the sheep," but rather "behold she is coming with the sheep," we can derive that she sheep were neither in front of her nor behind her, but rather that she was in their midst, with the sheep surrounding her in all directions. Further, the Ben Ish Chai attributes this to a modest trait she had, that she wished to hide her beautiful footsteps, and the lower-half of her body, from people passing to and from and traveling in the desert.

On a peshat level, I do not find the Ben Ish Chai's diyuk compelling at all. We would say in English "Here she comes with the sheep," where it would not mean that she is within the sheep, but rather, that she is coming, and accompanying her are the sheep, or that she is bringing the sheep with her. Could we say "Here she brings the sheep?" We certainly could but it would sounds awkward, and slightly stilted.

Indeed, there was a reason I included the verses before and after the verse in question -- to provide some context. Yaakov was not asking about Lavan's sheep. He was asking about Lavan, and presumably also Lavan's family. Indeed, one major reason for coming to Charan was to get married to Lavan's daughter. Therefore, who is the ikkar and who is the tafel? Obviously, Rachel is the primary and the sheep are merely secondary, both within the shepherds' response and within the narrative in general. Therefore, the shepherds, and the Torah here and in verse 9, stresses that Rachel came. But with her came the sheep of her father. That is why it would be awkward to say "and behold, here Rachel brings the sheep."

So on a peshat level, the text has no problem, and indeed works better as written. Is the Ben Ish Chai treating this on a peshat level? I don't know. It reads like a midrash. Now is that midrash really compelled, and thus compelling? Many midrashim do seize upon awkwardness, and explain it away. But here, I am not really convinced that there is any textual awkwardness. Now there are (at least) two classes of midrashim. Some use the pasuk as a proof-text, and some use it as a pretext. In this instance, it seems to me that the pasuk is being used as a pretext, in order to develop a specific homiletic point about the value of tznius. This is fine, but we should keep in mind exactly how this pasuk is being used.

Rabbi Falk then writes:
"These were our Imahos. It is our obligation and privelege to live in their shadow and enrich our lives by learning from their examples. While it is not for us to wear dresses down to the ground (see 6:H:6 above) we can at least emulate the spirit of their ways."
But it is really correct to respond to a late 19th-century or early 20th-century midrash with the words "These were our Imahos"? These were not our Imahos! This is the attitudes of a rabbi living in Iraq, living among Arabs who have extremes in tznius, projected onto one of our Imahos. And the Ben Ish Chai either does it consciously as homily because he thinks that these are positive Torah values and that this is a good way of promoting it; or unconsciously by assuming that 19th century Iraqi tznius accords with Biblical standards and values of tznius.

Either way, just because the Ben Ish Chai suggested this midrashic interpretation does not mean that it was historically true, and that these were our Imahos, and that therefore an obligation and privelege falls upon us to emulate them. We can consider Iraqi values and weigh whether we should adopt them, but the fact that some recent rabbi -- even as holy as the Ben Ish Chai -- retrojected his values on a Biblical character does not make these values binding in any sense.

But perhaps this is a natural chareidi attitude, in taking any and all midrashim literally.

There is what to say about "While it is not for us to wear dresses down to the ground (see 6:H:6 above)" but perhaps that is for another post, about Michal bat Shaul on page 407 in his book. For now, I will just point out that in taking this midrash so seriously, in his application he decides exactly what to draw from the midrash and what not to draw from the midrash. Thus, the midrash here says exactly what he wants it to say.

4 comments:

LazerA said...

I do have a copy of Od Yosef Chai, and he does discuss this pasuk, however, I cannot find the statement that Rabbi Falk cites.

On the other hand, while I don't see Rabbi Falk's quote, the Ben Ish Chai does use the pasuk to prove that Rachel Imeinu wore a veil:

ונ"ל בס"ד כי רחל אע"ה היתה לובשת על פניה פרגוד שהוא סודר מנוקב נקבים קטנים שקורין בערבי (כיליי) שהיא רואה ואינו נראית, ובזה יובן טעם נכון שיש בכתוב הזה הפסק בין תיבת רחל ובין תיבת באה, לומר שהיה דבר מפסיק בין פניה ובין מראה עינים של האנשים

It's a cute drosha, and it is actually quite possible, given the cultural environs, that she was wearing a veil.

In any case, given Rabbi Falk's methodology, does this drosha prove that all Jewish women should be donning veils? After all, "These were our Imahos. It is our obligation and privilege to live in their shadow and enrich our lives by learning from their examples."

Incidentally, from what the Ben Ish Chai writes in his sefer Chukei Nashim (ch. 17), it seems that in his community, normal practice was for women to wear veils when going out of the home. However, he explicitly describes this as "minhageinu bzos ireinu." Earlier in the chapter he says that a woman's face may be exposed.

Ariella said...

Sheep as accessories? I don't buy it. Based on that reasoning, shouldn't Rifka also have surrounded herself with sheep or some other animals when venturing out into a society where her virginal status (at 3) was remarkable? She does don a veil but only once she is approaching Yitzchak. (Tamar, too, dons a veil, though whether as part of her disguise as a kedesha or as part of her daily wear depends on the interpretation.) Certainly, Sarah did not cover herself in livestock either. Now, back to Rachel, who is named for the sheep she tended, someone (I don't remember who) suggested that she was only 5 at the time she met Yaakov. That accounts for his volunteering for an engagement of 7 years, allowing her time to reach puberty. It also would mitigate the possible lack of modesty in the cousins' kiss. If Sarah's beauty is considered pure and free from any worldly taint by being compared to the beauty of a 7 year-old, certainly such can be said of a 5 year-old.

Ariella said...

One more thing,though I dress very modestly, the self-conscious tznius that some attempt to indoctrinate into girls with such textual twists seems to be contrary to true tznis. That was what kankan chadash reacted against in his rejection of a shidduch candidate who prided herself on her tznius in one of his most popular posts.

Ariella said...

Josh, would you like to possess your very own copy of R' Falk's book? A neighbor gave it to me. Her husband had bought it (obviously -- if you know them -- not really knowing what it entailed, and she found it too much for and so bestowed it upon me. I was thinking of donating it somewhere but I'm afraid they will take it all at face value even though the sources he cites do not always say what he indicates they do.

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