Thursday, January 15, 2009

The Long-Lived Donkey

Al derech hateva, how long can a donkey live? According to this source:
Donkeys often live for twenty-five years or more. Some have been recorded as living to the ripe old age of sixty, although a forty-year-old donkey is considered to be elderly.
Now consider the following Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer (perek 31), proximally based on the Biblical story of Akeidat Yitzchak (see right). According to this, the donkey Avraham saddled was the son of the she-donkey who was created at twilight (of the last day of Creation). It seems to cite a prooftext of וַיַּשְׁכֵּם אַבְרָהָם בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיַּחֲבֹשׁ אֶת-חֲמֹרוֹ, but that would suggest to me that the proof is from boker as standing in contrast to twilight, which seems unlikely. More likely is that the prooftext is a bit later, from וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָהָם אֶל-נְעָרָיו, שְׁבוּ-לָכֶם פֹּה עִם-הַחֲמוֹר, where the definite article pins it down to some previously known chamor, which it then equates with the one created at twilight. Now, that was a she-donkey, so it must be the son of the she-donkey. It then equates it with the donkey which Moshe rode upon traveling back to Egypt, in this week's parsha:
כ וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת-אִשְׁתּוֹ וְאֶת-בָּנָיו, וַיַּרְכִּבֵם עַל-הַחֲמֹר, וַיָּשָׁב, אַרְצָה מִצְרָיִם; וַיִּקַּח מֹשֶׁה אֶת-מַטֵּה הָאֱלֹהִים, בְּיָדוֹ. 20 And Moses took his wife and his sons, and set them upon an ass, and he returned to the land of Egypt; and Moses took the rod of God in his hand.
It thus understands that Moshe also rode on the same donkey as his wife and children; and perhaps the definite article in הַחֲמֹר functions to equate the two. And finally, this is the same donkey that the son of David (=Mashiach) will come riding on. Zechariah 9:9:
ט גִּילִי מְאֹד בַּת-צִיּוֹן, הָרִיעִי בַּת יְרוּשָׁלִַם, הִנֵּה מַלְכֵּךְ יָבוֹא לָךְ, צַדִּיק וְנוֹשָׁע הוּא; עָנִי וְרֹכֵב עַל-חֲמוֹר, וְעַל-עַיִר בֶּן-אֲתֹנוֹת. 9 Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion, shout, O daughter of Jerusalem; behold, thy king cometh unto thee, he is triumphant, and victorious, lowly, and riding upon an ass, even upon a colt the foal of an ass.
Here, there is no definite article in play. I would add that perhaps וְעַל-עַיִר בֶּן-אֲתֹנוֹת is what allows the midrashic author to say that this is the son of the twilight-donkey.

Another consideration in the forming of the midrash is what people sometimes term the closed-canon approach. A Biblical character is not allowed to merely pop up for a moment and then fade into the background. Rather, it is the same person (or in this case, animal) in play again and again. Thus, e.g., the palit who informed Avraham of Lot's capture was Og.

There are other chamorim mentioned throughout Tanach, many even with the definite article, but not noted by this midrash. Do a search and see what I mean., E.g. the one Avigayil rides on, or that the navi sheker rides on.

Now, if only al derech hateva this could not be the case as a matter of historical fact. If a doney lives up to a ripe old age of 60, when pressing it, then let us see:

1) The she-ass created at twilight of the last day of Creation would be quite old by the time Bilaam rode upon her.
2) Let us say that she gave birth to this chamor not immediately, but rather in the time of Avraham. Though then she would have to give birth in old-age, and we have something akin to the dispute between Ramban and Ibn Ezra about the birth of Yocheved and of Moshe. So the chamor was born in Avraham's time.
3) But according to a popular counting, from Yitzchak's birth until the Exodus was precisely 400 years. If we assume an old Yitzchak at the akeida, of 37 years old, we are left with a span of 363 years.
4) And if this would be the same donkey mashiach rides in on to bring the redemption, it would need to be many thousands of years old. No wonder mashiach is taking so long! Can you imagine how slowly this donkey must walk?!

I would further add that this idea that the she-donkey was born at twilight may well be the development of this midrashic author, rather than the intent of Chazal in Pirkei Avot. The Mishnah in Avot:
"Ten things were created on the Sabbath eve at twilight. They are: the mouth of the earth [which swallowed Korach and his co-conspirators] (Numbers 16:32), the mouth of the well [which accompanied Israel in the desert], the mouth of the donkey [which rebuked Balaam] (ibid., 22:28), the rainbow, the Manna, the staff [of Moses], the shamir worm, the script [of the Torah], the inscription [on the Tablets of the Ten Commandments], and the Tablets. Some say: also destructive spirits, the burial place of Moses, and the ram of our father Abraham [which he slaughtered in place of Isaac] (Genesis 22:13). And some say, also tongs -- which are made with tongs."
The idea would seem to be (for many of them, at least), that certain "magical" creations are described as later developments at the hand of God, and also (perhaps) outside the derech hateva. The answer is that these exceptions to the rule were already part of the Divine Plan meireishit, from the beginning. Thus, the mouth of the earth might have been, or might not have been, a new creation (see Moshe's request of Hashem), but here, since it was known that this exception was to be needed later, it was created now.

Now, this Mishnah does not say that the she-donkey was created at twilight. It states that the mouth of the she-donkey was created at twilight. In other words, this miracle which is outside the realm of the natural order. And so the pasuk in parshat Balak states that Hashem opened the mouth of the she-donkey -- and this was part of Creation, as almost an afterthought. If the donkey were capable from sheshet yemei bereishit, would it not have talked to Bilaam before this? Rather, it is the nes which was prepared from sheshet yemei bereishit. And as such, Bilaam's she-donkey need not be so old. This might be the interpretation and the extension made by the midrashist in Pirkei De-Rabbi Eliezer. If the she-donkey were born later, then she would be unlikely to have birthed Avraham's donkey, though Moshe's might remain a possibility.

Now, Rashi cited this midrash, in part. He writes:
(כ) על החמר -
חמור המיוחד, הוא החמור שחבש אברהם לעקידת יצחק והוא שעתיד מלך המשיח להגלות עליו, שנאמר (זכריה ט ט) עני ורוכב על חמור:
or in English:
mounted them upon the donkey The designated donkey. That is the donkey that Abraham saddled for the binding of Isaac, and that is the one upon whom the King Messiah is destined to appear, as it is said: “humble, and riding a donkey” (Zech. 9:9). — [from Pirkei Rabbi Eliezer, ch. 31]
He does not echo this idea that it was the son of the she-donkey created at twilight, but the other points are there.

Does he mean this literally? It is certainly possible. And if so, I would simply disagree with Rashi, and declare that this is not peshat in the pasuk nor was it likely to have been the historical reality.

There is another possibility, that this was intended as midrash, and to pick up a message from the Biblical text. That message might be Moshe Rabbenu, redeemer of Israel from Egypt, as a precursor of mashiach. That is why Moshe rides on the donkey, just as mashiach will eventually ride in on a donkey. Perhaps there is even the personality point of humility, since Moshe was the most humble (he wrote so himself!), and according to Zechariah, mashiach will be "humble, and riding upon an ass." And the connection to Akeidat Yitzchak might be that zechut avot of the Akeidat Yitzchak is what helped enable that redemption, and our redemption as well. Either that, or all this was just free-association, which is certainly possible, and something to watch out for.

13 comments:

joshwaxman said...

If you have an objection to what I have written, feel free to spell it out, and with a pseudonym. Otherwise, your comment here is quite strange; as such, I deleted it.

KT,
Josh

Anonymous said...

You're strange because you're clearly far to smart to be seriously considering the questions you seem to be seriously considering.

joshwaxman said...

or else, perhaps you do not understand what exactly the questions *are* that I am seriously considering -- questions as to Rashi's intent with his purportedly peshat commentary, midrashic literalism vs. homiletic intent of the midrashic author's intent, whether derech hateva considerations influence midrash, what textual cues influence the literature of midrash, and how sources (such as the Mishna in Avot) are reinterpreted, reused, and develops through its lifetime in various commentaries. All of these are "smart" questions, IMHO. Also, this analysis was sparked by another blog which took this midrash as both literal and absolutely historical, which annoyed me a bit.

if you would elaborate as to what you believe my questions to be (e.g. how old is the donkey?), then perhaps your comment would be *useful* rather than just somewhat snide. but note that your elaboration was no elaboration at all, but remained just as vague.

KT,
Josh

Anonymous said...

"Also, this analysis was sparked by another blog which took this midrash as both literal and absolutely historical, which annoyed me a bit."

Link? Maybe I'll go annoy him or her instead.

joshwaxman said...

:)

http://shiratdevorah.blogspot.com/2009/01/famous-donkey.html

comments are not enabled on her blog, though.

KT,
Josh

Anonymous said...

You're strange. She's nuts.

;-)

joshwaxman said...

well, at the least, she comes from a very different Jewish background, such that it it perfectly rational to take this literally. Such that believing this does not make her nuts.

I would guess that most people are unaware of this Rashi -- it is not one of the famous ones, I think -- but I would also guess that if you put this to many frum people, they would indeed say that it is peshat in the pasuk; that it is intended literally; and that it happened historically.

KT,
Josh

Anonymous said...

"she comes from a very different Jewish background, such that it it perfectly rational to take this literally."

You're being sloppy with words to hide sloppy thinking: her background rationally explains why she'd believe it, but it doesn't make it any more rational for her to believe it.

"if you put this to many frum people, they would indeed say that it is peshat in the pasuk; that it is intended literally; and that it happened historically."

You yourself managed to write a lange post about it with enough ambiguity in it to never make clear that you don't believe it happened historically. Strange.

joshwaxman said...

"her background rationally explains why she'd believe it, but it doesn't make it any more rational for her to believe it."

no, that is not what i meant. though i intended "rational" as opposed to "nuts." people reason things out on the basis of certain things they take as axiomatic. rambam is not nuts for believing in the earth-mouse. aristotle was not nuts for explaining things based on spontaneous generation. centuries ago, people were not nuts for believing in the divine right of kings.

"You yourself managed to write a lange post about it with enough ambiguity in it to never make clear that you don't believe it happened historically. Strange."
What do you think I meant when I wrote the following in my post?
"Does he mean this literally? It is certainly possible. And if so, I would simply disagree with Rashi, and declare that this is not peshat in the pasuk nor was it likely to have been the historical reality."

KT,
Josh

Anonymous said...

"centuries ago, people were not nuts for believing in [xyz]"

Devorah lives now, so she has no excuse for taking known nonsense as an axiom. Rashi was a genius despite holding certain false medieval beliefs (e.g. mermaids), but if he believed it today he'd be stam a nut. (I'd like to believe he wouldn't...)

"nor was it likely to have been the historical reality."

snort. "Not likely" that a donkey lived that long? It's like I said: you never came out and said it's not history.

joshwaxman said...

"Devorah lives now"
in a society that maintains these beliefs, and does not consider it nonsense. and you also live now, in a society that has other beliefs.

"snort"
yet my guess is that you missed that statement when reading my post the first time around, misread the entire post as a result, and impetuously jumped to conclusions, because it seemed to say something you didn't like. much like you assumed that I was "being sloppy with words to hide sloppy thinking."

"Not likely," because if you look at my style, I am generally quite soft-spoken. (Note the word "generally" in the previous sentence, with I automatically put in but which illustrates this trend.) I write with caveats. If you don't like it, you are entitled to lump it.

What it is is *humility.* While I do not think that the was historically a donkey which lives so long, I realize that I am human, and that as sure as I may be of something, I am the product of my era. And in every generation, there were people who thought that other people were idiots, and were absolutely certain of themselves, when it turned out that they, in turn, were also "idiots." And this is the case in every field of science and religion. So is there a remote possibility that my entire world-view is wrong? Sure. And even if I did not think there were such a remote possibility, I would still use such language, because that is how I generally speak, unless provoked. See e.g. how I use unlikely in general by searching for it.

I believe that your average reader would indeed correctly assume that that quoted statement *is* coming out and saying it is not history. And if I did not say it clearly enough here, I surely have said the equivalent in the *many* other posts I have made about midrashic literalism and historicity.

KT,
Josh

Eliyahu said...

"There is another possibility, that this was intended as midrash"
Is that to say midrashim are not meant literally? ;)

joshwaxman said...

"that this was intended as midrash"
"Is that to say midrashim are not meant literally? ;)"

good catch. i should have said "that this was intended *by Rashi* as midrash, and that he takes this particular midrash allegorically."
:)

KT,
Josh

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