Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Yirmeyahu and Plato, but not in Egypt

When I initially wrote my previous post on the subject, I confused the impact of the missing years. It is under the Jewish, rather than secular chronology, that the churban bayis rishon is contemporary with Plato. It is now corrected.

As an anonymous commenter commented, if this incident occurred in Yerushalayim just after the churban, then even with Jewish chronology there is a problem, because Plato would only be six years old at the time. Luckily for us, in all the versions of the story I cited, this did not occur in Yerushalayim just after the churban, but rather in Egypt, after Yirmeyahu had been exiled there. Indeed, Abarbanel (the rishon cited) puts this in Egypt, and about ten years after the churban, but we can even make it later. And Ibn Yachya based his retelling on the version told by Netanel Ibn Caspi's commentary, which was finished in 1424, before Abarbanel was born, and in that version as well the story is set in Egypt, possibly many years after the churban.

Other versions of the story, which fill in other details (but perhaps not -- we are relying on partial retellings), place it in Yerushalayim. This is the version attributed to Rema in his sefer Torat HaOlah. But Rema is an acharon, and anyway we cannot find this tale in his sefer; indeed, JewishEncylopedia suggests that Ibn Yachya was mistaken in attributing it to Rema. Maybe there was a variant text of the work, but when I looked it up in the sefer in the cited volume and chapter, there were other discussions on how philosophy came from the Jews but not this particular story. Here, I try to track it down to the best of my ability, but I do not get far.

Revach made note of the story last week, saying that this is found in Galus Unechama from Rav Shimshon Pincus, tatza"l. In private communication, he noted that he heard Rav Pincus sometimes read it word for word from one of Rema's seforim. But it seems possible to me that Rav Pincus was actually not reading from Torat HaOlah or one of Rema's seforim, but rather from some other source, such as the one attributed in the sefer, Lev Eliyahu by Rav Elyah Lopian, zatza"l. Of course, the sefer I am looking at, Galus Unechamah, was published posthumously, as it was published in 2002 and Rav Pinchas was niftar in 2001. Anyway, in Galus Unechama:

ירמיה הנביא ואפלטון
בספר תורת העולה לרמ"א (מובא בספר " לב אליהו " בראשית עמ ' רסג) מסופר, שבשעה שראה ירמיה הנביא את חורבן בית המקדש , נפל על העצים והאבנים ובכה . פגש אותו אפלטון - מפילוסופי יון, ושאלו : "אתה החכם שביהודים , אתה בוכה על עצים ואבנים ? ! " ועוד שאל אוהו : "מה לך לבכות על העבר , מה שהיה היה , אדם חכם לא בוכה על העבר , אלא בונה את העתיד". אמר לו ירמיה : " אתה הרי פילוסוף גדול , ודאי יש לך שאלות בפילוסופיה " . אמר לו אפלטון : " יש לי שאלות אבל אינני חושב שיש מי שיורע לענות עליהן ". אמר לו ירמיה : " שאל אותן ואני אשיב לך עליהן " . אפלטון שאל - וירמיה ענה לו על כל קושיותיו, עד שתמה הפילוסוף אם העומד לפניו הוא אדם או שמא מלאך המלא בחכמה נפלאה . אמר לו ירמיה : "דע לך שכל חכמתי היא מאותם עצים ואבנים ! - ומה ששאלת מדוע אני בוכה על העבר, לא אענה לך, כי דבר זה עמוק מאוד ולא תצליח להבינו - רק יהודי יכול להבין את עומק ענין הבכיה על העבר", ש
You can read the story in English, more or less, here.

When Jeremiah returned to Jerusalem from the Babylonian exile and saw the ruins of the Holy Temple, he fell on the wood and stones, weeping bitterly. At that moment, the renowned philosopher Plato passed by and saw this.

He stopped and inquired, "Who is that crying over there?"

"A Jewish sage," they replied.

So he approached Jeremiah and asked, "They say you are a sage. Why, then, are you crying over wood and stones?"

Jeremiah answered, "They say of you that you are a great philosopher. Do you have any philosophical questions that need answering?

"I do," admitted Plato, "but I don't think there is anyone who can answer them for me."

"Ask," said Jeremiah, "and I will answer them for you."

Plato proceeded to pose the questions that even he had no answers for, and Jeremiah answered them all without hesitation. Asked the astonished Plato, "Where did you learn such great wisdom?"

"From these wood and stones," the prophet replied.

One difference in this English story is that Plato also asked what the purpose was for crying about the past, and Yirmeyahu replies that this is a very deep matter which Plato will not succeed in understanding, for only a Jew is able to understand the depth of the matter of crying about the past.

I managed to track down Lev Eliyahu, and it has the same story, also attributed to the sefer Torat HaOlah. But it does not give a volume number or chapter number, and tacked on to it is an analysis by the Sabba of Kelm, Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv, so it is possible he heard it second-hand from that source, rather than having seen the Toras HaOlah inside.

In the book Menasseh Ben Israel and His World, the author cites a statement by Abarbanel that the chachmei hayevanim testified that Plato spoke with him {=Jeremiah} in Egypt. He writes {I am expanding this a bit on the basis of other footnotes: "The sources of this view are discussed in detail in Idel, "Kabbalah and Ancient Philosophy in R. Isaac and Judah Abravanel," in The Philosophy of Leone Ebreo, eds. M. Dorman and Z. Levi (Tel Aviv 1985), (in Hebrew), pages 79-86." {Leone Ebreo = Yehuda Abarbanel.} {Note: Does anyone have access to this?}

Perhaps there is another printing of Torat HaOlah which has this? I examined another edition which JNUL just put up and the text is identical to what I posted before. Perhaps there is another sefer where the Rema writes it? As it stands, however, I would guess that Ibn Yachya just misremembered, since the section in Torat HaOlah does refer to Socrates and Aristotle getting their philosophical wisdom from the Jews.

Regardless of whether this is to be found in the writings of Rabbi Moshe Isserles, the details of the story must have come from somewhere. Abarbanel does not mention these details, of Plato's questions and Yirmeyahu's response. And Ibn Yachya does not mention these earlier. If it did not come from Torat HaOlah, then perhaps it came from the other source Ibn Yachya mentioned, which I did not track down. Or else perhaps someone took the existing story and filled in the blanks.

Regardless of whether the story is chronologically plausible, or historically plausible, I doubt that it happened. There is a likelihood, as mentioned, that this whole story came from Christian sources. Indeed, the rishonim refer to this as a story coming from the Greeks. Whatever your feelings on the historicity of midrashim, this is no midrash. This came from non-Jewish sources. As such, to label it ahistorical, or a Christian fiction, should not bother us in the slightest. Except of course that it was adopted by some rather prominent Jewish figures, and some people might be upset at the idea of Rishonim being wrong by relying on contemporary history; or that once a story has been adopted by the community, the consensus creates a "pesak" that it is true. I can speak for myself that I am not bothered by the idea of it being historically untrue.

More than that, the style of the story is such that it is less likely to be true, and indeed less likely to have originally been intended at true. The genre is one of homily, or of kabbalah / philosophy polemic, rather than history. How many stories begin with a philosopher asking a question of a prominent rabbi? For example, the contest between Rabban Gamliel and a philosopher, as discussed in this parshablog post:
פילוסופוס אחד בקש לידע לכמה הנחש מוליד?
כיון שראה אותם מתעסקין זה עם זה, נטלן ונתנן בחבית והיה מספיק להם מזונות עד שילדו.

כיון שעלו הזקנים לרומי שאלו את רבן גמליאל.
אמר ליה: לכמה הנחש מוליד? ולא יכול להשיבו ונתכרכמו פניו.
פגע בו רבי יהושע ופניו חולנית, אמר לו: למה פניך חולנית?
אמר לו: שאלה אחת נשאלתי ולא יכולתי להשיבו.
אמר לו: מה היא?
אמר: לכמה נחש מוליד?
אמר לו: לשבע שנים.
אמר לו: מנא לך?
אמר לו: הכלב חיה טמאה ומוליד לחמשים יום, ובהמה טמאה יולדת לי"ב חודש. וכתיב: ארור אתה מכל הבהמה ומכל חית השדה, וכשם שהבהמה ארורה מן החיה שבעה, כך נחש ארור מהבהמה שבעה.
כמפני רמשא סלק ואמר ליה. התחיל מטיח ראשו לכותל.
אמר: כל מה שעמלתי שבע שנים, בא זה והושיטו לי בקנה אחד
Indeed, it may have begun as someone's wondering how Yirmeyahu would have dealt with Plato's method of dialogue. Or else to convey the notion that it was a very Jewish idea to mourn for the past.


Z said...

Your previous post on the subject still need a correction.
You write
While LSK raises some questions, though I think the only real and apparently strong one is about chronology, with Plato being in the wrong century to meet Yirmeyahu. But as noted in the comment section, this assumes a Jewish dating system for the First Temple's destruction

It should say "this assumes a non-Jewish dating system" aka the Conventional Chronology.

joshwaxman said...

thanks. now corrected.

shabbat shalom,

Anonymous said...

fyi, the source in Toras Ha'Olah is Chelek 1, Perek 11, Paragraph 4.

joshwaxman said...

thanks. yes, I know that that is where we are *supposed* to find it in Toras HaOlah. But I read that perek in Toras HaOlah and I didn't find it there. Instead, I found something related, but which did not say that at all.

I discussed this in my previous post on the subject. See here, where I provide an image and translation of what Toras HaOlah says.

Unless there is some other source in Toras HaOlah -- though there doesn't seem to be so.

Shabbat Shalom, and thanks,

Anonymous said...

Also see sefer Shem Oilom from Reb Yoinison Eibishitz pg 24 second letter . He brings from the Abarbinel Mifalois Eloikim pg 55 that plato was a student of a student? Of yermiyuhu hanuvi uh.


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