Friday, November 13, 2009

The order of presents and inquiring after Rivkah's family

Why would Eliezer give Rivkah all these presents before he was certain she was the girl?

The way different meforshim answer this question might give us insight into their methodology.

In the middle of Chayei Sarah:

כב וַיְהִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר כִּלּוּ הַגְּמַלִּים לִשְׁתּוֹת, וַיִּקַּח הָאִישׁ נֶזֶם זָהָב, בֶּקַע מִשְׁקָלוֹ--וּשְׁנֵי צְמִידִים עַל-יָדֶיהָ, עֲשָׂרָה זָהָב מִשְׁקָלָם.22 And it came to pass, as the camels had done drinking, that the man took a golden ring of half a shekel weight, and two bracelets for her hands of ten shekels weight of gold;
כג וַיֹּאמֶר בַּת-מִי אַתְּ, הַגִּידִי נָא לִי; הֲיֵשׁ בֵּית-אָבִיךְ מָקוֹם לָנוּ, לָלִין.23 and said: 'Whose daughter art thou? tell me, I pray thee. Is there room in thy father's house for us to lodge in?'

and so he gave it to her first. On the other hand, see when Eliezer retells the story to her family,

מז וָאֶשְׁאַל אֹתָהּ, וָאֹמַר בַּת-מִי אַתְּ, וַתֹּאמֶר בַּת-בְּתוּאֵל בֶּן-נָחוֹר, אֲשֶׁר יָלְדָה-לּוֹ מִלְכָּה; וָאָשִׂם הַנֶּזֶם עַל-אַפָּהּ, וְהַצְּמִידִים עַל-יָדֶיהָ.47 And I asked her, and said: Whose daughter art thou? And she said: The daughter of Bethuel, Nahor's son, whom Milcah bore unto him. And I put the ring upon her nose, and the bracelets upon her hands.

he puts asking her about her family first. Rashi explains:

And he said,"Whose daughter are you?: He asked her this after giving her [the gifts] because he was confident that in the merit of Abraham, the Holy One, blessed be He, had caused his way to prosper. ויאמר בת מי את: לאחר שנתן לה שאלה, לפי שהיה בטוח בזכותו של אברהם שהצליח הקב"ה דרכו:

and then later:

And I asked…and I placed: He reversed the sequence of events, because, in fact, he had first given [her the jewelry] and then asked [about her family]. But [he changed the order] lest they catch him in his words and say,“How did you give her [the jewelry] when you did not yet know who she was?” ואשאל ואשים: שנה הסדר, שהרי הוא תחלה נתן ואחר כך שאל, אלא שלא יתפשוהו בדבריו ויאמרו היאך נתת לה, ועדיין אינך יודע מי היא:

Thus, the difference in order is meaningful, and while the Biblical narrator tells the truth, Eliezer is deliberately fudging it, for a specific reason. And so we read maximal meaning into each pasuk.

Ibn Ezra takes a different approach:
אותה הוכחת -
נסמך העבד על תפלת הנביא, שהשם ענהו והוכיח בחלום על יד המלאך, שהוא שליח השם לעזרו. והעבד חשב בלבו, כי אין עם נדיב כמו משפחת אדוניו.
ורבים יתמהו באמרם שלא שאל כהוגן, ולא ידעתי למה, כי אילו הייתה נערה אחרת שתשקהו ותשקה לגמליו ומצאה שהיא ממשפחה אחרת היה עוזב אותה ולא הפסיד כלום, כי ויאמר בת מי את פירושו וכבר אמר לה קודם, שיתן לה כלום.
וכן אמר: ואשאל אותה ואשים הנזם וכלל הדבר שהתפלל לשם שיוכיח אחת ממשפחת אדוניו. וההוכחה שתעשה דרך מוסר, כמו בת נדיב והשם שמע תפלתו.
ודרך יהונתן אחרת.
That it, he makes the absolutely true statement that the regular perfect and the pluperfect are identical forms in Biblical Hebrew. But the regular perfect, in the narrative about past events, advancing the narrative. He ate; (then) he drank; (then) he slept. But in the pluperfect, it relates something that had occurred previous to this in the narrative. He ate; (then) he drank; (previous to the eating and the drinking) he had slept. This is the pluperfect.

And so, when Eliezer says "Bat Mi At," it is fine, because he means that he had asked this before giving her the jewelry. And evidence of this is the reversal of the order when he tells it to her family. Thus, in one fell swoop, on the basis of a grammatical construction, the text says what we would (perhaps culturally) expect it to say, and the contradiction between earlier and later accounts is resolved.

Ibn Caspi does not like this. He writes:
כן היה מצד הזמן כדרך סדרו, ומה,
שהפך הסדר כספיו הדבר להם היד, לחכמה, ואם לא היה בו כזב
ולא שנוי בענין• כי שנוי הקדימה והאיחור בלשון אינו מחייב תמיד
שיהיה כן הענין כמו שהתבאר בהגיון ועוד אבאר זה בס׳ טירת כסף
Thus, along the lines of Rashi, that the order given in the Biblical narrative is the correct one, and Eliezer might have changed it for good purpose. But he also adds that perhaps one should not make too big a deal of the change in order. Sometimes this is just the way language works, with not particular heed to the order of events. In other words, sometimes one must say "Nu, nu" to learn the peshat.


Chesky Salomon said...

IIRC, Mendel Hirsch on Yonah (in Levi edition of the Hirsch chumash) makes a similar grammatical point. I don’t have it in front of me, but the claim is that one form of past tense, when following one other form, is actually a perfect.

Chesky Salomon said...

Oops, that turns out to be totally irrelevant. (Though the claim that a katal form following a vayiktol form is a past perfect does present an interesting take on Esav’s sale of the birthright to Yaakov…)

R’ S. R. Hirsch points out instead that all the passuk said is that Eliezer took the jewelry, not that he gave them to Rivkah yet.


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