Wednesday, November 11, 2009

If she was a virgin, isn't it obvious that no man had known her?!

Rivkah makes her entrance:
טז וְהַנַּעֲרָ, טֹבַת מַרְאֶה מְאֹד--בְּתוּלָה, וְאִישׁ לֹא יְדָעָהּ; וַתֵּרֶד הָעַיְנָה, וַתְּמַלֵּא כַדָּהּ וַתָּעַל.16 And the damsel was very fair to look upon, a virgin, neither had any man known her; and she went down to the fountain, and filled her pitcher, and came up.
Isn't betulah the same as veIsh lo yedaah? Rashi answers, on the basis of Midrash Rabba, that it meant that she did not engage in anal sex either:

a virgin: from the place of her virginity. — [Gen. Rabbah 60:5]
בתולה: ממקום בתולים:
and no man had been intimate with her: in an unnatural way. Since the daughters of the gentiles would preserve their virginity but were promiscuous in unnatural ways, Scripture attests that she was completely innocent. — [Gen. Rabbah ad loc.]
ואיש לא ידעה: שלא כדרכה, לפי שבנות הגוים היו משמרות מקום בתוליהן ומפקירות עצמן ממקום אחר, העיד על זו שנקיה מכל:


This is the position of Resh Lakish in Midrash Rabba:
אמר ריש לקיש:
לפי שבנותן של עובדי כוכבים משמרות עצמן ממקום ערותן, ומפקירות עצמן ממקום אחר, אבל זאת בתולה ממקום בתולים, ואיש לא ידעה ממקום אחר.

אמר רבי יוחנן:
ממשמע שנאמר: בתולה, אין אנו יודעים ואיש לא ידעה?!
אלא אפילו אדם לא תבע בה, על שם (תהלים קכה)לא ינוח שבט הרשע וגו'.
So too Ralbag. Rashbam writes:
ואיש לא ידעה -
אפילו מעשה חידודין כי צנועה הייתה.
That is, derech eivarim.

Ibn Ezra doesn't like this, as a matter of peshat. It seems rather farfetched that the Torah is using this language to connote lack of unnatural acts. He writes:
כד, טז
ואיש לא ידעה -
רחוק שידבר הכתוב על חוץ הדרך, רק פירש שיתכן שתהיה הנערה בתולה וישכב עמה איש, גם תהר ואין ראוי לגלות דבר ערוה.
That is, betulah means that she was technically a virgin. But a woman can be technically a virgin, by having an intact hymen, while still having engaged in intercourse. Indeed, she could even become pregnant while having an intact hymen. So this is an additional attestation that not only was she a virgin, no man had had sex with her. (This is one of many instances in which Ibn Ezra argues on midrash.)

This might strike us as strange, and based on incorrect contemporary science, but indeed, it does seem to be true scientifically. See here.

Even so, this does not strike me as very good peshat. While there was this technical loophole, this is not foremost on people's minds, so would the Torah really have this concern, such that it needs to clarify just what kind of virgin Rivkah was?

Rather, I would say that the Torah is speaking poetically. And poetic repetition is the general order in Biblical poetry. Why would I say that it is waxing poetic? Because it just finished speaking about how beautiful she was, and is thus engaged in her praise. And other pesukim in this same parsha can be explained similarly, as a matter of style. Therefore, a modern pashtan should not look to explain every phrase as bearing a new meaning. That is hyperliteralism, which is derash.

I see now that Ibn Caspi (a Rishon) agrees with me here, though I would have suggested that these other Rishonim (pashtanim) are not correct even without this Rishonic backup. Ibn Kaspi writes:
בתולה ואיש לא ידעה. מנהג מיסדי לשון העברי לומר
מחייבת ושוללת בענין אחד כמו זה• וכן וחיו ולא תמותו (מ׳ב י־ח ל־ב)ש
ונחיה ולא נמות (מיז י־ט), והפך זה כי מת אתה ולא תחיה (ישעיה
ל־ח א), וכן בנים סכלים המה ולא נבונים המה (ירמיה ד׳ כיב), וכן
ולא זכר שר המשקים ונ׳ (מ׳ כיג) ורבים כן, ומי שיפרש בזה, חרושים
הוא מכון כונות לא כין בם אומרם

He says a similar thing when Pharaoh's butler forgets and doesn't remember:
ד"ה ולא זכר שר המשקים את יוסף וישכחהו: אין לכפול זה טעם וסיבה, רק חיזוק, כמו שקדם לנו אמרו (בראשית מ"ז) "ונחיה ולא נמות"; (ישעיה ל"ח א') "כי מת אתה ולא תחיה", וכן (ירמיה ד' כ"ב) "בנים סכלים המה ולא נבונים המה".
ומי שירצה לתת טעם בזה, עליו לתת טעם לכל מה שנמצא מזה המין בתורה ובמקרא, ושכר הרבה יטול וזכור זה והקש על זה.
That is, in general, this is Biblical style, and one should not carefully derive novel things from this. Because such derivations are attributing intents into the text which were never intended.

(See by the way what Nechama Leibovitz thinks about this Ibn Caspi, and the approach in general.)

I have my own novel interpretation of בְּתוּלָה וְאִישׁ לֹא יְדָעָהּ, but will save it for a follow-up post.

8 comments:

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>While there was this technical loophole, this is not foremost on people's minds

Who says?

Hillel said...

"It seems rather farfetched that the Torah is using this language to connote lack of unnatural acts."

Perhaps this language was needed because Rivkah's seminary taught abstinence-only education:
http://www.usatoday.com/news/health/2005-03-18-sex-study_x.htm

("Among virgins, boys who have pledged abstinence were four times more likely to have had anal sex, according to the study.")

N said...

this is hardly one for the Shabbos table, but interesting nonetheless. I sent you an e-mail rabbi waxman, i want to blogroll, would you do the same?

joshwaxman said...

"Who says?"

it is a good question. i suppose i say, but maybe that is reading myself into the text. but i think that people hear "betulah" and they think it means "ish lo yedaah". they would probably similarly consider a mukat etz to be a virgin. because i think people think organically, not halachically or technically, and that therefore the connotation in natural language defines the simple peshat meaning.

kt,
josh

Yudi Benamou said...

i dont remember who says it, but i learnt that "ve'ish lo ye'daa" means that no one was able to influence her to not follow hashem...

Hillel said...

"Rather, I would say that the Torah is speaking poetically. And poetic repetition is the general order in Biblical poetry"

Even if this is the case, do you have a theory to explain why the Torah uses the poetic doubling on this occasion but not others, even when speaking of a woman's beauty? (See, e.g., 2 Sam. 13:2, Esth. 2:2-3)

Additionally, the legal portions always just say 'betulah' (e.g., Deut. 22:23, 28, Ex. 22:15), except Lev. 21:3, which, like the pasuk here, explains what a betulah is. Why should all the narrative portions just say betulah, with one verse explaining, and the legal portions just say betulah, with one verse explaining? What makes those two verses different? It's not as if those are the first times the word is used...

Thanks,
Hillel

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

>it is a good question. i suppose i say, but maybe that is reading myself into the text. but i think that people hear "betulah" and they think it means "ish lo yedaah". they would probably similarly consider a mukat etz to be a virgin. because i think people think organically, not halachically or technically, and that therefore the connotation in natural language defines the simple peshat meaning.

Right, but my point was that perhaps the issue was of utmost concern in those days, and there were low grade and high grade virgins. After all, I think it's a bit possible that they valued virginity in a way which even we modest Orthodox Jews don't.

That said, I of course understand your hypothesis that it is said for stylistic reasons, although as Hillel asks, why here?

joshwaxman said...

"perhaps the issue was of utmost concern in those day"
i hear you. it is plausible. but then, perhaps if we can establish some local thematic concern, or some global pattern (as Ibn Caspi tries, with the matching of cause and effect), then it could serve to counterweight it in our consideration.

"for stylistic reasons, although as Hillel asks, why here?"
a good question. in answer, i think that indeed this is different from legal sections or other narrative sections where the woman was beautiful. and that is because it seems to me that there is a general stylistic pattern here (and in a few other narratives).

a few features i would note, which seem to be used to increase the drama and poetry:
1- the use of time of day to convey drama and mood, at the end, when coupled with her "falling" from the camel.

2- the running, in וַיָּרָץ הָעֶבֶד, לִקְרָאתָהּ; in וַתְּמַהֵר, וַתְּעַר כַּדָּה; in וַתָּרָץ עוֹד אֶל-הַבְּאֵר; in וַתָּרָץ, הַנַּעֲרָ וַתַּגֵּד; in וַיָּרָץ לָבָן אֶל-הָאִישׁ. keep everyone running, and keep excitement high.

3- the sudden fulfillment of his test: וַיְהִי-הוּא, טֶרֶם כִּלָּה לְדַבֵּר

4- and the revealing of his private thoughts and motivations, first in the prayer, and then in וְהָאִישׁ מִשְׁתָּאֵה, לָהּ; מַחֲרִישׁ, to convey emotions.

5- the duplication of the story, as retold by the servant.

all these convey to me a sense of drama and an attempt to set a mood. and the beautiful virgin damsel fits into this overall theme for me, such that i would expect that it is waxing poetic here.

(similar intense narratives, in my view, include Akeidas Yitzchak and the abandonment and finding of Moshe...)

kt,
josh

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