Sunday, November 01, 2009

Teva and the Teiva

Nowadays, people grapple with many issues resolving the narrative in parshat Noach and what we know about the natural world. And we have some good questions, including many that were simply not questions centuries ago.

But as I was learning through Ibn Ezra on parshas Noach, it was interesting to see just how he grappled with similar issues, and how he managed to square the Biblical account with some measure of derech hateva. What follows are a few choice comments from Ibn Ezra which fit with this theme, together with some of my translations and elaborations.

Towards the end of his commentary on perek 6, Ibn Ezra writes:

ותועי רוח ישאלו: מה אכל כל עוף דורס וכל חיה כמו האריה שלא יחיה כי אם מבשר? ש
וזאת איננה שאלה, כי מי שלא ימצא בשר יאכל העשב ופרי העץ כאשר ירעב.
Thus, some misguided folk ask what carnivorous birds and animals ate on the ark. My brother-in-law, over Succot, was actually musing about this and suggested that Noach packed live animals into the ark for food, and that was part of the food gathered for the animals. That of course would require more space on the ark. I don't know that I agree, but it is an interesting ide.

Ibn Ezra dismisses this as even a question, saying that one who does not find meat would eat herbs and fruit when it is starving.

The problem with this is that Ibn Ezra is working off of medieval science, and thus believes that being a carnivore is merely a strong preference. But modern zoologists distinguish between facultative carnivores and obligate carnivores. Regarding the latter:

An obligate or true carnivore depends solely on the nutrients found in animal flesh for their survival. While they may consume small amounts of plant material they lack the physiology required for the efficient digestion of vegetable matter and in fact, some carnivorous mammals eat vegetation specifically as an emetic. The domestic cat is a prime example of an obligate carnivore, as are all of the other felids. The ability to produce synthetic forms of nutrients such as taurine in the lab has allowed feed manufacturers to formulate foods for carnivores (zoo animals and pets) with varying amounts of plant material.

A hypercarnivore feeds exclusively on meat and presents specialized dentition for a meat-only diet.

But I am not an expert in the matter, and indeed am relying on Wikipedia. Perhaps obligate carnivores would not get sufficient nutrients, but could survive for the period of time in the ark?

There is indeed a midrash, in perek Chelek, in Sanhedrin 108b, about how these animals were fed:
After their kinds they went forth from the ark.40 R. Johanan said: After their kinds, but not they [alone].41 R. Hana b. Bizna said: Eliezer [Abraham's servant] remarked to Shem [Noah's] eldest son,42 'It is written, After their kinds they went forth from the ark. Now, how were you situated?'43 — He replied. '[In truth], we had much trouble in the ark. The animals which are usually fed by day we fed by day; and those normally fed by night we fed by night. But my father did not know what was the food of the chameleon. One day he was sitting and cutting up a pomegranate, when a worm dropped out of it, which it [the chameleon] consumed. From then onward he mashed up bran for it, and when it became wormy, it devoured it. The lion was nourished by a fever, for Rab said, "Fever sustains for not less than six (days) nor more than thirteen."44 As for the phoenix,45 my father discovered it lying 'in the hold of the ark. "Dost thou require no food?" he asked it. "I saw that thou wast busy," it replied, "so I said to myself, I will give thee no trouble." "May it be (God's) will that thou shouldst not perish," he exclaimed; as it is written, Then I said, I shall die in the nest, but I shall multiply my days as the phoenix.'46
So the chameleon ate worms, but this was not a problem, because worms are generated from mashed up bran. My well-grounded assumption is that their assumption was not that the bran was wormy throughout, but that these worms continuously spontaneously generated from the pomegranate, or certainly from the mashed up bran. The lion, as an example of a carnivore, was stricken with a fever, which "sustained" it, in that it did not need to eat.

I don't know if this midrash in Chelek was intended literally, but it certainly addressed these questions Ibn Ezra asserts are non-questions.

Ibn Ezra continues:
וכן דרש שיש בבהמות גדול והוא רועה אלף הרים טוב הוא להשמעת אוזנים, וכן עוף שיכסה אור השמש בכנפיו,יש לו סוד ואיננו כמשמעו
Thus, how did the great Behemoth, which grazed 1000 mountains, fit into the ark? And how did the bird which obscures the light of the sun with its wings fit on the ark? He answers that it has a Sod, deep hidden meaning, and is not intended literally.

{The Behemoth from Tehillim 50:10:

י כִּי-לִי כָל-חַיְתוֹ-יָעַר; בְּהֵמוֹת, בְּהַרְרֵי-אָלֶף.10 For every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills.
and Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer expands upon this as an animal which grazes on 1000 hills; and also mentioned in Tanchuma and Bemidbar Rabba.

And the giant bird obscuring the Sun is based on the next pasuk:

יא יָדַעְתִּי, כָּל-עוֹף הָרִים; וְזִיז שָׂדַי, עִמָּדִי.11 I know all the fowls of the mountains; and the wild beasts of the field are Mine.
where in Vayikra Rabba, we read about how it spreads its wings and obscures the sun. See in Karnei Or.

Yahel Or tries to explain this Sod as the moon coming between the sun and the earth, blocking the sun. But regardless, Ibn Ezra regards these animals, which wouldn't fit in the ark, as allegorical.

I don't know what he would do with the Reem. But there is another giant animal, which Midrash Rabba indeed grapples with, in terms of how it fit in the ark:
ומכל החי מכל בשר שנים וגו'
אמר רבי הושעיא:
אפי' רוחות נכנסים עם נח אל התיבה, שנאמר: מכל החי, מאותן שנבראו להם נפשות ולא נברא להם גופין.

ר' יהודה ורבי נחמיה
ר' יהודה אומר:
ראם לא נכנס עמו אבל גוריו נכנסו.

רבי נחמיה אמר:
לא הוא ולא גוריו, אלא קשרו נח בתיבה והיה מתלים תלמיות, כמן טבריא לסוסתא, הה"ד: (איוב לט) התקשר ראם בתלם עבותו אם ישדד עמקים אחריך.

בימי רבי חייא בר אבא
עלה גורא אחד לא"י ולא הניח אילן עד שעקרו, ועשו תענית והתפלל ר' חייא וגעת אמו מן המדבר וירד לקולה.
Thus, spirits (sheidim) entered the ark. And how did the giant reem fit? Either its whelps (young ones, but not adults) fit, or else Noach tied it to the teivah.

When Ibn Ezra says that these creatures (Behemot and giant bird which blocks the sun) were not intended literally, but have a deep meaning, I think he was likely arguing about the existence of these creatures. And the midrash which testifies to their existence has a deep meaning.

I don't know that he would do the same in terms of the reem, where the various Tannaim are discussing how it practically fit on the ark. (And, where it is not a matter of how to interpret a pasuk, in a derash or peshat manner.) A small reem could fit; or it was tethered to the outside, much like Og, who also practically one would want to survive the flood. And the midrash appears to discuss a practical and historical case of a reem whelp appearing. And it is discussed along with sheidim, which they likely believed in as real creatures. While surely someone could invent a deep allegorical meaning for the reem, as well as for the efforts to make the species survive the flood, I don't know that that was the intent. It is possible that the intent was literal.

But when Ibn Ezra argues on midrash, does he always say that the midrash is true; either as historical truth though not revealed on the peshat level; or not literally true but with some deep mystical meaning? I am not convinced that he does. He certainly allegorizes some midrashim. But ones that seem to operate on a peshat level, where they were intended as peshat, I am not convinced that he does. He says, e.g. in Vayera, that if it is kabbalah (tradition), it should be accepted. But if not, it is not nachon. He argues with the idea that Avimelech was also stopped up, on the basis of grammar. And only in regard to certain midrashim, which seem very farfetched, does he explicitly raise the "deep sod" angle. This present case is a perfect example. Of course we would expect some deep sod about these fantastic and impossible creatures!

Unless of course Ibn Ezra means to include the reem, and Chazal's discussion, when discussing the Behemot and the giant bird.

In discussing the size of the teva, Ibn Ezra writes:

צהר -
מקום שיכנס ממנו האור והוא מגזרת צהרים, והוא נעשה למעלה כמשפט ואחר שהיה למעלה אמה אחת בארך, היה ברחב ששית אמה. והנה התיבה כדמות משלש וראשו חד, וכן מקצעותיו, על כן לא תתהפך והפתח בצד האחד והיה עולה אליו בסלם, וידענו כי התיבה גדולה מאד.
גם יתכן להיות קומת נח גדולה מקומתינו, כי האמה היא כמידתו.
ויתכן היותה כאשר היא נחלקת על שלוש, גובה התחתיים עשר אמות.

ויש אומרים:
כי רבים היו והכתוב אחז בדרך קצרה.
Thus, the teiva was very big. While certain meforshim (see e.g. Rambam) try to minimize Og's height and Goliath's height, here Ibn Ezra tries to make Noach's height bigger. I would understand this as that if he is bigger, then his cubit is bigger, and thus the ark can fit more animals.

The height of the teva was 30 cubits. So each section was 10 cubits high, which is quite a lot. But he cites some (though he does not appear to truly endorse this) who say that there were many levels, but the pasuk was speaking in shorthand. Bigger cubits, and more levels, and one can fit more animals.

In the next perek, when discussing the windows of heaven, he says that this is just an idiom:
וארבות -
כמו: הנה ה' עושה ארבות.
והאוצר והחלון כלשון בני אדם ומשפטם.
He also explains the sign of the keshet, and how it existed after the mabul as a sign, in a somewhat natural way:
ונראתה הקשת -
אילו היינו מאמינים בדברי חכמי יון שמלהט השמש תולד הקשת.
יש לומר: כי השם חזק אור השמש אחר המבול והיא דרך נכונה למבין.
All in all, of course there were nissim involved, in that Hashem decided to flood the world. But Ibn Ezra's picture of the process appears to be along the lines of derech hateva, where possible.

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