Thursday, November 05, 2009

What was Avraham's relationship to Sarah?

Avraham tells Sarah to claim more than once, seemingly falsely, that she is his sister. But then, in his justification to Avimelech, he asserts that she actually is his sister. Bereshit 20:12:

יב וְגַם-אָמְנָה, אֲחֹתִי בַת-אָבִי הִוא--אַךְ, לֹא בַת-אִמִּי; וַתְּהִי-לִי, לְאִשָּׁה.12 And moreover she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and so she became my wife.

What are we to make of this? One possibility is the Hurrian sister-wife concept, but we will ignore it here, because it might well be a red herring. Let us see how two major meforshim -- Rashi and Ibn Ezra -- deal with it.

This is not the only pasuk, of course, that might speak of Sarah's relationship to Avraham. Much earlier, at the end of parshas Noach, in Bereshit 11:29, we read:

כט וַיִּקַּח אַבְרָם וְנָחוֹר לָהֶם, נָשִׁים: שֵׁם אֵשֶׁת-אַבְרָם, שָׂרָי, וְשֵׁם אֵשֶׁת-נָחוֹר מִלְכָּה, בַּת-הָרָן אֲבִי-מִלְכָּה וַאֲבִי יִסְכָּה.29 And Abram and Nahor took them wives: the name of Abram's wife was Sarai; and the name of Nahor's wife, Milcah, the daughter of Haran, the father of Milcah, and the father of Iscah.
ל וַתְּהִי שָׂרַי, עֲקָרָה: אֵין לָהּ, וָלָד.30 And Sarai was barren; she had no child.
לא וַיִּקַּח תֶּרַח אֶת-אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ, וְאֶת-לוֹט בֶּן-הָרָן בֶּן-בְּנוֹ, וְאֵת שָׂרַי כַּלָּתוֹ, אֵשֶׁת אַבְרָם בְּנוֹ; וַיֵּצְאוּ אִתָּם מֵאוּר כַּשְׂדִּים, לָלֶכֶת אַרְצָה כְּנַעַן, וַיָּבֹאוּ עַד-חָרָן, וַיֵּשְׁבוּ שָׁם.31 And Terah took Abram his son, and Lot the son of Haran, his son's son, and Sarai his daughter-in-law, his son Abram's wife; and they went forth with them from Ur of the Chaldees, to go into the land of Canaan; and they came unto Haran, and dwelt there.

On that pasuk in Noach, Rashi writes:

Iscah: This is Sarah [called Iscah] because she would see (סוֹכָה) through Divine inspiration, and because all gazed (סוֹכִין) at her beauty. Alternatively, יִסְכָּה is an expression denoting princedom, (נְסִיכוֹת), just as Sarah is an expression of dominion (שְׁרָרָה) . - [from Meg. 14a] יסכה: זו שרה, על שם שסוכה ברוח הקודש, ושהכל סוכין ביפיה. ועוד יסכה לשון נסיכות, כמו שרה לשון שררה:

This is based on Megillah 14a:

תנא משום רבינו מקום נתבצר להם בגיהנם ועמדו עליו שבע נביאות מאן נינהו שרה מרים דבורה חנה אביגיל חולדה ואסתר שרה דכתיב (בראשית יא) אבי מלכה ואבי יסכה ואמר ר' יצחק יסכה זו שרה ולמה נקרא שמה יסכה שסכתה ברוח הקדש שנאמר (בראשית כא) כל אשר תאמר אליך שרה שמע בקולה ד"א יסכה שהכל סוכין ביופיה

This was the gemara mentioned by BrooklynWolf in a comment on the previous post. Sarah was thus a prophetess, and thus called Yiska.

If so, her relationship with Avraham would be one of niece, for she is Avraham's brother's daughter. For Haran was Avraham's brother, and Haran has Milkah and Yiskah as daughters.

How then can she be Avraham's sister, from his father but not his mother?! Recall that Avraham said:

יב וְגַם-אָמְנָה, אֲחֹתִי בַת-אָבִי הִוא--אַךְ, לֹא בַת-אִמִּי; וַתְּהִי-לִי, לְאִשָּׁה.12 And moreover she is indeed my sister, the daughter of my father, but not the daughter of my mother; and so she became my wife.

After all, a daughter of a father is not the same as the daughter of a brother! And if somehow "father" means "brother", what would be meant by "not of my mother?" Of course his brother's daughter does not come of Avraham's mother. And strong implication is one of step-sister.

But Rashi explains, local to Vayera, on the basis of an idea in Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, and gemaras as follows:

my sister, the daughter of my father: And the daughter of one’s father is permitted to a Noahide [for marriage], for a gentile has no father (i.e., his lineage is not traced from his father). And in order to justify his words, he answered him in this way.

Now if you ask: Was she not the daughter of his brother? [The answer is that]: grandchildren are considered like children (Tosefta. Yev. 8:8, Talmud Bavli, Yev. 62b); therefore, she was (considered as) Terah’s daughter.

And so did he say to Lot,“ For we are kinsmen” (אִנָשִׁים אַחִים) [lit. men, brothers], (although, in fact, Lot was his brother Haran’s son). - [from Pirkei d’Rabbi Eliezer , ch. 36]
אחותי בת אבי היא: ובת אב מותרת לבן נח, שאין אבות לגוי. וכדי לאמת דבריו השיבם כן.

ואם תאמר והלא בת אחיו היתה, בני בנים הרי הן כבנים והרי היא בתו של תרח,

וכן הוא אומר ללוט (יג ח) כי אנשים אחים אנחנו:

but not the daughter of my mother: Haran was [born] of a different mother [than Abraham]. —
אך לא בת אמי: הרן מאם אחרת היה:

I am not certain that Rashi's initial statement really works in sync with his second statement. For who says that it is forbidden for gentiles to marry a niece? Rather, perhaps the first statement, that the daughter of his father is permitted to a gentile, appears to assume that we are dealing with a direct daughter of Terach, not Haran. That is what וכדי לאמת דבריו השיבם כן suggests to me. And thus, he was merely "justifying his words", not telling the complete truth. Even now. For a niece is not the same as a sister.

The second statement makes everything work out perfectly, so that Avraham is not technically lying. Bnei Banim, Harei Hein Kevanim, so the daughter of his "father" is the daughter of his brother. And since Haran was the son of a different wife of Terach, she is not of Avraham's mother. According to this parse of Rashi, Avraham is still lying, but doing so in a technically accurate manner.

It is quite possible that I am kvetching this into Rashi, and that Rashi means what I guess everyone assumes he means, that here, he is being entirely honest with Avimelech, and that there would be a problem even for a fraternal niece.

The prooftext alone, from Lot's relationship, comes from Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, perek 36. But I did not see anything about Sarah's relationship. So too in the gemara in Yevamot 62b-- I don't see anything about Sarah's relationship, only a general principle of bnei banim. So too the Tosefta; it just cites the halachic principle. And that gemara, and Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, are looking for prooftexts, yet don't cite this. Is Rashi applying this idea himself, without an explicit midrash in Talmudic or Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer? It would seem that he is, in order to justify the above midrash from the end of Noach as peshat, rather than derash, and to harmonize the two pesukim.

But ultimately, I think that too much damage is done to the simple meaning of this verse, for this to be peshat.

What does Ibn Ezra say? Well, at the end of parashas Noach, he writes {on 11:29}:
וקדמונינו ז"ל אמרו:
שיסכה היא שרה, ואם קבלה נקבל.

והאומרים, כי אברהם היה עיקר ולא שרה, אמרו הפך הכתוב והעד ישמעאל בנו.

ובני קטורה -
והאומרים כי שרה הייתה אחות אברהם איננו ישר בעיני זה הטעם.
ואלו היה כן, היה הכתוב אומר: ויקח תרח את אברהם בנו ושרי בתו אשת אברם בנו, ג"כ אלו הייתה אחות לוט היה הכתוב אומר: ואת שרי בת בנו, כאשר כתב על לוט.
Thus, Chazal {in Megillah 14a} said that Yiska is Sarah. And if it is a tradition, it shall be accepted. Thus, he considers as a strong possibility that Chazal may have had an extra-Biblical tradition as to this identity. But he also acknowledges the strong possibility that it is not such, but rather is a derasha using midrashic methods, including {now I am putting some ideas forth} the closed-canon approach and that otherwise, neat parallelism of the two surviving brothers marrying their nieces, the seemingly extraneous mention of Yiskah, and a propensity to interpret the meanings of names of obscure figures to match attributes of known figures. (E.g. Avigdor as Moshe.) If so, he feels ready to argue with them, in terms of what the peshat of the
pasuk is, and presumably the historical reality was.

He is able to harmonize it with Avraham's statement to Avimelech in Vayera, as we will see soon. And so he is willing to accept Chazal's very midrashic sounding statement here as a possibility. But im kabbalah nekabel does convey his serious misgivings of it, as a peshat reading. (See Yahel Or who says the same.)

Then he continues that some people take the pasuk in Vayera entirely literally, which would make Sarah into Avraham's paternal sister, but not his maternal sister. Ibn Ezra rejects this on stylistic grounds. If this were so, the pasuk should have stated that Terach took Avraham his son and Sarai his daughter!

Then, Ibn Ezra turns to say why he rejects the Yiskah=Sarai equation. If this were so, then Sarai and Lot would be brother and sister, and the verse should have stated "and Sarai the daughter of his son," just as it said regarding Lot.

Thus, he rejects all answers here, and appears to maintain that Sarai was entirely unrelated to Avraham previous to this.

So what does Ibn Ezra do with Avraham's statement that Sarah is indeed his sister? Well, on parashat Vayera, Ibn Ezra writes:
כ, יב
אחותי בת אבי -
יש אומרים:
שהוא כמו: אלהי אבי אברהם.
והנכון בעיני, שדחה אבימלך בדברים כפי צורך השעה ובפסוק: אנכי עשו בכורך אביא חברים.
First he cites some who say that it is like elokei avi avraham. I am not positive how to parse this. But it seems to be that just as we say "the God of my father, {who is} Avraham", we can say "my sister, {who is} the daughter of my father." (And then either understand it as the daughter of Terach or the granddaughter of Terach.)

But what is correct in Ibn Ezra's eyes is that he was misleading Avimelech with words, in accordance with the needs of the time. And so Avraham's statement in the pasuk does not need to be true.

He says that he gives other examples where Yaakov lies and says "I am Esav your firstborn."

יט וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב אֶל-אָבִיו, אָנֹכִי עֵשָׂו בְּכֹרֶךָ--עָשִׂיתִי, כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבַּרְתָּ אֵלָי; קוּם-נָא שְׁבָה, וְאָכְלָה מִצֵּידִי--בַּעֲבוּר, תְּבָרְכַנִּי נַפְשֶׁךָ.19 And Jacob said unto his father: 'I am Esau thy first-born; I have done according as thou badest me. Arise, I pray thee, sit and eat of my venison, that thy soul may bless me.'

While some meforshim see fit to explain how Yaakov is not technically lying, Ibn Ezra writes:
כז, יט
ויש אומרים:
חלילה לכזב הנביא, רק הוא כן.

אנכי -
מי שאנכי ועשו בכורך.

ואחרים אמרו:
כי בנחת אמר: אנכי, ונשא קול במלת עשו בכורך.
ואלה דברי רוח, כי הנביאים יתחלקו לב' חלקים:
החלק הראשון: שליח במצוות.
והחלק השני: נביאי העתיד.
ואם יצטרכו לאמר דבר שאיננו כהוגן לא יזיק, רק השליח לא יתכן שיכזב כלל.
גם הנה דוד נכתב עליו איש האלהים. ואמר: רוח ה' דבר בי. בלבל דבריו עם אחימלך ואמר: ויהיו כלי הנערים קדש לצורך שעה.
גם אלישע שאמר לחזאל: לך אמור לו חיה תחייה, אף על פי שפירושו חיה תחייה מחולי זה, הראני השם כי יהרג.
וכן מיכיהו אמר תפלת שוא, עלה והצלח דרך מוסר.
וכן אמר דניאל: מרי חלמא לשנאך ולהיות כנגד השם דרך דרש.
וכן אמר אברהם: וגם אמנה
ונשתחוה ונשובה.

Thus, even a navi can lie, and it is not a pegam in his nevuah.

I like Ibn Ezra's methodology here, but at the end of the day, I am not utterly convinced that he is correct. Saying that a statement was false seems like it might be a cop-out; and depending on the focus in the pasuk in Noach, where the ultimate purpose was Terach and Avraham moving, perhaps Sarah's sister-relationship was deemed unimportant, while the wife-relationship with Avraham was the most important.

R' Yosef Bechor Shor has an nice way of casting, and resolving the pasuk. He writes:

וגם לא־שקרתי, כי האמנה אחתי
בת אבי. קרובתי היא ממשפחתי ומבית־אבי.
ודרך לקרות קרובו אחיו, כמו [לעיל יג. ח] כי
אנשים אחים אנחנו דלוט, וכן [למלן כט, יב]
כי אחי אביה הוא. דיעקב, [ושם סו] והכי אחי
אתה. אך לא בת אמי! כלומר, לא נולדנו
מכרס אחד, שאינה אחותי ממש, רק קרובתי,
ולכך ותהי לי לאשה.

Thus, Avraham is saying the truth, that she is of his family (beit avi), though not an actual sister -- not even a step-sister! Rather, as a more distant relative, such that it is not incest. I like how he works this into the pesukim. Even so, this does not seem to be the most straightforward implication of the words, and the contrast between bat avi and bat imi.

Finally, let us see Shadal. On the pasuk in Vayera, he writes:
יב] וגם אמנה וגו' : מה שלא הגדתי לשום אדם היותה אשתי היה מפני היראה, אבל מה שאמרתי שהיא אחותי הוא אמת, כי אחותי בת אבי היא אך לא בת אמי. ונראין הדברים כי כך היה הענין באמת כמשמעו, ושקודם התורה היו נזהרים מן האחות מן האם בלבד ולא מן האחות מצד האב, ועיין למעלה י"א כ"ט .
Thus, Avraham did say the truth, and she is his paternal sister, though not his maternal sister. And before matan Torah such was permissible. (Of course, this would be against the midrashic assumption that the avos kept the entire Torah; we could answer like Rashi on the basis of conversion, if we wish.)

So what does Shadal do with the midrashic Sarai = Yiska equation? He writes:
כט ] ואבי יסכה : נראה שהיתה מפורסמת וידועה לישראל והוא על דרך אבי כל בני עבר (למעלה י' כ"א ) ורז"ל אמרו (מגלה י"ד ע"א) שהיא שרה, ואמרו זה שלא להכזיב את אברהם שאמר (למטה כ' י"ב) וגם אמנה אחתי בת אבי היא, ומצאנו שבני בנים נקראים בנים, ופירוש בת אבי בת בנו של אבי. גם היה רחוק בעיניהם שיהיה אברהם לוקה אחותו מן האב, לפיכך עשו אותה בת אחיו; אך אם כדבריהם ואם היו הלכות אישות בימי אברהם שוות לאותן שנצטוינו בתורה, מה לו להוסיף אך לא בת אמי? והלא בת האח היא מותרת בלי שום חילוק אם הוא אח מצד האב בלבד או גם מצד האם. ואולי ייתכן לומר כי גם יסכה היתה אשת נחור, ונשא נחור שתי אחיות כיעקב, והכתוב אמר ושם אשת נחור מלכה, כי היא העיקר, שממנה יצאו רבקה ולבן ורחל ולאה.
First, he makes the assumption that Yiska was a well-known figure to the ancient Israelites. Thus, a closed-canon approach is not required here. Further, Chazal equated the two, on the basis of benei vanim harei hein ke-vanim, in order to make Avraham not lie in parshat Vayera; while at the same time they thought it farfetched that Avraham would marry his paternal sister. Therefore, they made her into the daughter of his brother.

However, if like their words, and if the rules of marriage in the days of Avraham were equivalent to the rules after mattan torah, then why should he say "ach lo bat imi". {Me, interjecting: we could say like Bechor Shor. But still, I agree with Shadal here.} Isn't a fraternal niece permitted without any distinction if (the brother is) from the father alone or also from the mother's side? And perhaps it is possible to say that Yiska was also the wife of Nachor, and that Nachor married two sisters, just like Yaakov {and that is why Yiska is mentioned}; and the pasuk just says that the wife of Nachor was Milkah because she was primary, because Rikvah came from her.

I am not entirely certain that I agree that that was Chazal's motivations? I may well have missed seeing some midrashim about "she is my sister". Given an explicit midrash as to the interpretation of "sister", I would absolutely agree. Otherwise, I would attach it instead to the reasons I suggested above.

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