Monday, April 19, 2010

The puzzling Chasam Sofer on womb temperature

Before the Midrash Talpiyos, with a different number of teeth for Jews and gentiles, there was the Chasam Sofer, who also claimed physical difference between Jews and non-Jews, such that what doctors said would not necessarily apply to Jews. This was based on a gemara in Niddah daf 34b, and in Shabbos 86b. In this post, I would like to consider this gemara and whether it really says what is attributed to it. After that, perhaps we should consider repercussions in modern times.

The gemara in Shabbat 86b reads:

בעי רב פפא שכבת זרע של ישראל במעי כותית מהו ישראל דדאיגי במצות חביל גופייהו עכו"ם דלא דאיגי במצות לא או דילמא כיון דאכלין שקצים ורמשים חביל גופייהו ואם תמצי לומר כיון דאכלי שקצים ורמשים חביל גופייהו במעי בהמה מהו אשה (היא) דאית לה פרוזדור מסרחת אבל בהמה דלית לה פרוזדור לא או דילמא ל"ש תיקו

The topic is poletes shichvas zera, and the tuma which might arise from the semen. Is it still viable after a certain number of days. There is an argument among Tanaaim about it, and then Rav Pappa asks a question, the sides of which the gemara explores. Thus:

R. Papa asked: What of an Israelite's semen within a Cuthean woman? [Do we say,] Because Israelites are anxious about [the observance of] precepts, their bodies are heated, but not so Gentiles, who are not anxious about precepts; or perhaps, as they eat creeping crawling things, their bodies [too] are heated? Now should you say, as they eat creeping crawling things their bodies are heated, what of [semen] within an animal? [Do we say.] A woman, who has a fore-uterus, causes it to become foul, but not so an animal, who has no fore-uterus; or perhaps there is no difference? The questions stands over.
It thus ends in a teiku. As I hinted in my quick summary above, I would distinguish between the question of the named Amora, Rav Pappa, and the elaboration given by the gemara, which might well be the setama digemara as opposed to Rav Pappa's own words. This because this is commonly the case, as well as on the basis of a seeming difference in language. That is, the word shel in שכבת זרע של ישראל במעי כותית מהו appears to be Hebrew, while the rest of the exploration is clearly in Aramaic. Similarly, במעי בהמה מהו. Rav Pappa might have originally asked the question, and the gemara expanded upon it. 

If so, perhaps one could cast Rav Papa's question as one in ritual law, that it is the act of a Jewish person being polet it that imbues it with ritual impurity. Thus, the semen of an Israelite conveys impurity but not that of a non-Israelite. Do we go after the gavra who is being polet it, in this case the woman or beast, in which case  it would not be impure. Or, do we go after the cheftza, which is the semen, which originated from an Israelite man? Another way of looking at it -- does it matter who was polet it originally, or subsequently?

However, given the immediately preceding context of semen which has gone foul, discussed by Rav Huna and Rav Sheshet, the assumption that the driving force behind Rav Papa's question is medical is a reasonable one. (Though not the only possible explanation, as discussed.)

I would suggest that these two interpretations, ritual vs. physical, are inherent in the hava amina and maskana of the parallel discussion in Niddah. On Niddah 34a-b:
ת"ש נמצאת אומר שכבת זרע של ישראל טמאה בכל מקום
ואפי' במעי עובדת כוכבים ושל עובד כוכבים טהור' בכל מקום ואפי' במעי ישראלית חוץ ממי רגלים שבה
אמר מר שכבת זרע של ישראל טמאה בכ"מ אפי' במעי עובדת כוכבים תפשוט דבעי רב פפא דבעי רב פפא שכבת זרע של ישראל במעי עובדת כוכבים מהו בתוך ג' לא קמיבעיא ליה לרב פפא כי קמיבעיא ליה לאחר ג' מאי ישראל דדייגי במצות חביל גופייהו ומסריח עובדי כוכבים דלא דייגי במצות לא חביל גופייהו ולא מסריח או דילמא כיון דאכלי שקצים ורמשים חביל גופייהו ומסריח תיקו:

Or, in English:
Come and hear: It thus follows that the semen of an Israelite is unclean everywhere, even in the bowels of an idolatress, while that of an idolater is clean everywhere, even in the bowels of an Israelitish woman, with the exception of any urine of hers that is mixed up with it.
The Master said, 'The semen of an Israelite is unclean everywhere, even in the bowels of an idolatress'. May you not thereby solve a question of R. Papa; for R. Papa enquired. 'What is the law regarding the semen of an Israelite in the bowels of an idolatress?' [Concerning a discharge] within three days, R. Papa raised no questions. His enquiry related only to one after three days. What, he asked, is the law? Is it only in the case of Israelites, who are anxious to observe the commandments, that their bodies engender heat and the semen decomposes but in the case of idolaters, who are not anxious to observe the commandments, their bodies engender no heat and their [semen] therefore does not decompose, or is it possible that on account of their consumption of forbidden animals and reptiles their bodies also engender heat and their semen also decomposes? — This remains undecided.
That is, the initial assumption, the hava amina, was that Rav Papa was asking about this cheftza / gavra distinction I mentioned above. And so, the Tannaitic cited in Niddah directly answers his question. But then, the gemara clarifies that it is a question in metzius, about whether there is a physical distinction between Jews and non-Jews (and separately between humans and animals) which would cause the semen to degrade at a separate rate.

The gemara in Niddah could have only rationally had this question about the meaning of Rav Papa's statement had it stood alone, without the later elaboration. And then the gemara, here and in Niddah, interpreted it as being about the three days, perhaps because of some inside knowledge or perhaps because of the positioning of it after the discussion of Rav Huna and Rav Sheshet. Which suggests to me that, right or wrong about the interpretation, Rav Papa's statement originally stood alone, and this is the post-Talmudic explanation, about just how Jews and non-Jews might differ physically.

I am happy with my distinction. I theorized about it independently, and only then got confirmation from the gemara in Niddah.

Regardless of whether the ritual or physical interpretation of Rav Papa's question is correct, let us consider the  gemara's take on it. Once again, the gemara explained:
[Do we say,] Because Israelites are anxious about [the observance of] precepts, their bodies are heated, but not so Gentiles, who are not anxious about precepts; or perhaps, as they eat creeping crawling things, their bodies [too] are heated?
There was an ancient assumption that women were colder than men. Hippocrates had written, of the two qualities (cold vs. hot, wet vs. dry) that women were cold and wet, while men were hot and dry. Galen had written that of the two qualities,
"The female is less perfect than the male for one principal reason - because she is colder." 
And that the degree of heat in different women differed. Thus, Aristotle thought that a woman must be the opposite of the man in order to have children -- "If he be hot, she must be cold; if he be dry, she must be moist." And he thought women didn't menstruate before the age of thirteen because young girls were hot, and so digested all of their nourishment. And that the different length in periods in women was based on their body heat. He also believed that different foods could change the temperature of the womb. He thought that the body had a sort of fireplace, and thus instructed fever suffers to gorge themselves.

It seems to me that the explanation proffered by the gemara is in line with ancient scientific beliefs. Thus, perhaps attitude of Israelite women will change womb temperature, and that will degrade the semen. But as to non-Israelite women, as the gemara in Niddah states, their bodies engender no heat, and so the semen would not degrade. This supposition is directly in line with a belief that women's wombs in general were cold, and did not engender heat.

In terms of the opposite supposition, that by eating sheratzim, they would engender heat and thus equal Israelite women, this too is in line with ancient science, which believed that a change in the woman's diet would cause a change in womb temperature (see above).

The gemara ends with a teiku. We don't need to resort to a teiku. Nowadays, we have excellent tools for measuring temperature, and can readily measure the womb temperature of Jewish woman and non-Jewish women. I suspect that we would find no great difference between Israelite and non-Israelite women in this regard; nor different from a frum Christian woman who is exciting by her commandments yet eats sheratzim; nor different from a non-Jewish woman who is a vegan, and eats no sheratzim. Not that environmental factors couldn't shift these slightly, but the womb needs to be a certain temperature to allow for the fetus to develop, and so I would not imagine that the womb temperatures would vary that widely, if at all.

If so, this gemara is irrelevant to us. Indeed, we should have expected that is is based on ancient science. What will we say? That this is an instance of sod Hashem liyreav? If it were so, then how could the gemara have ended in a Teku?! They would have known whether there was this difference, and whether eating sheratzim impacted it!

If it is indeed a setama degemara, then know that the stama rarely creates a distinction of its own. So if they discuss eating sheratzim as having an impact, likely we can find some named Amora saying something like it.

We find this named Amora in gemara Avoda Zara 31b:
אמר שמואל כל השרצים יש להן ארס של נחש ממית של שרצים אינו ממית אמר ליה שמואל לחייא בר רב בר אריא תא ואימא לך מילתא מעלייתא דהוה אמר רב אבוך הכי אמר אבוך הני ארמאי זוקאני דהוו שתו גילויא ולא מתו איידי דאכלי שקצים ורמשים חביל גופייהו
Said Samuel to Hiyya b. Rab: O son of a scholar, come let me tell you a good thing which your father Rab used to say. Thus said your father: The reason why those swollen Arameans who drink what is kept uncovered suffer no fatal consequences is because, through eating abominable and creeping things, their bodies become immune from it.
If we might take a critical look at this, it seems that these Amoraim were themselves grappling with the contrast between their religious/medical traditions and their actual observations, derived from living among gentiles. There was an assumption that uncovered water left overnight would be sipped by a serpent, who would inject its venom into it. As such, there was sakanta, danger to life, which was more stringent than mere prohibition. And so, in general, Jews did not drink from water left uncovered. (It could well be that in their climates serpents did sip from it.) And yet, in Babylonia, the gentiles did not keep this restriction, and yet they suffered no harmful effects. How could this be, if the entire basis was one of sakana. One answer might be that there is a different climate. Another might be that nishtaneh hateva, and so the halacha should change as well. Another might be that, in the first place, there was faulty science in assessing the level of danger. But Rav said the wonderful answer that it is because of their diet. Because of repeated exposure to abominable and creeping things, their bodies become immune to the poison of reptiles and snakes.

This, at least, makes more sense than the idea that womb temperature would change. Even though both can be backed by scientific theories, here, the idea that repeated exposure to some substance can induce tolerance not only makes some sense, but remains topical. In contrast, the gemara in Shabbat and Niddah take it well out of context and apply it, anonymously, to a different subject, womb temperature. Even though, as stated, it still works out nicely in accordance with ancient science.

Tosafot, at the very bottom of the daf in Avodah Zarah, writes:
דאכלי שקצים ורמשים חביל גופייהו. תימה דאמר פרק רבי עקיבא (שבת דף פו:) גבי שכבת זרע של ישראל במעי עובדת כוכבים ישראל דדייגי במצות חביל גופייהו טפי מעובדי כוכבים וי"ל דלענין להנצל מארס אין מועיל חבל דדייגי במצות כמו חבל דאכילת שקצים ורמשים שיש להם בתוך הגוף ומבטל ארס של נחש:
Thus, he contrasts the gemara here with the gemara in Shabbos. By shichvas zera shel Yisrael in the womb of an avodas kochavim, the implication is that since they are anxious about performance of mitzvos, the Israelites have more of an aspect of chavil gufayhu, whereas the gemara here indicates that because of the sheratzim consumed, the non-Israelites have more chavil gufayhu. And Tosafot suggest the answer that, in terms of this particular aspect of being saved from venom, the chavil gufayhu of anxiety of mitzvos does not assist to the same extend as a chavil gufayhu of eating abominable and creeping things, which they have within their bodies and which then nullifies the venom of the serpent.

The Chasam Sofer, this gemara in Shabbos, and the Tosafot in Avoda Zara, and uses it to say that we should disregard the words of physicians, because gentiles have different natures than Jews. Thus, in his Chiddushim to Masechet Shabbos, he writes:

Thus, first he cites the gemara, and then he cites the Tosafot. And then writes, "And because of this, it is difficult for me to rely on the instructions of the doctors of our times, even a Jewish doctor, in the matter of Niddah and the like. For all of their expertise is based on the medical works which were made via experimentation that they had upon the bodies of the nations of the world. And so too, all of their science in dissection (anatomy) is based on what they tried upon their own bodies, where chavil gufayhu; and this is not then a proof to the bodies of Israelites, and there is not to apply legally from their words to be lenient in any prohibition, except for chillul Shabbos and eating on Yom Kippur {Josh: which have precedent in halachic sources to rely on non-Jewish doctors for this}, for this is only a doubt of danger to life, which also pushes off Shabbos. But to trust in them entirely and absolutely, it does not appear to me."

From his words, it seems as if people were trying to say to rely on contemporary science to introduce kulos into hilchos Niddah, which might have sparked this reaction, in part. This makes sense, in light of how the Chasam Sofer was combating the Reform movement.

I would note that the Chasam Sofer lived in the eighteenth century to early nineteenth century:
Moses Schreiber, known to his own community and Jewish posterity as Moshe Sofer, also known by his main work Chasam Sofer, (trans. Seal of the Scribe and acronym for Chidushei Toras Moshe Sofer), (1762 - 1839), was one of the leading Orthodox rabbis of European Jewry in the first half of the nineteenth century. He was a teacher to thousands and a powerful opponent to the Reform movement, which was then making inroads into many Jewish communities in Austria-Hungary and beyond. As Rav of the city of Bratislava, he maintained a strong Orthodox Jewish perspective through communal life, first-class education, and uncompromising opposition to Reform and radical change.
While modern science was developing, scientists still believed a bunch of nonsense. And so it is quite possible that scientific pronouncements in his days were indeed absolute bunk. But they had started doing experimentation, and were overturning much of medieval and ancient scientific beliefs.

I must admit that for a while, before seeing it inside, this Chasam Sofer had me extremely puzzled. As he was popularly cited, he seemed to go directly against the gemara.

That is, the gemara in Niddah and the gemara in Shabbos both said that chavil gufayhu for anxiety for mitzvos was a given for Israelite women. The only question was whether chavil gufayhu was true of gentiles as well, as a result of eating shekatzim. If so, then all that would be accomplished is that gentile women would be on the same status, physically, as Israelite women. Not that the chavil gufayhu is making the gentiles different from Israelites, physically! And we are not even certain that this is the case, that chavil gufayhu, for we end in a teiku.

And yet, the way the Chasam Sofer is most often cited is that based on the gemara in Niddah and Shabbos, since gentiles eat abominations and creeping creatures, chavil gufayhu, and so they are different from Jews. To stress, the gemara isn't even certain about it, and chavil gufayhu was cited to show how they would be equal to Jews.

Even after seeing the Chasam Sofer inside, this is a pretty grievous problem with his interpretation, in that his proof actually is an argument in the opposite direction. We can "save" it based on the fact that regardless, this gemara does assume that a physical difference between Jews and gentiles is possible, as a result of environmental conditions, and that eating sheratzim can have an impact on womb temperature. We can further "save" it based on his citation of Tosafot, which shows that eating sheratzim can have further impact past that discussed in the gemara, where in fact there is a distinction between Jews and gentiles. Though that Tosafot is also problematic since Tosafot's assumption is that eating sheratzim only makes this sort of impact in creating immunity to ingesting venom, because of a causal relationship they establish, but would not apply this (as much) to hilchot Niddah.

Therefore, at the end of the day, this Chasam Sofer still puzzles me, and I believe he is misinterpreting the gemara's plain meaning, to a degree.

Even so, this gemara, and the gemara in Avoda Zara, does consider that there might be environment factors which cause differences between Jews and gentiles.

So the gemara does imply something of the sort. And the Chasam Sofer certainly states something of the sort. That does not mean that all modern rabbis will agree with the Chasam Sofer. Certainly, many chareidi rabbis and poskim, including "Gedolim", will agree with the Chasam Sofer. But they don't know enough science, or have a deep enough understanding of science, to make such a determination. For example, see what the Klausenberger Rebbe says about cousins marrying. (To be discussed in a future post in greater detail.) And many more "centrist" rabbis and poskim will disagree with the Chasam Sofer. Even though the Chasam Sofer said this, who says that he is right? And even if he is right in understanding the gemara, who says that the gemara was right in this scientific determination? For Chazal can be wrong in science.

In this, I do not side with the charedim and, for reasons to be elaborated elsewhere, believe that this approach to science is just awful. And if the poskim, including Gedolim, are willfully blind to the metzius, then their pesak halacha is entirely wrong and not really worth anything. No matter how much Torah they may know, if they do not know reality, then they are incapable of paskening.


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