Tuesday, January 04, 2011

How did the chartumim turn water to blood?

Summary: One possible suggestion, based on Shadal's approach. Plus, is magic real in general.

Post: There is a famous, old joke:
Nine year old Joey, was asked by his mother what he had learned in Sunday school.
"Well, Mom, our teacher told us how God sent Moses behind enemy lines on a rescue mission to lead the Israelites out of Egypt. When he got to the Red Sea, he had his engineers build a pontoon bridge and all the people walked across safely. Then he used his walkie-talkie to radio headquarters for reinforcements. They sent bombers to blow up the bridge and all the Israelites were saved." 
"Now, Joey, is that really what your teacher taught you?" His mother asked.
"Well, no, Mom. But if I told it the way the teacher did, you'd never believe it!" 

Many rationalists seek to explain the nissim which make up makkos, as well as kriyas yam Suf, with a more naturalistic explanation. And there is basis in the pesukim for this. For example, for Arbeh, in Bo, we read:

יג  וַיֵּט מֹשֶׁה אֶת-מַטֵּהוּ, עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, וַה נִהַג רוּחַ-קָדִים בָּאָרֶץ, כָּל-הַיּוֹם הַהוּא וְכָל-הַלָּיְלָה; הַבֹּקֶר הָיָה--וְרוּחַ הַקָּדִים, נָשָׂא אֶת-הָאַרְבֶּה.13 And Moses stretched forth his rod over the land of Egypt, and the LORD brought an east wind upon the land all that day, and all the night; and when it was morning, the east wind brought the locusts.

Thus, there is first this wind, which presumably carries already existent locusts from elsewhere. It need not be that rationalist Rishonim are closet kofrim. They may be responding to textual cues. And further, philosophically, they often would view derech hateva as a wondrous creation of Hashem, and the further one must deviate from derech hateva to accomplish a miracle, the worse it is (as this might suggest a flaw in the initial design?).

At any rate, there is a difference between the nissim, as performed by Moshe Rabbenu, on the one hand, and the actions of the Egyptian magicians, the chartumim, on the other. One can readily admit the miraculous nature of the makkos while still disbelieving in the reality of magic. Now, the straightforward reading of the text may well be that magic is real, and was practiced by the chartumim. Now, then a rationalist Jew who disbelieves in magic has three options: (a) start believing in magic, based on the testimony of Scriptures, which he already believes in the general case for other reasons; (b) reinterpret the pesukim so that this is not what it is professing; or (c) take this as an indication that the Torah is false.

In this post, I'll focus on "explaining" the magic of the chartumim, rather than on naturalistic explanations of the makkos. Thus, how did Moshe turn water into blood and bring forth frogs from the water? It was a nes, and we can explain it in miraculous terms or in terms of miracles working within nature. Fine, but that is an act of God. How do we explain the Egyptian magicians doing the same?

In a previous post on Vaera,  I discussed Shadal's theory of how the chartumim managed to pull off the trick of creating frogs. The pasuk in Vaera reads  {Shemot 8:3}:

ג וַיַּעֲשׂוּ-כֵן הַחַרְטֻמִּים, בְּלָטֵיהֶם; וַיַּעֲלוּ אֶת-הַצְפַרְדְּעִים, עַל-אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם.3 And the magicians did in like manner with their secret arts, and brought up frogs upon the land of Egypt.

And Shadal suggests that:
"They took vessels full of water which had in them frog eggs, and with their lateihem (with scientific knowledge) they sped up the exiting of the frogs from the eggs."
In that post, I showed how this could indeed be accomplished, with modern scientific knowledge. See there, how vibrations cause frogs to leave their eggs early. In the comment section there, a commenter asked about how this could possibly work for the makkah of dam. After all, there, we read:

21. And the fish that were in the Nile died, and the Nile became putrid; the Egyptians could not drink water from the Nile, and there was blood throughout the entire land of Egypt.כא. וְהַדָּגָה אֲשֶׁר בַּיְאֹר מֵתָה וַיִּבְאַשׁ הַיְאֹר וְלֹא יָכְלוּ מִצְרַיִם לִשְׁתּוֹת מַיִם מִן הַיְאֹר וַיְהִי הַדָּם בְּכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרָיִם:
22. And the necromancers of Egypt did likewise with their secret rites, and Pharaoh's heart was steadfast, and he did not heed them, as the Lord had spoken.כב. וַיַּעֲשׂוּ כֵן חַרְטֻמֵּי מִצְרַיִם בְּלָטֵיהֶם וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם כַּאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר יְ־הֹוָ־ה:

such that the chartumim turned water to blood. My response there was that Shadal interprets this, as well, to be employing secret strategems to accomplish this. Thus:
כב ] ויעשו כן חרטמי מצרים : נ"ל כי מה שכתוב בפסוק כ"א ויהי הדם בכל ארץ מצרים, לא היה מיד, אלא שהכתוב מסיים סיפור הפיכת המים לדם; אבל באותו רגע שהיכה אהרן את היאור לעיני פרעה מיד נהפכו מימי היאור לדם, ומיד לקחו החרטומים כלי מים שלא מן היאור שעדיין לא נהפך לדם והפכו אותו בתחבולותיהם לדם, ואח"כ נתפשטה המכה בכל המים אשר בבתי מצרים ובכל מקוה מימיהם.
He does not specify the strategems, nor is he obligated to. His basic theory is that the magicians used tricks -- for him, secret knowledge of nature unknown to the masses -- to accomplish this "magic". This is essentially the same position as various Rishonim, including the Rambam. It was a nice bonus that he explained how the frog trick might be done, but he is not contractually obligated to explain every magic trick. Since these are secret arts, we don't necessarily know the precise mechanism of the trick.

However, to take water in a vessel, not yet turned to blood, and to transform it to blood, or rather, something that will seem like blood to others -- it is after all a trick -- is something you can do yourself. See here:
This popular chemistry demonstration is often called turning water into wine or water into blood. It's really a simple example of a pH indicator. Phenolphthalein is added to water, which is then poured into a second glass containing a base. If the pH of the resulting solution is right, you can make the water turn from clear to red to clear again, as long as you like.
There are step by step instructions on that website. This is not necessarily the way the magicians accomplished this particular trick, but it demonstrates that it is something eminently possible.

Meanwhile, Junior came home from school last week with an "interesting" explanation of how, while Moshe Rabbenu actually turned his staff into a snake, and back again, the Egyptian magicians put snakes into their staffs and, when they threw the staffs down, the snakes came out.

This is not any midrash I've heard and was presumably an invention of his teacher. I would imagine, though, that there is some way to pull off such a stunt as turning a staff into a snake, by either charming a snake such that it remains rigid, and looks, like a staff, or by fashioning a staff of material which wriggles about when it is not being held in the hand.

Anyway, see these two posts at Rationalist Judaism, as well as the comment sections there, for a related discussion.


b said...

Thanks.Who is junior?and i never heard of any pshat of hiding snakes in staffs ever!That teacher should be taught that he should be accurate and honest.And not sell his own daydreaming.As for the links,he makes a wrong assumption.I always knew the frog pshat was midrash.

Joe in Australia said...

There's a consistent theme in midrashim that the Egyptians harmed themselves in their eagerness to harm the Jews. E.g., Pharaoh didn't just have Jewish babies thrown into the Nile; he had all male babies thrown into the Nile. I wonder if this theme originates from the observation that Pharaoh's magicians did the same thing - in order to prove that Moshe was a charlatan they turned Egypt's water into blood and they summoned up frogs.

Mark Symons said...

Re Pharoah having all male babies thrown in the Nile - the text itself says this.

joshwaxman said...

The text itself days that but the context makes it clear on the level of peshat that if course only the males of the Hebrews were intended. It is Midrash to take the text hyper literally and claim he also meant Egyptian babies


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