Wednesday, January 05, 2011

A liver is the heart of Pharaoh

Summary: So goes a midrash or two. What this may indicate in terms of whether Chazal literally saw the heart as the seat of the intellect.

Post: In last week's parasha, Vaera, we encounter the following pesukim:

יג  וַיֶּחֱזַק לֵב פַּרְעֹה, וְלֹא שָׁמַע אֲלֵהֶם:  כַּאֲשֶׁר, דִּבֶּר יְהוָה.  {ס}13 And Pharaoh's heart was hardened, and he hearkened not unto them; as the LORD had spoken. {S}
יד  וַיֹּאמֶר יְהוָה אֶל-מֹשֶׁה, כָּבֵד לֵב פַּרְעֹה; מֵאֵן, לְשַׁלַּח הָעָם.14 And the LORD said unto Moses: 'Pharaoh's heart is stubborn, he refuseth to let the people go.

Kaveid means heavy, or in this case stubborn. However, it also means liver. Place two internal organs in close proximity to a pasuk, where one is indeed an internal organ and the other is a homonym, and a derasha is born!

And that is precisely what Chazal do. In Shemot Rabba, we read:

ח [ויחזק לב פרעה]ע

ויחזק לב פרעה, ויאמר ה' אל משה כבד לב פרעה כועס הוא.
מה הכבד כועס אף לבו של זה נעשה כבד, אינו מבין כסיל הוא. (קהלת ז, ט) כי כעס בחיק כסילים ינוח. במה מייסרים את הכסיל? במטה, שנאמר: (משלי כו, ג) ושבט לגו כסילים, אף משה ייסר פרעה במטה, שנאמר: והמטה אשר נהפך לנחש וגו' 

"He was angry. Just as the liver is angry, so too the heart of this one became a liver {kaveid}, without understanding, he is a fool. Then, citing Kohelet, אַל-תְּבַהֵל בְּרוּחֲךָ, לִכְעוֹס: כִּי כַעַס, בְּחֵיק כְּסִילִים יָנוּחַ. Be not hasty in thy spirit to be angry; for anger resteth in the bosom of fools..."

This derasha gets better and better. The pasuk in Kohelet is deliciously reinterpreted. Usually, kaas, anger, sits in the liver. This was ancient science, in which the liver is the seat of emotions such as lust and rage. The heart was the seat of the intellect. The heart is located in the cheik, the bosom, which would be higher up. Yet in kesilim, foolish people who lack this intellect, it is kaas which is located in their bosom, in their heart. This was a fine point of interpretation that is easy to miss.

This is not the only midrash which interprets this in this way. There is a slight variation of this in Midrash Lekach Tov on this pasuk:

"That is to say, the heart of Pharaoh was turned into a liver {kaveid} -- just as a liver has no understanding to understand and comprehend, so too there was no understanding in his heart to understand and comprehend. Therefore, his heart was hardened and was stubborn for him."

One could point out that there is no understanding in a person's small intestine or in his left big toe, either. Is this simply random, seizing upon the luckily listed body part? I doubt it. Some ancient philosophers believed in a tripartite soul: the rational soul, the animal soul, and the vegetative soul. The rational soul was located in the brain; the animal soul was located in the heart; and the vegetative soul was located in the liver. See here.

But Aristotle, while disputing this tripartite division, put the primacy in the heart and placing the rational soul in no particular place. And Seneca and other Stoics placed the rational soul in the heart. See here.

It therefore does not seem to me to be an accident that this focus is made on heart and organ, and noting that the liver does not have intellect. This midrash appears to agree with these philosophers in making the heart the seat of the rational soul and the liver the seat of the vegetative soul.

What this strongly suggests to me is that when Chazal were talking about the heart, liver, kidneys, etc., as serving certain functions -- e.g. kidneys giving counsel, they were not talking allegorically. Rather, they were in agreement with the scientific state of the art and were speaking literally. Of course, there is room to maneuver and argue otherwise. Still, my guts tell me that this is right. ;)

By the way, Rabbi Natan Slifkin put out a monograph on a related topic,
The Question of the Kidneys' Counsel. It discusses the Scriptural, Talmudic and Midrashic accounts of the kidneys providing counsel to the heart, and explores the response of Rishonim, Acharonim and contemporary figures to this topic. The topic also has broad and significant ramifications for other conflicts between Torah and science, some of which are discussed in the document.
Check it out, if you'd like.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin