Monday, January 10, 2011

What was Arov?

Summary: Wild beasts, or vicious flies. What do Jewish sources say?

Post: Sometimes, I field parsha requests from the comment section. Here is one for parashat Vaera, from an Anonymous commenter:
I know I'm a week late but I'm curious if there are any jewish sources who disagree with the traditional view that the plague of Arov was wild beasts. I've seen non-jewish sources who interpret it as flies.

Thank you.
How does the traditional interpretation, as wild beasts, emerge? And how does the interpretation of flies emerge? This strikes me as a somewhat important question.

There are two broad possibilities for the basis of this identification. One is tradition while the other is logic. There is a Talmudic expression which goes im kabbalah hi nekabel, veim ledin yesh teshuva. How did you arrive at this conclusion? If it is a matter of tradition, it is accepted. But if you arrived at it via deduction, then I have a ready answer.

We should not take such an expression as only undermining a statement found in the Talmud. Rather, if this is indeed a matter of tradition, we should accept it. And depending on how far back the tradition goes, this can indeed be true. If the tradition goes back to someone who arrived at the particular conclusion, then it is ultimately deduction. Maybe it is deduction from someone with better deductive powers than we possess, in which case we should respect it and leave it alone. Or maybe we can provide our own answer via deduction. If it is a tradition that goes back to Har Sinai, then this is tradition which overwhelms any possible deduction.

Perhaps a good example of this is "blue". Ask a typical English speaker in America to identify blue, and he will have no problem. Ask someone who does not have this direct knowledge, and perhaps he can reason out what it is via examples, found in books, of things that are blue. Ask someone with even less knowledge, but a skilled linguist, and he might be able to reason out that it is related to the Scottish cognate blae, which is bluish grey or slate-colored. This would then not necessarily include midnight blue, cyan or periwinkle -- he might extrapolate to other shades of grey, for example. Ask someone with access to even less knowledge, and he might try to deduce something from the construction of the word, and come up with a shade of red.

I didn't pull this example out of my hat. Consider techelet. We Pharisees believe it to be a particular shade of blue, or just blue in general. It turns out that there are good reasons to think this is true, from a historical perspective. But beside this, Hebrew was a spoken natural language, going on continuously for generations. While meanings of color names might shift, this is the sort of thing for which Oral Tradition should be good. But the Karaites, contemporary to Ibn Ezra, rejected this Oral Tradition and foolishly thought they could reason out what it is. Since techelet comes from tachlit, it is the end of all colors, and thus black. I don't find this convincing, and neither should you. One cannot reason out the definition of a color.

So what do we do with the makka of arov? In parashat Vaera {8:19}, we read

17. For if you do not let My people go, behold, I will incite against you and against your servants and against your people and in your houses a mixture of noxious creatures, and the houses of Egypt will be filled with the mixture of noxious creatures, as well as the land upon which they are.יז. כִּי אִם אֵינְךָ מְשַׁלֵּחַ אֶת עַמִּי הִנְנִי מַשְׁלִיחַ בְּךָ וּבַעֲבָדֶיךָ וּבְעַמְּךָ וּבְבָתֶּיךָ אֶת הֶעָרֹב וּמָלְאוּ בָּתֵּי מִצְרַיִם אֶת הֶעָרֹב וְגַם הָאֲדָמָה אֲשֶׁר הֵם עָלֶיהָ:

But we don't really see עָרֹב in other contexts, to be able to figure out what it means. If it is a tradition that  goes back to Sinai that it means a mix of noxious creatures / wild animals, then we should accept it. And even if not, we shouldn't necessarily think that our own reasoning will be better, or that definitions provided by non-Jewish sources, which is in turn based on reasoning, will provide a better answer.

Rashi writes:
את הערב: כל מיני חיות רעות ונחשים ועקרבים בערבוביא והיו משחיתים בהם. ויש טעם בדבר באגדה בכל מכה ומכה למה זו ולמה זו. בטכסיסי מלחמות מלכים בא עליהם, כסדר מלכות כשצרה על עיר, בתחלה מקלקל מעיינותיה, ואחר כך תוקעין עליהם ומריעין בשופרות ליראם ולבהלם, וכן הצפרדעים מקרקרים והומים וכו'. כדאיתא במדרש רבי תנחומא:

Thus, all sorts of noxious creatures, and snakes and scorpions, all mixed together. This would provide an explanation, and a linguistic connection, to the word arov. Think erev rav, as a commingling. So we take it as mingling, and we know from context that this is a makka, and from pasuk 20 that  וּבְכָל אֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם תִּשָּׁחֵת הָאָרֶץ מִפְּנֵי הֶעָרֹב, that is that it will destroy the land of Egypt in some way. And so, this definition seems right. But again, it might be tradition, which all this is just confirming for us, or what I wrote immediately above might well be how Chazal reasoned it out.

So too Josephus:
for he filled that country full of various sorts of pestilential creatures, with their various properties, such indeed as had never come into the sight of men before, by whose means the men perished themselves, and the land was destitute of husbandmen for its cultivation; but if any thing escaped destruction from them, it was killed by a distemper which the men underwent also.

Ibn Ezra also considers it a mixture, but of bigger creatures:
ומלת ערב 
חיות רעות מעורבות, כמו: אריות זאבים ודובים ונמרים.

Lions and tigers and bears! Oh, my! But this might indicate that there is reasoning at play.

As I responded to the commenter in that post, Shadal has a nice roundup of positions, both Jewish and non-Jewish, who argue with this traditional view. Should we care? Well, they might have reasoned it out, and their reasoning might well be sound. Forgive me for being somewhat skeptical, though, of the idea that we might be able to reason out the identity of an otherwise unknown species based on these limited clues.

The Septuagint has kunomuia, or dog-flies:
17 ἐὰν δὲ μὴ βούλῃ ἐξαποστεῖλαι τὸν λαόν μου, ἰδοὺ ἐγὼ ἐξαποστέλλω ἐπὶ σὲ καὶ ἐπὶ τοὺς θεράποντάς σου καὶ ἐπὶ τὸν λαόν σου καὶ ἐπὶ τοὺς οἴκους ὑμῶν κυνόμυιαν, καὶ πλησθήσονται αἱ οἰκίαι τῶν Αἰγυπτίων τῆς κυνομυίης καὶ εἰς τὴν γῆν, ἐφ᾿ ἧς εἰσιν ἐπ᾿ αὐτῆς.
17 And if thou wilt not let my people go, behold, I send upon thee, and upon thy servants, and upon thy people, and upon your houses, the dog-fly; and the houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with the dog-fly, even throughoutthe land upon which they are.

The Septuagint uses the same word, κυνόμυιαν, as translation of Tehillim 78:45. But what basis is there for this association? Perhaps based on Tehillim 105:31:

לא  אָמַר, וַיָּבֹא עָרֹב;    כִּנִּים, בְּכָל-גְּבוּלָם.31 He spoke, and there came swarms of flies, and gnats in all their borders.

31 He spoke, and the dog-fly came, and lice in all their coasts.

Thus, kinnim and arov are placed in poetic parallelism, so perhaps they are of similar nature. On the other hand, it is placed in 78:45 in poetic parallelism against frogs, so one shouldn't derive anything from this.

Philo follows this identification of arov, writing:
XXIII. (130) The remaining punishments are three in number, and they were inflicted by God himself without any agency or ministration of man, each of which I will now proceed to relate as well I can. The first is that which was inflicted by means of that animal which is the boldest in all nature, namely, the dog-fly (kynomuia) which those person who invent names have named with great propriety (for they were wise men); combining the name of the appellation of the most impudent of all animals, a fly and a dog, the one being the boldest of all terrestrial, and the other the boldest of all flying, animals. For they approach and run up fearlessly, and if any one drives them away, they still resist and renew their attack, so as never to yield until they are sated with blood and flesh. (131) And so the dog-fly, having derived boldness from both these animals, is a biting and treacherous creature; for it shoots in from a distance with a whizzing sound like an arrow; and when it has reached its mark it sticks very closely with great force. (132) But at this time its attack was prompted by God, so that its treachery and hostility were redoubled, since it not only displayed all its own natural covetousness, but also all that eagerness which it derived from the divine providence which went it forth, and armed it and excited it to acts of valour against the natives. (133) And after the dog-fly there followed another punishment unconnected with any human agency, namely, the mortality among the cattle; for all the herds of oxen, and flocks of goats, and vast flocks of sheep, and all the beasts of burden, and all other domestic animals of every kind died in one day in a body, as if by some agreement or at some given signal; foreshowing the destruction of human beings which was about to take place a short time afterwards as in a pestilential disease; for the sudden destruction of irrational animals is said to be an ordinary prelude to pestilential diseases.
Chazal discuss, as one of the five creatures one can certainly kill on Shabbos, because of pikuach nefesh, the Egyptian fly. Perhaps this is the same species. See also a discussion of the tzir'ah.

Rashbam identifies it, instead, as a species of wolf:
פסוק יז 
הערוב - אומר אני, כי מיני זאבים הם שנקראים ערוב, על שם שדרכם לטרוף בלילות, כדכתיב: (ירמיה ה, ו) זאב ערבות ישדדם וכתיב: (צפניהג, ג) זאבי ערב לא גרמו לבקר.
וכאשר יאמר מאודם אדום, כן יאמרו (נ"א מאדם אדום מעומק עמוק. מערב ערוב נו"י טרינ"ד בלע"ז. שהזאב ערוב הוא שהוא הולך בערב. 
They are called arov because of their habit of preying at night. And he cites pesukim which associate ze'eivim with erev. Thus, he can point to pesukim which indicate an associate, and he provides some reasoning for the etymology. Perhaps, but it is not absolutely convincing.

Aquila, a convert to Judaism and student of Rabbi Akiva who translated the Torah into Greek, renders it -- based on how it is reported in Origen's Hexapla, as:

which (following Shadal) means "all sorts of flies." Following him in the Vulgate is Jerome:

821But if thou wilt not let them go, behold I will send in upon thee, and upon thy servants, and upon thy houses, all kind of flies: and the houses of the Egyptians shall be filled with flies of divers kinds, and the whole land wherein they shall be.quod si non dimiseris eum ecce ego inmittam in te et in servos tuos et in populum tuum et in domos tuas omne genus muscarum et implebuntur domus Aegyptiorum muscis diversi generis et in universa terra in qua fuerint

This would appear to be a combination of two previously mentioned positions.

(The Karaites, meanwhile, regard it as a חיבור וערוב מכל מיני חיות.)

Shadal (here and here) gives this rundown --

Shadal personally prefers this meaning of diverse sorts of flies, for otherwise it is not understandable how they entered the houses and they were unable to shut the doors before them. And then he explains the pasuk in Tehillim which states "and they ate them" to be a sort of exaggerated language. Read Shadal inside to get a full picture of this.

I don't know that it is always possible to shut the door and keep out powerful wild animals. It depends on whether one was expecting these animals to be present, whether there were open windows, and how strong the door is.

At the end of the day, that there are these differing explanations from Rashbam, as well as from Aquilas and Philo, might suggest that they regarded this as a matter of sevara rather than kabbalah. Well, perhaps Philo was following what he thought was the tradition. But certainly this position of Rashbam would indicate this. Yet, at the end of the day, I am not so convinced that it is possible to discover the identity of arov on the basis of sevara.

(See also this post at Balashon, where he mentions:
ערוב arov: The wild animals of the fourth plague in Egypt (Shmot 8:20). Kutscher says the origin is unclear, but Klein associates it with "to mix".

Update: I carelessly missed one major source for opinions on this matter, Midrash Rabba:
ויצא משה ויעש ה' כדבר משה ויסר הערוב למה הביא עליהם ערוב? לפי שהיו אומרים לישראל, צאו והביאו לנו דובים ואריות ונמרים, כדי להיות מצירים בהם, לפיכך הביא עליהם חיות מעורבבות. דברי רבי יהודה. 
רבי נחמיה אמר:
מיני צרעין ויתושין.
ונראין דבריו של רבי יהודה, לפי שבצפרדעים כתיב: ( שמות ח, ט) וימותו הצפרדעים, לפי שלא היה בהן הנאה בעורותיהן. אבל ערוב, שהיה הנאה בעורותיהן, לפיכך לא נשאר בהן עד אחד שאלו היו צרעין ויתושין היה להן שיסריחו.

Thus, it was a matter of dispute, with Rabbi Yehuda maintaining that it was wasps and flies, while Rabbi Nechemia maintaining that it was bear, lions, and leopards. Read the above sources in this light.


Balashon said...

A humorist that I really enjoy "rated" the 10 plagues a number of years ago.

Here's what he writes about arov:

Apparently this is kind of a tricky translation. The King James Bible has "flies," one translated Torah I found has "insects," but "A Rug Rats Passover" has it as wild beasts, so wild beasts it is. I just saw Tarzan, so I can't help but imagine a scene Moses pounding his chest and emitting a jungle yodel, followed a stampede of elephants and baboons and panthers and, I dunno, toucans and stuff coming down on Pharaoh and his buddies. It's not easy living in my head."

(The other five are rated here.)

Works for me.

By the way, I once heard a theory that the erev rav (unlike the asafsuf) actually meant animals, and was related to arov. The pasuk there could certainly fit...

Anonymous said...

Apparently arov have skins:

joshwaxman said...

I missed one major source, due to carelessness. This reflects a debate in the midrash rabba there.
see my updated post.

kol tuv,

Anonymous said...

No need to thank me, I'm only a heathen who happens to be curious enough to look things up.. I wasn't even aware of your missing a source...
But it's nice to know my post was helpful, nonetheless. :)


Blog Widget by LinkWithin