Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Of the Sambatyon River, and the Fish who keeps Shabbos

Summary: Radak explains the sanctification of Shabbos in part that there are elements of creation which testify to the chiddush haOlam. Namely, the River Sambatyon and the Shabtai fish, both which rest on Shabbos. I consider each. And Birkas Avraham expands upon the features of the Shabtai fish, and relates it to the mitzvah of eating fish on Shabbos.

Post: On parashat Bereshit, on the pasuk that Hashem blessed and sanctified the seventh day, Radak writes:

"And He blessed: the blessing is the addition of goodness, and the day of Shabbat has an additional spiritual  goodness, in that it possesses a rest on this day from the endeavors of this world, such that one is able to engage in widsom and the words of God. And God blessed and sanctified it, when He commanded the children of Israel to rest on it and to sanctify it.

And He sanctified it, that it should be holy and separate from the other days, since the children of Israel would rest on it. And behold, it is a sign between them and God, for they are holy in that they keep the Shabbat, which is testimony on the newness of the world, and to inform the whole world that the world is not First {preceding all}, for Blessed God made it new in the six days, and rested on the seventh.

They also say that there is a certain fish in the sea which does not swim on the day of Shabbat, and it rests the entire day close to the land or to a rock.

And our Sages, za'l, said regarding to river Sabatyon, that all the days of the week it pulls along rocks and sand, while on the day of Shabbat it rests. Therefore, they call it Sabatyon. And so did they say (Bereishit Rabbah, perek 11, and Sanhedrin 65):
And this question was asked by Turnusrufus the wicked13  of R. Akiba: 'Wherein does this day [the Sabbath] differ from any other?' — He replied: Wherein does one man differ from another?'14  — 'Because my Lord [the Emperor] wishes it.' 'The Sabbath too,' R. Akiba rejoined, 'then, is distinguished because the Lord wishes so.' He replied: 'I ask this: Who tells you that this day is the Sabbath?' — He answered: 'Let the river  Sabbation15 prove it.
in that it draws rocks and sand all the days of the week, and on Shabbat it rests.
He said to him: 'You have shamed, disgraced, and reviled him me.'
{This is slightly different from the text in our gemara, but close enough.}

Behold that Blessed God has placed within his Creation a sign for the day of Shabbat, so that the world should know the novelty of the world. And Chazal explained as well (there) 'and He blessed and he sanctified', that He blessed and sanctified it with the manna. He blessed it that it would descend on the sixth day with bread for two days, and He sanctified it, that manna would not descend on Shabbat."

An interesting footnote at the bottom of this page in Radak notes a girsological variant, which is used to deal with the (seeming) non-existence of the Sambatyon River nowadays.

"And in the She'iltot, parashat Bereishit, Turnusrufus responds to Rabbi Akiva, 'also regarding this river I do not believe you.' And so too in the Pesikta, perek 22, he replied to Rabbi Akiva, 'you are bringing {?} me to wind'. That is to say, you are pushing me off with words of wind. And in Tanchuma parashat Ki Tisa, 'You are bringing {?} me to something forced{?}." From all this, the scholar, Tiferes Yisrael brings ... as a proof that already it was lost, and its place forgotten, in the times of the Tannaim. And the maskil will understand."

Frankly, both the Sambatyon River and the Shabbos-keeping fish strike me as the stuff of legend, such that I don't think that they ever existed. And girsaot can develop over time, either accidentally or deliberately. I also wonder what is meant by והמשכיל יבין. Perhaps that even then, Sambatyon didn't exist, because it never existed? Or just that this is an answer to those who would doubt its existence, just because we don't see it nowadays.

The Sambatyon River was also mentioned by Pliny the Elder and by Josephus. Thus, to cite The ten lost tribes: a world history:

At any rate, this Radak is brought down seriously by R' Avraham Albert, in Birkas Avraham on parashas Bereishis:

"In the matter of eating fish on Shabbos, many reasons are gives, and so that its gematria {of דג} is seven. And upon all the reasons, there is compelling evidence that the fish feels Shabbos more greatly. For the Radak writes here: 'They also relate the novelty of the world, for there is a certain fish in the sea that does not swim on the day of Shabbos, and it rests all the day close to the shore or to a rock.' And so writes R' Eleazaer MiGermayza {the Rokeach} in sefer Sodei Raza (brought down in Yalkut Reuveini here, and in his sefer Oneg Shabbat the Yalkut Reuveini brings this down under the name Sefer Tagin) that the River Sambatyon rests on Shabbos, etc. And there is a mountain from which they remove from its dirt silver, and on Shabbos, they do not remove from its dirt any silver. And there is a fish which rests on Shabbos by the seashore until Motzaei Shabbos, and the name of the fish is Shabtai, since it rests on Shabbos. End quote.

And the matter of this fish is mentioned as well in the commentary of R' Asher ben R' Avraham Cresces, za'l, upon the sefer Moreh Nevuchim, at the beginning of volume two, in the twelfth introduction (page 6a) {see here, second column, 21 lines down}, and this is his language:
For we see many scattered powers and wonders in the growing things and silent things, etc., and so too on the sea shore, many fisherman have encountered it many times and given testimony. It is not possible that they are lying, by virtue of the many who are testifying this, one not before the other. That this fish, on erev Shabbos, at sunset, draws near to the dry land and does not swim or move from its place, even if they poke at with swords and spears, it cannot be moved from that place.
And behold,  in sefer shevet Musar, perek 11, he writes that in the commentary HaEphodi upon the sefer Moreh Nevuchim, is written that the segulah {special property} of this fish is that if one makes clothing from its skin, no arrow nor spear can pierce it, see there. And in sefer HaBris be brings the words of the Shever Mussar, and in the name of the Ephodi without pointing out its place in the Ephodi {...?}. And it seems that the Shevet Mussar wrote this from memory, and switched the attribution to the Ephodi in place of attributing it to Rav Cresces za'l. And also the matter of the swords, he switched and dressed it upon the person.

Certainly, since a fish such as this was in the creation that Hashem created, which rests in its place all the day of Shabbos, there is a hint / support to that which the dorshei reshumot already have darshened the reason for the importance of eating a fish on the day of Shabbos, more that the other foods of Shabbos, for the gematria of דג is sever. And one can praise and say this, that there is a connection between the fish and the seventh day, the day of the holy Shabbos. And further, I have seen that already in sefer Taamei Haminhagim he suggested so, that from the words of the aforementioned Radak it is clear the relevance of the importance of eating fish on Shabbos.

And in truth, the matter of the importance of eating fish on Shabbos is clear in Maseches Shabbos (daf 118b) with this language:
Wherewith does one show his delight therein {of Shabbos}? — Rab Judah son of R. Samuel b. Shilath said in Rab's name: With a dish of beets, large fish, and heads of garlic. R. Hiyya b. Ashi said in Rab's name: Even a trifle, if it is prepared in honor of the Sabbath, is delight. What is it [the trifle]? — Said R. Papa: A pie of fish-hash.
{Rav Papa said: kasa deharsena} To explain, small fish with their innards fried in oil and flour. And the Tur, iman 242 brings the words of the gemara. And in Maseches Kiddushin (daf 41a) it states that the mitzvah is greater with him more that with his agent, for behold Rav Saffra would roast the head, and Rava salted Shibuta. And the meaning of Shibuta is a fish whose name is this. {Josh: Note that Shibuta with a tes is not the same as Shabtai with a tav. The Shibuta appears also as the fish which tastes like pork.} And see in sefer Chareidim (perek 33) that within his words in the matter of gilgulim, when he explains regarding in which living creature enters the gilgul of one who commits each sin. He writes as follows:
And also by fish. And therefore, to return that soul to its rest, it is a mitzvah to eat fish on Shabbos, and specifically during Shaleshudes.
And I will point out the words of the Avnei Nezer za'l in sefer Neos Hadesheh, volume 1, in the matters of Shabbos (page 231), the reason why we eat fish on Shabbos, see there."

This ends my citation / translation of Birkas Avraham.

In terms of R' Asher Cresces' discussion of the Shabtai fish, I don't really find the testimony of multiple fishermen compelling. Fishermen famously tell tall tales. And they could each know the same lore, and tell over the story, with appropriate details, as if it happened to them (or to their friend, or to a friend of a friend).

While it seems rather improbable, and while I would not believe the fishermen's tales, I would not dismiss the possibility entirely out of hand. After all, for years, scientists believes tales of giant squid to be myth, until they actually discovered some. At the same time, I think it rather unlikely that this fish exists, and don't really care that fishermen, or scientists, in the time of Radak believed this to be the case. The same for the Sambatyon River.


yaak said...

There are some more recent tesitmonies of the Sambatyon, such as those quoted in this book.

joshwaxman said...

Thanks! I'll try to look through it at my leisure.

Just skimming (and searching for שבתיון and variants), it seems that he quotes a lot of bovine excrement. For instance, on page 55 of the PDF (page 44 in the page numberings), he cites testimony from Prester John, and his forged letter.

He also mentions Eldad HaDani at some point. Eldad was a con-artist who claimed to come over the River Sambatyon.

He also cites Cresces, discussed above (pg 67 in the pdf), and the Radak and the Tiferes Yisrael that it was lost in the days of the Tannaim already.

I am sure that there is later testimony, either from people who are rehashing what they believe to be true, or people who are outright lying.

But on what page is the recent testimony?

kol tuv,

yaak said...

I also have to look at the book in more detail as I once did (it's been a while), and thanks for pointing out Wikipedia's stance that the letter from Prester John is forged. Eldad Hadani is certainly controversial, but are you 1000% sure he's a fake?

Re: more recent testimonies, p. 57/46 has another letter from the year 5417.

joshwaxman said...

"Eldad Hadani is certainly controversial, but are you 1000% sure he's a fake?"

yes. we know a lot more about world geography and can visit these places and see whether these countries he mentioned existed in the way he described.

for instance,
Eldad was now able to continue on his travels through the Arabian Peninsula, and he crossed many deserts and mountains. In the Arabian desert he found the tribes of Ephraim and half of the tribe of Manasseh. They lived not far from the Arabian city of Mecca. The Arabs (Eldad called them by their Biblical name - "Ishmaelites") fear them, for they are mighty horsemen and fearless desert fighters.

is there any record of the tribes of Ephraim and Chatzi Shevet Menasheh living near Mecca, and causing problems for the Arabs?

Eldad went on to the land of the Medes and Persians, which once were ruled by the Assyrians and Babylonians. There, in the mountains, he came across the tribes of Issachar and Zebulun, who lived next to each other. Behind Mount Paran, Eldad met also the tribe of Reuben. About these Jews Eldad related that they spoke Hebrew and Persian; that they have the holy Scriptures, as well as the Mishnah and the Talmud, and that they read the holy Torah every Shabbat in Hebrew and in Persian.

These are claims that can be investigated. Did the Persians and Medes of that time, in all their writings, refer to the tribes of Yissacher and Zevulun?

Also, it is "surprising" that he came from one tribe (Dan), and managed by happy accident to find each of the other tribes before finally arriving by us. A modern reading of his claims leaves very little doubt that he was a con-artist who was peddling equine excrement.

he made up halachos of shechita and eventually got a lot of them accepted, because people were not as capable of discerning his sort of lies back then, and it was convenient and nice to believe that there was a strong Jewish power in the world.

joshwaxman said...

"more recent testimonies, p. 57/46 has another letter from the year 5417."

i'll check it out.


joshwaxman said...

i read the letter. it is clearly fantastic bull, serving a purpose of encouragement to the oppressed Jews.

maybe i'll make a post of it.


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