Thursday, January 19, 2012

A Staff swallowing staffs, or a snake swallowing snakes?

Summary: A tradition like the peshat, that the snake swallowed snakes. Should we then reinterpret Rashi against what he says fairly plainly? No.

Post: Consider the following pasuk and Rashi in parashat Vaera:

12. Each one of them cast down his staff, and they became serpents; but Aaron's staff swallowed their staffs.יב. וַיַּשְׁלִיכוּ אִישׁ מַטֵּהוּ וַיִּהְיוּ לְתַנִּינִם וַיִּבְלַע מַטֵּה אַהֲרֹן אֶת מַטֹּתָם:
but Aaron’s staff swallowed their staffs: After it had again become a staff, it swallowed them all. — [from Shab. 97a]ויבלע מטה אהרן: מאחר שחזר ונעשה מטה בלע את כולן:
The Maharshal writes:

"And I have received via tradition that the snake of Aharon swallowed them all. And even the language of Rashi, one is able to explain like this. For so long as it did not turn back into a staff, its swallowing was not recognized, until it turned back into a staff and the other staffs were lost. And it is easy to understand. {?} Maharshal. But in the gemara, in perek haZorek, it does not seem like this. See there."

That gemara in HaZorek, in Shabbos 97a, reads:
But Aaron's rod swallowed up their rods:19  R. Eleazar observed, It was a double miracle.20
A single miracle would be the snakes swallowing their snakes. But the double miracle would be that it was in rod state when it swallowed, as were the rods of the Egyptian magicians.

I think we can make this point even stronger. The gemara there reads:
ויבלע מטה אהרן את מטותם א"ר אלעזר נס בתוך נס
and it is Rashi who writes there:
נס בתוך נס - לאחר שחזר ונעשה מטה בלען ולא כשהוא תנין דלא כתיב ויבלע תנין אהרן:
"after it turned back into a staff, it swallowed them, and not when it was a serpent, for it is not written 'and the tanin of Aharon swallowed'."

Admittedly, the same kvetch you can make for Rashi on Vaera you can make for Rashi on Shabbos.

After presenting all this, here are my thoughts.

1) The pashut peshat in the pasuk it that Aharon's snake swallowed the other snakes. This is obvious. It is called Aharon's staff since it was Aharon's staff in a different form. Peshat is not being absolutely literal. It is realizing the flexibility of language, and not being so particular.

2) At the same time, a clever midrashist can see this textual irregularity and exploit it. And he can maintain that this is an encoded meaning of the verse, hidden in plain sight. And he can believe that this was historical, or he could use it to make some homiletic point.

3) I have mixed feelings about those who put this sort of interpretation forth as peshat, based on 'close-readings' of the pesukim.

4) As someone with pashtanic inclinations, I agree with Maharshal that this -- snake swallowing snakes --  is the meaning of the pasuk. But why is it necessary to put it forth as a kabbalah, a received tradition? As I noted above, this interpretation is an obvious one, and you can say it without a kabbalah. And why it is necessary to kvetch Rashi to accord with this interpretation? Can't it be a machlokes?

I think the answer is that if it were a mere peshat interpretation, and not a kabbalah, there would not have been an issue. The peshat might have to yield to the derash, as a matter of the historical record. Or peshat would yield to derash because the peshat is only a non-careful, non-close reading. Or one could give the derash a deeper mystical or allegorical significance, and establish the peshat as historical. Or, these could be two competing interpretations of the pasuk. There are all sorts of ways to sort this out.

But once it is a kabbalah, a received tradition, that which I labeled peshat becomes something more. Though I could just say this is a received tradition about how some Rabbi along the way (e.g. Ibn Ezra) interpreted the pasuk, a "kabbalah" sounds like a tradition all the way back to Moshe Rabbenu. It is what happened historically. Or at the least, it is no longer a non-close reading that would readily yield to the derash, but it gains substance as a legitimate interpretation -- derash? -- of its own.

If so, how could Rashi (and Chazal before him) put forth something that is historically inaccurate? Are we stating that they darshened incorrectly?

Or, since many supercommentators of Rashi insist that he always says peshat, how can his peshat, that the staff devoured staffs, coexist with a peshat interpretation that has this tradition behind it?

I can see why Maharshal would want to harmonize Rashi and the gemara with this.

5) Even so, the harmonization is a kvetch. Rashi means to say that a staff swallowed staffs, such that it was the double miracle mentioned in the gemara in Shabbos.

6) Finally, this is another instance where it is a good idea to see Rashi's sources, as an aid to divining Rashi's intent. And there is a merit to finding peshat in the derash, and thus peshat in Rashi.

7) Finally, if the snake swallowing another snake is a miracle, it is one found in the natural world. Consider the following YouTube video as an example:

If so, perhaps we should reevaluate what the nes besoch nes was. Or, we can say this it was still out of the ordinary, and significant in the context of the matter (Hashem's might vs. Pharaoh's might), and was amazing and surprising that it swallowed so many other snakes.

1 comment:

Shades of Grey said...

Very interesting. The video was fantastic and fascinating. I can only imagine the other snake's viewpoint as it travels down the gullet of its consumer, which would be quite frightening.


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