Sunday, October 31, 2004

There is an interesting post over at Hirhurim about parshat Vayera that I thought I would discuss. Simcha writes, based on a question by Gil Student:

Sarah, Wombs, Hazal and Science

The Torah tells us about Sarah (Bereishis 11:30) "Vatehi Sarah akarah,
ein lah valad
- Now Sarai was barren, she had no child." The Gemara in Yevamos 64a-b learns from this verse that not only did Sarah not give birth, she did not have a "beis velad" (uterus) at all.

Bereishis Rabbah 53:5 and 63:5 says that Sarah did not have "ikar mitrin."

This all seems to imply that Sarah did not have a uterus. But if that is the case, how could she have menstruated? Aside from the midrashim that she menstruated (e.g. Bava Metzia 87a), the Torah tells us (Bereishis 18:11) that Sarah had stopped menstruating due to her advanced age, clearly implying that when she was younger she had menstruated. (Cf. Rashi, Bereishis 18:8 that Sarah miraculously regained her menses.) Is this a midrash that contradicts science as we now understand it or can the two be somehow resolved?

R. Yitzhak Weiss (Minhas Yitzhak 1:125:6-7) says that we cannot bring a proof le-halakhah

R. Ovadia Yosef in Yabia Omer vol. 3, Even Ha-Ezer 4:1 says about Sarah, "Therefore the text had to tell us that she did not have a 'beis velad' - she did not have a 'beis velad' at all." This is in implicit disagreement with the Minhas Yitzhak.

Dr. Shaul Weinreb has suggested that "she did not have a uterus" is not meant literally but that she did not have a functioning uterus.

Dr. Eddie Reichman suggested that these midrashim disagree with each other. This does not, however, explain how the midrash seems to contradict an explicit verse.

Dr. Josh Backon suggested that Sarah lacked eggs but had a uterus.

My rabbi, this past Shabbos, suggested that the midrash did not mean that Sarah literally had no uterus. It only meant that in shamayim it was decreed that she be incapable of giving birth. from Sarah because this midrash contradicts the physical reality as we know it. He then suggests that perhaps part but not all of Sarah's uterus was damaged.

I think we have to approach this issue carefully and deliberately, which involves looking not only at the drashot but also the derivations of these drashot from the pasuk.

Let us start with the midrash contradicting an explicit verse. I do not think it is really possible to contradict an explicit pasuk. That is, a pasuk is just an ordered collection of consonants (and vowels) encoded on paper or parchment. According to my definition, a pasuk does not have meaning. Separate from the pasuk is the semantic meaning assigned to and conveyed by the pasuk.

This semantic meaning can be on the level of peshat, derash, or something else. If you think a midrash contradicts an explicit pasuk, it is in truth only contradicting your understanding of the pasuk. The author of the midrash may have had a different understanding of the pasuk in question on a peshat or derash level. (This assumes that the midrash is not erroneous, where the author of the midrash forgot the pasuk.)

In this case, the pasuk actually does seem to have multiple possible meanings. The pasuk, Bereishit 18:11, reads:

וְאַבְרָהָם וְשָׂרָה זְקֵנִים, בָּאִים בַּיָּמִים; חָדַל לִהְיוֹת לְשָׂרָה, אֹרַח כַּנָּשִׁים.
"Now Abraham and Sarah were old, and well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women."

This straightforward reading is as was suggested above. Sarah once menstruated, but (presumably because of age) she experienced menopause. Note the natural rendering of חָדַל as "had ceased" - that is, the pluperfect. Even as the entire narrative takes place in the past, Sarah's menopause happened still earlier. It is "had ceased" rather that "ceased," which would have implied that her menopause would be taking place now in the narrative.

That it is the pluperfect gives way to a midrashic interpretation of the verse (by Ephraim mekasha`a the student of Rabbi Meir, citing Rabbi Meir), based on a troubling context. Earlier, Avraham had asked Sarah to prepare cakes (18:6) yet he does not serve it to them, and in fact serves them other food not mentioned in preparation. The explanation attributed to Rabbi Meir in midrash rabba is that Sarah experienced a menstrual flow while preparing the cakes, making the taharot tame`. Therefore Avraham did not serve the cakes (and provided other food in its stead). Note that the cake discrepency is insufficient to explain all of the details of this midrash. Sure, it explains why the cakes were not brought forth, but the detail of it being because Sarah became a niddah comes from where exactly. (I maintain the position that generally all details of a midrash come from the pesukim.) The answer, to my mind, is perhaps that חָדַל is the pluperfect. Therefore, while her menstruation had ceased in the past, it was not necessarily the case that it was not present now. (I will revise this statement later on.)

The midrash rabba notes that the chachamim actually dispute this derasha, appealing to the principle of kal vachomer. If food whose preparation was not mentioned was served, then certainly the food whose preparation was mentioned explicitly in a pasuk was served! Thus they needn't (though they might still) make any drasha on the pasuk that Sarah became a niddah.

Another possibility of what the drasha of Rabbi Meir is (which I actually think is a bit more likely): While on a peshat level the word חָדַל is in the pluperfect, there is no distinct form in Hebrew to denote pluperfect. It has the same form as the perfect. It is therefore simpler, if we were to ignore context, to read it as the perfect, which means it is something that is happening now in the narrative. Now, the pasuk that states that חָדַל לִהְיוֹת לְשָׂרָה אֹרַח כַּנָּשִׁים precedes her laughter at the angel's remarks, and follows the actual serving of the food. Thus, the pasuk is to be understood thusly: Sarah was having an אֹרַח כַּנָּשִׁים, that is, she was seeing dam niddah. At this point, though, her flow stopped. Not permanantly, mind you, but for this instant. Thus, at no point does the pasuk imply menopause, but rather, it is telling us that she just had an אֹרַח כַּנָּשִׁים. Why? Well, according to Rabbi Meir, this would explain why the cakes were not served.

There is a problem according to Rabbi Meir. How are we to understand Sarah's laughter in the following pasuk. How could she be surprised that she was to have a child, if she just had (miraculously according to the first way I explained it, or naturally according to the second, and I think better, way) an אֹרַח כַּנָּשִׁים?

The midrash rabba actually addresses this issue in its rendering of the pesukim about Sarah's laughter. The pesukim, Bereishit 18:10-12, read:

וַיֹּאמֶר, שׁוֹב אָשׁוּב אֵלֶיךָ כָּעֵת חַיָּה, וְהִנֵּה-בֵן, לְשָׂרָה אִשְׁתֶּךָ; וְשָׂרָה שֹׁמַעַת פֶּתַח הָאֹהֶל, וְהוּא אַחֲרָיו
וְאַבְרָהָם וְשָׂרָה זְקֵנִים, בָּאִים בַּיָּמִים; חָדַל לִהְיוֹת לְשָׂרָה, אֹרַח כַּנָּשִׁים.
וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר: אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן.
"And [h]e said: 'I will certainly return unto thee when the season cometh round; and, lo, Sarah thy wife shall have a son.' And Sarah heard in the tent door, which was behind him.--
Now Abraham and Sarah were old, and well stricken in age; it had ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women.
And Sarah laughed within herself, saying: 'After I am waxed old shall I have pleasure, my lord being old also?'"

The midrash translates Sarah's laughter slightly differently. אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי = after I am waxed old. הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה: I have ornaments, just as I had when I was young. (The prooftext עֶדְנָה can connote ornaments is in Yechezkel 16:11: וָאֶעְדֵּךְ, עֶדִי; וָאֶתְּנָה צְמִידִים עַל-יָדַיִךְ, וְרָבִיד עַל-גְּרוֹנֵךְ). And I have a veset (idonim); or a zeman. All interpretations of the word עֶדְנָה. However, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן = my husband is old. As Rabbi Yehuda says (immediately following), Avraham was not able to be polet zera anymore. Thus, she is not laughing about herself - her doubt stems from Avraham. In a famous midrash, the fact that when Hashem recounts Sarah as saying that she, rather than Avraham, is old, was a step taken to preserve Avraham and Sarah's shalom bayit. Thus, the fact that she just saw dam niddah poses no problem, midrashically speaking, to the fact that she laughs.

Now that we know that the midrash considers עֶדְנָה to mean a veset, we have an even better source for the midrash of Ephraim mekasha`a the student of Rabbi Meir. A little extra knowledge is required, and that is that bila, besides meaning "waxing old", also denotes "mixture." There is a famous talmudic principle stated by R Zera (Chullin 83) כל הראוי לבילה אין בילה מעכבת בו וכל שאינו ראוי לבילה בילה מעכבת בו - that even though there is a requirement to mix/stir the mincha's oil. If you do not mix, it is OK, so long as it is possible to mix it. But if it not possible to mix it (say the oil is up to the rim of the vessel), then bilah would present an absolute requirement. Thus, bila = mixing oil with flour.

Now let us reexamine the pasuk. We can translate: וַתִּצְחַק שָׂרָה, בְּקִרְבָּהּ לֵאמֹר: אַחֲרֵי בְלֹתִי הָיְתָה-לִּי עֶדְנָה, וַאדֹנִי זָקֵן. Sarah laughed to herself, saying: After I mixed the oil with the flour to make the cakes, I had a veset and saw dam niddah, so for me it would not be so surprising to have a child. However, my husband is old!

Whereas the previous explanations I gave about the perfect and pluperfect senses of the word חָדַל are tentative, this last derasha I would say is absolutely a source for the midrash. This derasha definitively links Sarah's veset to the preparation of the ugot. Thus we can understand why the ugot were not brought to the table even though they were prepared. Note that even though we give this source for the midrash, this does not preclude the midrashic explanation of the חָדַל pasuk I gave before.

There is another twist. What does the root חָדַל mean? We focused before on the tense - perfect or pluperfect. But what is the sense of the word? It is in fact not so simple. midrash rabba in fact discusses it. midrash rabba does not discuss the what the word amar, or zaken means. Regardless of how the midrash explains it, we see it is not a trivial word to translate.

We assumed חָדַל meant "to cease." Either this denoted menopause or denoted the end of her seeing dam niddah this time, as I suggested earlier. However, if we look at the Etymological Dictionary of Biblical Hebrew: Based on the Commentaries of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, we will see that Rav Hirsch gave various senses to the word. One sense is indeed "to cease." However, two other senses he gives are "to refrain" and "to lack."

Specifically, consider the tower of Bavel. In Bereishit 11:4, we read:
וַיֹּאמְרוּ הָבָה נִבְנֶה-לָּנוּ עִיר, וּמִגְדָּל וְרֹאשׁוֹ בַשָּׁמַיִם, וְנַעֲשֶׂה-לָּנוּ, שֵׁם: פֶּן-נָפוּץ, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ.
And they said: 'Come, let us build us a city, and a tower, with its top in heaven, and let us make us a name; lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.'

Then, they begin to build the tower, and Hashem confounds their language, and they scatter and never actually build the city. That is, in Bereishit 11:8:

וַיָּפֶץ ה אֹתָם מִשָּׁם, עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ; וַיַּחְדְּלוּ, לִבְנֹת הָעִיר.
"So the LORD scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth; and they left off to build the city."

Assuming this means that they left off from building the city (since they were scattered) instead of leaving off from building the tower and beginning to build the city, then this perhaps means that they never started to build the city. So חָדַל need not mean "to cease," but can mean "to refrain," to never start."

Rav Hirsch also gives the sense of "to lack," as in Yeshaya 53:3:
נִבְזֶה וַחֲדַל אִישִׁים, אִישׁ מַכְאֹבוֹת וִידוּעַ חֹלִי; וּכְמַסְתֵּר פָּנִים מִמֶּנּוּ, נִבְזֶה וְלֹא חֲשַׁבְנֻהוּ.
"He was despised, and forsaken of men, a man of pains, and acquainted with disease, and as one from whom men hide their face: he was despised, and we esteemed him not."

I don't really see how this connotes "lacking" as opposed to "ceasing," but if so, then we can say Sarah lacked an orach kanashim, as opposed to having one which ended.

Two better pesukim to illustrate this sense is in fact cited by the midrash, though to advance the meaning of "to cease." The first is in Devarim 23:23. Started from the previous pasuk:

כִּי-תִדֹּר נֶדֶר לַה אֱלֹקֶיךָ, לֹא תְאַחֵר לְשַׁלְּמוֹ: כִּי-דָרֹשׁ יִדְרְשֶׁנּוּ ה אֱלֹקֶיךָ, מֵעִמָּךְ, וְהָיָה בְךָ, חֵטְא.
וְכִי תֶחְדַּל, לִנְדֹּר--לֹא-יִהְיֶה בְךָ, חֵטְא.
"When thou shalt vow a vow unto the LORD thy God, thou shalt not be slack to pay it; for the LORD thy God will surely require it of thee; and it will be sin in thee.
But if thou shalt forbear to vow, it shall be no sin in thee."

Now this can mean that at one point he was making nedarim and then decided to stop the practice, or else, more likely, it means to not swear in the first place. If so, חָדַל need not mean to cease to much as to refrain, to not start in the first place, in which case חָדַל לִהְיוֹת לְשָׂרָה אֹרַח כַּנָּשִׁים might be taken to mean that she never had her period.

The second pasuk cited by the midrash is about someone who does not bring the korban pesach when he could have. In Bemidbar 9:13:
וְהָאִישׁ אֲשֶׁר-הוּא טָהוֹר וּבְדֶרֶךְ לֹא-הָיָה, וְחָדַל לַעֲשׂוֹת הַפֶּסַח--וְנִכְרְתָה הַנֶּפֶשׁ הַהִוא, מֵעַמֶּיהָ: כִּי קָרְבַּן ה, לֹא הִקְרִיב בְּמֹעֲדוֹ--חֶטְאוֹ יִשָּׂא, הָאִישׁ הַהוּא.
"But the man that is clean, and is not on a journey, and forbeareth to keep the passover, that soul shall be cut off from his people; because he brought not the offering of the LORD in its appointed season, that man shall bear his sin."

Note this is a perfect pair - in one case a man refrains and has a sin (because it is obligatory) and in the other he forbears and has no sin.

Onkelos gives the targum of the word as ve`itmena' - and he holds back.

Anyway, this seems to be a case where someone did not bring the pesach in the first place - not a matter of ceasing.

However, the midrash tries to explain what it means by Sarah, cites the first pasuk, says פסק (presumably meaning to cease), then cites the second pasuk. How exactly the midrash extracts this meaning out of these pesukim, I will not attempt to discover. The targum Onkelos on the pasuk in our parsha gives פסק as the explanation.

I will put aside the pasuk in our parasha for a moment and turn my attention to another pasuk, which is the source of a midrash that Sarah was an aylonit, and did not have a womb.

Sarah as an aylonit
Meanwhile, there is another pasuk that speaks about Sarah being barren. Now it is possible to be barren as a result of not having children, and it is possible to be barren because of not being physically capable of having children. The pasuk can imply either, but is taken by two separate midrashim to mean the latter. The pasuk, Bereishit 11:30, reads:

וַתְּהִי שָׂרַי עֲקָרָה: אֵין לָהּ וָלָד
"And Sarai was barren; she had no child"

Now, the repetition is unnecessary; if she was barren, then she had no child. Such a pasuk calls out to be interpreted midrashically. One way to interpret this is וַתְּהִי שָׂרַי עֲקָרָה = and Sarah was barren. Why was she barren? Because אֵין לָהּ וָלָד, she had no valad, that is short for she had no bet valad. That is, she had no womb.

Alternatively, as Rav Yehuda says in the name of Resh Lakish, she had no ikar mitrin, or womb. This would come from the same pasuk, but parsed as follows: וַתְּהִי שָׂרַי עֲקָרָה אֵין לָהּ = And Sarah, an akara = ikar mitrin she had not. And so Hashem engraved within her a womb.

The contradiction
Is there in fact a contradiction between these midrashim?

More specifically, what about the midrash given by Ephraim mekasha`a the student of Rabbi Meir? According to this midrash, Sarah menstruated, and thus Avraham did not serve the cakes. And there are other midrashim saying that she menstruated at this point. If medical science tells us that a woman cannot menstruate if the has no womb, then how could she have menstruated?

To answer this question, I will ask a better question. How could Sarah have become pregnant with and given birth to Yitzchak if she had no womb? Just as you cannot menstruate without a womb, you cannot birth a child.

The answer is not that Hashem allowed her miraculously to give birth to a child without a womb. If you look closely at what Resh Lakish said, he said that she had no ikar mitrin, and so Hashem was galaf for her a womb - he carved out a womb within her.

Thus, at this point in the narrative, Hashem has given her a womb. If so, then just as she can have a child, she can menstruate, for she has a womb! There is no necessary contradiction between the midrashim, so long as you assume she is only menstruating now.

However, let us say the midrashim actually insist that the continuously had a veset. Consider the one in which Sarah said she had a veset when she was young, and a veset now. That clearly states that she did have a veset in the past. Or even Rabbi Meir's one might be assuming that she had a veset in the past.

I would consider the possibilities.
1) Perhaps Chazal did not know that without a uterus one could have no veset. I would more readily say this than reinterpret the midrashim to mean something other than what they really mean. Whether this would present a problem with the midrash depends upon what one regards the role and goal of midrash to be. However, I believe that one would need to know Greek science well before making such a statement. I would doubt that they did not know something like that.

{Further, according to Rabbi Meir, Sarah made the cakes tameh. Even if Sarah could bleed, would this be considered dam from the makor, if she has no ikkar mitrin?}

2) Another possibility is that ikkar mitrin and bet havalad do not mean the actual womb was missing, but that she was infertile. Perhaps she did not have a functioning uterus. I would reject that on the basis of the fact that the midrash clearly is deducing the specifics of the diagnosis from the words of the pasuk. Further, Resh Lakish states that Hashem carved for her an ikkar mitrin. This does not signify a non-functioning uterus so much as lacking one altogether. The same goes for the suggestion that she lacked eggs but had a uterus. This is unlikely from the words that form the basis of the midrash and from the words of the midrash itself. So too Simcha's rabbi's suggestion that it was a gezeira from shamayim or that the uterus was present but deficient does not fit well the the source pasuk nor with the wording of the midrashim.

3) I think that Dr. Eddie Reichman's suggest is most likely the correct one. That is, these are two midrashim that contradict one another. The ones about Sarah's menstruating was said with regard to the series of pesukim in our parasha, as I explained above, and were said by a specific set of Tanaaim and Amoraim. {For Rabbi Meir's midrash, the one cited by Rashi, we are told is in fact a matter of dispute, with the chachamim saying we need not say the cakes became tame`.} The midrash where Sarah was saying that she was menstruating just as she did in her youth is stressing the fact that she feels she is entirely fertile, and the only grounds for the couple's infertility is Avraham. In contrast, the midrashim suggesting that Sarah is an aylonit is based on another, earlier pasuk {which has the word akara and valad in it}, is stated by different members of Chazal, and have a primary purpose to stress that Sarah was not fertile. I would say these midrashim clearly contradict each other, and must read each other's base pesukim in entirely different ways. I would say this without even coming to any question about science, wombs, and menstruation.

Ah, there is a problem that the aylonit midrashim contradict an explicit pasuk?! As a laid out before, I do not think it is possible to really contradict an explicit pasuk as much as contradict someone's understanding, on a peshat or derash level, of the pasuk. How Resh Lakish would understand that pasuk is unknown. But, I presented what I feel are quite legitimate interpretations of the pasuk, at least on the midrashic level, which is where we are operating. Specifically,
a) if that חָדַל is the perfect, then it is not saying that she at one point had a veset and then experienced menopause, from which she now recovers, so much as that she miraculously developed a womb, and then had a period, which ended when the angel finished speaking. Or,
b) if חָדַל does not mean "cease," but rather "lacked" or "refrained from having," then there is no contradiction. She lacked a period because she had no uterus.

I am sure that there are other possible explanations, and that the midrash does not in fact contradict an explicit pasuk.

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