Thursday, February 24, 2005

Reb Yudel reposts a piece

by Yori Yanover criticizing someone who cited as a midrash on Kohelet a mashal which he feels is similar to a famous Aesop's fable. How could someone appropriate a fable of Aesop and attribute it to Chazal?

The Midrash (or possibly "Midrash"):
The Midrash offers an analogy to a fox, separated by a fence from the vineyard it would love to raid. its ample body cannot pass through the one breach in the fence it finds. Determined to get in, it fasts for days until its emaciated body is able to slip through. Once inside, it eats to his heart’s content, until he tires of all the good food, and decides it is time to move on again. Once again, the fence proves impassable. Once again, it is forced to starve itself in order to fit through the hole. Emerging to the far side of the vineyard, the fox looks back, and realizes that it came into the vineyard hungry, and left the same way.
The fable:
"A famished fox crept into a vineyard where ripe, luscious grapes were draped high upon arbors in a most tempting display. In his effort to win a juicy prize, the fox jumped and sprang many times but failed in all his attempts. When he finally had to admit defeat, he retreated and muttered to himself, 'Well, what does it matter anyway? The grapes are sour!'"
I would agree with the first commentor on his post that the two stories are actually fairly different. But I recall hearing as a child the one given in the Midrash, as a fable.

However, the assumption that it could not be a Midrash seems wrongheaded for two reasons.

1) Chazal do in fact cite what are known to us as Aesop's fables. Except, they call them parables of foxes, because they often involve foxes.

Here is Bavli Succah 28a:
אמרו עליו על רבן יוחנן בן זכאי
שלא הניח מקרא ומשנה תלמוד הלכות ואגדות
דקדוקי תורה ודקדוקי סופרים
קלים וחמורים וגזרות שוות תקופות וגימטריאות
שיחת מלאכי השרת ושיחת שדים ושיחת דקלים
משלות כובסין משלות שועלים
דבר גדול ודבר קטן
דבר גדול מעשה מרכבה
דבר קטן הויות דאביי ורבא
They said upon Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai
that he did not leave off from Scripture, Mishnah, Talmud, Halachot and Aggadot
dikdukei Torah and dikdukei Sofrim
Kal Vachomers, and Gzerot Shavot, Tekufot and Gematriot
the speech of the ministering angels and the speech of demons and the speech of palm trees
the parables of the washermen and the parables of foxes
the great matter and the small matter
the great matter: Merkava mysticism
the small matter: the discussions between Abaye and Rava
Without even looking at the sources I find it likely that what we may know as an Aesop's fable may have been cited by Chazal.

2) Furthermore, because Aesop told many fables of this type, the genre became associated with his name, such that many fables known as Aesop's fables came from someone else. (So I read in a reference book a few weeks ago.) So Chazal may have created this fable in this genre and it was attributed to Aesop as were other fables of this type.

So, I find it quite likely that it is in fact a midrash, or was cited by a midrash.

Perhaps if I can trace it down in the midrash on Kohelet, in which case I will post it. (Or someone can post it in the comments...)

Update: Rabbi Uri Cohen emailed me that it is in fact a midrash in Kohelet Rabba, on the pasuk in Kohelet 5:4. He saw the midrash inside. Thanks!

Update: Eliyahu emailed me the midrash in question.

פרשה ה
א [יד] כאשר יצא מבטן אמו
גניבא אמר לשועל שמצא כרם והיה מסוייג מכל פנותיו
והיה שם נקב אחד ובקש להכנס בו ולא הוה יכיל
מה עבד צם תלת יומין עד דכחיש ותשש ועאל בהדא נקובא,
ואכל ושמן,
בעא למיפק ולא יכיל מעיבר כלום,
חזר וצאים תלת יומן אוחרנין עד דכחיש ותשש וחזר היך מה דהוה ונפק,
כד נפק הוה אפיך אפוי ואיסתכל ביה
אמר כרמא כרמא,
מה טב את ומה טבין אינון פירין דבגווך,
וכל מה דאית בך יאין ומשבחן,
ברם מה הניה ממך,
כמה דבר נש עליל לגוויך כך הוא נפיק,
כך הוא דין עלמא,
ד"א כאשר יצא מבטן
אמו ערום ישוב ללכת כשבא,
תניא כמו שבא אדם כן ילך,
אדם בא בקול ונפטר מן העולם בקול,
בא לעולם בבכיה ונפטר מן העולם בבכיה,
בא לעולם בחבה ונפטר מן העולם בחבה,
בא בעולם באנחה ונפטר מן העולם באנחה,
בא לעולם בבלי דעת ונפטר מן העולם בבלי דעת,
תני בשם רבי מאיר
כשאדם בא לעולם ידיו הן קפוצות
כלומר כל העולם כלו שלי הוא אני נוחלו
וכשהוא נפטר מן העולם ידיו הן פשוטות
כלומר לא נחלתי מן העוה"ז כלום,
שכן שלמה אומר
כאשר יצא מבטן אמו ערום ישוב ללכת כשבא ומאומה וגו'

Kohelet 5:15: "As he leaves from the womb of his mother..."
{the pasuk continues: naked shall he return to go as he came, and shall take nothing of his labour, which he may carry away in his hand." So it is a comparison of death to birth.}
Geneiva said:{a parable} to a fox who found a vineyard which was fenced from all sides.
And there was a single hole and he tried to go through
it, but he was not able.
What did he do? He fasted 3 days until he was skinny and frail and he entered through that hole.
And he ate and became fat.
He desired to leave and he could not at all.
So he once again fasted 3 other days until he was skinny and frail, the same as he was before, and left {through the hole}.
As he left, he turned his face and looked at it {the vineyard} .
He said: Vineyard, vineyard!
What good are you and what good are your fruits?
All that is within you it truly good,
But what benefit do we get from you?
Just as a man enters you, so does he leave.
So to is the order of the world.
{The midrash continues with other parables, which elaborate upon other parts of the pasuk.}

Update: Yanover posts a response. He writes that he cut and pasted the wrong fable, and had a much closer one. Further, it was unfortunate that this cut and paste error led to a discussion of the citation as opposed to his other point. And finally, he wonders which is earlier, the 6 century BCE Aesop or the 7th century sage midrashic editors.

I have what to say about this, but the computer is needed. In the meantime, check out this website.

OK, I'm back.

A number of points.
1. While the first commentor mentioned the mismatch of the fables and Miriam (on her blog) and I (on mine) agreed, I immediately dismissed this objection, saying I recalled a fable that matched more closely. The discussion was NOT the result of a mistaken cut and paste. Rather, it was the allegation that the Rav Yaakov Galinsky, or else Yitzchok Adlerstein, had "upgrad[ed] Aesop to midrashic sagehood." In fact, Yanover should have first investigated whether the midrash in question existed before making this criticism.

2. He wonders which is earlier, the 6th century BCE Aesop or the 7th century CE Midrashic editors.

However, this dating is extremely misleading. Why does he ascribe the midrash to the 7th century CE Midrashic editors? Basically, this is a way of choosing the latest possible date. The midrash is clearly ascribed to an Amora named Geneiva (a first or second generation Babylonian Amora = around 3rd century CE), and who lived well before the 7th century CE. Perhaps Yanover did not realize there was an attribution.

Or more likely, in this he is taking the lead of Jacob Neusner, who basically says that all attributions in Rabbinic literature should be assumed to be false, unless there is compelling evidence to the contrary. Since it was transmitted orally, we must assume the latest possible date for any tradition, which would be the time of the work's final redaction.

Now, this assumption about attributions is unfounded. Further, to make such an assumption without evidence is not a conservative view, so as to avoid unwarranted assumptions. See here, it is being used to imply that the midrash is derivative of another work!

This methodology has been contested by various other Talmudic scholars, including Dr. Elman at YU. Proof exists for the accuracy of at least some of the attributions, but I am not going to get into this because it will take me too far afield.

However, consider now the claim that the fable is the work of Aesop....
[The computer is needed again. Will resume later. This is where the website linked to above comes in - see that website as the basis for facts I will cite.]

OK, I am back once again.

Just as he (undeservedly) gives the latest possible date for the Midrash, he gives a date for the fable that is way too early. 6 century BCE? Sure, that is when Herodetus (5th century BCE) and Plutarch (1st century CE) place Aesop, but he is likely only a legendary figure. (see Encyclopedia Britannica here.)

Even if Aesop was a real person, his fables were transmitted Orally. While one can argue with applying Neusnerian methodology to Talmud and Midrash, it makes a lot more sense here. In the case of Talmud and Midrash, keeping track of attributions was a moral/religious obligation, as well as necessary in many cases to keep track of trends of opinion. In the case of Aesop, you have one individual to whom we know was attributed any story that fits the genre, even if composed by another, because it was of the genre. (see here)

Aesop's fables were first written down in 4th century BCE by Demetrius Phalareus, so rather than saying 6th century BCE, if he is being consistent with how he assigned dates in terms of the Midrash, Yanover should say at least 4th century BCE. But even that is way to early, because Demetrius Phalareus' collection did not survive past 9th century CE, so this could not be the text of the fable Yanover is citing. There was another collection of fables attributes to Aesop, produced by Phaedreus in Rome in the 1st century CE. But I do not know which collection he is using (he uses a translation - THREE HUNDRED AND FIFTY ÆESOP'S FABLES, LITERALLY TRANSLATED FROM THE GREEK. BY THE REV.GEO. FYLER TOWNSEND, M.A. CHICAGO: BELFORD, CLARKE & CO., 1882. p.132). Further, what was the editorial history of the work? Are we sure when this particular fable entered the collection?

So the proximity of the fable and Midrash in time is likely much closer than was suggested.

Now, I do not know which is original, though I would venture it was in fact likely the fable rather than the midrash. Chazal might be reusing or modifying a fable to explain a pasuk, as they were familiar with "Aesop's" fables. On the other hand, for the Midrash we have a direct attribution to Genieva (though he might be reusing the fable, or even citing an earlier Midrashic tradition), plus it is attached to a phrase in a pasuk which it explicates, raising the possibility that the parable was created for the purpose of explaining the pasuk.

Update: Check out the Jewish Encylopedia's take on Aesop's fables. (Read it all.) It notes that there were two collections of fables, one of which was Indian. They write:
It is probable that these later Indian fables were connected by the Greeks with the name of a Libyan, called Kybises: Babrius, a writer of fables in the third century, couples him with Æsop. Thus, in the first century, there were two sets of fables—one associated with the name of Æsop, and the other with that of Kybises—while in the second century these two sets were included in one compilation, running to three hundred fables, by a rhetor named Nicostratus. In the third century these fables were turned into Greek verse by Babrius.
Note that these were still being edited and redacted in the third century CE, the time of Geneiva.

Update: Reb Yudel had posted a link to an article by Shamma Friedman in the JSIJ Journal volume 2: The Talmudic Proverb in Its Cultural Setting (Hebrew). The article, besides discussing the general phenomenon, actually contains the midrash side by side with a translation into Hebrew of the fable.

Note also I am not saying that the Midrash was definitely the original, but rather that I found the dates assigned to the Midrash and fable respectively to be annoyingly misleading.

Update: Also, Yanover mischaracterizes the moral of the fable, making it seem like it is the same as that of the Midrash. He writes:
Incidentally, just as Friedman suggests, the later Jewish version is better edited and the Ecclesiastic association takes a mere "Life is a dung-heap" moral to the level of "Life is a dung-heap 'cause God says so," which works for me.
However, the explicit moral for Aesop's fable, as mentioned in Shamma Friedman's article, is not that life if a dung-heap. Rather, it is if you give it time, your troubles will pass. And the moral for the Midrash thus does not merely add a " 'cause God says so" to the moral, but it is rather a different moral entirely. In fact, nowhere in the Midrash do we see an addition of " 'cause God says so." God does not really enter the picture. The moral of the Midrash is that the material riches of this world are indeed great, but you cannot take it with you, and therefore, it is implied, you should focus on pursuing more spiritual aims, in the form of Torah and mitzvot.

This makes a great difference, because it means that the rabbi being criticized was correct to use the Midrash rather than the fable, since the Midrash explicitly had the message he wanted to convey while the fable had an entirely different message.

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