Thursday, November 17, 2005

White Elephants Can't Jump

But that doesn't make Tosefot wrong.

Allow me to explain. Hirhurim just posted a link to interesting essay by Rav Natan Slifkin, about a Tosefot which states that elephants can jump. There is a gemara in Kiddushin 25b-26a which discusses an opinion that the only way to acquire large animals is via hagbaha {lifting}. The question with this is: how would one lift and thus acquire an elephant? Rabbi Zera states that it is possible by placing 4 vessels under the elephant, one vessel under each foot. The stama degemara objects that this is a dispute elsewhere whether the vessels of the purchaser can acquire for him when in the domain of the seller, and here this would be in the seller's domain. Yet Rabbi Zera's answers assumes like one side of the dispute, that they can acquire. The stama degemara answers that one need not be compelled to say this. We either are dealing with a case in a simta, a corner which is neither public nor private domain, or else we are dealing with bundles of vines. [Note: If you want you can say that Rabbi Zera changed his mind, but in fact, what is happening here is that the stama is speaking.]

There is a dispute what is meant by bundles of vines. According to Rashi, he makes the elephant stand on bundles of vines, such that the animal is more that 3 handbreadths off the ground, such that there is no lavud, and it is considered a separate domain. Tosefot mentions Rashi's opinion and then cites another, that since bundles of vines are a well-known food for elephants (See Shabbat 128a}, what is meant here is that bundles of vines are dangled before the elephant such that it jumps.

The problem is that elephants are physically incapable of jumping. Tosefot would thus seem to be wrong. This is not a big deal to say. Tosefot did not encounter an elephant, while the gemara did. (Rashi, with the presumably correct explanation, also did not, but then he did not speak of jumping elephants.)

Yet Tosafot, or his source, was at least a bit familiar with elephants, such that he recognized bundles of vines as elephant food.

Note a difference between Rashi and Tosefot. According to Rashi, the stama's answer works with that of Rabbi Zera. 4 things to stand on, and they are strong bundles of vines. According to Tosefot, this is a rejection of Rabbi Zera. The elephant jumps, so why need the platforms?

I mentioned, though, that Tosefot is not necessarily wrong. When analyzing a gemara, there are two things to keep in mind: reality, and the reality which was known to them.

Let us say Tosefot explained something in the gemara on the basis of spontaneous generation. Now, we no longer believe that spontaneous generation happens. But would Tosefot be wrong in his interpretation of the gemara? Not if that is what the gemara itself believed happened. And if we were to propose another explanation, not based on spontaneous generation, we would be wrong - from the perspective that "right" and "wrong" mean ascertaining the original and true meaning of the text vs. not doing so.

So too here. Why mention bundles of vines instead of platforms of wood or stone? And it just so happens that bundles of vines are elephant food. Perhaps it is the case that some opinion in the gemara meant exactly what Tosefot intended - that the animal will jump to get the food. This opinion would be predicated on knowledge of elephant food but not the particulars of animal anatomy that would make it impossible for it to jump. Perhaps (in fact it is likely that) no scientist back then could prove elephants incapable of jumping. And did anyone acquire an elephant following this halachic advice back then? Probably not - and on the rare occurrence that they wishe to halachically acquire an elephant, they could use the other suggestion of the gemara, to move out of the seller's domain.

In fact, one can even say that Rabbi Zera was familiar with elephants, but the stama (written later, perhaps at a time when elephants were not around) was not.

Thus, one could argue that from the perspective of accuracy to the true intent of the text, Tosafot is correct. There are various reasons to prefer his reading over that of Rashi, as mentioned above. The one I find most compelling: the stama most often bases his suggestions on details mentioned in other gemaras, and so we would find the best match for his thought process in a gemara that discusses elephants and bundles of vines as their fodder.

Then again, maybe Tosafot was wrong and Rashi was right.

Of course, those who would attack Rav Slifkin for saying Tosefot was wrong would certainly attack me for saying that the {stama de} gemara is wrong.


respondingtojblogs said...

Isn't less schver to say that Tosefot was wrong than the Gemara is wrong?

joshwaxman said...

No, it is not less schver. The issue of "schver-ness" is not one of
being scientifically wrong or right, but of being true to the intended
meaning of the text. "Schver-ness" has nothing to do with religious
reaction to the stated facts.

I have seen this in many many other gemaras. The stama degemara
(anonymous voice of the gemara) almost NEVER comes up with a
solution/harmonization "yesh me`ayin. He almost ALWAYS comes up with
something based on other gemaras, and when from those other gemaras,
from a named Tanna or Amora. This is a fact one starts to pick up upon
after learning academic Talmud for a while, but I'm not going to go
into specific examples right now - I'll ask you to trust me on this.
If so, it is extremely relevant that there is a brayta in Shabbat
128a, in which Rabbi Natan asks of Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel that
according to his reasoning, bundles of vines should be able to be
handled on Shabbat because they are food for elephants. From a
stylistic point of view, an explanation that incorporates the meaning
of the source gemara (source being when the Tanna or Amora is
mentioned) is better, and less "schver" than one that does not. Unless
you can show me another gemara that talks about both elephants and
bundles of vines.

Note that I would not say the same if it was an Amorah (such as Rav
Zera) who was talking. They often introduce new ideas. It is only the
stama degemara that consistently recycles what can be found by named
Tanaaim and Amoraim elsewhere, and thus, Tosafot's typical methodology
of cross-sugya analysis is more appropriate.

In terms of being scientifically wrong, I don't see either Tosafot or
the gemara being wrong are "schver." They based themselves on the
science of the time. This is obvious of the gemara from many, many
other examples.

joshwaxman said...

Of course, if one can construct an explanation that makes the bundles of vines into elephant food yet does not have the elephant jump (e.g. being led up a wooden ramp 3 handbreadths high being baited by this food - though this specific explanation would have its own problems), we would have one that utilizes the meaning of "bundles of vines" from the other gemara, and at the same time have the gemara *correct* and Tosafot *wrong* in the specific scientific detail. This would be more ideal.


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