Thursday, June 28, 2007

Balak: Holy Cow! A Talking Donkey?!

There is a popular story that goes as follows:
Three racehorses were in the stable waiting for the big race. Trying to psych each other out, they began bragging.
First horse: I've been in 38 races and have only lost twice.
Second horse: Well, I've been in 47 races and have never lost.
Third horse: Huh, I've never lost either and I even beat Secretariat twice.
Just then, they heard a chuckle by the stable door, and there was a greyhound dog walking up to them.
The greyhound said, "That's nothing. I've been in over 200 races and have won every one by at least 3 lengths."
First horse: Wow! That's amazing - a talking dog!
This, we would have expected, would have been Bilaam's reaction to hearing his she-ass talk to him, instead of argument.

And how can a donkey speak? It is not just that a donkey lacks the intelligence to do so, to come up with words. The donkey's larynx is not developed enough to create human speech. (Unless more recent research shows otherwise.) Also, for those who believe in Chomsky's Universal Grammar (UG) -- I don't, but for linguistic rather than for religious reasons -- UG is unique to humans and genetic, so we would not expect a donkey to have the capacity to create grammatical sentences with X-bar structure, which the statements of Bilaam's donkey surely have.

Indeed, I've written in the past how there is metaphorical meaning to the story within the framework of Bilaam's mission -- though stressed that that that does not mean it didn't also happen.

And one can offer explanations of it being a dream or vision.

Shadal has an extensive introduction to parshat Balak, in which he sets out answers to various important points before going on a verse by verse commentary - some of which parallel my questions in the previous Balak post. Thus, was Bilaam an idolater or a worshiper of Hashem? What was his profession? Did he work honestly or through trickery? Was he a prophet or not? What was the nature of his prophecy? What did Hashem see to switch the curse to a blessing? And, what it relevant to this post: Did the donkey speak or not?

Shadal writes:

ו': האתון דיברה אם לא? לא ייבצר מהאל לעשות שתדבר, אבל לא היה אפשר שלא יחרד בלעם ושני נעריו חרדה גדולה עד מוות, ולא היה אפשר שיהיה בו כוח להשיב לה דבר, על כן ייתכן שלא דיברה כדיבור של בני אדם, כי "ותדבר" אין כתוב כאן, אבל השמיעה בפיה קול יללה שהיה מובן ממנו: כי התעללת בי וכו', והיא חזרה וצעקה כאילו תאמר: הלא אני אתנך וכו', אז נכמרו רחמיו עליה ואמר: לא , כלומר אין דרך הבהמה הזאת להתעלל בי, והנה אמת, כי ה' פתח את פי האתון, כי נערה באופן משונה מעט ממנהגה, אך לא היה הנס כל כך, עד שייבהל בלעם. והנה ה' שפתי תפתח ( תהלים נ"א י"ז ) אין ענינו דיבור חוץ מן הטבע; גם קרוב הדבר שבלעם היה מתפאר בהבנת קולות העופות והחיות, ע"כ כששמע קולה, פתר דבריה והשיב עליהם, על כן לא נבהלו נעריו, כי זה היה דרכו, אלא שהפעם הזאת היה שם נס אמיתי, אבל היה נס נסתר ולא הרגישו בו ולא חרדו לא הם ולא בלעם. ועוד אם דיברה, איך לא הצטדקה ולא אמרה לו שיש שם דבר המפחידה מללכת?

That is, Hashem could do anything, if he wanted to. Kol Yachol, as they say. But, on a peshat level, based on Bilaam's reaction, the donkey did not speak human speech. Otherwise, he would have been stunned into silence. Rather, the donkey brayed a bray, and Bilaam was able to understand what it meant.

This is how he interprets that "Hashem opened (vayiftach) the mouth of the donkey." That it brayed in a somewhat different manner. Ad he brings proof from "Hashem Sefatai Tiftach," "Hashem, open my lips, and my mouth will relate your praises," that Hashem opening a mouth is not something outside the realm of nature.

Then, he suggests in addition that Bilaam's skill was interpreting animal speech. And that is why his attendants were not stunned when he answered. Except this time, it was for real, because it was a miracle.

I would add that there are aggadot, stories in the gemara, that attribute to certain Arabs such understanding of animal speech.

For example, an except from a story in Yershalmi Berachot 2:4, which I discuss in full in this post on parshablog about the true significance of Nachamu:

A story happened with a Jew who was standing plowing. His cow moo'd before him. An Arab passed by and heard her (the cow's) voice. He said, {Josh: knowing how to speak cow} 'Jew, Jew, untie your cow, untie your plow, for the Bet HaMikdash has been destroyed.' (The cow) moo'd a second time, he (the Arab) said to him, 'Jew, Jew, tie your cow, and tie your vessels (of plowing), for the Messianic King has been born.' He (the Jew) said 'What is his name?' 'Menachem.' He (the Jew) said, 'From where is he?' He (the Arab) said, 'From the capitol of the king of Bet Lechem in Yehudah.'
Another story, in which Rav Nachman's daughters were captured, and turned out not to be so holy after all. From Gittin daf 45:
The daughters of R. Nahman used to stir a cauldron with their hands when it was boiling hot. R. 'Ilish was puzzled about it. It is written [he said], One man among a thousand have I found, but a woman among all those have I not found: and here are the daughters of R. Nahman! A misfortune happened to them and they were carried away captive, and he also with them. One day a man was sitting next to him who understood the language of birds. A raven came and called to him, and R. 'Ilish said to him, What does it say? It says, he replied, "'Ilish, run away, 'Ilish, run away". He said, The raven is a false bird, and I do not trust it. Then a dove came and called. He again asked, What does it say? It says, the man replied, "'Ilish, run away, 'Ilish run, away." Said ['Ilish]: The community of Israel is likened to a dove; this shows that a miracle will be performed for me. He then [said to himself], I will go and see the daughters of R. Nahman; if they have retained their virtue, I will bring them back. Said he to himself: Women talk over their business in the privy. He overheard them saying, These men are [our] husbands just as the Nehardeans [were] our husbands. Let us tell our captors to remove us to a distance from here, so that our husbands may not come and hear [where we are] and ransom us. R. 'Ilish then rose and fled, along with the other man. A miracle was performed for him, and he got across the river, but the other man was caught and put to death. When the daughters of R. Nahman came back, he said, They stirred the cauldron by witchcraft.

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