Monday, October 29, 2007

Chayyei Sarah: Can We Argue That Rivkah Was Not Three Years Old?

Or, as DovBear has recently been putting it, that midrash is non-canonical?

There are many proofs that this is indeed so. (Among other things, meforshim who say differently.)

One interesting one is in Rabbenu Bachya on this week's parsha. The pasuk Bereishit 24:19 states:

יט וַתְּכַל, לְהַשְׁקֹתוֹ; וַתֹּאמֶר, גַּם לִגְמַלֶּיךָ אֶשְׁאָב, עַד אִם-כִּלּוּ, לִשְׁתֹּת. 19 And when she had done giving him drink, she said: 'I will draw for thy camels also, until they have done drinking.'
Rabbenu Bachya writes:
הגבורה הזאת לשאוב לכל גמליו לא היה בחוק האפשרות כי אם בסיוע אלהי וכל שכן לפי דעת המדרש שהיתה בת שלש שנים אבל היה הענין מכלל ההצלחה שהבטיחו אברהם: הוא ישלח מלאכו אתך והצליח דרכך
That is,
This strength the draw water for all his camels is not within the natural possibility, except with Divine assistance. And certainly according to the opinion of the midrash that she was three years old. However, the matter was within the general "prospering" which Avraham promised him. Bereishit 24:40:
מ וַיֹּאמֶר, אֵלָי: ה אֲשֶׁר-הִתְהַלַּכְתִּי לְפָנָיו, יִשְׁלַח מַלְאָכוֹ אִתָּךְ וְהִצְלִיחַ דַּרְכֶּךָ, וְלָקַחְתָּ אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי, מִמִּשְׁפַּחְתִּי וּמִבֵּית אָבִי. 40 And he said unto me: The LORD, before whom I walk, will send His angel with thee, and prosper thy way; and thou shalt take a wife for my son of my kindred, and of my father's house;
(Brief digression -- this "pasuk" Rabbenu Bachya is citing here is actually a conflation of two pesukim: This pasuk #40, and pasuk#7:
ז ה אֱלֹהֵי הַשָּׁמַיִם, אֲשֶׁר לְקָחַנִי מִבֵּית אָבִי וּמֵאֶרֶץ מוֹלַדְתִּי, וַאֲשֶׁר דִּבֶּר-לִי וַאֲשֶׁר נִשְׁבַּע-לִי לֵאמֹר, לְזַרְעֲךָ אֶתֵּן אֶת-הָאָרֶץ הַזֹּאת--הוּא, יִשְׁלַח מַלְאָכוֹ לְפָנֶיךָ, וְלָקַחְתָּ אִשָּׁה לִבְנִי, מִשָּׁם. 7 The LORD, the God of heaven, who took me from my father's house, and from the land of my nativity, and who spoke unto me, and who swore unto me, saying: Unto thy seed will I give this land; He will send His angel before thee, and thou shalt take a wife for my son from thence.

We see two points from Rabbenu Bachya. First, he is willing to say that a maiden drawing water for all the camels is impossible, and certainly that a three year old girl drawing all that water is impossible. The difference is that he is willing to read this into the text as Hashem's special providence and assistance, such that he is willing to stand by the midrashic reading.

Second, he appears willing to argue with the midrashic reading. He states וכל שכן לפי דעת המדרש שהיתה בת שלש שנים, implying that this is the opinion of the midrash, but that one could assess the text differently and that this would be a legitimate reading. But that there would still be Divine assistance at play here, since it would still be impossible.

This grants legitimacy, if any is needed, to readings of the story such that Rivkah could not possibly be three years old, or else she would not be able to draw the water (, converse with Eliezer, agree to marry, etc.)

On a related note, see my post from last year about the plausibility of a three year old Rivkah.


Chaim B. said...

I do not understand the way you are framing the issue. If by "Can we argue that Rivka was not 3" you mean can we offer alternative pshat to the Midrash, the answer must be "yes" because the Rishonim do this all the time. But that is very different than asking whether a Midrash is "canonical". I can choose not to read Shakespeare and can argue that other writers are greater, but historically and practically Shakespeare is a prominant part of the canon of great Western lit. Since Rashi adopted the age of 3, and Rashi's commentary is the most read peirush on chumash, that Midrash is canonical.

joshwaxman said...

I don't really disagree, and this is what I (at least) meant by "canonical."

There are some, though, who hold that one is *not* permitted to argue on midrash (and that one has no chelek in Olam HaBa if one says this). In an argument I had with someone about a year ago, he claimed that this is the opinion of Rav Aharon Kotler. And they cite various darshanim (rather than pashtanim) that this is so, such as Maharal, Ran, Alshich, etc.

Anonymous said...

My question, which I also posted on DovBear but am interested to what you think, is what do you think is gained by this Midrash. Leaving aside its historical/canonical legitimacy/plausibility, it surprises me in its popularity. Usually Midrashim teach us something about Judaism, or the characters in Tanakh and/or their traits, or help shape our view of the story. What does telling us Rivka's age as 3 add? Especially because in the time of Chazal, an especially Rashi's Europe, the age would have seemed (almost) as out of place as it does today, even if it didn't during Yitzchak's time

joshwaxman said...

In terms of that, see the post linked to above, which cites a Tosafot towards the end, showing that they engaged in kiddushin for ketanim. Combined with Rashi's other comment that they did not consummate until 13, and compare with the fact that Juliet was 14, and that her mother talks about how she was an old maid by not being married, and that at that age, she already was a mother, and it is not so implausible, even in Rashi's day.

But you raise a good question in terms of what the midrash is trying to accomplish. I tried to address that in this other post on parshablog.

Anonymous said...

Nice other post...unfortunately:

There is much more to this midrash, but I am not in the mood to flesh it out now.

I'd love to hear the fleshing out :-)

On the level of message, we see early on the idea of God's hand in arranging the match. Yiztchak survives the ordeal, and God blesses Avraham that He will ensure that his seed multiply (see two psukim earlier, 22:17). And here Yitzchak's destined mate is waiting for him, having just been born. This foreshadows the Divine Hand in arranging the match that we see later, when Avraham's servant (Eliezer or not Eliezer) travels to Charan.

I just thought, maybe, of something about, after Yitzchak being 'reborn' after the Akeidah, is when his Bashert is (actually) born, or Rivkah was waiting to be born until we are sure that her bashert will live...


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