Wednesday, November 12, 2008

What Was The Name of Lot's Wife? And Why Should We Care?

In the comment section of a previous post, an Anonymous commenter writes:
Lets throw in a parsha trivia question what is Lot wifes name (the salt lady)?
It is a nice question, and I will admit up front that I did not know this bit of trivia. But I think there are some related, though better and more serious questions.

1) Why should I care about the name of Lot's wife? Is it important, or is it really talmud Torah to learn such trivia?

2) The Biblical text does not tell us the name of Lot's wife. She is just Lot's wife. If so, how do we know this? Is this tradition all the way back to Moshe? It is derived from somewhere? Did they just make it up?

Let us begin with the first question. How will knowing that Lot's wife's name was Irit, or Idit, help me in life? Well, it might help you if you are on a game show. According to what I saw on the Internet, in March 2004, this was a question on Jeopardy, where the answer was "Who was Ildith?"

Now, as I noted, the Biblical text does not mention Lot's wife's name. Indeed, it barely mentions her at all. While Sarah is engaged in helping prepare for the angels, Lot's wife is absent -- Lot does the work himself. There are three mentions of Lot's wife, all when fleeing the city. In Bereishit 19:
טו וּכְמוֹ הַשַּׁחַר עָלָה, וַיָּאִיצוּ הַמַּלְאָכִים בְּלוֹט לֵאמֹר: קוּם קַח אֶת-אִשְׁתְּךָ וְאֶת-שְׁתֵּי בְנֹתֶיךָ, הַנִּמְצָאֹת--פֶּן-תִּסָּפֶה, בַּעֲו‍ֹן הָעִיר. 15 And when the morning arose, then the angels hastened Lot, saying: 'Arise, take thy wife, and thy two daughters that are here; lest thou be swept away in the iniquity of the city.'
טז וַיִּתְמַהְמָהּ--וַיַּחֲזִיקוּ הָאֲנָשִׁים בְּיָדוֹ וּבְיַד-אִשְׁתּוֹ וּבְיַד שְׁתֵּי בְנֹתָיו, בְּחֶמְלַת ה עָלָיו; וַיֹּצִאֻהוּ וַיַּנִּחֻהוּ, מִחוּץ לָעִיר. 16 But he lingered; and the men laid hold upon his hand, and upon the hand of his wife, and upon the hand of his two daughters; the LORD being merciful unto him. And they brought him forth, and set him without the city.
and a bit later in the same perek:
כד וַה, הִמְטִיר עַל-סְדֹם וְעַל-עֲמֹרָה--גָּפְרִית וָאֵשׁ: מֵאֵת ה, מִן-הַשָּׁמָיִם. 24 Then the LORD caused to rain upon Sodom and upon Gomorrah brimstone and fire from the LORD out of heaven;
כה וַיַּהֲפֹךְ אֶת-הֶעָרִים הָאֵל, וְאֵת כָּל-הַכִּכָּר, וְאֵת כָּל-יֹשְׁבֵי הֶעָרִים, וְצֶמַח הָאֲדָמָה. 25 and He overthrow those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.
כו וַתַּבֵּט אִשְׁתּוֹ, מֵאַחֲרָיו; וַתְּהִי, נְצִיב מֶלַח. 26 But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.
So we do not see her name mentioned. But later rabbinic sources do make mention of her name.

How do they know? And why would they make reference to it? This is a relevant question not just for Irit, but in general for any name first supplied by a rabbinic source. For example, Plotit as the daughter of Lot, executed by the Sodomites, mentioned also by Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer. Or Hatzlelponi, as the name of Manoach's wife.

a) They might have an extra-Biblical tradition going back to Moshe Rabbenu. For example, did you know that Moav wrote a sefer, a biography of his grandmother, which did not make it into the Biblical canon, and was perhaps censored because of some of the material in it? He called it "My Grandmother the Netziv." ;)

Seriously, though, the Torah often makes mention of extra-Biblical sources. And so we might consider that there were extraneous sources and traditions which did not make it into the Biblical canon, but were passed down from one generation to the next Orally, or perhaps for a while in since-lost text. And so maybe this is how they knew it, and they made use of it when speaking about Lot's wife because that is indeed her name.

One possible problem with this is that the name occurs first (as far as we can tell) in Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, and thus is not earlier than the 8th century. If this was a tradition, why didn't Chazal make reference to it in the gemara, or in earlier midrashic works?

b) Another possibility is that they are making use of some midrashic method to extract the name, by closely reading a pasuk, either locally or from some other place in Tanach. As one random example, some understand that in Chayyei Sarah, when the pasuk says vaHashem beirach et Avraham bakol, it means that he was blessed with a daughter. And Rabbi Yehuda states that this daughter's name was bakol.

Whether they meant this as a creative intellectual exercise, or as legitimate means of deriving information about Biblical characters, the end result is this name. And so they might then make use of it in describing events involving these Biblical characters.

c) A third possibility is that they simply made these names up, without Scriptural basis. Why would they do this? Sometimes, the name can convey meaning. For example, Cozbi bat Tzur is the name of the woman who joined with Zimri. But in Sanhedrin 82b, we read:
R. Sheshet said: Her name was not Cozbi, but Shewilanai the daughter of Zur. Why then was she called Cozbi? Because she falsified her father's teachings. Another interpretation is: She said to her father, 'Devour me [kosbi] this people,' And thus it is a popular proverb, 'What business hath Shewilanai by the reeds of the lake? What hath Shewilanai to do amongst the peeling rushes? She prostitutes her mother.
As Soncino notes there,
A common name for a dissolute woman. [The word is connected with the Arabic denoting 'womb opening', v. MGWJ. LXXIII, p. 398].
In that particular case, giving a alternate name makes way for an interpretation of the Biblically-given name. But also, we see that that name had some significance, in the cultural context in which this midrashic statement was made.

Similarly, Irit or Idit might have had some sort of meaning in the time and place this midrash was stated, and so the purpose is to further emphasize some idea the midrashist is trying to develop.

d) A fourth possibility, which can combine with some of the above ideas in terms of the genesis of the name, is that there is a different reason for suddenly giving a name to a Biblical character here. Lot's wife is a very minor character, as I noted. But various midrashim fill in all sorts of details, such that she becomes so much more. For example, the midrash that she went around town asking for salt, so as to expose the fact that Lot had guests.

The Biblical text can get away with not naming Lot's wife, because she pops in and out in three pesukim. But in the midrashic text, where she is so much more of a person, of a character, she really deserves a name. And so she gets one.

Now let us look at this specific name, and trace it through some sources. We can begin with the Baal HaTurim. He writes (see right, from end of the first line):
ותבט אשתו בגימטריא היא עידית
The words "and his wife looked" in gematria is Idit.
ה = 5
י = 10
א = 1

ע = 70
י = 10
ר = 200
י = 10
ת = 400

ע = 70
י = 10
ד = 4
י = 10
ת = 400

Meanwhile, ותבט אשתו is as follows:
ו = 6
ת = 400
ב = 2
ט = 9

א = 1
ש = 300
ת = 400
ו = 6

What word is the gematria of what word? I would say that ishto is gematria 707, while hi irit (with the resh rather than the daled) is 16 + 690 = 706. And gematria is allowed to be one off. So even though the manuscript we have of the Baal HaTurim clearly says Idit with a dalet, from Baal HaTurim's gematria it is clear that he wrote it with a resh, and her name is Irit.

So why would Baal HaTurim write this gematria? Is this his derivation of the name, and the very source of the name? It does not seem likely to me. There are all sorts of other names one can come up with the same gematria, and perhaps one that does not make use of the word היא and is not off-by-one.

Rather, it seems that he already had this name from some tradition, and this gematria is a cute mnemonic, or a cute derasha. Or that he has sources which have this name, but there is no basis in the plain Biblical text, and so he is bolstering it by almost reading it into the pasuk, where Irit is actually featured. Here, she does her one action, of looking, so vatabet ishto, and we can replace ishto with idit because hi idit is (almost) the same gematria.

Rabbi Rosenberg spoke last week at shalashudes about gematria, and he noted that while all we typically see of Baal HaTurim is the gematrias, those are excerpted from a much more comprehensive peirush. And he only puts in the gematrias in order lehamshich halev. As he writes (second paragraph):

וראיתי עוד לכתוב בתחילת סדר וסדר פרפראות מגימטריות וטעמי המסורת להמשיך הלב

So these are spices of sorts. But as he writes (see inside), his primary intent is a real perush, as an expansion of and simplification of the commentary of the Ramban, and perhaps a few other explanations gleaned from elsewhere.

And so we might treat this gematria given by the Baal HaTurim in similar manner.

Indeed, appropriately enough, Baal HaTurim gets this whole idea that Lot's wife's name is Irit from the Ramban.

Ramban writes, on the pasuk about the command not to look:
וקרוב אני לומר, כי בהשחית ה' את הערים האלה היה המלאך המשחית עומד בין הארץ ובין השמים נראה בלהב האש, כענין במלאך המשחית אשר ראה דוד (דהי"א כא טז), ולכן אסר להן ההבטה:

ובפרקי דרבי אליעזר (כה):
כענין הזה, אמרו להם, אל תביטו לאחוריכם שהרי ירדה שכינתו של הקב"ה להמטיר על סדום ועל עמורה גפרית ואש. עירית אשתו של לוט נכמרו רחמיה על בנותיה הנשואות בסדום, והביטה לאחריה לראות אם הולכות הן אחריה וראתה אחורי השכינה ונעשית נציב מלח:
Note that this text of Ramban has the name Irit, at least in the text before us.

This is within the context of a discussion of why they should not look. He brings down Rashi and Ibn Ezra's explanations, and offers his own -- that since the pasuk states that it was Hashem who was himtir upon Sodom, Hashem was present, and it was not appropriate (or safe) to look.

It is in this context that Ramban backs his explanation up by citing Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer, which echoes the idea. Thus, it states , והביטה לאחריה לראות אם הולכות הן אחריה וראתה אחורי השכינה ונעשית נציב מלח -- that she looked behind her to see if her daughters were following behind her, and Hashem was himtir upon Sodom, and saw the back of the Shechina -- of Hashem, and this is why she turned into a netziv melach, a pillar of salt. He cites Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer to bolster his point, and the name of Lot's wife just comes along for the ride in the citation.

The next source is Pirkei D'Rabbi Eliezer, perek 25, inside:

He took them outside, and told them not to look behind them, for behold, the Divine Presence was going to descend to rain upon Sodom and Gemorrah fire and brimstone. Idit, the wife of Lot, her mercy {/love} for her married daughters in Sodom overcame her, and she looked behind her to see if they were coming after her or not. And she saw the back of the Shechina and became a pillar of salt. (And she is still standing {there} all day, the oxen licking her and it descends upon her legs, and in the morning it sprouts {back} (such that she is whole again). For it is stated vatabet ishto mei`acharav, and she was (a pillar of salt). The proof text appears to be on the text before the parentheses, that it states that she looked mei`acharav, which is a masculine ending, so she looked at His = Hashem's back, and then became (a pillar of salt).

The midrash in Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer does not actually do much to help us figure out the basis for her name. We see, at least in this critical edition of the midrash, that it is clearly Idit, with a daled, and not as Ramban and Baal HaTurim had, Irit. But perhaps there is some alternate text of the midrash which we don't have, and they did, where the name was Irit. But the details of the midrash are not so helpful in explaining the why of her name.

Perhaps there was some other tradition the midrash was relying upon, or perhaps it was randomly made up. But it would be preferable, in my opinion, to explain the basis of the name -- at least what it may mean.

I have a few suggestions. They might be on target, or they might be farfetched. I do not have a lot to work with here. Assuming it is Idit, with a daled, it means the best quality, the best soil. In Nezikin, we see that there are three classes of land -- Ziburit, Benonit, and Idit, the lowest grade land, medium grade, and the best grade. And in certain cases, one must pay for damages from meitav sadeihu, the best grade of his land, which is Idit.

Now, Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer has an overall positive view of Lot. Thus, it leaves out many bad traits of Lot which other midrashim mention. And it lists positive traits and deeds. For example, when Avraham is debating with Hashem on behalf of Sodom and says וַיִּגַּשׁ אַבְרָהָם, וַיֹּאמַר: הַאַף תִּסְפֶּה, צַדִּיק עִם-רָשָׁע, this midrash takes the tzaddik to be Lot. And there is a midrash about a girl being executed for hospitality, and this is made out to be Lot's daughter. And Lot surreptitiously in general is hospitable, even though it is against Sodomite law. And akin to Avraham, he spends all night pleading on behalf of Sodom.

And so, Idit might simply be a positive name, about how great a woman she is. Indeed, even though she violated to angel's instruction, this midrash mitigates it as being because of concern for others, her married daughters in Sodom, and it makes the penalty almost like an automatic natural consequence, rather than a punishment for a sin.

Another possibility which occurred to me is that this is a throwback to Lot's original decision to go to Sodom. In Lech Lecha (perek 13), we read

ח וַיֹּאמֶר אַבְרָם אֶל-לוֹט, אַל-נָא תְהִי מְרִיבָה בֵּינִי וּבֵינֶךָ, וּבֵין רֹעַי, וּבֵין רֹעֶיךָ: כִּי-אֲנָשִׁים אַחִים, אֲנָחְנוּ. 8 And Abram said unto Lot: 'Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee, and between my herdmen and thy herdmen; for we are brethren.
ט הֲלֹא כָל-הָאָרֶץ לְפָנֶיךָ, הִפָּרֶד נָא מֵעָלָי: אִם-הַשְּׂמֹאל וְאֵימִנָה, וְאִם-הַיָּמִין וְאַשְׂמְאִילָה. 9 Is not the whole land before thee? separate thyself, I pray thee, from me; if thou wilt take the left hand, then I will go to the right; or if thou take the right hand, then I will go to the left.'
י וַיִּשָּׂא-לוֹט אֶת-עֵינָיו, וַיַּרְא אֶת-כָּל-כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן, כִּי כֻלָּהּ, מַשְׁקֶה--לִפְנֵי שַׁחֵת ה, אֶת-סְדֹם וְאֶת-עֲמֹרָה, כְּגַן-יְהוָה כְּאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם, בֹּאֲכָה צֹעַר. 10 And Lot lifted up his eyes, and beheld all the plain of the Jordan, that it was well watered every where, before the LORD destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, like the garden of the LORD, like the land of Egypt, as thou goest unto Zoar.
יא וַיִּבְחַר-לוֹ לוֹט, אֵת כָּל-כִּכַּר הַיַּרְדֵּן, וַיִּסַּע לוֹט, מִקֶּדֶם; וַיִּפָּרְדוּ, אִישׁ מֵעַל אָחִיו. 11 So Lot chose him all the plain of the Jordan; and Lot journeyed east; and they separated themselves the one from the other.
So in Lot's original decision to go to Sodom, there is reference to Sodom's eventual destruction. And at that point, he looked at it, and saw how it was fine quality land. Perhaps here, his wife looks behind her at the land, now in its destroyed state, or in the process of being destroyed. And so עידית is supposed to echo this idea of the high physical quality of the land of Sodom.

Another possibility arises if we consider her name to be Irit, with a resh. There is a fascinating alternate explanation of the pasuk, from Ralbag.

The famous, and standard interpretation of the pasuk is that Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt. The pasuk states
כה וַיַּהֲפֹךְ אֶת-הֶעָרִים הָאֵל, וְאֵת כָּל-הַכִּכָּר, וְאֵת כָּל-יֹשְׁבֵי הֶעָרִים, וְצֶמַח הָאֲדָמָה. 25 and He overthrow those cities, and all the Plain, and all the inhabitants of the cities, and that which grew upon the ground.
כו וַתַּבֵּט אִשְׁתּוֹ, מֵאַחֲרָיו; וַתְּהִי, נְצִיב מֶלַח. 26 But his wife looked back from behind him, and she became a pillar of salt.
and the standard understanding is that Lot's wife was what became a pillar of salt. But Ralbag understands that both ir, city, and ishto, his wife, are feminine. And so ותהי can refer to either of them. And he writes (online Ralbag, pg 37, last column):

והנה כאשר זרחה השמש בא לוט לצוער ובהיותו שם הוריד השם על ידי נביאיו {?} בדרך פלא אצל סדום ועמורה גפרית ואש בבטן הארץ ההיא בדרך שנהפכו הערים האלה וכל הככר וכל יושבי הערים וצמח הארץ לא נשאר דבר. והנה הביטה אשת לוט מאחריו ונספת עמהם והיתה אז הארץ ההיא כמו נציב מלח לחזק השרפה אשר היתה שם.

Thus, the thing that became a pillar of salt -- a sign of utter destruction -- was the city, not Lot's wife.

There are two possible problems with this. First, Lot's wife does not appear in the subsequent narrative -- we only have Lot and his two daughters. Ralbag explains here and elsewhere than indeed, Lot's wife died, by remaining behind when looking back. But then I will say that it is awkward in that her death is not explicitly mentioned. Perhaps we can say that she stayed in town, or else passed away subsequent to this without mention by the Biblical text.

(I will interject here that we can interpret this as a sign of her destruction, without it being a literal pillar of salt. And some say it is as if it says ke-netziv melach, because of the effects of the destruction there.)

{Update: Indeed, a bit later, Ralbag says just that, that she did not survive, but died since she was unable to flee to Tzoar. And that accounts for her absence in the subsequent narrative. Even so, he does not interpret the pasuk itself as saying that Lot's wife miraculously became a pillar of salt. Rather, that the city in the strength of its destruction was like a pillar of salt.}

The second problem is that people currently lead tour to visit Lot's wife! To cite Wikipedia:
There currently stands a geological formation overlooking the Dead Sea which is called "Lot's Wife" because of the shape and location of the feature.
And see here for such a tour.

And the gemara discusses Berachot to be said on seeing the pillar of salt, which is Lot's wife! Thus, in Brachot 54a:
Our Rabbis taught: If one sees the place of the crossing of the Red Sea, or the fords of the Jordan, or the fords of the streams of Arnon, or hail stones [abne elgabish] in the descent of Beth Horon, or the stone which Og king of Bashan wanted to throw at Israel, or the stone on which Moses sat when Joshua fought with Amalek, or [the pillar of salt of] Lot's wife, or the wall of Jericho which sank into the ground, for all of these he should give thanksgiving and praise to the Almighty
and in the gemara on the next amud:
We understand [why this blessing should be said over] all the others, because they are miracles, but the transformation of Lot's wife was a punishment. One should say on seeing it, Blessed be the true Judge, yet [the Baraitha] says: 'Thanksgiving and praise'? — Read: 'For Lot and his wife two blessings are said. For his wife we say, "Blessed be the true Judge", and for Lot we say, "Blessed be He who remembereth the righteous"'.
Regardless, this is what Ralbag feels comfortable saying, thus arguing in metziut and in interpretation of a pasuk with Chazal.

At any rate, there is this dispute in how to understand the pasuk. Does vatehi lenetziv melach refer to Lot's wife or to the city, the ir? And if the author of Pirkei DeRabbi Eliezer intuited this possible ambiguity, he might have selected the name Irit, as related to the word Ir, in order to show that she was turned into a pillar of salt, rather than the city.

At the end of the day, I have to admit that I don't know why the name Idit, or Irit was given to Lot's wife. Perhaps my suggestions are plausible or true, and perhaps not. Perhaps there was a tradition that this was her name, or perhaps there is a derivation from elsewhere. But it has been an interesting exploration, and hopefully we gained some insight into why the various meforshim -- Ramban and Baal HaTurim -- are dealing with this midrash which brings down Idit's name.

If we have any remaining time or attention, perhaps we can turn to discuss Plotit for a second. Again, in Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer, we have a daughter of Lot mentioned. This is another married daughter, not one of the ones remaining in Sodom. Elsewhere there is a midrash about honey and bees and a particular girl. In this case, it is made out to be Lot's daughter. She is married to one of the important Sodomites, and is executed for hospitality, by means of burning.

This makes for a neat bundle, in which Lot's daughter is the cause of Hashem investigating the issue, and in which there is poetic justice -- midah keneged midah -- that the destruction of Sodom is through fire.

But we see her name is Plotit. Can we guess how this name came about? Again, perhaps tradition, and perhaps some midrashic derivation I do not know about. But I would suggest that the effect here is a deliberate one to connect the two stories of the destruction of Sodom.

Because yes, if you think about it, just as in Iyyov, there are alternating destructions of Iyyov's household and property through the hands of man and through the hands of God, here as well, there are two destructions of Sodom. The first is at war, which occurs in Lech Lecha.

And there, Avraham is told that Lot has been captured.

In Lech Lecha (perek 14)
יב וַיִּקְחוּ אֶת-לוֹט וְאֶת-רְכֻשׁוֹ בֶּן-אֲחִי אַבְרָם, וַיֵּלֵכוּ; וְהוּא יֹשֵׁב, בִּסְדֹם. 12 And they took Lot, Abram's brother's son, who dwelt in Sodom, and his goods, and departed.
יג וַיָּבֹא, הַפָּלִיט, וַיַּגֵּד, לְאַבְרָם הָעִבְרִי; וְהוּא שֹׁכֵן בְּאֵלֹנֵי מַמְרֵא הָאֱמֹרִי, אֲחִי אֶשְׁכֹּל וַאֲחִי עָנֵר, וְהֵם, בַּעֲלֵי בְרִית-אַבְרָם. 13 And there came one that had escaped, and told Abram the Hebrew--now he dwelt by the terebinths of Mamre the Amorite, brother of Eshcol, and brother of Aner; and these were confederate with Abram.

There is a heh hayediah on hapalit, and midrashic efforts are made to identify this palit, escapee. Thus, e.g. that it is Og -- and there are interesting bases to explain this identification. But perhaps we can say that rather, it was extended mishpacha -- that it was Lot's son-in-law, Palit. And thus, he would be married to Lot's daughter, Plotit. Just a suggestion. As far as I know, the midrash does not make this connection explicitly.

See also JewishEncyclopedia on Lot.

Update: See this related post on Ishim veShitot, on the names of Avraham's mother and Shimshon's sister.


Anonymous said...

Well if it was not talmud torah untill now you sure made it.

Anonymous said...

you have to combine the ralbag's perush (clearly pshat in the story, if not in the words) with the rashbam on why they were commanded not to look back.

joshwaxman said...

indeed. (second reason, right?) I think Ralbag may say as much elsewhere in his perush.


Anonymous said...

Just to instigate Another trivia Name question(; What where the names of Yishmaels wives one of which Avraham approved of one he did not?(Seder Hadoros.Sefer Hayashar)

joshwaxman said...

Yes, that's another great one. But this I know off-hand -- Fatima and Aisha. This is important, at the very least, in dating Pirkei deRabbi Eliezer (one such source) to after Mohammad, for his wife was named Aisha and his daughter was named Fatima. Indeed, we would have to look closely at that midrash and see if there were some point being made about Muslims. And thus there is talmud Torah to be had here as well. (thanks for the compliment, BTW). Thanks for bringing this up. I'm going to be talking about this (Lot's wife's name) on Shabbos, and about the general purpose of providing names, and this is a great example I can use.


Wolf2191 said...

Fatima is also mentioned in psuedo-jonathan, supplying the dating for that as well.

On these extra-biblical names, Reineman in his One world, etc. claims that something similar to the name provided for Avrahams mother - Amatlai bas Karnebo -was found on some Sumerian records. A quasi-expert tells me that, it sure doesn't sound Sumerian - so who knows?

Incidentally, see Emet L' Yaakov there (end of Ch.5 B Basra - or did I see this in B'Mechitzot Rabbenu) for the importance of the name of Shimshon's sister - but I don't quite get his point?

Wolf2191 said...

Never mind - I made this into a post

Marci said...

Thank you for your brilliant and thorough discussion! I am delivering a d'var Torah on Lot's wife tonight, and your wonderful presentation is going to be a great help as I put together my drash. Shabbat Shalom!

Anonymous said...

Seder Hadoros says it was Ivris, because she was blind to other peoples suffering.

Anonymous said...

It seems The Seder Hadoros also says the Wives where Meriva or Fatima

Anonymous said...

And just one more pure Yetzer Hara drush gematriah Pshat for this post
Yud= 10 dibros the Jews will accept or Hashem=
Tzadik=Sara age at his birth
Ches=days at milah
Kuf=Avrhams age at milah

joshwaxman said...



Anonymous said...

Yalkut Revani Says Melech


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