Thursday, October 15, 2009

Did Chava Speak Parseltongue?

How else could she have understood the snake? For we read in B'rayshis 3:

א וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה יְהוָה אֱלֹהִים; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה, אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱלֹהִים, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן. 1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman: 'Yea, hath God said: Ye shall not eat of any tree of the garden?'
ב וַתֹּאמֶר הָאִשָּׁה, אֶל-הַנָּחָשׁ: מִפְּרִי עֵץ-הַגָּן, נֹאכֵל. 2 And the woman said unto the serpent: 'Of the fruit of the trees of the garden we may eat;

How could she have understood the serpent? And how could she have spoken to it, unless she was a Parselmouth? This all assumes that we understand this literally and not metaphorically. How can man talk the animals? Understandably, this is something that would bother medieval rationalists.

Ibn Ezra asks this question, though without the gratuitous Harry Potter references, and gives various answers. Thus, he writes:

ג, א]
והנחש -
יש אומרים:
כי האשה הייתה מבינה ויודעת לשון החיות. ויפרשו ויאמר הנחש ברמיזה.

ואחרים אמרו:
שהוא שטן ואיך לא יראו סוף הפרשה, כי איך ילך השטן על גחון ואיך יאכל עפר?!
ומה טעם לקללת הוא ישופך ראש?!
ורבים השתבשו לחקור למה היה קילל הנחש ואם הייתה לו דעת שלמה. או ציווה שלא ישיא האשה.

ויאמר רב סעדיה גאון:
אחר שהתברר לנו שאין דבור ודעת כי אם באדם לבדו נצטרך לומר כי הנחש גם האתון לא דברו. רק מלאך דבר בשבילם.

והשיב עליו רב שמואל בן חפני:
והנה קם רבי שלמה הספרדי, בעל השירים השקולים וחכם גדול היה והשיב על רב שמואל.

והישר בעיני, שהם הדברים כמשמעם והנחש היה מדבר והיה הולך בקומה זקופה והשם דעת באדם שם בו. והנה הפסוק העיד כי, היה ערום מכל חית השדה רק לא כאדם.
To translate:
"And the snake" -- Some say that the woman understood and knew the language of the animals. And they explain 'and the snake said' as {not actual human speech} but with hinting.

And others say that he was the Satan. And how did they not see the end of the parsha? For how would the Satan go on its belly and how would it eat dust? And what is the meaning of "he will trod on your head?!"

And many mixed themselves up to delve into why the Snake was cursed, and if he had a full intelligence, or if it was commanded not to tempt the Woman.

And Rav Saadia Gaon said: After it is made clear to us that there is no speech or intelligence except in humankind, we are compelled to say that the snake, as well as the she-ass {of Bilaam} did not speak. Rather, an angel spoke on their behalf.

And Rav Shmuel ben Chofni {Gaon} answered him. {Based on Yahel Ohr, That behold, it says Vayomer Hanachash!}

And behold Rabbi Shlomo the Sefardi, the author of the metered poetry and a great scholar he was, as he answered upon Rav Shmuel {ben Chofni Gaon}. {That if the donkey was able to speak, why didn't she speak before this?}

And what is correct in my eyes is that the matters are as in their simple implication, and that the snake spoke, and that it walked erect, and the one who placed intelligence in Man placed it in him {as well}. And behold the verse testifies that he was cleverer that all the animals of the field, but not like Adam."

Abarbanel also asks this question. In his 28th question on the story of the incident in Gan Eden, he writes:
The 28th question is in what the Scripture states that the Snake spoke, seduced, and tempted Chava. And this is an extremely astonishing thing! For the snake was not one possessing a nefesh, nor did it speak. If so, how did it seduce and tempt? For seducing and tempting is only the giving of advice and suggestion in the tempting matter, with theories and proofs giving seduction to the tempted. And behold, advice and suggestion are drawn from the Intellectual power, as the Philosopher in Sefer HaMidot explains.

And one cannot answer that the Snake in the
beginning of its creation possessed Intellect, and that the one {=Hashem} who placed it in Adam placed it in him {=the snake}, as Ibn Ezra writes, to accord due publicity. {See above.} For behold, Scripture encompassed it under the category of that which did not speak, when it said "And the Snake was more clever than all the animals of the field," thereby grouping them all in one category.

And furthermore, if the Snake possessed Intellect and spoke, and with its sin its Intelligence and Speech were taken away from it and it became mute, the Scripture should have mentioned this within its curses, for this in truth would be the greatest {curse} of them.

One should also not maintain like that which the Gaon, Rabbenu Saadia wrote, and there were drawn after him the scholars of the nations, that the Satan spoke and not the Snake, and that so was the matter by the she-donkey of Bilam, that she did not speak of her own accord, but rather the angel of Hashem spoke within her mouth. For if the matter were so, the Snake would not have sinned and should not have been punished. And the situation of the Satan speaking within the mouth of the Snake is in truth something unimaginable. Rather, it is nonsense, the result of delusion.

One also cannot say that the Snake's speech was by way of miracle, for Hashem would not make miracles and a wondrous way for an evil purpose. And also, because the Scriptures does not say in the matter of the Snake "And God opened the mouth of the Snake" as it states by the she-ass of Bilaam, because it was a wondrous occurrence.

That was Abarbanel, in his question. In his subsequent discussion, he mentions various midrashic explanations, which he labels derash and allegory and not peshat. This gives him room to differ and offer his own explanation. He distinguishes between dreams and visions, on the one hand, which can and should have an allegorical explanation, and a straightforward narrative on the other hand, which is then faithful testimony of Hashem that this was or that this was done. And in such an instance, we cannot say lo haya velo nivra, but that it is only allegory. Certain people try to focus on the "pnimiyus" interpretation and think that the outside meaning is worthless, but our Torah is not so. The external meaning is true and extremely valuable, but there is additionally a deep and important pnimiyus interpretation. And he cites Rambam to this effect as well.

Eventually, he addresses the question directly. And he writes:

The man was naked, ... and they fashioned for themselves girdles: There are three positions which are too fabulous for me in the matter of the narrative of the Snake and its speaking.

There is the position of those who say that at the beginning of the creation the Snake was a creature which possessed Intellect and Speech, and walked erect; and that when it sinned, its Intellect and Speech were taken away from it, and its legs were cut off. For this is entirely a denial of the natural order of things and the way they come to be; and this is not mentioned within its curses, where it is indeed the most grievous of them.

And there is the position of the one who says that the speaking Snake was the Satan, which was created for Man in the form of the Snake, as the Gaon Rav Saadia writes, and those along with him. For these are in truth thoughts of wickedness {see Mishlei 6:18}, which does not have in it substance.

And the third position is that of the Rav {=Rambam} of the Moreh {Nevuchim} and those who hold of his covenant that the plain peshat meaning of this this Biblical text is nothing at all, but it is only hint {remez} of the natural and spiritual sciences. For I have already informed you that it is not fitting to deny one narrative entirely which the simple straightforward meaning of the verses of the Torah testify to. {See above link, where he discusses this position and rejects it.}

And therefore, my position in the matter of the Snake and the meaning of this narrative I will relate to you here, for it is the foundation of this parsha and its truth.

And this is that the Snake did not speak at all to the woman, nor the woman to it. For it {=the Snake} is not a man of words, and therefore the Biblical text does not say in its matter "And Hashem opened the mouth of the Snake" as it says by the she-ass of Bilaam. For there, because it was because the she-ass spoke, in the plain sense {of the word "spoke"}, and it was a wondrous thing, it is stated "And Hashem opened the mouth of the she-ass." But by the snake it does not say that He opened its mouth, because it did not speak at all, not in a natural way nor via a miracle.

Rather, the matter was that she saw the snake climb the Etz HaDaas and eat of its fruits, time after time, and did not die nor suffer harm in any fashion. And the woman thought regarding this and considered within herself, as if she were speaking with the Snake. And so it was, when it climbed the tree when it ate from its fruit, it was "saying" to her "you will not die." As it was also in her thought-process, it refers to her speech about this. {?} And this is along the lines of Iyov 35:11:

יא מַלְּפֵנוּ, מִבַּהֲמוֹת אָרֶץ; וּמֵעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם יְחַכְּמֵנוּ.11 Who teacheth us more than the beasts of the earth, and maketh us wiser than the fowls of heaven?'

For she made her thought processes and inquiries from the actions of the Snake; and these are the very things that the Biblical text attributes to him.

And do not ask me from what the Biblical text states "and he said to the woman," for behold, this matter of this "speech" is what it informed via its actions, and what she thought as a result of it. And it is along the language of {Iyov 12:7}:

ז וְאוּלָם--שְׁאַל-נָא בְהֵמוֹת וְתֹרֶךָּ; וְעוֹף הַשָּׁמַיִם, וְיַגֶּד-לָךְ.7 But ask now the beasts, and they shall teach thee; and the fowls of the air, and they shall tell thee;
ח אוֹ שִׂיחַ לָאָרֶץ וְתֹרֶךָּ; וִיסַפְּרוּ לְךָ, דְּגֵי הַיָּם.8 Or speak to the earth, and it shall teach thee; and the fishes of the sea shall declare unto thee;

And so it says in another place {Iyov 28:14},

יד תְּהוֹם אָמַר, לֹא בִי-הִיא; וְיָם אָמַר, אֵין עִמָּדִי.14 The deep saith: 'It is not in me'; and the sea saith: 'It is not with me.'
{and a bit later in the same perek}:
כב אֲבַדּוֹן וָמָוֶת, אָמְרוּ; בְּאָזְנֵינוּ, שָׁמַעְנוּ שִׁמְעָהּ.22 Destruction and Death say: 'We have heard a rumor thereof with our ears.'

And David said {Tehillim 148:7}:

ז הַלְלוּ אֶת-ה', מִן-הָאָרֶץ-- תַּנִּינִים, וְכָל-תְּהֹמוֹת.7 Praise the LORD from the earth, ye sea-monsters, and all deeps;

And it is known that these things do not possess Intellect, nor do they talk, speak, relate, or praise. Rather, out of their actions, when people contemplate them, they "speak", "relate", and "praise", as if these items told over and related those sayings and praises.

And that is why it said in the beginning of this story "And the Snake was more clever than all the animals of the field." And its cleverness was not Knowledge and Intellect and overwhelming arguments, but rather it was that it climbed the tree to eat to its satiation, which none of the other animals of the field did. And therefore it did not mention the fowl, but only the animals of the field. And because of this, it is not stated as well {cleverer} "than Man", since its cleverness was not in Intellect and Speech like him, but rather that it sought its food more than any other animal of the field.

And it said "{cleverer than any beast of the field} which Hashem Elokim made," to inform us that God made the Snake in this extremely clever, via Hashkacha Peratit {directed individual Divine Providence}, in order to test thereby the Woman and the Man, as will be explained. For when it climbed up there and ate from the fruit of the Tree, the Woman contemplated it and it tempted her, and placed within her as if the Snake had said to her all that was mentioned. Behold, if this is so, and it is true that the Snake caused all this evil, and that the mishap came via it. But not that it actively spoke at all.

And it said:

א וְהַנָּחָשׁ, הָיָה עָרוּם, מִכֹּל חַיַּת הַשָּׂדֶה, אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה ה אֱלֹהִים; וַיֹּאמֶר, אֶל-הָאִשָּׁה, אַף כִּי-אָמַר אֱלֹהִים, לֹא תֹאכְלוּ מִכֹּל עֵץ הַגָּן.1 Now the serpent was more subtle than any beast of the field which the LORD God had made. And he said unto the woman: 'Yea, hath God said: Ye shall not eat of any tree of the garden?'

Rashi says that the word אף is used here to mean "perhaps." He said "perhaps God said to you that you should not eat from any of the trees of the garden." And in this he has difficulty in explaining the word כי.

And Ibn Ezra wrote that this was the end of the statement, for it said words, and in the end it said "all the more so, that Hashem said 'you should not eat."

{This is Ibn Ezra inside:
וטעם אף
כי יורה כי דבר דברים אחרים ואמר בסוף ק"ו, שאמר לכם לא תאכלו כל פרי עץ, כלל לא הזכיר הנחש השם הנכבד והנורא כי לא ידעו. גם האשה הוסיפה על מצוות השם
, ולא תגעו בו וכן הוסיפה אשת מנוח עד יום מותו:

And the main point, if so, is deficient from the book. And according to their approach that the Snake spoke, it is more fitting to explain that his intent was do say "even if God said not to eat from all of the trees of the Garden lest you die, you would not die, for God knows..." And the woman entered within his words {not as he intended} as is the rule of daughters, in the way of women, and she said to him when she heard his words

that he said "you should not eat from any of the trees of the Garden," that the matter was not so, for from the fruit of the tree we may eat, but from the fruit of the tree which is within {the center} of the tree, God said "you shall not eat from it, nor touch it, lest you die." And then, the Snake finished his words, for his intent was to say "You shall not die."

  1. However, according to what I {=Abarbanel} explained in the matter of the Snake and the thoughts of the Woman, it appears to me to explain this verse in one of two ways. The first is that the intent of the claim of the Snake, or {rather} the Woman in his name, was to say "from the fruit of the Trees of the Garden we may eat." And the Biblical text relates the beginning of the words of the Snake "Even if the God said 'Do not eat from any of the Trees of the Garden.'" And immediately as well the Biblical text related the beginning of what the woman responded ion this, when it said "And the woman said to the Snake..." And it wrote it to make clear what was the primary claim of the snake, and the answer of the Snake when it said {though we find this in the words of the woman} "of the fruit of the trees of the Garden we may eat," it was as if the Scriptures were saying "even though the fruit of this {particular} tree was forbidden upon you, we, the snakes, serpents and scorpions do not pay heed to it, for from {all} the fruit of the tree of the Garden we eat."

    And it is as if she replied to him, "And how can you do this, you snake {הבריח?}? Do you not know that God said that we should not eat nor touch this tree lest we die? And how are you making your life liable when you eat from it? The evil will attach to you and you will die!"

    And this is the first explanation.

  2. And the second explanation is that in this pasuk, it is that it is a Scriptual decree {gezeirat hakatuv} that one should not eat from any tree of the garden. And its import with "even if Hashem said" is to say that that which He said "behold you should not eat from any fruit of the Garden." And he intended with this what is stated in it in the beginning of the Creation {in Bereishit 1}:
    כט וַיֹּאמֶר אֱלֹהִים, הִנֵּה נָתַתִּי לָכֶם אֶת-כָּל-עֵשֶׂב זֹרֵעַ זֶרַע אֲשֶׁר עַל-פְּנֵי כָל-הָאָרֶץ, וְאֶת-כָּל-הָעֵץ אֲשֶׁר-בּוֹ פְרִי-עֵץ, זֹרֵעַ זָרַע: לָכֶם יִהְיֶה, לְאָכְלָה. 29 And God said: 'Behold, I have given you every herb yielding seed, which is upon the face of all the earth, and every tree, in which is the fruit of a tree yielding seed--to you it shall be for food;
    That with all that had come to you then as permitted to eat from the fruit of the trees, behold the fruit of the trees of the Garden He did not permit to you, and they are not encompassed within what He said "to you it shall be to eat." And her response upon this was that also the fruit of the tree was permitted to them, except for the fruit of a particular tree which was in {the center of} the garden. For Hashem Yisbarach said to them not to eat from it for their own benefit, such that they not die.

    And I have already explained all of this was the arguments of the Woman which she made in the name of the Snake and in her own name, according to what she saw from him, as he climbed the tree and ate from its fruit.
And it is resolved with what I have explained in this in the 24th question, that the Snake did not speak, nor did it know

of the word of Hashem and His command to Man, but rather the Woman made the arguments from what she saw in its climbing and eating.

However, in terms of why, if so, the Snake was punished and ruined, behold its reason will be explained after this. And behold, the woman added in her statement "and do not touch it," which was not said to Adam, and not commanded to him, because she contemplated that Adam did not come close to her or couple with her any day, and she thought in her foolishness that Hakadosh Baruch Hu forbade the Etz HaDaas which brings forth the desire for intercourse not with eating, which would bring one to unbridled
niuf, nor touching which would bring to something milder and more pleasant. And therefore it said "do not eat from it nor touch it."

And once she saw the Snake, time after time, climb and eat from it, and live always, she made in her thoughts as if the Snake in her thoughts answered her "you will not die, for Elokim knows..." And the explanation of this statement is that it is forbidden for a Man to eat this, one cannot escape. Either it is said that Hashem commanded him for the sake of Man, that this fruit should not damage him with is harmful properties and cause him to die. Or we say that it was forbidden upon him because God did not want that Man would make use of this honored food. However, for the sake of Man and saving him from death, it is not possible, since the Snake ate from it and did not die. If so, the second of the two alternatives remains, and this was that the command was for the benefit of God, since this tree gives the power to give birth to sons and daughters, and to bring forth things which were not in existence heretofore in the world. And this is a great virtue, and is unique to Him Yisbarach, who Created and brought forth the world after it did not {initially} exist.
I don't find this explanation by Abarbanel particularly convincing, though he does develop a while system of questions and an integrated picture in which these solutions are answered. I think there is a difference between clearly poetic language involving things which have no ability to produce a sound, on the one hand, and an animal on the other. Animals possess some measure of thinking ability and communicating ability, though not on the level of humans. And we see speaking animals in Disney films all the time. Which does not prove that animals talk, but does prove that humans can envision animals talking. If so, any author should expect that a talking animal will be taken indeed as a talking animal, rather than poetic way of talking. I find Abarbanel's explanation forced, and note how everyone else assumes the animal produced a voice, showing common reader expectation at the least.

In fact, I personally think that it is indeed metaphorical, and that Ibn Ezra's questions dismissing the metaphor can be readily answered. To repeat, Ibn Ezra stated:
And others say that he was the Satan. And how did they not see the end of the parsha? For how would the Satan go on its belly and how would it eat dust? And what is the meaning of "he will trod on your head?!"
I would say by Satan, what is meant is that which tests man, and thus represents the Yetzer Hara. In this narrative, to make the point come across better, the Snake personified the Yetzer Hara. The "punishments" at the end of the parsha are not punishments, but the way the world works, because man has, and should have a Yetzer Hara, thus allowing him bechira. And so Man's "punishments" were not punishments; and Woman's "punishments" were not punishments; and to answer Ibn Ezra, the Snake's "punishments" were not punishments.

The Yetzer Hara goes on its belly, as it is led by its hunger. Yet it eats dust and never really fully enjoys what it eats. And there is enmity placed between the Yetzer Hara and Man, as man is to struggle with his inner nature. The Snake will try to bite at Man's heels, but in this combat, Man's goal is to crush the Yetzer Hara. Of course, we observe much of this in the real world, with real snakes. This is why these particular examples were given. But the metaphor was intended.

Meanwhile, Shadal unfairly summarizes and dismisses Abarbanel. He writes:
א] והנחש היה ערום: נבוכו המפרשים בענין הנחש הזה, ודון יצחק אמר, כי הנחש לא דיבר אלא האשה ראתה אותו שאכל ולא מת, והתעוררה בעצמה לאכול גם היא, ולפי זה אין מקום להודיע כי הנחש היה ערום, גם אין ראוי שיקולל. ובספר אמונת זורואסטר נמצא כתוב, כי אהרימן שהוא אל הרע התחפש בצורת נחש והסית האדם והאשה הראשונים לחטוא; וקצת מחכמי ישראל חשבו, כי הנחש הקדמוני הוא השטן, ובעל חכמת שלמה (ב' כ"ד) כתב: בקנאת השטן בא מות לעולם; ואחרים אמרו, כי השטן נשתמש בנחש להסית את חוה, וע' למטה פסוק כ"ד
The commentators are confounded in this matter of this Snake. And Don Yitzchak {Abarbanel} writes that the Snake did not speak but rather the woman saw him eating without dying, and there was awakened within her to also it. And {now Shadal's argument} according to this, there is no place to inform that the Snake was clever, and furthermore it is not fitting that he be cursed.

And in the book of the faith of Zoroaster it is found written that Ahriman, who was the evil deity, cloaked himself in the form of a snake and tempted the first man and woman to sin. And a few of the Sages of Israel thought that the first snake was the Satan, and the author of Chochmat Shlomo (2:24) wrote "via the jealousy of the Satan, death came to the world." And others said that the Satan made use of the snake in order to tempt Chava, and see below, pasuk 24.
But of course, Abarbanel explicitly addressed both these points. He considers the snake to be clever in its means of getting food, and that it was only clever than the beasts of the field. And he notes the problem of why the snake should deserve the punishment, and addresses it a bit later on. Whether or not his answers are persuasive is another story.

A quick glance below in Shadal's commentary reveals a nice metaphorical interpretation. But I like the interpretation I gave above.


Rabbi Joshua Maroof said...

I like your interpretation too. It is basically my understanding of the Rambam but in 21st century jargon instead of Medieval terminology.

Bruce Krulwich said...

I have a chapter about this in Harry Potter and Torah.

Other sources on the subject, that I quote there, include Maharasha on Sanhedrin 59b, Seforno on Bereshis 3:1, and Rabbeinu Bechaya on Bamidbar 22:28.

Izgad said...

When I was in Rabbi Carmy's Bible class I did a paper on Abarbanel's understanding of this verse. Back then I was also struck by the Potter possibilities.

Mississippi Fred MacDowell said...

In attacking the philosophical mode of interpretation of the miraculous in the Torah, Shadal writes in the introduction appended to his translation of the Torah "E cosa si direbbe di quel fisico, il quale negasse all magnete la sua virtu, o all'anguilla del Surinam le sue sorprendenti proprieta per la regione che siffatti fenomeni riescono per l'umano intemdimento inesplicabili?" -- that is, "What could be said of the physicist who denies the power of the magnet, or the astounding properties of the electric eel of South America, because such phenomena are inexplicable to human understanding?" (translation by Sabato Morais)


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