Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Can angels eat?!

Occasionally here on parshablog I focus on divrei Torah found on other blogs, where I feel I have a good response; and where I believe I can better develop and lay out an idea in a full blog post, as opposed to a mere comment or two. In this particular instance, I think it also gives the opportunity to contrast different styles of limmud Torah, which is good introspection for me, and helps me think about and spell out my precise methodologies.

At Divrei Chaim, a wonderful post about whether the malachim actually ate. He writes:
Rashi explains based on the gemara (Baba Metziya 86) that although angels cannot eat, the angels who came to Avraham pretended to eat so as to not deviate from the normal practice of the community. The lesson for us is to blend in when blending in is appropriate. However, Tosfos on that sugya quotes the Midrash that contrary to the gemara's assumption, the angels did in fact eat. It is hard to say that there is a machlokes in "metziyus" whether angels can or cannot eat, so there must be some other explanation of what the underlying issue here is.
And then goes on to offer a "pnimiyus" explanation of the gemara; and then goes on to discuss the machlokes Rishonim whether angels have bodies, or if there is such a machlokes; and tries to explain that the dispute whether they ate was rooted not in a dispute about whether they can eat, but whether the beef came from normal cows (Daat Zekeinim) or for cows created with the Sefer Yetzirah (Malbim).

Before leaping to such "creative" answers, which were never mentioned by the earlier midrash, and combining the earlier Seder Eliyahu Rabba with the later Malbim, I would first spend a lot more time on the question. I would also want to see every single source inside to make certain that the suggestions offered can be borne by the midrashic texts.

It may indeed be a simple machlokes. Despite the assertion, and assumption, that
It is hard to say that there is a machlokes in "metziyus" whether angels can or cannot eat, so there must be some other explanation of what the underlying issue here is.
this does not seem hard to say at all. Yes, in general we try to avoid a machlokes in metzius. But that is because if it is a mere matter of the empirical facts, let them go out into the world and observe! It is hard, because they are both standing firm, but this should not be a machlokes long enough to be mentioned. Once they determine the facts on the ground, the machlokes disappears.

But that sort of machlokes in metzius, such as where the sun rises, or whether karmis can become chametz, is relatively easy to resolve. Who says that the natural history of angels is something so easily determinable?!

Indeed, he notes later a machlokes Rishonim as to whether angels have bodies. And despite some efforts to harmonize the machlokes out of existence, it seems quite plausible to me that there could be a machlokes in a matter such as this, despite it being one of "metzius". If so, the harmonizations might be creative, and limmud Torah, but they might just serve to move us further from the original intent of the midrashic authors.

Perhaps if we examine the midrashim inside, we could get closer to their intent. The pasuk in parshat Vayera reads {Bereishit 18:8}:

ח וַיִּקַּח חֶמְאָה וְחָלָב, וּבֶן-הַבָּקָר אֲשֶׁר עָשָׂה, וַיִּתֵּן, לִפְנֵיהֶם; וְהוּא-עֹמֵד עֲלֵיהֶם תַּחַת הָעֵץ, וַיֹּאכֵלוּ.8 And he took curd, and milk, and the calf which he had dressed, and set it before them; and he stood by them under the tree, and they did eat.

and Rashi writes on this that:

and they ate: They appeared to be eating. — [from here we learn that a person should not deviate from custom. — [from B.M. ad loc., Gen. Rabbah 48:14, Targum Jonathan] ויאכלו: נראו כמו שאכלו, מכאן שלא ישנה אדם מן המנהג:

He gets it from Bereishit Rabba, which is the aggadic material of the Amoraim of Eretz Yisrael. There, it states:
רבי תנחומא משום ר' אלעזר ור' אבון בשם רבי מאיר:
מתלא אמר: עלת לקרתא, הלך בנימוסה! ש
למעלה שאין אכילה ושתיה, עלה משה למרום ולא אכל, שנאמר: (דברים ט) ואשב בהר ארבעים יום וארבעים לילה, לחם לא אכלתי ומים לא שתית.
אבל למטה, שיש אכילה ושתיה, והוא עומד עליהם תחת העץ, ויאכלו וכי אוכלין היו?! ש
אלא, נראין כאוכלין, ראשון ראשון, מסתלק:
So first, as a mashal, beings going to another place (Heaven or Earth) adopt the practices of those of that place. And so Moshe did not eat for 40 days when he ascended On High, and the angels ate by Avraham. Then, an interjection. How could they eat?! Rather, they made it appear as if they ate.

So too in Bava Metzia 86b:
אמר רבי תנחום בר חנילאי לעולם אל ישנה אדם מן המנהג שהרי משה עלה למרום ולא אכל לחם מלאכי השרת ירדו למטה ואכלו לחם ואכלו סלקא דעתך אלא אימא נראו כמי שאכלו ושתו
R. Tanhum b. Hanilai said: One should never break away from custom. For behold, Moses ascended on High and ate no bread, whereas the Ministering Angels descended below and ate bread. 'And ate' — can you really think so! — But say, appeared to eat and drink.
This is the same midrash, from the same person. It is extremely noteworthy, in my eyes, that Rabbi Tanchum statement in the gemara is first in Hebrew, and then in Aramaic it is emended. He says that they ate. But it is the later setama degemara which emends it. And a similar emendation / clarification occurs in the Midrash Rabba.

What I am getting from this is that this is not necessarily such a machlokes. It could be that even the initial midrashic author agreed with the midrash in Tanna deBei Eliyahu. However, the clear assumption of the (quite possibly later) question and "fix" is that of course angels don't eat and drink.

We should not try to teitch up the Midrash in seder Eliyahu Rabba without seeing it inside. That is, we could simply look at Tosafot on the daf in Bava Metzia, and make our suggestions from the impression we get there. But it is better to see the midrashic text inside. Tosafot says:
נראין כאוכלין ושותין. ובסדר אליהו רבה קתני לא כאותו שאומר נראין כאוכלין ושותין אלא אוכלין ושותין ממש מפני כבודו של אברהם ופליגא אדהכא:
Tosafot just summarize it as saying that they were ochlin veshosin mamash, with the implication that it thus argues on this gemara. And this might give the impression that it is resolvable, if we merely assume that they are working with different assumptions, such as the miraculous or normal nature of the beef.

But looking at it inside, in Seder Eliyahu Rabba, perek 12 (though translations put it in chapter 13):
וכל האומר לא אכלו מלה"ש עם אברהם
אע"ה לא אמר כלום. אלא בצדקתו של אותו צדיק ובשכר טורח שטרח בשבילם פתח להם
הקב״ה את פיהם ואכלו ולכך נאמר והוא עומד עליהם תחת העץ ויאכלו
Or from the handy English translation provided by Aish:
Anyone who claims that the malachim did not eat when they were with Avraham Avinu is talking nonsense. Rather, in the merit of that tzaddik, and, as a reward for all the effort he made, God opened their mouths and they ate. (Tanna D'Vei Eliyahu Rabbah 13:2)
This midrash is not merely claiming that the angels actually ate. It is asserting that anyone who says that the angels did not actually eat is talking nonsense (/saying nothing). Now, while there was an earlier collection of braytot under this name, mentioned by the gemara, Seder Eliyahu was composed (in its final form?) in the late 10th century, well after the closing of the Talmud. The midrashic author of Seder Eliyahu would be well aware of the gemara, and is strongly arguing on it, saying that it is speaking nonsense. (Perhaps it is a Gaon arguing on a setama.) It is an interesting example of how they thought themselves capable of arguing on midrashim in the gemara. (Those kofrim! I'm kidding.) Unless this is a rather old statement in Seder Eliyahu Rabba -- old enough to be contemporary to the other midrash recorded in Midrash Rabba and the gemara. Regardless, this midrashic author is aware of the other opinion, and declares that it is lo amar klum.

So to harmonize, and say that they are just operating on different assumptions about the other aspects of the case, seems a bit off. The author of the midrash in Seder Eliyahu Rabba knows full well that he is arguing on the gemara, and makes no apologies. He simply says that they are wrong, and it really seems that it is a dispute in the main point, rather than based on tangentials such as the nature of the beef involved.

More than that. The author of Seder Eliyahu Rabba appears to accept that in the general case, of course malachim cannot eat. And he says that it was only in the merit of Avraham Avinu's righteousness and the effort he expended that this was done. That is why it says והוא עומד עליהם תחת העץ ויאכלו. Because he stood upon them under the Etz -- that was why they ate.

And he writes that פתח להם הקב״ה את פיהם ואכלו, Hashem opened up their mouths and they ate. That is, of course he accepts the same axioms as Rabbi Tanchuma in the gemara and in Bereishit Rabba. Divrei Chaim, the blogger, is absolutely correct that this is no dispute in metzius, about the nature of angels. Angels cannot eat, just like donkeys cannot speak. But Hashem can choose to divert the natural order, and open up the mouths of angels and donkeys alike. And so this a special thing Hashem did in honor of Avraham Avinu.

So it is no dispute in metzius. It is a dispute as to the lengths to which Hashem would go to divert the natural order in honor of Avraham.

Everything is thus resolved. All that is left is the naval gazing. For many years, I also engaged in classic methodologies of learning. And a lot of that is finding all the different sources and combining them in interesting ways to harmonize difficulties or apparent difficulties. And this has its place, and can be really fun as well.

However, later on, from various scholars and teachers I picked up a more cautious methodology. It is a more conservative one. It is one in which I second-guess myself in terms of the assumptions underlying my question. And in which harmonizing two sources is not always the answer. That two aggadot are chalukos is not a last resort. Rather, it is often a prime consideration. Since quite often different authors composed different aggadot, and they might have divergent assumptions, two midrashim can easily contradict one another. And if we try to force two midrashim to agree, we could easily harm the intent of the authors of both midrashim, such that neither gets to say what he really meant. We should consider each source alone(including its date of composition and what might have been available to the author of the source), and deduce as much as we can about that particular midrash based on its context and the particular words used, and the particular nuances conveyed. Harmonization or resolution of intra-midrashic disparities can come later, if at all. And when we do it, we must carefully consider the original words to make sure that our suggestion does not violate the spirit of the original midrash, or add so many new things that it is an entirely novel midrash.


Chaviva Gordon-Bennett said...

We spent a bit of time on this in my Midrashic Literature course. Our final thought: When in Rome, do as the Romans do.

That is, that's why Moshe couldn't eat when he was with the angels, but when the angels were on earth they ate with him.

This is such a fascinating topic!

Yosef Greenberg said...

I'm surprised you didn't mention the amazing conclusion one can draw from this Midrash regarding what our behavior should be here in America.

You didn't forget the 'arguing on the Gemara' cause, though. :)

joshwaxman said...

Soncino, indeed, in a footnote on the page (seen on come and hear) says precisely that: when in Rome, do as the Romans do. They likely intended it within certain limits. But I would guess that to an extent, they did do as the Persians did.

"arguing on the Gemara"
the problem is that people suddenly encounter it, often enough from me, and they don't realize just how common it was in the Geonim and Rishonim. so by pointing out example after example, i might hope to assemble a large corpus of something which is really obvious, but which people don't realize. (ibn ezra argues on several midrashim in this week's parsha, for example, but without first reading the midrashim, it is non-obvious that this is what he is doing.) but yes, obviously a theme.


Yosef Greenberg said...

Ibn Ezra was a rather unique Rishon in this regard.

I think its for this reason that the Maharshal write on him that he wasn't a "baal Talmud". He writes that its only because of the Rambam's praise for him that he doesn't discard him completely.

The Maharshal himself, however, loved to argue on Rishonim. :)

joshwaxman said...

ibn ezra is certainly the most obvious about it, such that we can see him arguing on midrashim. but i don't think he is really so unique in this regard.

for example, Radak and Rashbam join Ibn Ezra is believing Arami oved avi does not grammatically mean what the haggadah asserts it to mean. Ralbag (and Chizkuni as a davar acher) both assert that the Netziv Melach was the city, rather than the woman. Rashbam asserts that vayhi erev vayhi voker means night follows day, against Chazal. Ran argues with Chazal as to the "problem" with the Tower of Bavel, and as to whether bechors of the mother were killed in makkat bechorot. Rav Moshe Hadarshan offers many different midrashim which are not compatible with the traditional midrashic narrative, for example regarding the poisoning incident in this week's parsha. Ibn Caspi argues with Chazal about Pharaoh's butler forgetting and not recalling, and about Rivah being a virgin and a man not knowing her. Ramban argues with the midrash about the dimensions of the teivah. shmuel hanagid explicitly says that one can argue on midrash. rav saadia gaon asserts that certain statements in the gemara he wants to argue against (such as that Hashem created 18000 other worlds) is a mere daas yachid and thus non-binding. And he asserts that the suffering servant in Yeshaya 53 refers to Yirmiyahu, rather than the gemara in Sotah's assertion that it refers to Moshe. These are simple examples off the top of my head, from many examples I have encountered. some instances may be debatable, and they may give justifications, but my impression is that it is not really limited to just Ibn Ezra.

It is just because people are not attuned to this issue that they don't recognize it.

kol tuv,


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