Thursday, November 26, 2009

How many stones did Yaakov put about his head?

Because of the general assumption that it is only Ibn Ezra who argues on midrash, I'd like to present an instance in which several of the classic commentators argue on the midrash. Before Yaakov slept, he took of the stones of the place:

יא וַיִּפְגַּע בַּמָּקוֹם וַיָּלֶן שָׁם, כִּי-בָא הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, וַיִּקַּח מֵאַבְנֵי הַמָּקוֹם, וַיָּשֶׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו; וַיִּשְׁכַּב, בַּמָּקוֹם הַהוּא.
11 And he lighted upon the place, and tarried there all night, because the sun was set; and he took one of the stones of the place, and put it under his head, and lay down in that place to sleep.

Now, admittedly, avnei is plural. But mei means from those, and so the minimum one could take is one of the many stones. And later on it is clear that there was only one stone:

יח וַיַּשְׁכֵּם יַעֲקֹב בַּבֹּקֶר, וַיִּקַּח אֶת-הָאֶבֶן אֲשֶׁר-שָׂם מְרַאֲשֹׁתָיו, וַיָּשֶׂם אֹתָהּ, מַצֵּבָה; וַיִּצֹק שֶׁמֶן, עַל-רֹאשָׁהּ.
18 And Jacob rose up early in the morning, and took the stone that he had put under his head, and set it up for a pillar, and poured oil upon the top of it.

If so, there is no difficulty; it always was a single stone. But a midrash might take the plural portion, and run with it; particularly if there is a good lesson to derive from it.

Rashi says that it was several stones, on the basis of the gemara in Chullin:

and placed [them] at his head: He arranged them in the form of a drainpipe around his head because he feared the wild beasts. They [the stones] started quarreling with one another. One said, “Let the righteous man lay his head on me,” and another one said, “Let him lay [his head] on me.” Immediately, the Holy One, blessed be He, made them into one stone. This is why it is stated (verse 18):“and he took the stone [in the singular] that he had placed at his head.” [From Chullin 91b]

וישם מראשותיו: עשאן כמין מרזב סביב לראשו שהיה ירא מפני חיות רעות. התחילו מריבות זו עם זו, זאת אומרת עלי יניח צדיק את ראשו, וזאת אומרת עלי יניח, מיד עשאן הקב"ה אבן אחת, וזהו שנאמר (פסוק יח) ויקח את האבן אשר שם מראשותיו:

The reason it must be for protection is that one stone forms a pillow, but what would several stones do for him? (And this idea of it being from protection is found in Midrash Rabba.)

That gemara in Chullin 91b:

כתיב (בראשית כח) ויקח מאבני המקום וכתיב ויקח את האבן אמר רבי יצחק מלמד שנתקבצו כל אותן אבנים למקום אחד וכל אחת ואחת אומרת עלי יניח צדיק זה ראשו תנא וכולן נבלעו באחד

And this idea also is stated in Midrash Rabba, but with different numbers of rocks:

ויקח מאבני המקום

ר' יהודה ור' נחמיה, ורבנן,

ר' יהודה אמר:

שנים עשרה אבנים נטל, כך גזר הקב"ה, שהוא מעמיד שנים עשר שבטים.

אמר: אברהם לא העמידן, יצחק לא העמידן, אני, אם מתאחות הן שנים עשר אבנים זו לזו, יודע אני, שאני מעמיד י"ב שבטים. כיון שנתאחו י"ב אבנים זו לזו, ידע שהוא מעמיד י"ב שבטים.

רבי נחמיה אמר:

נטל שלושה אבנים אמר:

אברהם, יחד הקדוש ברוך הוא שמו עליו.

יצחק יחד הקב"ה שמו עליו.

ואני, אם מתאחות הן ג' אבנים זו לזו, יודע אני שהקדוש ברוך הוא מיחד שמו עלי.

וכיון שנתאחו, ידע שהקב"ה מיחד שמו עליו.

רבנן אמרי:

מיעוט אבנים שנים.

אברהם יצא ממנו פסולת, ישמעאל וכל בני קטורה.

ויצחק יצא עשו וכל אלופיו.

ואני, אם מתאחות ב' אבנים זו לזו, יודע אני שאינו יוצא הימני פסולת.

ר' לוי ור' אלעזר בשם ר' יוסי בר זימרא אמר:

עשאן כמין מרזב ונתן תחת ראשו, שהיה מתיירא מן החיות.

ר' ברכיה ור' לוי בשם ר' חמא בר חנינא אמר:

כתיב: (מיכה א)כי הנה ה' יוצא ממקומו וירד ודרך על במתי ארץ וגו'.

מי שנגלה עליו הקדוש ברוך הוא, עאכ"ו!

ר' ברכיה בשם ר' לוי אמר:

אותן האבנים, שנתן יעקב אבינו תחת ראשו, נעשו תחתיו כמטה וכפרנוס.

מה רטיבה הרטיב?

ש(שיר א)קורות בתינו ארזים וגו',צדיקים וצדיקות, נביאים ונביאות, שיצאו ממנו.

Thus, it is twelve, three, or two, and each variant carries with it a deep symbolism. This symbolism is certainly not make explicit in Chullin, but in Midrash Rabba it is made clear -- that it means that tribes would not split, or that no pesolet would come of him, unlike the other avos, or that he was joined and counted among the avos. Even so, it is not only symbolic and allegorical. The idea that it was done to protect him from the wild animals demonstrates that the intent here was also practical, and that this is to be read into the narrative.

Despite this clear and famous midrash, several prominent meforshim explain that he took only one stone initially. Thus, Tosafot on that gemara in Chullin:

כתיב ויקח את האבן. לפי פשוטו . יש לפרש שלקח אבן אחת מאבני המקום:




מאבני המקום -

כדכתיב: ויקח את האבן אשר שם מראשותיו.

And Ibn Ezra:

מאבני המקום -

טעמו אחת מאבני המקום.

Ibn Caspi appear to think that either one can work with the language, over against Ibn Ezra:

מאבני המקום. נכון זה אם אתת אם רבות ורבות

And Abarbanel writes:

לקח מאבני המקום וישם ר״ל אחת מהם מראשותיו וישכב במקום ההוא

such that there was only one of them. And Radak:

ויקח מאבני המקום, אחת מאבני המקום

And Ralbag writes that he took one of the stones of that place and put it by his head, in order to elevate his head during sleep, as is the normal way of doing things.

Thus, this also contradicts the midrashic assertion that this was done to protect his head from wild animals.

Chizkuni notes the dispute between Rashi and midrash, on the one hand, and other meforshim, on the other. And he does not assert that the midrash and Rashi must be right. Rather, it is a legitimate dispute.

While Shadal does not explain the pasuk as describing a miraculous merging of stones, he does make an interesting diyuk on merashotav,

such that it includes the area by the head here and here (on either side?). He decides that Yaakov indeed took several stones. However, the single stone Yaakov takes later refers to the primary stone he took. He also points out Wolf Heidenheim's diyyuk (in Havanat Hamikra) that merashotav must mean surrounding the head and not under it, and that Chazal realized this and thus spoke about surrounding his head. And then rejects it, noting that Chazal also said that each one said "I want to be under the head of the tzaddik." (I wonder though if these are two separate sources, one from Chullin and the other from Bereishit Rabba.)

Now, it could be that all these meforshim are maintaining that ain mikra yotzei midei peshuto. But how can they say this? As Gur Aryeh and others asked regarding the 318 / Eliezer midrash, they cannot be simultaneously true, in the sense of historical truth. Initially, either there were several rocks under Yaakov's head, or there was one. Perhaps one can say all these meforshim understand the midrash allegorically. But they do not say this, and while the symbolism is midrash rabba gives me cause to say this, there is also reason to assume that this midrash was intended absolutely literally.

Thus, I suspect that this is one of many instances in which many of the medieval Jewish exegetes felt empowered to argue on midrash. (As per Shmuel Hanagid and others.) One can, of course, spin this in another way. The key, I think, is to keep pointing out such instances, thus building a corpus of such examples. Some of those will be stronger examples than others, but eventually, I think the pattern will emerge.

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