Tuesday, November 17, 2009

To whom does Avraham bow in Chayei Sarah?

Towards the start of Chayei Sarah, Avraham clearly bows down to the Bnei Cheis. As the pasuk states:

ז וַיָּקָם אַבְרָהָם וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ לְעַם-הָאָרֶץ, לִבְנֵי-חֵת.7 And Abraham rose up, and bowed down to the people of the land, even to the children of Heth.

It couldn't really get clearer than that. A bit later, in the same parsha:

יב וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ, אַבְרָהָם, לִפְנֵי, עַם הָאָרֶץ.12 And Abraham bowed down before the people of the land.

"Before" can yield two different interpretations, where "to" cannot really. Much later in the parsha, the servant of Avraham bows down to Hashem:

כו וַיִּקֹּד הָאִישׁ, וַיִּשְׁתַּחוּ לַיהוָה.26 And the man bowed his head, and prostrated himself before the LORD.
Here, there is absolutely no question that the bowing is targeting towards Hashem.

Now, on the first instance of bowing, or else the second, Bereishit Rabba states:
וישתחו אברהם לפני עם הארץ
מיכן שמודים על בשורה טובה:
If a religious derivation, one might well think that this is intended as bowing to Hashem. The cited pasuk here is the later one, lifnei am haaretz, which at least is slightly ambiguous. Had it been on leam haaretz livnei chait then the pasuk would appear to clearly contradict the midrash.

Even so, it is somewhat irregular for the midrash to be on the second instance of Avraham's bowing. Midrash Rabba works as a running commentary on the pesukim, and the placement of this particular midrash is immediately before a midrash on אִם-יֵשׁ אֶת-נַפְשְׁכֶם in pasuk 8. If so, this should be a midrash on pasuk 7.

Different commentators of midrash react to this differently. Maharzu, in his peirush, says that this is weird, and its proper place is on the later pasuk, pasuk 12. Chidushei HaRashash emends the text, and claims that the citation should indeed be of pasuk 7. We will see Ibn Ezra's objection in a moment, and I would suggest that his objection might have prompted an emendation from Rashash's original text to the text as it now stands.

Ibn Ezra objects to this midrash. On pasuk 7, he writes:
כג, ז]
ודקדוק וישתחו - בספר היסוד.
והאומרים כי השתחויתו הייתה לשם לא אמרו כלום, כי הכתוב אמר שהשתחוה לבני חת. והשתחויה שישוח ראשו וזה משפט הנותן שבח לאחר, וגם משה השתחווה לחותנו.
That is, he cites "those who say" that Avraham's bowing was to Hashem, but those people are saying nothing, for the pasuk states explicitly that the bowing was to the sons of Chet. Further, he assumes that what motivates them is that they are bothered by Avraham bowing to anyone other than God, but shows that this was typical custom of rendering praise to another person, such that even Moshe Rabbenu bowed to his in-law.

It would seem that the ones Ibn Ezra asserts are saying nothing are Chazal, or the particular midrashic authors in Midrash Rabba. So he is arguing on a midrash of Chazal here, and is stating that it is incorrect. And this is how Mechokekei Yehuda understands him.

On the later bowing as well, Ibn Ezra asserts that despite it saying lifnei, it means a bowing to Ephron, who has granted him what he desired.
כג, יב]
לפני עם הארץ -
וזאת ההשתחויה הייתה לפני עם הארץ, לעפרון לתת שבח לו:
That is, he sees the same thing the midrash seems to have seen, that it was before them for some purpose. But despite this, he still rejects the idea that this bowing was towards Hashem. Rather, it was to Ephron. Presumably, the stage is set by the earlier bowing, such that it is made clear the cultural, rather than religious, purpose of this bowing.

Ibn Ezra is not alone in this. He is joined in this by Rashbam:

פסוק יב
וישתחו אברהם -
לעפרון לפני עם הארץ.
by Abarbanel, and by Shadal:
יב] וישתחו אברהם : לעפרון (רשב"ם ראב"ע ודון יצחק).ע

Meanwhile, Mechokekei Yehuda directs us to an interesting Yefei Toar (a commentary on Midrash Rabba) on the subject of Ibn Ezra's disagreement with the midrash.

He cites Ibn Ezra's rejection as based on the verse explicitly stating le'am ha`aretz, livnei cheit. And despite the midrash stating it based on the later pasuk 12, for if so, why bring it down here, at this point in the Midrash? And also, why cite this later pasuk 12, rather than the earlier pasuk 7? It is not appropriate for Avraham, a prince of God among them, to degrade himself in this way, for a melech, his kavod is not machul. And indeed, Ibn Ezra already feels this, when he writes that the bowing is just the bowing of the head:
והשתחויה שישוח ראשו וזה משפט הנותן שבח לאחר
But Chazal don't say this, but rather that hishtahavaya is pishut yadayim veraglayim. And indeed, later on, Avraham bows down before the Am HaAretz, and he should have bowed down to Ephron. Rather, certainly, the bowing was to Hashem, in both these instances. And the reason it cited the second pasuk, 12, to hint that this verse in particular reveals this. And so leAm haaretz livnei Chet means to the eyes of the Am HaAretz. (And I think he means as well, to the eyes of the bnei Chet.)

An interesting and strong defense. And it is possible. But the irregularities still trouble me. And even with this, Ibn Ezra would certainly argue.

I would just insert here that Ibn Caspi also seems to think that the second instance is
וישתהו אברהם לפני עם הארץ. לא לעם הארץ, וגם.
: לא לעפרון, כמו שאבאר בס׳ טירת כסף
Though I don't have the sefer Tirat Kesef to check it up, and the author of the footnote on this also doesn't help us out. But he is arguing with Rashbam and Ibn Ezra; and the likelihood is that in this, he is saying like the midrash, that while in the first instance it was to the bnei Chet, in the second instance, it was to Hashem.

One final point. This midrash appears elsewhere. As I noted, later in Chayei Sarah, Eliezer bows down, and there it is explicitly to Hashem. And midrash rabba there states:

ויקד האיש וישתחוו לה'
מכאן שמודים על בשורה טובה.
This is a much better match. Now, we saw elsewhere in Midrash Rabba on Toldot and Vayera that certain sugyas are transferred, or else repeated, from one place to another. (Actually, I discuss this in the next planned post, not yet published.) Thus, the Hashem not speaking to any woman but that tzadekes, meaning Sarah, and only there based on an ila, was repeated because it was relevant to Rivkah in parshat Toldot. The same sugya appears, though with slightly different text, and one location seems primary. Perhaps the same occurred here, and only Eliezer was intended. I am not convinced of this, however.

I also wonder if perhaps modim al besorah tovah could somehow be cast as thanking in general, rather than thanking Hashem specifically. It seems unlikely.

At the end of the day, here is what I think:

1) I am not convinced the midrash means to darshen pasuk 7 at all.
2) If it did mean to darshen pasuk 7, then I would side with Ibn Ezra in terms of peshat.
3) It is possible to make a derasha on pasuk 12, and it seems that this is what the midrash did -- unless it is a shifted sugya, or unless Chidushei HaRashash is correct.
4) Despite the possibility to make this derash, as a matter of peshat, pasuk 12 informs us of the meaning of pasuk 7 -- this despite what Ibn Caspi seems to say.
5) I am not certain that Lifnei Am HaAretz in pasuk 12 actually does mean to Ephron. I think it reads just fine as him bowing down before them, to them.
6) But the pasuk in the next perek, about Eliezer, certainly makes a good basis.

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