Sunday, January 10, 2010

How could Rashi say that animals don't need midwives?!

Summary: Challenging a midrash, brought by Rashi, that animals don't need midwives. With an obvious, and not so obvious answer. But more deeply, what makes for a silly question, and what makes for a legitimate question, in Rashi studies?

Post: Rashi cites a midrash explaining what chayos means, in context of the Israelite women who do not need midwives. The pasuk and Rashi:

19. And the midwives said to Pharaoh, "Because the Hebrew women are not like the Egyptian women, for they are skilled as midwives; when the midwife has not yet come to them, they have [already] given birth."

יט. וַתֹּאמַרְןָ הַמְיַלְּדֹת אֶל פַּרְעֹה כִּי לֹא כַנָּשִׁים הַמִּצְרִיֹּת הָעִבְרִיֹּת כִּי חָיוֹת הֵנָּה בְּטֶרֶם תָּבוֹא אֲלֵהֶן הַמְיַלֶּדֶת וְיָלָדוּ:
for they are skilled as midwives: Heb. חָיוֹת, as skillful as midwives. The Targum מְיַלְּדֹת is חַייָתָא Our Rabbis (Sotah 11b), however, interpreted it to mean that they [the Israelite women] are compared to beasts (חַיּוֹת) of the field, which do not require midwives. Now where are they compared to beasts? A cub [and] a grown lion (Gen. 49:9), a wolf, he will prey (Gen. 49:27), His firstborn bull (Deut. 33:17), a swift gazelle (Gen. 49:21). Whoever [was not compared to a beast as above] was included by Scriptures in [the expression] and blessed them (Gen. 49:18). Scripture states further: How was your mother a lioness? (Ezek. 19:2). [From Sotah 11b]

כי חיות הנה: בקיאות כמילדות. תרגום מילדות חיתא. ורבותינו דרשו הרי הן משולות לחיות השדה שאינן צריכות מילדות. והיכן משולות לחיות, גור אריה (בראשית מט ט), זאב יטרף (שם כז), בכור שורו (דברים לג יז), אילה שלוחה (בראשית מט כא), ומי שלא נכתב בו הרי הכתוב כללן (בראשית מט כח) ויברך אותם, ועוד כתיב (יחזקאל יט ב) מה אמך לביא:
This based on the gemara in Sota daf 11b::
ש(שמות א) ותאמרן המילדות אל פרעה כי לא כנשים וגו' מאי חיות אילימא חיות ממש אטו חיה מי לא צריכה חיה אחריתי לאולודה אלא אמרו לו אומה זו כחיה נמשלה יהודה (בראשית מט) גור אריה דן יהי דן נחש נפתלי אילה שלוחה יששכר חמור גרם יוסף בכור שור בנימין זאב יטרף דכתיב ביה כתיב ביה ודלא כתיב ביה כתיב  (יחזקאל יט) מה אמך לביא בין אריות רבצה וגו'ש

And the midwives said unto Pharaoh, Behold the Hebrew women are not as the Egyptian women etc.28  What means hayoth?29  If it is to say they were actually midwives,30  do you infer that a midwife does not require another midwife to deliver her child! — But [the meaning is] they said to him, This people are compared to an animal [hayyah] — Judah [is called] a lion's whelp;31  of Dan [it is said] Dan shall be a serpent;32  Naphtali [is called] a hind let loose;33  Issachar a strong ass;34  Joseph a firstling bullock;35  Benjamin a wolf that ravineth.36  [Of those sons of Jacob where a comparison with an animal] is written in connection with them, it is written: but [in the instances where such a comparison] is not written, there is the text: What was thy mother? A lioness; she couched among lions etc.37
Thus, the gemara itself considers the "peshat" meaning of midwives, but gives reason that it would not make sufficient sense, such that an alternative explanation is required. Rashi, however, insists on the first as peshat and the latter as derash. Rashi also appears to add, or rather, make explicit, the idea that since they are similar to animals, they do not require midwives. Such seems implicit (but only so)from the give and take of the gemara.

In Yeriot Shlomo, Maharshal addresses the assertion that animals do not need midwives, citing Paneach Raza:

That which Rashi explained that they are compared to animals who do not require midwives -- it is a question, this that we say in Bava Batra, perek HaShutfin, that this ayalah {hind/hart} has a narrow womb, and Hashem designates for it a serpent for the time that it crouches down to give birth {which bites it and helps it give birth - a natural episiotomy of sorts}. Thus it is clear that it does not give birth of its own accord. There is to say {in answer} that even so, it does not require a human midwife. Paneach Raza.

That gemara he refers to, Bava Batra 16a-b, darshens a pasuk in Iyov:

א  הֲיָדַעְתָּ--עֵת, לֶדֶת יַעֲלֵי-סָלַע;    חֹלֵל אַיָּלוֹת תִּשְׁמֹר.
1 Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth? Or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve?
ב  תִּסְפֹּר יְרָחִים תְּמַלֶּאנָה;    וְיָדַעְתָּ, עֵת לִדְתָּנָה.
2 Canst thou number the months that they fulfil? Or knowest thou the time when they bring forth?
ג  תִּכְרַעְנָה, יַלְדֵיהֶן תְּפַלַּחְנָה;    חֶבְלֵיהֶם תְּשַׁלַּחְנָה.
3 They bow themselves, they bring forth their young, they cast out their fruit.

That gemara reads:
 Knowest thou the time when the wild goats of the rock bring forth, or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve?37  This wild goat is heartless towards her young. When she crouches for delivery, she goes up to the top of a mountain so that the young shall fall down and be killed, and I prepare an eagle to catch it in his wings and set it before her, and if he were one second too soon or too late it would be killed.1  I do not confuse one moment with another, and shall I confuse Iyob with Oyeb? Or canst thou mark when the hinds do calve? This hind has a narrow womb. When she crouches for delivery, I prepare a serpent which bites her at the opening of the womb, and she is delivered of her offspring; and were it one second too soon or too late, she would die.2  I do not confuse one moment with another, and shall I confuse Iyob with Oyeb?
At first and second glance, this question seems ridiculous! That a particular random animal happens to need some help giving birth is well beyond the point. Rather, the general idea is that they are like animals, and animals in general do not require midwives. Then, some nice pesukim showing how they are compared in various pesukim to animals.

Still, we could bolster the question by noting that the animal which requires the serpent's help giving birth is the hind. And Naftali is that same animal. So we should expect some consistency in the manner. We can also perhaps bolster the particular answer, that just as animals do not need outside help from the human species, so too the Israelites do not need outside help from human midwives. Still, it does not seem like a valid question to start out with. This seems like nit-picking, and surely does not reflect the intent of the midrash. Animals in general do not need midwives!

(Aside from all this is that I don't believe that, based on what we know about modern zoology, harts actually require serpents to give birth. In which case the gemara in Bava Batra was either based on faulty science, or else was intended allegorically. If the latter, then the question to the local interpretation of chayos would not even start.)

I do like the type of answer, however. There is no drastic reinterpretation of Rashi, or the midrash, in play. Rather, the answer given challenges the assumptions of the question itself. Nu, nu, human midwives intended by the midrash, and so the question is not a sound question. I don't think we need to go even that far, but again, the style of answer is a useful one.

Why am I bothering to even focus on what seems to be such a non-question? The answer is two-fold. First, because it is an amusing question, that required a good eye, bekius in Shas, and extreme creativity. That is, it is just a fun devar Torah. Second, that it is indeed extremely useful, for directing our attention to methodology. Just what do we consider a valid question. Many times, I see questions in various supercommentators that I simply would not consider valid questions. But they do see it as such, and the question often compels drastic reinterpretation of Rashi and/or a midrash. And this difference is not due to my low madreiga, but rather a very different methodology and approach to what we would consider peshat. It pays to be cognizant of this. Also, that it brings to the fore the idea of answering a question by challenging the assumptions of the question. Sometimes it pays to accept the assumption, and play the game, in order to consider the question from another perspective. But sometimes the proper approach is to not accept the premeses, and to demonstrate why the premises are unfounded. And that, too, is talmud Torah.

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