Friday, January 29, 2010

Twisting a pasuk, to make it accord with the scientific fact of spontaneous generation

Summary: A Mechilta, Rashi, and Ramban, all believe in spontaneous generation, and therefore grapple to understand a pasuk which seems to contradict it. This is unsurprising, since spontaneous generation was accepted as scientific fact until the recent past.

Post: In parshat Beshalach, there is a verse which describes what happened to manna left over:

20. But [some] men did not obey Moses and left over [some] of it until morning, and it bred worms and became putrid, and Moses became angry with them.כ. וְלֹא שָׁמְעוּ אֶל מֹשֶׁה וַיּוֹתִרוּ אֲנָשִׁים מִמֶּנּוּ עַד בֹּקֶר וַיָּרֻם תּוֹלָעִים וַיִּבְאַשׁ וַיִּקְצֹף עֲלֵהֶם מֹשֶׁה:

If we take this verse straightforwardly, it seems to suggest that first it bred worms, and then it rotted. Actually, I am not entirely convinced of this. I would treat it as a hendiadys, which roughly is using "two words linked by a conjunction to express a single complex idea." For example, "sound and fury" in MacBeth to represent one idea. Or alternatively put, since both happened to the leftover manna, and the intent is to describe the new state, it does not matter which came first. The idea is that this was now the new state, and at the same time, now, this was the new state. This is a different sort of ain mukdam, but one that works on a peshat level with little to no difficulty. But I can understand how others can assume that, because of the use of the vav hahippuch, the vav conversive, it refers to developing action, such that X happened before Y. That is how it is often used.

Rashi writes regarding this as follows:

and became putrid: This verse is transposed, because first it became putrid and later it bred worms, as it says: “and it did not become putrid, and not a worm was in it” (verse 24), and such is the nature of all things that become wormy. — [from Mechilta]ויבאש: הרי זה מקרא הפוך, שתחלה הבאיש ולבסוף התליע, כענין שנאמר (פסוק כד) ולא הבאיש ורמה לא היתה בו, וכן דרך כל המתליעים:

And that Mechilta:
וירם תולעים ויבאש - הרי מקרא זה מסורס. וכי מרחיש ואח"כ מבאיש, אלא מבאיש ואח"כ מרחיש, כענין שנאמר: ולא הבאיש וגו'. 
What motivates the Mechilta is that of course things don't first get wormy and then rotten. It is the opposite order. And indeed, we see this opposite order in the later pasuk. Therefore, it is a verse that has been twisted around, and we must twist it back in our minds.

But why must it be that things first rot and only then become wormy? The answer is obvious, when we consider the contemporary scientific belief, of spontaneous generation. Worms were not born of other worms, or of eggs. Rather, food rotted, and worms
spontaneously generated from that rotten material. The same thing for mice and for frogs. If the manna became wormy, that means that it spoiled and then that spoilage led to the spontaneous generation of the worms. If so, the pasuk's description must be out of order. (Of course, to the 21st century reader, there is no assumption that worms arise from spontaneous generation, and so there is no motivation to claim that the verse is out of order.)

Ramban also discusses this issue:
כ): וירם תולעים ויבאש - 
הרי זה מקרא הפוך, שבתחילה הבאיש ולבסוף התליע, כעניין שנאמר (בפסוק כד): ולא הבאיש ורמה לא הייתה בו. וכן הוא הדרך לכל דבר שהוא מן המתליעים. לשון רש"י. 

ואלו היה המן מתליע בדרך הטבע כדרך שאר המתליעים, היה הדבר כן, אבל זה שהתליע בדרך נס יתכן שהרים תולעים תחלה, ואין צורך שנהפוך המקרא.

ועוד, כי הכתוב שאמר ולא הבאיש ורמה לא הייתה בו, הוא המוכיח כן, כי אלו לא היה מרים תולעים עד אשר עלה באשו תחלה, כשאמר ולא הבאיש, כבר הבטיחנו שלא הייתה בו רמה, ולמה יכפול אחרי כן ורמה לא הייתה בו?אבל אם הרים תולעים תחלה כפשוטו של מקרא, הוצרך לומר שזה לא הבאיש וגם לא עלתה בו רמה כלל. ואף מן המתליעים בטבע לא יבאשו רק החמים ולחים מהם, אבל היבשים ירומו תולעים ולא יבאשו כלל כעצים המתליעים והפירות המרימים תולעים באיביהן או אחרי כן, וספר הכתוב שגם זה הבאיש בנס:

ובאלה שמות רבה אמרו (כה י יד): 
וכי יש לך דבר שבתחילה עושה תולעים ואחר כך מבאיש, אלא שהקב"ה בקש להראות מעשיהם לבריות, שלא יריחו את ריחו בערב וישליכו אותו, שהיה עושה כל הלילה שורות שורות של תולעים, מיד ויקצוף עליהם משה:

"That is, Ramban starts by citing Rashi. But he argues that this would only be so were the manna to work in accordance with the laws of nature. (The law of nature in question here being spontaneous generation.) But since this spoilage was miraculous, there is no need to reverse the verse. (Thus, Ramban is willing to argue on an explicit midrash of Chazal, on the basis of his understanding of how miracles work; except, as we shall see, he has a Midrash Rabba here to rely upon.) And furthermore, the pasuk a bit later, that 'it did not rot and worms were not in it" are what prove it. For if it only brought forth worms after it first rotted, then when it led of with 'it did not rot', it already would have thus informed us that there was no worminess in it (for how could worms come without rot), so why repeat afterwards that 'and there was no worminess in it"? Rather, the peshat that neither rotting nor worminess occurred. And even though by the laws of nature, only the hot and moist rot, but the dry ones bring forth worms and do not rot at all, like wood which becomes wormy and fruits which bring forth worms as they ripen or afterwards; and the Scripture related that this, as well, rotted via miracle. And in Shemot Rabba {contemporary to Rashi}, they said: "and is there something that at first makes worms and afterwards rots? Rather, Hashem wished to reveal their actions to the creatures, such that they did not smell its {rotten} smell in the evening and cast it out, for it made, all that night, lines and lines of worms. Immediately, Moshe was furious at them."

End my translation of Ramban.

This Midrash Rabba is late, contemporary to Rashi, and so also likely reflects a Rishon differing from the midrash found in Mechilta. But even this midrash appears to assume the natural order is that of spontaneous generation, and even places this spontaneous generation as miracle, in that it happened that night without rotting.

This is important in the general scheme of things. Can we say that Chazal erred in science? Spontaneous generation is often brought up. And a rather good apologetic for it is that when Chazal paskened on things such as lice, they were concerned with whether it developed from something visible, or not visible, to the naked eye. And Chazal only referred to it as spontaneous generation to make their words understandable to the people of their day. But the big problem with this is that there are no halachic repercussions in this case. And not only that, if they didn't really believe it, why are they willing to reverse the very order, and peshat, in the pasuk?!

See also Mizrachi's discussion of this Rashi and Ramban.


Z said...

It's interesting to note that the Ohr HaChaim on the pasuk says that usually things rot and then become wormy but for sweet things which attract worms it can be the opposite so the maana being sweet first became wormy.

joshwaxman said...

thanks for pointing that one out.

YoelB said...

Ramban mentions fruit that brings forth worms as it ripens... wondering if he's talking about wormy apples or dates (where the "worm" can be found in otherwise sound fruit) or fruit fly larvae where the fruit is soft and beginning to go before the eggs are laid so the "worms" come after the rotting. Flyblown meat will begin to have the first instar maggots after the first day, the second instar takes another day. How long between butchering and sale in Ramban's day?

Please note that there are two things in operation here: first, the observable phenomena (which, to be fair to the Rishonim must be limited to those which are observable by the naked eye) and second, the scientific/natural philosophical explanation, whether the explanation involves spontaneous generation or a more recent scientific understanding.


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