Sunday, July 04, 2010

Demonic messages between Sura and Pumbedita

I would like to consider, once again, the gemara in Eruvin about Yosef Sheida from two perspectives -- my own (last discussed here), and that of Meiri. In both instances, there are new facets.

First, the gemara in Eruvin which I claim indicates literal belief in sheidim. I should point out that I strongly suspect that this gemara is not from the Amoraim but from the Rabanan Sovorai, and so this particular gemara need not indicate that Chazal themselves believed in literal demons.

The gemara reads as follows. Eruvin 43a:

תא שמע הני שב שמעתא דאיתאמרן בצפר' בשבתא קמיה דרב חסדא בסורא בהדי פניא בשבתא קמיה דרבא בפומבדיתא מאן אמרינהו לאו אליהו אמרינהו אלמא אין תחומין למעלה מעשרה לא דלמא יוסף שידא אמרינהו
Or, from the Point by Point Summary:

(f) Answer #3: Seven teachings were said Shabbos morning in front of Rav Chisda in Sura, and Shabbos afternoon in front of Rabah in Pumbadisa [which is outside the Techum of Sura; surely, the same person said them]!
1. Suggestion: Eliyahu said them (he flew above 10 from Sura to Pumbadisa) - this shows that Techumim does not apply above 10! Me'iri, Chasam Sofer 6:98
(g) Rejection: Perhaps they were said by a certain Shed [that does not observe Shabbos]. 
I would emend this to not just "a certain Shed" by Yosef the Shed, the same one who spoke to Rav Yosef and Rav Papa elsewhere; and that he does not observe Shabbos is Rashi's explanation.

There are two reasons to leap to the assumption that a magical or mystical creature is responsible. First, how are you to travel higher than 10 handbreadths the entire distance from Sura to Pumpedita? It must be via flight, which Eliyahu haNavi could accomplish. But once we assume it is someone violating the Shabbos, why assume a sheid, a demon, particularly? Why not any human being, be it a non-Jew or any irreligious Jew?

Thus, the second reason. Sura is located about 6 km from al-Hira, according to a teshuva from Rav Natronai Gaon. Its longitude and latitude coordinates are: 31°53′N 44°27′E. Here is an image of Sura, in modern-day Iraq:

Meanwhile, Pumpedita was located in what is modern-day Fallujah. Its coordinates are: 33°21′04″N 43°47′10″E. And here is an image of it, placed in Iraq:
They seem pretty close, but maps can be deceiving. Just how far away are they from one another? Using the FCC's distance calculator:

    Distance between

N Latitude 31 53 0.00, E Longitude 44 27 0.00 (Point 1)

and N Latitude 33 21 4.00, E Longitude 43 47 10.00 (Point 2)

174.628 kilometers; 108.509 miles

Azimuth from point 1 to point 2 = 339.32°
Azimuth from point 2 to point 1 = 158.96°

And that is as the crow flies! Can a normal human walk, or run, 108.509 miles from Shabbos morning to afternoon?! Of course, there are other possibilities. For example, by horse, though this would certainly violate Shabbos. According to one website:
Horses speed varies with their stride length, body build, and other factors, but here is a basic idea of how fast-- in miles per hour-- horses move at their various gaits:

Walk: Roughly 3-4 MPH. A pleasure show horse can go as slow as 2 mph. Gaited horses-- who do not trot-- can do a 'running walk' as fast as 15 mph.

Trot: The trot is roughly 8-10 MPH. Again, a shorter striding horse could trot slower, and a horse with a long stride could move faster.
Canter/Lope: 10-17 MPH.
Gallop: This depends on the horse's condition and athletic ability. Some horses are not built to run fast an may only do a fast canter at their best; however, the gallop is about 30 mph. Thoroughbreds, which are bred for running distance but not speed, have been clocked at over 40 MPH. Quarter horses, bred and raced for short distances at speed, can reach 50 MPH in short bursts according to the AQHA's website.
So a thoroughbred, running at full gallop, for three hours could make the trip. But how long can a horse maintain this full gallop? According to another horse site:
How long can a horse sustain a gallop? The distance a horse can maintain a gallop depends on their build and physical fitness. A well conditioned horse can easily maintain a gallop for a mile to a mile and a half. At two to two and a half miles most horses will feel fatigued. Lighter built horses (Arabians and Thoroughbreds) can maintain a gallop over longer distances than heavier horses (Draft or Quarter Horse type), and horses with longer strides can travel longer distances with less effort. 
A horse is built to cover many miles in one day, but not at a gallop. A horse can cover more ground, faster, if kept consistently at a trot. While a horse may be exhausted after a three mile gallop, that same horse could trot, with a few walk breaks, 15 miles without extraordinary strain. 
Most people assume the Pony Express riders galloped their entire route. In fact, the speed of a pony express rider averages out to 10 miles per hour- meaning they spent most of their time alternating between a trot (about 8-9 mph) and a canter (12-13mph). The Pony Express riders switched to fresh horses every 10-15 miles. 
So we would not expect one horse to make this trip, or at full gallop. Maybe if the person switched horses every two or three miles, but that would involve a lot of horses. I suppose at an average between a trot and canter, that is an average of 10 mph, and switching horses about ten times, one could make it in 11 hours. On a long Shabbos, this might be just possible. It is still quite an ordeal, and thus somewhat farfetched.

Another possibility recommends itself by examining the map. Both Sura and Pumpedisa are located on the river. (Indeed, Pum-Bedita means "at the mouth of the Bedita river, which is a stream of the Euphrates.) Which way does the water flow in the Euphrates? In a south-easterly direction. Since Pumpedita is northwest of Sura, and the message came from Sura, this would mean moving upstream, against the current. But according to this book, Ebalitica, in discussing the Euphrates river and in general, in Old Babylonian Times, speed upstream by boat or by foot was about 25 to 30 airline km / day, which falls far short of the required 174 km.

Now, that was much earlier, in Old Babylonian times. Perhaps by Talmudic times, a boat could make this 108.5 mile jouney on a Shabbos. Indeed, a boat is one of the subjects under discussion in the gemara.

Regardless, I think the extreme distance and thus fast travel necessitated Eliyahu Hanavi, or else a demon, in the thought of the gemara.

In my earlier post I considered the possibility that Yosef Sheda was a human expert on demons. I would now say that I regard this as unlikely, based on the wording in Pesachim:
אמר רב פפא אמר לי יוסף שידא בתרי קטלינן בארבעה לא קטלינן בארבעה מזקינן בתרי בין בשוגג בין במזיד בארבעה במזיד אין בשוגג לא
Or in English:
Rav Papa: Yosef the Shed told me that Shedim kill on account of two (e.g. cups); they damage on account of four, but they do not kill;
1. They strike on account of two whether it was Shogeg or Mezid; they damage on account of four only if it was Mezid.
From the wording of קטלינן, and מזקינן, "we kill" and "we damage", it rather seems that Yosef Sheda himself is a sheid.

Back to the gemara in Eruvin, given the astounding speed required to travel this great distance, I would regard the reference to Eliyahu Hanavi in the gemara as absolutely literal. And as such, he is traveling by flying very very quickly, higher than 10 tefachim. And if Eliyahu HaNavi was intended absolutely literally, then I would guess that Yosef Sheda was also intended absolutely literally, but that since Yosef is a sheid and not a Jew, since he is not a human being, as Rashi writes, he does not keep the Shabbos.

An allegorical approach seems far-fetched to me, because if Eliyahu Hanavi is supposed to represent, e.g., a deep spiritual realization, while  Yosef Sheda, e.g., represents the Yetzer Hara or some such idea, why in the former case would it be subject to the laws of Shabbos, such that we can derive laws of techum? And in the latter case, how is this allegorical meaning to convey a message from one place to another? In other words, there are aspects of the gemara itself that seem to require a literalness to Eliyahu haNavi and Yosef Sheda.

It is of course always possible to kvetch any gemara, given enough brilliance, time and effort. Still, I prefer to take a text-internal approach. Ignore any hashkafic repercussions. What in the gemara itself indicates the most likely way to interpret this? And that we are drawing halachic repercussions from a discussion about a real-life incident where diyukim are made from rather practical considerations of where the path of travel must have been, I would conclude that the most likely interpretation is a literal one.

Once we know this, there are two possibilities. Either Chazal (in this gemara) are right and we are wrong about the reality of sheidim, or the reverse.

Meanwhile, the Meiri does not believe that demons are real, and he has a running commentary on the gemara. How does he interpret the gemara?

Well, in terms of how to travel higher than 10 tefachim off the ground, Meiri notes in the beginning of the gemara:
בעי רב חנניא יש תחומין למעלה מעשרה או אין תחומין למעלה מעשרה עמוד גבוה עשרה ורחב ארבעה לא תיבעי לך דארעא סמיכתא היא כי תיבעי לך בעמוד גבוה עשרה ואינו רחב ארבעה אי נמי דקאזיל בקפיצה לישנא אחרינא בספינה מאי
We are not discussing land higher than 10 tefachim but wider than 4, for this is considered ground. Rather, it is higher than 10 but very narrow, narrower than 4. Alternatively, בקפיצה. This means, according to Meiri, either via repeated jumping or some תחבולה, trick, ruse, strategem. Alternatively, by boat (where the boat is 10 tefachim off the riverbed).

How does he explain Eliyahu Hanavi? As follows:

ובאו ללמדה משב שמעתא הנזכרות (בראש בפרק) [בר"פ] אלו
טרפות דאיתמר בצפרא לקמיה דרב חסדא בסורא ובאותו היום
בעצמו נאמרו לרבה בפום בדיתא ויש שם יתר מן התתום אף
על ידי עירוב ואם כן מל כרחך בשהלך המגיד למעלה מעשרה
והמשילו [לאליהו] על דמיון תנועת העופפות . ולמדנו מכל מקום
שכל למעלה מעשרה מהלך כמו שירצה . ותירץ לו דרך צחות
דלמא יוסף שידא . פרשו בו גדולי הרבנים שאינו משמר שבת .

Thus, it is not Eliyahu HaNavi, but they only used him by way of comparison, that it was someone traveling over 10 tefachim, in a way similar to Eliyahu Hanavi who would fly. And by Yosef Sheda, he does not say that it means a sheid, but just that various meforshim say that this Yosef Sheda did not keep Shabbos. Perhaps he maintains that this is a human named Yosef Sheda, or a parallel to Yosef Sheda but any individual who does not keep Shabbos. He is unfortunately not explicit on this point, but I do believe he is explaining why one need not resort to belief in demons.

In terms of whether I think it is plausible, while more plausible than an allegorical interpretation, I don't find it more plausible than the literal. After all, later on in the same gemara they discuss how Mashiach cannot come on Shabbos, and mention Eliyahu Hanavi coming the day before. It is a bit strange for the former to be non-literal and the latter to be literal. And if simply a human, this does not account for the great speed from one place to the other. And it is difficult to say that there is a 100+ mile high and narrow land-ridge from Sura to Pumpedisa, over which someone ran at great speed. I suppose we can salvage this by saying that this was travel by boat, but I would really have expected the gemara to say simply that the travel was by boat. Further, Eliyahu Hanavi and Yosef Sheda (based on that other gemara I mentioned) are mythical persons/demons. That the gemara chooses these two in particular is strange, and would indicate to me a literal approach.


E-Man said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
E-Man said...

Ok, I am going to admit, finding this Gemorah made me literally shout booja (I don;t mean to be offensive, I was just really happy) Gemora Pesachim 52a:

R. Nathan b. Asia went from Rab's academy [in Sura]2 to Pumbeditha on
the second Festival day of Pentecost.

So it seems like, from this Gemora, that Sura to Pumbedisa was a one day journey for someone who was not keeping shabbos.

joshwaxman said...

in terms of Rashi vs. Tosafot, neither one trumps what we know about metzius.

good catch, and point. my answer is that that is not the correct girsa, because indeed, one cannot travel that distance. Rather, it is like we find in the Rosh and in (I think) the Munich manuscript -- rather than בי רב as two words, it is בירם. Biram was a town on the West Bank of the Euphrates, and the home of Rav Natan bar Asia. See the footnote in the page you linked to.

assuming this girsa is correct, however, in terms of this travel, we still would need to account for the metzius. can one travel 108 miles in the time period of Shabbos morning to Shabbos afternoon? And I still believe this is what was influencing the assumption that it was Eliyahu or a Sheid. (and I don't think I was the one who originated this idea either; i recall reading it when I first learned this gemara.)

assuming that the gemara in Pesachim means that he set out AND arrived, he still has the entire night, which is twice the time span of the gemara in Eruvin.

and there is still the difficulty with Yosef Sheda being a man when he is claiming that "we" kill or damage for drinking zugos; the same Yosef Sheida in this gemara who was chosen since he is the famous Shed who speaks to rabbis in Pumpedita, such as Abaye.

kol tuv,

E-Man said...

Isn't it possible that in the times of the Amoraim the location of Pumbedita and Sura changed from the time of the Gaonim that was at least 300 years later? I mean, the Gemora in Kedushin even talks about how cities moved locations up and down the river or the other side of the river within less time.

Also, I deal with your problem of Yosef Sheida being a man and saying we in my post. Rambam explains that Sheidim are just wicked men.

joshwaxman said...

anything is *possible*. but i would not consider it *likely*. it seems like a kvetch, in order to salvage one interpretation of the gemara -- especially as there was no evidence that it was moved, or that is even was within range of a day's travel. meanwhile, I would see in the statement שב שמעתא דאיתאמרן בצפר' בשבתא קמיה דרב חסדא בסורא בהדי פניא בשבתא קמיה דרבא בפומבדיתא a focus on time, as having a role in the wonder of this remarkable event. (and indeed, what made it remarkable before it was cited as proof regarding techum in this context).

in terms of Bei Rav / Biram, i would add that lectio difficilior works towards Biram. Bei Rav is more common, and known as an academy just as Pumpedita is an academy, and so a scribe is more likely to emend it in that direction. A scribe is less likely to emend it towards Biram; and as a corruption, the odds, purely by chance, that it would accord with a local town is small. Add to this the 100 mile difference, which is non-obvious but works against the obvious peshat, and we have good reasons to think Biram.

Once we realize that they are so distant, we understand why specifically Yosef Sheida in this gemara rather than just any random Shabbos violator.

I saw what you wrote in your post, but am unconvinced. That Rambam uses this allegorical approach in one place does not mean that he would apply it consistently across the board. He was dealing with a midrash from Chazal interpreting a *pasuk*, and explained that midrash homiletically in a way that those sheidim were people of not-good-caliber. But while this works for that particular midrash, and perhaps several others, it does not apply readily to e.g. zugos. Would Rambam indeed say that there were a bunch of evil men keeping watch of how many drinks people drank (including in the quiet of their own homes, such as the Pesach seder), and would beat or kill if they counted an even number of drinks?! would these evil men really be concerned with how many marks there were on a barrel, and cause it to burst? I would doubt that Rambam would really say this.

When the gemara in Chagiga says (as a summary): These, it is said, resemble the ministering Angels in three respects, and in three respects they are similar to men. Like the former, they have wings and can fly from one end of the earth to the other, they are invisible, and they know information from behind the Veil (Pargod). Like men, they eat and drink, procreate, and die.

Would Rambam interpret this as evil men? how are they invisible and how do they travel from one end of the earth to the other? how are they privy to things beyond the Veil? of course, one could come up with an allegorical explanation for this, with enough effort. but i think one would HAVE to, and it is not enough to simply show one instance in which Rambam allegorized a particular midrash.

specifically, the ones regarding Yosef Sheda (about zugos, and Ashmedai) require explanation, as it is Yosef Sheda in play here. and to explain regarding zugos that it is evil men seems rather forced.

kol tuv,

E-Man said...

I hear what u are saying. I will have to concede, since I want to move on to a different subject, that Rambam would probably allegorize most of these Gemorahs like I pointed out in my post. David Guttman actually told me that the Rambam prefers to allegorize gemoras unless forced to say they are a daas yachid that we don't hold like. I don't know, but this was a fun and interesting discussion. Shkoyach. I am returning to med school and will not have as much time to research stuff so I just wanted to say I appreciated the debate. Hopefully we can discuss many more subjects.

E-Man said...

I am sorry, I was learning Sanhedrin 108a and I just happened to pass by the city of Biram. Supposedly it is in Israel or right outside Israel. So how could Biram make any sense?

E-Man said...

[H] (Gadara) was famous for its thermal springs; Eusebius, Jerome, and other authors of antiquity speak of its thermal waters, and it is identified with Gum Kreis — Neubauer, Geographie, p. 35. Biram, identified with Baaras near the thermal spring of Callirhoe, east of the Dead Sea. V. Neubauer, op. cit. 36.


joshwaxman said...

perhaps there are two Birams. the one which makes sense as within distance of Pumpedita is the one mentioned in Rosh Hashanah 23a going on to 23b: מאי בית בלתין אמר רב זו בירם מאי גולה אמר רב יוסף זו פומבדיתא

that is, the last stop of the bonfires lit was in Biram, and this was seen in Golah, meaning Pumpedisa. this also makes sense in context of the gemara -- since Biram was within range and was aware of when Bet Din established the month, they only had one day of Yom Tov. Rabbi Natan went from where there was one day to Pumpedisa, where they held by two days...

E-Man said...

Ok, but I thought that Biram could be the same city. Fire signals can be seen from very long distances, no? Whatever, it isn't a big deal, just something to think about.

joshwaxman said...

let me preface this with a statement that i don't know. these are all back-of-the-envelope calculations.

i'm pretty sure it isn't the same city. the Biram of Eretz Yisrael is, as you write, "identified with Baaras near the thermal spring of Callirhoe, east of the Dead Sea". and according to the other site, identifying the other Biram, has "Var. lec. ‘Biram’ on the West bank of the Euphrates."

there is quite a far distance from the Dead Sea to the Euphrates, such that it wouldn't be considered the west bank of it.

consider this image:

also, based on the same distance calculator, where point 1 is the longitude and latitude of the Dead Sea, while point 2 is that of Pumpedisa:
Distance between

N Latitude 31 20 0.00, E Longitude 35 30 0.00 (Point 1)

and N Latitude 33 21 4.00, E Longitude 43 47 10.00 (Point 2)

809.747 kilometers; 503.154 miles

I doubt that a bonfire would be visible 500 miles away. also, it would seem impossible for someone to travel from there to Pumpedita in a day, though of course you can abide by the other girsa that it was Bei Rav instead. But it seems, rather, that it extended quite a bit outside Eretz Yisrael, up to this other Biram.

the gemara says they started the bonfire at har hamishcha and they had stations every 8 parsaot, with a total of 32 stations altogether.

a parsa is about 4km, such that 8 parsaot is about 32 km. and so, with 32 stations total, this would be 1024 km.

according to the calculations, from har hamishcha (aka har hazeisim), a mountain range, to Pumpedisa, is:
Distance between

N Latitude 31 47 0.00, E Longitude 35 15 3.00 (Point 1)

and N Latitude 33 21 4.00, E Longitude 43 47 10.00 (Point 2)

818.250 kilometers; 508.437 miles

that is around the right distance, if our parsaot are a bit off.

but from har hazeisim to the dead sea, we have the following distance:
Distance between

N Latitude 31 47 0.00, E Longitude 35 15 0.00 (Point 1)

and N Latitude 31 20 0.00, E Longitude 35 30 0.00 (Point 2)

55.354 kilometers; 34.395 miles

that would constitute less than 2 stations, whereas we would expect 32 stations!

again, these are back-of-the-envelope calculations, and i have not learned these gemaras in nearly enough detail, but it seems like it could not possibly be the same Biram, as the last station before Pumbedita.


Pharasite said...

How fast do camels go?
The Gemara discusses a Gamla Parcha, which I assume just means a fast camel (as opposed to some magical flying one).

joshwaxman said...

good point. indeed, in the gemara on makos daf 5, gamla parcha in all likelihood means an extremely swift camel.

according to modern calculations:
"Racing camels top speed 40 mph. Can run at 18 mph for one hour or 7 mph for up to 18 hours."

"Racing camel. Racing camels top speed 40 mph. Can run at 25 mph for one hour or 12 mph for up to 18 hours. Two very fast racing camels"

i think the second one is talking about a racing dromedary (and this is what soncino suggests for gamla parcha as well.)

that gemara (in Makos 5a; also 116a) was actually talking about testimony in Sura and later seeing someone in Nehardea in the evening, where we measure whether one could travel in that time normally, rather than using unusually swift camels, which are not shchiach. in yevamos, we *are* choshesh for this extreme scenario.

from Sura to Nehardea is in fact even more distant:

Distance between

N Latitude 31 53 0.00, E Longitude 44 27 0.00 (Point 1)

and N Latitude 33 22 43.00, E Longitude 43 18 45.00 (Point 2)

197.432 kilometers; 122.678 miles

so indeed, that would be a mechanism for travel between the two places, while not keeping Shabbos. it would not be, though, for the first part, namely Eliyahu Hanavi; and once we have the magical Eliyahu Hanavi, my gut tells me that the Yosef Sheda is also to be interpreted simply, as an actual Shed, especially as we have the other gemara in Yerushalmi Terumos that Shedim can travel very long distances in almost zero times, and not that the gemara was considering something which elsewhere was labeled (by Rava) as not shchiach.

(practically, though, that is probably how the shev shmaysa was in fact conveyed.)


joshwaxman said...

i'm actually not positive about the speed of the racing camel, and am not positive about the conflict from the two pages on this site:


E-Man said...

I would tend to think this site is more reliable than either of those:

and it says:

"Another issue: camels never run, they just speed up, in their typical gait of moving simultaneously the feet of the same part of the body. Running would raise transpiration. They can make daily 160 km (100 miles) with a speed of 16 km (10 mi)/hour. In caravans, they make 30-40 km (18-25 mi) per day, with an average age of 3.5 km (2.2 mi) per hour. The maximum speed achieved by a camel is 25 km (16 mi) per hour, but they get tired quickly. "

joshwaxman said...

i'm not sure if this is referring to the "swift camels" or normal camels, though.

i don't think we can rely on "swift" camels in explaining the gemara in Eruvin, because beside Yosef Sheda implying action via sheid (and thus swift magical transportation), if it were meant as simply a non-Shabbos observer, then the ikkar is chaser min hasefer, for it is not schiach, and so the gemara should have said Yosef Sheda using a Gamla Parcha.

if this is the normal speed of regular camels, and they can indeed travel 100 miles a day, then perhaps this 108.5 miles are doable. if it is as the crow flies, rather than roads which twist and turn. and depending on when in the morning and when in the afternoon, and the length of the day, it might be just possible. still, i don't agree that this is the likely meaning of the gemara, for the reasons listed above -- what yosef sheda means elsewhere, that speed is now a factor in the sugya, that Eliyahu more or less HAS to be literal and magical, and so this would imply the same about Yosef Sheda, and that it was assumed that to Nehardea, about another 10-15 miles, was unreachable in this timespan except by gamla parcha, which is not shchiach.



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