Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Rav Yaakov Emden's Eight-Legged Camel

On daf 18a of masechet Megillah, we learn the following:

והלועז ששמע אשורית יצא וכו
והא לא ידע מאי קאמרי מידי דהוה אנשים ועמי הארץ מתקיף לה רבינא אטו אנן האחשתרנים בני הרמכים מי ידעינן אלא מצות קריאה ופרסומי ניסא הכא נמי מצות קריאה ופרסומי ניסא:
That is, in the following pasuk, we don't really know what haAchashteranim benei haramachim means:

י  וַיִּכְתֹּב, בְּשֵׁם הַמֶּלֶךְ אֲחַשְׁוֵרֹשׁ, וַיַּחְתֹּם, בְּטַבַּעַת הַמֶּלֶךְ; וַיִּשְׁלַח סְפָרִים בְּיַד הָרָצִים בַּסּוּסִים רֹכְבֵי הָרֶכֶשׁ, הָאֲחַשְׁתְּרָנִים--בְּנֵי, הָרַמָּכִים.10 And they wrote in the name of king Ahasuerus, and sealed it with the king's ring, and sent letters by posts on horseback, riding on swift steeds that were used in the king's service, bred of the stud;

Rav Yaakov Emden has a rather colorful explanation of just what these animals were. He writes (unfortunately, the text was at the edge of my gemara, so this is a bit smudged):
The smudged Hebrew words at the edge are:

Thus, to translate to English, the text reads:
"I have seen in the words of the chroniclers of countries that they are still known and found in the land of Persia, and they are a type of camel with two humps on their back (which a man rides between them, just as on a saddle), and they have eight legs, and they are extremely swift racers, and it appears that certainly they were recognized and known to the authors of the Talmud Bavli (and so too it is apparent that they were known to the Tanna of Eretz Yisrael, as is written (in Kelaim perek 8 mishna 5) {Mishna:} "The Ramach is permitted" -- they are achashteranim benei haramachim.) And without a doubt, the gamla parcha mentioned many times in the gemara is one of them. If so, that which they said {in the gemara} "do we know?", perforce the explanation is that we don't know the words achashteranim benei haramachim, to know why they were called by these names {J: that is, their etymology}, what language they were coined from and what their implication is."

Now, we know that there is no such thing as an eight-legged camel, and I would guess that there couldn't be an eight-legged camel. As Rabbi Gil Student wrote on Hirhurim when he discussed achashteranim:
R. Yaakov Emden, in his glosses to Megillah 18a, says that he saw in Persian history books that this is a unique breed of camels with two humps and eight legs, that run very quickly. I'm not sure what books he was reading.

Can we identify what sort of camel Rav Yaakov Emden was discussing? I think we can. I believe he was referring to the Sarabha. From Essays on Indo-Aryan Mythology (and thus that of Persia):

Thus, the word Sarabha was used for real animals, such as peacocks, wild buffalos, young elephants, and camel. There is also the "fabulous" Sarabha, which is ashtapad, having eight legs, four of which are upward.

I don't know if in any of these texts, it is both eight-legged and a camel. It is certainly possible; it is also possible that Rav Yaakov Emden was relying on some text that conflated the normal Sarabha, a camel, and the fabulous Sarabha, which was eight-legged. Or else it spoke of Sarabha in different contexts and Rav Yaakov Emden put two and two together.

Here is a dictionary entry in a Sanskrit-English dictionary for Sarabha. What does the Sarabha look like? Here is one depiction, to the right. I don't think it used the extra four legs to run. They were facing upwards.

I think, therefore, that Rav Yaakov Emden was misled, and that this creature is surely not the same one as in the pasuk in Esther. This is one of the pitfalls of Torah UMaddah -- where the madda fails, the peshat fails as well.

He is likely on the right track, though, in saying that this is some sort of camel. After all, the typical Sanskrit word for camel is ushtra. Compare with achastranim. This is therefore likely some sort of fast camel, bred for its swiftness.


J. C. Salomon said...

I assume the translation of אחשתרנים as “that were used in the king's service” is based on the similarity of the word with אחשדרפנים (= satrap?), but is there anything in Persian that might explain the word?

joshwaxman said...

yes. as above, ushtra = אחשתרנים, such that it could mean camel. how that works in the larger scope of the pasuk is another story...

E-Man said...

Couldn;t the source that Rav Emden used have been talking in a form of exaggeration. Meaning, when people describe a fast animal they say it is like it has eight legs. So too, a swift camel, that we know exists, could be described as being so fast it is like it has eight legs. This especially makes sense since the camels used for camel racing, I believe, have two humps and travel at very fast speeds.

joshwaxman said...

i considered this possibility when writing the post, but decided that it was not likely.

in terms of Rav Yaakov Emden, he clearly understands it otherwise. and from what I understand, the faster camel is actually the dromedary, which has only one hump.

in terms of the source, while anything could conceivably be idiomatic, there was a known eight-legged sarabha, in the very books Rav Yaakov Emden referred to, and it was four of the legs are upward, something not in line with speed. also, they refer to this mythological Sarabha as so powerful that it is capable of killing even the elephant-killing lion.

it was one of the incarnations of Siva. look at the various deities, such as Shiva, Nataraja, etc., with multiple arms.

keep reading in the first linked "Essays" and read about how the Man Lion (associated with Sarabha) becomes a figure called Ganda-bherunda-sihma, with eight faces -- of lion, tiger, boar, bear, monkey, horse, eagle, and another, and with 32 hands holding all sorts of weapons.

there truly seems to be a mythological creature under discussion with multiple, extra, limbs. (now it is *possible* that all this was understood by them allegorically, to refer to aspects / attributes of some deity, but that is something entirely separate.)

kol tuv,

joshwaxman said...

unless you mean that he was relying on a completely separate source, aside from all of the above.

this is possible, but i think unlikely, given the existence of a mythological creature in Persian texts with eight legs, which goes by the same name as camel...

Hillel said...

R' Waxman,

Just tossing this out there, but if one reads the megillah not as a recording of actual historical events but rather as a satire (referencing some actual and some mythical events) mocking BNY for their failure to return en masse to Israel after the 70 years, might the megillah intentionally be referencing fantastical and imaginary animals?


joshwaxman said...



possible, and in theory yes.

but i would point out that in this specific situation, once we realize it is a mythical animal, i think the connection itself fails.

there is no reason to associated achashteranim with the Sarabha, linguistically or semantically, any more than with any other mythical Persian creature. there *is* reason to associate it with the camel (Persian ushtra), which is not the same as the mythical Sarabha at all. (that is, the mythical Sarabha is not a camel at all, but just it is occasionally a homonym.)

the pasuk just indicated something speedy, and it is something we don't know about. rav yaakov emden found an animal, a strange creature we do not know about (though on the other hand, he says that Chazal knew it), which is fast. and therefore associates it with that creature, and thus explains why the simple Hebrew word gamal wasn't used. but there are other fast animals in Persia. Mules, horses, camels, dromedaries. So why jump to the mythical?



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