Thursday, October 14, 2010

Sodomites and Procrustes

Summary: A parallel between a midrash and a Greek myth, and what this might mean.

A nice animated GIF.
 If you don't see the animation, click on it.
From the Daily Caller:
This Saturday, one of Greece’s most respected newspapers, To Vima, reported that the nation’s largest government health insurance provider would no longer pay for special footwear for diabetes patients.  Amputation is cheaper, says the Benefits Division of the state insurance provider
This calls to mind a midrash related to the parasha. In Lech Lecha, Lot separates from Avraham and goes off to Sodom. And of course the destruction of Sodom in next week's parasha, Vayera. What was the nature of Sodom? There is a gemara in Sanhedrim 109b which reads:
There were four judges in Sodom, [named] Shakrai, Shakurai, Zayyafi, and Mazle Dina.1  Now, if a man assaulted his neighbour's wife and bruised her, they would say [to the husband], 'Give her to him, that she may become pregnant for thee.' If one cut off the ear of his neighbour's ass, they would order, 'Give it to him until it grows again.' If one wounded his neighbour they would say to him [the victim], 'Give him a fee for bleeding thee.' He who crossed over with the ferry had to pay four zuzim, whilst he who crossed through the water had to pay eight. On one occasion, a certain fuller happened to come there. Said they to him, 'Give us four zuzim [for the use of the ferry].' But, protested he, 'I crossed through the water!' 'If so,' said they, 'thou must give eight zuzim for passing through the water.' He refused to give it, so they assaulted him. He went before the judge, who ordered, 'Give them a fee for bleeding and eight zuzim for crossing through the water. Now Eliezer, Abraham's servant, happened to be there, and was attacked. When he went before the judge, he said, 'Give them a fee for bleeding thee.' Thereupon he took a stone and smote the judge. 'What is this!' he exclaimed. He replied, 'The fee that thou owest me give to this man [who attacked me], whilst my money will remain in statu quo.' Now, they had beds upon which travellers slept. If he [the guest] was too long, they shortened him [by lopping off his feet]; if too short, they stretched him out. Eliezer, Abraham's servant, happened to go there. Said they to him, 'Arise and sleep on this bed!' He replied, 'I have vowed since the day of my mother's death not to sleep in a bed.' If a poor man happened to come there, every resident gave him a denar, upon which he wrote his name, but no bread was given him. When he died, each came and took back his. They made this agreement amongst themselves: whoever invites a man [a stranger] to a feast shall be stripped of his garment. Now, a banquet was in progress, when Eliezer chanced there, but they gave him no bread. Wishing to dine, he went and sat down at the end of them all. Said they to him, 'Who invited thee here?' He replied to the one sitting near him, 'Thou didst invite me.' The latter said to himself, 'Peradventure they will hear that I invited him, and strip me of my garments!' So he took up his raiment and fled without. Thus he [Eliezer] did to all, until they had all gone; whereupon he consumed the entire repast. A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, [hiding it] in a pitcher. On the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her. Thus it is written, And the Lord said, The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah, because it is great:2  whereon Rab Judah commented in Rab's name: On account of the maiden [ribah].3
The beginning of it, where the judges are named Shakrai, Shakurai, Zayyafi, and Mazle Dina, perhaps should be enough to indicate that some elements of this are allegorical. For these are clearly not real personal names, but rather mean Liar, Awful Liar, Forger, and Perverter of Justice. Add to this Rambam's general statement in his introduction to perek Chelek that many of the midrashim in Sanhedrin are clearly intended allegorically, and that it is an error to take them literally.

The purpose, to my mind, is to illustrate how justice could be perverted while maintaining that it is a justice system, and similarly how hachnasat orechim can be perverted. (Also, how Eliezer circumvented each of these difficulties, just as this was one of Thesius's difficulties to overcome.) The latter aspect is well-illustrated by the pasuk in Vayera, in Beresihit 19:5:

ה  וַיִּקְרְאוּ אֶל-לוֹט וַיֹּאמְרוּ לוֹ, אַיֵּה הָאֲנָשִׁים אֲשֶׁר-בָּאוּ אֵלֶיךָ הַלָּיְלָה; הוֹצִיאֵם אֵלֵינוּ, וְנֵדְעָה אֹתָם.5 And they called unto Lot, and said unto him: 'Where are the men that came in to thee this night? bring them out unto us, that we may know them.'

in which they intend harm to the guests but are (perhaps) acting as if they just want to get to know them. I'd like to point out a parallel to a Greek myth. (Update: I see DovBear mentioned this in the past. Also see my discussion of bowdlerizing this midrash here.) The gemara stated:
Now, they had beds upon which travellers slept. If he [the guest] was too long, they shortened him [by lopping off his feet]; if too short, they stretched him out.
This has a parallel in Greek myth, in Procrustes, which means "the Stretcher". To cite Wikipedia:
In the Greek myth, Procrustes was a son of Poseidon with a stronghold on Mount Korydallos, on the sacred way between Athens and Eleusis. There, he had an iron bed in which he invited every passer-by to spend the night, and where he set to work on them with his smith's hammer, to stretch them to fit. In later tellings, if the guest proved too tall, Procrustes would amputate the excess length; nobody ever fit the bed exactly because secretly Procrustes had two beds.[1]
Thus, in original tellings, it was just stretching, but in latter tellings, there were two beds and possible amputations. The footnote reads:
^ This detail, which injects a note of verisimilitude, is reported by both pseudo-Apollodorus (Epitome1.4) and Hyginus. "Later it was stated, by those who did not think of the meaning of Prokrustes, Prokoptas and Damastes, that he even had two beds, a large one and a small one." (Karl KerenyiThe Heroes of the Greeks, 1959:223, noting pseudo-ApollodorusDiodorus Siculus, 4.59.5.)
Who got it from whom? It is difficult to prove it definitively. But I would note this development within the story, where initially, according with the name Stretcher, there was one bed and stretching, and only later, there was two beds and this parity. Meanwhile, the midrash always has this parity of the two beds. I would take this as good evidence that the midrash got it from the Greek myth. For if they took it from the midrash, even the earlier Greek tellings should have this detail.

I don't think the author of the midrash was trying to pull the wool over everyone's eyes, and invent Biblical history. Rather, I would guess that just as he was aware of this Greek myth, his audience was aware of this Greek myth. And he was using this detail to color the Biblical story, to bring out a point about the nature of the conduct of the Sodomites. And this is all well and good because, as I noted above, this was not initially intended or understood literally or historically.

Indeed, it might be somewhat akin to Rav Zalman Sorotzkin making reference to Robinson Crusoe to get his point across.


Wolf2191 said...

Why are you translating "Yada" as get to know. They mean to sodomize them hence the expression. Yada refers to sex in lots of places in Chumash. I think Shadal has a nice explanation of the etymology.

Wolf2191 said...

BDLD had a nice post on this as well

joshwaxman said...

"Why are you translating "Yada" as get to know."
because we are dealing with midrash, and the midrash does not necessarily understand the expression in that way. (different midrashim can take it differently.)

i had a piece a while back analyzing this. yes, "yada" as sodomize is a strong possibility, especially in light of the parallel in pilegesh begiva. but we can say that pilegesh begiva is commentary. another possibility is that they plan on beating them up.

and thanks. i'll check it out.

kol tuv,

Anonymous said...

Draw a parallel with Lot's offer to have his daughters raped. DA here is metaphorical, according to classical interpretation and common sense.

I wonder what Eliezer has to do with Sodom. Is it mentioned some place Eliezer ever went there (except to fight the 4-king occupation)? Lot would be the more obvious candidate for the clever traveler, except maybe midrash has an interest to play him down in favor of Abraham.



Who ya gonna call?

barry said...

Re Eliezer (not Lot) and the people of Sodom (including the "Procrustean bed") see
Ginzberg , Louis, Legends of the Bible, (Philadelphia, JPS, 1975) pg. 113-115.

joshwaxman said...

"Draw a parallel with Lot's offer to have his daughters raped. DA here is metaphorical, according to classical interpretation and common sense."
Absolutely! And that would be what influence the author of the pilegsh begiveah story to draw parallels.

Meanwhile, it is certainly possible, and plausible, that it meant intercourse, for all the aforementioned reasons. Yet I still see the possibility that some midrashim could take a different approach, and even that this might be a valid
peshat in the pesukim.

For expansion on this idea, see my parshablog post from 2005.

kol tuv,

Hillel said...

R' Waxman,
Thanks for quoting the entire gm', which I had never before seen inside. Perhaps the most remarkable part for me was this description of Sodomite behavior:

"He who crossed over with the ferry had to pay four zuzim, whilst he who crossed through the water had to pay eight."

It's a bit disturbing that this is listed as a midat S'dom, since most governments and corporations today do this all the time, and I've never heard them condemned for it. When a given process is favorable, they create financial disincentives from utilizing any other process to achieve the same result. That's how the tax code (e.g., renting vs. buying a house) and corporate pricing (e.g., buying a six-pack costs less than buying four individual beers) are designed to function.

So why is the gemara condemning this? Sure, it's counterintuitive, but economically it actually makes sense for the government to create financial incentive to use a service (thus providing a direct benefit to the ferryman, and an indirect benefit to all those who provide services to the ferry and the ferryman). I suppose they could just be condemning S'dom for charging for something the traveler did not know would involve a fee, but that doesn't really fit well with the
details in the rest of the story. (I.e., this works just as well if the ferry part was never mentioned.)

So what is the gemara's issue here?


joshwaxman said...

interesting. i think you are right, that it is not necessarily wicked to provide this sort of financial incentive. and so would lean towards your second answer. this means i would need to answer your question, about the ferry part being unnecessary.

if they had enacted the law for financial incentive, that would have been well and good. but, there is a theme being developed here with all these laws. the Sodomites corrupted the very system of law and of justice in order to cheat strangers, abuse them, and take their property for themselves. it is justice perverted. thus, at each stage, this hapless fellow encounters a backward law, often with surface level reasonable-ness. He does not want to pay for the service, so he works around it, by doing all the crossing work himself, and so they charge him DOUBLE. He refuses to pay, so they assault him, and when he seeks redress in the courts, the judge makes him pay even more. and not just more, but to pay for the very assault on his person. there is a sense of the law oppressing the weak at every turn, and that it was designed that way.

So I think it does make sense, in context.

kol tuv,

joshwaxman said...

to add a bit to the above, consider what is written a bit earlier, on the first amud:

"[Reverting to the misdeeds of the Sodomites] they ruled: He who has [only] one ox must tend [all the oxen of the town] for one day; but he who has none must tend [them] two days..."

as Soncino comments, "This was a measure of oppression against the poor."

So, it is important to read these in context, in terms of a consistent developed theme.

kol tuv,

Hillel said...

R' Waxman,
Thanks for the insight. I agree that it still works generally in context, but I still suspect this is a case where the root 'injustice' has been somewhat robbed of its punch (no pun intended) by modern economic theory.

shabbat shalom,

PS: the oxen case made me chuckle, since that's pretty much exactly how homeowners without kids (or who send kids to private school) feel about property taxes.


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