Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Was Sarah Imeinu Evil and Ugly at Age 101?

Summary: I don't think so. Therefore, a potential deeper meaning in the famous midrash.

Post: Parashat Chayei Sarah begins:

1. And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years; [these were] the years of the life of Sarah.א. וַיִּהְיוּ חַיֵּי שָׂרָה מֵאָה שָׁנָה וְעֶשְׂרִים שָׁנָה וְשֶׁבַע שָׁנִים שְׁנֵי חַיֵּי שָׂרָה:
Rashi comments on this, citing midrash Rabba:

And the life of Sarah was one hundred years and twenty years and seven years: The reason that the word “years” was written after every digit is to tell you that every digit is to be expounded upon individually: when she was one hundred years old, she was like a twenty-year-old regarding sin. Just as a twenty-year-old has not sinned, because she is not liable to punishment, so too when she was one hundred years old, she was without sin. And when she was twenty, she was like a seven-year-old as regards to beauty. — from Gen. Rabbah 58:1]ויהיו חיי שרה מאה שנה ועשרים שנה ושבע שנים: לכך נכתב שנה בכל כלל וכלל, לומר לך שכל אחד נדרש לעצמו, בת מאה כבת עשרים לחטא, מה בת עשרים לא חטאה, שהרי אינה בת עונשין, אף בת מאה בלא חטא, ובת עשרים כבת שבע ליופי:

Or in the words of the actual midrash:
ויהיו חיי שרה מאה שנה (תהלים לז) יודע ה' ימי תמימים ונחלתם לעולם תהיה 
כשם שהן תמימים, כך שנותם תמימים.
בת עשרים כבת שבע לנוי, בת מאה כבת עשרים שנה לחטא.

And see the discussions on the proper girsa for this midrash. Perhaps she was as pretty at 100 as she was at 20, and as sinless at 20 as she was at 7, which would make more semantic sense. (After all, a 20 year old is a paragon of beauty, more than a 7 year old, and there are midrashim, supported by pesukim, that at 90, when she gave birth to Yitzchak, Hashem restored her to her youth.)

But regardless, this only tells us up to the age of 100. If she lived to the ripe old age of 127, what was she during those final 27 years? Was she no longer righteous? Did she become ugly once again?

Perhaps, or perhaps the idea is that these are representative ages, but that she was righteous and pretty throughout.

One other possibility strikes me, however, and this was the prompt for this post.

Perhaps the idea is that this should only be darshened, and that we should abandon the seeming peshat level of this pasuk. That is, Sarah only lived to the age of 100.

After all, there seem to be issues of chronology in play. The Akeida immediately preceded this, at least in the text, and midrashim associate them, with Akeida as cause for her death. Subsequent to Sarah's death, at least in the text, Avraham sends his servant to find a wife for Yitzchak.

We know Yitzchak was born when Sarah was 90. This would make Yitzchak 37 at the Akeida, and 37 when a servant goes on his behalf to find a wife. For various peshat reasons, this would cause difficulties. Why would a 37 year old be called a naar? Why would it not be considered a test of Yitzchak to submit to the Akeida. Why can't Yitzchak visit his family in search of a wife for himself?

We could answer this via appeal to ain mukdam umeuchar baTorah.

However, what if Sarah died at the age of 100? Then, Yitzchak would be 10 years old at the time of the Akeida, and a similar age when the servant sought out Rivkah.

Is this what the midrash is attempting to answer? It seems a strong possibility, to me.


S. said...

Interesting, but how do we know that Sarah died immediately following the akeda?

joshwaxman said...

we don't, but the midrash might well be operating on that theory, that the Satan told her and her heart skipped a beat, etc.

or even without that, that we will not be applying ain mukdam regularly. in which case, Yitzchak would either be 10 or less than ten.


Anonymous said...

Is it possible that the midrash is corrupt and should read beautfiul as a 20 year old and free of sin like a seven year old?

joshwaxman said...

absolutely! as I write, "And see the discussions on the proper girsa for this midrash". iirc, people have actually found such a girsa, and meforshim suggest this.

still, the point i make in this post is orthogonal to that. even with the fixed girsa, perhaps this midrash is suggesting that Sarah died at the ripe old age of 100.

kol tuv,

Maverick said...

Then the pasuk would be saying:
She had :
100 years of X
20 years of Y
7 years of Z.

This doesn't give us any idea of how old she actually was at the time of her death (other than it had to be at least 100, unless conditions X,Y, and Z are not concurrent, in which case at least 127).

The midrash might be poetic rather than strictly literal (saying that she was beautiful and innocent throughout her life rather than only innocent until 20 and only beautiful until 100).

joshwaxman said...

well, that is certainly one way of parsing the pasuk. but i am not convinced that that is what the midrash is saying. after all, it is in the form of:

Age X like Age Y for trait A.
Age Y like Age Z for trait B.

So it is just informing us of her qualities at age X and Y. this doesn't seem to be telling us that she had span X, Y, or Z in particular, in my reading.

"The midrash might be poetic"
On this point, I agree with you.

kol tuv,

Yankel said...

I have to say I don't like this post.

1) ein mikra yotse midei pshuto

2) according to Rashi Yishmael and Eliezer are also called naar (although I realize you can always say midrashos chalukos hen), and Yehoshua is called naar at 43 (again, not explicitly stated but the general chronology keeps it not that far off)

3) if the word naar you'd be better off just saying that the akeida was some time before Sarah's death

4) the same formula is also used for Avraham and Yishmael later in the parsha

And finally, I'm 37 myself and youthful as ever :)

joshwaxman said...

heh. :)

i'll try to respond shortly, though perhaps tomorrow.


joshwaxman said...

in terms of "naar", see that it actually often simply means servant, rather than youth. as such, it could readily apply to an old Eliezer, on a peshat level.

more later, bli neder.

kol tuv,

joshwaxman said...

i'll try to be systematic in my reply.

"1) ein mikra yotse midei pshuto"
If you consider how many times this idea occurs in the gemara, you'll discover that you can count them up on one hand, with fingers left over. Of those, most are cases which are exceptions -- that in this case, we DON'T say 'ain mikra'. And further considering these cases reveals that this is a halachic principle, rather than necessarily an aggadic principle.

Of course, the Rishonim applied and extended it. But that doesn't mean that a midrash from Chazal must conform. (Indeed, even if it does extend to aggada, who is to say those other Tannaim or Amoraim were as unaware of this principle as was Rav Kahana?)

Here are two examples, off the top of my head. See Yaakov sending Yosef from Emek Chevron, in parashat Vayeshev. Rashi, citing midrash rabba, writes:

מעמק חברון: והלא חברון בהר, שנאמר (במדבר יג כב) ויעלו בנגב ויבא עד חברון, אלא מעצה עמוקה של [אותו] צדיק הקבור בחברון, לקיים מה שנאמר לאברהם בין הבתרים (לעיל טו יג) כי גר יהיה זרעך:

Thus, according to this midrash, it means deep council. Can we say that the peshat still stands, that he sent from an actual place called Emek Chevron? How can we, when the entire midrash is predicated on the fact that no such place exists?

What about the midrash that it is either Eliezer or 318 men who fought at Avraham's side in Lech Lecha?

Besides this, there are plenty of examples of details of midrash which cannot be simultaneously true with the peshat.

joshwaxman said...

in terms of (2), as I noted above, naar has a secondary meaning of servant. This then makes sense for an older Yehoshua as משרת of Moshe, and of Eliezer. That a midrash would say that this refers to Eliezer and Yishmael may simply indicate that the midrash was not so concerned with naar in its plain-sense form.

(although naar might also cover someone pretty young, when in non-halachic context. moshe in the basket, the midrash notwithstanding.)

regardless, the sense one gets from the story is that Yitzchak the naar is not this old. And this may be a midrashic way to resolve it.

joshwaxman said...

"3) if the word naar you'd be better off just saying that the akeida was some time before Sarah's death"

you could absolutely say this. though this wouldn't necessarily resolve the servant being sent to bring back a wife, which appears to be after Sarah's death. and even though we might be better off saying it, that doesn't mean that the midrash isn't suggesting this.

in other words, we must take care not to conflate what we would consider the best interpretation of the pesukim with the intent of the midrash in interpreting these pesukim.

your suggestion is very good peshat, but that doesn't mean that the midrash, operating with different mechanisms and methodologies, might not propose something different.

4) the same formula is also used for Avraham and Yishmael later in the parsha
Geshmake Torah pointed this out to me previously, by email, about how Rashi darshens on his own the Avraham pasuk using this as a template, but Ramban rejects this on the basis of the Yishmael verse. perhaps I'll have a post about this. but in short, i don't think i subscribe to the axiom that midrash aggada needs to be systematic and consistent. Though Gur Aryeh et al. often make this into a question, which yields all sorts of innovative derash labeled as peshat, I don't believe this is the case. A midrashist can choose to focus narrowly on one pasuk to bring out an idea, and leave other similar or identical patterns alone. If your objection is how come we would not limit the life span similarly for Yishmael and Avraham, I could ask how come the midrashist does not make a similar derasha about the merit, or lack thereof, within Yishmael's life. Or I could point to those pesukim as evidence that it is simply Biblical style. But this is midrash, rather than peshat.

Anyway, those are my two cents. I appreciate your thoughts, and do of course realize that I am suggesting something pretty novel here, which may well not be correct.

kol tuv,

Yankel said...

I'm surprised. I thought you might very well rejoinder that indeed, the Midrash is applied specifically in Sarah's case precisely because of Yitzchak's age and the naar issue! This would explain why it doesn't get applied by Avraham and Yishmael.

As for Rashi who utilizes it for Avraham but not for Yishmael, the LR explains that Rashi himself writes that Yishmael's age was only written in order to calculate the age of Yaakov from it, so the verse can't be meaning to teach something re Yishmael himself.

joshwaxman said...

thanks. i'll try to find that in the Lubavitcher Rebbe's writings. i'm not sure yet whether i agree, since there is a difference between stating something and stating something in a strange way. if the midrash according to rashi (as opposed to ramban) is darshening the ordering and grouping -- which admittedly on a peshat level is standard Biblical style -- then this extra feature might stand to be darshened. so, i'll try to check it out.

good shabbos,

Yankel said...

It's in Likutei sichos volume 20.

joshwaxman said...


here is a link for myself, so that I can check it out.

shabbat shalom,

joshwaxman said...

in terms of a reference to this girsa, see Baal HaTurim who writes:
אית ספרים דגרסי בב״ר בת ק׳
כבת כ׳ ליופי ובת כ׳ כבת ז׳ לחטא והכי ניחא
בת כ׳ היא יותר יפה מבת ז׳ שיודעת לקשט
את עצמה:

kol tuv,

Michael Sedley said...

Shadal also says that Rashi got the Midrash Backwards:

However the Chezkuni and Rabeinu Bechaya both back up Rashi and explain how a 7 year old is true beauty (natural beauty without make-up of jewellery).


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