Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Salvation -- nothing to sneeze at!

Summary: Why the sudden interjection in Yaakov's blessings?

Post: In the midst of Yaakov's blessings / predictions to his children, he exclaims:

18. For Your salvation, I hope, O Lord!יח. לִישׁוּעָתְךָ קִוִּיתִי ה:

The Mishna Brurah (Orach Chaim, siman 230, seif katan 7) records a practice of saying this pasuk in the aftermath of a sneeze. My explanation of this is that לִישׁוּעָתְךָ  is onomatopoetic. :)

"One who sneezes, and his fellow tells him Asusa {= Gesundheit}, he should say to him 'Baruch Tihyeh'. And afterwards he should say לִישׁוּעָתְךָ קִוִּיתִי ה. [For Chazal said that initially no one was sick at all but rather he would travel in the marketplace, sneeze, and die, until Yaakov Avinu came and beseeched mercy on the matter.]"

This is a reference to Sanhedrin 107b:
Our Rabbis taught: Elisha was ill on three occasions: once when he incited the bears against the children, once when he repulsed Gehazi with both hands, and the third [was the illness] of which he died; as it is written, Now Elisha was fallen sick of his sickness where of he died.21  Until Abraham there was no old age:22  whoever saw Abraham said, 'This is Isaac;' and whoever saw Isaac said, 'This is Abraham.' Therefore Abraham prayed that there should be old age, as it is written, And Abraham was old, and well stricken in age.23  Until Jacob there was no illness,24  so he prayed and illness came into existence, as it is written, And one told Joseph, Behold, thy father is sick.25  Until Elisha no sick man ever recovered, but Elisha came and prayed, and he recovered, as it is written, Now Elisha was fallen sick of sickness whereof he died.26
And it is connected to your typical everyday sneezing and asusa, marpeh, or what have you, only in a post-Talmudic source, in Pirkei de-Rabbi Eliezer, perek 52, in a listing of seven wonders:

"The fourth wonder is that, from the day the Heavens and Earth were created, no made became ill. Instead, if he was on the road or in the marketplace, he would sneeze and his soul would exit from his nostrils, until Yaakov Avinu came and requested mercy on the matter, and he said before Him, 'Master of the Universe, do not take my soul from me until I can command my sons and the members of my household, and he was answered in this, as it is stated {Bereishit 48}

1. Now it came to pass after these incidents that [someone] said to Joseph, "Behold, your father is ill." So he took his two sons with him, Manasseh and Ephraim.א. וַיְהִי אַחֲרֵי הַדְּבָרִים הָאֵלֶּה וַיֹּאמֶר לְיוֹסֵף הִנֵּה אָבִיךָ חֹלֶה וַיִּקַּח אֶת שְׁנֵי בָנָיו עִמּוֹ אֶת מְנַשֶּׁה וְאֶת אֶפְרָיִם:

And all the nations of the world heard these matters and were astounded, for they had not experienced the like from the day that he Heavens and the Earth had been created. Therefore a person is obligated to say, with his sneeze 'Chaim', for death has turned to light, for it is written {Iyyov 41:10}:

י  עֲטִישֹׁתָיו, תָּהֶל אוֹר;    וְעֵינָיו, כְּעַפְעַפֵּי-שָׁחַר.10 His sneezings flash forth light, and his eyes are like the eyelids of the morning.

This does not bring in the idea of saying לִישׁוּעָתְךָ קִוִּיתִי ה, just 'Chaim'.

So, what should you do? Either your own minhag, or else consult your local Orthodox rabbi. I suppose that if you want, rely on the Mishnah Brurah. But really, consult your own halachic decisor, particularly before changing your own existing practice.

As for myself, my minhag is not to make such an elaborate ceremony every time someone sneezes. Oh, I'll say Gezundheit or the equivalent. But I won't even consider it as obligatory, every single time. And I am a bit bothered by this whole elaborate ceremony, such that I would not readily adopt it.

I'll explain a little bit of my reasoning. The Tosefta Shabbos, 8th perek, states:
ח,ב  האומר מרפא הרי זה מדרכי האמורי ר' אלעזר ברבי צדוק אומר [אין אומרים מרפא מפני ביטול תורה של בית ר"ג] לא היו אומרים מרפא [מפני דרכי האמורי].נ

Marpei or Asusa is what they said when someone sneezed. The Tanna Kamma lists it as darkei Emori, the ways of the Emorites, and forbidden as a superstitious practice. R' Eleazer beRabbi Tzaddok, assuming we can trust this girsa, says that in the Torah study hall we do not say it (only, presumably), because the interruption is bittul Torah. In the academy of Rabban Gamliel they would not say Marpei because they considered it darkei Emori.

Yet a good number of Talmudic sources do show that saying Asuta was a common practice. And the Rambam paskened like Eleazer beRabbi Tzaddok. And we see what the Mishna Brura paskens. There are surely other sources all along the way, and I am not going to pretend to present all of them.

When I say Gezundheit, it is not to fulfill some halacha of what one is required to say in response to a sneeze. It it because I consider it an element of being a mentch. It is not darkei Emori. Rather, it is derech eretz. First of all, because it is common custom and courtesy, and one is supposed to live in the world and act in a respectable manner; and if you don't generally do this, people might think you rude, which would be a chillul Hashem. Secondly, because the way that it is derech eretz makes sense. You are going about your business and another human being is ill, or under the weather, in a noticeable enough way that your attention is called to it. Rather than disregarding it, you pause what you are doing and acknowledge that other human being, empathize with his / her suffering, and express a wish that he / she feels better. This is an appropriate course of action. Were it not social custom and courtesy, I don't know that we would regularly do it, but once it is, it is certainly a good thing.

However, once there is an elaborate ritual, with a back and forth and recitation of pesukim, it transcends mere common courtesy. Saying a pasuk due to the illness, or perhaps (in some people's minds) to prevent the soul from flying out the nostrils has the feel of lochesh al hamaka. This might be technically allowed, as long as one does not spit and there is no explicit shem Hashem, but it is not one of the things smiled upon. And regardless, ritualize it too much and put too many religious beliefs about past or possible harm, and this might well rise to the level of darkei Emori (perhaps even according to those Tannaim for whom mere Marpei or Asusa was not).

For example, we see this:
i was reading a book and as a young girl the grandma would tell her that if no one says bless you, when you sneeze your soul flies out of your nose and the devil can steal it.
Or the following superstition:
Place a hand in front of your mouth when sneezing. Your soul may escape otherwise.
Even if all that Mishna Berura writes is theologically sound, it is a short trip to this sort of mistaken belief by the hamon am.

In terms of whether that gemara Sanhedrin is historically correct, I would doubt it. It is an aggada within perek Chelek in Sanhedrin, and we know what Rambam wrote about people who took all the midrashim in perek Chelek literally. (I could posit an allegorical purpose to this, of fostering an appreciation even illness, for the chance it gives us to settle our affairs.) And if we do take it literally, it would seem that no one became ill before Yaakov, at which point all diseases were fatal; and that only in the time of Elisha did someone recover from an illness of this sort. I don't believe that this is the way the world works, or rather, the way that it was initially constructed. And such a tremendous nishtaneh hateva is an exceptional claim, which I would not accept without stronger evidence. Meanwhile, I am pretty sure that one can find a document or two from the Ancient Near East speaking of plagues or people distributing their inheritance on their deathbed.

And here are some Akkadian incantations against illness. Why would they have such incantations if there were no such thing as illness?

Plus, Yosef is told הִנֵּה אָבִיךָ חֹלֶה. Whoever the maggid is who told Yosef this, how did this person know the word for illness? And how did Yosef understand this person. Yosef should have responded with, "what does this word 'ill' mean"?


yaak said...

From the gemara in Brachot 24a-b, it would be a further proof, since no one would be able to answer a sneeze in the middle of Tefilla, and we still say it's a good omen.

Hillel said...

Um, Kel na refa na lah? That one seems to have worked well before Elisha.

joshwaxman said...

indeed. also Pharaoh when smitten with leprosy and 'closing up'. maybe this wasn't meant literally, or else they meant sickness when lays one on a bed rather than a skin disease.

there is also "Kol Hamachala asher samti B'Mitzrayim lo asim alecha ki ani Hashem rofecha" implying that there were all these illnesses and that a doctor could cure them...



Blog Widget by LinkWithin