Thursday, January 06, 2011

Rabbenu Bachya, Locusts, and Crocodiles

Summary: Rabbenu Bachya has two fascinating explanations of pesukim regarding the makkos, and Moshe's removal of them. Unfortunately, at least one of them is demonstrably false.

Post: Revach has a fascinating citation from Rabbenu Bachya on this week's parasha, Bo, which I will cite in full and then discuss:
During Makas Arbeh, Paroh asked Moshe to daven to take away the dreadful locust. Moshe davened and the Torah says (Bo 10:19), "Lo Nishar Arbeh Echad Bichol Gvul Mitzrayim; "Not a single Arbeh remained in Egypt's borders."
Rabbeinu Bichaye, who lived in the 13th century, says that Moshe's tefila helped to this day. "It is well known," he writes, "that locust do not do damage in Mitzrayim. Even when there is locust that ravage Eretz Yisrael, when they cross the border to Mitzrayim, they do not eat anything. The tefilos of Moshe are trustworthy forever," says Rabbeinu Bichaye.
"Similarly," he says, "to conclude Makas Tzfardei'a, Moshe told Paroh (Vaeira 8:5) that he can rid Mitzrayim of Tzfardei'a, 'Rak BaYi'or Tishoarna.' They will remain in the Nilus.' "
"Even to this day," says Rabbeinu Bichaye, "there is an animal called an 'Altimasa' or crocodile that lives in the Nilus. Every now and then it will come out and swallow two or three people in one shot. It cannot be killed with spears or arrows unless it is struck in its stomach. It has a poison on its body that can harm people even after it is already dead. These are the Tzfardei'a of the Makos. True to Moshe's words, they still remain in the Nilus."
Here is Rabbenu Bachya in the Hebrew original:

One thing I would slightly change in Revach's presentation is that where he writes:
Every now and then it will come out and swallow two or three people in one shot. 
He should have written "Every now and then it will come to the bank of the river, אל שפת הנהר, and swallow two or three people in one shot." After all, I'm pretty certain that in interpreting the pasuk in parshat Vaera, in Shemot 8:7,

ז  וְסָרוּ הַצְפַרְדְּעִים, מִמְּךָ וּמִבָּתֶּיךָ, וּמֵעֲבָדֶיךָ, וּמֵעַמֶּךָ:  רַק בַּיְאֹר, תִּשָּׁאַרְנָה.7 And the frogs shall depart from thee, and from thy houses, and from thy servants, and from thy people; they shall remain in the river only.'

it is not just that it will remain in the Nile is the sense that the species will never disappear or migrate from there, but also, I would think, that they would stay in the Nile rather than invading Egypt. Maybe I am reading too much into Rabbenu Bachya's words, though.

As noted above, Rabbenu Bachya also had a derasha on a pasuk in parashat Bo, on Shemot 10:19:

יט  וַיַּהֲפֹךְ ה רוּחַ-יָם, חָזָק מְאֹד, וַיִּשָּׂא אֶת-הָאַרְבֶּה, וַיִּתְקָעֵהוּ יָמָּה סּוּף:  לֹא נִשְׁאַר אַרְבֶּה אֶחָד, בְּכֹל גְּבוּל מִצְרָיִם.19 And the LORD turned an exceeding strong west wind, which took up the locusts, and drove them into the Red Sea; there remained not one locust in all the border of Egypt.

that no locust, or swarm of locusts, invaded Egypt again. This is something which is yadua, well-known.

All in all, a very inspiring devar Torah. Unfortunately, it is demonstrably false. To cite a news report from 2004:
Millions of the insects swept into Cairo and the surrounding Nile Delta region throughout Wednesday.
The infestation of red desert locusts was Egypt's largest since the 1950s.
UN officials believe the locusts, which can consume vast swathes of crops in warm weather, will head to the sea, away from the fertile Nile Valley.
Thus, there was at least one locust invasion in 2004, and at least another in the 1950s. And this was the "largest since", implying that there were others in the intermediate time.

The article also has:
... said the locusts arrived in Egypt after strong southerly winds blew them away from the Mediterranean Sea.
That is, if you look at the picture to the right, the Mediterranean Sea is north of Egypt, and so southerly winds blew them downward. Also from the article,
The insects are likely to head towards breeding grounds by the Red Sea, he added
The Red Sea is to the West. If we look at the makkah in the parsha, a wind from the east blew them, perhaps from those breeding grounds, into Egypt, and then a wind from the west blew them back to the Red (=Reed) Sea.

Some more evidence of locust swarms in Egypt follows. Shadal writes, in his commentary on the parsha,
ד ארבה : מכה זו אינה מצויה במצרים אלא לעתים רחוקות . ואייכהארן אמר כי להיות שהארבה נוסע בסדר כאנשי צבא , החלוץ לפניו והמאסף אחריו , משה ראה החלוץ והבין כי מחר יבוא הארבע ;ויפה השיב ראזנמילר , כי לא ייתכן שמשה לבדו בכל מצרים ראה זה ושאר המצרים לא ראו , ואם ראו , היו מבינים שאין כאן מעשה נסים 
"locusts -- this plague is only found in Egypt infrequently. And Eichhorn said regarding it that the locusts travel in order like men of war, with the chalutz {men at the front lines} first and the me'asef {gatherer} after it; that Moshe saw the chalutz and understood that the next day, the locusts would come. And Rosenmuller rebutted this well, that it is not possible that Moshe, alone in all of Egypt, saw this while all the Egyptians did not see it; and if they saw it, they would have understood that there was no miracle at work here."

Thus, Shadal is of the opinion that locusts do sporadically invade Egypt. I don't know what his specific evidence for this was, though.

Here is some further evidence that Egypt was not immune to locusts. From Building a New Empire, we have:

Thus, locusts devastated Egypt in the middle ages. Maybe this was after Rabbenu Bachya wrote what he wrote.

Also, from a Report of the United States Entomological Commission,

Thus, they frequently cross the Red Sea and return to Egypt. It would seem that locusts indeed do visit Egypt.


Anonymous said...

There are many types of locusts, just cause there were "locusts" it does not mean it was the "arbeh" which the passuk discussed.
Regarding killing crocodiles. The translation is incorrect. R' Bachya only said that "the doctors say..." not that it was his own opinion

joshwaxman said...

"There are many types of locusts"

But Rabbenu Bachya was speaking of locusts even in his day, that were invading Eretz Yisrael but not Egypt. So if he knew of some other species of locust that was invading Egypt, he would not have made his statement.

It is nice that you want to defend Rabbenu Bachya, but that motivation should not cause us to accidentally twist his words. Similarly, he believed the doctors, or would not have cited them. But I agree that the translation by Revach was slightly imprecise, in order to be shorter.

kol tuv,

ps: please choose a pseudonym to comment.

OJ said...

It is very important to mention that he was citing somebody else and wasn't making the claim himself. Forget everything else but to leave out the fact that he's citing someone else's statement IS twisting his words

joshwaxman said...

so you are saying that Revach accidentally twisted Rabbenu Bachya's words regarding crocodiles? if you insist. i disagree, since he is taking those words and endorsing them by interpreting a pasuk in accordance with this.

if i say the moon's gravity is 1.622 m/s², does this mean i investigated this myself, or that i am citing / relying on scientists who said it? obviously rabbenu bachya (who lived in Spain, not Egypt) wasn't relying on direct observation, but on reports by others of what happened in the Nile.

regardless, he was wrong in the claim he endorsed (by citing and interpreting a pasuk in accordance with it).


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