Sunday, October 16, 2011

Did Rav Saadia Gaon dream that Pishon was the Nile?

Summary: This is what Ibn Ezra alleges. It is possible, though far-reaching. I try to give a sevarah, at the end.

Post: According to the second perek of Bereishit, the river whiched flowed out of Eden separated and became four heads. And,

11. The name of one is Pishon; that is the one that encompasses all the land of Havilah, where there is gold.יא. שֵׁם הָאֶחָד פִּישׁוֹן הוּא הַסֹּבֵב אֵת כָּל אֶרֶץ הַחֲוִילָה אֲשֶׁר שָׁם הַזָּהָב:

What is Pishon? According to Rav Saadia Gaon's Tafsir, it is the Nile River. Al-Nil.

 Rashi agrees, and gives two reasons the Nile would be called that:

פישון: הוא נילוס נהר מצרים ועל שם שמימיו מתברכין ועולין ומשקין את הארץ נקרא פישון, כמו ופשו פרשיו. דבר אחר פישון שהוא מגדל פשתן שנאמר על מצרים (ישעיה יט ט) ובושו עובדי פשתים:

However, Ibn Ezra disagrees, and pretty harshly. See the paragraph below, 'And there is no proof', which I bolded:
[ב, יא]
שם האחד -
אמר הגאון:

כי פישון יאור מצרים. 
וידוע כי גיחון קרוב מארץ ישראל, כי כן כתוב: והורדתם אותו אל גיחון והוא בא מפאת מזרחית דרומית, גם פרת כן והוא אחרית גבול הארץ פאת מזרח .

ומפרשים אמרו:
כי חדקל הוא הנהר השני העובר על בגדא"ד עם נהר פרת, א"כ הנה שלשתם מזרחים. ויאור מצרים יוצא מהר הלבונה רחוק מקו השוה בצד נגב והראיה גדולה בקיץ.

וידענו כי גן עדן תחת הקו השוה שלא יוסיף היום ולא יחסר כל ימות השנה. וריקי מוח תמהו איך יתכן זה. והראיות גמורות בלי ספק יש עליהם. אם כן ירד פישון לפאת דרומית מערבית ואחר כן ישוב דרך צפונית. ואין ראיה על פישון שהוא היאור, רק שתרגם החוילה כפי צרכו, כי אין לו קבלה וכן עשה במשפחות ובמדינות. ובחיות ובעופות ובאבנים. אולי בחלום ראה וכבר טעה במקצתם כאשר אפרש במקומו, א"כ לא נשען על חלומותיו אולי עשה כן לכבוד השם בעבור שתרגם התורה בלשון ישמעאל ובכתיבתם, שלא יאמרו כי יש בתורה מלות לא ידענום. והזכיר הזהב, בעבור כבוד הנהר היוצא מהגן.

"The name of one... The Gaon {=Rav Saadia Gaon, in his Tafsir} said that Pishon is the River of Egypt. And it is known that Gichon {the second named River, which surrounded Kush} is close to Eretz Yisrael, for so is written {I Kings 1:33, at David's command for the coronation of his son Shlomo, where we are taking Gichon as the river Gichon; see also I Divrei Hayamim 32:30}: 

לג  וַיֹּאמֶר הַמֶּלֶךְ לָהֶם, קְחוּ עִמָּכֶם אֶת-עַבְדֵי אֲדֹנֵיכֶם, וְהִרְכַּבְתֶּם אֶת-שְׁלֹמֹה בְנִי, עַל-הַפִּרְדָּה אֲשֶׁר-לִי; וְהוֹרַדְתֶּם אֹתוֹ, אֶל-גִּחוֹן.33 And the king said unto them: 'Take with you the servants of your lord, and cause Solomon my son to ride upon mine own mule, and bring him down to Gihon.

and it comes from the Southeast side. The Euphrates {Perat, the fourth river} as well, and it is behind the border of the land, on the east side. And the commentators say that Chidekel {=the third mentioned river} is the second river which passes by Bagdad with the Perat {=Euphrates river; thus, presumably, the Tigris river}. If so, behold the three of them are eastern. And the {Nile} River of Egypt goes from Har HaLevonah distant from the equator {?} on the south side, and the proof {?} is great in the summer.

And we know that the Garden of Eden is beneath the equator, that the {length of} the day does not increase or decrease all the days of the year. And those of empty brains are confounded how this is possible. And there are great proofs, without doubt, upon them. If so, Pishon decends to the southwest side and afterwards returns by way of the north.

And there is no proof regarding the Pishon that it is the Nile {which does not share a single source with these, or flow in this manner}. Rather, he {=Rav Saadia Gaon} translated HaChavilah {the country it surrounds} as he needed, for he had no tradition. And so did he do by the families and countries, and the animals, birds, and stones. Perhaps he saw them in a dream. And he already erred in a few of them, as I will explain in each place. If so, we shall not rely upon his dreams; perhaps he did this for the honor of Hashem, for he translated {in the Tafsir} the Torah into the Arabic language, and in their script, so that they should not say that there are words in the Torah which we do not know.

And it {=the pasuk} mentions the gold, for the honor of the river which went out of the Garden."

If true, it is an important principle, that we should not (necessarily) rely on Arabic translations in the Tafsir as a masorah to identify plants, animals, countries, etc. For instance, part of the masorah for the shafan as hyrax is that Rav Saadia Gaon, in his Tafsir, translated it as al-wabr, which seems to be the hyrax. But if he was just making it up...

Rav Saadia Gaon translated haChavilah as Zevilah. I don't know what country that was, in Rav Saadia Gaon's time. A bit of Google searching yielded a kingdom called Zawilah, a state that existed in Fezzan, between the eighth and twelfth century. The similarity of name could influence this identification, unless it is a masorah. Fezzan seems to be in modern Libya. Thus, the area of Phut.

Another reason Rav Saadia Gaon may have thought to identify Pishon with the Nile is this other pasuk, pointed out by Ramban. In Bereishit 25:18, about the sons of Yishmael:
18. And they dwelt from Havilah to Shur, which borders on Egypt, going towards Asshur; before all his brothers he dwelt.יח. וַיִּשְׁכְּנוּ מֵחֲוִילָה עַד שׁוּר אֲשֶׁר עַל פְּנֵי מִצְרַיִם בֹּאֲכָה אַשּׁוּרָה עַל פְּנֵי כָל אֶחָיו נָפָל:

Ramban writes that the purpose of spelling out that Chivalah was the place where there was gold was to exclude this other Chavilah from the running. But perhaps Rav Saadia Gaon did not have a tradition, and did not dream, but somehow extrapolated from Chavilah bordering Egypt, to making the river encircling Chavilah into the Nile River.

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