Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Va’eira II: No Replacement for Bekiut

(יז) הערוב - אומר אני כי מיני זאבים הם שנקראים ערוב על שם שדרכם לטרוף בלילות כדכת' זאב ערבות ישדדם וכת' זאבי ערב לא גרמו לבקר. וכאשר יאמר מאודם אדום, כן יאמר מעמק עמוק מערב ערוב נויטריניר ב"ל, שהזאב ערוב הוא שהוא הולך בערב, עמק שם דבר, והמעשה קרוי עמוק [וכן] אדום שחור:

In the era of the CD-ROM, it is hard to remember how one functioned before the advent of searchable electronic tools, to say nothing of the concordance and the other trappings of modern scholarly research. Rashbam’s commentary often reminds us of the importance—and power—of sheer mastery of the biblical corpus for solving difficult interpretive problems.

Our parashah features one classic example. What is classically known as the fourth plague is described as ערוב by the Torah. Unfortunately, the word appears 7 times in Shemot chapter 8 but is never explicitly defined. How do you figure out what a word like that means? If you are a commentator like Rashbam, you reach for other parts of the Bible to unlock the obscure meaning. In this case—almost certainly influenced by the earlier interpretation offered by Targum Yonatan here—he suggests that ערוב refers to wolves. Why are wolves called ערוב? Rashbam notes that there are two verses where the word זאב is linked to the root ערב, in the sense of nighttime. Wolves prowl in the dark (ערב) and therefore their adjectival form is ערוב, just as other nouns like עמק (valley) generate adjectives like עמוק (deep). Only a stunning mastery of Tanakh could really yield this sort of prooftext, which essentially requires knowledge of all places where the root ערב appears in Tanakh (there are well over 300) such that one can think about the places where it is used in conjunction with animals that might be plausible matches for this plague.

I should also note that if we employ Rambam’s approach of כפל לשון (see earlier post), we might arrive at two very different definition of ערוב. Tehillim 78 features a brief recounting of Israelite history, including God’s punishment of the Egyptians:

(מד) וַיַּהֲפֹךְ לְדָם יְאֹרֵיהֶם וְנֹזְלֵיהֶם בַּל יִשְׁתָּיוּן: (מה) יְשַׁלַּח בָּהֶם עָרֹב וַיֹּאכְלֵם וּצְפַרְדֵּעַ וַתַּשְׁחִיתֵם: (מו) וַיִּתֵּן לֶחָסִיל יְבוּלָם וִיגִיעָם לָאַרְבֶּה: (מז) יַהֲרֹג בַּבָּרָד גַּפְנָם וְשִׁקְמוֹתָם בַּחֲנָמַל: (מח) וַיַּסְגֵּר לַבָּרָד בְּעִירָם וּמִקְנֵיהֶם לָרְשָׁפִים: (מט) יְשַׁלַּח בָּם חֲרוֹן אַפּוֹ עֶבְרָה וָזַעַם וְצָרָה מִשְׁלַחַת מַלְאֲכֵי רָעִים: (נ) יְפַלֵּס נָתִיב לְאַפּוֹ לֹא חָשַׂךְ מִמָּוֶת נַפְשָׁם וְחַיָּתָם לַדֶּבֶר הִסְגִּיר: (נא) וַיַּךְ כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּמִצְרָיִם רֵאשִׁית אוֹנִים בְּאָהֳלֵי חָם:

Verse 44 clearly features a parallel structure with each half referring to the transformation of the Nile into blood. Verse 46 similarly features parallel descriptions of locusts devastating the land, and other verses in this passage seem to be in parallel structure as well. Following this pattern, perhaps ערוב is parallel to צפרדע and refers to some sort of amphibian or other creature similar to frogs? Or, perhaps following Seforno’s interpretation of צפרדע as crocodile, we are dealing with something even more threatening?

Another possibility is opened up by Tehillim 105, which has a distinct account of this narrative:

(כח) שָׁלַח חֹשֶׁךְ וַיַּחְשִׁךְ וְלֹא מָרוּ אֶת דְּבָרוֹ: (כט) הָפַךְ אֶת מֵימֵיהֶם לְדָם וַיָּמֶת אֶת דְּגָתָם: (ל) שָׁרַץ אַרְצָם צְפַרְדְּעִים בְּחַדְרֵי מַלְכֵיהֶם: (לא) אָמַר וַיָּבֹא עָרֹב כִּנִּים בְּכָל גְּבוּלָם: (לב) נָתַן גִּשְׁמֵיהֶם בָּרָד אֵשׁ לֶהָבוֹת בְּאַרְצָם: (לג) וַיַּךְ גַּפְנָם וּתְאֵנָתָם וַיְשַׁבֵּר עֵץ גְּבוּלָם: (לד) אָמַר וַיָּבֹא אַרְבֶּה וְיֶלֶק וְאֵין מִסְפָּר: (לה) וַיֹּאכַל כָּל עֵשֶׂב בְּאַרְצָם וַיֹּאכַל פְּרִי אַדְמָתָם: (לו) וַיַּךְ כָּל בְּכוֹר בְּאַרְצָם רֵאשִׁית לְכָל אוֹנָם:

Here, each verse describes a single plague, whether that of darkness, blood, frogs, hail, locusts, or death of the first-born. The only exception is verse 31, which seems to speak about both ערוב and lice. But what if this verse hews to the pattern of the rest of the section and ערוב and lice are essentially the same thing, either different terms for the same plague or similar invasions of insects?



At December 19, 2009 at 7:33 AM , Anonymous Hebrew Scholar said...

Thanks for your ideas about the meaning of the Hebrew arov. The interpretation of this Hebrew word is difficult. It is usually understood in Hebrew as meaning "wild animals" (in a general sense), and in Tehillim 78:45 this is possible, since it says, arov were sent, and devoured them. Flies or lice cannot eat people, but wild animals can. Perhaps it was wild animals that normally come out an night (erev). Arov could also be a mixture of (wild) animals.


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