Thursday, September 11, 2008

Fresh for Shabbos: Follow up on Nationality of Ruth

It is time to solve the puzzle about Ruth's nationality. First, let us briefly review the issue:

  • Rashi in BaMidbar (22:4) quotes a Midrash Tanchuma that claims that Balak was actually Midyani.
  • Talmud Bavli (Sotah 47a, etc.) maintains that Balak was a direct ancestor of Ruth and two places indicate the ancestry to be directly patrilineal.
  • In Yevamos 78b and Rambam (Hilchos Issurei Biah 12:21) it is ruled that for non-Jews, nationhood is determined by patrilineal ancestry.
  • Therefore, Ruth is actually Midyani and not Moavi.


Before we go on, let us discuss what exactly may be the ramifications of this astounding revelation. There are two major ones. The first of which I noted in my initial post:
If Ruth is not actually Moavi, there is no need for a controversy during the time of Boaz and again when Doeg HaAdomi challenged Dovid's legitimacy (TB Yevamos 76b).
Let's call this Axiom A.

There is a second ramification that I consciously omitted:
Chazal explicitly link Dovid's and Ruth's pedigree to Lot (Bava Kamma 38b; Midrash Rabba Breishis 41, 50). If Ruth is actually a Midyani and not Moavi, then there is no true blood line up to Lot.
Let's call this Axiom B.

There is one other issue that I wish to posit:
We chareidim are very respectful of Chazal and take their words very seriously and literally as Chazal themselves do (see Sanhedrin 69b and Ben Ish Chai on Zevachim 113b). We always consider the words of Chazal to be accepted as factual – especially when they do not involve supernatural aspects – unless we are forced to view them otherwise.
Let's call this Axiom C.

As a supplement to Axiom C, we very much prefer not to have to modify or update the words of Chazal with details that are not explicitly implied in the text.
Let us call this Axiom D.

With this in mind, we can examine possible approaches to this issue and their impact on our list of axioms. There are a number of possible approaches. However – each one comes at a price.

To my dismay, only one reader cared to suggest approaches to this issue. A studious fellow who identified himself as Josh Waxman which I will assume to be his true name. Reb Josh suggested 2 approaches and then commented that I may have better ones. To R' Josh I say: I wish I did.

His first suggestion was that the Midrash Tanchuma and Talmud Bavli are two unrelated perspectives that are not meant to harmonize.

In other words, the Talmud Bavli that says that Ruth descended from Balak does not mention anywhere that Balak is a prince of Midyan. As such, TB can hold that Balak was a pure blooded Moavi and we have no issue. Likewise, the Midrash Tanchuma that says that Balak was a Midyanite does not suggest that he was an ancestor of Ruth or of Eglon. Eglon, not being Balak's descendant, would have been a true blooded Moavi. So each one can stand on its own podium but cannot harmonize with the other.

With this approach, Axioms A, B, and D are not impaired but Axiom C - the literal veracity of Chazal - is severely compromised since we cannot view both of the maamarei Chazal to be factual.

I believe that this is the most logical approach and it is the one that I personally support. To sacrifice Axiom C is a bitter pill to swallow but we are forced to go this route on other occasions as well. There are numerous cases of conflicting Midrashim even in Talmud Bavli itself such as the gemara in Sanhedrin 106b that suggests that Bilaam HaRasha, who died in the year 2488, never reached the age of 35. This would be in clear contradiction of the Chazal that he was one of Pharaoh's advisers before Moshe's birth 120 years earlier – as pointed out in Rashi (Sanhedrin 106b s.v. Bar Tlasin) – and also of the Chazal in Zevachim (116a) that says that Bilaam was a world leader at the time of Mattan Torah in 2448.

At this point I will say that I am much taken aback that I have found almost no authorities who deal with this question at all. In all my searches, I have found two unlikely heroes. Neither of them is prepared to go with Reb Josh's first approach and to sacrifice Axiom C.

The first of these two heroes is the Mahari"t on Masechet Kiddushin (67a) which I found quoted in a sefer entitled Mishbitzos Zahav on Megillat Ruth by Rav Shabsi Weiss (hat tip: Rabbi Dovid Solomon). The Mahari"t that he quotes poses the question exactly as I wrote it in my original post and answers the question exactly as Reb Josh Waxman writes in his second approach. This is that the decree of "Lo yavo Amoni…" applied no less to Balak himself regardless of his blood nationality, and so, the controversy was legitimate even if, technically, Ruth was a Midyanite.

This approach sustains Axioms A, C, and D but it does not repair the damage to Axiom B. Of course, we can artificially sustain Axiom B if we accept this approach and add to it that since the wives of Balak's descendants were most likely true Moavites, there is a blood line up to Lot even if not patrilineal. It is very "b'diavad" and is like saying that at least 50% of Kohanim can actually be called Midyanim since at least half of Kohanim descend from Elazar and his wife was a Midyanite. (Likewise all of humanity is descended from Kayin because Noach's wife was Kayin's descendant – Rashi Breishis 4:22 s.v. Naama).

The second authority that I found is the Piskei Tosafos at the back of Masechet Sotah (in the produce department). He addresses the passage in Sotah 47a that discusses Ruth's lineage. Curiously enough, there are no Tosafot on Sotah 47a nor in all of Perek Egla Arufa. In item 56, he states as follows:

Balak was from the princes of Midyan and his daughter married a Moavi. Ruth was a daughter's daughter to Eglon. As a reward for his rising from his throne, Ruth descended from him.

Thus, Piskei Tosafos solves the problem by modifying the context of Talmud Bavli to acknowledge that Balak was Midyani and that he begat Ruth BUT he posits that it was not pure patrilineal descent. Ruth did not emanate from his son but rather his daughter whose husband was Moavi.

Two things are clear from Piskei Tosafos: (1) He was definitely bothered by the problem – one of the very few and (2) he went to great lengths to avoid violating Axiom C. His approach will sustain Axioms A, B, and C very nicely but the price to pay is to modify the text of the Talmud from its literal context and thus to violate Axiom D. Perhaps, that is the smallest price to pay.

So, to sum up, we have discussed three approaches to our problem. Two are to be found in respected sources and these are the only written sources that I have found to date. What I intrigues me is that neither of these commentaries want to take the easy route (Approach #1) at the expense of Axiom C. To my knowledge, none of the great classical commentaries address this problem. This can mean one of two things:

  • They did not notice it – (hard to believe - well, I did).
  • They do not consider it an issue because they will accept Approach #1 and do not care to go to great pains to sustain the integrity of Axiom C - Axiom C is expendable.

Axiom C refers to the extent that we can rely on Chazal's explanations as being factual. This is one of the greatest debates of today.

Tishbi Yitaretz Kushyos U'sfekos


G said...

Axiom C refers to the extent that we can rely on Chazal's explanations as being factual. This is one of the greatest debates of today...which is interesting as the post seems to indicate that it was not of great debatable importance in days past.

joshwaxman said...

I've written extensively on the subject of Axiom C in the past, and I would offer the following observation.

We can actually divide Axiom C into three parts.
1) Chazal *intended* (some of) their midrashim to be literal rather than allegorical.
2) Particular historical midrashim are historical.
3) All literal midrashim are simultaneously historically true.

Each is a stronger claim than the previous.

I certainly agree to the first part. In terms of the second, sure, certain midrashim intended literally may be true. In terms of (3), I do not believe this is the case, nor do I think that there is this broad consensus. Sure, some people, some meforshim, try to harmonize contradictory midrashim, but I do not think they do it across the board, and many frum meforshim may admit that there are cases of machlokes.

Just as by halacha, two Sages might take different, contrary positions, but ultimately, only one is held lehalacha.

Here are two random examples of clear contradictions. In Gittin 6b, there is a dispute whether the thing the pilegesh beGiveah did not make her husband angry at her was a fly or a hair. In that case, Eliyahu HaNavi said Elu veElu, and the answer of how two could be true simultaneously was constructed by Rav Yehuda. But the gemara has an ikka deAmrei that gives a variant explanation as to where the hair was located. (though I would claim that almost every ikka deAmri is a variant manuscript...)

The question is whether this Elu veElu was an answer in this specific case, where Eliyahu HaNavi declared this (and it is a specific praise of R' Avyatar there -- see inside -- seemingly to the exclusion of every other Bar Midrash), or whether it applies across the board to every case of clear machlokes.

As another example, there is a dispute as to the identity of Shifra and Puah. Rav says it is Yocheved and Elisheva bat Aminadav, who is the sister of Nachshon ben Aminadav and who married Aharon. And Rav Shmuel bar Nachman gives the more famous one, that it is Yocheved and *Miriam.* We could say that in this machlokes, both intended their identification literally, but only at most one of them was correct.

Such disputes happen hundreds if not thousands of times in midrash. Even as early as how Adam came to sin, Bereishit Rabba has a three way machlokes:
(a) Chava tricked him by giving it to him in the form of grape juice.
(b) Rav Simlai: He listened to her argument -- Hashem will execute me, and do you think you will get another Chava?!
(c) The Chachamim: it says "lekol ishtecha" rather than to her devarim, so it was her crying that convinced him.

True, the Tiferes Tzion harmonizes them in a farfetched manner such that she first tried to trick him, he did not fall for it, then she argued, and when that didn't work, she cried. But not every commentator sees the need to harmonize what is after all a machlokes; and besides being farfetched, the midrash clearly has a dispute in the understanding of the meaning of specific words in the pasuk.

We have the dispute of whether 1/5, 1/50, or 1/500 survived makkat choshech. This dispute does not mean that they were being non-literal. Rather, it means that there was dispute, and while all may be literal, perhaps one may be historical.

I can go on and on with copious examples. For example, the gemara talks about various beauties, and their is an opinion that Esther had a sallow complexion. The gemara says that according to that opinion, take out Esther and replace her with (IIRC) Vashti.

Clearly, the gemara thought that there could be dispute in terms of historical fact, with contradictory midrashim.

At any rate, I linked to this post and your previous post at my blog, here:

Kol Tuv,