Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Parsha Challenge - Parshat VaYigash: A Breech in Protocol

On pages 260/1 of One Above and Seven Below, I touch on to an issue that is widely recognized yet largely undefined within Jewish ideology.

When do we really grow up?

Here is what I wrote:

Do you have time to take a one question survey? Okay, here’s the question:

At what age does an Orthodox Jew become an adult?

Now, I haven’t actually conducted this survey so I will have to speculate the results. My guess is that about 2 out of 3 respondents would answer “at the time of bar or bat-mitzvah.” It is our tradition that every Orthodox Jew is considered an adult at the onset of adolescence. At this age, 13 for a male and 12 for a female, the subject is obligated in all of the relevant commandments and is liable for damages and for full judicial punishment for any transgression. This includes the death penalty where applicable. Likewise, at this age, a male is eligible to be counted in a minyan (prayer quorum), a mezuman (Grace after meals quorum), and to recite blessings and Torah readings on behalf of others. A 13-year-old boy is eligible to be a witness for the sanctification of the new moon and thus establish the dates of the festivals of which the entire Jewish nation is obliged to uphold. He is likewise eligible to be a witness for capital cases and to determine the marital status of a woman. He can be a king and if he is from the order of priests (Kohen) he can perform the duties of the High Priest on the Day of Atonement.

That is quite a load of responsibility.

Nevertheless, I am certain that some learned respondents will point out that only from the age of twenty on up is one eligible to be included in the national census, to receive a portion of the Land of Israel, and to enlist in the army. Moreover, it is only from the age of twenty that his fixed value for vows reaches the full value of fifty shekels.[47]

I have conducted a great deal of research to explain this discrepancy and, frankly, I am stumped. If one is mature enough to kill or be killed in a court of law, must perform every single commandment, and can be a king and High Priest, why doesn’t he count in the census? Why can’t he go out and fight and receive a portion of the land? Why is his fixed value for vows less than the full value?

Did you notice a flag for footnote 47? Well, this is the text of footnote 47:

47 There is also a tradition that until the age of 20, one is not liable for punishments meted out by the Heavenly court. Though this has a basis in an Aggadic passage in the Talmud (tractate Shabbat 89b) and is supported by Rashi in his commentary on Genesis 23:1 (s.v. Vayihiyu - based on Bresihis Rabba 58:1) and Numbers 16:27 (s.v. U’Nesheihem - based on Midrash Tanchuma BaMidbar, Korach 3 also Midrash Rabba BaMidbar 18:4), there is no firm Halachic basis for this. As such, there is much debate among Torah scholars as to what are the “terms and conditions” of this “exemption.” See Question 69 of Kaba D’Kashiyata from the responsa of Chelkat Yoav. See also Pardes Yosef on Genesis 23:1.

To rehash this comment, we have a puzzling phenomenon. We have three sources in Chazal that refer in passing to some established protocol that one is not liable for heavenly punishment before the age of 20 - yet, there is no source whatsoever that establishes this protocol in the first place and derives it from some pasuk somewhere in Tanach!

V'chi teima - if you want to suggest - that this protocol is clearly indicated from the fact that the penalty of the דור המדבר was imposed from the age of 20, we have the Midrash Rabba (BaMidbar 16:23) that says that even one who was less than 20 years old, if he was allied to the spies, he did not enter the land. Thus, not only does this Midrash not support the protocol, but to some extent, it negates it.

The issue is made all the more puzzling by one pasuk in this week's parsha (Breishis 46:12):

ובני יהודה ער ואונן ושלה ופרץ... ויהיו בני פרץ חצרן וחמול.

What is the significance of this pasuk?

It tells us that Peretz (which means the "one who breeches") was a bit hyperactive. Not only did he pull a fast one by beating his aspiring brother out of the womb, but he showed up all of the grandsons of Yaakov by being the only one who fathered a new generation before they descended to Egypt. None of the einiklach had children except for him.

How old was he?

Well, let's have a look. It seems that Yehuda had a tough time finding a shidduch. At the time of mechiras Yosef, Yehuda was pushing 22 years old and he was still single! Unheard of for that period (he was obviously taking after Yitzchok). We know this because his adventures in shidduchim were recorded in the Torah as happening בעת ההיא which is explained in Chazal as subsequent to mechiras Yosef.

Now we know that from mechiras Yosef to the descent to Egypt there were 22 years. So now, in all of 22 years, Yehuda (1) got married (2) fathered 3 boys one after the next (no twins or trips), (3) waited for his first to grow up and married him off, (4) saw his oldest die and the next one get married, (5) saw him die, as well, and waited for the 3rd son to grow up (presumably to at least 13 years), (6) passed on the opportunity to marry him off and let a year go by (Breishis Rabba 85:6), (7) got reeled in by Tamar and fathered a set of twins - after his 3rd boy is already a "grown up", (8) sees his new tachshitel grow up and get married and have 2 boys of his own, and finally, (9) they all go down to live in Egypt.

All this in 22 years.

That's being pretty productive for somebody who married late.

Now, already we are in chronological trouble. Sheilah (honorable #3 son) could not have been born less than 2 years after mechiras Yosef since he was number 3 from a string of single births (we are talking the likes of consecutive 7 month pregnancies to do this). If he was indeed 13 years old (as is generally implied by the term יגדל שלה as the two first letters - יג - imply 13), and if Tamar waited 12 months from then, it must be already 16 years after mechiras Yosef when Tamar pulled her "trick" (excuse the expression). Peretz was born one pregnancy (minimum 6+ months) later, so he enters the world with less than 5.5 years until golus mitzrayim. And he manages 2 kids?? (No other grandson pulled this off).

I tell you, this kid doesn't waste a minute. He probably never missed krias shema by the Magen Avraham once in his life!

Now, even this chronology assumes that Ehr and Onan made it to 13 before their respective departures. And it squeezes Peretz to less than 6 years old (father of 2) at golus mitzrayim. Now, the Talmud in Sanhedrin 69b tells us that even though nowadays we do not consider a male capable of reproduction younger than 9 years old, in the "earlier generations" we have indications that they were capable as early as 8.

This is still a bit more than 5 and a half.

This doesn't work.

The Ibn Ezra and the Daas Zkeinim M'Baalei Tosafot ask this question. And, accordingly, we are forced to consider one of 2 options:

  1. The whole episode of Yehuda's initial marriage occurred a number of years before mechiras Yosef. This is the Ibn Ezra's approach. He posits that Ehr and Onan were born before mechiras Yosef and married about the age of 12. This challenges the Midrashim that בעת ההיא was a direct consequence of mechiras Yosef.
  2. Even Ehr, Onan, and Sheilah were considered "grown" at a younger age - approximately 9 years old. This seems to be Daas Zkeinim's approach. With this approach he is trying to preserve the chronology of בעת ההיא , although it comes at a price of saying that Ehr and Onan were not even Bar Mitzvah when they died.
    But, let's work this out. If Ehr was born 7 months after mechiras Yosef, followed by Onan and Sheila at 7-8 month intervals, then Sheila is 2 years younger than Ehr. Assume that Ehr and Onan each married at 8 and died at the age of 9 - about 9.6 and 10.3 years after mechiras Yosef - and Sheila reached 9* about year 11 after mechiras Yosef. Breishis Rabba says Tamar waited for him for one year (year 12) and then seduced Yehuda. It was a short pregnancy (Rashi Breishis 38:27) so let's say a bit shy of 7 months. This would make Peretz 8 years old about at about 20.7 years after mechras Yosef and would give him a bit less than 1.5 years to produce 2 sons.

That's really cutting it close. So, even this approach makes it difficult to substantiate the בעת ההיא . Indeed, I found a sefer written by a contemporary scholar entitled Yagel Libeinu which quotes Midrash Sechel Tov (Breishis 38:2) that Ehr and Onan were born before mechiras Yosef and were 7 years old when they were married!

The bottom line is that it appears that by all accounts, Ehr and Onan were relatively young when they were "put to sleep". They may have been as young as 8 or 9 or possibly they reached Bar Mitzvah age but nobody suggests that they were close to 20 years old and, indeed, it's all but impossible to say so.

Yet, evidently, nobody seems to be bothered with the obvious breech of protocol. Don't we say that the Heavenly court does not impose punishment before the age of 2o?

Why did this rule not apply to Ehr and Onan?

I did come up with a rather feeble answer. But I want to see if any readers have anything to suggest.

In the meantime, I must caution all of you young folks that the sources we have examined indicate that there are exceptions to the 20 year immunity rule - aside from the fact that we are not sure where it comes from to start.

So, boys and girls, don't try anything naughty at home.

*We must say that "growing up" for Sheila has to mean at least 9 years old. It cannot be our minimum of 8 because, according to our chronology, Sheila was already 8 when Onan died at 9 and still they had to wait for him to "grow up".


Alex said...

Nitpick: Yaakov had two more great-grandchildren when he came down to Egypt - the sons of Beriah. Even odder about that is that Beriah beat out his three older brothers in having children first.

Ari said...

Being responsible for mitzvos, yet not being counted for the census or land ownership, does not bother me so much. For example, in the US, you can vote and be drafted into the Army at age 18, yet you can't officially drink alcohol till age 21.

Being michuyev in mitzvas at 13 has nothing to do with being counted at age 20 as a "viable" member of society, with a family, descendents and a homestead. The older one is, the greater likelihood that he will make those kinds of permanent contributions to society.

As far as the number crunching, I agree that the math involved in the Yehuda / Tamar story barely jibes with the laws of biology and time . . . so we may have to fall back on the (less satisfying) conclusion that, as with all things related to the Torah, the actual chronology might be different than what was recorded, and that Yehuda already had family before he threw Yosef in the pit.