Tuesday, June 05, 2007

A lesson from sefer Ruth and tractate Yevamot

We are all familiar with the story of Ruth, born a citizen of Moab, she converts to Judaism, marries Boaz, and becomes the great-grandmother of King David:

Rut 21b-22: …and Boaz begot Obed. And Obed begot Jesse, and Jesse begot David.

Most of us also know the story about how it was not clear to all at the time that the prohibition of Moabites becoming full-fledged Jews applied only to Moabite men, as Rashi shows in his commentary to Rut 6:

Rut 6: And the near kinsman said, "I cannot redeem [it] for myself, lest I mar my heritage. You redeem my redemption for yourself for I cannot redeem [it]." Rashi: lest I mar my heritage my offspring, like (Ps. 127:3): “Behold the heritage of the Lord is sons,” to give my offspring a stigma, as it is said (Deut. 23: 4): “An Ammonite or a Moabite shall not enter the congregation of the Lord,” but he erred by [not interpreting it as] “an Ammonite but not an Ammonitess.”

Four generations later, there was still controversy over this issue, as shown in 1 Shmuel 17:54-56.

54. And David took the head of the Philistine, and brought it to Jerusalem, and his weapons, he put in his tent.
55. And when Saul saw David going out toward the Philistine, he said to Abner, the general of his army, "Whose son is this youth, Abner?" And Abner said, "By your life, O King, I know not."

Rashi: Whose son is this youth, Our Rabbis said: Did he not recognize him? Is it not stated: “And he became his weapon bearer” (supra 16:21)? But, (rather this is the explanation): he saw him behaving in a kingly manner. (Vid. supra v. 38) Said Saul, “If he comes from the family of Perez, he will be a king, for the king may break fences (פורץ, related to פרץ) to make a way for himself, and no one may stop him. If, however, he comes from the family of Zerah, he will merely become an esteemed person. Said Doeg to him, ” Before you ask whether or not he is descended from a family which qualifies him for the throne, ask whether or not he is qualified to enter the congregation, (i.e., whether or not he may marry among Jews) since he is descended from Ruth the Moabitess.“ Said Abner to him, ” We have learned: An Ammonite (is forbidden, Deut. 23:3) but not an Ammonitess. (Similarly, a Moabite is forbidden, but not a Moabitess.) “ Said Doeg to him, ” If so (let us say), a ‘mamzer’ (the male issue of a union forbidden under penalty of extinction is forbidden,) and not a ‘mamzereth’ (the female issue of such a union).“ He replied, ” It is stated here: Because they did not meet you with bread and water (v. 5 ibid.), and it is not customary for a woman to do so.“ He said to him,” Men should have met men, and women should have met women." Abner became silent. Saul said to him:

56. And the king said, "You ask whose son this youth is."
R: You ask whose son this youth is Above (v. 55) it is written: הנער, and here it is written העלם. He said to him, “This law has escaped your memory (נתעלמה). Go out and ask in the academy.” This is as it is stated in Yev. 77a.

Assuming that we accept the idea that Jewishness has been defined through matrilineal descent since matan torah, this at first seems a difficult argument to comprehend. Suppose that Ruth’s conversion was not kosher. Then Boaz would have married a non-Jew, and their son Obed would not have been Jewish. But presumably Obed would have married a Jewish woman – I am aware of no source that implies otherwise – and their son Jesse would have been Jewish according to all opinions. Similarly, Jesse would have married a Jewish woman, and their children, including David, would have been Jewish according to all opinions. What grounds would Doeg have had to complain?

A possible answer is found in Yevamot 16-17. The gemara considers the possibility that the child of a Jewish woman and a gentile man is a mamzer. This is discussed explicitly, and resolved in the negative, in Yevamot 44-45. If the halachah were otherwise, then then Jesse would have been a mamzer and so would his son David. This David would have indeed been ineligible to be King, or to marry a child of a non-mamzer Jew! But it is clear from sefer Shmuel that David married the Michal bat Shaul, the daughter of the first king, and was accepted as king himself after the death of Shaul. Thus the halachah was clearly established and universally accepted more a thousand years before the gemara referenced above.

So why is the gemara even discussing the issue? Should not the unquestioned kingship of David HaMelech dealt with this once and for all?

I think this teaches a lesson in proper understanding of our tradition. Opinions that are clearly not accepted as halachah are still given prominence in the talmud. One reason is clearly to give respect to those who honestly felt that they were correct. But another, more important reason is to elucidate other points that are essential for our Jewish learning, which is the situation in Yevamot.

And in the particular case mentioned in Yevamot 16-17, the talmud is showing the relationship between Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel as a model for how to relate with whom we disagree. The definition of a mamzer was a central element in their disputes and effected whether the two schools could intermarry. The gemara is not trying to open up an issue that would bring into question whether David HaMelech was suitable to be king, it is trying to teach us proper behavior! This shows that it is improper to grab little talmudic bullets out of context, and absolutely asur for us to simply say that we are going to follow some convenient talmudic opinion that has been rejected just because we would prefer that the halachah is some way other than the way it is. Such is not the true Jewish way. Yose HaGalili may have eaten chicken parmagiana with real cheese, but we don't.



Anonymous Rabbi Zvi said...

Baruch Horowitz pointed me to your blog and I am glad that he did.

An excellent D'var Torah

7:05 PM  
Anonymous Mike S. said...

I believe Rabbi Yose HaGlili before the first manufacture of Parmesan cheese (about 1100 CE, although the first mention is in Boccacio in the 1300's.) Parma was founded before R' Yose's birth by a couple hundred years though.

The discussion in the Gemara Yevamot you cite is very important, as it is the description of how to behave in a Machloket l'shem shamayim. may we merit to follow the example of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai.

2:18 PM  

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