Bnei Noach

12 11 2012

The Shulchan Arukh (OC 328:14) rules that if a person is sick on Shabbat and needs meat, it is better to slaughter an animal for them than to feed them an animal that wasn’t slaughtered according to the halakha. This, despite the fact that slaughtering an animal on Shabbat is a far graver violation than consuming non-kosher meat.

There are several reasons for this, the one in the Tur being that,by a sick person, Shabbat is like a weekday. The mechaber’s reason, which he mentions in his Bet Yosef (ibid.), is that it is better to commit a one-off violation than it is to commit frequent violations, even when those frequent violations are of a lesser order. Although there were scholars before the Tur who expressed the same halakha (notably the Rosh and the Mordekhai), this particular reason for it is attributed by the Bet Yosef to Rabbeinu Nissim (“the Ran”; Yoma 4b, s.v. וגרסינן), who holds that when eating non-kosher meat one is in violation of the halakha with every olive-sized mouthful.

Although the Ran doesn’t quote them, the actual origins of this principle appear to lie in the writings of the Baalei haTosafot (Daat Zkeinim, Genesis 12:11), in their resolution of a problem posed by an 11th century French scholar and friend of Rashi’s family, R’ Yosef Qera. According to R’ Yosef, the reason that Avraham feared for his life when going down to Egypt was that the Egyptians, as bnei Noach, were forbidden from committing adultery. Since his wife, Sarah, was so beautiful, perhaps they will kill him in order that one of them might marry her?

As the Tosafot point out, bnei Noach were also warned about murder. Why would Avraham think that they would violate a more serious prohibition in order that they might not violate the milder one? Their resolution, which is subsequently quoted by both the Rosh and the Chizkuni in their commentaries on the Torah, is that it is better to transgress a serious prohibition once than it is to transgress a mild prohibition several times.

If I am correct in supposing that the origins of this idea lie in the writings of the Tosafot, and that it was their resolution that influenced the halakha of the Ran, then we have in our Shulchan Arukh a ruling that (at least according to its author) is learnt out, not “from Sinai”, but through the postulated behaviour of Egyptians.




6 responses

15 11 2012

In addition to being impressed with your erudite exposition, I am impressed by your Yeshivish language – “by a sick person” instead of (in English) “for a sick person”

15 11 2012
Simon Holloway

The erudition is an illusion. The syntax, however, I can blame on my maggid shiur.

20 11 2012

Or consider how according to the assumption that these were the Egyptians’ reasons, it must be assumed that those Egyptians knew their halacha. If the latter assumption falls then so does the former… but that doesn’t necessarily invalidate the legal assumption that stands behind the whole story.

More to the point, it doesn’t deny the clear fact that the legal assumption did precede the story, chronologically and/or in authority. And he community who held this attitude did point back to the exodus experience (at least) for its process and its authority, in one way or another.

You’re absolutely right that it’s amusing to have an attitude to the Law that is based on the precedent of Egyptian behaviour. The way that stories are used in Jewish religious tradition is so different to the way of thinking I’m used to being exposed to, but I like it in a lot of ways.

20 11 2012

The one thing that bothers me about it is how the categories of fable and historical fact seem free to run together and mix. Rather than hindering the purpose of these stories, that freedom and the nuances it plays with augment it. But when Western culture imposes those categories back onto the genre and demands they be separated, it’s tempting for people to hold loyally to it all as fact or to dismiss it all as fable. If we were more careful, we still couldn’t divide them accurately.

The solution seems to be our recognition that some of these stories make absolutely no pretence to be plausible, or even possible, but they do claim to be based on real events and people in the end. We could simply let them exist for the purpose they were made towards, not limiting them to categories foreign to their wider traditional context of expression. Then the genre is free to express its real value.

The problem is that when it speaks to the true concerns of Western rational criticism, the traditional Jewish message does depend on historical events for its authority and reality. Real covenants and signs are the basis for the Jewish claim about “my words that I have put in your mouth… on the lips of your children and on the lips of their descendants,” and those things at least need to have been historically real. No one who hasn’t seen those signs for themselves can appeal to historical speculation as their basis for belief (and I don’t believe that the idea of all Jews being there at Sinai literally means that all Jews have a unique, undeniable intuition about it). If not based on historical enquiry, you can’t accept things merely on the basis of what your parents tell you or of what you feel.

I don’t think the frailty of human ‘knowledge’ and certainty means that no tradition can be hold a witness to anything important, but this is a conversation where thoughts, feelings, experiences, hopes, and cultural paradigms slip undetected in and out of each other.

That said, I like these stories and I want to hear more.

20 11 2012

I don’t want to leave a third comment, but I need to clarify that I wasn’t saying things not based on historical speculation are unbelievable. I was just trying to say that historical method will never give you more than probabilities, about which one should always be willing to change their mind. And that is far from the kind of personal loyalty to certain beliefs that the Tanach and Jewish tradition affirm to be important.

25 12 2012

Come to think of it, the description of the Pharaoh here (and even more so of Abimelech in Genesis 20) is interesting. They are both portrayed as people who try to be righteous, and who claimed they would not have taken Sarai/Sarah had they known who she was. Abimelech even spoke closely with God about his innocence and the protection that God watched over him with, as well as the remedy through submitting to Abraham. The Pharaoh in Joseph’s time is also portrayed in a positive or neutral light, and I’m reminded of foreign figures such as Melchizedek and Jethro who were also seen as serving Israel’s God in their own way.

I’m just fascinated that the Torah doesn’t stereotype all foreign figures, particularly Egyptian, when describing them in the period that was earlier than Israel’s full formation of national identity. I like it, there’s a sense of narrative depth to it.

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