Thursday, May 09, 2013

Where do Midrashim Come From?


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Where do Midrashim Come From?

"The second account of the Calf is read but not translated. What is the second account of the Calf? — From ‘And Moses said’ up to ‘and Moses saw’. It has been taught: A man should always be careful in wording his answers, because on the basis of the answer which Aaron made to Moses the unbelievers were able to deny [God], as it says, And I cast it into the fire and this calf came forth." - BT Megillah 25B

The verse mentioned in this passage, when read hyper-literally, suggests that statue of the golden calf was created magically  The raw material was tossed into the fire, and the calf statue came out whole. ("I cast [the gold] into the fire and this calf came forth") And indeed this hyper-literal reading is reflected in the midrashim.

Here's Rashi quoting two midrashic sources:
As soon as they had cast it into the fire of the crucible, the sorcerers of the mixed multitude who had gone up with them from Egypt came and made it with sorcery. [See commentary on Exod. 12:38.] Others say that Micah was there, who had emerged from the layer of the building where he had been crushed in Egypt. (Sanh. 101b). In his hand was a plate upon which Moses had inscribed “Ascend, O ox; ascend, O ox,” to [miraculously] bring up Joseph’s coffin from the Nile. They cast it [the plate] into the crucible, and the calf emerged. - [from Midrash Tanchuma 19]
Rashi makes this comment on a verse that is part of the "first account of the Calf" i.e., the Torah's own narrative of the events. Later in the "second account of the Calf", i.e, when Aaron reports the story to Moshe, he offers this explanation of Aaron's words:
[Aaron said] I threw it into the fire: [meaning] I did not know that this calf would come out, but out it came.
This verse is what the Talmud (above) has in mind when it mention "the answer which Aaron made to Moses". Though (see here) one line of rabbinic thought insists that nothing magical occurred when the calf was created, another line of rabbinic thought uses this answer as the basis of a very detailed back story including a villain called Michah and two Egyptian sorcerers with implausibly Greek names (Jannes and Jambre) who had served Paro as advisers, before leaving with the Jews during the Exodus [More here]

The very interesting point is our nameless amora or sevora seems to believe that Aaron's answer carries no special significance. It's not a hint at something magical. The story of Janes and Jambre isn't hidden behind it. The midrash isn't history. Aaron simply misspoke. And because he was not "careful in his wording" a host of interpretations sprouted.

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