Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Aishel errors

Remember Father Abraham's aishel? Here are the basic background facts:

  • Genesis 22:33 says Abraham established an aishel in Be'er Sheva.
  • BT Sota 10A records a disagreement about the meaning of the word. Possibilities include an orchard which produced fruit Abraham shared with his guests or an inn.
  • Midrash Tehillim 92:14 says that the word aishel is an acronym. Some varients of the midrash give Achilah (food) SHtiya (drink) and Lina (lodging); others give Achilah (food) SHtiya (drink) and Levaya (escort.)
  • Rashi on BT Sota 10A goes with the second variant, likely because Abraham, in Genesis, is shown escorting his visitors, but never with overnight guests.

At some point (more on this below) Jewish school teachers began using this variant of the midrash to terrify our children, or as my smallest daughter once put it: "It's very important to escort guests to the door Daddy. Because if you don't have the Lamed ("L") in aishel you're left with aish (fire). Once a man didn't walk his guests to the door and his house burned down."

Why do I bring this up? Blame @MarkSoFla. Last week, he showed me this:
Just regarding the Eshel comment. [DB: ie: The idea that not walking people out causes houses to spontaneously combust] The truth is this is a medrash chazal, so I don't think it should be termed nonsense. (1) It is recorded by the Chafetz Chaim in his classic work Ahavat Chessed. (2) I don't think he thought it was nonsense.(3) There are many statements in Chazal that make generalized declarations about the consequences of certain sins that do not correspond to our experience.(4) I think we should study deeper and try to understand what Chazal were trying to say rather than arrogantly declaring their words nonsense and patting ourselves on the back that we know better. (5)

That being said, it happens to be that I know of three instances in which this very thing happened. (6) One of them happened to me. (7) So I would hesitate before even questioning the literal veracity of this particular statement. However, if you want to, fine. Just realize there's something deeper there as well.  -- Rabbi Dr.(8)
My notes follow:

(1) To the best of my knowledge, this is not a "midrash chazal" Chazal says nothing about the spontaneous combustion.
(2) Can someone provide a source please? Does the Chafetz Chaim really promise that your house will burn down if you don't walk people out?
(3) That's fine. Perhaps he didn't. So what? Where's it written that we have to cling to every nonsense belief accepted by our ancestors? As a man of the 19th century (yes, I know he died in the 20th, but he was 62 years old in 1900)  the Chofetz Chaim likely didn't believe in quantum mechanics. Does that mean we have to do without microwaves and GPS devices? He likely believed in Maternal Impression, too. Must we in the age of genetics? Of course not.
(4) Right, and when chazal make generalized statements that do not coincide with experience, we go with experience and either reinterpret or discard chazal's idea. The top two example are the mud-mouse and the asexually reproducing mouse(*) but there are dozens of others. Though, to reiterate, the fire-in-the-house thing, to the best of my knowledge, is not in chazal. (Ahavas Chesed, if that's where it appears, is the work of an achron)
(5) Study deeper and find the real meaning? Ok, but by telling us to find the "real meaning" aren't you conceding that the plain, superficial meaning is wrong? Isn't "Study deeper and find the real meaning" just a roundabout way of agreeing that its nonsense to say houses burn down when guests aren't escorted?
(6) Are you kidding? We're supposed to throw out the millions and million of misses because you know about three hits? And tell us more about these three hits please. I'd like to have your proof that the fires were caused because the homeowner let his guests leave unescorted, and not because the wiring was bad or because someone left his iron running.
(7) Fallacy alert
(8) Ha! "Rabbi," I believe, but "Dr." of what? Witchcraft? (no offence to witches)

*Sorry: That should have said asexually producing LOUSE, not mouse. The mud mouse is something else (also not true) (And note: I mean not true in the silly, plain, superficial, face value sense, but of course its fabulously true in super deep mystical ways in the secret, go figure it out sense.)

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