Thursday, July 01, 2010

A proof that tannaim created midrashim?

On BT Shabbas 96b, Rabbi Akiva identifies Zelophehad as the mkoshesh eitzim or stick-gatherer on the basis of a gezeira shava that is a word the appears twice in different contexts. In this case, the word  is "bamidbar" or wilderness. Because it's used to tell us where the stick-gatherer sinned, and also where Zelophehad  - and seems superfluous in either instances - Rabbi Akiva concludes that the two people are one and the same.

Now where did this drasha/interpretation come from?

Rabbi Akiva learned it from his teachers, who learned it from their teachers as part of a chain stretching all the way back to Sinai.  The problem with this possibility is the way R. Yehuda ben Beteira responded. He said Akiva would have to make an accounting, a din v'cheshbon, for either the sin of slandering Zelophehad or of revealing a sin that Scripture purposefully hid. If  Yeshuda ben Beteira believed that R. Akiva's interpretation was part of the chain stretching back to Sinai would he have responded so harshly? I don't think so.

R. Akiva made it up. This is not how modern Jews understand Midrash, but its certainly in keeping with the view of many medieval Jews who were of the opinion that the Sages  "interpreted [Scriptural] verses each one according to what occurred to him and what he saw in his mind." (Shmuel Hanagid).  This possibility allows for Yehuda b. Beteira's harsh rebuke, and also helps us understand a different exchange between Rabbi Akiva and a detractor.

In Sanhedrin we're told that R. Akiva taught that the plague of frogs began with just one frog, and that this frog became a swarm of frogs after it was hit. Elazer b. Azarya responds with scorn, saying:

מה לך אצל הגדה כלה מדברותיך ולך אצל נגעים ואהלות צפרדע אחת היתה ושרקה להן ובאו
Akiva, what do you know about Aggada? Stop talking [about this] and go back to [teaching the laws] of skin ailments and tents.

As with the case of the Zelophehad interpretation, it seems R. Elazer is of the opinion that this interpretation originated with R. Akiva. The problem, though, is that the Zelophehad interpretation is presented as a gzeirah shava and it is the opinion of most later authorities that the Tannaim didn't create their own gzeirah shavas. All of them had to be "real." Of course, those later authorities might be wrong, or perhaps R. Akiva simply didn't hold that way.

Rabbi Akiva learned the interpretation from his teachers, who learned it from their teachers as part of a chain stretching all the way back not to Sinai but to some ancient interpreter who lived long before Akiva and his teachers. There are many midrashim that seem to have developed this way, and often this development can be traced through the presence of midrashim in recently rediscovered books like Ben Sira and Jubileees, or through the writings of Josephus and Philo, or other books of the Apocrypha.  These texts all predate the Talmud by hundreds of years, and most of the classic midrashic collections are even younger. Its possible, that the Zelophead = stick gatherer interpretation originated with someone like the author of Jubilees, or his teacher, but by the time it reached R. Akiva this origin was no longer known.

The problem here, is that in this particular case I'm not aware of any earlier appearances of this particular interpretation (though I can give lots of other examples of well known midrashim appearing first in very old Apocryphal works). Also,  the presence of a midrash in the Apocrypha means only that the author knew it; it doesn't follow that he also composed it. Perhaps the midrash came from Sinai (Possibility #1) and was included in the Appocryphal text simply because it was so well known.

My conclusion
The angry responses of R. Yehuda and R. Elazer strikes me as strong evidence for  Possibility #2. I think R. Akiva made up both the frog and the stick gatherer interpretations and that this is why his colleagues permitted themselves to react with such anger. However, I don't believe that all of the midrashim originated with tannaim. Many are much older, as their presence in the Apocrypha testifies. However, these appearances only help us see how the interpretations changed over time. They tell us nothing about the interpretation's origins.

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