Tuesday, June 07, 2011

The mystery of Boaz's... um... turnip

On BT Sanherdrin 19 we find a discussion of the virtues of Boaz, husband of Ruth, that gives Rav opportunity to retell a ribald pun.
Here is the passage, according to the Soncino Press translation:
R. Johanan said: Joseph's strong [temptation] was but a petty trial [compared] to Boaz; and that of Boaz was small in comparison with that of Palti son of Layish. 'Joseph's strong temptation was but a petty trial to Boaz,' as it is written, And it came to pass at midnight and the man was startled [Vayehi ba'Chatzi ha'Laylah, Vayecherad ha'Ish Vayilafes]. What is the meaning of Vayilafes?** — Rav said: His flesh became [as hard] as turnip heads [ie a "lefes".] 
This translation follows Rashi, who says "it got hard, and nonetheless he conquered his inclination." Boaz's trial, or test, is deemed more challenging then Joseph's test, as Ruth propositioned Boaz at midnight in an unlit barn that he owned, and also she was unmarried and, I'm guessing, hot whereas Joseph was invited to bed by an older woman who was not only married, but married to his master. The Talmud's point is that saying no to Ruth was harder then saying no to Potiphar's wife.

However some quick Googling suggests a problem. Rav's pun, and indeed the Talmud's discussion about Boaz's virtue relative to Yosef and Palti, appears based on the Targum on Ruth, which reads as follows:
And it happened at midnight that the man shuddered and trembled, and, as a result, his flesh became as soft as a [boiled] turnip. Though he perceived a woman sleeping at his feet, he subdued his evil inclination and did not draw nigh unto her, just like the righteous Joseph, who refused to draw nigh unto the Egyptian woman, the wife of his master; and just like the pious Paltiel, the son of Laish, who placed a sword between himself and Michal, the daughter of Saul and wife of David, refusing to approach her. [Samuel H. Levy translation]
So, was the um... turnip... soft or hard?

Its impossible for me to guess what happened here. Rav may have intended what the Targum intended only Rashi misunderstood him. (At times Rashi rewrites the Targum and at times appears ignorant of it or in possession of a different text.) [And see this other example of Rashi appearing unaware of something Ruth-related]

Alternatively, the problem may have begun with Rav. Perhaps he had a different text himself, or perhaps he rewrote it himself because, let's face it, the comparison to Palti and Michal makes more sense if Boaz was aroused, and not much sense at all if he was terrified.

True believers, what do you think?

It actually makes MORE sense if Boaz was terrified. Follow my reasoning. Joseph was terrified of his master and in an open house during daylights hours, so his refusal to sin isn't so impressive. Boaz, however, was in an unlit barn he owned but was also terrified and also refused to sin. Finally, Palti was in his own bed, in his own house, for several years yet refused to sin, and because the woman in his bed was the King's wife, he also was terrified.  If we say Boaz was aroused, rather than terrified, this extra variable destroys what is otherwise some neat midrashic parallelism.

**That verb Vayilafes is a real problem. On the spot, Ibn Ezra references Job 6:18 [wind, or turn aside]; Rashi points to Judges 16:29 [grasp]. 

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