Thursday, April 2, 2009

Moses the Giant


There are several statements in the Gemara about Moshe Rabeinu being 10 amos (15 feet) tall, about twice as tall as Zhang Juncai in the picture above. While some of those statements can easily be interpreted allegorically, others are used in halachic contexts and do not appear possible to interpret allegorically (I know that Rav Moshe Shapiro does so, but it seems forced, and lacks basis in the Rishonim):
Rabbi Elazar said: One who transfers a load [from one domain to another] at a height of more than ten handbreadths above the ground, is liable (for violating Shabbos), for thus was the carrying done by the sons of Kehath. And how do we know that this was the way in which the sons of Kehath carried? As it is written, “…surrounding the Tabernacle and the Altar” (Numbers 3:26), comparing the Altar to the Tabernacle; just as the Tabernacle was ten cubits tall, so too the Altar was ten cubits tall… and it is written, “He spread the Tent over the Tabernacle,” and Rav said: “Our teacher Moses spread it out” – from here you learn that the height of the Levites was ten cubits. There is a tradition that any load that is carried with poles has one third above [the carriers’ shoulders] and two thirds below. We thus find that it was [carried] well above [ten handbreadths]. (Shabbos 92a)

In my book Sacred Monsters there is a chapter devoted to this problem, with a solution based on a machlokes in the Gemara regarding some of the assumptions in the aforementioned sugya. Meanwhile, are there any illustrated Haggados that depict Moshe or Aharon in the Mishkan as being 15 feet tall? And how do those that depict them as being normal height deal with these statements in the Gemara? My feeling is that when it comes to actually visualizing such things, many people suddenly find themselves possessing latent rationalist tendencies.

18 comments:

  1. It might just be that the goal of an illustration it to enable the viewer to relate more personally to the figures mentioned in the text. If the figures are portrayed as monstrous giants of a seemingly different class of human being, then we won't feel like he is one of our own.

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  2. I don't buy that for a second. When it comes to spirituality, the frum world has no problem presenting people as being a truly different class of human being!

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  3. By the way, I like your pseudonym!

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  4. Could it be that Rabbi Elazar misinterpreted an allegorical statement by his Rabbis to be literal truth?

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  5. supporter/unsupporterApril 6, 2009 at 8:00 PM

    Are you ever going to respond to the other comments from your original posts?

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  6. I've got a simple, if Purimdikke, solution about the depiction of Moshe in the Haggadahs.

    In the depictions of Moshe contronting Paro looks as if they are the same size, it's not because the artist didn't want to (or forgot to) make Moshe ten amos tall; it's because they accidentally made Paro ten amos tall, too, instead of just one amah tall.

    (On a more serious note, for those interested, R' P. Feldman discusses the Leviim's height as regular height, or, alternatively, seven amos tall: http://dafyomi.co.il/shabbos/
    points/sh-ps-092.htm

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  7. This is a bit of a side point, but what I've found interesting about Moshe's hieght is that it can be used to estimate Og's height, a real gaint. The midrash says Og's ankle was 30 amos off the ground - Moseh was ten amos, his spear was ten amos, and he jumped ten amos. (Apparently getting pricked with a pin in the ankle was fatal, becasue this strike killed Og.)
    Now, figure the average man's ankle is about two inches off the ground. Assuming Og was built to scale and was the equivlant of five and a half feet tall, this makes him 990 amos, or 14850 feet - 2.812 miles - tall. For comparison, the Empire State Building is 1,250 Feet, or just 0.236 miles tall.

    Of course, the structure of the human body could not possibly support the weight of a nearly three-mile-tall man...

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  8. This is all discussed in my book. The structure of the human body could not even support a 15 foot (ten ammah) man.

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  9. >"I don't buy that for a second. When it comes to spirituality, the frum world has no problem presenting people as being a truly different class of human being!"

    You can't see the spirituality gap, so it's not unsightly. But looking like a MONSTER is much more off-putting. No offense, but I'm sticking to my theory.


    >"This is all discussed in my book. The structure of the human body could not even support a 15 foot (ten ammah) man."

    Perhaps I'm not knowledgeable enough in physiology to have an opinion, but why can't the human structure be modified acc. to scale to support the larger frame?
    Let the bones be proportionally thicker, the heart muscle proportionally stronger to pump the blood, etc., etc., across the board.
    Why wouldn't that work?

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  10. I'd be very curious as to how you justify keeping halachot that are based on statements about the physical world you believe are correct.

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  11. G3 - see the chapter on giants in my book Sacred Monsters. Basically, by the time you have modified the person sufficiently, he would no longer be Homo sapiens.

    Joshua - see the last chapter in my book Sacred Monsters, where I explain why I follow the approach of Rav Herzog and others that halachos in the Gemara based on mistaken science are still binding.

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  12. mud mouse: Perhaps I'm not knowledgeable enough in physiology to have an opinion, but why can't the human structure be modified acc. to scale to support the larger frame?

    Ori: To simplify tremendously, it is a cube square problem. If you double a human's size, you get 2^3=8 times the mass. But the amount of things you can pump (blood, air, etc.) is limited by the cross section of the pipe, which only grows 2^2=4. So each cell only gets half the amount of oxygen. The same goes for bone strength.

    You can get around this in two ways:

    1. Patch and redesign. As Rabbi Natan Slifkin said, this would require such extensive changes that the end result would not be human.

    2. Say it was done through miracles. If G-d wants to have a double sized human, He can make the hemoglobin twice as efficient, the bones twice as strong, etc.

    The problem is that you can say anything was achieved miraculously. You can't do that and still be rationalist, though.

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  13. Joshua: I'd be very curious as to how you justify keeping halachot that are based on statements about the physical world you believe are correct.

    Ori: Were the Halachot based on false science, or were the Halachot there since Sinai, and a particular Rabbi tried to rationalize them based on the science available?

    There are good reasons to rationalize information. It makes it easier to remember, for example.

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  14. g*3

    your point is correct, but your arithmetic is off by a factor of 10.
    990 amos is about 1500 ft, not 15000 ft.

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  15. eli, you're right. I must have missed the decimal, and calculated 15 instead of 1.5. So Og would have been 1485 feet, or 0.28125 miles, just 235 feet taller than the Empire State Building.

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  16. Maybe Og could've worn these shoes:
    http://wimp.com/biggestshoes/

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  17. Just stumbled on this:

    The 'Book of Enoch, verses, 7:1-4 (in a section of the Book of Enoch dated to about 250 B.C.B.) explains that the "giants" mentioned in Genesis 6:4 were 300 cubits (or about 450 feet) tall.

    In 1663 a French Academy paper by, a noted scholar of the Ancient Near East argued that Adam was 140 feet tall, Noah was 50 feet tall, Abraham was 40 feet tall, and Moses was 25 feet tall! (from The Best Worst & Most Unusual by Felton & Fowler, Gallahad Books, 1994)

    And, Cotton Mather (1663-1728), an early American clergyman and writer, seems to have been enamoured of the idea. See the article, "Giants in the Earth: Science and the Occult in Cotton Mather's Letters to the Royal Society" by David Levin (William and Mary Quarterly, Vol. 45, Oct. 1988, p. 751-770).

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