Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Was Rachel Imeinu Killed By A Werewolf?


In Sacred Monsters, I noted that Rabbeinu Ephraim ben Shimshon, one of the Tosafists, wrote about werewolves. But I only recently came across the full text, and I found some additional fascinating material. (I uploaded the original text of Rabbeinu Ephraim on werewolves as a PDF- you can download it here.)

Rabbeinu Ephraim refers to werewolves in a curious discussion about Yaakov’s son Benjamin. In this week's parashah, the Torah relates how Yaakov repeatedly expressed concern about Benjamin’s brothers taking him down to Egypt, “lest an accident befall him.” Rabbeinu Ephraim explains this concern to relate to the description of Benjamin as “a predatory wolf” (Genesis 49:27), understanding it very literally:
Another explanation: Benjamin was a “predatory wolf,” sometimes preying upon people. When it was time for him to change into a wolf, as it says, “Benjamin is a predatory wolf,” as long as he was with his father, he could rely upon a physician, and in that merit he did not change into a wolf. For thus it says, “And he shall leave his father and die” (Gen. 44:22)—namely, that when he separates from his father, and turns into a wolf with travelers, whoever finds him will kill him. (Rabbeinu Ephraim, commentary to Genesis 44:29)
Elsewhere in the manuscript of Rabbeinu Ephraim’s commentary, there is further discussion about werewolves attributed to “a writer from Ashkenaz” (apparently disciples of Rabbeinu Ephraim, or other scholars from the region):
There is a type of wolf that is called loup-garou (werewolf), which is a person that changes into a wolf. When it changes into a wolf, his feet emerge from between his shoulders. So too with Benjamin—“he dwells between the shoulders” (Deuteronomy 33:12). The solution for [dealing with] this wolf is that when it enters a house, and a person is frightened by it, he should take a firebrand and thrust it around, and he will not be harmed. So they would do in the Temple; each day, they would throw the ashes by the altar, as it is written, “and you shall place it by the altar” (Leviticus 6:3); and so is the norm with this person whose offspring turn into wolves, for a werewolf is born with teeth, which indicates that it is out to consume the world. Another explanation: a werewolf is born with teeth, to show that just as this is unusual, so too he will be different from other people. And likewise, Benjamin ate his mother, who died on his accord, as it is written, “And it was as her soul left her, for she was dying, and she called his name ‘the son of my affliction’ ” (Genesis 35:18). (Commentary to Genesis 35:27)
In Sacred Monsters, I thought that the description of Benjamin eating his mother was a figure of speech, and metaphorically referred to his causing her death via childbirth. But now I think it might mean that he literally ate her! An earlier comment makes use of the albam system of letter substitution, whereby the Hebrew alphabet is split into two parts, and each letter is replaced by the corresponding letter in the other part. Based on this system, the word tzelem, “image,” as in “man was created in the image of God,” converts to ze’ev, “wolf,” which is explained to have great significance:
Tzelem is ze’ev in the albam system; therefore, those people who change into wolves were created as such from the Six Days of Creation, and do not return to their earlier state until they have eaten the blood of a man or woman. (Commentary to Genesis 2:28)
As I explained in Sacred Monsters, it would be a mistake to look upon those who believed in such things as being "naive" or "foolish." While such a belief would be outlandish today, in the medieval period it was perfectly ordinary. After all, Scripture itself attested to King Nebuchadnezzar turning into an animal. While some would interpret this as mental illness, others interpreted this as meaning that he physically transformed into an animal. Why, then, should a person not be able to turn into a wolf?

(For further discussion of the belief in werewolves, see Darren Oldridge, Strange Histories, pp. 96-105)

119 comments:

  1. This is great stuff, but what makes you think it is serious instead of a genre of early speculative fiction?

    The modern fictional novel didn't come about until the 1400s

    I mean, is there anybody who quotes this writing of Rabbeinu Ephraim as proof of something else?


    As a modern day example.. I can believe that Aliens exist in some remote part of the universe, and there is plenty of literature to support the idea that people in this generation believe in aliens. And I have seen dvar torah's written about the "Nefilim" and how they must have been aliens.

    But there are no preachers, and no rabbis, and no teachers, going about teaching that this is true. It's just speculative fiction from people who like to think.

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  2. Also, one more reason to love the Tribe of Benjamin.

    I've always loved the wolf icon, the fact that they had elite left handed troops.. but now they were also werewolves? This tribe rocks!


    I'm curious if we can find evidence that Mordechai was also a werewolf.

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  3. It would be nice if you were correct. But Rabbeinu Ephraim intended it to be factually true. And I guarantee that many people today would believe it to be true.

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  4. "But Rabbeinu Ephraim intended it to be factually true."

    Ok, but I'm asking how you know this.
    Is it quoted by his students?

    This style of writing has not gone away.

    http://www.mt.net/~watcher/noah.html

    There is nothing in the writing itself that tells you that this person is not 100% serious. However, the lack of these people asking for school boards to teach this to children, for example, shows that it's not a true belief but just fun "what if" thinking.

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  5. Having recalled our previous argument, where you claimed that the discussion on astronomy in Pesachim 94b was not intended literally, despite the context and despite all the Rishonim apparently holding otherwise, I'm not going to have another such futile argument with you!

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  6. "Having recalled our previous argument, where you claimed that the discussion on astronomy in Pesachim 94b was not intended literally, despite the context and despite all the Rishonim apparently holding otherwise, I'm not going to have another such futile argument with you!"

    Gotcha...

    So instead of answering a simple question, you will make assumptions about what I think, and at the same time, misrepresent my own views. (Can't say I'm all that surprised)

    But nice to know you are sticking to your talking points and avoiding discussion.

    Of course, not knowing if any of his students quoted this great peirush makes any conclusions about the text impossible.

    Also, I'm not aware of any schools regarding the symobls of were-wolves and what they mean in Midrash. But maybe you are?

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  7. For clarification sake, let me make sure I understand your view here.

    You know that this writing, which you were only introduced to for the first time recently, is definitely 100% an attempt to find historical truth of the characters and stories of the Chumash.

    You are also 100% certain of the beliefs and motivations for the person writing the text.

    However, you are unable to provide any said evidence.

    Or perhaps you do have evidence, but just because "Ameteur" is asking the question, you feel that that answering such a question would be a waste of time. If however, I had another name, you would answer the question?

    Perhaps it requires another reader to ask you the same question to elicit a response?

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  8. My "correct" was to your last question - not to your assumptions about my views.

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  9. rigorous logic about the gemara was the major interest of tosphot, not science.

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  10. I once heard a lecture from a professor at Hebrew U that claimed that the phrase חיות רעות in many Ashkenazic texts of תפילת הדרך doesn't mean "wild animals" but was a recognized term specifically referring to werewolves in medieval Ashkenaz. I always make sure to include it because I love the idea of asking God to protect us "from dangers both real and imaginary" — notwithstanding the fact that the people who first inserted it assumedly thought they were real.

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  11. Do any of the Jewish sources on werewolves refer to the full moon?

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  12. Great stuff, gotta love werewolves. Can you photocopy this source? I'd love to see it.

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  13. You can find the relevant parts of text in Hebrew at http://www.ybm.org.il/upload/kesher/5770/1151.pdf

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  14. can you please point out the exact source (including manuscript "girsa") - the copy of rabeinu ephraim's peirush for the torah on Hebrew-books doesnt seem to have any of the parts you quoted here...

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  15. I know understand why the Gedolim called you a kafor/apikoriis.

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  16. 1) Wow, I have a long time ago accepted as self-evident that ancient believed in all sorts of weird stuff and that in no way diminishes from whom they were.

    I admit, though: This one was hard to swallow -- possibly because the very idea of a werewolf has always freaked me out a bit (probably ever since I saw one depicted in a movie years ago). The picture you posted is not too warm and fuzzy either.

    Yasher koach for digging this up, though.

    2) I think the part about Binyamin eating his mother is half literal. I don't think a baby wolf could really eat up his mother. Perhaps he ate at or bit vital veins or arteries which caused her to bleed to death. But again, I don't think Rabbeinu Ephraim means he literally ate up his mother's entire body. Baby wolves wouldn't have the stomach for that.

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  17. RNS,

    I am surprised you believe that many would take this literally. When I encountered it in yeshiva, it was dismissed by the very hareidi rabbanim. I think R' Shapiro would dismiss this as something that did not "enter our mesora".

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  18. I don't deny that many would dismiss it. But nevertheless many would believe it. Probably "cj" above believes it.

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  19. Remember, many charedim (and MO) believe that people in the Dor HaPalagah were literally transformed into monkeys.

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  20. Who says this belief wasn't foolish even in the time of the Rishonim? Rambam would certainly have believed it to be foolish. I know he lived in a different part of the world, but just because this R Ephraim talks about werewolves doesn't mean that this was the standard belief and his commentary should be taken as completely normal.
    I don't expect that we find stories about werewolves in other peirushim of the French rishonim.
    There are people today who will tell you in all earnestness that they had shadim in their house and they went to a rabbi who told them to change their mezuzah or something and they disappeared. That's not a normal belief nowadays. People like that are just silly or gullible. Who says R Ephraim wasn't either?

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  21. I think the article is missing one crucial piece of information: that R' Ephraim ben Shimshon was connected to the mystical school of Chassidei Ashekenaz, writings of which are full of Harry Potter characters.

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  22. כתיבה אשכנזית refers to a handwriting style, not the writer's origins.

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  23. Rabbi Slifkin,

    How would Rabbeinu Ephraim square "Benjamin the werewolf" with the idea that Benjamin was one of four people who never sinned in his entire life? Is eating one's mother thus not a sin? Or is it more like a supernatural creature cannot be held accountable for his deeds when he is in human form? Or did Benjamin never actually transform, but only had the potential to do so?

    I know this is a far sillier question than the ones you normally deal with, but it's got fascinating implications. If you follow the more modern interpretation of Nebuchadnezzar and King Saul had mental illness, as opposed to turning into an animal and being haunted by evil spirits, then Benjamin's apparent lycanthropy likely has some modern explanation as well: a child born physically or mentally disabled, perhaps, or acting out ferociously.

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  24. Perhaps he ate at or bit vital veins or arteries which caused her to bleed to death.

    That's right, during breastfeeding. Don't forget now that werewolves are born with teeth.

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  25. Remember, many charedim (and MO) believe that people in the Dor HaPalagah were literally transformed into monkeys

    Well, at least they're moving in the right direction; they only got the order reversed.

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  26. We discovered this in Ner Israel when the Rabbeinu Efrayim was purchased and put on the shelves, in about 1997 or so. There was an uproar [tumult] about it, like there always is in yeshivas. Someone had the bright idea of firing off a letter to R. Chaim Kanvesky about it. He wrote back, and I saw the letter, in charachterstic .8 font handwriting: "zeh mi-sodei hatorah". Which tells us many things, but I wont dwell upon them here.

    RNS - what do you mean, "you only recently came across the full text"? Surely you read it before you cited it in your book, no?

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  27. If Shimon S is correct then shouldn't we at least be trying to find if there is a mystical meaning to this.
    This is not a part of Pesachim which all the Rishonim interpret literally; it is something that almost certainly is not meant to be taken literally - especially if written by someone from the mystical school.
    Do you just like making things that talmidei chachamim said look ridiculous?

    Happy Chanukah

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  28. RNS - what do you mean, "you only recently came across the full text"? Surely you read it before you cited it in your book, no?

    No, originally I only saw the page with the part from Rabbeinu Ephraim himself, not the much earlier and much later parts from the others.

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  29. This is not a part of Pesachim which all the Rishonim interpret literally; it is something that almost certainly is not meant to be taken literally - especially if written by someone from the mystical school.

    Why on earth is it "almost certainly not meant to be taken literally"? It's exactly what people believed back then, and there's nothing at all in the context which points to it not being literal. The only reason that you say this is that you are uncomfortable with it being literal, because you (mistakenly) believe that it would make Rabbeinu Ephraim foolish.

    Do you just like making things that talmidei chachamim said look ridiculous?

    Unlike you, I don't think that it makes him look ridiculous. So who has more respect for the Rishonim?

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  30. It's not that their strange [to us]beliefs make Rabbeinu Efrayim, or anyone from the period of chazal, look foolish. It's that it shows them to be perfectly ordinary men, products of their time and location. And in the eyes of many religious Jews today, that's just as bad as making them look foolish.

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  31. The material you refer to as being in the manuscript of rabbeinu Efrayim's commentary is actually in the standard edition book. You may have just missed it the first time.

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  32. I am enjoying this Chanukah, telling people this Rabeinu Efrayim. The reactions I'm getting are priceless.

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  33. >How would Rabbeinu Ephraim square "Benjamin the werewolf" with the idea that Benjamin was one of four people who never sinned in his entire life? Is eating one's mother thus not a sin?<

    I guess it depends on if he made a bracha or not. :>p

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  34. That's one SCARY looking werewolf! Couldn't you find a picture of a friendlier looking one? I mean, werewolves are people too!

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  35. Which tells us many things, but I wont dwell upon them here.

    DF - I'm curious to hear what you think it tells us.

    Happy Chanukah to everyone!

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  36. My son wants to know if Eisav who was born with teeth, and was Binyamin's Uncle was also possibly a werewolf? He did bite Yaakov's neck!

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  37. I'm not sure where you got the translation that "his father could rely on a physician." In the version I saw (בעלי התוספות השלם על התורה) it says לפי שהיה אביו נשען על כתפיו--because his father would lean on his shoulders. Not that this makes it any more understandable.

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  38. if you look at the rabbenu efraim inside (http://bdld.info/tag/werewolf/) he says

    וזה רפואתו של אותו זאב בשעה שנכנס לבית והאדם ירא ממנו יקח דשן הצבור באש וישליך אילך ואילך ולא ינזק, כך היו עושין במקדש בכל יום היו משליכין דשן אצל המזבח דכתיב (ויקרא ו:ג) ושמו אצל המזבח, וכן הוא מנהג אדם שיהפך תולדתו לזאב, כי הזאב נולד בשינים, כלומר זה יהיה אוכל העולם.

    obviously he is alluding to the gemara which says מזבח must be in חלקו של טורף b/c of בנימין זאב יטרוף --apparently there is more to r. efraim than just the literal level, b/c there is little concern that the מזבח will turn into a werewolf

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  39. I fail to understand why making up a ridiculous story that Rochel Imeinu was eaten by her son who turned into a wolf is deserving of respect and a title 'Rabeinu'. He kveched this nonsense into psukim! This is not drush but a complete disrespect of the Word of G-d! He had no right to do so. OMG why is this blog devoting time to this madness?

    Adam Zur, what logic do you see in G-d creating a man that turns into a wolf and eats his mother?

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  40. Wait! According to this Binyomin was a cannibal! No? Not counting Kabbalistic explanations, this is a hands down winner for the craiziest perush I've heard in my entire life!

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  41. It's not that their strange [to us]beliefs make Rabbeinu Efrayim, or anyone from the period of chazal, look foolish. It's that it shows them to be perfectly ordinary men, products of their time and location. And in the eyes of many religious Jews today, that's just as bad as making them look foolish.

    I think you nailed it.

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  42. My son wants to know if Eisav who was born with teeth, and was Binyamin's Uncle was also possibly a werewolf? He did bite Yaakov's neck!

    No, Eisav was a vampire (obviously).

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  43. "Why on earth is it "almost certainly not meant to be taken literally"? It's exactly what people believed back then, and there's nothing at all in the context which points to it not being literal. The only reason that you say this is that you are uncomfortable with it being literal, because you (mistakenly) believe that it would make Rabbeinu Ephraim foolish."

    1. It is not the only reason. As I wrote, if R' Ephraim was a mystic I assume there are a great many things he writes that are not literal. The reason I say I assume is because I am not familiar with his teachings; my assumption is based on my understanding of mysticism in other works.

    2. "Do you just like making things that talmidei chachamim said look ridiculous?
    Unlike you, I don't think that it makes him look ridiculous. So who has more respect for the Rishonim?"

    Well...when you put it that way....

    I didn't say I think it's ridiculous, and I think that your explanation of what the common belief was then is quite valuable.

    My point was, again, that if this is a mystic writing it has to be read that way. It is less of a novelty, but in this case you cannot say -as you can in Pesachim or perhaps Bechoros - that that is the simple pshat.

    3. You yourself once thought it was meant metaphorically. Now you think it might be meant literally. So what you "think might be" the case is now the absolute truth and can't be argued with?

    4. Doesn't the Rambam write harshly about those who take the Sages words in Aggadah literally precisely because it makes their words seem ch"v ridiculous?

    Now I'm not equating the Rishonim with Chazal (seems to be a pet peeve around here) but that seems to be a valid consideration here as well. Especially since the Rishonim learnt the aggadah and so - I would think - would be influenced by it's style, especially mystics.

    5. Belief in werewolves is one thing. Saying that Binyamin haTzadik, as a newborn baby (!) did what was described seems a big leap. It seems far more plausible that an object of popular belief is being used metaphorically.

    Hope, no offense.

    Happy Chanukah

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  44. No, Eisav was a vampire (obviously).

    I've actually heard people say that.

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  45. 1. It is not the only reason. As I wrote, if R' Ephraim was a mystic I assume there are a great many things he writes that are not literal.

    It depends on the context. In this discussion, there is nothing whatsoever to suggest that it is not literal, and everything to suggest that it is.

    You yourself once thought it was meant metaphorically. Now you think it might be meant literally.

    It was only one particular WORD that I initially did not think was literal. And it was only because (a) I had not seen the other sources and (b) I made the error of assuming that since it was too-far fetched for me to believe, it must have been too far-fetched for him to have believed.

    Doesn't the Rambam write harshly about those who take the Sages words in Aggadah literally precisely because it makes their words seem ch"v ridiculous?

    He is specifically talking about certain types of Aggados that are instantly recognizable as homilies. Not just things that don't make scientific sense to us, such as dirt-mice.

    Belief in werewolves is one thing. Saying that Binyamin haTzadik, as a newborn baby (!) did what was described seems a big leap.

    The medieval belief in werewolves was PRECISELY that they were born with teeth - and thus dangerous from the start.

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  46. "It's not that their strange [to us]beliefs make Rabbeinu Efrayim, or anyone from the period of chazal, look foolish. It's that it shows them to be perfectly ordinary men, products of their time and location. And in the eyes of many religious Jews today, that's just as bad as making them look foolish.

    I think you nailed it."

    It's all fun to be talking about people who aren't reading or commenting on this blog, so who on this blog, or reactionary blogs, do you think this applies to?

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  47. >> No, Eisav was a vampire (obviously).

    > I've actually heard people say that.

    This is getting better and better!

    So the red, red stuff -- not exactly lentil soup, was it?

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  48. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I believe the Rambam writes explicitly in more than one place that most Aggados are not to be taken literally. There is no default presumption at all in favor of a literal meaning, and certainly nothing close to a requirement that Aggados be intstantly recognizable as homlilies. Midrashic materials of this sort from Chasidei Ashkenaz, in my opinion, most definitely fall into the same prescription. Even if werewolves were known to exist, both then and now, I would have no reason to assume that Rabbeinu Ephraim meant his statements literally, any more than I assume that any other Chassidei Ashkenaz sourced midrashic material that doesn't contradict any known scientific or historical facts was intended to be literal. With all due respect, Rabbi Slifkin, I think that your zeal to identify more respected Rabbinic authorities that suscribed to beliefs we now know are scientifically false, has caused you to make unfounded assumptions about Chassidei Ashkenaz Midrashic material in general.

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  49. I believe the Rambam writes explicitly in more than one place that most Aggados are not to be taken literally.

    But the question is, what do you define as aggados. Pesachim 94b is not aggadah (in this context).

    Look, Rabbeinu Ephraim (or the other writer) gives a detailed description of werewolves, and explains that they are called "loup-garu" in the local language, which is exactly what werewolves were called. He talks about them being born with teeth, which was exactly the belief of that period. He talks about fighting them off with firebrands, which is what people did.

    Now you want to claim that he in fact means something completely different. (Although you haven't proposed anything at all about what that might be.) If so, then his entire piece is incredibly, unbelievably misleading. It's like saying that Hashem planted dinosaur bones in the ground!

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  50. "I fail to understand why making up a ridiculous story that Rochel Imeinu was eaten by her son who turned into a wolf is deserving of respect and a title 'Rabeinu'. He kveched this nonsense into psukim!"

    Let me slightly alter Carole's point. That rishonim believed in ideas now known to be wrong many MOs can accept. But to realize that drashos are (at least often) not reflective of a mesorah, but rather individual creativity and invention, is more difficult but just as obvious.

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  51. I agree with Carol. While one can't fault someone in the "dark ages" with believing in werewolves, demons, vampires, etc., it should be unacceptable to posit that a son of Ya'akov and Rachel was a monster. That should not be considered a valid conjecture even if werewolves actually existed. If anything goes in drash, then all kinds of nonsense would be propogated based on creative use of words and connections. The fact that a proponent of a weird drash may otherwise be a person of stature, shouldn't grant that drash any more credence. I am, in truth, totally unfamiliar with this R' Ephra'im, nor can I find him listed among the Tosafists in the Wikipedia article. I assume, then, that he was a relatively minor figure in that illustrious company of Ashkenazi talmidei chachamim.

    Those who would defend R' Ephra'im's drasha should explain Ya'akov's blessing of Binyamin. Why would he allude to his son's alleged deformity in blessing him as being victorious over his enemies? How can being a werewolf be considered a good thing if it allegedly lead to his mother's death?

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  52. 1. "In this discussion, there is nothing whatsoever to suggest that it is not literal, and everything to suggest that it is."

    And in the Bet Hamikdash there was a great danger from werewolves, so there's a PASUK (and one of the 613 mitzvot?) that tells us how to defend against them. Sounds literal to me.


    2. " But Rabbeinu Ephraim intended it to be factually true."

    You are very smart sir, but your absolute certainty about the meaning of obscure statements written a thousand years ago borders on arrogance.

    3. "(Although you haven't proposed anything at all about what that might be.)"

    True, I haven't. Mainly because I have not studied this Rabbeinu Ephraim so cannot presume. However, a metaphoric explanation does not seem much of a stretch.

    4."He is specifically talking about certain types of Aggados that are instantly recognizable as homilies."

    Oder ye oder nisht. What makes you say that?

    5. " Not just things that don't make scientific sense to us, such as dirt-mice. "

    The problems people have with this particular idea goes far beyond whether werewolves make scientific sense.

    6. We got it. People then believed in them. As I wrote in my original comment - that is an important and enlightening thing to know. (By the way, I don't know why you make it seem like a chiddush. We always knew that this type of thing was believed in the 'olden days'. What you do bring to the table is sources, examples, research which are fascinating, and for that - yasher koach). But it doesn't mean that he meant it literally. Far closer to pshat would seem that he used werewolves (SOMETHING PEOPLE BELIEVED IN) as a mashal. What is the nimshal? I would have to study it. But from my experience with mystical works there oftentimes vague and obscure statements which are certainly not literal, although it is not clear what the nimshal is.

    Again, in this case, the nimshal - presumably BASED ON a mother dying in childbirth but with some additional elements which the comparison to werewolves are meant to illustrate - doesn't seem far fetched at all.

    7. Happy Chanukah.

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  53. And in the Bet Hamikdash there was a great danger from werewolves, so there's a PASUK (and one of the 613 mitzvot?) that tells us how to defend against them.


    If they believed that there was great danger from werewolves in their own day, why wouldn't there also have been danger from them back then? But in any case, he's not giving the pshat of a pasuk - the pasuk is talking about what was done as part of the avodah. He's saying that it also alludes to how one deals with werewolves.

    your absolute certainty about the meaning of obscure statements written a thousand years ago borders on arrogance.

    There's nothing obscure about it. It's a very detailed explanation.

    However, a metaphoric explanation does not seem much of a stretch.

    Sure it does. As I wrote earlier, he gives a detailed description of werewolves, and explains that they are called "loup-garu" in the local language, which is exactly what werewolves were called. He talks about them being born with teeth, which was exactly the belief of that period. He talks about fighting them off with firebrands, which is what people did. If he meant it allegorically, then his entire piece is incredibly, unbelievably misleading.

    But from my experience with mystical works there oftentimes vague and obscure statements which are certainly not literal, although it is not clear what the nimshal is.

    There is nothing vague or obscure here.

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  54. >> No, Eisav was a vampire (obviously).

    > I've actually heard people say that.

    This is getting better and better!

    So the red, red stuff -- not exactly lentil soup, was it?



    Heh, my 10-year old actually hypothisized this at the Shabbat table last week based on the evidence:

    1) The neck biting
    2) The red, red stuff
    3) The fact that his angel had to flee before sunrise
    4) Stereoypical vampires are also recognizable by thick luxurious hair (v-shaped widow's peak)

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  55. "And in the Bet Hamikdash there was a great danger from werewolves, so there's a PASUK (and one of the 613 mitzvot?) that tells us how to defend against them. Sounds literal to me. "

    As an added bonus, you can save this bit of logic to prove that anything in a text you admire is true. After all, if it's proven false it was obviously never intended to be literal. And the more obvious the falsehood, the better your rejoinder. Gevaldik.

    "You are very smart sir, but your absolute certainty about the meaning of obscure statements written a thousand years ago borders on arrogance."

    I'm sure you take all Greek mythology very seriously.

    "The problems people have with this particular idea goes far beyond whether werewolves make scientific sense. "

    Not so much. There's a million midrashim that are taken seriously which make just as little sense in the psukim, but since they aren't as obviously false many believe them.

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  56. 1. "As I wrote earlier, he gives a detailed description of werewolves, and explains that they are called "loup-garu" in the local language, which is exactly what werewolves were called. He talks about them being born with teeth, which was exactly the belief of that period. He talks about fighting them off with firebrands, which is what people did. If he meant it allegorically, then his entire piece is incredibly, unbelievably misleading."

    For the third time: Making use of a popular belief for the sake of allegory makes eminent sense.

    2.""your absolute certainty about the meaning of obscure statements written a thousand years ago borders on arrogance."

    There's nothing obscure about it. It's a very detailed explanation."

    I amend my statement. Your absolute certainty about anything and everything you happen to CURRENTLY believe borders on arrogance.

    The Rishonim - who you claim to respect far more than the deluded masses - often (usually?) introduce their conclusions with 'yesh lomar', 'yesh omrim' yesh lefaresh'. But you make absolute statements. Anyone who argues doesn't have a leg to stand on. Until you change your mind.

    3. "There is nothing vague or obscure here."

    Umm....yeah there is.

    4. As I wrote earlier - quoting one passage does not give you the context of WHO is writing this and whether the rest of his pirush is pshat or mystically inclined. This context is essential to understanding a very difficult-to-understand interpretation. And again, not difficult for scientific reasons - yes, people used to believe in them, as you've said once or twice - but for other, obvious reasons.

    5. "As an added bonus, you can save this bit of logic to prove that anything in a text you admire is true. After all, if it's proven false it was obviously never intended to be literal. And the more obvious the falsehood, the better your rejoinder. Gevaldik. "

    No Abe, I can't do that with any text I admire. I admire Rabbi Slifkin's books but there are things in them which I think are false. But there is such a thing as metaphor. It is used very much in Torah works. And I'll bet that the Torah scholars in Rabbeinu Ephraim's day -even his students-did not understand Rachel's passing this way.

    6. "I'm sure you take all Greek mythology very seriously."

    Not sure what you mean by that.

    7. "There's a million midrashim "

    Really? A million? Or did you not mean that literally? :-)

    8. Happy Chanukah!

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  57. Making use of a popular belief for the sake of allegory makes eminent sense.


    Of course. But here he is not making use a popular belief. He is describing the details of the belief.

    Your absolute certainty about anything and everything you happen to CURRENTLY believe borders on arrogance.

    Actually, there is very little that I am certain about. (Incidentally, are you certain that it is a metaphor, or do you consider it probably, or just vaguely possible?)

    Even in this case, if someone would actually present reasons why we should not interpret him literally (which are more concrete than just saying that he was into mysticism), and a plausible non-literal reading of the text, then I would freely change my mind. But nobody has even attempted to do so. So why on earth should I doubt that it is literal?

    This back-and-forth is not really adding anything new. So I will not be posting more comments from those who insist that it is metaphor unless they are actually making a new point, and preferably if they are actually offering a suggested line-by-line breakdown of exactly how this text should be interpreted. For example - when he writes "There is a type of wolf that is called loup-garou (werewolf), which is a person that changes into a wolf" is he or is he not talking about actual werewolves? And when he then says that this applies to Binyamin, what did he mean? And what did he write to rule out us taking it literally?

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  58. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I agree with you that the descriptions and explanations of the existence werewolves per se are probably meant literally. What I'm arguing is that the statements attributing werewolf status to Binyamin were not meant literally. And likewise, the statement that one of the functions of putting ashes next to the Mizbeach was to ward off werewolves is probably also symbolic.

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  59. I might agree with you regarding the ashes, just because the phrase reads strangely. But, again, I see no reason to believe that he's not being literal regarding Binyamin. There's no suggestion as to what the non-literal reading is, nor any explanation of why it would be so utterly misleading.

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  60. 1- Might Rachel have *died* in childbirth and *then* been eaten by Benyamin?

    2- What/who was buried in Kever Rachel?

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  61. "I might agree with you regarding the ashes, just because the phrase reads strangely."

    The problem with taking this literally is NOT only because of the phrasing. It is a huge chiddush that this was done in the BH to ward off monsters. And if it was necessary - why just in the BH? And why just 'eitzel hamizbeach'? Even with different wording Ein hacontext omer ela darsheini.
    Same with Binyamin. You keep focusing on the fact that people believed in monsters and ignoring the other, equally problematic elements of interpreting the story this way.

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  62. I fail to understand why making up a ridiculous story that Rochel Imeinu was eaten by her son who turned into a wolf is deserving of respect and a title 'Rabeinu'. He kveched this nonsense into psukim! This is not drush but a complete disrespect of the Word of G-d! He had no right to do so. OMG why is this blog devoting time to this madness?

    I fail to understand why making up a ridiculous story that God is invisible and omnipresent is deserving of respect and a title 'Rabeinu'. He kveched this nonsense into psukim! This is not drush but a complete disrespect of the Word of G-d! He had no right to do so. OMG why is this blog devoting time to this madness?

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  63. ignoring the other, equally problematic elements of interpreting the story this way.

    which are...?

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  64. Bear in mind that plenty of pshat explanations are riddled with difficulties. For example, the famous idea that Hashem said to Avraham "bincha, yechidcha, asher ahavta," to break it to him gradually, has the huge problem that Hashem hasn't yet told him that this is about offering him up!

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  65. "which are...?"

    Obvious. As you probably felt your whole life up until you decided that you were mistaken and this is meant literally.


    "Bear in mind that plenty of pshat explanations are riddled with difficulties. For example, the famous idea that Hashem said to Avraham "bincha, yechidcha, asher ahavta," to break it to him gradually, has the huge problem that Hashem hasn't yet told him that this is about offering him up!"

    Which is why the parshanim have different views on pshat of many psukim - often the question is what is 'closest' to pshat.

    Rashi was certainly aware of the problem you raise. But, to him, this difficulty was smaller than those raised by other pirushim.

    Perhaps - thinking aloud here- Abraham did have an inkling that this would entail some great sacrifice involving his son. Maybe that's why the pasuk introduces the story by saying "G-d tested Abraham and said...".

    Also He said 'na' - not common with tzivuyim.

    Perhaps.

    The point is that there is something in the pasuk which compels one to interpret it this way. Not so, with Rachel's passing.

    A freilichn Chanukah.

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  66. I just found the article you took this from.

    1. IMMEDIATELY after the sentence you quote he writes that even in human form they retain the tail. So too, a strip of land protruded (tail-like) from Benjamin's territory in EY.

    So in this passage he (or his student) writes:
    A. about deshen eiztel hamizbeach which you think is metaphorical.
    B. about Rachel which you think is literal.
    C. About real estate in EY thet belonged to the TRIBE of Benjamin - connected to the obvious metaphor of the tail.

    Reishe v'seife metaphor v'metziasa literal?!

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  67. Rabbi Slifkin,

    I'm not sure why you claim that the burden of proof lies on the non-literalist to demonstrate that the claims of Binyamin being a werewolf and the werewolf warding off functions in the BH are not to be taken literally. No suggestion that the statement is not to be taken literally needs to be given- non-literal is the default. And it's only misleading if you posit that Rabbeinu Ephraim was writing something that the educated audience would normally take literally.

    Beyond my general point that I think there should be a presumption of non-literalness applied to drush of Chassidei Ashkenaz, I think that there are certainly indications here especially. Why would Hashem make one of the Shevatim a werewolf? Why davka by Binyamin is the animal description given in the Beracha a literal one? If one of the shevatim really had this deformity, soemthing which I'm sure Rabbeinu Ephraim nor any other of the Chassidei zAshkenaz saw directly with anyone they knew, why does the Torah not explain why it happened? Etc.

    I don't posit to guess as to what dangerous streak Binyamin had that would justify his being called a werewolf, just like I don't know the explanations of many other Aggados that no one claims are literal in any fashion. I'm sure many people I know who are experts in the Midrashic corpus would be able to come up with answers.

    The statement about warding off werewolves from coming into the Beis Hamikdash using one of the avodos is about as Kabbalsitic as it gets, and I'm quite surprised that you would take this statement literally. We don't find avodos done to ward off any other animals. If we understand what was predatory (at times, like a werewolf) about Binyamin in general, that explanation can certainly explain why a symbolic warding off of werewolves was done in the Mikdash. My tentative guess is that it has something to do with the fact that a sudden burst of kedushah, while being beneficial to most people, can be harmful to some. Perhaps Rochel Immeinu was not prepared to receive the kedushah of Binyamin for whatever reason. (Perhaps Binyamin was especially kadosh due to the fact that he would never sin). And Yaakov knew how to channel or shield Binyamin properly when he was with him in a way that prevented his kedushah from harming others. And just like a firebrand can hold off a werewolf, so to Terumas Haddeshen, which represents the "dirty work" part of the Beis Hamikdash can ward off the harm that the sudden kedushah of the Beis Hammikdash can have on people to involved in the mundane.

    Once again, it appears to me that your zeal to find more examples of Rishonim believing things that sound strange to us has got in the way of fairly looking at the material. With no indication that the statements about Binyamin and the Mikdash are meant to be taken literally, one should not assume them to be literal.

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  68. Carol (reply to anti-Carol)December 23, 2011 at 1:13 AM

    Please... People who believe God is invisible and omnipresent don't eat their own mother for breakast. Please... They explain their beleifs in Emunos veDeaos, More Nevuchim and Chovos Halevavos among other writings. These belief are the foundation of our Western Civilization. Do you think that there is a better explanation of the nature of G-d?

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  69. Any rvidence this might have been the earliest recorded purim-Torah? :)

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  70. An awesome sefer Yalkut Yehuda explains that the reason Avrohom Avinu was told "bincha, yechidcha, asher ahavta," before the Akeida was in order that he should focus his mind on his love for his son prior to being commanded to offer him as a sacrifice. I would like to add that Akeida comes to teach us to give up what is dearest to us for G-d and this is the reason that our forefather's love for his son was inflamed. The Midrash in B.R. 54 has a different explanation, but I think mine is a true reason according to the pshat meaning.

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  71. "If they believed that there was great danger from werewolves in their own day, why wouldn't there also have been danger from them back then? But in any case, he's not giving the pshat of a pasuk - the pasuk is talking about what was done as part of the avodah. He's saying that it also alludes to how one deals with werewolves."

    תלמוד בבלי מסכת זבחים דף נג עמוד ב וקרן מזרחית דרומית לא היה לה יסוד. מ"ט? אמר ר' אלעזר: לפי שלא היתה בחלקו של טורף, דאמר רב שמואל בר רב יצחק: מזבח אוכל בחלקו של יהודה אמה. אמר רבי לוי בר חמא אמר רבי חמא ברבי חנינא: רצועה היתה יוצאה מחלקו של יהודה ונכנסה בחלקו של בנימין, והיה בנימין הצדיק מצטער עליה בכל יום לנוטלה, שנאמר: חופף עליו כל היום, לפיכך זכה בנימין הצדיק ונעשה אושפיזכן להקב"ה, שנאמר: ובין כתפיו שכן
    תלמוד בבלי מסכת סוכה דף נו עמוד ב תנו רבנן: מעשה במרים בת בילגה שהמירה דתה, והלכה ונשאת לסרדיוט אחד ממלכי יוונים. כשנכנסו יוונים להיכל היתה מבעטת בסנדלה על גבי המזבח, ואמרה: לוקוס לוקוס, עד מתי אתה מכלה ממונן של ישראל
    רש"י: לוקוס - הוא זאב בלשון יווני
    Why ignore this obvious context to R. Ephraim's explanation? (This does not negate literal interpretation of Binyamin as werewolf.) Also, David Shyovitz apparently wrote a doctoral dissertation on this and related subjects: "He has created a remembrance of his wonders": Nature and embodiment in the thought of the Hasidei Ashkenaz

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  72. Let me slightly alter Carole's point. That rishonim believed in ideas now known to be wrong many MOs can accept. But to realize that drashos are (at least often) not reflective of a mesorah, but rather individual creativity and invention, is more difficult but just as obvious.

    Abe – You did not slightly alter Carol’s point, you made your own point, but a good point at that. I think your point is a problem that people struggle with when it comes to things like this. When it becomes obvious that what is called “Torah” was sometimes stuff that was made up out of thin air or based on the then-common but ultimately erroneous beliefs in non-existent monsters, it calls into question much else of what they say. It then challenges the belief that all of their teachings stem from Har Sinai via a mesorah. It is obvious to us that there are no werewolves. If this was clearly not mesorah (because mesorah means it was from G-d, and G-d knows there are no werewolves) what else was made up, and what else is being called mesorah which was in reality just the figments of the imaginations of the learned men who we call Chazal, Tosafos and Rishonim?

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  73. I find it very interesting that some people jump to say that something is a mashal when they think they are defending the honor of chazal, tosfos, gaonim or rishonim and in situations where there is no evidence at all that points or even hints to something being a mashal.

    And yet when the non-Hareidi say that the world is billions of years old, and that the earth is not 6k years old, and that Noach’s flood did not cover the whole earth, they are called apikorsim for saying that perhaps these stories were written or intended as a mashal.

    A mashal is almost always a STORY. And the things in the Torah that some of us have a hard time accepting as literal events are often STORIES. But yet, there are those who will insist that the stories are literal and anyone who claims otherwise are heretics. Yet when it comes to mud-mice (not a story, but a halachic discussion) or when it comes to detailed descriptions of the sun revolving around a dome-shaped firmament (again, not a story, but a halachic discussion and explanation), those same people will claim that it MUST be metaphorical (or mystical), that it cannot be taken literally, and that anyone who insists that it was literal are apikorsim or are mocking or twisting the words of Chazal, Tosfos, and Rishonim.

    This seems like a mighty convenient double-standard to me.

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  74. guys, can we please stop with all the hate in the comments? one of the problems we all seem to have with chareidim is the fact that they argue without bringing logical reasons and sources. from the comments I've read, (both by RNS and others) I'm seeing a lot of the same thing. Please have respect for each other, no matter how wrong you believe everyone else is. Rabbi Slifkin, do you know of a sefer that has the commentary published and where i could purchase it? Because if i want to show this to my friends at yeshiva i'm probably going to need a hebrew sefer. for a 16 yr old this is pretty frikken awesome pshat, btw. Rabbi Slifkin, I don't see how the fact that the existence of werewolves was commonly believed in those times is a proof that Rabbeinu Efraim believed it to be true. Also, the fact that the gemara or a rishon mentions something, doesn't mean they believe in it. If someone was recording the tuesday and thursday night chabura on the fourth perek of bava metzia in Aramaic writing, it wold look like this: amar Gedalia, "oh, its like a horcrux!"(dont ask how that came up in the chabura, i dont remember) amar lei yosef dov, "mai horcrux?" amar lei GUBBISH, "its a way of dividing a portion of your soul into a specific object via killing someone"
    Does that mean i believe in horcruxes? nope. I could also easily have entirely seemingly serious "halachic" conversation with someone about a nafka mina in tzvei dinim about dragons. Does that mean i believe they exist? nope. Someone could record that down. Now, one could argue that this is simply becuase i am a teenager, but i have seen relatively older people do similair things. You could also argue that something similar this being written down in the text of the Talmud Bavli is highly unlikely. However, if Ravina and Rav Ashi (or whoever finalized the text) felt that despite its "silliness" important lessons can be learnt from learning its passage, they may have decided to leave it in. The main argument against my statement is that this is because it is not commonly (if at all)believed that dragons and horcruxes exist. however, as stated by SE , the fact that it was commonly believed is debatable. although, the existence of werewolves was most probably more belived in than dragons are nowadays. It is also possible to argue that Rabbeinu Efraim did not care about the factuality of the existence of werewolves, but still wrote a pshat on the parsha based on them, as i may nowadays write a pshat in the parsha about dragons. This may be true even if he completely believed in their existence. As for him "forcing his stupid pshatim into the pasukim" there are many important Rabbonim who may publish articles on halacha pertaining to medicine, which the factuality of its science may be disproven in many years to come. They may right a pshat on the parsha with mention of things which are commonly believed to exist. writing your own chiddushim is important, and Rabbeinu Efraim's belief in werewolves and possible explanation of certain paskuim based on his "knowledge" of them was reason enough for him to write it down. "I'm not going to have another such futile argument with you!" No arguements that are about Torah and are lishma should be called futile. You should both state your reasons for believing that Rabbeinu Efraim did/did not believe in the existence of werewolves, despite the fact that it is truly impossible to know. Happy Chanuka, peace out.

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  75. Rabbi Slifkin, are wolves actually born with teeth?

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  76. 1. IMMEDIATELY after the sentence you quote he writes that even in human form they retain the tail. So too, a strip of land protruded (tail-like) from Benjamin's territory in EY.

    Ah, very good. Now that's what I was talking about. For the first time, someone is actually offering a reason to think that it is not literal. As I repeatedly said, it's not that I am closed-minded to this possibility - I just hadn't seen a reason for it. So now I will give it further thought. Does it mean that the entire comparison to Binyamin is a metaphor, or does it mean that there was an additional lycanthropic aspect to Binyamin?

    Incidentally, the reason why I was arguing so strongly against a non-literal reading was that people were not being specific about the nature of their non-literal reading. I thought that people were saying that the entire section is non-literal, i.e. that Rabbeinu Ephraim did not even believe in werewolves (and it could be that this is what people were saying). Hershel recently spelled out his more reasonable approach, which is that R. Ephraim was indeed talking about actual werewolves, but that the analogy to Binyamin is a metaphor.

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  77. OMG! Binyomin had a tail?! I mean he walked around with a furry tail like a wolf? Nice chiddush! What's next?

    By the way just found out that wolves don't develop teeth until they are two weeks old. Human babies are sometimes born with teeth. I can only imagine the abuse a baby like this would suffer from these 'Hassidim'. If you doubt it, just read Sefer Hassidim.

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  78. You asked for someone to suggest a non-literal interpretation of this passage. I am utterly unqualified for this but I said I’d try and here are some of my thoughts. They are ‘ulay yesh lomar b’derech efshar’ – although parts are based on what I’ve seen in sefarim.

    The loup-garou is a person who is sometimes transformed into a monster. Whether or not it exists is not the point. The point is it can happen to many of us. We can be good, moral, kind people, but sometimes turn into a creature that we don’t recognize and do things that are utterly out of character. We can ‘sprout teeth’ and attack others with verbal, emotional, or physical violence (we might even post sarcastic and cutting comments on a blog). When we return to our normal selves we have no idea how we could have behaved this way. It’s important to know that this possibility exists and there are ways of dealing with it.

    Now, Benjamin was a tzaddik – he is considered one of the holiest people that ever lived and his life was filled only with goodness. But the TRIBE of Benjamin experienced some very severe lows – maybe the worst in our nation’s history. I refer particularly to the episode of Pilegesh B’Givah when some Benjaminites acted with violence and cruelty and the rest of the tribe did nothing to stop it. This led to a civil war wherein the tribe was decimated and almost destroyed.

    BUT….they bounced back. The survivors showed remorse, and the rest of the nation was compelled to search for ways to rehabilitate the tribe and ensure their continuity. Since they had sworn to never give their daughters in marriage to Shevet Benjamin, they had to contrive a scheme where the Benjaminites would ‘take’ their daughters.

    That the tribe was reformed and rose to glory is reflected in the fact that the first Jewish king – a man who was a tzaddik, and ‘head and shoulders above everyone else - was chosen from their midst.

    In Jacob’s blessing to Benjamin, he called him a ‘ze’ev yitraf’. Rashi (in one of two pirushim) says that this refers to the time when his descendants, after the war, would ‘grab’ the women of Israel for their wives.
    Why would Jacob refer to this low point in Benjamin’s history in his BLESSING to his youngest son? Why is Rashi not content with his other pirush (that the mizbeach which consumed the korbanot was in Benjamin’s territory)?

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  79. But there is a blessing in there. Shevet Benyamin has the ability to rise up from even the worst of situations – and the lowest of spiritual lows – and achieve greatness and holiness. He can be ‘toref’ – snatch (spiritual) victory from the jaws of defeat.
    This, then, is part of Benjamin’s legacy, and is a lesson to us all. That as humans we are capable of evil – even of behaving like savage beasts . Indeed, the greater we are the more capacity for wickedness that we possess “hagadol mechaveiro yitzro gadol heimenu”– but that is not who we really are. We are humans. We have souls. They are G-dly. And we can always ‘return’ to who we really are. That most Jewish of concepts – Teshuvah.

    When Benjamin was born he seemed to have a negative impact – his mother passed away as a result of his birth – he is called ‘ben oni’. But ‘v’aviv (aviv shebashamayim!) called him ‘ben yemin’! He was in fact a ‘ben yemin, and grew to be a virtuous and holy man, one who continued his mother's legacy (allowing her to live on through him).

    [Now really going out on a limb:
    Perhaps ‘being born with teeth’ shows that the potential for evil (violence)within man is something he is born with – it his job to overcome it.

    Perhaps the ‘feet growing out of the shoulders’ symbolizes this descent (and apparent transformation) of man – his feet are where his head should be.

    To protect against this we have the korbanot, wherein the animal – symbolizing the animalistic aspects of man – is offered on the mizbe’ach, to G-d, it is utilized in service of G-d, we grow to ‘love G’d with all of our hearts – ‘bishnei yitzrecha’ . Here the allusion to the Altar standing in Benjaminite land.

    Also there is terumat hadeshen – which alludes to getting rid of the kelippot – the baser elements of man’s nature. (I THINK I saw this somewhere – maybe not. Don’t quote me). ]

    Now, I don’t think all of the above reads into the passage from Rabbeinu Ephraim. But maybe some of the concepts are there.

    (I can’t resist mentioning Chanukah and since I’ve already gone so long…..

    Chanukah was a time when our most sacred place was desecrated. The source of light – spiritual light – was made dark. And then a miracle happened. Light – which had been on the run – was victorious against all odds. The place that had been defiled was made beautiful and pure. Light again shone from there and illuminated the world. A tiny group of people fighting for light defeated a far greater enemy of darkness. A tiny cruse of purity lasted far longer than seemed possible.

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  80. Within each of us there is also a struggle between light and darkness, and sometimes it seems the darkness must win. But if we try we will find that G-d gives us the strength – even performs miracles, so that we can rise to our true potential as people, as Jews.

    This is the lesson of Chanukah and the reason that we light the menorah at night –the Chanukah lights illuminate the darkness of night, even transform the night into light.

    And like shevet Binyamin, we can rise up from whatever negative (physical or spiritual) situation we are in – and with G-d’s help allow our soul’s light to illuminate our lives and the lives of all those around us.

    Happy Chanukah.

    [Some of the ideas above are taken from works of kabbalah and Chasidut. Some are merely conjecture. The part about pilegesh biGivah is based on a (much longer and quite beautiful) explanation by the Lubavitcher Rebbe on that Rashi (it is printed in Likkutei Sichot – if anyone wants I will find the exact source).]

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  81. Gubbish:

    You're awesome. I wish I could have written like that when I was 16 (or today, for that matter).

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  82. Hershel, very nice derivative thinking! But I think we all agree that this is not what he is trying to say. I mean none of it is in the text of his commentary.


    Peace.

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  83. Carol,

    When you have a peirush on something so obviously drush and kabbalistically oriented as the peirush of Rabbeinu Ephraim that Hershel was trying to give a possible explanation to,if anything, we can all agree that no one who is not from that school or at least heavily trained and intimately familiar with the whole mindset and framework of it can can know enough to exclude what Hershel was saying as a possibility. It's like someone untrained in Torah Shebb'al Peh excluding a traditional interpretation of a text based on "we all know that's not what it's saying".Many forms of literature across many cultures will employt writing that will give a totally wrong impression to someone not well versed with the system. Since there is absolutely nothing in Rabbeinu Ephraim's writing to suggest a literal meaning, and there is nothing in Hershel's writing inconsistent with the basic philosophy of Chassidei Ashkenaz, Hershel's suggested explanation of the metaphor cannot be excluded. (Now if someone used Gilgul in an explanation here, a philosophy totally foreign and unknown to Chassidei Ashkenaz, it would be a totally different story....)

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  84. " Hershel recently spelled out his more reasonable approach, which is that R. Ephraim was indeed talking about actual werewolves, but that the analogy to Binyamin is a metaphor."

    You may find this convincing, but it's a common method of apologetics in our circles which I do not find convincing. It goes something like this.

    1) Text
    2) Problem with text
    3) Tentative answer that text was originally misunderstood
    4) Second problem with text which "proves" text was originally misunderstood

    Now I'm not saying that this is never justified, but very often it's simply a second problem and not a solution. Why would Binyamin's territory look different because he was a werewolf? In today's society we might wonder what the mechanism was. Did they conquer territory with the goal of forming land similar to their sigil? Were they given land with that goal? Did God or fate simply cause it to work out that way? Who knows, but i suspect that in other times the fact that it "fit" was reason enough. We often find names which conveniently match the character and one need not ask (though some have) what the mechanism was. Were they all named in prophecy?

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  85. "The loup-garou is a person who is sometimes transformed into a monster. Whether or not it exists is not the point. The point is it can happen to many of us. We can be good, moral, kind people, but sometimes turn into a creature that we don’t recognize and do things that are utterly out of character."

    I like your style; you should continue to darshen. But if you actually believe that R' Ephrayim is Joseph Campbell, I believe you're mistaken.

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  86. Those who would defend R' Ephra'im's drasha should explain Ya'akov's blessing of Binyamin. Why would he allude to his son's alleged deformity in blessing him as being victorious over his enemies? How can being a werewolf be considered a good thing if it allegedly lead to his mother's death?

    Ḥazal believed that while people are born with particular inclinations, they have the power to use them for good instead of evil. Cf. bloody Mars-people becoming shoḥṭim or mohalim.

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  87. Gubbish, the Sefer was published by Yoel Klugmann in Jerusalem 5770. Here's the full name פירוש רבינו אפרים ב"ר שמשון וגדולי אשכנז הקדמונים על התורה, יו"ל ע"י יואל בן החבר ר' אברהם ז"ל קלוגמאנן ובניו שיחי'‚ ירושלים ת"ו, מהדורה שלישית
    מתוקנת שנת תש"ע לפ"ק

    The relevant pages are: קמה-קמו, קסז.

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  88. Hershel, you explained the מכתיבה אשכנזית dvar torah. But there's the dvar torah of Rabeinu Efrayim itself which is very literal as you can see for yourself. Here is the full text as printed in the above edition:

    פירוש רבינו אפרים ב"ר שמשון ירושלים תש"ע
    פרשת ויגש (עמ' קמה) וזה לשונו

    וקרהו אסון למה אמר‚ והלא ארז"ל לעולם אל יפתח אדם פיו לשטן והיאך אמרו יעקב ויהודה כך. נ"ל אמר יעקב בכל שליחות ששלחתי עושה רושם‚ שלחתי את יוסף לשכם והנה איננו‚ שלחתי אתכם למצרים שמעון איננו‚ עכשיו אם אשלח את בנימין עמכם ודאי וקראהו אסון‚ ובתרי זמני הויא חזקה כדאמרינן ביבמות נשאת לראשונה ומת לשני ומת אסורה לינשא. ד"א כי בנימין היה זאב יטרוף וטורף בני אדם לעתים‚ וכשבא לו העת שנהפך לאב שנא' (פר' ויחי) בנימין אב יטרף‚ ובעוד שהיה אצל אביו נשען על הרופא ובאותו זכות לא היה נהפך לזאב‚ שכך אמר ועזב את אביו ומת‚ כלומר כשיפרד מאביו יהפך לזאב לעוברי דרכים והיה כל מוצאו יהרגהו

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  89. Hershel, you're awesome. and your pshat is beautiful. And Carol, it is possible that despite its apparent complete seriousness it was meant metaphorically (see my post). However, i am not sure how plausible this would have been in the 14th century... But even if it was written with the presumption that werewolves exist, we hsould still take Hershel's lesson to heart.

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  90. There is almost zero reason not to take Rabbeinu Ephraim at his word.

    As regards to the comments about baby werewolves and teeth: Does anyone actually think that that question even entered Rabbeinu Ephraim's mind?

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  91. So we have myself, R Slifkin & others who see R Efrayim with no less respect after this vurt than we had before this vurt. And we have Carol who thinks R Efrayim should lose his "rabbi" for saying such a very bad thing, and others who agree with him at least partly. And we have cj and [I think] Hershel who see R Efrayim allegorically [seemingly] because otherwise R Efrayim looks ridiculous.

    [I'll leave out Ameteur. iiuc he allows allegory even where literalism is reasonable. Did I read you right, Ameteur?]

    imho, these vurts which elicit such diversified reactions should be controlled, something like - for lack of a better example - medication. Over-the-counter drugs have to be controlled by the user; downing a bottle of Tylenol is deadly. Prescription drugs have to be controlled by the prescriber. The government might order a drug company to write warnings on the label, or withhold approval until a buffer is admixed into the recipe, etc.

    R Slifkin, you've done your share of discouraging those people for whom your books are inappropriate from reading your writings. imho, you can do a little more by showing the greatness of Chazal, Rishonim & Achronim despite their anachronistic beliefs. Maybe a special post devoted just to that.

    As to Carol's comment, is a single explanation sufficient for character assassination? Have you read R Efrayim's entire book [and his other teachings, if they are extant] that you stand ready to revoke his Smichah?Do you have an opinion if he was a mentch or not? Do you have an opinion if he was an inspring educator or not? [See evanstonjew's comments to the critique of R Goldwurm @ 'Are Maccabees Kosher'. Switch 'R Efrayim' for 'R Goldwurm' and maybe reconsider your comment.]


    Finally, I have no sympathy for people who believe in the cherem and can't deal with R Slifkin's posts. The cherem warned you to stay away. Like the people who aren't supposed to take a drug and do so anyway, they have only themselves to blame if they feel adverse side effects.
    KT and a happy chanukah to all.

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  92. [Here's the quote from evanston jew] ...

    The condescenion to Rabbi Goldwurm z'l nd the Art Scroll projects are uncalled for. R.Goldwurm was first and foremost a huge talmid chacham and a chasidishe yid. Back in 1960 this synthesis was rare, and he made a tremendous impression on those who knew him, both for his brillian intellect,and for his sweet and friendly personality. He was a European born Belzer chusid, English was not his native language and he had no graduate training in philology or history. Against this background you can begin to appreciate his greatness in being open to realia and secular knowledge when he established the methods for the Art Scroll talmud. He went only so far because he was a lamdan, not a classicist or a secular Talmud scholar; & assuming he knew more than he wrote, because he was chacham, and well integrated in the torah world, far removed from post charedi sensibilities. Nichnas beshalom veyatza beshalom, free of controversy, he moved the interface between the traditional yeshivish way of learning and the new methods of scholarship in the right direction, never calling attention to himself, and never bringing down the wrath of the rabbinical establisment as occurred with the Steinsaltz talmud. His much too short life is an exemplar for all of us.

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  93. "[I'll leave out Ameteur. iiuc he allows allegory even where literalism is reasonable. Did I read you right, Ameteur?]"

    Yes and no. It's true in the general sense, but not what I was trying to say here.

    As I tried to post earlier, but my posts did not go through, there are more than just two types of writings.

    Something can be written on a literal level, but not be believed to be truth by the author. This is called speculative fiction, but maybe the focus should be on speculative non-fiction.

    Meaning, the author asks the reader to ask "What if?", and does their best to make the argument believable, but really, it's just fun thinking and not to be taken completely seriously.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Speculative_fiction


    However, I will say that the people here arguing that the text here is not even speculative fiction, but out right allegory are more convincing to me. And I wish R. Slifkin would have given his evidence for his positions sooner, and not make people jump through hoops to find alternative information.

    With the information provided in the original post alone, it sounded like speculative fiction to me. (Precisely because, none of the other brothers ever seem to hate Benjamim for what he did, though they should have, and in fact they seem to hold him to be the most dear!)

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  94. "if you look at the rabbenu efraim inside"

    That's not in the Rabbenu Ephraim. See here: http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=37246pgNum=104

    and here: http://hebrewbooks.org/pdfpager.aspx?req=34533pgNum=64

    In the blog you cited it's not 100% clear where the Rabbenu Ephraim citation ends. But the text after the footnote citation is probably from someone else. The blog author doesn't reveal who it is.

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  95. Natan,
    I think you're howling up the wrong tree. Earlier in the same parsha, R' Ephraim has some wild things to say about Yehudah as a lion. Clearly, he doesn't mean it literally. He refers to the posuk in Iyov:
    שַׁאֲגַת אַרְיֵה וְקוֹל שָׁחַל וְשִׁנֵּי כְפִירִים נִתָּעוּ

    There seems to be an implicit contrast here. The baby lion loses its teeth (the adult lion fares no better), but the baby wolf devours...

    The description of a baby wolf may refer to Binyamin as the youngest of the brothers..

    R' Ephraim may use the werewolf as a more apt metaphor than a conventional wolf. Maybe he uses the term because whereas Yehuda is always a lion, Binyamin is only occasionally a wolf. In other words, Binyamite Saul's rule was temporary and the "Scepter" never leaves Yehudah. (Of course, the usual interpretation is that wolf=מזבח)
    All this may be appropriate in this parsha, because the brothers accused Yosef of usurping Yehudah's rule.

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  96. Btw, this post, as well as your article on the Jaguar, caused me to rethink a line from Isiah which was quoted in a book I was reading this shabbat.

    "And the wolf will lie down with the lamb, and the jaguar will lie down with the goat."

    All I need is a quote from somewhere associating Goats with Ishmael and it creates a nice drush about modern day politics :)

    Benyamin with Israel supporting Christians, and Ishmael with Democracy.

    (The above is also an example of somebody writing something which they believe is cute, and worth sharing, but does not necessarily believe it holds any truth value.)

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  97. Ephraim, you're referring to the מכתיבה אשכנזית part of the sefer, which (most probably) not from R. Efrayim. See the citation I quoted above which IS from RE.

    Ameteur, most drashot are speculative. Open up a Chasam Sofer al Hatorah, and you'll see what I mean. But was he sepculating literally or allegorically?

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  98. gubbish said... "for a 16 yr old this is pretty frikken awesome pshat."

    gubbish, for a '16 yr old' you are pretty frikken awesome genius....

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  99. Colorful post - and comments!

    The sections quoted from R. Ephraim certainly smack of someone who takes werewolves to be REAL - not metaphorical. Keep in mind that when folklore about the existence of something (e.g. werewolves) is so pervasive in a particular place that people develop strategies to defend their homes against it, the one who's "crazy" is the one who doesn't believe it!

    So too, a strip of land protruded (tail-like) from Benjamin's territory in EY.

    This is a mystical statement, not a metaphorical statement. "So too" is an attempt to identify a spiritual pattern - in this case that the spiritual truth of Binyamin as a wolf (or werewolf) is further demonstrated by the fact that the contours of his territory are wolf-like.

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  100. " Open up a Chasam Sofer al Hatorah, and you'll see what I mean. But was he sepculating literally or allegorically?"

    How can you separate the two?

    Is Lord of the rings a story about literal hobbits, or an allegory for fighting evil in the real world? I believe the obvious answer is that it is both.

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  101. Reject said:
    'As to Carol's comment, is a single explanation sufficient for character assassination? Have you read R Efrayim's entire book [and his other teachings, if they are extant] that you stand ready to revoke his Smichah?'

    I objected to 'Rabbeinu' not 'Rabbi'. The former implies that we are all under his authority and I wanted to assert my independence from it.

    Shmueli said:
    'When you have a peirush on something so obviously drush and kabbalistically oriented as the peirush of Rabbeinu Ephraim that Hershel was trying to give a possible explanation to,if anything, we can all agree that no one who is not from that school or at least heavily trained and intimately familiar with the whole mindset and framework of it can can know enough to exclude what Hershel was saying as a possibility.'

    What are you, people, talking about? He starts by saying that wolf pups are born with teeth, which is false. Then he makes a 'gzerah shova' from 'born with teeth' and concludes that babies born with teeth are werewolves, which is false. Then he is mechadesh that Binyomin was a werewolf with a fluffy tail, which is false. He is further mechadesh that Binyomin ate up his mother, which is absurd. And to tie all this nonsense together a talmid of his or whoever is mechadesh that the 'sod' of tzelem Elokim is werewolf! What are you, people, talking about?

    Reject, in my book that last chidush makes less sense than saying that trinity is the sod of 'Shma Yisroel'.

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  102. Carol, do you realize that "rabbi' means 'my master'?

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  103. Not in this context. Rabi from which the the English Rabbi is derived was used as an honorary title for Tannoim in Eretz Isroel. It doesn't mean my Rabbi. This is how Even Shosan explains it.

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  104. Carol, I apologize for thinking that you were judging R Efrayim as a person.

    Re ‘tzelem’, I don’t have R Efrayim here but I would say that it is an additional layer of meaning not connected to the word ‘elokim’ – which anyway is translated as ‘angels’ according to some versions of Unkelos. [I’ve seen variations even in my shul’s chumashim.] Remember also that Moshe was ‘elohim’ to Pharaoh. Drash has its limitations. To apply it to Shma such that it recasts the definition of God with 1/3 what I see as a red herring and another 1/3 as a human who uses the facilities is beyond beyond. This is tampering with and altering fundamental beliefs; for Kellnerists it does that to the cardinal law of idolatry. And it comes with the baggage of the rest of xnity’s problematic assertions. As the saying goes, we'll take exegesis any time, but leave us alone with the exejesus.

    Generally I agree with the comment from Yehudah at December 21, 2011 5:12 PM and like him enjoyed this post.

    .. I would add that I can’t see a newborn eating its mother which is obviously larger than the baby that came out of it – though it might be plausible of some kind of boa constrictor. Also, as I asked before, what/who is buried in Kever Rachel? Could it be such an important place for prayer and have no body inside? Or only part of the body? And why doesn’t Yaakov mention this when apologizing to Yosef about burying Rachel on the road?

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  105. To the allegorists: do you have sources that the *Rishonim’s* words should be understood allegorically to the *exclusion* of literally. 2 sources that come to mind that they can be understood allegorically in *addition* to literally are 1- R Tam’s statement that he could have written Rashi’s commentary to the Talmud but not his commentary to Chumash, interpreted [by Chidah?] to mean that there are Kabbalistic meaning hidden [throughout?] in his Chumash commentary [and *not*, BTW, in his Talmud commentary] and 2- Baal Shem Tov’s statement, cited in the introduction to מהרש"א הארוך על הש"ס that the words of the מפרשים up until and including מהרש"א contain hidden meanings. [But I am only in awe of the holy Baal Shem Tov, not a follower.]

    Where the Rishonim say explicitly that their intention is according to ‘sod’ there’s no doubt that they mean ‘sod’. From this we might deduce that when they don’t say so they *don’t* mean so. – As opposed to Chazal in the Talmud who AFAIK never say so yet are interpreted by Rambam etc. through Maharal etc. as in fact doing so.

    [There are some statements about the Moreh being allegorical but I’d rather not enter that controversy. Something else, please.]

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  106. "Where the Rishonim say explicitly that their intention is according to ‘sod’ there’s no doubt that they mean ‘sod’. "

    In English and the modern thinker there are two types of writing, Literal and allegorical/metaphorical.

    We place these into two cateogries that everything else must fit. We also have fiction and non-fiction which does the same thing.

    However, before the 1400s, these ideas did not exist.

    Especially in rabinic writings, we have pshat, drash, remez and sod.

    We might say that pshat is literal, and the other three are different types of allegory.

    However, for example the Malbim writes that "Drash" is the Pshat shel Pashut. And the thinking of the Malbim affects many people today. Is drash a litteral writing or an allegorical one?

    With the current trend of "What did the author mean?" line of questioning, Drash is no longer "literal" or "pshat", its back in the drash category... but again, only for some communities of people, and not for all.

    In addition to all this, a "sod" is normally not stated by the rishon, but we are only told a "sod" exists, and it is never related to their own writing, but only to a quote of someone else's writing. There is no reason to believe that no Drash exists, just because they do not specify a drash being there.

    In some, these conversations become difficult, cause you never know if someone is stuck in a binary mode of thinking, or where they draw the line in that binary.

    Lastly, it would be impossible for someone to write all the ideas they have on a topic and still publish.

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  107. just a haarah, but the last daf of succah tells the story of miriam bas bilga who "married out" to a greek, and when the greeks entered during the times of mattisyahu, she hit the mizbeach, called it "lokus" (greek for wolf) and criticized the mizbeach for "eating" all the money of israel through korbanos. indicates perhaps a deeper connection between binyamin, the mizbeach, and even chanuka (vayetze and vayechi are read around chanuka as well). the question is why is the mizbeach in binyamin instead of, say, the shulchan or anything else. it appears the mizbeach is also a wolf according to the gemara. is that what yakov (and rabeinu ephraim) aluding to? the connection between the mizbeach and binyamin will probably explain everything.

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  108. ish atalef, your ideas were brought up in some of the earlier comments.

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  109. He talks about fighting them off with firebrands,

    He does no such thing! He says you take ashes from the fireplace and scatter them around, and this will render the werewolf harmless. No firebrands, and no fighting off. Are you now going to tell us this too was a common medieval belief? You misquote and mistranslate, and then expect us to give you credence.

    Do you actually have any source for your assumptions about what were common medieval beliefs about werewolves? Because I'd expect these to appear in the Wikipedia article, and yet there's nothing there about fire, or about being born with teeth, or about having a tail (indeed in much of Europe werewolves were thought to lack tails even in their wolf forms!), and certainly not about ashes giving protection from them.

    The meaning of R Efrayim is pretty clear: Binyamin is like a werewolf, just as Yissachar is like a donkey and Dan like a snake. He "ate" his mother, in the same metaphorical way that the mizbeach "ate" korbanos, by causing her death. The symbolism continues with his descendants' territory having a "tail" (i.e. a salient, or what in America is called a panhandle), the shechinah resting "between his shoulders" is like a werewolf's transformation beginning with his shoulders lengthening into forelegs, and the terumas hadeshen is reminiscent of the ash-scattering that protects people from a werewolf.

    There's nothing about him being born with teeth, or even about werewolves being born with teeth; what it says is that wolves are born with teeth, symbolising their destructive nature.

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  110. I'm not sure where you got the translation that "his father could rely on a physician." In the version I saw (בעלי התוספות השלם על התורה) it says לפי שהיה אביו נשען על כתפיו--because his father would lean on his shoulders. Not that this makes it any more understandable.

    That does make more sense: the transformation begins with the wolf's forelegs emerging from the man's shoulders, so his father would push down on his shoulders and stop it. But if that's all it took then why couldn't his brothers do it? Surely Yaakov had trained them all, because at his advanced age he couldn't guarantee to be around for much longer, and what would happen afterwards? One might also wonder how they did end up managing it, when he finally went to Egypt with them. Which gives more support to the idea that R Efrayim did not mean this entirely literally.

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  111. Carol wrote: I objected to 'Rabbeinu' not 'Rabbi'. The former implies that we are all under his authority and I wanted to assert my independence from it.

    You also referred with chutzpah to Sefer Chassidim. You need to watch what you say. You have no right to be מכחיש מגידיה.

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  112. Milhouse, you confuse two different sources, and you expect us to give you credence? See my above comments to Hershel.

    R. Efrayim himself wrote:
    וקרהו אסון למה אמר‚ והלא ארז"ל לעולם אל יפתח אדם פיו לשטן והיאך אמרו יעקב ויהודה כך. נ"ל אמר יעקב בכל שליחות ששלחתי עושה רושם‚ שלחתי את יוסף לשכם והנה איננו‚ שלחתי אתכם למצרים שמעון איננו‚ עכשיו אם אשלח את בנימין עמכם ודאי וקראהו אסון‚ ובתרי זמני הויא חזקה כדאמרינן ביבמות נשאת לראשונה ומת לשני ומת אסורה לינשא. ד"א כי בנימין היה זאב יטרוף וטורף בני אדם לעתים‚ וכשבא לו העת שנהפך לאב שנא' (פר' ויחי) בנימין אב יטרף‚ ובעוד שהיה אצל אביו נשען על הרופא ובאותו זכות לא היה נהפך לזאב‚ שכך אמר ועזב את אביו ומת‚ כלומר כשיפרד מאביו יהפך לזאב לעוברי דרכים והיה כל מוצאו יהרגהו

    does he say Binyamin was like a wolf? He says כי בנימין היה זאב יטרוף וטורף בני אדם לעיתים. And with this he wants to explain how Yaakov was sure that וקרהו אסון. The meaning of R. Efrayim is pretty clear. (The parts writted by R. Efrayim's talmidim or whoever wrote them are admittedly not so clear, and might be metaphorically).

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  113. and R. Milhouse, you have no right to decide who is considered a מכחיש מגידיה.

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  114. Yeedle, I certainly do have that right. Why wouldn't I have it? Since when does one need special qualifications to recognise that which is before ones eyes? When someone openly writes with chutzpah against the Sefer Chassidim, how can you deny that she is מכחיש מגידיה? The only way you can deny it is if you too are in that category.

    And who told you that this מכתיבה אשכנזית is a different source? It's from the same source but in a different script.

    The fact remains that RNS is making stuff up, and his entire structure has no foundation. The folk legends that he assumes Rabbenu Efrayim was merely repeating don't exist.

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  115. Do you know who coined the term מכחיש מגידיה, and what he meant by it?

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  116. Milhouse, there are 2 manuscripts of R. Efrayim's commentary on the Torah. One of them has additions that were written (as par the manuscript writer's testimony) in a different script, and are considered to be a later addition to R. Efrayim's commentary. Otherwise, you have to explain why these additions are not in the first manuscript, and why it was written in a different style than the first. For more info, read Klugman's intro to his edition. The section I quoted above is found in both manuscripts. The section you attempted to explain is found only in the second manuscripy and is marked as an addition.

    No, you have no right to call someone who rejects Sefer Hassidim a מכחיש מגידיה.

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  117. Rabbi Slifkin, please consider the following,

    Someone or something, man or animal with no bechira, who eats Rochel Imainu is chayav misah.

    Rishonim, especially perhaps those from genizah, were prone to have yedei zarim sholtim bam to be mezayef. It is very likely that the same Medieval Notzri or pagan beliefs that form the basis for Bram Stoker's fictional vampire & werewolf hunting character found their way via ziyuf into sifrei Rishonim such as Rabbeinu Efraim. Gedolim warn to stay away from the Shevet Musser because Shabsai Tzviniks inserted passages during publication. The mayseh brought in Kadmonim of a talmid of the Ramban supposedly becoming an emperor and being mechalel Yom Kippur in front of his rebbe is suspected of being an inserted fabrication. And the Pupa Rov believes the Machzor Vitri is full of ziyuf including the shita of chayav inish livesumei on Purim night.

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  118. I don't understand why he translates Binyomins bracha literally and not Yehuda or any of the other shevatim who were compared to animals literally. Dont you think thats strange?

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