Thursday, March 15, 2012

Giant Levites?

Here's an interesting follow-up to yesterday's post about giants.

In Sacred Monsters, I noted that the Talmud's statements about Moshe Rabeinu being ten cubits high occur in an Aggadic context, and could reasonably be interpreted either literally or allegorically (and there is a dispute amongst the Rishonim/ Acharonim regarding this). On the other hand, the Talmud's description of the Levites being ten cubits tall occurs in a halachic context - the Gemara derives halachos regarding carrying on Shabbos from it. Perhaps one could claim that the Talmud is speaking about metaphysical ideals, as per the view of the Maharal regarding Moses’ height, but this seems overly contrived. The Talmud does seem to be speaking literally.

But Moshav Zekeinim raises a question. If Aharon was the same height as the Mishkan, how could he walk around inside it with the mitznefes on his head? And a reader yesterday raised another question: Why were there three steps leading up to the menorah, as recorded in the Gemara (Menachos 29a) and Sifri (Beha'alosecha 8:3)?


One answer given is that Aharon was, very conveniently, much shorter than his brother and the rest of the Levites. It is also suggested that the steps leading up to the menorah were for future generations of kohanim, who were of ordinary height, rather than for Aharon himself. See this sefer for a collection of sources discussing further ramifications of this issue, such as the question of how Aharon could have held up Moshe's arms.

So there were definitely many who took this description literally. In my book, I wrote that one would be hard pressed to find any contemporary illustration of Moses and Pharaoh, or of the Levites with the Tabernacle, that depict them as being fifteen feet tall, the same height as the Mishkan itself. But yesterday, someone pointed out an illustration that does indeed depict them this way, in the Feldheim Mishnayos illustrated by Yoni Gerstein, and a reader was kind enough to send it in. Here it is:

All that can be said in order to reconcile the Gemara with the rationalist approach (such as that of Rambam, who "shrinks" even Og to six cubits on the grounds that it is impossible for a person to be taller than that), is that the Talmud's source for deducing the height of the Levites is related to how they carried the altar, assuming it to likewise be ten cubits tall. However, this is a matter of dispute; according to Rabbi Yehudah’s view that the Altar was only three cubits tall, there is no argument that the Levites were ten cubits tall. One could probably also argue that the description of the steps to the menorah likely indicates a presumption, at least according to the author of that statement, that all the kohanim were of ordinary height.

I just have one observation left. It is remarkable that the people who believe that ordinary humans can give birth to people fifteen feet all, with all the vast physiological modifications to the skeleton, muscles and circulatory system that are necessary (since a human cannot just be "scaled up"), are usually the same people who claim evolution to be scientifically impossible.

135 comments:

  1. See my post Could Avraham Avinu have been as tall as 74 men?, that the laws of physics preclude giants.

    On one of my trips to the US I bought a fascinating book called, The Physics of Superheroes, which explains many of the basic principles of physics using examples from comic book superheroes. One of the superheroes that he discusses is Giant Man, his power being that he could increase his size when needed. In his discussion in the book he points out that the size that a person could grow to is limited by the strength of materials (particularly bone) and gravity. A person's size is ultimately limited by the cube square law.

    See the rest of the post for the details.

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  2. I just have one observation left. It is remarkable that the people who believe that ordinary humans can give birth to people fifteen feet all, with all the vast physiological modifications to the skeleton, muscles and circulatory system that are necessary (since a human cannot just be "scaled up"), are usually the same people who claim evolution to be scientifically impossible.

    Although what you say makes very much sense to me, and in general I think that by taking these midrashim literally, a person is more likely to miss whatever lesson chazal would be trying to convey in the midrash, I do disagree with this last statement. I think those that take these midrashim literally would simply answer these questions by claiming these are miracles. Does the non-rationalist appraoch accept the approach of Rambam and others that attempts to minimize resort to miracles to explain statements in scripture that seem to defy science? I had been under the impression that this is one of the defining differences between the rationalist and non-rationalist approaches to Torah.

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  3. I find the blog much more enjoyable when you stick to what you think and what you know and stay away from trying to tell readers what other people think, or other people know.

    I'd also be much more interesting in how you understand a text, rather than how you think other people must be understanding a text.

    I only hope and pray that others are able to see past the distortions.

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  4. Where is that rambam? Does he say that explicitly?

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  5. > If Aharon was the same height as the Mishkan, how could he walk around inside it with the mitznefes on his head

    It could be that when Aharon was promoted to Kohen Gadol he shrank?

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  6. Where's the opinion of the rabbi regarding the height of the levites?
    If I shall argue that since by the science we know today it is impossible for someone to be that tall, do you argue that the halacha that the gemara learns from the mistaken fact should change?
    If not, how is it different from the view that kinim are forbidden to kill nowadays?

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  7. I only hope and pray that others are able to see past the distortions.

    This reader is not succeeding in seeing past the distortions. You'll have to spell them out for me.

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  8. So how do you understand the Gemara? Is it plausible to suggest that the height issue in hilchos shabbos is halacha l’moshe misinai and the exagerated height of the levi’im was meant as a mnemonic for this halacha?

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  9. "This reader is not succeeding in seeing past the distortions. You'll have to spell them out for me."

    The most obvious one here is this comment:
    " It is remarkable that the people who believe that ordinary humans can give birth to people fifteen feet all,"

    I'm not aware of any source which claims these were "ordinary humans".

    This blog seems to find it impossible to explain opposing points of view, without using language which effectively distorts the views it implicitly claims to be merely retelling.

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  10. "It is remarkable that the people who believe that ordinary humans can give birth to people fifteen feet all, with all the vast physiological modifications to the skeleton, muscles and circulatory system that are necessary (since a human cannot just be "scaled up"), are usually the same people who claim evolution to be scientifically impossible. "

    Of course every defense of fundamentalist religion will break down logically, and the lines are much closer than you think.

    Levite height could, with religious logic, be secondary to their great spiritual stature. Another belief always struck me as more absurd, and that is how those people you mentioned will often propose an evolutionary type theory to explain how the few living creatures on a boat managed, in only a few thousand years, to evolve into millions of different species across our planet.

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  11. If I shall argue that since by the science we know today it is impossible for someone to be that tall, do you argue that the halacha that the gemara learns from the mistaken fact should change?

    I think Chusidel is bringing up a good point here, but it can be taken further:

    The Gemara in Shabbos 92a derives a halacha from the assumption that the Levites were ten amos tall. The Rambam codifies this halacha in 12:12. So forget rationalism, it's simply a kasha on the Rambam - he says it's not possible for a person to be that tall, yet he paskens based on something which assumes that not to be true!

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  12. This blog seems to find it impossible to explain opposing points of view

    No, it's merely pointing out the absurdity of taking literalism to the nth degree.

    Treating Chazal's description of Aharon's height as a literal "miracle", rather than a metaphorical teaching device, is clearly done in the name of "faithfulness" to the tradition, BUT IT IS ENTIRELY MISPLACED. It's meant to be a show of love for Torah, but it ends up as a show of contempt - by virtue of perverting all reasonability.

    Not only does it make Torah look ridiculous (making it arguably assur to explain Torah this way), but like Baruch Gitlin said, we end up missing the point of Chazal's teachings - trading in actual Torah for avoda zara (literally "strange worship")!

    So on the contrary, it's the charedi-fundamentalist camp which wants to silence other points of view, by branding non-literal/metaphorical explanations (even those WITHIN THE CLASSICAL RATIONALIST TRADITION) as being "less frum".

    THAT I believe is what this blog is about.

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  13. The bottom line is, some people will believe anything. Just because some of these people can mifalpel in gemara, doesnt mean they're not fools.

    [Personally I'm curious about Og. It is said Og sought to lure Avram away into saving Lot, so that he could marry sara in Avram's absence. Some shidduchim dont work b/c of a diff of three inches. But here apparently Og had no prob with a few hundred foot differential. Intresante. I think the Gemara in Yevamos advises a man "gutz vkira loh" or something like that ["bend down to listen to your short wife"}. Og would have really had to stoop.]

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  14. Um, David Meir, I hate to disagree with you, but in fact I do think that Chazal intended it literally.

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  15. The Gemara in Shabbos 92a derives a halacha from the assumption that the Levites were ten amos tall. The Rambam codifies this halacha in 12:12. So forget rationalism, it's simply a kasha on the Rambam - he says it's not possible for a person to be that tall, yet he paskens based on something which assumes that not to be true!

    There are a number of places in the Moreh where the Rambam's explanation does not conform with his P'sak in the Mishneh Torah. This is from memory, but I think that in the Moreh he interprets Genesis 18:3 as Avraham talking to the visiting angels (in a dream) so that there is no name of God in the Pasuk; while in the Mishneh Torah, he lists that as a name that needs to be written with the Kavana of God's name in order for the Sefer Torah to be Kasher. This is in-line with the interpretation that Avraham is speaking to God, not the visiting angels.

    I think that this aligns with the Rabam's conception that there is P'sak in halacha, but no P'sak in non-halachic matters. Therefore, in the Mishneh Torah he follows the P'sak, whereas in the Moreh, he follows his own opinion.

    Someone who is actually an expert can correct my mistakes here :).

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  16. A response to Dov--the text of the Rambam in Hilchos Shabbos 12:12 learns from the boards being carried by the Levi'im above 10 tefachim, not 10 amot. The text reads שֶׁכֵּן הָיָה מַשָּׁא בְּנֵי קְהָת בַּמִּשְׁכָּן לְמַעְלָה מֵעֲשָׂרָה, שֶׁנֶּאֱמָר "בַּכָּתֵף יִשָּׂאוּ" (במדבר ז,ט); וְכָל הַמְּלָאכוֹת, מִמִּשְׁכָּן לוֹמְדִין אוֹתָן.
    The 10 in the halachah is referring to tefachim, not amot. So I don't see requiring the Leviim to be exceedingly tall from the Rambam.

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  17. I do think that Chazal intended it literally

    Let me ask you a question: Did the Greeks take Hercules' height/strength "literally"?

    You have to try to enter into the headspace of the ancient world, where ascribing larger physical stature (and other magical properties) to one's heroes was a means of attaching greater eminence, awe and kavod to them - and by extension to the tradition, and ultimately to the people who hold that tradition.

    "But did they actually believe it?" That's a second-order question. The real question is whether the story was memorable, got passed on, transmitted the desired values, and instilled the desired behavior in people.

    It's like the Hagaddah saying: "in Egypt they were struck by 40 plagues and at the sea by 200 plagues". The point here is not you need to believe this literally happened if you want to call yourself religious - it's a device to increase kavod and gratitude to HKB"H.

    I wouldn't blame Chazal even if they believed the heroic embellishments were "historically true" any more than I'd blame them for believing in the science of the time. They lived when they lived - it's totally understandable.

    But nowadays, when we don't live in the "age of heroes", when our style of thinking is to separate myth from fact, story from history, we have to focus on the message of the story, the "takeaway" - whether it's kavod, gratitude, awe, mesirut nefesh, etc.

    If you're not doing that, and instead you make a "strange worship" out of the mythical aspects of the stories in a misplaced drive for piety - then you've entirely missed the point, and you've made a mockery out of Torah.

    That's what I see going on.

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  18. I doubt many believe that the Leviyim were 15 ft high. Those that take 10 amos literally, usually hold like the Chazon Ish, and that makes them 20 ft tall.

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  19. A rational approach to this issue, it seems to me, would posit that the suggested demonstration in the gemara (T.B. Shabbat 92a), based on the assumption that Moshe and the Levites were 10 amot tall, is not sustained in the gemara. Instead, the halacha concerning carrying something at a height of at least 10 tefachim above the ground in the pubic domain is derived from the Levites of ordinary height (3 amot = 18 tefachim = 5 ft. from ground to shoulder - Tosafot) carrying the aron on their shoulders.

    There are various reasons to reject the presumed 10 ama height of the Levites. For one, there is no proof given (just an indicator) that Moshe was really 10 amot tall. Nor is there reason to assume that all the Levites assigned to the task of carrying the furniture of the mishkan were Moshe's height. Finally, the assumption that it required Levites who were at least as tall as the presumed 10 ama height of the copper altar to carry it is based on the view of R' Yosi. His disputant, R' Yehuda, considers that the altar was 3 amot tall - in accord with the plain sense of the torah text.

    Since we are not, according to my argument, dealing with any consequences in practical halacha, I would say that a rational approach is that neither Moshe nor anyone else was ever 10 amot tall, nor was the copper altar. Only the mishkan was 10 amot tall and was surrounded by courtyard curtains that were 5 amot high - all in accord with the evident translation of the torah text.

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  20. "Another belief always struck me as more absurd, and that is how those people you mentioned will often propose an evolutionary type theory to explain how the few living creatures on a boat managed, in only a few thousand years, to evolve into millions of different species across our planet."

    see dr. lee spetner's 'not by chance' chapter 7 for examples of rapid evolution. [skip the other chapters which mathematically disprove the mechanism for evolution]

    [r. slifkin, i would like if one day you offer a review of that chapter. it is not accepted by a consensus of scientists, but since i do not follow the 'consensus' of those who banned you, scientists non-acceptance wouldn't help clarify thinds for me. thank you]

    reject

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  21. I suspect that yoni only draws leviyim 10 amos tall in shabbos because of the gemarah.

    but elesewhere he draws them at normal height

    eg does anyone know in maasros if there is any picture of a yisrael giving maaser to a levi, although it is a bad example, because it would not be referring to times of the mishkan

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  22. This and the previous post concern giants and dwarfs, but as long as the topic is strange body sizes it is appropriate to mention the Gemora in Sota 10a which says that Shimshon's shoulders were 60 amos wide.

    I've met people who with a straight face told me that they understand this literally, as ridiculous and absurd as that is.

    --_--

    Is there anywhere at least partial list names of Gedolim past and present who understand these sayings of Chazal concerning body sizes literally, and conversely, those who explicitly say that they are not literal? (Sources for such a list would also be appreciated.)

    -----

    R' Slifkin states "I do think that Chazal intended it literally." --- However the Rambam on Perek Cheilek says differently. Generally I prefer the Rambam's approach that Chazal themselves did not intend their obviously strange statements to be taken literally (except perhaps for beginning students, but when they get older and wiser Chazal expect them to "grow out of it" and understand that they were speaking in a hypothetical or metaphorical manner).

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  23. Y. Aharon -

    A rational approach to this issue, it seems to me, would posit that the suggested demonstration in the gemara (T.B. Shabbat 92a), based on the assumption that Moshe and the Levites were 10 amot tall, is not sustained in the gemara. Instead, the halacha concerning carrying something at a height of at least 10 tefachim above the ground in the pubic domain is derived from the Levites of ordinary height (3 amot = 18 tefachim = 5 ft. from ground to shoulder - Tosafot) carrying the aron on their shoulders.

    Very nice. So now, by default, you've also answered Chusidel's question of whether there is any reason to wonder if the halacha might change in this case, in light of a more rational approach.

    Yehudah P. - In the Gemara it appears that what you wrote won't suffice, because the Gemara is deriving from the fact that when they would carry on their shoulders, two-thirds of what they were carrying would dip below the shoulders, and the bottom of that two-thirds was still above ten tefachim. But Y. Aharon answered it well.

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  24. "The Gemara in Shabbos 92a derives a halacha from the assumption that the Levites were ten amos tall."

    Not really. Not at all. The Tanna Rabbi Elazar states that on Shabbos one is liable for carrying (among other) above ten tefachim - cca 35 inches- because this is how Bnei Kehas carried things (presumably on their shoulders).

    The Amoraim in Bavel many years later introduce the explanation with giant Leviim - since they needed the bottom of the aron to be more than 10 tefachim from the ground.

    Rambam didn't accept this and states clearly that Rabbi Elazar simply talks about carrying thing on ones shoulders (and therefore above 10 tefachim, while carrying in one's hands might be below 10 tefachim).

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  25. DF said...
    > Personally I'm curious about Og. It is said Og sought to lure Avram away into saving Lot, so that he could marry sara in Avram's absence. Some shidduchim dont work b/c of a diff of three inches.

    I remember sitting in class in high school and wondering about that. To scale, Sara would have been the size of an insect to Og. He wanted to marry her because of her beauty? He could barely see her without a magnifying glass. And what kind of marriage could it have been? Og’s fingers would have been the size of tree trunks…

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  26. to reject

    w/out even opening that book, i want to point out that people confuse between what can happen and what actually did happen. even if it possible for a whale to evolve from Protobiont in few thousand years, it doesn't mean it did.

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  27. um, hello, nishtana hateva. different bone and muscle composition entirely, etc. you may ask, how did they stand for bircas hatorah when they were called for the 2nd aliya in basement shteiblech? b'nes hayu omdin.

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  28. You know, all this talk of "they meant it literally" versus "they meant it metaphorically" kind of seems like a big sideshow to me.

    I once heard a talk by movie producer Chuck Palahniuk. In it, he made the point that our generation has been told more stories than any generation that ever lived.

    That line really stuck with me.

    I sometimes wonder what the effects are of hearing and seeing all those stories. How do they shape our attitudes? How do they influence our behavior? What kind of people do they make us into?

    Because make no mistake about it, stories do change you as a person.

    How did Subway take its sales to stratospheric heights? By telling the story of a guy Jared who lost a lot of weight eating their food (allegedly). In a book I recently read called "Extravagant Expectations", the author, sociologist Paul Hollander explores personal ads. In it, he can't help but notice how many people claim to love running in the rain, walks on the beach, candlelight dinners, etc. He observes that this is the stuff of the commercials people have seen over and over again. These commercials are little stories. They shape our attitudes, our expectations, our behavior.

    Did Chazal mean their stories literally? Really? Who cares? What are the effects of being told Chazal's stories throughout a lifetime? Well, I imagine they're better than the effects of seeing commercials featuring long walks on the beach and candlelight dinners.

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  29. Have you ever wondered how people could believe that all Jewish women gave birth to six children in Egypt? How about that people once upon a time didn't age and would die suddenly without warning?

    By the way, concerning the illustration: The man in the background is normal height. Those in the foreground are not, but I wonder if this point is obvious to the average viewer. I wonder if the ilustrator would draw a picture with both Yisraelim and Leviim and Leviim towering over them. The ridiculous factor would only be evident in such a drawing. It's not obviously present in this one.

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  30. G3,

    Interesting point!

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  31. I may as well throw in one more example of enormous body size clearly not meant literally: the Gemara's description of the private parts of a half dozen or so Amoraim, clearly not literal when you look at the measurments.

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  32. Then there are those who interpret the phrase in Bemidbar 8:11, "Ve-henif Aharon et ha-levi'im," to mean, "Then Aharon lifts each individual Levi and waves him up and down, back and forth (like a lulav is waved on Succos). Miraculously Aharon waves all 22,000 Leviim in one day!" (this example from www.chabadnj.org). All the more miraculous if Aharon was short and they were giants! As Lewis Carroll said, if you try hard enough, you can believe six impossible things before breakfast.

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  33. Moshe F. raised the point about the Gemara saying that Shimshon's shoulders were wide enough to carry the gates of Gaza. I didn't look for this yet in the Maharsha, but I heard a lecture where the Maharsha was cited. He says that this Gemara conflicts with another Gemara where Shimshon is described as a 98-pound weakling. The Maharsha answers that when the spirit of Hashem would rest on Shimshon, he would have the strength to pick up the gates of Gaza. (The miracle is magnified by such strength being exhibited by such a small person.)

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  34. "No, it's merely pointing out the absurdity of taking literalism to the nth degree."

    Kol haKavod, now show me who takes the literalism to the nth degree.
    Who compares these midrashim derives new facts based on these comparisons that they didn't want to support from the begining and , accepts the conclusions as emet?

    Who will say, "Oh, I never noticed that before, good point.. we must now change our practice to adhere to the mirashim!"

    If you can't find these people, then you aren't presenting an honest point or counter point to anything other than a stereotype and a straw man.


    Ari, I agree with your points about the side show. I think you expressed that well. Stories are about how they affect us, not about the details. Does anyone believe that hackers have computers and can type the way they are depicted in Movies and TV shows? Is that really meant to be a literal understanding of computers? Please.

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  35. To clarify, as the Rambam in Perek Cheilek writes, to assume that Chazal intended their strange sayings to be interpreted literally is a grave disservice to them and to the Torah.

    Examples of these kinds of sayings are that the Levi'im and Moshe were 10 amos tall, or that Shimshon's shoulders were 60 amos wide, or that Pharaoh was one amoh tall, or that Og was mountain-size. When understood properly there are proper teachings enclosed in these sayings.

    Exceptions are when Chazal discussed scientific matters, and their sayings are to be understood as having been intended literally, however in our times we can recognize that they erred due to their incomplete knowledge of science.

    The Rambam himself makes this perfectly clear in his Moreh Nevuchim part 3, end of chapter 14, where he writes (Friedlander translation):

    "You must, however, not expect that everything our Sages say respecting astronomical matters should agree with observation, for mathematics were not fully developed in those days: and their statements were not based on the authority of the Prophets, but on the knowledge which they either themselves possessed or derived from contemporary men of science."

    The Rambam then concludes:

    "But I will not on that account denounce what they say correctly in accordance with real fact, as untrue or accidentally true. On the contrary, whenever the words of a person can be interpreted in such a manner that they agree with fully established facts, it is the duty of every educated and honest man to do so."

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  36. David Berg said… to reject… "w/out even opening that book, i want to point out that people confuse between what can happen and what actually did happen."

    The chapter has many examples of things that did happen, only I’m not knowledgeable enough to evaluate if they are good examples.

    --
    on p. 181 he writes, "observed adaptations induced by the environment have been reported for more than a century, but they have been largly ignored by mainstream biology...." this might mean that people might be unaware of evidence for rapid evolution because it isn'y easily available and are deciding against it without having access to the whole picture.

    reject

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  37. "Another belief always struck me as more absurd, and that is how those people you mentioned will often propose an evolutionary type theory to explain how the few living creatures on a boat managed, in only a few thousand years, to evolve into millions of different species across our planet."

    people with these kinds of beliefs more often follow rambaN who says that the ark was miraculously filled beyonD capacity with all land animals; no evolution necessary. typically they haven't though of a different problem, how did australian and american animals get from ararat to where they are now. maybe the siberian-alaskan land mass used by the indians for the american animals and another to australia? evolutionists face the same problem IIUC, but can answer that sea creatures came ashore separately to the various continents.

    in general, can all the details of the flood be rationalized and naturalized? How did the animals get to the teivah? did noach set traps for all of them or did they come on their own recognition? Was there enough room for a year’s supply of elephant food let alone for all the animals? IIRC rambaM says he will try to explain things naturally wherever possible. [see zootorah\controversy\ response to r sternbuch?] This seems to say that there is a breaking point after which it isn’t possible and rambaM will opt for the miraculous.

    reject

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  38. also on the subject of the flood, one torah authority – but I’m NOT arguing from his authority – proposes that about 1000 MINIM of animals were in the ark and they evolved into all land animals we see today. sea animals weren’t killed in the flood and if they evolved over millions years that explains them. the mosquito, IIRC, comes in tens [hundreds?] of thousands of species. How different are they from one another and how long would it take for the presumed proto-mosquito that was in the ark to evolve into all those varieties? And if evolution proceeds more quickly than the scientific consensus says [as in my other comment], how much time would this evolution require? ditto for the other animals. i don't know if this feasable, but throwing out the question.

    reject

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  39. DF said...
    > Personally I'm curious about Og. It is said Og sought to lure Avram away into saving Lot, so that he could marry sara in Avram's absence. Some shidduchim dont work b/c of a diff of three inches.

    I remember sitting in class in high school and wondering about that. To scale, Sara would have been the size of an insect to Og. He wanted to marry her because of her beauty? He could barely see her without a magnifying glass. And what kind of marriage could it have been? Og’s fingers would have been the size of tree trunks

    Hey, It worked for King Kong!

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  40. To clarify a bit more:

    Clearly the Rambam, if alive today, would agree that examples of scientific errors include Chazal’s belief in spontaneous generation, the shape of earth, the sky, and the like. But these types of sayings are usually clearly distinguishable from Chazal’s Agadic and Miidrashic sayings which are exaggerations meant only allegorically or to bring out spiritual or sublime points.

    In the exaggeration/allegorical category is the Midrash (Shir ha'Shirim Rabah 1:15:3) that Rebbe taught his students that in Egypt one Jewish woman gave birth to 600,000 all at once. Thankfully for us the Midrash immediately explains that this was not intended to be taken literally, rather it was merely a riddle, meaning that Yocheved gave birth to Moshe Rabbeinu who was quivalent to all the Jews. If it wasn’t for that explanation inserted alongside the prior statement, today’s Gedolim and their students would undoubtedly still be going around insisting that Rebbe’s statement was literal.

    Regarding whether or not we today have the ability to decide on our own what is literal and what is allegorical, in my experience practically all Rabbonim and their followers today have kneejerk reactions, and will only speak of our unworthiness to think on our own. We are not on that level, etc., etc.; yeridas hadoros v’chulu v’chulu. Even when presented with evidence that in the past other Gedolim understood these things figuratively they insist that "They could say it, we cannot," since today we are not on a high enough level. They assert that one is guilty of "apikorsis" if one tries to interpret such sayings as non-literal.

    However, the Rambam clearly states his Hashkofa, taking a wholly different approach. He insists that we have an obligation to use our G-d given intellects to rationally investigate such matters and to reach our own logical determinations and conclusions.

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  41. Moshe F.'s citation from the Rambam's Guide is basically my attitude towards the sages. I don't deny that some statements made in talmud are based on misconceptions or simple exaggerations and story telling, but I consider it important to distinguish between opinions and accepted halacha. The latter should be disassociated from erroneous ideas to the extent possible. Otherwise our practices could be considered based in part on outmoded, if not foolish, ideas. Thus, the idea that Levites were 10 amot tall is a mistaken belief by some, but is not what determines the halacha about carrying higher than 10 tefachim above ground in the public domain. Similarly, the mistaken idea of Rav Yosef that lice do not sexually reproduce is not the actual basis for the permissibility of killing them on shabbat. One has to distinguish between the actually long-establishe halacha and the ratonale that some later sage gave for the practice.

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  42. Above I wrote that Chazal themselves did not intend their obviously strange statements to be taken literally, except perhaps for beginning students, but when they get older and wiser Chazal expect them to "grow out of it" and understand that they were speaking in a hypothetical or metaphorical manner.

    In support of this, in perek Chailek the Rambam himself recommends this method of education. In fact this is how he begins his explanation about the different groups who have divergent views about what is meant by the “World to Come”:

    שים בדעתך כי נער קטן הביאוהו אצל המלמד ללמדו תורה וזהו הטוב הגדול לו לענין מה שישיג מן השלמות אלא שהוא למעוט שניו וחולשת שכלו אינו מבין מעלת אותו הטוב ולא מה שיגיעהו בשבילו מן השלמות ולפיכך בהכרח יצטרך המלמד שהוא יותר שלם ממנו שיזרז אותו כל הלמוד בדברים שהם אהובים אצלו לקטנות שניו ויאמר לו קרא ואתן לך אגוזים או תאנים ואתן לך מעט דבש ובזה הוא קורא ומשתדל לא לעצם הקריאה לפי שאינו יודע מעלתה אלא כדי שיתנו לו אותו המאכל ואכילת אותן המגדים אצלו יקר בעיניו מן הקריאה וטוב הרבה בלא ספק....

    He discusses the methods of teaching a child, writing that beginning such methods have to include reward incentives, and since a child only understands physical rewards, it is with these trivial things that they are encouraged. However the goal is always that when the child gets older, and is able to understands and desire more spiritual things, then he is taught the truth about the greatness of the spiritual rewards in store for keeping Torah and Mitzvos. No one is able to get it 100% correct right from the start. It is necessary to first learn Torah “not for its own sake” before one is able to learn Torah “for its own sake.” Naturally one has to first serve Hashem “out of fear,” but as one grows he will serve more fully “out of love,” which is the ideal and true way of serving Him.

    Similarly with regard to understanding how to interpret the words of the Torah and the sages, it is natural that children are taught on a lower level, to understand things more literally, but as they grow and become capable of understanding on a higher level they have to be explained higher levels of interpretation which modify and supersede their previous basic understandings.

    The Lubavitcher Rebbe zt”l would from time to time explain the differences in Rashi’s interpretations on the Chumash, for a “ben hey l’mikra,” from Rashi’s interpretations on the Gemorah, for a “ben chamaish esrei l’gemorah,” in precisely this manner. On the Chumash Rashi explains the very basics for beginners, while on the Gemorah he explains, still a basic level of interpretation, but for one who is more seasoned in his development and learning.

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  43. "Chazal themselves did not intend their obviously strange statements to be taken literally,"

    Correct. However, describing people as 10 cubits tall in antiquity is not "obviously strange."

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  44. Amateur,

    I think you're hyper-focusing on "nth degree" (which merely meant to an absurd degree) and not addressing my overall point.

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  45. R' Slifkin wrote: However, describing people as 10 cubits tall in antiquity is not "obviously strange."

    Giant sizes like that, if they were historically true about Moshe and the Levi’im, would have certainly been mentioned in the Torah.

    As we see, the Torah does mention "giants" when historically those people were genuinely tall:

    - Devarim 3:11 mentions Og's giant size by describing his oversize iron bed being nine amos long and four amos wide.

    - Shmuel I 17:4 tells us that Goliath’s height was six and a half amos.

    - King Shaul was apparently very tall himself, as Shmuel I 9:2 states that “from his shoulders and upward he was taller than any of the people.”

    There are clearly no such verses about Moshe and the Levi’im being very tall. Further, being 10 amos, in the realm of Peshat at least, would make Moshe and the Levi’im even taller than Og or Goliath. Wouldn’t the Torah mention these facts if they were true?

    Such absence of any mention of the giant height of Moshe and the Levi’im is on its own convincing evidence enough to rule out any possibility that they were really 10 amos tall. In addition, as pointed out in a number of other comments posted here, such heights would create any number of logical absurdities, aside from violating the laws of physics.

    [Let me add another: If the Levi’im were really so tall they would have had no problem overpowering the Egyptians and setting all the Jews free. Somehow I can’t picture 5 foot tall Egyptians (with a midget king to boot) bossing around Jews who were fully three times their size!]

    It is obvious that Moshe and the Levi’im were not exceptionally tall, and that is why the Torah doesn’t mention anything like that. Accordingly it is impossible to say that Chazal would think that they were really 10 amos tall giants. As I cited from the Rambam, Chazal themselves were intellectual giants and to ascribe such silliness to them is itself absolutely ludicrous.

    -----
    In passing, generally a bed is larger than the one who lies in it, so Og himself was not actually 9 amos tall.

    With regard to Goliath, it's not clear, at least to me, whether or not the six cubits and a span height given for him includes his brass helmet, mentioned in the next verse, which would have contributed to his apparent height.

    ---
    Incidentally, as a child I once saw a movie called “A Boy, Ten Feet Tall” (you can google it). I don’t remember what I first thought when I heard the title, but the bottom line is that it clearly taught me the lesson at an early age that one does not have to be literally a “giant” to be “ten feet tall.”

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  46. Of course I personally do not believe that they were 10 amos tall!

    But it is absolutely anachronistic to say that "Chazal were intellectual giants and to ascribe such silliness to them is itself absolutely ludicrous." Plenty of intellectual giants have believed more extreme things. And if we're talking about giants specifically, there's no shortage of Rishonim and Acharonim who believed that not only were the Levites 10 amos tall, but Og was several hundred amost all. It doesn't mean that these Rishonim/ Acharonim were not intelligent; they just had a different worldview.

    Are you by any chance a graduate of YBT?

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  47. I never intended to imply that you, R’ Slifkin, personally believe that they were 10 amos tall! Obviously not. But I do think your attribution of such beliefs to Chazal is ludicrous.

    It is true as you say, "there's no shortage of Rishonim and Acharonim who believed that not only were the Levites 10 amos tall, but Og was several hundred amos tall." Granted. However the only reason that these Rishonim/Acharonim believed that way, is because they mistakenly believed that when Chazal said these things they had to be understood literally.

    Perhaps they were affected by the Dark Ages in which they lived, or perhaps these ideas were drilled too deeply in their minds in Cheder, to the extent that they were no longer capable of thinking outside the box when they grew up. Thankfully others, especially the Rambam, had enough wisdom to hold onto a more enlightened tradition and to see and reveal the light.

    Regardless of why those other Rishonim/Acharonim were mistaken, the essential question is how could such strange ideas have been believed by Chazal themselves?

    The best answer that I can see is that they couldn’t have been believed by Chazal, because there is absolutely nothing in the Torah itself to suggest that Moshe and the Levi’im were physical giants (to stick to that topic for now), but quite the contrary, in the Torah they are completely normal-size.

    On the other hand we do know that Chazal, based on tradition and manners of expression rooted in Torah itself, explained many things through proverbs and riddles. In that spirit it was entirely consistent for them to express their conceptually coherent and cogent ideas through the use of exaggeration, allegory and metaphor. Unfortunately hundreds of years later, through the influence of the trials and tribulations of exile, the original context of Chazal’s statements became obscured for most, and they were/are reduced to for the most part merely parroting Chazal’s words. The Rambam accused those other Rishonim of perverting the words of Chazal by taking their statements literally.

    I thought you take your basic rationalistic perspective from the Rambam? By saying that Chazal literally meant that Moshe was a Giant you put yourself in a group of people whom the Rambam harshly criticizes in Perek Cheilek.

    -----
    I have no connection to YBT. I’m not sure why you ask that either, except that as I recall they are big into Rambam, but I really do not know. Please explain.

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  48. "But nowadays, when we don't live in the "age of heroes", when our style of thinking is to separate myth from fact, story from history, we have to focus on the message of the story, the "takeaway" - whether it's kavod, gratitude, awe, mesirut nefesh, etc."

    Thank you, David Meir.
    This insight helped me a lot.
    I sincerely think that a lot of commenters out there are trying to navigate through these medrashim without making a fool out of chaza"l, and still keeping some sanity themself.
    David Meir definitely has a "mehalech".

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  49. By saying that Chazal literally meant that Moshe was a Giant you put yourself in a group of people whom the Rambam harshly criticizes in Perek Cheilek.

    No, I'm not. Just as Rambam himself acknowledged that Chazal literally believed in demons, that they were wrong, and he did not put himself in that group!

    Do you have a reasonable way of explaining the sugya about carrying on Shabbos and the Levites without it meaning that the Levites were literally 10 amos tall?

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  50. If the entire tribe of Levi were giants, then why were the 10 spies afraid of the giants in Cannan that they decided that they could not conquer the land?

    Why is there no "war of the giants"?

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  51. "Amateur,

    I think you're hyper-focusing on "nth degree" (which merely meant to an absurd degree) and not addressing my overall point."

    I don't know what you are talking about. When I saw nth degree, I assumed you meant "to the extreme".

    The group of people who take all midrashim to the extreme, and understand them so literally that they are able to derive new facts the way someone in pilpul might derive new facts from the Gemora, as far as I am aware, do not exist.

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  52. Sure they exist. See Shalom Shushan, “Emunah BeMidrashi Chazal—Peshuto,” Ohr Torah, Cheshvan 5751, 2:33.

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  53. I think it should be noted that the Gemorah infact does NOT learn the halachot of caryying from the Leviim being 10 amot tall. They learn the halachot of carrying from the size of the Ark being only 9 tefachim and the leviim being of normal height.

    " Alternatively, [it is deduced] from the Ark. For a Master said: The Ark was nine [handbreadths high], and the mercy-seat was one handbreadth; hence we have ten. And it is well known that any burden that is carried on staves, a third is above and two thirds are below: thus it is found that it was very much raised."

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  54. But... If these Midrashim are not to be taken literally, how will we know what chassidus did Moshe Rabbeinu belong to?!

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MwbWv2oiuAs

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  55. "Sure they exist. See Shalom Shushan, “Emunah BeMidrashi Chazal—Peshuto,” Ohr Torah, Cheshvan 5751, 2:33."

    What new facts exactly are being derived by taking these midrashim literally?

    Do we have an explanation for why the spies feared the giants if they had an army of 22,000 of their own giants?

    The truth is, that those who take midrashim literally, also have a saying that you can't ask questions on a midrash. Because midrashim are only to be fully believed, but not to be taken on a level of truth that you can derive new questions and facts from them.
    If there is no nice lesson to learn from combining two midrashim, then the question is ignored.

    Any objective observer, who didn't have an axe to grind, would realize this is because despite protests to the contrary, they do not actually take these midrashim to truly be literal. They are 100% emet, but they are not facts which can be used to derive new facts.

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  56. this looks set to have many comments. which post so far has got the most

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  57. R’ Natan, you state as a matter of fact that the Rambam himself acknowledged that Chazal (wrongly in his opinion) literally believed in demons. However you do not appear to be correct about the Rambam’s opinion about Chazal’s belief in literal demons.

    Doing a bit of research I see you have discussed this idea in past years. However please respond to this post from “E-Man” who is a frequent commentator on your blog, http://markset565.blogspot.com/2010/07/rambams-view-of-sheidimdemons-in-gemora.html - here please allow me to post part of it:

    I would like to suggest two different ideas that the Rambam is likely to use when confronting a Gemora that seems to be non-rational, aka it seems to be acknowledging the existence of magic, demons or astrology. The Rambam states in his famous letter on astrology that can be found here in translated form (By Isadore Twersky):

    "...What we have said about this from the beginning is that the entire position of the star gazers is regarded as a falsehood by all men of science. I know that you may search and find sayings of some individual sages in the Talmud and Midrashim whose words appear to maintain that at the moment of a man's birth, the stars will cause such and such to happen to him. Do not regard this as a difficulty, for it is not fitting for a man to abandon the prevailing law and raise once again the counterarguments and replies (that preceded its enactment). Similarly it is not proper to abandon matters of reason that have already been verified by proofs, shake loose of them, and depend on the words of a single one of the sages from whom possibly the matter was hidden. Or there may be an allusion in those words; or they may have been said with a view to the times and the business before him. (You surely know how many of the verses of the holy Law are not to be taken literally. Since it is known through proofs of reason that it is impossible for the thing to be literally so, the translator [of the Aramaic Targum] rendered it in a form that reason will abide. ) A man should never cast his reason behind him, for the eyes are set in front, not in back..."

    The Rambam seems to be of the opinion that any Gemora that seems to understand that magic, astrology or demons (mystical demons) are real is a daas yachid (lone opinion) that was unaware of the truth in these matters, or perhaps there is another way to explain these Gemoras as not being a problem. This other reason is most clearly explained by the Rambam's son, Avraham ben HaRambam. He says in reference to aggadita (story, as opposed to halachic) gemoras (found here):

    The second part of the stories consists of such stories as did not a[c]tually occur but were seen in dreams; they speak of them as real stories, because they believed that no thoughtful man would ever mistake them for real facts; as the one (Vol. I, 24.)We are taught (in a Baraitha) R. Ishmael said: “Once upon entering the holy of holies, to prepare incense, I noticed etc.,” and many other similar stories. And the same is true regarding certain stories in which are mentioned the visions of the prophets, how G-d spoke to them, and also the stories of demons. The thoughtless observer who, for the sake of believing, thinks that these things occurred exactly as stated though the facts are contrary to common sense, in doing so, is both foolish and ignorant of the laws of nature. (Introduction to the Agada, Abraham son of Moses Maimonides, translated by Rabbi S. H. Glick in the preface of Volume 1 of his translation of “En Jacob” page XIV).

    TO BE CONTINUED

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  58. Continuing from "E-man's" blog:

    These stories that go against logic are to be explained as allegories or dreams. Thereby, we have two different ways the Rambam can understand a Gemora, either it was written by a lone opinion (Daas Yachid) or it is meant as an allegory.

    To further reinforce our knowledge that the Rambam did not believe in magic, astrology or mystical demons we must turn to the Mishna Torah in the Laws of Idol Worship (11:16):

    [DUE TO SPACE LIMITATIONS I'M NOT INCLUDING THAT HERE.]

    The Rambam makes a pretty intense stance against any type of mysticism. He believes they are all illusions and falsehoods with no power. Also, the Rambam believes this to be the position of the Torah and that of Chazal (the Sages). There are many answers that are needed for several Gemoras. However, I would like to focus solely on Sheidim for now. Perhaps at a later date I will deal with Gemoras on astrology, magic and other such things, but for now I would like to narrow the Explanation to Sheidim (demons) that are found in the Gemora.

    In order to do this, it is imperative that we understand what the Rambam's view of Sheidim (demons) is so that we can explain it. Luckily, the Rambam talks about this in the Moreh Nevuchim (The Guide for the Perplexed 1:7):

    As regards the words, "the form of Adam, and his likeness," we have already stated (ch. i.) their meaning. Those sons of Adam who were born before that time were not human in the true sense of the word, they had not "the form of man." With reference to Seth who had been instructed, enlightened and brought to human perfection, it could rightly be said, "he (Adam) begat a son in his likeness, in his form." It is acknowledged that a man who does not possess this "form" (the nature of which has just been explained) is not human, but a mere animal in human shape and form. Yet such a creature has the power of causing harm and injury, a power which does not belong to other creatures. For those gifts of intelligence and judgment with which he has been endowed for the purpose of acquiring perfection, but which he has failed to apply to their proper aim, are used by him for wicked and mischievous ends; he begets evil things, as though he merely resembled man, or simulated his outward appearance. Such was the condition of those sons of Adam who preceded Seth. In reference to this subject the Midrash says: "During the 130 years when Adam was under rebuke he begat spirits," i.e., demons; when, however, he was again restored to divine favour "he begat in his likeness, in his form." This is the sense of the passage, "Adam lived one hundred and thirty years, and he begat in his likeness, in his form" (Gen. v. 3).

    The Rambam believes that Sheidim (demons) are regular human beings that are immoral and cause harm to others. This is an important tool for understanding the Gemoras that talk about sheidim (demons) according to the Rambam.

    UNTIL HERE FROM "E-MAN" -

    I'll resume in my next comment.

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  59. Natan Slifkin said... Do you have a reasonable way of explaining the sugya about carrying on Shabbos and the Levites without it meaning that the Levites were literally 10 amos tall?

    Before I directly reply, let me start by making it clear that certainly not all of Chazal accept this literally. Commenter “Y. Aharon” already demonstrated this adequately (above on March 15, 2012 8:59 PM).

    In addition, see Rashi on Parshas Pekudei (which we just Leined on Shabbos), on Posuk 39:33, taken from Midrash Tanchuma, that neither Moshe nor the Levi’im were able to erect the Mishkan on their own, since it was presumably too heavy for them, and it supposedly required Hashem’s miraculous assistance to make it look like Moshe was doing it. This seems to indicate that neither the Levi’im nor Moshe were 10 amos tall, for if they were they would not have had any difficulty.

    Similarly the descriptions of how heavy the Luchos must have been according to their given dimensions led some members of Chazal to state that when the spiritual letters flew off of them at the sight of the Eigel they became too heave for Moshe and he dropped them. This indicates that they held that Moshe was not 10 amos tall, for if he was his corresponding strength would have enabled him to carry such sized stones with ease.

    Similarly, Chazal state, due to the presumed heavy weight of the Aron with the Luchos inside it, that the Aron “carried its carriers,” however if the Levi’im were 10 amos tall then their natural strength would have been sufficient to carry the ark with ease (in fact then it would not have required four Levi’im to carry it, it would be almost like a toy to them).

    TO BE CONTINUED

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  60. There are however good reasons for Chazal to have taught, allegorically at least, that Moshe was “10 amos tall.”

    For example, see the Rashba on Brochos 54b (cited from http://www.shemayisrael.com/dafyomi2/berachos/insites/br-dt-54.htm):

    The Gemara relates how Hashem miraculously saved the Jews from the mountain that the giant Og wanted to toss on them. The RASHBA explains at length that it is not necessary to accept this Gemara in its literal meaning. It may be taken allegorically, as follows:

    (a) "Og lifted a rock large enough to cover the entire encampment of Israel." The Gemara in Nidah 61a says that in Parshas Vayera (Bereishis 14:13) when someone comes to notify Avraham of Lot's capture, that person was Og. The Gemara explains that Moshe Rabeinu was afraid that this merit would prevent them from conquering Og and entering Israel. Og was confident for the same reason, since he had the merit of Avraham while the Jews themselves should have lost his merit since, as the Midrash tells us, they served Avodah Zarah in Egypt just like the Egyptians (and they sinned in the desert with the Golden Calf). Og felt that merit of Avraham was on his side.

    The Gemara (Rosh ha'Shanah 11a, Sanhedrin 81a) tells us that the forefathers are compared to mountains. Og lifted up the merit of Avraham onto his own shoulders, and tried to reverse its effects, using it to destroy the Jewish People instead of protecting them.

    (b) "Locusts ('Kamtzi,' according to the Aruch) infested the mountain. They ate through the mountain until it crashed down onto his head. He couldn't remove it because his teeth extended and anchored it in place" Locusts are a metaphor for the people of Israel. The verse compares Israel to an ox that completely devours all the grass around it (Bamidbar 22:4) because the power of the Bnai Yisrael is in their *mouth* (Rashi, ibid.). For the same reason, they may be compared to locusts, who wreak havoc on growing produce. The Jews overcame Og and the merit of the forefathers defended their descendants, the Jewish People.

    (c) "Moshe Rabeinu, who was ten Amos tall, took an ax ten Amos long, jumped ten Amos and struck Og in the ankle, which knocked him down and killed him." Moshe Rabeinu was not able to conquer the merits of Og without first invoking the merits of all of the nation of Israel and their forefathers.

    "Moshe was ten amos tall" -- this refers to Moshe Rabeinu's own merits that were needed. "He took an ax ten Amos long" -- he used the combined merits of the Jewish People, who were together with him like a tool which one carries in his hand. "He jumped up ten Amos" -- he jumped up to the previous generations to invoke the merits of the forefathers. This combined effort managed to strike down Og.

    The Rashba does not explain why the number "ten" is used, other than suggesting that 10 Amos was Moshe's height (as in Shabbos 92a). Perhaps Moshe's ten Amos represent the merit of the ten Makos that he brought upon Egyptians, the ten Amos of the ax represent the merit of the Ten Commandments that the Jews accepted, and the ten Amos that he jumped represent the ten tests that Avraham endured out of his love for Hashem.

    TO BE CONTINUED

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  61. Now back to your question: "Do you have a reasonable way of explaining the sugya about carrying on Shabbos and the Levites without it meaning that the Levites were literally 10 amos tall?"

    Not that I claim to have reached the full depth of understanding, but it appears simple to me:

    Chazal in the Gemorah, where they introduced the idea of the height of Moshe and the Levi’im being 10 amos tall, were basing themselves on such well known Agadeta and Midrashim as the one I just brought from Brochos 54b, which I am certain that they all understood strictly allegorically. (You don’t want to say that Chazal really thought Og was as big as a mountain do you?)

    This however was their method of learning and pilpul, to start with such well known Midrashic pronouncements, even though they all agreed that in their source they were non-literal. Nevertheless they would pin their explanations, even with regard to practical matters, on these non-literal Midrashim – as an aid to memory, or to jar the students from their sleep, or to reinforce the Midrashic lessons, or simply to encourage more questioning and learning. But in no way did Chazal expect their words about these things to be taken literally in any of the places that the supposed great height of Moshe or the Levi’im are mentioned.

    I think that should be perfectly clear to anyone who is willing to use his or her G-d given intellect.

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  62. I am perfectly familiar with all the sources you bring - they are all in my book.

    And I still remain unconvinced that Chazal did not mean it literally. I used to be convinced of it - and then I realized that I was making Chazal into what I wanted them to be, and projecting 21st century views back into a different era.

    The fact that so many Rishonim and Acharonim interpreted Chazal literally is evidence against your claim that your explanation is "perfectly clear to anyone who is willing to use his or her G-d given intellect."

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  63. You said... And I still remain unconvinced that Chazal did not mean it literally. I used to be convinced of it - and then I realized that I was making Chazal into what I wanted them to be, and projecting 21st century views back into a different era.

    --- Please clarify, are you saying that you now believe that Chazal really thought Og was as big as a mountain, and they meant that literally?

    The very same Gemorah that says Og was such a Super-Giant simultaneously says that Moshe was 10 amos tall.

    Are you claiming that one part of the story is literal while the other part is allegorical? Or are you saying that both parts are absolutely meant literally?

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  64. The fact that so many Rishonim and Acharonim interpreted Chazal literally is evidence against your claim that your explanation is "perfectly clear to anyone who is willing to use his or her G-d given intellect."

    --- I pin my words on the Rambam. It is of no consequence to the Rambam's opinion that "so many Rishonim and Acharonim interpreted Chazal literally." He disagrees, and does not accept that as "evidence," and neither should anyone.

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  65. I am perfectly familiar with all the sources you bring - they are all in my book.

    --- My apologies for not having read all your books (which I do heartily recommend). I also admit that unfortunately I don't have the best memory, so I don't remember everything you said even in your books that I've read.

    If you've spelled it out in a already in a book please cite a full reference, otherwise it would be nice if you'd clarify how you answer the challenges to what you are now saying from the sources I brought.

    'Shkoach.

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  66. If you say that Chazal meant the hight of Og, Moshe Rabbenu and Bar Yuchni literally it means that they just made it up because we know that these things were impossible. This brings into question the whole messorah. If they cannot be relied on for the height of Moshe Rabbeinu and the Leviim how can they be relied on for transmitting the words of Moshe Rabbeinu?

    Secondly, won't you agree that Rambam doesn't think that they meant it liiterally?

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  67. The fact that so many Rishonim and Acharonim interpreted Chazal literally is evidence against your claim that your explanation is "perfectly clear to anyone who is willing to use his or her G-d given intellect."

    --- In addition, the truth of the matter is that as far as I can see the Rishonim/Acharonim who interpreted Chazal literally, for the most part are the very ones who explicitly deny a Jew the right to use his or her G-d given intellect to think critically about the verses of Tanach and the words of Chazal. According to those Rishonim/Acharonim one must not dare to think for oneself, and one must rely solely on the tradition as they interpret it.

    It is only the Rambam and those who follow in his path who even permit and encourage one to think for oneself.

    Your argument here is therefore totally baseless.

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  68. The fact that so many Rishonim and Acharonim interpreted Chazal literally is evidence against [the] claim that [Moshe F.'s ]explanation is "perfectly clear to anyone who is willing to use his or her G-d given intellect.

    Not at all. The problem here is largely a breakdown in Mesorah, and the near singularity that Talmudic learning underwent when Rashi and the Ba'alei Hatosfos approach to sugyos stamped later generations understandings of them without anyone realizing what happened. The assumptions underlying their method of learning have become so engrained that I would say virtually no major Acharon has been untouched by them (i.e. is aware that there are other approaches)- as evidenced in the often repeated, but totally erroneous claim (which was started by the Rashbetz), that the Rambam's term of a mitzvah being midivrei sofrim sometimes includes deoraisa's. Let me explain.

    Rashi and Tosofos read sugyos the way we are all trained in Yeshiva to read them, as puzzles where each piece is introduced to solve a real problem, often creating another problem in the process, which necessitates introducing another piece, etc. So if the gemara says that we learn Halacha X from place Y, as opposed to Rabbi Ploni who uses it for Z, than it must be that Y really teaches us that Halacha, and of course that Halacha is deoraisa as well. I'm sure when you learned the sugya of birchas Hatorah you came out belieiving that the Gemara really holds tha birchas Hatorah is deoraisa, for example.

    Regardless of whether Rashi and Tosfos were right about the intent of these sugyos, it is abundantly clear that the Rambam did not understand (at least many of) them that way at all. Sometimes the weight of evidence in favor of the literal mening was so strong that the Rambam was forced to change his position, as he did with regard to kiddushei kesef. But, in general, the Rambam will not approach sugyos of this sort with assumption that every step was said as a literally believed statement, no one can possibly think that birchas Hatorah, never commanded by the Torah, is deoraisa !, for example. Just like we know that Chazal chose to often deliver aggadic statements "derived" using the same tools as for deriving Halacha, not because they actually belived the derivations, but because that is the way learning works, and is good practice to sharpen the mind, etc.--- (I can't remember where, but the Kin'as Sofrim on Sefer Hammitzvos(who incidentally partially succumed to the divrei sofrim includes deoraisa's error) mentions this very important point meisiach lfi Tummo as an obvious fact)--- so too many halachic sugyos borrowed the same language and tools as mnemonics and memory aides, trusting the reader to be able to figure out what is chidud on his own. There is a lot more to say on this but what I wrote is teh roshei perokim of a fundmanetal difference in sugya analysis.

    The approach of the ba'alei Tosofos came to spain with Rabbeinu Yonah and ultimatley left so strong a mark ad k'dei kach that the Tashbetz, Magid Mishne, Megillas Esther, Beis Yosef, etc. felt forced to conclude that the Rambam sometimes will label mitzvos or Issurei De'oraisa as "divrei sofrim". For someone who has spent a long it me learning the Rambam, the proposition is absurd enough on its face, but anyone with any doubt can learn in depth the Lev Sameach to Shoresh Sheni and see for himself just how ridiculous it is. Undoubtedly at least some of the meforshim above were aware of the serious difficulties of their approach, but felt constrained to maintain it due to an inability to reconcile a plethora of Rambams to the Gemara without it. (Even the Aruch Hashulchan who normally avoids this approach uses it to make the Rambam accept tvilas klei matteches as Middeoraisa. But see peirush Rav Kafich who brings that the Teimanim have mesorah that (the Gemara's limmudim not withstanding) it's such a weak derabonon that they don't make a brachah on it).

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  69. CONT.
    So where does this bring us here in the context of height of the leviyim? Rabbi Slifkin, I think that, perhaps in a zeal to make sure you aren't being intellectually dishonest in ascribing to Chazal and Rishonim positions you wish they had, you often (subconciously) go the extra mile to maintain that an eminently reasonable interpretation of a Chazal or Rishon is not correct when the result is in line with what you would call the rationalistic approach. I cna't fault you too much here, as I'm sure you were trained to read Halachic sugyos, the same way the rest of us here were, in line with Rashi, Tosofos, and Rav Moshe Feinstein. But I think, however, that is far from clear that these sugyos were meantto be understood in that way; a good test to see if something is just apologetic is to see if you would use the same approach in analgous context when not confronted by anything "threatening". It's clear that the Rambam understood non-"threatening" sugyos across shas in a very different manner than we are accustomed to. (For a couple of final examples, compare Rambam in peirush Hamishnayos on Sanhedrin and the Meiri in Niddah concerning hotzaas zera levatala with Rav Moshe's teshuva regarding bedikas zera. Similarly, the Meiri (and I think the Rambam as well) on kivshan ha'esh v. malbin pnei chaveiro against Tosfos.) And I think that the points that others rasied about Chazal's understanding of the leviyim's height in other places make it pretty evident that the sugya in Shabbos is probably no different from the 50 others that do the same type of thing, at least aliba to the "non Rashi/Tosfos school".

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  70. " and then I realized that I was making Chazal into what I wanted them to be, and projecting 21st century views back into a different era. "

    Don't fool yourself. You are still doing that.

    Your 21st century view is that all people back then believed things literally. The word does not exist until the 16th century.


    http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=literally

    Chazal did not separate "literal" from "allegorical" in their usage of language. These are modern European concepts, that you have decided you need to stick onto Chazal.

    What makes you think that you know what Chazal were saying better than Rambam? What makes you think you understand what the Romans and Greeks and Ugarits were saying?

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  71. "The fact that so many Rishonim and Acharonim interpreted Chazal literally is evidence against your claim that your explanation is "perfectly clear to anyone who is willing to use his or her G-d given intellect.""

    The only thing that Rishonim and Achronim are evidence of, is what Rishonim and Achronim wrote. How could a Rishon writing before the 1530s have a concept of something being "literal"??? (And here I'm being generous, as the term you use to mean "Literally" is the opposite of it's original meaning, of being "related to literature"

    The fact that someone wrote somewhere that these ideas are literal, does not take away from the fact, that nowhere else in Chazal do we see the ramifications of the levvim or Moshe being 10 amot being taken seriously.

    I really truly wish I could understand what part of your brain is making you come to these conclusions, because they sound very anti-rational.

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  72. ...projecting 21st century views back into a different era.

    --- You may not realize it but you are doing that now.

    Just because all the ancient peoples worshiped stars and planets, doesn't mean that all the ancient Jews did as well. We worshiped the One invisible G-d, Who has no physical form.

    Just because all the ancients were superstitious and believed in magic and demons doesn’t mean that all Jews of those times believed the same.

    Just because other people had stories of Supernatural Giants which they believed literally does not mean that all Jews must have believed such stories of Giants literally.

    It may even be questionable whether or not the wise men of other people really believed their own Giant stories literally. Commenter “David Meir” pointed this out above, and you did not provide any reply.

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  73. Moshe F.,

    It may even be questionable whether or not the wise men of other people really believed their own Giant stories literally.

    That's true, but as I said I have no problem with the possibility that they DID believe in giants, or that Chazal believed in giants. It wouldn't diminish Chazal's greatness in my eyes one iota. As for US believing in such things today... that's another story!

    My main point: If we focus on the message, not the mythology, we'll be in far better shape. And I have every confidence Chazal would thank us for it!

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  74. Moshe F., in your zeal to remove sages from actually believing some very implausible things, you have opened the door to simply dismissing the words of the sages that make you feel uncomfortable. In the gemara at issue (Shabbat 92a), the first opinion cited on providing evidence that the Levites carried objects more than 10 tefachim above ground is based on the presumed 10 ama height of the copper altar (the actual view of R' Yosi which, in context, must be taken literally). In order for Levites to carry such a tall object they would have to be of similar height (since the gemara assumes that in carrying an object via poles normally 1/3 of the height is above the shoulders and 2/3 below). If the Levites were 10, or 9 amot tall (ground to shoulder - as Tosafot demonstrates), then the clearance of the transported altar from the ground would be 20, and 14 tefachim, respectively (for an ama of 6 tefachim), i.e., more than 10 tefachim above ground. If they were significantly less than 8.4 amot = 14 ft. for an ama of 20 inches, that 10 tefach clearance would no longer be true. Hence, the clear implication of this Amoraitic opinion is that the Levites had to be at least 14 ft tall - even if you take the claimed 10 ama height of Leviim as only a figurative expression.

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  75. With regard to demons, I just purchased (with bonus donation) R' Slifkin's "WRESTLING WITH DEMONS, A History of Rabbinic Attitudes to Demons," which I found here: http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2011/05/wrestling-with-demons.html

    For the moment I've just scanned it quickly, and there is very useful information there (everyone go and get it if you haven't already).

    I won't spill all the beans, but it does state that R. Ahron Soloveitchik claimed that all mention of demons in the Talmud actually refer to invisible forces such as germs and mental delusions, and in his opinion the sages themselves did not believe in demons as supernatural entities. He also claims that this was precisely the Rambam’s view, that the sages themselves did not believe in supernatural demons.

    Meanwhile with regard to the Rambam, R’ Slifkin states that whereas Rambam explained away many passages of the Talmud that seem to indicate belief in demons, “he does not appear to be of the view that the Sages themselves had this view.” I’m not sure why R’ Slifkin disregarded (and continues to disregard as he stated above) those who state this explicitly or clearly imply it, as R’ Avrohom ben Rambam did, whose writings R’ Slifkin does discuss in his monograph.

    Here I’d also like to point out that when I pasted above from “E-Man’s” blog, the text was missing the hyperlink that he posted to a translation of a direct letter from the Rambam with regard to the sages’ non-belief in astrology (and we can presume similar lack of belief in demons). This translation is available (for free) at http://people.bu.edu/dklepper/RN242/rambam2.html – and I would say it is must reading for Rationalist fans.

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  76. Y. Aharon - I'm not sure I understand your criticism. I'll bli neder try to review the Gemorah a bit more and then reply -- however didn't you yourself earlier write that the initial assumption of the Gemorah is rejected?

    "A rational approach to this issue, it seems to me, would posit that the suggested demonstration in the gemara (T.B. Shabbat 92a), based on the assumption that Moshe and the Levites were 10 amot tall, is not sustained in the gemara."

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  77. R’ Slifkin, my apologies to you about which of your books this is in, you already said so at the beginning of the previous blog post, it’s your “Sacred Monsters,” and there I found with regard to giants in Ch. 3, Gigantic Giants, pp. 113-143.

    After skimming through that section I see you wrote there: “Rambam may have interpreted the Talmud as intending to prove Moses’ inner might via allegorical means. The concept of proving Moses’ great height from the height of the Tabernacle that he constructed might be a way of symbolically conveying the idea that a person is as a great as his accomplishments.” --- That seems like an acceptable idea to me. Are you saying now that what you wrote there is no longer acceptable to you?

    You cite several authorities who say Moshe was absolutely not physically 10 amos tall, and you conclude about the Levi’im in Gemorah Shabbos 92a that “some authorities such as Maharal would apparently not interpret any view in the Talmud as intending such a description literally.” --- Fine, that Maharal makes a lot of sense to me.

    In your book you seem to go back and forth a bit, but you don’t seem to totally discard the Rambam’s and the Maharal’s opinions about the views of the sages in the way you do here. Have you changed your mind since writing that chapter?

    --- Y Aharoni – are the Rambam’s and Maharal’s explanations for Shabbos 92a good enough for you? Is there still need for me to add my two cents?

    ------
    In addition, with regard to dwarfs you wrote at the end of the previous blog, “Pharaoh certainly theoretically could have been eighteen inches tall, as the Gemara says; but as I explained in Sacred Monsters, I don't think that this is what the Gemara meant.”

    --- I also just skimmed what you wrote there in Sacred Monsters about Pharaoh’s size, but it’s still unclear to me: Are you now saying that the sages themselves really believed that Moshe and the Levi’im were literally 10 amos tall, but none of the sages believed that Pharaoh was literally one amoh tall?

    It seems that you still have some explaining to do. Why with regard to one ridiculous statement you say none of the sages believed it literally, while with regard to the other ridiculous statement you say of course they believed it literally.

    It does not compute for the Rambam, the Maharal – or for any normal thinking person.

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  78. By the way, although the Gemorah contains both Halachic statements and Agadic statements, nevertheless it is one and the same Gemora, and it is not unusual for there to be a blending of Halachic and Agadic statements as presented in Shabbos 92a with regard to the height of Moshe and the Levi'im.

    So please don't try to tell me that since there the Gemorah is deriving a Halacha therefore everything it says in that connection must be literal. It just ain't so, especially from a rationalist perspective.

    Now if you want to be irrational, well that's something else.....

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  79. For a related example of blending and intertwining of Agada and Halacha just go back to the Gemorah Brochos 54a, about which you wrote in Sacred Monsters:

    “Making sense out of this mystifying story by interpreting it allegorically is certainly feasible. But one must ask if this was the intent of the author of the story. It might fit with our own rationalistic approach to interpret it in this way, but perhaps the author of the story was of a different outlook. An objection to be raised against an allegorical interpretation of the story of Og is that the Mishnah presented a practical law based on this story – that one pronounces a blessing upon seeing the rock that Og had wanted to use to crush the Jewish People.”

    You go on to cite authorities who state unequivocally that the gigantic size given for Og in Brochos 54a (and even larger sizes in other Midrashim) is only meant as an allegory.

    Up till here is fine – I’m with you 100%. And with this my point is proven about the intertwining of Agada and Halacha, which can be carried forward to the Gemorah in Shabbos 92a.

    However, afterwards, there in Sacred Monsters, out of nowhere you state: “Notwithstanding the above discussion, it does still seem that some understood that Og was indeed of skyscraper height.”

    Your allegation that some of our sages believed these Midrashim literally is then backed up by only one source, Rashi’s commentary on Chumash, but then you immediately say (more or less correctly in my opinion) that Rashi himself does not actually think these Midrashim are meant literally, but is merely showing “how the verse about Og’s bed should be read” to be in conformity with these Midrashim.

    Then, immediately after you yourself knocked down the ‘straw man,’ I don’t see any reason why you jumped to a lower level, and started the next paragraph with “The bottom line, however, is that Rashi did apparently believe that Og was several hundred feet tall.” That is absolutely not true as you had just explained.

    Even if you will ‘hock ah chinik’ and try to prove that Rashi himself believed the absurd Midrashim literally – you seem to enjoy knocking Rashi, very incorrectly as I have written on other posts of yours where you very wrongly asserted that Rashi believed in Hashem’s corporality – you would have still presented zero evidence or conjectures as to why one should think that the sages of the Gemorah themselves understood their Midrashim about Og’s supergiant size literally. Why should anyone think so? It is way too absurd.

    If you want to be absurd I suppose now you could try to explain that some of our sages even believed literally that Og was the size described in Niddah 24b (that you bring in Sacred Monsters)?

    For a rationalist, it seems to me that you are advocating some extremely irrational propositions.

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  80. Moshe F., I'm not responding to you anymore. You're clearly operating from a very different epistemology and worldview, so there is no common ground for discussion.

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  81. "Moshe F., I'm not responding to you anymore. You're clearly operating from a very different epistemology and worldview, so there is no common ground for discussion."

    These responses always make me laugh.

    It's like you are trying to hide what you are really thinking, and the only way to respond is to admit some secret of yours that you are trying to keep hidden.

    Why not be rationalist, and identify exactly which epistemology you are seeing, and which one you have, so that conversation can continue?

    I am surprised to hear that quoting your own book and asking questions on it, is seen as incompatible epistemology!

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  82. Amateur, as I've established previously, you're in the same category.

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  83. Moshe F., I had argued in my earlier comment that the gemara (Shabbat 92a)concludes and elaborates on the second inference from the torah that Levites of ordinary height (3 amot from ground to shoulder) carried the aron whose bottom was more than 10 tefachim above ground (11.33). Thus, the halacha about not carrying on shabbat in the public domain even if the burden is more than 10 tefachim above ground is not based on some presumed giant Levites.

    In my later response to your comment I attempted to demonstrate that the first viewpoint in the gemara actually considers giant Levites since it is based on the view that the copper altar that they carried was 10 amot tall. This is the position of the Tanna, R' Yosi, which is disputed by R' Yehudah who treats the torah's description of a 3 ama height as literally true. Just as the 3 ama height is literal so is the counter position that it was 10 amot. If not, what are they debating?

    You mentioned that the Rambam and Maharal have a different understanding of the gemara which doesn't involve giant Levites. Kindly cite their actual words.

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  84. Natan Slifkin said... “Moshe F., I'm not responding to you anymore. You're clearly operating from a very different epistemology and worldview, so there is no common ground for discussion.”

    --- I didn’t think you’d be super happy with all of my comments, but I’m puzzled and troubled by your words:

    1. You state that not that long ago you yourself understood thing like the way I do. Yet now you say you won’t respond to someone who is just like you were?

    2. True, I may be coming from a somewhat different epistemology and worldview. But apparently Rambam, Maharal, R’ Aharon Solivetchic, etc., were also. Would you reply to any of them if they were here to question you the way you replied to me?

    3. How much did you reply to me here already? You did respond to me several times on this page, but each reply was very brief, and it does not appear that you made a genuine good faith effort to answer me (not that you are obligated), and at most you devoted only a meager few lines, not so much to explain things to me, but just to state that you disagree with me.

    4. Yet in all my disagreements on this page I think a non-partial observer would agree that I have been polite and respectful of you, even while criticizing some of your ideas.

    5. You certainly should not consider me to be an enemy. Look at my comment on your previous blog post (where I gave another example of an Agada in connection with Mordechai and Esther that is usually taken literally when in my opinion, backed by Rishonim, it is obviously non-literal). When I wrote that I in all seriousness thanked you for providing a rationalist forum, and I have praised you numerous times in the past similarly.

    6. Here on this page I’ve demonstrated that I whenever I discover I missed something that should have been obvious to me (what book you were referring to), I immediately apologize and make corrections.

    7. Here too I have declared that I just purchased your monologue (on demons), and that I donated a bonus payment, and I heartily recommended that others buy your books and support your work.

    8. Thank G-d I’m pretty thick skinned, and I try to be like Hillel, not to get ticked off by things like your kneejerk, curt dismissal, and that’s why I don’t find it difficult to continue writing here. Thank you “Ameteur” though for bringing up the humorous side as well.

    9. So have I really been so far off base that you flip me the bird and declare you will never reply to me anymore?

    10. I could be wrong, but it seems that what really ticked you off was my challenge to your opinion about Rashi believing in a corporate deity. Once I wrote to you privately about that, in addition to my comments on your blog, always respectfully, pointing out to you a Rashi on Yechezkeil 1:3, 'ותהי עליו שם יד ה, “and the Hand of G-d was upon him there,” where Rashi states: כל לשון יד האמורה בספר זה ובכל לשון נבואה אינו אלא לשון תוקף שהנבואה תוקפת על כרחו... , “All terminology of Hand [of G-d] in this book and in all prophecies is nothing other than meaning that the prophecy came upon him by force…” – As I pointed out then, this indicates that Rashi never contemplated that Hashem is corporeal, with a corporeal 'Hand,' chas v’sholom. You still have not answered me about that absolutely clear contradiction to you theses.

    11. I guess I shouldn’t hold my breath, but I will always be willing to give you another opportunity.

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  85. Y Aharoni - The Rambam's and Maharal's interpretations are discussed in R' Slifkin's book, "Sacred Monsters," in Ch. 3, pp. 113-143. For precise citations please ask R' Slifkin, I'm sure he will be kind enough to answer you.

    ----

    By the way, looking at Rashi on Brochos 54b, he seems to be quoting a Midraash that states that Moshe was not 10 amos tall all the time, but ,only when he had to erect the Mishkon,, and he seems to be saying that this is only allegorical.

    Rashi's words are: משה כמה הוי עשר אמין שהרי הוא הקים את המשכן ודרשין הקים את עצמו לקומת המשכן... -- "Moshe, how tall was he? Ten amos, for he erected the Mishkan, and they [the sages] Darshen [usually meaning BTW NOT Peshat, but allegorical] he raised himself to the height of the Mishkan..."

    Do you or anyone else out there read Rashi differently or the same way?

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  86. Moshe F.,

    I'm sorry to butt in, but I think it's disrespectful of you to accuse R. Slifkin of "flipping you the bird".

    The nature of the blog/comment medium is that it's not conducive to a truly in-depth, detailed, back and forth discourse. It's more "bekiyut" style, with time for a few questions and comments, but then it's onto the next sugya.

    So while your comments may be well thought-out and insightful, they are simply too long, too detailed and too numerous for this kind of forum.

    I think R. Slifkin has been generous with his time engaging you nonetheless. But when there's no resolution in sight, it's perfectly reasonable for him to stop and move on.

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  87. David Meir – No disrespect was intended in my bird comment, is was merely my way of deflecting the implied disrespect that I felt (maybe correctly, maybe wrongly) was displayed toward me by R’ Slifkin (zol zein gezunt).

    Anyway there is nothing offensive about mentioning a “bird,” as a zoologist R’ Slifkin deals with birds and grosser creatures on a daily basis - though maybe some animal protection advocates will take issue with any mention of "flipping" them (don't worry though, I personally have pets, am outraged by cruelty to animals, and have stopped doing Kapores with birds). As a Torah scholar R' Slifkin also deals with much more sensitive things (as in his discussion of the Gemorah’s take on Pharaoh).

    Meanwhile we are all adults here, and evidently R’ Slifkin did not find my remark unfit for posting (thanks). I’ll keep what you say in mind however for the future, maybe there are some ultrasensitive readers out there.

    If you and/or others find my comments too long, or too boring, or too much from another epistemology and worldview, you are free to just skim them or skip them entirely. We all do that with comments from other posters that for whatever reason are not to our liking.

    If you and/or others are ready to move on to the newer posts, that’s fine too. Everyone knows that there is a law of diminishing returns operating here, and by a few days or a week the thread is completely abandoned. As far as I know there is no concrete policy about it here. On rare occasions R’ Slifkin says he’s closing the comments section, but overwhelmingly they just peter out (am I allowed to use that expression?).

    Meanwhile in my comments above I’ve demonstrated from the Rambam’s and Rashi’s own words some serious questions to R’ Slifkin’s published ideas. He does not have to answer now, maybe he has more urgent things to do. We all do. Pesach is coming and many preparations need to be done. No one has an obligation to reply to me.

    Maybe though R’ Slifkin will keep in mind what I’ve pointed out, and maybe someday, in a new book, monologue or blog post he’ll discuss the ramifications of these questions. If he does it will be much appreciated.

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  88. Y. Aharoni and anyone else who is interested:

    In his book Sacred Monsters, R' Slifkin quotes and give sources for the Maharal that state the height figures given by the sages are not literal.

    The sources are: Be'er HaGolah, Be'er 5; See also Gevuras Hashem 18; Chiddushei Aggados to Bava Metziah 84a s.v. ve-ka'asher teida. Also Be'er HaGolah 5.

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  89. But the Maharal NEVER DISCUSSES the Gemara in Shabbos which uses it l'halachah.

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  90. In your book you translate the Maharal:

    “Know that size is [stated] according to the [spiritual] level of the thing; and therefore, you will find that the earlier generations, who had a greater spiritual level, are described as being of greater size. And in tractate Shabbos, it states that Moses was ten cubits tall; and this does not mean from the perspective of his physical body being so big… Do not under any circumstances say at all that the measurement given here is one that is empirically detectable; rather, this is as we have explained on many occasions, divorced from the physical reality; just as one finds [many] measurements that are not detectable to the senses and are only conceptual. For this itself, that the height of Moses was ten cubits, is not a physical measurement; rather that he was worthy of ten cubits’ worth of perfection and spiritual elevation. Chidushei Aggodos Bava Metziah 84b s.v. ve-ka’asher teida.

    In my set of Maharal where he says “And in tractate Shabbos,” there is added in the Hebrew text in parentheses “92a” – directly identifying the Gemorah we are debating, where it says that Moshe and the Levi’im were 10 amos tall. Maharal unequivocally says “Do not under any circumstances say at all that the measurement given here [in Gemorah Shabbos 92a] is one that is empirically detectable.”

    He then states that he has explained this “on many occasions” – woefully, to people who are “blind and cannot see and deaf and cannot hear.”

    (Clearly that last remark in quotes is meant spiritually and non-literally. Sheesh, one has to be so careful here, even when it should be clear that an expression is non-literal, supersensitive readers automatically think it is literal. Is there any hope?)

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  91. Please explain these lines of the Gemara, showing how the Gemara proves that the mizbeach was carried well above ten tefachim:

    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].

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  92. The Gemorah is easy to understand as Rambarm and Maharal do, but one has to know how to "sing" it properly by correctly "reading between the lines":

    And how do we know that this was the way in which the sons of Kehath carried? [We can deduce this theoretically based on metaphorical Midrashim:] 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 [this is an incorrect translation of וגמירי, rendered in my "Traditional Press" English Shas as "Now it is well known"; I would go more with something like "and it has been established that generally"] any load that is carried with poles has one third above [the carriers’ shoulders] and two thirds below. [If we theoretically suppose that the Altar's poles were set the same way:] We thus find that it was [carried] well above [ten handbreadths].

    This is undoubtedly how the sages originally meant the Gemorah to be understood. They did not imagine that they would be expected to state every time that when their words are non-literal because it is already crystal clear from the context.

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  93. Hold on, Mr. Magic. How high up the altar were the poles?

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  94. About the poles I'll have to get back to you later as I have to run out for a while. Meanwhile though let me add this about how to read the Gemorah:

    And how do we know that this was the way in which the sons of Kehath carried? [We can deduce this theoretically based on metaphorical Midrashim – AND IF WE PRESUME TO GO ACCORDING TO ONE OPINION (THAT OF R’ YOSSI)] 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…

    --- Actually there are at least three opinions about the size of the Altar:

    - R’ Yossi, 5 amos square by 10 amos high.
    - R’ Yehudah, 10 amos square by 3 amos high.
    - R’ Meir, 3 amos square by 3 amos high.

    In addition, I’ve found that the Temple Institute in Yerushalayim explains and shows pictures of R’ Yossi’s opinion differently. See http://www.templeinstitute.org/mishkan.htm.

    They show that the bottom part of the Altar was made of earth from the ground of every campsite in the desert, which was then covered with separate copper/brass plates, and then the upper part of the Altar was placed directly on top of that separate bottom section.

    Recently I wrote to the Temple Institute about their source for this interpretation, pointing out that it seems different from what is presented in Shabbos 92a, but as yet I have not received any reply.

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  95. How high up the altar were the poles?

    --- O.K., very quickly about the poles. The real answer, like thousands of other details about the Mishkan, is that the sages of the Gemorah, and how much more so the Rishonim and Acharonim, and us in this generation, simply did not know for sure.

    For quick examples:

    See diagrams in Aryeh Kaplan’s Chumash. For the Ark he shows the poles at the top, not 1/3 from the top (not in conformance with the supposition of Shabbos 92a). His diagram of the Altar, which seemingly from its apparent dimensions was drawn according to R’ Yossi, actually has them in the middle (really closer to the bottom, since he is not counting the amah height of the Altar’s corner “horns” (again not in conformance with Shabbos 92a).

    Artscroll’s nicely illustrated “The Mishkan – The Tabernacle, Its Structure and Its Sacred Vessels” shows the Ark and the Altar with the poles apparently set for both of them 1/3 from the top (in conformance with Shabbos 92a’s supposition). Strangely however for the Golden Incense Altar they show the poles very close to the top, not 1/3 down from the top.

    Regarding the Table, it seems unanimous that the poles are set at the top of the Table, but that is in the lower 1/3 of the entire Table if one counts the stacks for the showbread. Again, not in conformance with the supposition of the “tradition” or “established facts” that generally poles are always set at 1/3 from the top of anything that is carried.

    Not really relevant here, but without poles how did the Levi’im carry the Menorah?

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  96. You're unbelievable.

    How high up the altar is this sugya claiming that the poles were?

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  97. The sugya is never "claiming" that the poles were set at any specific height.

    It is at best suggesting a possibility that according to one opinion they theoretically would have been 1/3 from the top if they were set in accordance with what was an established general practice of where to set the poles for carrying a burden.

    Bli neder, later I'll add to this explanation.

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  98. Yes. And if they were set 2/3 of the way up a ten-cubit altar, which was carried on the Levites shoulders, then how tall were the Levites?

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  99. Why are you changing the order of the Gemorah? It proceeds step by step, theorizing one logical deduction after another, in a direction opposite of the way you express it:

    - First the Gemorah states that according to one opinion the Altar may have been ten amos tall.

    - Then stating according to an allegorical Midrash that Moshe Rabbeinu was (only when he erected the Mishkon, as Rashi explains on Brochos 54b) ten figurative amos tall.

    - Then the Gemorah states that it is possible to hypothetically suppose that all the Levi’im were the same allegorical height as Moshe – whenever they afterwards, throughout the journey in the desert, erected and carried the Mishkon – ten figurative amos tall.

    [Regarding Moshe, the Midrash, according to Rashi, states that he allegorically grew to ten amos tall only when erecting the Mishkon (and when fighting the equally figurative Super Giant Size Og). Regarding the Levi’im, apparently Rashi would say that they figuratively grew to the height of ten amos not only when erecting the Mishkan, but even when only carrying it.]

    - Only then does the Gemorah go on to take an educated guess as to where the poles might have been set on the Altar, with the corresponding deduction that in this way it would theoretically have been carried by the above described Levi’im above ten tefochim in a Reshus HaRabim.

    Then, in recognition that all of these deductions are only hypothetical, inserted into the Gemorah only to encourage Pilpul and like, it goes on to state “Eeboyis aiyma,” presenting an alternate more rational method of deduction based on the size of the Ark and normal sized Levi’im carriers.

    --- This is still not the Hosofa I have in mind to write, but I will have to take a break until later.

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  100. So, in the middle of a serious halachic discussion as to the source of the Mishnah's ruling, the Gemara discussed a possibility that it didn't really mean seriously. In that answer, as opposed to the others, it was just playing pilpul games. And this is something that you present not as a hypothetical possibility but as THE pshat in the Gemara. Which, strangely, was never spelled out by anyone in the history of Torah scholarship.

    Look, as I said, there's no point in continuing this discussion. You're determined to avoid saying that Chazal believed something which, to 21st century thinking, is "obviously" wrong. And you'll twist the Gemara, and ignore all the Rishonim, in order to fit it in, and insist that everyone else is irrational.

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  101. Why do you keep insisting that the way I've explained the Gemorah was "never spelled out by anyone in the history of Torah scholarship"?

    I'm not ignoring ALL the Rishonim. Have you forgotten the Rambam? What about Avrohom ben HaRambam? What about the Maharal? What I've explained is clearly how they learn the Gemorah.

    Why do you keep insisting that everyone should ignore the words of THOSE Gedolim?

    Are you still saying that the Maharal in the quote you brought in your book was not referring to this specific Gemorah? It is quite clear that he was referring precisely to this. What then was he referring to? Do you now have a different translation of his words to offer that can salvage your position?

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  102. Your wrote: "You're determined to avoid saying that Chazal believed something which, to 21st century thinking, is "obviously" wrong."

    Not at all. I freely state, like the Rambam and others did, yourself included, that Chazal had false beliefs about scientific matters.

    I'm willing to go even further than that and say they've erred in numerous religious matters as well.

    However with regard to this matter, the envisioned astronomical size of Og, Moshe and the Levi'im, they certainly did not err about it - as Rambam through Maharal and at least in certain quarters Gedolim until today clearly state (as if one needs a source to identify something AS CLEAR AS DAY) - they were clearly speaking only allegorically and never ever expected their words to be understood literally.

    As the expression goes, "What are we dealing with here, fools?"

    (Please don't fault me for using exaggerated expressions - I learned to do so from the venerable Sages of Israel, of blessed and reverent memory, may their merits shine on us and protect us always.)

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  103. Rambam and his son may well have simply rejected that view. Maharal may have had your approach, or something else equally forced, but if you're championing Maharal as the voice of traditional, authentic, reasonable, rational interpretations of such Gemaras, then you really shouldn't be participating in this forum.

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  104. I freely state, like the Rambam and others did, yourself included, that Chazal had false beliefs about scientific matters...
    However with regard to this matter, the envisioned astronomical size of Og, Moshe and the Levi'im, they certainly did not err about it ...
    As the expression goes, "What are we dealing with here, fools?"


    In other words, as I said, You're determined to avoid saying that Chazal believed something which, to 21st century thinking, is absurd, regardless of whether it would have been absurd to believe it 1600 years ago and regardless of whether other people had such beliefs.

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  105. “Rambam and his son may well have simply rejected that view.”

    --- They do not say they reject that view, they say that they interpreted it non-literally, as you yourself wrote in your book.

    “Maharal may have had your approach, or something else equally forced, but if you're championing Maharal…”

    --- I’m not “championing” Maharal. I’m saying one should “mekabail emes,” accept truthful statements, from whatever the source may be. Sometimes it is from scientists, sometimes from archaeologists, sometimes from Chassidim, sometimes from Yeshivish/Litvishe, sometimes from Ashkenasim and sometimes from Sefardim. In this case, accept the truth from the Maharal – and if you can’t accept as Emes, then at the very least, don’t try to pervert what he is clearly saying.

    At least now you are admitting that Maharal “may have had your approach.” Why did you find it so hard to admit that the Maharal understood and taught, in writing for generations, that this Gemorah, referring to Moshe and the Levi’im’s height, was only meant by the sages to be taken non-literally, but only figuratively and spiritually? To get you to affirm that, begrudgingly now, something which you already very clearly stated in your book, has been harder than pulling teeth. Please start reviewing now with regard to the opinion of Rambam and his son, maybe you'll again remember what they are really saying.

    “…then you really shouldn't be participating in this forum.”

    --- For a person who is rarely lacking in words, at the moment I’m at a loss for finding any words to reply to that. I suppose I’ll try for now “Ameteur’s” approach and keep smiling. Excellent advice for everyone.

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  106. "They do not say they reject that view, they say that they interpreted it non-literally, as you yourself wrote in your book."

    No. They interpret it non-literally when discussing its appearance in an Aggadic context. They do not say how they understand the sugya that uses it in a halachic context. (Incidentally, I am by no means convinced that their explanation is correct even in the Aggadic context.)

    "In this case, accept the truth from the Maharal"

    Except that you haven't provided any reason to think it's the truth. As I said, it's farfetched in the extreme to claim that in the middle of a serious halachic discussion as to the source of the Mishnah's ruling, the Gemara discussed a possibility that it didn't really mean seriously; that in that answer, as opposed to the others, it was just playing pilpul games.

    Why did you find it so hard to admit that the Maharal understood and taught, in writing for generations, that this Gemorah, referring to Moshe and the Levi’im’s height, was only meant by the sages to be taken non-literally, but only figuratively and spiritually?

    Because it doesn't make any sense. How were the poles "figuratively and spiritually" two-thirds of the way up the altar, but not literally so? You were forced to say that the Gemara in Shabbos didn't mean it as a serious suggestion, just for pilpul!

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  107. “No. They interpret it non-literally when discussing its appearance in an Aggadic context. They do not say how they understand the sugya that uses it in a halachic context. “

    --- As I stated before, it is one and the same Gemorah. You are creating an artificial dichotomy by saying they were only speaking about “Aggadic context” but not in a “Halachic context.” Nowhere in their writings do THEY say that. They would not accept such a statement. On the contrary, the Rambam is consistent in his statements even in his Halachic works, he downplays all supernatural matters, including super-spectacular-sizes for human beings. Anyway how could it be possible that in an Aggadic statement Moshe is not really ten amos tall, but in an Halachic statement he really is ten amos tall? Either he is ten Amos tall or he isn’t! Make up your mind!

    “I am by no means convinced that their explanation is correct even in the Aggadic context.”

    --- Fine, everyone is entitled to his or her own opinion – but don’t state it as a fact and claim that “it is proven.” It may be your legitimate opinion, but it is certainly not proven, and you should not pretend that it is.

    “you haven't provided any reason to think it's the truth.”

    --- I’m trying to understand you. Why are you advocating now that all statements of Chazal were intended to be taken literally – all that is except for the size of Pharaoh? The burden is on you to demonstrate that all the fanciful and extreme Midrashim, Perek “Hamocheir Es HaSefinah,” etc., were meant literally. Simple common sense says they are clearly non-literal.

    With regard to Og, Is it feasible that anyone ever believed all or even most of this literally?

    1. First he is the Giant Og, surviving the flood hanging onto the Noah’s ark.

    2. In exchange for Noach saving him and feeding him he becomes a slave to Noach.

    3. Nimrod somehow gets ownership of him from Noach, and after trying to kill Avrohom by throwing him into a fiery furnace for destroying his idols, he eventually gives Og as a present to Avrohom in honor of his miraculous escape from that certain fiery death, and the destruction of his idols is apparently forgiven.

    4. Avrohom decides to change Og’s name to Eliezer.

    5. Later Nimrod in the course of a war captures Lot. He thought he was capturing Avrohom because Lot and Avrohom look alike.

    6. Avrohom rounds up his 318 men, i.e., his servant Eliezer whose name is gematria 318, and they defeat Eliezer’s old master Nimrod.

    7. [Maybe because Eliezer is as tall as a mountain he is able to travel to Choron in one day (kefitzas haderech); he could have carried the ten camels and other men who went with him in the palm of his hand, and similarly on the way back with Rivka.]

    8. After serving Avrohom righteously for many years Avrohom sets Eliezer free – seeming to violate “l’olom bohem ta’avodu,” but it may have been that Avrohom received a prophecy to do so as a ho’ra’as shoa.

    9. However because Eliezer is still deemed to be such a wicked man Hashem rewards him in this world to be a king so that He can punish him forever in the World to Come.

    10. For the hundreds of years while Yaakov is born, the Shevotim are born, and the Jews server as slaves in Egypt, nothing more is heard about this Giant Og/Eliezer.

    11. Eliezer officially changes his name back to Og and becomes famous as King of Bashan, for an undisclosed number of years, until he and his brother Giant Sichon (who also somehow managed to survive the flood) finally are killed by Moshe Rabbeinu.

    12. He crib/bed [possibly “coffin”] of iron, 9x4 cubits measured by the standard of his own unique super large arm length is (or was) located in Ramas Bnei Amon.

    13. More than a thousand years later Abba Shaul or some say Rebbe Yochanan, while working as a grave digger, chased a gazelle for three parsangs through one of Og’s thigh bones (Niddah 24b).

    Are you now saying we should think that all of these statements were originally meant to be understood literally??? Come on!

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  108. “…it was just playing pilpul games.”

    --- Who says “Pilpul” is just a “game”? Important lessons are established and students are trained to use their minds and review all sorts of interconnected ideas.

    “Because it doesn't make any sense.”

    --- Yes, and your “absolutely literal” idea makes more sense? At any rate, please don’t distort what the Maharal plainly wrote.

    “You were forced to say that the Gemara in Shabbos didn't mean it as a serious suggestion, just for pilpul!”

    --- Chazal took their Midrashim and Pilpulim plenty seriously, and so should we all. Serious? Yes. Literal? Absolutely not.

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  109. Once again Rabbi Slifkin, I think that the reason we're so biased into saying that the Gemara meant these pilpullim literally is due to the virtual singularity that Gemara learning underwent through Rashi and Tosofos. It seems clear that certainly the Rambam, and quite likely earlier Rishonim and Geonim didn't have these assumptions, and in their view this pilpul is no different from 300 other similar sugyos that due the same thing. Without our preexisting bias, Moshe F.'s reading of the Gemara is not strained at all.

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  110. how could it be possible that in an Aggadic statement Moshe is not really ten amos tall, but in an Halachic statement he really is ten amos tall? Either he is ten Amos tall or he isn’t!

    Because they are authored by different people. Chazal is not one person. Consider Rambam's varied techniques of dealing with Gemaras about demons. Some he reinterprets, some he rejects.

    Why are you advocating now that all statements of Chazal were intended to be taken literally – all that is except for the size of Pharaoh? The burden is on you to demonstrate that all the fanciful and extreme Midrashim, Perek “Hamocheir Es HaSefinah,” etc., were meant literally. Simple common sense says they are clearly non-literal.

    There is no such thing as "simple common sense." That which is fanciful to you is perfectly reasonable to others. Is it fanciful that people lived for 900 years? How about that Chazal were mechaye meisim, and could kill people by looking at them?

    And stop claiming that Rambam and Maharal directly discussed the Gemara. THEY DID NOT. They discussed Moshe's size. Maharal referenced this Gemara. But nobody gave an explanation of this sugya according to which the Leviim were ten amos tall. All we have is your bizarre pshat, that (according to this view) the rings were not actually 2/3 of the way up the altar, even though Chazal go out of their way to say that they were. And then they immediately switched to a serious explanation, without any indication.

    Why don't you write to Artscroll, Steinsaltz, and Mesivta, and tell them that their commentary is all wrong? I haven't seen it, but I have no doubt that they do not explain it your way.

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  111. I really don't have time now, but as I recalled you wrote an excellent article, prorominently linked on this Blog, "Messianic Wonders and Skeptical Rationalists" -
    http://www.hakirah.org/Vol%206%20Slifkin.pdf - that discusses the literal/non-literal divide. I also remember writing to you that I learned from it, and it was very much appreciated. I don't have time now, but I plan to review it again soon.

    My recollection is that your stance in that article is completely different from your stance here. Please explain when you have the time.

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  112. "There is no such thing as "simple common sense." That which is fanciful to you is perfectly reasonable to others. Is it fanciful that people lived for 900 years? How about that Chazal were mechaye meisim, and could kill people by looking at them?"

    --- As you should know, Rationalists usually interpret all of those things non-literally. Why do you, supposedly the champion of Rationalism, ignore the words of all the great Rationalists?

    Regarding the idea that "Chazal... could kill people by looking at them" - it is mentioned in the Gemorah you focus on in “Messianic Wonders and Skeptical Rationalists.” That Gemorah states: "Rabbi Yochanan replied: “Empty one! If you hadn’t seen it, then would you not have believed it?! You are a scoffer at the words of the sages!” He gave him a look and he became a heap of bones." (Talmud, Bava Basra 75a).

    In your essay you never discussed the meaning of the last line, "He gave him a look and he became a heap of bones." Most assuredly, no Rationalist will interpret this as meaning that on the spot, from R’ Yochanan’s simply gazing at him, the student died and turned into a literal “heap of bones”! The Sages had no such powers. All that the Gemorah is most likely saying, in an allegorical manner, is that the student was deeply embarrassed.

    Meanwhile it appeared to me that your essay explains that from the perspective of the Rationalists, the Sages themselves were overwhelmingly Rationalists, and that right from the start their strange sayings were not meant to be understood literally. Here you have insisted that the opposite is true. Like I said, please make up your mind. Are you a Rationalist or not? What’s next, are you going to change the name of this Blog?

    Anyway, thanks for all the attention to my thoughts, though there remain many ideas I submitted that you did not attempt to respond to, and the responses you did provide were for the most part very unsatisfactory in my opinion. Nevertheless, have a good Shabbos, figuratively – and of course literally too!

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  113. Herein lies the difference between medieval rationalists and modern rationalism. Medieval rationalists believed that Chazal were of the same mindset as them. Modern rationalist scholars recognize that that is wishful thinking.

    See http://www.rationalistjudaism.com/2009/08/three-types-of-rationalists.html

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  114. Last thought:

    Aliens looking down upon us, who pick up our broadcasts of Superman, Spiderman, Fantastic Four, Harry Potter, etc., might come to the conclusion that Earthlings are totally irrational to believe such impossibilities. But they would be projecting their perspective on us, not realizing that none of us believe in the existence of those Superheroes and superpowers. They are just stories. No one on Earth takes them literally.

    V’hamoshul muvan, v'hamavin yovin.

    Just as we tell "TALL tales," so too our ancestors also told "TALL tales." Just as not all of our literary constructions are meant literally, so too not all of their literary constructions were meant literally.

    (BTW, if anyone is confused, “aliens” don’t really exist – they are just another example of our make believe stories.)

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  115. Nobody is claiming that they never meant anything non-literally. But that doesn't mean that everything which seems to you to be impossible, would also seem impossible to them. You are mistakenly projecting your perspective on them.

    How do we know when they were speaking literally and when they weren't? We can't always be sure. However, we can look at the context. And the halachic context of this sugya in Shabbos implies that it is literal. Why would the Gemara say that, following the standard way in which items are carried by porters, the rings were 2/3 of the way up the altar, if they were in fact only about 1/5 of the way up and it was not following the standard way in which things are carried?

    I think that this discussion is finished.

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  116. A small observation. Two common English idioms:

    A "ten gallon hat".

    He felt "ten feet tall" (google [idiom "ten feet tall"])

    Avraham

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  117. "Nobody is claiming that they never meant anything non-literally. But that doesn't mean that everything which seems to you to be impossible, would also seem impossible to them. You are mistakenly projecting your perspective on them.

    How do we know when they were speaking literally and when they weren't? We can't always be sure. However, we can look at the context. And the halachic context of this sugya in Shabbos implies that it is literal. Why would the Gemara say that, following the standard way in which items are carried by porters, the rings were 2/3 of the way up the altar, if they were in fact only about 1/5 of the way up and it was not following the standard way in which things are carried?

    I think that this discussion is finished."

    You are confusing way too many issues.

    Firstly, not everything that Chazal found probable did they mean it to be literal. You are projecting your own modern ideas of what ancient people must have thought like, onto them. Instead of reading them on their own terms.

    The Consensus is that the Altar was NOT LITTERALLY 10 amot tall. So how the actual handle bars existed on the actual Altar is irrelevant. I REPEAT, the ALTAR WAS NOT 10 AMOT TALL.

    Once you realize this fact, then you can't possibly actually read that section of the gemora litterally. What you can see, is that IF the Altar was 10 amot Tall, and the Levim were 10 Amot tall, then you could use this STORY to prove that Carrying exists above 10 tfachim off the ground.

    Just like I can use the story of Paul Bunion, to deduce that American understanding of lumberjacks is that they wear plaid clothing, even though Paul Bunion was not a real person. Or I can deduce from Batman, that Rich playboys have Butlers.

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  118. "The Consensus is that the Altar was NOT LITTERALLY 10 amot tall."

    What on earth are you talking about? It's a machlokes. This sugya is following the view of R. Yosi, that it was 10 amos tall:

    “And its height is to be three cubits” (Exodus 27:1) –The verse should be understood as written, according to Rabbi Yehudah. Rabbi Yosi said: It states here “[the altar shall be] square,” and it states later (regarding the altar of gold) “square”—just as in that case, its height was twice its length, so too here its height was twice its length … And what does it mean by, “And its height is to be three cubits”? From above the rim (i.e. the verse is only referring to the upper section of the altar). (Zevachim 59b-60a)

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  119. >>>> the rings were 2/3 of the way up the altar,

    doesn't Ex 27:5 explicitly state that the staves were mid-altar?

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  120. so what does "ad chatzi hamiz-bei-yach" mean, in verse 5?

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  121. To Moshe F.

    Your problem is that you have extreme difficulty in believing that our “hyper-intelligent” Chazal could possibly have believed such flights of fancy as are being discussed here. That is, you think that their “sense of the absurd” is the same as ours and therefore the statements under discussion could not possibly have been meant literally. Well, its simply not so, their sense of the absurd was not the same as ours, and thereby, to me at least, it is quite easy to accept that they actually believed what they were stating.

    To demonstrate my assertion, let me give you an example of a statements made by Chazal that cannot possibly be taken as having been meant to be non-literal, yet the statement if made to anybody with today’s understanding of reality, would view as outrageous.

    The story of Kings David and Solomon is narrated twice in Tenach, The Books of Samuel/Kings for one version and Chronicles for the other. There are many contradictions, albeit most trivial, between the two accounts. One such concerns the declaration of the wealth of Shlomo. In I Kings 5:6 it states he had 40,000 stables for horses while in I Chr 9:25 it states he had 4000 stables. Since both statements must “obviously” be correct, the Medrash resolves the contradiction by saying he had 40,000 stables with 4000 stalls in each (or vice versa).

    Would anybody with today’s sense of the possible accept this ludicrous assertion. This is absurd at so many levels. Yet Chazal made it for the SOLE purpose of reconciling two supposedly factual statements. It is not reasonable to then turn around and say they were being allegorical or some such other rationalization.

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  122. "Why don't you write to Artscroll, Steinsaltz, and Mesivta, and tell them that their commentary is all wrong? I haven't seen it, but I have no doubt that they do not explain it your way."

    For the most part, as everyone is well aware, those publishers are not Rationalists and they have a tendency to understand things quite literally. You have no argument from what they write, nor do I expect that they might change based on anything I or any Rationalist would say to them.

    -----

    I've already mentioned various opinions given for the courtyard Altar, from which it is clear that despite what Shabbos 92a says, there are other opinions that its carrying poles were not set 1/3 from the top.

    In addition, regarding the Ark clearly many authorities also do not accept as a fact the premise of Shabbos 92a that its carrying poles were 1/3 from the top. Here is one representative note from R' Aryeh Kaplan's "The Living Torah," which prove this, and obviously the number of different opinions is not exhausted:

    Teruman 25:12: corners. (Targum; Radak, Sherashim). Some say that the rings were at the very top of the ark (Rashi).... Still others state that the rings were at the very bottom of the ark (Rambam; Bachya). According to those who maintain that the ark had legs, the rings were on its feet (Ibn Ezra; Abarbanel).

    -----

    Regarding the Menorah, Bamidbar 4:9-10 are the only verses about it, ולקחו בגד תכלת וכסו את מנרת המאור ואת מרתיה ואת מלקחיהואת מחתתיה ואת כל כלי שמנה אשר ישרתו לה בהם: ונתנו אתה ואת כל כליה אל מכסה עור תחש ונתנו על המוט -- but not too much is explained about this.

    Some say “Mot” is a single pole, some say it is a “frame,” which they carried also on their shoulders.

    It is unclear if the menorah was carried upright or lying on its side, or if it was entirely above the Levi’im’s shoulders, or if it hung down in it’s bag, and if so, by how much. I don't know if this is explained anywhere.

    Similarly in posuk 12, a “Mot” is used for all the Klei haShoreis. It is not clear if the bags containing them were put entirely above the “pole” or “frame,” or if they hung down below the Levi’im’s shoulders.

    Just another example of how much we do not know about the Mishkon and how it was carried.

    -----

    As another example of a hypothetical Gemorah:

    It seems to me that the 5 amos long size given for the wagons donated by the Princes of the Tribes, and how they were loaded with Boards and pulled in pairs with 5 amos between them, as described in Shabbos 98 and 99, was originally meant to be understood only hypothetically. I seriously doubt that the sages had any Mesorah about these things.

    -----

    Carol made an excellent points above at March 19, 2012 2:34 AM:

    "If you say that Chazal meant the height of Og, Moshe Rabbenu and Bar Yuchni literally it means that they just made it up because we know that these things were impossible. This brings into question the whole messorah. If they cannot be relied on for the height of Moshe Rabbeinu and the Leviim how can they be relied on for transmitting the words of Moshe Rabbeinu?

    "Secondly, won't you agree that Rambam doesn't think that they meant it literally?"

    --- You have not yet attempted to reply to her.

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  123. 1. Please stop flooding the comments section with long, irrelevant comments.

    2. Of course there are lots of opinions regarding the mizbeyach. I pointed that out in my book. So what? We are discussing this opinion.

    3. Carol's argument is naive and tragic. It is also an argument from consequences, which reveals why it is pointless to get into a discussion with either her or you. You feel that if some of Chazal believed things that you consider absurd, such as that the Levites were 10 amos tall, then all Judaism is called into question. And obviously Judaism is the foundation of your life. So no argument will ever convince you that Chazal could have believed such things. No reasoned argument will undermine that which you consider the foundations of your faith. So there's no point in engaging in discussion. It's a religious matter for you.

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  124. To "elemir" - minor corrections:

    The conflicting verse is II Chr 9:25 (it's also a mistake in my Nach Mikraos Gedolos as there printed in Rashi's commentary).

    I'm not sure where you got that Midrash (seems you cited it from memory). See all the commentaries on Kings I 5:6: There is only a tenfold discrepancy between the two verses, explained by saying each of the 4,000 stables contained 10 stalls.

    BTW, most Rationalists understand that Scripture frequently rounds off numbers and exaggerates numbers.

    -- For example, in my opinion Shlomo's 700 wives and 300 concubines (Kings I 11:3) is also an exaggeration.

    [I'll try to keep long, irrelevant comments to a minimum.]

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  125. >>>> I'm not sure where you got that Midrash (seems you cited it from memory) See all the commentaries on Kings I 5:6:

    “all” - I guess in your books Rashi is not considered a commentary. Anyway Rashi quotes the Gemara, Sanhedrin 21b.

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  126. “Carol's argument is naive and tragic.”

    ---- “Tragic”? Is it really that bad? Do you mean literally or figuratively?

    “So there's no point in engaging in discussion.”

    ---- If you’ve managed to climb out of the mud and achieve elite reasoning status, then by all means why not continue to enlighten the interested public as much as possible. Why say there’s no point in debate and discussion? You’ll always be able to write another book about it. (I know you’ve got tons of other stuff, The Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom, etc. – looking forward to seeing these.)

    “So no argument will ever convince you… No reasoned argument will undermine…”

    ---- So far you have not presented any “reasoned arguments” supporting your claim that Chazal meant such statements literally. You’ve just answered with your own dogmatism.

    “It's a religious matter for you.”

    ---- While for you there are no religious matters? You are saying we are blinded by faith, while you have achieved pure reason uncolored by any beliefs. Are you sure your belief about how the ancients thought is not affected by YOUR beliefs?

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  127. why not continue to enlighten the interested public as much as possible. Why say there’s no point in debate and discussion?

    You will never be convinced (since it is a religious issue for you) and nobody else is interested.

    So far you have not presented any “reasoned arguments” supporting your claim that Chazal meant such statements literally.

    That is simply false.

    While for you there are no religious matters?

    Sure there are. And I wouldn't demand that someone debate me on them.

    Are you sure your belief about how the ancients thought is not affected by YOUR beliefs?

    No. But I can say that it makes no difference to me whether they were right or wrong. Which you cannot say.

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  128. Sanhedrin 21b. -- Quite correct that is the source, but but it is obviously not meant literally, but only as an exaggeration, and it was meant as an exaggeration.

    R' Slifkin, please help me out on this one.

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  129. Elemir - that source may not be a good one, since there may be a printing error in the text of the Gemara. Of course there are many other such sources, but there is no point getting into a debate with the good Moshe F., since this is a deeply religious issue for him. He aligned himself with Carol, and with the sentiment that if Chazal believed something that he considers absurd, then Judaism is worthless. So no source that you present will convince him.

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  130. >>> that source may not be a good one, since there may be a printing error in the text of the Gemara

    kindly clarify, what do you mean by error, that the entire reconciliation statement is a textual error and should be removed from the gemorrah??

    to me, this source is excellent, because it is very different to present a reasonable "kvetch" that the text can be read in anyway but literally, i.e. that Shlomo possessed 160,000,000 (4K X 40K) horse stalls.

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  131. besides isn't there another place in sanherin where the genorrah states that shlomo had 8,000 stables with 8,000 horse stalls each...can't remember the daf.

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  132. http://www.mail-archive.com/daf-discuss@shemayisrael.com/msg00253.html

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  133. "So far you have not presented any “reasoned arguments” supporting your claim that Chazal meant such statements literally.

    That is simply false."

    You have not provided a single good reason why we should think that the Rabbis in the Talmud, truly believed that the Text of the Torah was wrong, and that in truth in reality, they believed that the altar was 10 amot high.

    Nor do you explain, why you think they seriously believed that there were literally 4000 X 400 stables. Sounds like classic midrashim to me.

    Do you think that in the Hagadah, that R. Hillel really believed that there were literally 50 plagues at the sea?

    You read these texts like a 21st century literalist, instead of a 21st century literature expert.

    BTW, there is some great evidence of Alphabetic Numerology being used by non-Jewish ANE texts. One such example is a stone that says that a city was some 600 thousand+ dunam, or something, but really that was just the numerical equilvalant of the king's name.

    And unlike you, I have no philosophical, religious, or political care in the world if some particular text seems crazy or wacky or wrong to modern ears. I do however care, about Modern "Converts" butchering texts which they have no way of understanding, because they lack a basic education in the history of non-western literature.

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