Monday, March 5, 2012

The Return of the Metzizah B'Peh Controversy

Metzitzah b'peh is back in the news. A few weeks ago, the latest issue of Dialogue was published with an article claiming that there is no firm evidence that it can be the cause of transmission of herpes, and that the onus of proof is on those who would declare a significant health risk. Then, a few days ago, it was reported that another infant had tragically died as a result of herpes contracted via metzitzah b'peh.

I would simply like to recommend several pieces of reading material on this topic. Shlomo Sprecher's seminal study, Mezịzạh be-Peh ― Therapeutic Touch or Hippocratic Vestige?, is a must-read if you want an in-depth analysis of the topic. Also of value is the ensuing correspondence in Hakirah regarding that article, which you can download here. A shorter and more accessible, but still excellent, treatment is by Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, "Metzitzah B’peh Controversy: Rabbinic Polemics and Applying the Lessons of History," from Jewish Action. Finally, I wrote a post on this topic a year ago, entitled Suckers for Orthodoxy, about contemporary charedi denial of the reasons why many insist on metzizah b'peh, even though they are following the original explicit Orthodox ideology of Chasam Sofer.

And now for something completely different. I was wondering if any of my readers can help me with a question. The Gemara in several places (Avodah Zarah 2b, Kiddushin 72a, Megillah 11a) describes how the bear symbolizes Persia. Amongst the parallels given is that "Persians have no rest, like a bear." And the Gemara says that when Rabbi Ami saw a Persian riding, he would say, “There is a wandering bear!” Now, I understand why the bear would be described as having no rest and wandering around. The home ranges of brown bears are among the largest of all land mammals, extending up to eight hundred square miles, in which bears spend most of their time wandering around looking for food. And bears in captivity will often pace to and fro in their enclosure. But why are Persians described as having no rest? I'd be indebted if someone can provide the answer!


  1. Clearly because the Persians are always riding around on horseback hunting with their falcons.

  2. The early silk road.

    The Persians were going back and forth from India to Israel, to Europe trading all the time. Many in Persian society that the Jews would have interacted with, would never be home.

    In addition to that, they would conquer all those lands, and so people would have to travel from one end of the empire to the capital for whatever reasons.

    Random speculation, which I think is correct, but I haven't verified my thoughts with any google search just yet.

  3. According to Yaakov Elman in this shiur
    Dov in the aforementioned statement is a play on words of the Persian Daevas, which is a demon. Zoroastrians were careful not to cut their hair so as not to give any power to the demons. Rav Yosef was making fun of this and said that they grow hair like demons. The next statement is based of the same pun and refers to them being like demons which the gemarah in Chagigah says would float from one end of the world to the other, (constantly in motion).

  4. Fascinating... but that seems a bit too coincidental that bears also happen to match the four described characteristics of eating a lot, being fat, being hairy, and wandering far and wide.

  5. I think Elman meant that both Dov and Daevas were intended to be understood in Rav Yosef's joke; A double entendre. Of course the impetus for the last comment about roaming was coming from the demon connotation, but would non the less make sense also when understanding it in reference to a bear. Ditto for the other descriptions about eating and being fat but vice versa. Your question was about the motivation for the comment, which the pun satisfies. In a literal sense saying they are as fat as a demon makes sense, in that it refers to supernatural proportions. Much like some say 'fat like the rebbe'.

  6. Consider Persia's geographical position. It was a huge empire at the time so to get from one end to the other required a lot of travelling. It was also in the middle between the Romans and the Indians and therefore an important trade route. That could explain the wandering bit.
    As for the Metzitzah B'Peh, forget the "halachic" sources and pick up any reputable textbook of infectious diseases. The answer is in there.

  7. Remember that the line used by the US Postal Service: "Neither rain nor snow ... will keep these couriers from their appointed rounds" is from Herodotus describing the Persian imperial couriers.

  8. Maybe because they partied all night. :-)

  9. The Teaching Company (also called "The Great Courses") just came out with a course on the Persian Empire. I haven't heard it yet, but it might be enlightening.

  10. In support of R. Elman's drash:

    Entry for "Div":

    "The description of the demons in the Persian epic literature is echoed in later literature and other genres. Except for an instance where Ferdowsī uses the word dīv as a metaphor for “evil people” (Moscow, IV, p. 310, vv. 140-41), demons are generally portrayed as beings completely independent of, and different from humans. They are often black (Šāh-nāma, ed. Khaleghi, I, pp. 22 v. 33, 166. v. 64; Moscow, VII, p. 34 v. 498; Asadī, pp. 80, v. 16, 111, v. 1; Farāmarz-nāma, pp. 80, 241, 341, 349), with long teeth, black lips, blue eyes (kabūd-čašm), claws on their hands, and large bodies covered with thick hair. Often they eat people (Šāh-nāma, ed. Khaleghi, II, p. 36, v. 479; Moscow, IV, pp. 312-13; Asadī, pp. 273, 281, 283; Farāmarz-nāma, pp. 93, 241, 341). Some demons have several heads, while others have monstrous ears or teeth (Asadī, pp. 15-18, 92). The epics tell of demon lands, the most important of which in the Šāh-nāma is called Māzandarān (not to be confused with the modern namesake province in Persia). There, they have a king, with all the trappings of kingship including armies, demon generals, cities, fortresses, farms, herds, etc. (ed. Khaleghi, I, pp. 223, v. 881, 10, vv. 115-18, 15, v. 188, 35-40, etc.; Farāmarz-nāma, pp. 335-38). Mention is made of an island of demons, the inhabitants of which had their own language and were so fond of iron that they would swim up to vessels passing by their island in order to exchange jewels for this metal. They fought with great stones, sticks, or other primitive tools of war (Asadī, pp. 15-18, 164, 242, 341-42). However sometimes they appear as warriors with armor, weapons, and retainers or armies (Šāh-nāma, ed. Khadeghi, II, pp. 42, v. 570, 54, v. 735, 466, v. 651; Farāmarz-nāma, pp. 350-51). Thus, they may not have always been perceived as supernatural “spirits.”"

  11. I've been looking online for Rabbi Tendler's piece: "Metzizah b'Peh Violates Jewish Law" and I can't find a full copy of it. Shame!

  12. Re bears having no m'nuchah:
    the referenced pasuq is Daniel 7:5, and from the end of that pasuq perhaps one can say that a bear is never satisfied with what it has already hunted, hence the restlessness.


  14. I'm surprised you failed to mention Jacob Katz's (a"h) classic historical review of the subject. Also not to be too nitpicky (if sufficiently egregious, it shouldn't qualify as a nitpick), that's m'tzitzoh b'Feh, not b'Peh.

  15. Perhaps the lack of rest is a reference to the constant wars the Persians were having with the Romans in those times. See:

    An interesting fact about those wars, maybe someone can source this: I heard from a history teacher of mine that the Christian and Jewish presence in both armies were so great, that they never scheduled battles on Saturdays or Sundays.

  16. Bears ‘n Pearsians how do they compare?
    1. Persia is Iran. ‘I ran’ away from a bear.
    2. But when he caught me, I skinned him with flair,
    Ken tihyeh to the Persians with nary a care.
    3. Mehodu ve’ad kush. Persia was there.
    But to hoduyudu or kush a bear do not dare.
    4. The thought of both we cannot bear.
    5. And ‘bare’ly can cope when they appear,
    6. Though Persia is no dove, a dove is a bear.
    So may they take a dive, give themselves a big scare,
    With no chance to rest wander off to nowhere,
    Then simcha ve’sasson will appear everywhere.

  17. R. Mechy - I only wanted to mention those that I could link to.

  18. As a lead, I would think that the bear - Persian comparison is critical on the Sassanid Empire which Chazal lived amongst as opposed to the Achaemenid Empire (the Persians from Megilat Esther) which they most probably knew very little about.

  19. Absolutely disgusting. Unhygenic. Dangerous. Primitive.

    Any physician could tell you the Metzizah B'Peh should be illegal. But the people who practice it are required by their beliefs to ignore science whenever it contradicts tradition, so no amount of education will change their minds. Since reason will not work I'm afraid force is required. Jailing mohels who practice this for reckless endangerment and child welfare violations is the only way to correct the behavior.

  20. the Brooklyn DA is looking into if criminal charges is warranted in this case

  21. "I would go so far as to speculate that such a mystical approach would be rejected by him as alien to the halachist's worldview"

    I mean here that the assertion that it can't be true that the halacha was wrongly decided because the hasgacha would not allow the possibility is mystical. How could one conclude that the halacha was decided based on empirical error and still follow it or simply assert that there can't be such a case because of an extra-halachic rejection of the possibility that hazal can have decided the halacha based on error? If he raised such a possibility, he would at minimum have to explain when this
    divine protection began, and how it can be reconciled with the fact that we know that sanhedrin can err, and that one can't follow them in cases of empirical error.
    There are those who claim that everything chazal say is bruach hakodesh and therefore they can't err. There may even be those who say they can err, but that the halacha is decided bruach hakodesh - as an aside, I'm unaware of anyone who says this but rabbi slifkin in a previous post claims the ramban rejects the possibility that sanhedrin can rule in error.I believe he is misreading the ramban, but the chasam sofer he cites as rejecting the ramban says the ramban agrees with him! Rabbi Slifkin claims in comments to the post that dr lawrence kaplan reads the ramban as he does, and if so, is it irrelevant that the chasam sofer is not reading the ramban as dr kaplan does?
    Here's the post,
    the chasam sofer in his last line says the ramban agrees with him....
    btw i have no idea what dr kaplan says or where he says it, but i know that this ramban is sometimes misunderstood in that he appears to say that the sanhederin is protected from error "l'olam" and people point to that word to say he means they never err, and that the first part of the ramban contradicts the second part. but ramban is quoting a posuk in tehillim 37,
    ki hashem ohev mishpat, ve'lo ya'azov et hasidav l'olam nishmaru
    ramban in citing this posuk is not intending to say that they never err. the posuk is being used as a melitza. this is my understanding, but regardless, the chasam sofer doesn't read the ramban as rabbi slifkin presents the ramban.
    in the comments, in answering those who question that the ramban elsewhere clearly says that sanhedrin can err, which conflicts with his presentation of the ramban on chumash, rabbi slifkin attributes his own interpretation to dr kaplan, but rabbi slifkin makes no mention that the chasam sofer reads the ramban differently either. This is another example of what I believe to be a pattern of rabbi slifkin's inaccuracies in presenting his sources.

    To return to the matter at hand,Rabbi Bleich doesn't raise the possibility, and I believe his argument is based on an almost-contradictory premise: Only if one can explain why the halacha needn't be rejected as based on empirical error can one follow it lekula, and the matter of the divine will regarding the correctness of the halacha is irrelevant. His own
    proposal as I understand it amounts to saying that the halacha takes no cognizence of the sort of empirical error under discussion.
    When addressing the Pachad Yitzchak's approach, he doesn't say that the Pachad Yitzchak must be wrong that the halacha was incorrectly decided because the hashgacha would not allow for such a possibility. He agrees with Pachad Yitzchak's reasoning and never rejects its premise. Rabbi Slifkin introduces the claim and rebuts it, but is arguing with himself.


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