Wednesday, February 1, 2017

King David's Groundhog Day

According to American folklore, a groundhog first emerges from hibernation on February 2nd. If it is cloudy, then spring will come early; if it is sunny, the groundhog will supposedly see its shadow and retreat back into its burrow, and the winter weather will continue for six more weeks.

Amazingly, the groundhog's hibernation is actually mentioned in the Midrash - at least, in the view of some.
"And the Lord God cast a slumber (tardemah) upon him" (Gen. 2:21)... Rav said: There are three types of slumber: that of sleep (shenah), that of prophecy, and that of marmita... (Midrash Rabbah, Bereishis 17:5)
The Midrash explains that the last type of slumber occurred with the camp of King Saul, when David sneaked in and removed Saul's spear and water-jug:
That of marmita: "Nobody saw or knew or woke up, for they were all sleeping; for a slumber of God had descended upon them" (I Samuel 26:12) (Midrash ibid.)
The slumber of the mysterious marmita is the deepest type of sleep - but what is a marmita?

Opinions vary. But several opinions (including Anaf Yosef, Rashash, and R. Yosef Schonhak) argue that it is the animal known in Europe as the marmot, which is known to North Americans as the groundhog. Marmots enter a deep hibernation during the cold winter; their heartbeat slows to around five beats a minute, while they only take one to three breaths a minute. The Midrash says that such a deep sleep was placed upon Shaul's camp by Hashem, so that David was able to steal in and out undetected. Nobody in Shaul's camp woke up; it was as though time itself was frozen.

Although the phenomenon of hibernation was known to ancient writers such as Aristotle and Pliny, I haven't been able to discover if there is indeed basis for interpreting the Midrash in this way. If anyone has further light to shed on this, please do so!


  1. The fellow who runs Balashon" says "marmita" appears only once in the midrashim:

  2. Is it three types or three degrees of magnitude? Is there some reason to presume that they are the latter? You seem to be explaining the midrash as referring to 3 degrees of more profound slumber, with that of prophecy being deeper than a regular night's sleep and that of marmita, whatever it is, as still deeper than prophecy. But is the trance of prophecy necessarily deeper than sleep?

    But I'd agree that marmots (i.e ground squirrels) could very well be argued to be the prototype hibernator.

    The trouble here is that the midrash should have made reference to animals in some form of dormancy, rather than citing an example of apparent divine intervention when Saul's camp entered into a miraculous slumber for, arguably, only a few minutes during David's quick entrance and exit.

  3. Thank you for the interesting post.
    I wonder if the concept of the groundhog seeing it's shadow is derived from the custom mentioned in Rema OC 662:1 of looking for your shadow on the night of hoshana raba as a sign for the upcoming year

  4. Searching on Google for the etymology of marmot the following comes up.

    "early 17th century: from French marmotte, probably via Romansh murmont from late Latin mus montanus ‘mountain mouse’; compare with French marmotter ‘mutter through the teeth"

    Thus the word marmot would not have existed at the time of the gemoroh - it would have still been mus montanus at that point. Therefore I see no reason to associate marmita with marmot.

  5. Yavoy is surely right that "marmita" cannot mean "marmot," as the word was unknown at the time of composition.

    Moreover, the parallelism is faulty: the drowsiness (tardemah) of sleep, of prophecy, and of . . . a marmot?! It would seem that "marmita" must refer to some kind of state of consciousness,rather than to an animal (let alone to one that the ancients had no word for).

    It surely is unrelated to Spanish "marmita" (cooking pot), to English "Marmite" (a kind of awful-tasting yeast spread), to Italian "marmitta" (automobile muffler), or to the "Myrmidons" of Greek mythology, who were not especially sleepy.

    I can find nothing relevant in my Arabic dictionary.

    R. Nathan of Rome apparently suggested "marmor" (marble), i.e., "sleeping like a rock / like one entombed," but this does not seem very satisfactory either.


    1. I find marmite delicious, and unlike many who think so, I didn't even grow up on it.

  6. "The Midrash says that such a deep sleep was placed upon Shaul's camp by Hashem"

    The focus isn't so much on the depth of the sleep as on its virtual omnipresence. David snuck by thousands of soldiers and miraculously not even one of them woke up, like the whole species of marmuts who sleep through the whole hibernating season, every one of them, without waking up.

  7. An entry on Google Books indicates that this word means "ecstatic trance." "A Social and Religious History of the Jews" by Salo Baron, p. 315: "Highly extolled, as we recall, by Philo, ecstatic trance (marmita, or rather mormotos) was still counted by Rab alongside of ordinary sleep and prophetic vision, as a third important manifestation of the biblical tardemah (deep sleep)"

    1. Baron's treatise (18 volumes) is available here at the campus library. (The relevant volume is II.) On footnote 27 he cites H. C. Puech "Mormotos", volume XLVI of Revue des études grecques, pages 311-333 (1933). The article is available online. It's in French:

  8. Jastrow has: "מרמיטה, a corruption, prob. to be read: מדממה f. (דמם) trance, catalepsy.

  9. Klein's Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the Hebrew Language defines the phrase sh'nat marmota as "deep sleep" and gives the origin as:
    "Of uncertain origin. It is certainly not borrowed from L. mūs (=mouse) and mons (=mountain), nor related to Fren. marmotte (=marmot)."
    (His English dictionary essentially gives a more in-depth version of what Yavoy quoted.)

  10. The questions I'd ask are: 1) Were marmots among the hibernating animals that would have been known in the 3rd century Near East? 2) If Rav was referring to hibernation, might there have been a more obvious candidate than the marmot? 3) How old is the word "marmot"? "Marmita" as marmot may be an anachronism. If which case, I'd go with Jastrow, like Yaacov cites above.


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