Monday, October 24, 2022

What was Noah's Ark made of?

Sometimes, everyone assumes that a passuk in the Torah has a certain meaning, and it's not necessarily the case at all. For example, many people assume that the plague of frogs is written in the singular because it began with a single frog, but that's actually a Midrash; according to pshat, it's just a collective noun. Likewise, it seems that everyone believes that the Torah explicitly describes the plague of hail as consisting of fire inside the hail stones, whereas it actually speaks about fire flashing inside the hail storm

Recently, I discovered what might be another example. Here are the three verses about the construction of Noah's Ark, with a translation from Sefaria:

עֲשֵׂה לְךָ תֵּבַת עֲצֵי־גֹפֶר קִנִּים תַּעֲשֶׂה אֶת־הַתֵּבָה וְכָפַרְתָּ אֹתָהּ מִבַּיִת וּמִחוּץ בַּכֹּפֶר׃  
וְזֶה אֲשֶׁר תַּעֲשֶׂה אֹתָהּ שְׁלֹשׁ מֵאוֹת אַמָּה אֹרֶךְ הַתֵּבָה חֲמִשִּׁים אַמָּה רׇחְבָּהּ וּשְׁלֹשִׁים אַמָּה קוֹמָתָהּ׃
צֹהַר תַּעֲשֶׂה לַתֵּבָה וְאֶל־אַמָּה תְּכַלֶּנָּה מִלְמַעְלָה וּפֶתַח הַתֵּבָה בְּצִדָּהּ תָּשִׂים תַּחְתִּיִּם שְׁנִיִּם וּשְׁלִשִׁים תַּעֲשֶׂהָ׃  

Make yourself an ark of gopher wood; make it an ark with compartments, and cover it inside and out with pitch. 

This is how you shall make it: the length of the ark shall be three hundred cubits, its width fifty cubits, and its height thirty cubits. 

Make an opening for daylight in the ark, and terminate it within a cubit of the top. Put the entrance to the ark in its side; make it with bottom, second, and third decks. 

These verses follow a logical sequence. The first verse discusses the materials of which the ark should be made. The second verse describes the dimensions of the ark. And the third verse discusses the structure and internal design of the ark.

That's a very logical sequence, except that it's not actually an accurate description of the verses' contents. The first verse, in between saying that the ark is made of gopher wood and that it is coated with pitch, says that it is to be divided into compartments. But that is the part of the internal structural design, which surely belongs in the third verse!

There's another strange thing going on here. Hebrew has a perfectly good word for rooms or compartments: chadarim (cf. Prov. 20:27). Why would the word kinnim, which literally means "birds' nests" and is not used for any other animal, be used here? The earliest discussion that I found of this is in the Midrash:

קִנִּים תַּעֲשֶׂה אֶת הַתֵּבָה (בראשית ו, יד), קִילִין וּמְדוֹרִין, אָמַר רַבִּי יִצְחָק מַה הַקֵּן הַזֶּה מְטַהֵר אֶת הַמְצוֹרָע, אַף תֵּבָתְךָ מְטַהֲרָתְךָ. (בראשית רבה לא)

The Midrash here says that just as a nest of birds purifies the metzora, so too the Ark purified its inhabitants. But while this is a beautiful homiletic exegesis, it doesn't help with the pshat problem.

While I was pondering this problem, I was simultaneously reading about ancient Babylonian versions of the flood story. Of course, there are different approaches regarding how to reconcile these with the Torah's account, which are not our concern here. But I suddenly realized that they describe the ark as being made of reeds - which, in Hebrew, is kannim, the very word that our verse uses, albeit vocalized differently. And this was apparently the standard technique used for creating boats in ancient Mesopotamia - they were made of reeds, sometimes hybridized with a wooden frame for greater strength. (Note that this technique would have been unknown to later generations in other parts of the world, where boats were made exclusively from wood.)

Accordingly, by emending the vocalization of the word, the verses make perfect sense. The first verse is indeed describing the materials of which the ark was made - wood, reeds, and pitch. That is exactly how watercraft were made. (Interestingly, the only other tevah mentioned in Scripture, Moses' basket, was also made of reeds, albeit with the name gomeh.)

After discussing this with a number of academic scholars, I discovered that I wasn't the first person to think of this. It had already been proposed seventy years ago, by a scholar in Semitic languages called Edward Ullendorff. Others quibbled with this emendation, but it seems that they were unaware that reeds were the standard material used for building boats in that part of the world in antiquity.

Now, positing that the traditional vocalization of the word became corrupted is not without its difficulties. But on the other hand, it has the advantage of making the verses about the ark flow perfectly, rather than to say that there is a jarring incongruity and that it used an odd word for rooms which just so happens to be the exact same word which is used to refer to the materials that boats were usually made of and which would much more properly belong in this verse!

Meanwhile, if you're interested in the scientific challenges posed by the account of Noah's Ark, see the list of resources in this post. And in a few months, we will be opening an incredible exhibit on "The Art of the Ark" at the Biblical Museum of Natural History, featuring over sixty extraordinary artistic models of Noah's Ark from all over the world! Sign up for the museum newsletter to be notified when the exhibit is launched.



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46 comments:

  1. I wouldn't call this a perfect reading. It is sort of contradictory to have a command "make an ark of wood" followed by a separate command "make the ark of reeds" and the attempted resolution "make the ark of both wood and reeds" is awkward.

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    1. Correct, and קנים doesn't actually mean "nests" as he claims; it's a general term for niches, and it's simply most commonly applied to birds. We don't make "amendments" of the Torah, period; but this one isn't even compelling theoretically.

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    2. "it's a general term for niches" On what basis do you say that? It never appears anywhere else.

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    3. Anon 2 - this verse itself would, of course, be a parade example. In addition, see Job 29:18 ואמר אם קני אגוע where the term is translated by JPS as "family" (ie, in the bosom of family.) It is most commonly applied to birds, granted, but it is susceptible of other meanings too.

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    4. Rabbi Slifkin, I urge you to delete my comment, since I merely call myself "Anonymous," and I know that irritates you. You can keep all the other Anonymouses.

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  2. Why not just say that it means he should make it so that it looks like a birds' nest made out of little sticks (or in his case reeds)?

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    1. So what? It's still possible that it means to create it composed from nest like structures made from reeds, as opposed to one giant nest. It's possible that bunches of reeds bundled together were referred to as קנים, and the teivah was comprised of that. It is more likely and less problematic than insinuating that the ניקוד of our Mesorah is off.

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  3. Once you're already amending Noach, why not go a step further and, with Ehrlich, amend the first possuk of the Torah too, to read מים instead of שמים? That way you avoid the famous question posed by the second possuk, which implies water was already around when the world was created? After all, if you can fix Noach (and Charedim, and Ben Gvir, and the racist Americans, and all the rest of the world's problems) you can fix Beraishis too.

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    1. That's good advice for a rationalist. But you should know, there's no mystery about where water came from. The Gemara in Chagiga 12a explains.

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    2. For one thing, emending the letters is more theologically problematic than emending the vowels.

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  4. Lol - I think you are in for a world of hurt from the "you are a secularist lefty" brigade! Enjoy it.

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  5. By the way, loved the museum and especially happy that I got a sneak peak at the new exhibit. Thanks so much.

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  6. Bravo! Love it! Sounds like you’re onto something

    As far as suggesting vocalization that differs from the mesorah, no less a rabbinic authority than Rashbam allowed himself leeway to do just so. See shemos 23/24 for one example of many : כי הרס תהרסם – ומדעתי הגהתיו: תְהָרְסֵם משקל דגש מנעוריי. ושיבשתי ספרי צרפת שנקוד בהם תַהַרְסֵם, והוא משקל רפי, כמו: הרג תהרגנו (דברים י״ג:י׳). אבל מאחר {ש}הרס משקל דגש, צריך לומר כמו כן משקל דגש תְהָרְסֵם, דוגמת: שבר תשבר. ושוב מצאתי בכל סיפרי אספמיא ואשכנז, כמו שהגהתי משקל דגש.

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    1. The halacha also disagrees with the mesorah in a few places. First one that comes to mind is וקנמן-בשם מחציתו, according to the accepted halacha the tipcha should be on בשם.

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    2. I did a double take at this comment, because I thought it said "Nachum", and I could not believe that commenter would ever say something as foolish as "Bravo!" on NS suggesting an emendation of the Torah. I've not always agreed with Nachum (though often have), but he's smart enough to know, like Shadal and countless others before him, that we can play such games with the Talmud and possibly even with Nach, but we dont with the Torah itself. Then I realized the comment was actually by some guy calling himself Nahum, not Nachum. (Unless NS proposes we amend that, too.)

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    3. I specifically cited Rashbam as he is accepted by all as authoritative. Could have easily cited Shadal, as in, famously, shemos 34/23 : יראה כל זכורך – הנכון יִרְאֶה, עיין פירושי בישעיה א׳:י״ב.
      Don’t conflate consonants with vowels

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    4. All Rashbam is doing is correcting a typo. For example, I have chumashim at home with obvious mistakes like "shin" for "sin". I'm not changing the mesorah if I correct it. Rashbam is using his knowledge of grammar to correct an error in nikkud. Chas v'shalom to say that the Rashbam would change the meaning of a word from the mesorah, especially based on one question.

      So the words seem out of place to our understanding. This happens all the time in learning Tanach, and our mesorah is we need to seek to understand what is written, not ch"v change words. Especially because the conventions of writing change by language and time period. So in the Chumash it is common to go on a slight tangent when a topic is introduced, and return to the original topic afterward. In English, this would be looked at as poor writing. But only a fool would change the Chumash to fit English sensibilities.

      This is especially egregious in this case because the difficulties with the new reading outweigh the difficulty of the old reading. Now instead of a few words out of place, we have a direct contradiction from one phrase to the next. Classic example of בנין נערים סתירה.

      And arguably, the third verse with ואל אמה תכלנה מלמעלה is also external structure. So the author's point is more that kinnim seems like more of a detail and not something that should be mentioned right away. The rebuttal to this is the entire point of the teivah was to provide kinnim for the various animals.

      And perhaps the teivah was constructed of conjoined kinnim/pods. In which case this is the first detail Noach would need. Now that would conflict with Midrashim that talk about fifty amah boards of the Teivah, but at least it wouldn't violate p'shuto shel mikrah.

      I have hakaras hatov to Slifkin for writing important works regarding Torah and Science, and I don't agree with the tactics used against him. But posts like this bear out the charge that he does not truly understand the Torah mesorah of what is or is not acceptable. By this method, the floodgates are open to anyone to change anything because of their personal preference.

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    5. You make a good point. Grammatical corrections to vowels are different than vowel changes that change the meaning of the word. I stand corrected.

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    6. See https://www.thetorah.com/article/god-abandons-the-garden-of-eden-and-dwells-with-the-cherubim where the author makes a compelling case, based on 4 Targumim, that the nikud of וישכן (bereishis 3/24) was changed for anthropomorphic concerns, similar to Shadals point above with יראה which avoids the theological implication that we can perceive God.

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  7. You’re gonna need to commission a special reed ark for your soon to open exhibit that conforms with your pshat!

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  8. I can see a new DL ban from Rav Tau's beis midrash coming in the future. Maybe קנים had additional meaning back then and not just bird's nest? The descent doesn't stop, the shoes keep dropping and the future us bleak for RNS. Halmess eccentrism is evolving into kfirah.

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    1. So why do you keep reading? ; )

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    2. It's a fascinating to observe how a good blog and a good man have self-destroyed and descended from intellectual topics and eccentricity to an obsession.

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  9. Wikipedia states that the word gopher may be derived from the Assyrian word "giparu" which means reeds!
    https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gopher_wood

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    1. That's a better explanation than any I have seen so far. I wouldn't mind if R Slifkin would promote it to a note at the end of the post...

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  10. Am I missing something, dovecotes have many different compartments. Isn't the Torah saying to make "cages" as opposed to one big pen?

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    1. @rns I'm with anonymous on this. Isn't the simple meaning of קנים that the ark should be divided into 'cages' or 'small rooms' or 'sections'?

      קן might not be dovecote, but it is 'nest', no?
      As in divided the ark into nests for each creature...

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  11. This pshat is not bad at all, I actually really like it, but there is a reason why none of the commentators said it. As Avi noted above, that the Torah knows perfectly well how to talk about something made from two different materials (cf. Ex. 26:1), so why would the Torah say "make an ark of wood" followed by a separate command "make the ark of reeds"? On the other hand, the Torah uses different word for rooms in different places such as תא, or צלע, or יציע, so it is not so strange that is would use the word קן here. Also, the word קן is sometimes used as a לשון מושאל for non-bird dwellings such as וַיַּרְא֙ אֶת־הַקֵּינִ֔י וַיִּשָּׂ֥א מְשָׁל֖וֹ וַיֹּאמַ֑ר אֵיתָן֙ מֽוֹשָׁבֶ֔ךָ וְשִׂ֥ים בַּסֶּ֖לַע קִנֶּֽךָ׃.
    Also, when the Torah talks about making things elsewhere, it does not generally stick to the logical sequence you observed of materials, then dimensions, then structure. For example, וְעָשׂ֥וּ אֲר֖וֹן עֲצֵ֣י שִׁטִּ֑ים אַמָּתַ֨יִם וָחֵ֜צִי אׇרְכּ֗וֹ וְאַמָּ֤ה וָחֵ֙צִי֙ רׇחְבּ֔וֹ וְאַמָּ֥ה וָחֵ֖צִי קֹמָתֽוֹ׃  וְצִפִּיתָ֤ אֹתוֹ֙ זָהָ֣ב טָה֔וֹר מִבַּ֥יִת וּמִח֖וּץ תְּצַפֶּ֑נּוּ וְעָשִׂ֧יתָ עָלָ֛יו זֵ֥ר זָהָ֖ב סָבִֽיב׃. It is material, then dimensions, then another material.
    Or וְאֶת־הַמִּשְׁכָּ֥ן תַּעֲשֶׂ֖ה עֶ֣שֶׂר יְרִיעֹ֑ת שֵׁ֣שׁ מׇשְׁזָ֗ר וּתְכֵ֤לֶת וְאַרְגָּמָן֙ וְתֹלַ֣עַת שָׁנִ֔י כְּרֻבִ֛ים מַעֲשֵׂ֥ה חֹשֵׁ֖ב תַּעֲשֶׂ֥ה אֹתָֽם׃ באֹ֣רֶךְ ׀ הַיְרִיעָ֣ה הָֽאַחַ֗ת שְׁמֹנֶ֤ה וְעֶשְׂרִים֙ בָּֽאַמָּ֔ה וְרֹ֙חַב֙ אַרְבַּ֣ע בָּאַמָּ֔ה הַיְרִיעָ֖ה הָאֶחָ֑ת מִדָּ֥ה אַחַ֖ת לְכׇל־הַיְרִיעֹֽת׃. It is material, then design, then dimensions. Or all the descriptions of the Bais Hamikdash. So no particular reason to believe it is doing that here.

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  12. As much as I like the emendation, I would point out that your two analogies dont seem to be on point. You’re suggesting changing the nekudah to get yourself an altogether different word and by extension meaning to the pasuk, the two examples that you mention are just midrashic translations presumably based on rashi bringing them that may or may not be accurate in pshat, however no different than any other disagreement in how to render a phrases translation, which abound to no end amongst the torahs commentators. Changing the core word - as opposed to showing it’s been mistranslated - is an entirely different animal.

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  13. Ahh! classic biblical criticism . james kugel would be proud
    Where the gedolim right?

    YidPoshut

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  14. RNS makes great sense and fits in very well with the next portion of the sentence which writes to pitch it within and without. The Torah can not be understood unless Ancient Near East literature, myth, law codes, religion, and language are also studied. Rambam was doing some of that. ACJA

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  15. Qaneh Kuf nun hey, is a reed, It is almost obvious from the grammar and context that the Torah is writing to make ark with pitched reeds. ACJA

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  16. You still didn't answer your question - what was the ark made of? In other words, what is the identity of the hapax גֹּפֶר? It seems to go back to *gupr-, appearing related to Greek κυπάρισσος 'Cupressus sempervirens', which is also a loanword, perhaps from Anatolia. This is one of many Anatolian-area loanwords in the Noah story that would seem to situate the story in that area.

    So cypress. That's what the ark was made out of.

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  17. i don't understand why this needs to be regarded as an emendation of mesorah based on Babylonian sources. Why can't it be an alternative peirush on an oddity in mikra? Eilu v'eilu...?

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  18. yonah, agreed. No need to suggest "emendation" for this pshat, it's no worse than many other examples, like אלמנותיו meaning ארמנותיו (Radak, ישעיה יג כב).

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  19. Tourist industry at Mt. Ararat hardest hit.

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  20. Appreciation for posting this, especially in the face of the multitude of personal attack comments it would inevitably elicit.

    Thank you for the interesting content and for posting it despite the personal attacks that you doubtless anticipated would surely follow.

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  21. A kan in Hebrew is a nest, because birds use reeds to make nests.

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  22. Could the words Ahtze gopher kinim really intend that the ark be made out of a type of reed that was called gopher I.e. Gopher Reed wood ? Those reeds were then pitched inside and out. My novel translation would seem to be less consistent with the Tropes than the standard translation. If memory serves me, my translation would I think require a conjunctive on gopher while the mesorah has a disjunctive - is my recall correct ? ACJA

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  23. Check out https://www.jewishencyclopedia.com/articles/6808-gopher-wood great discussion. ACJA

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    1. Relevant quote: "The reading of the Masoretic text is correct, at least in the consonants. It is none the less certain that in course of time the Assyrian (whether first Hebraized "gefer" or "gofer") became obscure to the Hebrews. This might have necessitated the addition of an explicative clause with a Hebrew word as a substitute for , viz., . This, when the Hebrews had become familiar with the Phenician methods of ship-building, came by degrees to be considered as an absurdity, and was altered into , much against the usage of the Hebrew language and in violation of the most elementary rules of composition, yet seemingly quite in agreement with the early Jewish methods of emendation."

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  24. So the words seem out of place to our understanding. This happens all the time in learning Tanach, and our mesorah is we need to seek to understand what is written, not ch"v change words. Especially because the conventions of writing change by language and time period. So in the Chumash it is common to go on a slight tangent when a topic is introduced, and return to the original topic afterward. In English, this would be looked at as poor writing. But only a fool would change the Chumash to fit English sensibilities.

    This is especially egregious in this case because the difficulties with the new reading outweigh the difficulty of the old reading. Now instead of a few words out of place, we have a direct contradiction from one phrase to the next. Classic example of בנין נערים סתירה.

    And arguably, the third verse with ואל אמה תכלנה מלמעלה is also external structure. So the author's point is more that kinnim seems like more of a detail and not something that should be mentioned right away. The rebuttal to this is the entire point of the teivah was to provide kinnim for the various animals.

    And perhaps the teivah was constructed of conjoined kinnim/pods. In which case this is the first detail Noach would need. Now that would conflict with Midrashim that talk about fifty amah boards of the Teivah, but at least it wouldn't violate p'shuto shel mikrah.

    I have hakaras hatov to Slifkin for writing important works regarding Torah and Science, and I don't agree with the tactics used against him. But posts like this bear out the charge that he does not truly understand the Torah mesorah of what is or is not acceptable. By this method, the floodgates are open to anyone to change anything because of their personal preference.

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