June 2, 2024
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Ephraim Miksha’a, Rabbi Meir’s Student: Bava Metzia 87

On Bava Metzia 87a, we encounter Ephraim Miksha’a. The meaning of Miksha’a is unclear —Rashi explains it as a seller of gourds or one who questioned halachot. Regardless, this Ephraim quotes his teacher, Rabbi Meir, to explain why Avraham didn’t serve his angelic guests the food he had promised. After all, in Bereishit 18, Avraham had promised them פַת־לֶ֜חֶם, a morsel of bread, and instructed Sarah מַהֲרִ֞י שְׁלֹ֤שׁ סְאִים֙ קֶ֣מַח סֹ֔לֶת ל֖וּשִׁי וַעֲשִׂ֥י עֻגֽוֹת, to knead the flour and make cakes. Then, he serves them חֶמְאָ֜ה וְחָלָ֗ב וּבֶן־הַבָּקָר֙, but no cakes are mentioned. Ephraim Maksha’a relates the now-famous midrash that Avraham’s practice was to consume even non-sacred food in a state of ritual purity, and as a first step to regaining her youth, Sarah was פירסה נדה, thus rendering the food impure.

A recurring theme in this column is that midrashic authors don’t randomly make up midrashic details. Often there is a hidden derasha (message) that we can discover if we read the text carefully enough and know enough about Hebrew grammar. Aside from simple problem-solving to address this difficulty, and knowledge that Sarah regained her youth, I believe that the hidden derasha is in a verse interpreted elsewhere and otherwise on the daf. Namely, when Sarah laughed, she said אַחֲרֵ֤י בְלֹתִי֙, after I’ve waxed old, הָֽיְתָה־לִּ֣י עֶדְנָ֔ה, am I to have enjoyment, וַֽאדֹנִ֖י זָקֵֽן, with my husband so old? As Rav Chisda explains it, בְלֹתִי֙ refers to skin wearing out with wrinkles and עֶדְנָ֔ה refers to נתעדן הבשר, the flesh becoming soft again, such that the only issue is Avraham’s age. For Ephraim Miksha’a, I’d interpret the pasuk thus: בְלֹתִי֙ refers to mixing something, as in the famous principle of Rabbi Zeira, כׇּל הָרָאוּי לְבִילָּה — אֵין בִּילָּה מְעַכֶּבֶת בּוֹ. Meanwhile עֶדְנָ֔ה is like the Aramaic word עִידָּנָא, meaning a period or a time. Thus, after she mixed the flour with water as per Avraham’s request, הָֽיְתָה־לִּ֣י עֶדְנָ֔ה, she became a niddah, so the only problem would be Avraham’s advanced age.

 

Other Appearances

Ephraim Miksha’a also appears in Sanhedrin 39b, where he quotes Rabbi Meir that the prophet Ovadia, who prophesied to Edom, was an Edomite convert. As the folk-saying goes, “from and within the forest comes the ax,” meaning that the wooden ax handle enables the cutting down of trees.

In Midrash Tanchuma (Buber, Vayeshev 17) and Bereishit Rabba, Ephraim Miksha’a again quotes Rabbi Meir as to why Tamar, having been accused of impropriety by becoming pregnant while waiting for Sheilah, was sentenced to death by burning before she sent proof to Yehuda who stopped the execution. He explains that she was the daughter of Shem, who was a Kohen, thus she incurred the penalty for a bat kohen shezinta of Vayikra 21:9. (As the Ramban points out, this doesn’t really work, as Tamar was unmarried.)

The common thread in these three midrashim seems to be identity providing a basis for actions. Thus, אַבְרָהָם אָבִינוּ אוֹכֵל חֻלָיו בְּטָהֳרָה הָיָה, עֹבַדְיָה גֵּר אֲדוֹמִי הָיָה and תָּמָר בִּתּוֹ שֶׁל שֵׁם הָיְתָה. I don’t doubt that Rabbi Meir came up with these midrashim, but perhaps this particular student in aggadah gravitated towards this type of midrash and repeated them. For Tamar and Avraham, another theme is retrojecting halachot, whether biblical or chumra, onto patriarchal times.

 

Yeshiva Guy Says Over a Vort

Tangentially, this idea that Avraham / the shevatim kept the entire Torah, even as far as this pious practice not required biblically or even rabbinically, is not universally adopted by Chazal. Thus, on Yoma 28b, first-generation Rav maintained that Avraham kept the entire Torah. His third-generation grandson, Rav Shimi bar Ashi, objects with a prooftext that Avraham just kept the Noachide laws, but Rav responds. Finally, Rav, or more likely first-generation Rav Asi (not the printed Ashi) of Hutzal states that he kept even Rabbinic ordinances such as eruv tavshilin. We find in Midrash Rabba (e.g. Midrash Mishlei 31:5) the idea of progressive application of commandments (six to Adam, then ever min hachai to Noach, brit milah to Avraham, Yitzchak trained with these eight, Yaakov with gid hanasheh, Yehuda with yibum, and finally Yisrael with the full 613) though that might not preclude the optional keeping of future commandments.

Back in 2010, Krum as a Bagel posted a video titled “Yeshiva Guy Says Over a Vort,”1 which was created with the new video creation platform XtraNormal. You could insert animated characters, such as a dog and bear, into a scene and they would pronounce text in a somewhat mechanical voice. It did poorly on imitating the Yeshivish, but the transcript is approximately this, with Yeshiva Guy and his Friend:

Yeshiva Guy: Can I say over a vort that I heard by my rebbe’s house last Shabbos?

Friend: Sure.

Yeshiva Guy: The pasuk says that Yaakov gave Esav bread and lentil stew. Esav only asked for lentils. Why did Yaakov give him bread as well?

Friend: Um … because … lentil stew tastes good with bread?

Yeshiva Guy: <pause, shakes his head> No. The Gemara brings down a machlokes about whether the correct bracha on lentils is shehakol or mezonos. The best way to avoid any problems is to wash on bread. Therefore, Yaakov gave Esav the bread, so he would wash and not worry about which bracha to make.

Friend: I must be hallucinating, but I could swear that Yaakov knew about a Gemara in maseches Brachos.

YG: What’s the problem? The Sages tell us that the Avos knew and kept kol haTorah kulah (the entire Torah).

Friend: You’re telling me that Yaakov observed all the mitzvos in the Torah?

Yeshiva Guy: Of course.

Friend: The Torah commands us to shake a lulav and esrog on Sukkos. Did Yaakov shake a lulav and esrog on Sukkos?

Yeshiva Guy: Of course.

Friend: The Torah commands us to remember what Amalek did to the Israelites in the desert. Did Yaakov fulfill that command as well?

Yeshiva Guy: Of course. Yaakov knew the future and therefore knew that Amalek would attack the Israelites in the desert.

Friend: OK, even if he did, how can Yaakov remember something that didn’t happen yet? Did he have some sort of time-space bending machine?

Yeshiva Guy: In fact, I have a great vort about whether Yaakov said zecher or zeicher when he leined Parshas Zachor. Do you want to hear it?

Friend: Please, please, no. I’m afraid that might induce some sort of stroke… The Torah commands us to write a separate Torah. Did Yaakov observe that commandment?

Yeshiva Guy: Of course.

Friend: So why didn’t he just take out his Sefer Torah and read it to find out that his son Yosef was alive and avoid all that heartache? Better yet, why didn’t he break up the plot of the brothers before they tried to kill Yosef? Did he forget what he wrote or was he just playing along? When God commanded Yaakov not to eat from the gid hanasheh, why didn’t Yaakov tell God, “Hey, I know that! It says so right in the Torah I wrote! Do you think I am some sort of idiot?” OK, let’s make believe that none of these problems exist, and in fact, Yaakov, with the help of his space-time bending machine kept all the commandments in the Torah.

Yeshiva Guy: I’m glad you came around.

Friend: The commandment to wash one’s hands before bread was instituted by the rabbis centuries after the giving of the Torah as a safeguard against eating terumah while ritually impure. Why would Yaakov follow a safeguard instituted by the rabbis?

Yeshiva Guy: The Sages tell us that the avos kept even rabbinic commandments.

Friend: Did the avos wear crocs on Tisha B’Av?

Yeshiva Guy: No. Rav Elyashiv said that crocs are too comfortable.

Friend: If Yaakov knew the entire Torah, why didn’t he know the correct bracha for lentils? Why didn’t he know which of the two opinions in Maseches Brachos was correct? Do you know that there are many Rishonim who believe that the avos did not observe the entire Torah?

Yeshiva Guy: Did they all go to YU? They must not be part of our masorah.

Friend: Is it your masorah to only pick the most fantastic, irrational sources from the vastness of Jewish tradition and call everything else kefirah (heresy)?

Yeshiva Guy: Sounds about right.

This clever, funny and irreverent video sparked quite a reaction back in the day, especially since the lentil dvar Torah was attributed to Rav Chaim Kanievsky. Krum as a Bagel wrote an explanation on Hirhurim2 about how it was a critique of uncritical acceptance of the maximalist position, taken to an extreme. We may more carefully consider this in a later column. For now, let’s realize that even different Amoraim may have different attitudes towards peshat, derash and history, and that there’s a hidden depth and literary sensitivity to these midrashim that most readers miss.


Rabbi Dr. Joshua Waxman teaches computer science at Stern College for Women, and his research includes programmatically finding scholars and scholastic relationships in the Babylonian Talmud.

 

1 https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8MG9YtaZXg

2 https://www.torahmusings.com/2010/11/response-to-bears-avos-and-mitzvos/

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