Wednesday, July 21, 2004

Yeshivish Jewish History

Z is an older guy, who is easy to like. We go to the same chumash shiur. For some reason, the discussion turned to Rashi's interpretation of the word "chamushim" in the beginning of parshas b'shalach. Though Rashi gives several translations for the word "chamushim," the only one everyone remembers is "one fifth" as in "one fifth of Israel left Egypt, the rest died during the plague of darkness."

I suppose I should have kept my mouth shut, but I didn't yet write for a blog. In retrospect, I could have countered with the other explanations Rashi provides, but instead I went with a doubly obscure Ibn Ezra (why doubly obscure? Well, first because it is the Ibn Ezra, after all, and second because this particular comment does not appear in the Mikraot Gedolot. When I went looking for it, I discovered it's in another version of the Ibn Ezras chumash commentary)

Anyway, regarding chamushim=one fifth, the Ibn Ezra begins by saying (as he often does) "if this is a midrash we'll accept it" and then delivers a laundry list of arguments against the midrash. In this case, among other things, he didn't like the math, he didn't like the idea that 3 million Jewish men could die during the plague without this small fact being recorded in the Torah, and he thought it was odd that the Jews would have been so, well, joyfull at the Exodus if 4/5 of their community had recently been annihilated.

When I finished recounting the Ibn Ezra, Z looked at me and said (I swear I am not making this up) "Wow. How does the Ibn Ezra learn Rashi?"

I swear I was so shell shocked I almost fell off my chair.

Luckily, the Rabbi leading the shiur kept his wits about him, and gently let Z, an alum of the very best Brooklyn yeshivot, in on the little-known facts that (1) the Ibn Ezra was dead before Rashi was a glimmer in his mother's eye (2) they were both Rishonim, and (3) the whole chamushim=one fifth wasn't Rashi's idea anyway. It is a midrash.

Now if only I could get the Rabbi to stop saying "Evan Ezra."