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Friday, December 7, 2018

Light in Darkness #2 — BT Avodah Zarah 8a — #114

This is fine according to the one who said the world was created in Tishrei: he [i.e., Adam] saw the short days but had not yet seen the long days. But according to the one who said the world was created in Nisan, [Adam] had seen both short days and long days. He had not seen days as short as these [immediately preceding the winter solstice]. 
Our Rabbis taught [in a baraita]: On the day that the first man was created, when the sun set before him [for the first time] he said, “Woe is me! The world is becoming dark because I sinned, and it will return to chaos and void, and this is the death that heaven has decreed for me.” He undertook a fast and cried all night—and Eve cried along with him. When the dawn arrived, he said, “This is the natural course of the world.” He arose and sacrificed an ox whose horns preceded its hooves, as it is said, [My praise] will please Adonai more than oxen, [more] than bulls with horns and hooves (Psalm 69:32).

This passage is a continuation of TMT #113,  in which the Rabbis posited that midwinter festivals exist among all peoples, having originated in the experience of witnessing the days grow shorter prior to the winter solstice. They express this by envisioning Adam, the primordial human, terrified by the decrease in daylight which made him think the world was reverting to pre-Creation chaos and void. The scene imagined by the Rabbis presumes Adam had never before experienced the phenomenon of days grow shorter and subsequently growing longer.  The passage above picks up the discussion from there.

The Rabbis wonder: why was Adam so terrified? Had he never observed that day length waxes and wanes? The answer depends on how much of the year he had experienced by the time the first winter solstice arrived. In tractate Rosh Hashanah (10b-11a), we find a passage alluded to in the conversation above; there is a disagreement between R. Eliezer b. Hyrcanus, who claims the world was created in Tishrei (autumn, when Rosh Hashanah occurs) and R. Yehoshua b. Chananiah, who holds the world was created in Nisan (springtime, when Pesach occurs). If the world were created in Tishrei, the story in TMT #113 concerning Adam’s first winter makes sense: he observed the days shorten, but had never seen them lengthen—hence he feared that the days would continue to shorten until there were no more light. If, however, the world were created in Nisan, he had seen the days lengthen prior to the summer solstice and grow shorter afterward; as the winter solstice approached, he would have surmised that there is a natural cycle. Why then was he so terrified? The Gemara answers this implied question: Even assuming Adam were created in the springtime, he had never experienced days this short.

The Rabbis next introduce another story similar to the previous one in several ways. In this one, sunset on Adam’s very first day of life terrifies him. The enveloping darkness seems to him like death itself and he assumes it is heaven’s punishment for sins he has committed (the conclusion he drew in the first story) and further that the entire world is being destroyed and Creation itself is reverting to chaos and void (again, as in the first story). He therefore undertakes a fast and cries throughout the first night. Eve cries alongside. As in the first story, Adam realizes he is wrong—in this case, because the sun rises the following morning—and reasons that daily cycles of light and dark are the natural order of the world. In contrast to the first story, in which Adam institutes a festival in response to the relief he feels, in this case Adam makes a sacrifice to God in gratitude. 

The Talmud notes that the ox Adam sacrifices has the singular feature that its horns grew prior to (or, more likely, simultaneously with) its hooves. In the course of nature, an ox is born with hooves, but develops horns later as it grows. In the verse quoted, Psalm 69:32, the term for “horns” precedes the term for “hooves,” which may explain why the Talmud says “an ox whose horns preceded its hooves.” What is more, the verse refers to a shor-par: the term shor applies to the animal from the time it is born (before it has grown horns) but par refers to a bull after it has matured and grown horns. This seems to have suggested to the Rabbis that the ox Adam sacrificed was the primordial ox, created full-grown with both hooves and horns, just as Adam came into being a full grown adult. Hence, the story in TMT #113 part 1 and this story have a similar structure and numerous features in common: misapprehension of how the world operates, fear that Creation is being reversed, presumption that sin is driving the unsettling change in the world, fasting as a response to sin, the realization that there is a natural order, and a religious or spiritual response to the relief or gratitude felt upon gain a new understanding.

  1. How do the natural lengthening and shortening of days in the cycle of the year affect you? Are the Rabbis here suggesting that religion arises from universal human experiences of the natural world?
  2. Both stories portray Adam believing his sin caused disordered the physical universe (although he has violated no rules) and conceiving a ritual response to the experience of relief and gratitude. Do these stories undermine Jewish religious teachings that define sin as a violation of God’s commandments, and laudable religious praxis as adherence to God’s commandments? Or do they reinforce them as natural human proclivities that God constructively marshals?
  3. It is well understood by scholars that Genesis 1 and Genesis 2 are separate (and conflicting) creation stories despite the Rabbis’ attempts to reconcile them. The mention of Eve is curious: according to Genesis 2, Eve was brought into existence to compensate for Adam’s loneliness; hence she was not present on his first day. Why do you think the second baraita added the character of Eve? 

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