The Observant Astronomer

The passing scene as observed by an observant Jew, who daylights as an astronomer.

Monday, December 26, 2005

Yehudah's Precocious Progeny

According to the simple reading, the story of Yehudah and Tamar takes place after Yoseph is sold down the river. Twenty-two years later, the Bnei Israel follow him down to Egypt. In those twenty-two years, the following events take place, more or less sequentially.

1. Yehudah marries Bat-Shua.
2. She bears three sons: Er, Onan, and Shelah.
3. Er grows up and marries Tamar.
4. Er dies.
5. Onan marries Tamar, and dies.
6. Some time passes while Tamar waits for Shelah to grow up. Meanwhile, Bat-Shua dies and Yehudah is consoled.
7. Eventually Tamar realizes that, while Shelah is now old enough to marry her, Yehudah has no intention of giving him to her, or vice versa. So, she arranges to "meet" Yehudah at the crossroad.
8. Peretz and Zerach are born 7 months later.
9. Peretz grows up.
10. Peretz fathers Hezron and Hamul.
11. They all go to Egypt.

The chronology here is difficult. In a period of 22 years, there has to be time for two generations (Er/Onan/Shelah and Peretz) to grow to marriageable age and father children. At maximum, they could be 11, but they must have been younger than this.

Lets be as generous as possible. Assume all pregnancies last seven months and Bat-Shua becomes pregnant again immediately after giving birth. Then there are two years for step 2. We know Peretz and Zerach are premature, and lets assume Hezron and Hamul were also, and twins to boot, so this is another ~14 months. Now assume the "many days" in Bereishit 38:12 is another year, so there are 18 years available for both Shelah and Peretz to grow up. Split it between them and they are, at most, 9 years old. Let Shelah be a more reasonable 13, and Peretz was 5 when he went down to Egypt with his two sons.

Lets look at this from another angle. How old were Er and Onan when they were punished by Hashem? According to the reasoning above they couldn't have been older than Shelah. But, according to Rashi at the beginning of Chayei Sarah, one is not liable to punishment until the age of twenty! So, 14 months for Er and Onan to be born, 20 years for Onan to be liable to punishment, 7 months for Peretz to be born, and the 22 years are used up before Peretz is out of diapers.

So, ignore the simple meaning of 38:1, and perhaps Yehudah got married before Yoseph was sold. At that time Yehudah was about 21. (He's Leah's fourth son, and Yoseph was born 7 years after his parent married, so Yehudah can't be more than about 4 years older.) They'd been back in Canaan for 11 years at this point (17 years less the 6 years Jacob worked for the sheep). Now Yehudah was 10 when they left Lavan, so give him a couple of years to grow up and marry and we have still have Peretz fathering children at 9 or younger.

If we put aside that Rashi, and assume marriages and punishment at 13, and premature babies, then I think things can be squeezed into the 33 years:
Yehudah to reach 13 and marry: 3 years
Three sons born: 2 years
Shelah to grow up: 13 years
Tamar denied Shelah: 1 year
Tamar's pregnancy: 7 months
Peretz to grow: 13 years
Fathers premature twins: 7 months
Total: 33 years, 2 months
but it remains difficult. And, anyway, how would Rashi reconcile it?

Tuesday, December 20, 2005

פך שמן (A jar of oil)

"So", I was asked in shul the other day, "just how big is a cruse?"

We all know that the Maccabees found one jar of undefiled menorah oil when they searched the Temple. It was just enough for one day, but it miraculously lasted for eight. I always envisioned it was some tiny bottle, misplaced in the rubble, but was that the case? The answer appears to be given in Mishnah Menachot 9:3. (Also in the Bavli, appropriately on דף פח (yes, I know the spelling is פך (and, oddly, there it is the 3rd Mishnah in Chapter 10. But I digress. Deeply.))):
ושלושה ומחצה למנורה, מחצי לוג לכל נר
So, three-and-a-half log was the daily quantity for the menorah. A log is roughly a pint, so that "little" jar was just under two quarts (or liters). Now this was presumably a tightly sealed earthenware jar, so what we have here is the earthenware equivalent of a two-liter pop bottle. Not so little, after all.

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Hashem echath

This evening I was discussing with some others the halacha regarding keriah shema that one is to ensure that the final dalet in "echad" is not pronounced as a "reish". One way to look at this is just as an orthographic caution lest the similarity between the two letters lead one to proclaim "Hashem acher" (Hashem is other) rather than one.

But I got to speculating about another interpretation of this law, especially in conjunction with the adjacent halachah that one is to draw out the dalet even longer than the preceeding chet. On the face of it, this seems strange. To draw out a fricative like a chet is easy, but how do you draw out a stop like a dalet? Further, we are warned not to pronounce it like a dalet with a dagesh.

So, as I said, I got to wondering. Is it possible that in ancient Hebrew an undageshed dalet was a fricative in the same way as beis-veis, pay-fay, kaf-chaf, and tav-sav? If so, then presumably it was a voiced dental fricative, perhaps /th/ as in "then". In such case, the tongue placement isn't so far off that of reish, and it might actually have been a practical mistake in pronunciation they were warning against, not just orthographic confusion. Similarly, the warning against pronouncing it with a dagesh makes more sense.

There is probably nothing new in this suggestion. After all, dalet is one of the six בגדכפ״ת letters, of which four still have the stop/fricative variants indicated by a dagesh. If gimmel and dalet were once similar, then we have three voiced/unvoiced pairs of such letters: the labials beis and pay, the dentals dalet and tav, and the gutterals gimmel and kaf.

Monday, December 05, 2005

Opposite perspectives

What does it say about the difference between frum American Jews and Israelis that the former use tissues for toilet paper, and the latter use toilet paper for tissues?