Thursday, December 07, 2006

Of Visions, Angels and dislocated hips.

Rabbi Maroof post here brought to mind an interesting Rambam on the same verses at the end of last week’s Parsha and the one we will be reading this Shabbat.

Just before the story of Yaakov’s sending messengers to Eisav the Torah cryptically mentions the following:

ב וְיַעֲקֹב, הָלַךְ לְדַרְכּוֹ; וַיִּפְגְּעוּ-בוֹ, מַלְאֲכֵי אֱלֹהִים.
2 And Jacob went on his way, and the angels of God met him.
ג וַיֹּאמֶר יַעֲקֹב כַּאֲשֶׁר רָאָם, מַחֲנֵה אֱלֹהִים זֶה; וַיִּקְרָא שֵׁם-הַמָּקוֹם הַהוּא, מַחֲנָיִם. {פ}
3 And Jacob said when he saw them: 'This is God's camp.' And he called the name of that place Machanaim. {P}

Just before Yaakov meets his brother again an angel gets into the story:

כה וַיִּוָּתֵר יַעֲקֹב, לְבַדּוֹ; וַיֵּאָבֵק אִישׁ עִמּוֹ, עַד עֲלוֹת הַשָּׁחַר.
25 And Jacob was left alone; and there wrestled a man with him until the breaking of the day.
כו וַיַּרְא, כִּי לֹא יָכֹל לוֹ, וַיִּגַּע, בְּכַף-יְרֵכוֹ; וַתֵּקַע כַּף-יֶרֶךְ יַעֲקֹב, בְּהֵאָבְקוֹ עִמּוֹ.
26 And when he saw that he prevailed not against him, he touched the hollow of his thigh; and the hollow of Jacob's thigh was strained, as he wrestled with him.
כז וַיֹּאמֶר שַׁלְּחֵנִי, כִּי עָלָה הַשָּׁחַר; וַיֹּאמֶר לֹא אֲשַׁלֵּחֲךָ, כִּי אִם-בֵּרַכְתָּנִי.
27 And he said: 'Let me go, for the day breaks.' And he said: 'I will not let thee go, except thou bless me.'
כח וַיֹּאמֶר אֵלָיו, מַה-שְּׁמֶךָ; וַיֹּאמֶר, יַעֲקֹב.
28 And he said unto him: 'What is thy name?' And he said: 'Jacob.'
כט וַיֹּאמֶר, לֹא יַעֲקֹב יֵאָמֵר עוֹד שִׁמְךָ--כִּי, אִם-יִשְׂרָאֵל: כִּי-שָׂרִיתָ עִם-אֱלֹהִים וְעִם-אֲנָשִׁים, וַתּוּכָל.
29 And he said: 'Thy name shall be called no more Jacob, but Israel; for thou hast striven with God and with men, and hast prevailed.'
ל וַיִּשְׁאַל יַעֲקֹב, וַיֹּאמֶר הַגִּידָה-נָּא שְׁמֶךָ, וַיֹּאמֶר, לָמָּה זֶּה תִּשְׁאַל לִשְׁמִי; וַיְבָרֶךְ אֹתוֹ, שָׁם.
30 And Jacob asked him, and said: 'Tell me, I pray thee, thy name.' And he said: 'Wherefore is it that thou dost ask after my name?' And he blessed him there.
לא וַיִּקְרָא יַעֲקֹב שֵׁם הַמָּקוֹם, פְּנִיאֵל: כִּי-רָאִיתִי אֱלֹהִים פָּנִים אֶל-פָּנִים, וַתִּנָּצֵל נַפְשִׁי.
31 And Jacob called the name of the place Pniel: 'for I have seen God face to face, and my life is preserved.'

Rambam understands that this story is composed of two layers. The main story is that Yaakov met angels in a vision or dream. That vision came about while he was preparing himself for the meeting with Eisav which is the second story. His introspection about whether he was doing the right thing putting all these people, his family into danger, prompted this whole episode. When alone and tired after crossing the whole caravan across the river at Yabok, he had a vision where an angel reenacted the struggle with Eisav and though wounded, Yaakov prevailed.

Here is Rambam in MN 2:42:

The same, I hold, is the case when it is said in reference to Jacob, "And a man wrestled with him" (Gen. 22:25); this took place in a prophetic vision, since it is expressly stated in the end that it was an angel. The circumstances are here exactly the same as those in the vision of Abraham, where the general statement, "And the Lord appeared to him," etc., is followed by a detailed description. Similarly the account of the vision of Jacob begins, "And the angels of God met him" (Gen. 32:2); then follows a detailed description how it came to pass that they met him; namely, Jacob sent messengers, and after having prepared and done certain things, "he was left alone," etc., "and a man wrestled with him" By this term "man" [one of] the angels of God is meant, mentioned in the phrase, "And angels of God met him"; the wrestling and speaking was entirely a prophetic vision.”

If we were to retell the story according to this, we would begin with Yaakov’s preparation to meet Eisav and while resting he has a vision where a group of angels pass and one of them separated and struggled with Yaakov.

Abarbanel and Rabbeinu Avraham the son of Rambam have a problem with this interpretation. How can one call the same place Machanaim and Pniel at the same time and in the same vision? Rav Schwartz in his Yekev Ephraim explains that although in his vision when he first saw the angels he called the locale Machanaim, when he awoke he called it Pniel to reflect the central theme of the vision, God protecting him which is the meaning of seeing an angel face to face. Ramban takes the story a step further and explains that it is a metaphor for the almost total destructions of the Jews after the Romans put down the Bar Kochba revolt.

What is so interesting with the Ramban is the fact that he attacked Rambam’s understanding of the whole story being a vision. He is adamant that it happened in real life, how else can one explain Yaakov’s lameness, and at the same time he interprets the story as a metaphor.

Again Rav Schwartz in Yekev Ephraim has an interesting take on this. Yaakov dreamt about his fight with the angel and him being wounded on the hip. Next morning as he was moving on, he tripped and dislocated his hip. The dream was thus a foreboding of what happened next. He proves this because as he awoke he called the place Pniel, and only after leaving it did he become lame –
לב וַיִּזְרַח-לוֹ הַשֶּׁמֶשׁ, כַּאֲשֶׁר עָבַר אֶת-פְּנוּאֵל; וְהוּא צֹלֵעַ, עַל-יְרֵכוֹ.
32 And the sun rose upon him as he passed over Pniel, and he limped upon his thigh.

The fact that he had that foreboding signaled that there was some real significance in this happening. It was a metaphor that presaged some important event in his descendant’s lives. That also explains why the Gid Hanashe is forbidden to us. It is a reminder of that event and what it foretold.

When Ramban uses the Bar Kochba tragedy as the object of the metaphor, in my mind he is not talking about that specific tragedy. He sees that as the first tragedy during this current exile as a harbinger of all the future calamities that befell us starting then and culminating with the recent terrible holocaust of 1939- 1944.

Shabbat Shalom.


  1. Nice post. Could you tell us more about Rav Schwartz and his sefer Yekev Ephraim - I had never heard of it before.

  2. David, the Ralbag comments that it is not at all unusual for an event that occurs in a dream to have physical consequences, such as the dislocation of a hip. The power of psychosomatic forces cannot be underestimated!

    I'd also be interested in hearing more about Yekev Ephraim.

  3. I know the Ralbag and so does Abarbanel. I believe that it is a medieval belief.

    Rav Schwartz is a Rosh Kolel and a satmar chassidus background in Boro Park. He wrote Yekev Efraim 3 volumes (2 originally anfd the thoird just published) on Ramban. It is a fabulous sefer. The man is baki in Rambam and all his meforshim is in Ibn Ezra, Ramban and all the great medieval thinkers . He does a fantastic job explaining the kabbalistic Rambans. I was introduced to him by a reader of my blog since the Yamim Tovim and have relearned on shabbat many Rambans weekly with it and had a great time.

    Biegeleisen has the last volume in stock. I oprdered two copies of the older ones for a friend and my son but have not heard from them. I will check next week.

  4. Foe anyone who has not seen the Ralbag on this, it's quite fascinating. He goes quite a bit farther than calling it a psychosomatic reaction.

    Rather than summarize it, I've made it available for download here:

    I urge one and all to have a look.

  5. Thank you R. Dovid.

    Shabbos I was reading Yekev Ephraim on Lamah zeh tishe'al lishmi. He differentiates between Bechirat Habreirah and Bechirat Ha'hakarah vehahaskamah. I had not paid attention to that nuance though after looking at it I am sure i had seen it before in one of the medievals. It explained a few difficulties I had in MN especially MN 2:7. I will be using that in my next post.

    I need to get myself on Yousendit. It is great and had occasion to use it in the past.