Shakespeare Electronic Conference, Vol. 7, No. 0447. Saturday, 15 June 1996.
Date: Friday, 14 Jun 1996 00:58:01 +0200 (IST)
Subject: Re: Shylock, Moses and the eagle, original versions
On June 6 Jacob Goldberg asked where in the Talmud one could find the following
story quoted by H. Sinsheimer in his book on Shylock.
"In the Talmud, there is a legend about Moses coming down from Sinai and seeing
an eagle carrying a lamb in its beak. In a rage, Moses upbraids the eagle for
being about to kill a fellow animal, just when he, Moses, had received the
commandment of God: Thou shalt not kill! The eagle drops its prey, but comes
down to Moses, asking him to feed its young himself. At this, the holy man
bares his breast and offers his own flesh to the bird of prey."
"Sefer HaAgadah" by Bialik and Ravnitzky, (Dvir (Hebrew), Tel Aviv, 3d edition
1948) is an indexed compendium of Talmudic tales metaphors and aphorisms, which
I have no reason to believe is not exhaustive. I looked up all the references
where "eagle" and "Moses" appeard on the same page and came up with nothing.
The tale is probably spurious, especially since a good deal the Law given to
the Moses deals with the regulation of animal sacrifice. The commandment
should read in English "Thou shalt not commit murder", rather than "Thou shalt
not kill". It seems that the translators of the King James Bible seem to have
taken great pains to maintain the number of words as close to the Hebrew
original as possible and even their order, presumably out of respect for its
sanctity. In the Hebrew the commandment is stated in a mere two words. (Such
restraints on the translation would justify using the best English wordsmiths
around - lending weight to the proposition that Shakespeare was on the team.)
The Book of Exodus gives the account of Moses' descent from Sinai. Moses was
enraged when he saw that the Children of Israel had contravened the injunction
against graven images, and a great deal of killing went on. When G-d thought
about destroying the stiff-necked nation Moses offered himself in their place:
"Erase me from your Book".
Quoting sources is a solid Rabbinic tradition going back 2000 years, as is
adherence to rules of derivation. Therefore I would suggest that Sinsheimer's
failure to supply tractate and page imply that there is none. On the other
hand, maybe it wasn't an eagle but some other bird. No one I have asked has
heard of the story but I will keep looking.
Incidentally, the reference to the Ten Commandments has relevance to the recent
discussion on Original Versions. Some of the members of the list may not be
aware that the Commandments appear twice in the Five Books: once in Exodus and
again in Deuteronomy. Now the very name of the fifth book gives witness to the
fact that it is a recapitulation for the Children of Israel before they enter
the Land of Canaan of their history and their wanderings in the wilderness. It
would therefore seem clear that the version of the Commandments in Exodus is
"original" and the that in Deuteronomy is the 40 year old memory of the 120
year old Moses, right? Wrong! The Rabbinic tradition is quite firm about both
versions having been uttered in the same breath at Sinai, and have equal and
congruent weight and significance.
To come down from the Heavenly Sublime to the earthly sublime, The early
version of Hamlet's "To be or not to be" soliloquy had, for me, a compelling
beauty of its own. Unfortunately, my archiving system has is such that I
wasn't able to find it among my Shaksper folders. Can someone remind what date
it was posted?