The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Some Remarks On Aristotle, Dante Alighieri, Immanuel of Rome, R. Moshe Botarel and Bertrand Russell

Available at the Seforim blog, courtesy of its editors.

Double Trouble

We recently discussed the the problem of ascertaining, in the context of Agunos, that one who claims to be a missing man, or to have information concerning him, is actually human and not a demonic impersonator. In this post, we discuss another intersection of the occult with the laws of Agunah – the problem of the doppelgänger.

One of the most important subtopics of this area of Halachah is the problem of the identification of cadavers. Broadly speaking, the Halachah recognizes two methods of accomplishing this: טביעת עין (recognition) and סימנים (characteristic features). The fundamental assumption underlying both these methods is that if the cadaver is not that of the missing man, then the similarity in appearance or features would be highly implausible. But what if the corpse is really that of the man’s doppelgänger?

In truth, the ardency, the enthusiasm, and the imperiousness of my disposition, soon rendered me a marked character among my schoolmates, and by slow, but natural gradations, gave me an ascendency over all not greatly older than myself; — over all with one single exception. This exception was found in the person of a scholar, who, although no relation, bore the same Christian and surname as myself; — a circumstance, in fact, little remarkable, for, notwithstanding a noble descent, mine was one of those every-day appellations which seem, by prescriptive right, to have been, time out of mind, the common property of the mob. In this narrative I have therefore designated myself as William Wilson — a fictitious title not very dissimilar to the real. My namesake alone, of those who in school phraseology constituted “our set,” presumed to compete with me in the studies of the class — in the sports and broils of the play-ground — to refuse implicit belief in my assertions, and submission to my will — indeed to interfere with my arbitrary dictation in any respect whatsoever. If there is on earth a supreme and unqualified despotism, it is the despotism of a master mind in boyhood over the less energetic spirits of its companions.

Wilson’s rebellion was to me a source of the greatest embarrassment; — the more so as, in spite of the bravado with which in public I made a point of treating him and his pretensions, I secretly felt that I feared him, and could not help thinking the equality which he maintained so easily with myself, a proof of his true superiority, since not to be overcome cost me a perpetual struggle. Yet this superiority — even this equality — was in truth acknowledged by no one but myself; our associates, by some unaccountable blindness, seemed not even to suspect it. Indeed, his competition, his resistance, and especially his impertinent and dogged interference with my purposes, were not more pointed than private. He appeared to be destitute alike of the ambition which urged, and of the passionate energy of mind which enabled me to excel. In his rivalry he might have been supposed actuated solely by a whimsical desire to thwart, astonish, or mortify myself; although there were times when I could not help observing, with a feeling made up of wonder, abasement, and pique, that he mingled with his injuries, his insults, or his contradictions, a certain most inappropriate, and assuredly most unwelcome affectionateness of manner. I could only conceive this singular behaviour to arise from a consummate self-conceit assuming the vulgar airs of patronage and protection.

Perhaps it was this latter trait in Wilson’s conduct, conjoined with our identity of name, and the mere accident of our having entered the school upon the same day, which set afloat the notion that we were brothers, among the senior classes in the academy. These do not usually inquire with much strictness into the affairs of their juniors. I have before said, or should have said, that Wilson was not, in the most remote degree, connected with my family. But assuredly if we had been brothers we must have been twins, for, after leaving Dr. Bransby’s, I casually learned that my namesake was born on the nineteenth of January, 1811 — a somewhat remarkable coincidence; for the day is precisely that of my own nativity. …

The feeling of vexation thus engendered grew stronger with every circumstance tending to show resemblance, moral or physical, between my rival and myself. I had not then discovered the remarkable fact that we were of the same age; but I saw that we were of the same height, and I perceived that we were not altogether unlike in general contour of person and outline of feature. I was galled, too, by the rumor touching a relationship which had grown current in the upper forms. In a word, nothing could more seriously disturb me, (although I scrupulously concealed such disturbance,) than any allusion to a similarity of mind, person, or condition existing between us. But, in truth, I had no reason to believe that (with the exception of the matter of relationship, and in the case of Wilson himself), this similarity had ever been made a subject of comment, or even observed at all by our schoolfellows. That he observed it in all its bearings, and as fixedly as I, was apparent, but that he could discover in such circumstances so fruitful a field of annoyance for myself can only be attributed, as I said before, to his more than ordinary penetration.

His cue, which was to perfect an imitation of myself, lay both in words and in actions; and most admirably did he play his part. My dress it was an easy matter to copy; my gait and general manner, were, without difficulty, appropriated; in spite of his constitutional defect, even my voice did not escape him. My louder tones were, of course, unattempted, but then the key, it was identical; and his singular whisper, it grew the very echo of my own.

How greatly this most exquisite portraiture harassed me, (for it could not justly be termed a caricature,) I will not now venture to describe. I had but one consolation — in the fact that the imitation, apparently, was noticed by myself alone, and that I had to endure only the knowing and strangely sarcastic smiles of my namesake himself. Satisfied with having produced in my bosom the intended effect, he seemed to chuckle in secret over the sting he had inflicted, and was characteristically disregardful of the public applause which the success of his witty endeavors might have so easily elicited. That the school, indeed, did not feel his design, perceive its accomplishment, and participate in his sneer, was, for many months, a riddle I could not resolve. Perhaps the gradation of his copy rendered it not so readily perceptible, or, more possibly, I owed my security to the masterly air of the copyist, who, disdaining the letter, which in a painting is all the obtuse can see, gave but the full spirit of his original for my individual contemplation and chagrin. …

It was upon a gloomy and tempestuous night of an early autumn, about the close of my fifth year at the school, and immediately after the altercation just mentioned, that, finding every one wrapped in sleep, I arose from bed, and, lamp in hand, stole through a wilderness of narrow passages from my own bedroom to that of my rival. I had been long plotting one of those ill-natured pieces of practical wit at his expense in which I had hitherto been so uniformly unsuccessful. It was my intention, now, to put my scheme in operation, and I resolved to make him feel the whole extent of the malice with which I was imbued. Having reached his closet, I noiselessly entered, leaving the lamp, with a shade over it, on the outside. I advanced a step, and listened to the sound of his tranquil breathing. Assured of his being asleep, I returned, took the light, and with it again approached the bed. Close curtains were around it, which, in the prosecution of my plan, I slowly and quietly withdrew, when the bright rays fell vividly upon the sleeper, and my eyes, at the same moment, upon his countenance. I looked, and a numbness, an iciness of feeling instantly pervaded my frame. My breast heaved, my knees tottered, my whole spirit became possessed with an objectless yet intolerable horror. Gasping for breath, I lowered the lamp in still nearer proximity to the face. Were these — these the lineaments of William Wilson? I saw, indeed, that they were his, but I shook as with a fit of the ague in fancying they were not. What was there about them to confound me in this manner? I gazed — while my brain reeled with a multitude of incoherent thoughts. Not thus he appeared — assuredly not thus — in the vivacity of his waking hours. The same name; the same contour of person; the same day of arrival at the academy! And then his dogged and meaningless imitation of my gait, my voice, my habits, and my manner! Was it, in truth, within the bounds of human possibility that what I now saw was the result of the habitual practice of this sarcastic imitation? Awe-stricken, and with a creeping shudder, I extinguished the lamp, passed silently from the chamber, and left, at once, the halls of that old academy, never to enter them again.

[Years later, our protagonist is at Oxford, where he has become a skilled and unscrupulous gambler:]

We had protracted our sitting far into the night, and I had at length effected the manoeuvre of getting Glendinning as my sole antagonist. The game, too, was my favorite écarté. The rest of the company, interested in the extent of our play, had abandoned their own cards, and were standing around us as spectators. The parvenu, who had been induced by my artifices in the early part of the evening to drink deeply, now shuffled, dealt, or played, with a wild nervousness of manner for which his intoxication, I thought, might partially, but could not altogether account. In a very short period he had become my debtor to a large amount, when, having taken a long draught of port, he did precisely what I had been coolly anticipating — he proposed to double our already extravagant stakes. With a well-feigned show of reluctance, and not until after my repeated refusal had seduced him into some angry words which gave a color of pique to my compliance, did I finally comply. The result, of course, did but prove how entirely the prey was in my toils; in less than a single hour he had quadrupled his debt. For some time his countenance had been losing the florid tinge lent it by the wine; but now, to my astonishment, I perceived that it had grown to a pallor truly fearful. I say to my astonishment. Glendinning had been represented to my eager inquiries as immeasurably wealthy; and the sums which he had as yet lost, although in themselves vast, could not, I supposed, very seriously annoy, much less so violently affect him. That he was overcome by the wine just swallowed, was the idea which most readily presented itself; and, rather with a view to the preservation of my own character in the eyes of my associates, than from any less interested motive, I was about to insist, peremptorily, upon a discontinuance of the play, when some expressions at my elbow from among the company, and an ejaculation evincing utter despair on the part of Glendinning, gave me to understand that I had effected his total ruin under circumstances which, rendering him an object for the pity of all, should have protected him from the ill offices even of a fiend.

What now might have been my conduct it is difficult to say. The pitiable condition of my dupe had thrown an air of embarrassed gloom over all; and, for some moments, a profound and unbroken silence was maintained, during which I could not help feeling my cheeks tingle with the many burning glances of scorn or reproach cast upon me by the less abandoned of the party. I will even own that an intolerable weight of anxiety was for a brief instant lifted from my bosom by the sudden and extraordinary interruption which ensued. The wide, heavy, folding doors of the apartment were all at once thrown open, to their full extent, with a vigorous and rushing impetuosity that extinguished, as if by magic, every candle in the room. Their light, in dying, enabled us just to perceive that a stranger had entered, of about my own height, and closely muffled in a cloak. The darkness, however, was now total; and we could only feel that he was standing in our midst. Before any one of us could recover from the extreme astonishment into which this rudeness had thrown all, we heard the voice of the intruder.

“Gentlemen,” he said, in a low, distinct, and never-to-be-forgotten whisper which thrilled to the very marrow of my bones, “Gentlemen, I make no apology for this behaviour, because in thus behaving I am but fulfilling a duty. You are, beyond doubt, uninformed of the true character of the person who has to-night won at écarté a large sum of money from Lord Glendinning. I will therefore put you upon an expeditious and decisive plan of obtaining this very necessary information. Please to examine, at your leisure, the inner linings of the cuff of his left sleeve, and the several little packages which may be found in the somewhat capacious pockets of his embroidered morning wrapper.”

While he spoke, so profound was the stillness that one might have heard a pin drop upon the floor. In ceasing, he at once departed, and as abruptly as he had entered. Can I — shall I describe my sensations? Must I say that I felt all the horrors of the damned? Most assuredly I had little time given for reflection. Many hands roughly seized me upon the spot, and lights were immediately reprocured. A search ensued. In the lining of my sleeve were found all of the court-cards essential in écarté, and, in the pockets of my wrapper, a number of packs, fac-similes of those used at our sittings, with the single exception that mine were of the species called, technically, arrondées; the honors being slightly convex at the ends, the lower cards slightly convex at the sides. In this disposition, the dupe who cuts, as customary, at the breadth of the pack, will invariably find that he cuts his antagonist an honor; while the gambler, cutting at the length, will, as certainly, cut nothing for his victim which may count in the records of the game.

Any outrageous burst of indignation upon this shameful discovery would have affected me less than the silent contempt, or the sarcastic composure with which it was received.

“Mr. Wilson,” said our host, stooping to remove from beneath his feet an exceedingly luxurious cloak of rare furs, “Mr. Wilson, this is your property.” (The weather was cold; and, upon quitting my own room, I had thrown a cloak over my dressing wrapper, putting it off upon reaching the scene of play.) “I presume it is supererogatory to seek here (eyeing the folds of the garment with a bitter smile), for any farther evidence of your skill. Indeed we have had enough. You will see the necessity, I hope, of quitting Oxford — at all events, of quitting, instantly, my chambers.”

Abased, humbled to the dust as I then was, it is probable that I should have resented this galling language by immediate personal violence, had not my whole attention been at the moment arrested, by a fact of the most startling character. The cloak which I had worn was of a rare description of fur; how rare, how extravagantly costly, I shall not venture to say. Its fashion, too, was of my own fantastic invention; for I was fastidious, to a degree of absurd coxcombry, in matters of this frivolous nature. When, therefore, Mr. Preston reached me that which he had picked up upon the floor, and near the folding doors of the apartment, it was with an astonishment nearly bordering upon terror, that I perceived my own already hanging on my arm, (where I had no doubt unwittingly placed it,) and that the one presented me was but its exact counterpart in every particular. The singular being who had so disastrously exposed me, had been muffled, I remembered, in a cloak; and none had been worn at all by any of the members of our party with the exception of myself. Retaining some presence of mind, I took the one offered me by Preston, placed it, unnoticed, over my own, left the apartment with a resolute scowl of defiance, and, next morning ere dawn of day, commenced a hurried journey from Oxford to the continent, in a perfect agony of horror and of shame.

I fled in vain. My evil destiny pursued me as if in exultation, and proved, indeed, that the exercise of its mysterious dominion had as yet only begun. Scarcely had I set foot in Paris ere I had fresh evidence of the detestable interest taken by this Wilson in my concerns. Years flew, while I experienced no relief. Villain! — at Rome, with how untimely, yet with how spectral an officiousness, stepped he in between me and my ambition! At Vienna, too, at Berlin, and at Moscow! Where, in truth, had I not bitter cause to curse him within my heart? From his inscrutable tyranny did I at length flee, panic-stricken, as from a pestilence; and to the very ends of the earth I fled in vain.

And again, and again, in secret communion with my own spirit, would I demand the questions “Who is he? — whence came he? — and what are his objects?” But no answer was there found. And now I scrutinized, with a minute scrutiny, the forms, and the methods, and the leading traits of his impertinent supervision. But even here there was very little upon which to base a conjecture. It was noticeable, indeed, that, in no one of the multiplied instances in which he had of late crossed my path, had he so crossed it except to frustrate those schemes, or to disturb those actions, which, fully carried out, might have resulted in bitter mischief. Poor justification this, in truth, for an authority so imperiously assumed! Poor indemnity for natural rights of self-agency so pertinaciously, so insultingly denied!

I had also been forced to notice that my tormentor, for a very long period of time, (while scrupulously and with miraculous dexterity maintaining his whim of an identity of apparel with myself,) had so contrived it, in the execution of his varied interference with my will, that I saw not, at any moment, the features of his face. Be Wilson what he might, this, at least, was but the veriest of affectation, or of folly. Could he, for an instant, have supposed that, in my admonisher at Eton — in the destroyer of my honor at Oxford — in him who thwarted my ambition at Rome, my revenge in Paris, my passionate love at Naples, or what he falsely termed my avarice in Egypt — that in this, my arch-enemy and evil genius, I could fail to recognise the William Wilson of my schoolboy days — the namesake, the companion, the rival, the hated and dreaded rival at Dr. Bransby’s? Impossible! — But let me hasten to the last eventful scene of the drama. …

It was at Rome, during the carnival of 18– , that I attended a masquerade in the palazzo of the Neapolitan Duke Di Broglio. I had indulged more freely than usual in the excesses of the wine-table; and now the suffocating atmosphere of the crowded rooms irritated me beyond endurance. The difficulty, too, of forcing my way through the mazes of the company contributed not a little to the ruffling of my temper; … At this moment I felt a light hand placed upon my shoulder, and that ever-remembered, low, damnable whisper within my ear.

In a perfect whirlwind of wrath, I turned at once upon him who had thus interrupted me, and seized him violently by the collar. He was attired, as I had expected, like myself; wearing a large Spanish cloak, and a mask of black silk which entirely covered his features.

“Scoundrel!” I said, in a voice husky with rage, while every syllable I uttered seemed as new fuel to my fury, “scoundrel! impostor! accursed villain! you shall not — you shall not dog me unto death! Follow me, or I stab you where you stand,” and I broke my way from the room into a small ante-chamber adjoining, dragging him unresistingly with me as I went.

Upon entering, I thrust him furiously from me. He staggered against the wall, while I closed the door with an oath, and commanded him to draw. He hesitated but for an instant; then, with a slight sigh, drew in silence, and put himself upon his defence.

The contest was brief indeed. I was frantic with every species of wild excitement, and felt within my single arm the energy and the power of a multitude. In a few seconds I forced him by sheer strength against the wainscoting, and thus, getting him at mercy, plunged my sword, with brute ferocity, repeatedly through and through his bosom.

At this instant some person tried the latch of the door. I hastened to prevent an intrusion, and then immediately returned to my dying antagonist. But what human language can adequately portray that astonishment, that horror which possessed me at the spectacle then presented to view? The brief moment in which I averted my eyes had been sufficient to produce, apparently, a material change in the arrangements at the upper or farther end of the room. A large mirror, (so at first it appeared to me in my confusion), now stood where none had been perceptible before; and, as I stepped up to it in extremity of terror, mine own image, but with features all pale and dabbled in blood, advanced, with a feeble and tottering gait, to meet me.

Thus it appeared, I say, but was not. It was my antagonist — it was Wilson, who then stood before me in the agonies of his dissolution. Not thread in all the raiment — not a line in all the marked and singular lineaments of that face which was not, even identically, mine own! His mask and cloak lay where he had thrown them, upon the floor.

It was Wilson; but he spoke no longer in a whisper; and I could have fancied that I myself was speaking while he said —

“You have conquered, and I yield. Yet henceforward art thou also dead — dead to the world and its hopes. In me didst thou exist — and, in my death, see by this image, which is thine own, how utterly thou hast murdered thyself.”1

The Gemara actually considers this possibility:

מתני’ אין מעידין אלא על פרצוף פנים עם החוטם אע”פ שיש סימנין בגופו ובכליו אין מעידין אלא עד שתצא נפשו ואפי’ ראוהו מגוייד וצלוב והחיה אוכלת בו אין מעידין אלא עד ג’ ימים ר’ יהודה בן בבא אומר לא כל האדם ולא כל המקום ולא כל השעות שוין: …

גמ’ … אע”פ שיש סימנין וכו’: למימרא דסימנין לאו דאורייתא ורמינהי מצאו קשור בכיס ובארנקי ובטבעת או שנמצא בין כליו אפילו לזמן מרובה כשר
אמר אביי לא קשיא הא רבי אליעזר בן מהבאי הא רבנן דתניא אין מעידין על השומא ר’ אליעזר בן מהבאי אומר מעידין מאי לאו בהא קמיפלגי דמר סבר סימנין דאורייתא ומר סבר סימנין דרבנן
אמר רבא דכולי עלמא סימנין דאורייתא הכא בשומא מצויה בבן גילו קמיפלגי מר סבר שומא מצויה בבן גילו ומר סבר אינה מצויה בבן גילו
ואיכא דאמרי הכא בשומא העשויה להשתנות לאחר מיתה קמיפלגי מר סבר עשויה להשתנות לאחר מיתה ומר סבר אינה עשויה להשתנות לאחר מיתה
ואיכא דאמרי אמר רבא דכולי עלמא סימנין דרבנן והכא בשומא סימן מובהק קא מיפלגי מר סבר סימן מובהק ומר סבר לאו סימן מובהק
ולהך לישנא דאמר רבא סימנין דאורייתא הא קתני אף על פי שיש סימנין בגופו ובכליו
גופו דארוך וגוץ כליו דחיישינן לשאלה
ואי חיישינן לשאלה חמור בסימני אוכף היכי מהדרינן
לא שיילי אינשי אוכפא דמסקיב ליה לחמרא
מצאו קשור בכיס ובארנקי ובטבעת היכי מהדרינן
טבעת חייש לזיופי כיס וארנקי מנחשי אינשי ולא מושלי
ואיבעית אימא כליו בחיורי וסומקי:2

It is not clear, however, whether normative Halachah accepts this concern over בן גילו and which specific methods of identification are called into question by it; on the one hand, Ra’avad suggests that any congenital deformation cannot be used for identification due to this concern:

בן גילו שנולדו שניהם ביום ובשעה אחת

ואני תמה על שאר ענינים הנולדים עם האדם כגון רגלו עקומה ויתר בידיו וברגליו שש ושש וכמה חידושין שנולדים עם האדם אם הם מצויים בבן גילו אם לא ומה הפרש בין השומא לשאר חידושין ולמה דברו על השומא יותר מכולן או שמא דברו עליה והוא הדין לכולם …3

But on the other hand, Rema, based on on a responsum of Rosh, rules unequivocally that such deformations are acceptable evidence of identity:

אבל היו להם בגופו סימנים מובהקים ביותר מעידין עליו:

הגה כגון שהיה לו יתר או חסר או שינוי באחד מאיבריו4

This contradiction is raised by Rav Moshe Zev of Byelostok, who initially suggests that the concern of בן גילו is non-normative, that even Ra’avad does not mean to cast aspersions on the reliability of identification via congenital deformation as a matter of practical Halachah, and that even if he does, we do not accept his view:

ואין מקום ליישב בזה כי אם על פי דרכינו דלעיל שהרי”ף והרמב”ם ז”ל פסקו לגמרי כלישנא בתרא דרבא דסימנים דרבנן וכו’ (וכמו שכתב הבית שמואל גם כן) ולפום האי לישנא מסקינן דלא חיישינן כלל למצויה בבן גילו אפילו בשומא אלא דהשומא מצד עצמה נמי אינה סימן מובהק מה שאין כן ביתרת

ואפשר דהראב”ד גופיה לא כתב כן כי אם בפשט ההלכה אליבא דלישנא קמא דרבא אבל לדינא גם הוא סובר כהרי”ף והרמב”ם …

ואפילו תימא שאין כן דעת הראב”ד ז”ל מכל מקום דברי הרי”ף והרמב”ם ז”ל יכריעו בזה לדינא כדעת הרא”ש ז”ל כמו שיתבאר בסמוך:5

Subsequently, however, he concludes that the entire concern of בן גילו is only with regard to סימנים אמצעים, but that סימנים מובהקים are powerful enough evidence to rule out the possibility:

וצריך לומר .. דדוקא בשומא דמצויה בהרבה בני אדם יש לחוש למצוי בבן גילו, אבל בסימן מובהק, כגון חסר או יתר בידיו, שאנו רואין בעין שאינו מצוי כי אם באחד מני אלף, עד שמפאת זה אנו חושבין זה לסימן מובהק, בודאי אין לחוש לבן גילו, שהרי אנו רואין שאינו מצוי כלל, ובהכרח לומר שאינו מצוי בבן גילו, שאם לא כן היה מצוי כנ”ל.6

שדוקא השומא שמצויה בהרבה בני אדם הוא יש לחוש לבן גילו אבל סימן מובהק כגון יתרת ושאר חדושים אשר עין בעין נראה שאינו מצוי כי אם באחד מני אלף או רבוא אנשים עד שמפאת זה אנו חושבים אותו לסימן מובהק אם כן היא גופא תכריע שאינה מצויה בבן גילו דאם לא כן היה לו להיות מצוי בעולם [ועיין שם שהאריך בזה]7

Ra’avad, on the other hand, maintains that our preconceptions about doppelgängers trump our empirical findings of the rarity of the סימן, and we follow the dictates of the former rather than the evidence of our lying eyes:

אולם דעת הראב”ד ז”ל יראה שהוא מפרש החשש של מצוי בבן גילו הוא זה שאף שלפי ראות עינינו יראה שהוא בגדר הסימנים על פי מה שאנו רואין שאינו מצוי בעולם מכל מקום אחר שאנו יודעים מדרך התולדה שיש לו להיות מצוי בבן גילו אין לנו לסמוך על מראות עינינו ואמרינן דודאי יש לו להיות מצוי בעולם אלא דאנן הוא דלא בקיאין ביה שפיר ולא ראינו אינו ראיה ואם כן גם ביתרת ושאר חדושים הבאין בתולדה יש לחוש לזה אף על פי שאין מצויין למראית העין [ועיין שם שהאריך עוד בזה]8

Le’Halachah, however, Rav Moshe Zev concludes that we are not concerned with בן גילו in the context of a סימן מובהק:

העולה מזה דיתרת בידיו או ברגליו ושאר חדושים הנולדים עם האדם להראב”ד ז”ל יש לחוש ומצוי בבן גילו ואף על פי שיראה למראית העין שאינו מצוי בעולם אבל דעת הרא”ש בתשובה דכל סימן מובהק שנראה לפי ראות עינינו שאינו מצוי בעולם אף על פי שבא בתולדה אין לחוש למצויה בבן גילו וכן פסק הרמ”א בהגה”ה דיתרת חשיב סימן מובהק

ואף על פי שהרמ”א לא ראה דברי הראב”ד שהובאו דבריו בספר שיטה מקובצת לבבא מציעא שלא היה בדפוס בימיו מכל מקום יש לסמוך על זה על פי דברי הרי”ף והרמב”ם שפסקו לגמרי כלישנא בתרא דרבא דסימנים דרבנן ולפום האי לישנא מסיק בש”ס דכולי עלמא שומא אינה מצויה בבן גילו וכל שכן שאר חדושים הנולדים.9

Rav Yosef Shaul Nathanson also maintains that בן גילו is only a concern when dealing with a סימן אמצעי, not a סימן מובהק:

דעד כאן לא חיישינן לזאת [ר”ל, דחיישינן למצוי בבן גילו] רק למאן דאמר סימנים דאורייתא ואם כן לא נצטרך לחדש דסימן מובהק הוה כעדים ורק דכל סימן הוה דאורייתא אף בסימן בינוני ואם כן ממילא שוב כל שיש לחוש שמצוי בבן גילו שוב גם סימן בינוני לא קחשיב דמצוי בבן גילו אבל לדידן דקיימא לן סימנים דרבנן אם כן על פנים מוכרחין אנו לחדש דסימן מובהק הוה כמו עדים ואם כן שוב אין לחוש ולא שייך לומר דאנן חוששין שמא סימנים דאורייתא ושוב חיישינן שמא מצוי בבן גילו דעד כאן לא חיישינן שמא מצוי בבן גילו היינו בשומא דלא הוה סימן מובהק .. ואינו רק סימן בינוני אם כן כל שמצוי בבן גילו שוב הוה סימן גרוע כחוורי וסומקי … וזה ברור לפע”ד10

I am somewhat puzzled by this view, particularly as explicated Rav Moshe Zev; it would seem that insofar as we reject the view of Ra’avad (as explained by Rav Moshe Zev) and accept the reliability of our empirical conclusion that the incidence of the סימן מובהק is exceedingly rare, the only way to reconcile this rarity with the (stipulated) fact that בני גיל share סימנים is by assuming that the very existence of a בן גיל itself is exceedingly rare! But if so, why are we ever concerned about the possibility of a בן גיל, even in the context of a סימן אמצעי?

But whichever סימנים are shared between בני גיל, they evidently, unlike a man and his doppelgänger, do not actually resemble each other to the point of indistinguishableness; this point is articulated by Rav Meir Eisenstädter (Maharam Ash (Imre Esh)):

ולפע”ד זהי דעת בעל העיטור שתמה עליו הבית יוסף במ”ש

ומסתברא דליכא סימן מובהק אחרינא בגופו אלא הכרת פנים כו’ ולא סמכינן על שום סימן אחר אלא אהכרת פנים וכו’

והקשה הבית יוסף דמשמע מלשון העיטור שאין שום סימן אפילו מובהק מהני והרי הוא עצמו כתב גבי גט דמהני נקב יש בו נקב בצד אות פלוני …

ואולי דעת העיטור כמ”ש (הרא”ש) [הראב”ד] הובא בספר שיטה מקובצת בבא מציעא … ונראה דזה דעת העיטור גם כן דאת”ל דפליגי בשומא מצויה בבן גילו הוא הדין לכל שאר החידושין הנולדים עם האדם שמצויים בבן גילו רק פרצוף פנים עם החוטם אף שגם הוא אינו רק כמו סימן מובהק מכל מקום אין לחוש שיהיה בן גילו דומה לו עד שאין הפרש כלל שזה מגדולתו של מלך מלכי המלכים שאין דומין לזה בהכרת פניהם והכי קאמר העיטור שאין שום סימן מובהק אחרינא בגופו דהיינו הנולדים עם האדם דומיא דהכרת פנים כי על הכל יש לחוש שמצוי בבן גילו אלא הכרת פנים בלבד אבל שנוים המתחדשים אחר כך כמו נקב יש בצד אות פלוני בגט מודה העיטור דמהני:11

Maharam Ash’s last line is another crucial limit on the resemblance between בני גיל: it only extends to congenital features, but not to those acquired afterward. This point is also made by Rav Yehezkel Landau (Noda Be’Yehudah)

הנה האמת אין דרכי כל כך לעיין בתשובות אחרונים ואף על פי כן הואיל והבית שמואל הביאו עיינתי דרך העברה בדברי המשאת בנימין וראיתי שכתב וגם הוא מבואר בהדיא שהרושם הזה בא לא על ידי שמתחלה היה לו שומא באותו מקום ונעקרה השומא ממקום מושבה ונעשה שם רושם קטן ההוא אם כן לא היה כח הרושם עדיף משומא דאתי מינה והשומא כולי עלמא סבירא ליה דלא הוי סימן מובהק והוא הדין רושם דאתי מינה עכ”ד המשאת בנימין.

ובעיני אין דמיונו עולה יפה דאי שומא אינו נחשב סימן מובהק לפי שמצויה בבן גילו הא ודאי שאין הדברים אמורים אלא בדבר שהוא בטבע האדם מצד התולדה או אף במקרה המתחדש בגופו מצד הגוף כמו שומא שגידולה העור שלא על פי סבה אמרינן בבן גילו שוה לו בתולדה אבל בדבר המתחדש על פי מעשה כמו מכה ורושם מחמת פצע וחבורה או אף מחמת שומא שנעקרה וכי בשביל שזה חיכך בהשומא או עשה שאר דברים ועקר השומא בכח גם בן גילו יעשה כן בודאי שאין זה דמיון כלל.

וז”ל הראב”ד … והרי שלא נסתפק אלא על מה שהוא מן הנולדים אם האדם אבל מה שמתחדש בגוף על ידי מעשה לא עלה על הדעת שיהיה מצוי בבן גילו. ואם כן לפי טעם זה ודאי שאין דברי המשאת בנימין נכונים.12

  1. Edgar Allan Poe, William Wilsonlink. []
  2. יבמות קכ.-: – קשר []
  3. שיטה מקובצת, בבא מציעא פרק שני כז: (בשם הראב”ד) ד”ה והכא בשומא, הובא בגליון רע”א אה”ע סימן י”ז סעיף כ”ד אות ל”א ובאוצר הפוסקים שם ס”ק קצ”א עמוד 260 []
  4. שלחן ערוך שם []
  5. שו”ת אגודת אזוב סימן י”ח אות ד’ – קשר, ועיין במראות הצובאות בפתיחה לסעיף כ”ד ד”ה (ג) הם סימנים המובהקים ביותר, והובאו דבריו באוצר הפוסקים שם []
  6. מראות הצובאות אות צ”ז []
  7. אגודת אזוב שם אות ה’, הובא באוצה”פ שם []
  8. אגודת אזוב שם אות ו []
  9. אגודת אזוב שם אות ז []
  10. שו”ת שואל ומשיב, מהדורא שתיתאי סימן ט”ו ד”ה והנה ע”ד, הובא באוצה”פ שם לוח הסימנים אות י”ז עמוד קמ”ו. ובעצם השאלה אם למעשה חוששים לבן גילו, הנה באמת לא נזכרה ענין של בן גילו כלל בשלחן ערוך, אולם כמה פוסקים אכן נקטו בדבריהם שקיים חשש זה, וכמו שהובאו דבריהם בדין השומא באוצה”פ ס”ק קפ”ט מאות ב’ (עמוד קי.) והלאה []
  11. שו”ת אמרי אש, חלק שני (אה”ע) סימן ט”ו ד”ה ולפע”ד – קשר, הובא באוצה”פ ס”ק קצ”א שם []
  12. שו”ת נודע ביהודה (ניו יורק תש”ך) קמא אה”ע סימן נ”א עמוד מה: ד”ה ומה שנכנס – קשר, הובא באוצה”פ ס”ק קצ”ח אות ב’ עמוד קמג:‏ []

Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

From the past week’s Parshah:

ה וַיֹּאמֶר מֹשֶׁה לְפַרְעֹה, הִתְפָּאֵר עָלַי, לְמָתַי אַעְתִּיר לְךָ וְלַעֲבָדֶיךָ וּלְעַמְּךָ, לְהַכְרִית הַצְפַרְדְּעִים מִמְּךָ וּמִבָּתֶּיךָ: רַק בַּיְאֹר, תִּשָּׁאַרְנָה. ו וַיֹּאמֶר, לְמָחָר; וַיֹּאמֶר, כִּדְבָרְךָ–לְמַעַן תֵּדַע, כִּי-אֵין כַּיקוָק אֱלֹקינוּ. ז וְסָרוּ הַצְפַרְדְּעִים, מִמְּךָ וּמִבָּתֶּיךָ, וּמֵעֲבָדֶיךָ, וּמֵעַמֶּךָ: רַק בַּיְאֹר, תִּשָּׁאַרְנָה. ח וַיֵּצֵא מֹשֶׁה וְאַהֲרֹן, מֵעִם פַּרְעֹה; וַיִּצְעַק מֹשֶׁה אֶל-יְקוָק, עַל-דְּבַר הַצְפַרְדְּעִים אֲשֶׁר-שָׂם לְפַרְעֹה. ט וַיַּעַשׂ יְקוָק, כִּדְבַר מֹשֶׁה; וַיָּמֻתוּ, הַצְפַרְדְּעִים, מִן-הַבָּתִּים מִן-הַחֲצֵרֹת, וּמִן-הַשָּׂדֹת.1

Rav Shmuel b. Hafni Gaon’s famous interpretation of Pharaoh’s seemingly perverse response to Moshe:

אמר רב שמואל בן חפני: אין מנהג האדם לבקש רק שיסור המכה ממנו מיד. וחשב פרעה כי מערכת כוכבי שמים הביאה הצפרדעים על מצרים ומשה היה יודע זה. וחשב פרעה כי עתה הגיע עת סור הצפרדעים ע”כ נסהו והאריך ואמר למחר.2

ידוע כי מנהג כל האדם לבקש שתסור רעתו מיד.

ופירשו בשם הגאון רב שמואל בן חפני: שפרעה חשב אולי מערכת השמים הביאה הצפרדעים על מצרים ומשה ידע כי הגיע עת סורם ולכן אמר אליו התפאר עלי בחשבו שאומר לו עתה להכריתם מיד, ועל כן האריך למחר.

והנכון בעיני כי בעבור שאמר למתי אעתיר לך, חשב פרעה כי ביקש זמן, ועל כן נתן לו זמן קצר, ויאמר למחר, ומשה ענה לו כדברך כן יהיה, כי אחרי שלא בקשת שיסורו מיד לא יסורו עד למחר:3

[See also The Torah Anthology (Yalkut Me’Am Loez)4 and [Artscroll’s] The Chumash (The Stone Edition).5]

A famous scene from Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court:

The door opened, and some men-at-arms appeared. The leader said:

“The stake is ready. Come!”

The stake! The strength went out of me, and I almost fell down. It is hard to get one’s breath at such a time, such lumps come into one’s throat, and such gaspings; but as soon as I could speak, I said:

“But this is a mistake—the execution is to-morrow.”

“Order changed; been set forward a day. Haste thee!”

I was lost. There was no help for me. I was dazed, stupefied; I had no command over myself, I only wandered purposely about, like one out of his mind; so the soldiers took hold of me, and pulled me along with them, out of the cell and along the maze of underground corridors, and finally into the fierce glare of daylight and the upper world. As we stepped into the vast enclosed court of the castle I got a shock; for the first thing I saw was the stake, standing in the center, and near it the piled fagots and a monk. On all four sides of the court the seated multitudes rose rank above rank, forming sloping terraces that were rich with color. The king and the queen sat in their thrones, the most conspicuous figures there, of course.

To note all this, occupied but a second. The next second Clarence had slipped from some place of concealment and was pouring news into my ear, his eyes beaming with triumph and gladness. He said:

“Tis through me the change was wrought! And main hard have I worked to do it, too. But when I revealed to them the calamity in store, and saw how mighty was the terror it did engender, then saw I also that this was the time to strike! Wherefore I diligently pretended, unto this and that and the other one, that your power against the sun could not reach its full until the morrow; and so if any would save the sun and the world, you must be slain to-day, while your enchantments are but in the weaving and lack potency. Odsbodikins, it was but a dull lie, a most indifferent invention, but you should have seen them seize it and swallow it, in the frenzy of their fright, as it were salvation sent from heaven; and all the while was I laughing in my sleeve the one moment, to see them so cheaply deceived, and glorifying God the next, that He was content to let the meanest of His creatures be His instrument to the saving of thy life. Ah how happy has the matter sped! You will not need to do the sun a real hurt—ah, forget not that, on your soul forget it not! Only make a little darkness—only the littlest little darkness, mind, and cease with that. It will be sufficient. They will see that I spoke falsely,—being ignorant, as they will fancy—and with the falling of the first shadow of that darkness you shall see them go mad with fear; and they will set you free and make you great! Go to thy triumph, now! But remember—ah, good friend, I implore thee remember my supplication, and do the blessed sun no hurt. For my sake, thy true friend.”

I choked out some words through my grief and misery; as much as to say I would spare the sun; for which the lad’s eyes paid me back with such deep and loving gratitude that I had not the heart to tell him his good-hearted foolishness had ruined me and sent me to my death.

As the soldiers assisted me across the court the stillness was so profound that if I had been blindfold I should have supposed I was in a solitude instead of walled in by four thousand people. There was not a movement perceptible in those masses of humanity; they were as rigid as stone images, and as pale; and dread sat upon every countenance. This hush continued while I was being chained to the stake; it still continued while the fagots were carefully and tediously piled about my ankles, my knees, my thighs, my body. Then there was a pause, and a deeper hush, if possible, and a man knelt down at my feet with a blazing torch; the multitude strained forward, gazing, and parting slightly from their seats without knowing it; the monk raised his hands above my head, and his eyes toward the blue sky, and began some words in Latin; in this attitude he droned on and on, a little while, and then stopped. I waited two or three moments; then looked up; he was standing there petrified. With a common impulse the multitude rose slowly up and stared into the sky. I followed their eyes, as sure as guns, there was my eclipse beginning! The life went boiling through my veins; I was a new man! The rim of black spread slowly into the sun’s disk, my heart beat higher and higher, and still the assemblage and the priest stared into the sky, motionless. I knew that this gaze would be turned upon me, next. When it was, I was ready. I was in one of the most grand attitudes I ever struck, with my arm stretched up pointing to the sun. It was a noble effect. You could see the shudder sweep the mass like a wave. Two shouts rang out, one close upon the heels of the other:

“Apply the torch!”

“I forbid it!”

The one was from Merlin, the other from the king. Merlin started from his place—to apply the torch himself, I judged. I said:

“Stay where you are. If any man moves—even the king—before I give him leave, I will blast him with thunder, I will consume him with lightnings!”

The multitude sank meekly into their seats, and I was just expecting they would. Merlin hesitated a moment or two, and I was on pins and needles during that little while. Then he sat down, and I took a good breath; for I knew I was master of the situation now. The king said:

“Be merciful, fair sir, and essay no further in this perilous matter, lest disaster follow. It was reported to us that your powers could not attain unto their full strength until the morrow; but—”

“Your Majesty thinks the report may have been a lie? It was a lie.”

That made an immense effect; up went appealing hands everywhere, and the king was assailed with a storm of supplications that I might be bought off at any price, and the calamity stayed. The king was eager to comply. He said:

“Name any terms, reverend sir, even to the halving of my kingdom; but banish this calamity, spare the sun!”

My fortune was made. I would have taken him up in a minute, but I couldn’t stop an eclipse; the thing was out of the question. So I asked time to consider. The king said:

“How long—ah, how long, good sir? Be merciful; look, it groweth darker, moment by moment. Prithee how long?”

“Not long. Half an hour—maybe an hour.”

There were a thousand pathetic protests, but I couldn’t shorten up any, for I couldn’t remember how long a total eclipse lasts. I was in a puzzled condition, anyway, and wanted to think. Something was wrong about that eclipse, and the fact was very unsettling. If this wasn’t the one I was after, how was I to tell whether this was the sixth century, or nothing but a dream? Dear me, if I could only prove it was the latter! Here was a glad new hope. If the boy was right about the date, and this was surely the 20th, it wasn’t the sixth century. I reached for the monk’s sleeve, in considerable excitement, and asked him what day of the month it was.

Hang him, he said it was the twenty-first ! It made me turn cold to hear him. I begged him not to make any mistake about it; but he was sure; he knew it was the 21st. So, that feather-headed boy had botched things again! The time of the day was right for the eclipse; I had seen that for myself, in the beginning, by the dial that was near by. Yes, I was in King Arthur’s court, and I might as well make the most out of it I could.

The darkness was steadily growing, the people becoming more and more distressed. I now said:

“I have reflected, Sir King. For a lesson, I will let this darkness proceed, and spread night in the world; but whether I blot out the sun for good, or restore it, shall rest with you. These are the terms, to wit: You shall remain king over all your dominions, and receive all the glories and honors that belong to the kingship; but you shall appoint me your perpetual minister and executive, and give me for my services one per cent of such actual increase of revenue over and above its present amount as I may succeed in creating for the state. If I can’t live on that, I sha’n’t ask anybody to give me a lift. Is it satisfactory?”

There was a prodigious roar of applause, and out of the midst of it the king’s voice rose, saying:

“Away with his bonds, and set him free! and do him homage, high and low, rich and poor, for he is become the king’s right hand, is clothed with power and authority, and his seat is upon the highest step of the throne! Now sweep away this creeping night, and bring the light and cheer again, that all the world may bless thee.”

But I said:

“That a common man should be shamed before the world, is nothing; but it were dishonor to the king if any that saw his minister naked should not also see him delivered from his shame. If I might ask that my clothes be brought again—”

“They are not meet,” the king broke in. “Fetch raiment of another sort; clothe him like a prince!”

My idea worked. I wanted to keep things as they were till the eclipse was total, otherwise they would be trying again to get me to dismiss the darkness, and of course I couldn’t do it. Sending for the clothes gained some delay, but not enough. So I had to make another excuse. I said it would be but natural if the king should change his mind and repent to some extent of what he had done under excitement; therefore I would let the darkness grow a while, and if at the end of a reasonable time the king had kept his mind the same, the darkness should be dismissed. Neither the king nor anybody else was satisfied with that arrangement, but I had to stick to my point.

It grew darker and darker and blacker and blacker, while I struggled with those awkward sixth-century clothes. It got to be pitch dark, at last, and the multitude groaned with horror to feel the cold uncanny night breezes fan through the place and see the stars come out and twinkle in the sky. At last the eclipse was total, and I was very glad of it, but everybody else was in misery; which was quite natural. I said:

“The king, by his silence, still stands to the terms.” Then I lifted up my hands—stood just so a moment—then I said, with the most awful solemnity: “Let the enchantment dissolve and pass harmless away!”

There was no response, for a moment, in that deep darkness and that graveyard hush. But when the silver rim of the sun pushed itself out, a moment or two later, the assemblage broke loose with a vast shout and came pouring down like a deluge to smother me with blessings and gratitude; and Clarence was not the last of the wash, to be sure.6

A less famous scene from H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines:

“Now ye have heard, chiefs,” said Infadoos, when he had done, “what say ye: will ye stand by this man and help him to his father’s throne, or will ye not? The land cries out against Twala, and the blood of the people flows like the waters in spring. Ye have seen to-night. Two other chiefs there were with whom I had it in my mind to speak, and where are they now? The hyænas howl over their corpses. Soon shall ye be as they are if ye strike not. Choose then, my brothers.”

The eldest of the six men, a short, thick-set warrior, with white hair, stepped forward a pace and answered—

“Thy words are true, Infadoos; the land cries out. My own brother is among those who died to-night; but this is a great matter, and the thing is hard to believe. How know we that if we lift our spears it may not be for a thief and a liar? It is a great matter, I say, of which none can see the end. For of this be sure, blood will flow in rivers before the deed is done; many will still cleave to the king, for men worship the sun that still shines bright in the heavens, rather than that which has not risen. These white men from the Stars, their magic is great, and Ignosi is under the cover of their wing. If he be indeed the rightful king, let them give us a sign, and let the people have a sign, that all may see. So shall men cleave to us, knowing of a truth that the white man’s magic is with them.”

“Ye have the sign of the snake,” I answered.

“My lord, it is not enough. The snake may have been placed there since the man’s childhood. Show us a sign, and it will suffice. But we will not move without a sign.”

The others gave a decided assent, and I turned in perplexity to Sir Henry and Good, and explained the situation.

“I think that I have it,” said Good exultingly; “ask them to give us a moment to think.”

I did so, and the chiefs withdrew. So soon as they had gone Good went to the little box where he kept his medicines, unlocked it, and took out a note-book, in the fly-leaves of which was an almanack. “Now look here, you fellows, isn’t to-morrow the 4th of June?” he said.

We had kept a careful note of the days, so were able to answer that it was.

“Very good; then here we have it—’4 June, total eclipse of the moon commences at 8.15 Greenwich time, visible in Teneriffe—South Africa, &c.’ There’s a sign for you. Tell them we will darken the moon to-morrow night.”

The idea was a splendid one; indeed, the only weak spot about it was a fear lest Good’s almanack might be incorrect. If we made a false prophecy on such a subject, our prestige would be gone for ever, and so would Ignosi’s chance of the throne of the Kukuanas.

“Suppose that the almanack is wrong,” suggested Sir Henry to Good, who was busily employed in working out something on a blank page of the book.

“I see no reason to suppose anything of the sort,” was his answer. “Eclipses always come up to time; at least that is my experience of them, and it especially states that this one will be visible in South Africa. I have worked out the reckonings as well as I can, without knowing our exact position; and I make out that the eclipse should begin here about ten o’clock tomorrow night, and last till half-past twelve. For an hour and a half or so there should be almost total darkness.”

“Well,” said Sir Henry, “I suppose we had better risk it.”

I acquiesced, though doubtfully, for eclipses are queer cattle to deal with—it might be a cloudy night, for instance, or our dates might be wrong—and sent Umbopa to summon the chiefs back. Presently they came, and I addressed them thus—

“Great men of the Kukuanas, and thou, Infadoos, listen. We love not to show our powers, for to do so is to interfere with the course of nature, and to plunge the world into fear and confusion. But since this matter is a great one, and as we are angered against the king because of the slaughter we have seen, and because of the act of the Isanusi Gagool, who would have put our friend Ignosi to death, we have determined to break a rule, and to give such a sign as all men may see. Come hither”; and I led them to the door of the hut and pointed to the red ball of the moon. “What see ye there?”

“We see the sinking moon,” answered the spokesman of the party.

“It is so. Now tell me, can any mortal man put out that moon before her hour of setting, and bring the curtain of black night down upon the land?”

The chief laughed a little at the question. “No, my lord, that no man can do. The moon is stronger than man who looks on her, nor can she vary in her courses.”

“Ye say so. Yet I tell you that to-morrow night, about two hours before midnight, we will cause the moon to be eaten up for a space of an hour and half an hour. Yes, deep darkness shall cover the earth, and it shall be for a sign that Ignosi is indeed king of the Kukuanas. If we do this thing, will ye be satisfied?”

“Yea, my lords,” answered the old chief with a smile, which was reflected on the faces of his companions; “if ye do this thing, we will be satisfied indeed.”

“It shall be done; we three, Incubu, Bougwan, and Macumazahn, have said it, and it shall be done. Dost thou hear, Infadoos?”

“I hear, my lord, but it is a wonderful thing that ye promise, to put out the moon, the mother of the world, when she is at her full.”

“Yet shall we do it, Infadoos.”

“It is well, my lords. To-day, two hours after sunset, Twala will send for my lords to witness the girls dance, and one hour after the dance begins the girl whom Twala thinks the fairest shall be killed by Scragga, the king’s son, as a sacrifice to the Silent Ones, who sit and keep watch by the mountains yonder,” and he pointed towards the three strange-looking peaks where Solomon’s road was supposed to end. “Then let my lords darken the moon, and save the maiden’s life, and the people will believe indeed.”

“Ay,” said the old chief, still smiling a little, “the people will believe indeed.”

“Two miles from Loo,” went on Infadoos, “there is a hill curved like a new moon, a stronghold, where my regiment, and three other regiments which these chiefs command, are stationed. This morning we will make a plan whereby two or three other regiments may be moved there also. Then, if in truth my lords can darken the moon, in the darkness I will take my lords by the hand and lead them out of Loo to this place, where they shall be safe, and thence we can make war upon Twala the king.”

“It is good,” said I. “Let leave us to sleep awhile and to make ready our magic.” …

“Stop!” I shouted boldly, though at the moment my heart was in my boots. “Stop! we, the white men from the Stars, say that it shall not be. Come but one pace nearer, and we will put out the moon like a wind-blown lamp, as we who dwell in her House can do, and plunge the land in darkness. Dare to disobey, and ye shall taste of our magic.”

My threat produced an effect; the men halted, and Scragga stood still before us, his spear lifted.

“Hear him! hear him!” piped Gagool; “hear the liar who says that he will put out the moon like a lamp. Let him do it, and the girl shall be speared. Yes, let him do it, or die by the girl, he and those with him.”

I glanced up at the moon despairingly, and now to my intense joy and relief saw that we—or rather the almanack—had made no mistake. On the edge of the great orb lay a faint rim of shadow, while a smoky hue grew and gathered upon its bright surface. Never shall I forget that supreme, that superb moment of relief.

Then I lifted my hand solemnly towards the sky, an example which Sir Henry and Good followed, and quoted a line or two from the “Ingoldsby Legends” at it in the most impressive tones that I could command. Sir Henry followed suit with a verse out of the Old Testament, and something about Balbus building a wall, in Latin, whilst Good addressed the Queen of Night in a volume of the most classical bad language which he could think of.

Slowly the penumbra, the shadow of a shadow, crept on over the bright surface, and as it crept I heard deep gasps of fear rising from the multitude around.

“Look, O king!” I cried; “look, Gagool! Look, chiefs and people and women, and see if the white men from the Stars keep their word, or if they be but empty liars!

“The moon grows black before your eyes; soon there will be darkness—ay, darkness in the hour of the full moon. Ye have asked for a sign; it is given to you. Grow dark, O Moon! withdraw thy light, thou pure and holy One; bring the proud heart of usurping murderers to the dust, and eat up the world with shadows.”

A groan of terror burst from the onlookers. Some stood petrified with dread, others threw themselves upon their knees and cried aloud. As for the king, he sat still and turned pale beneath his dusky skin. Only Gagool kept her courage.

“It will pass,” she cried; “I have often seen the like before; no man can put out the moon; lose not heart; sit still—the shadow will pass.”

“Wait, and ye shall see,” I replied, hopping with excitement. “O Moon! Moon! Moon! wherefore art thou so cold and fickle?” This appropriate quotation was from the pages of a popular romance that I chanced to have read recently, though now I come to think of it, it was ungrateful of me to abuse the Lady of the Heavens, who was showing herself to be the truest of friends to us, however she may have behaved to the impassioned lover in the novel. Then I added: “Keep it up, Good, I can’t remember any more poetry. Curse away, there’s a good fellow.”

Good responded nobly to this tax upon his inventive faculties. Never before had I the faintest conception of the breadth and depth and height of a naval officer’s objurgatory powers. For ten minutes he went on in several languages without stopping, and he scarcely ever repeated himself.

Meanwhile the dark ring crept on, while all that great assembly fixed their eyes upon the sky and stared and stared in fascinated silence. Strange and unholy shadows encroached upon the moonlight, an ominous quiet filled the place. Everything grew still as death. Slowly and in the midst of this most solemn silence the minutes sped away, and while they sped the full moon passed deeper and deeper into the shadow of the earth, as the inky segment of its circle slid in awful majesty across the lunar craters. The great pale orb seemed to draw near and to grow in size. She turned a coppery hue, then that portion of her surface which was unobscured as yet grew grey and ashen, and at length, as totality approached, her mountains and her plains were to be seen glowing luridly through a crimson gloom.

On, yet on, crept the ring of darkness; it was now more than half across the blood-red orb. The air grew thick, and still more deeply tinged with dusky crimson. On, yet on, till we could scarcely see the fierce faces of the group before us. No sound rose now from the spectators, and at last Good stopped swearing.

“The moon is dying—the white wizards have killed the moon,” yelled the prince Scragga at last. “We shall all perish in the dark,” and animated by fear or fury, or by both, he lifted his spear and drove it with all his force at Sir Henry’s breast. But he forgot the mail shirts that the king had given us, and which we wore beneath our clothing. The steel rebounded harmless, and before he could repeat the blow Curtis had snatched the spear from his hand and sent it straight through him.

Scragga dropped dead.

At the sight, and driven mad with fear of the gathering darkness, and of the unholy shadow which, as they believed, was swallowing the moon, the companies of girls broke up in wild confusion, and ran screeching for the gateways. Nor did the panic stop there. The king himself, followed by his guards, some of the chiefs, and Gagool, who hobbled away after them with marvellous alacrity, fled for the huts, so that in another minute we ourselves, the would-be victim Foulata, Infadoos, and most of the chiefs who had interviewed us on the previous night, were left alone upon the scene, together with the dead body of Scragga, Twala’s son.

“Chiefs,” I said, “we have given you the sign. If ye are satisfied, let us fly swiftly to the place of which ye spoke. The charm cannot now be stopped. It will work for an hour and the half of an hour. Let us cover ourselves in the darkness.”

“Come,” said Infadoos, turning to go, an example which was followed by the awed captains, ourselves, and the girl Foulata, whom Good took by the arm.

Before we reached the gate of the kraal the moon went out utterly, and from every quarter of the firmament the stars rushed forth into the inky sky.

Holding each other by the hand we stumbled on through the darkness.7

This plot device is also apparently at the heart of the Tintin adventure Prisoners of the Sun:

Finally, Tintin, Haddock, and Zorrino come upon the Temple of the Sun—and stumble right into a group of Inca who have survived until modern-day times. They are brought before the noble Prince of the Sun; on the left stands Chiquito, on the right stands Huascar, the mysterious Indian Tintin encountered in Jauga. Zorrino is saved from harm when Tintin gives him Huascar’s medallion, but Tintin and Haddock are sentenced to death for their sacrilegious intrusion. The Inca prince tells them they may choose the hour that the Sun himself will set alight the pyre for which they are destined.

Tintin and Haddock end up on the same pyre as Professor Calculus. Tintin has, however, chosen the hour of their death to coincide with a solar eclipse, and the terrified Inca believe Tintin can command Pachacamac, their god, the Sun. The Inca prince implores Tintin to make the Sun show his light again. At Tintin’s command, the Sun obeys, and the three are quickly set free.

Incredibly, these accounts are apparently based on a true story:

By the time Christopher Columbus sailed westward in 1492, navigators were already using hefty volumes containing astronomical tables to guide them across unknown seas. These books often included detailed instructions for manipulating navigational instruments and for computing geographical positions from celestial observations.

Columbus himself probably carried copies of two invaluable books. The “perpetual almanac” prepared by Abraham Zacuto contained more than 300 pages of astronomical tables that had already contributed to such navigational feats as Vasco da Gama’s famous expedition from Portugal around the tip of Africa to India. The second volume, called the Ephemerides, had been produced by the prominent German astronomer and mathematician Johannes Müller, who went by the Latin name Regiomontanus.

The astronomical tables that Columbus consulted during his voyage proved useful for determining latitude and, to some degree, longitude. A prediction contained in the tables probably saved his life at a crucial moment during his fourth voyage to the lands he had discovered.

Nearly 2 years after sailing from Cadiz in 1502, Columbus and his restless, disgruntled crew were stranded on the north coast of Jamaica, confined to worm-eaten, leaking ships. The native inhabitants were no longer awed by the newcomers. Annoyed by their voracious appetites and angry at the depredations of crew members, who had plundered several villages, the population was hostile and would no longer supply food.

Weary and ill, Columbus had withdrawn to his ship. There, he pondered his precarious situation. Returning to the stained pages of the Ephemerides, he noted Regiomontanus’s prediction of a total eclipse of the moon on Feb. 29, 1504.

Such an eclipse occurs only when the moon passes into Earth’s shadow. A lunar eclipse looks the same anywhere on Earth, but it occurs at different times, as measured by local clocks. Regiomontanus’s book contained not only the expected dates of eclipses but also diagrams illustrating how completely the moon would be covered and precise information about each eclipse’s duration and timing down to the hour.

Columbus had observed a lunar eclipse on an earlier voyage and had noticed discrepancies between the predictions made by Zacuto and those contained in the Ephemerides. Moreover, he had no reliable way of determining the correct local time of this particular projected eclipse. The times provided by Regiomontanus for its start and end were for Nuremberg, Germany.

Despite these uncertainties, Columbus was desperate enough to take a chance. On the day before the predicted eclipse, he summoned the leaders of the native inhabitants and warned them through an interpreter that if they did not cooperate with him, the moon would disappear from the sky on the following night.

The natives for the most part were unimpressed; some even laughed. Columbus nervously awaited the outcome of his gamble. Could he rely on tables that had been compiled several decades earlier and that predicted the positions of celestial bodies only for the years between 1475 and 1506? How large were the errors?

Amazingly, the prediction proved correct. As the full moon rose in the east on the appointed night, Earth’s shadow was already biting into its face. As the moon rose higher, the shadow became larger and more distinct until it completely obscured the moon, leaving nothing but a faint red disk in the sky.

The natives were sufficiently frightened by this unexpected occurrence and by Columbus’s uncanny prediction to beg forgiveness and appeal to him to restore their moon to the sky. Columbus responded that he wished to consult with his deity. He retired to his quarters, using a half-hour sandglass to time how long the eclipse would last. Some time later, when the eclipse had reached totality, he emerged to announce that the moon, in answer to his prayers, would gradually return to its normal brightness.

The next day, the natives brought food and did all they could to please Columbus and his crew. Columbus himself used the timing of the eclipse to calculate his ship’s longitude, but his answer proved wildly erroneous.

On June 29, 1504, a Spanish ship rescued Columbus’s stranded party, a year after it had beached on the Jamaican coast. A few months later, Columbus set sail for Spain, bringing to an end his voyages to the New World.

The success of Columbus’s strategem was a tribute to the accuracy of the calculations and predictions made by Regiomontanus, based on Ptolemy’s Earth-centered model of the solar system.

Such a dramatic episode didn’t escape the attention of novelists, who later used eclipse occurrences in a similar way to further their own plots. You’ll find the device in H. Rider Haggard’s King Solomon’s Mines, Mark Twain’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, and even in Hergé’s Tintin adventure Prisoners of the Sun.

In some cases, the event is a solar rather than a lunar eclipse. And the details of the eclipse aren’t always astronomically correct, especially in the movie versions of the books.

But it worked for Columbus.

[In Jewish circles, of course, R. Avraham Zacuto (Abraão ben Samuel Zacuto) is better known for his authorship of the ספר יוחסין. See also our discussion of the rationalistic Jewish and Islamic perspective on the predictability of eclipses.]

  1. שמות ח:ה-ט – קשר []
  2. אבן עזרא שם – קשר []
  3. רמב”ן שם – קשר []
  4. Volume 4 – Exodus I p. 195. []
  5. One volume travel size edition, p. 330. []
  6. Mark Twain, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, Chapter 6 – link. []
  7. H. Rider Haggard, King Solomon’s Mines, Chapter XI – link. []