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. []

On Beauty

[With apologies to Zadie Smith.]

Introducing Smallpox

For all those worrying about Shidduchim, love, or life in general, just remember – it could always be worse. At least we’ve eradicated smallpox; ironically, this most monstrous of God’s creations is the only disease that we’ve managed to eradicate:

Smallpox is believed to have emerged in human populations about 10,000 BC. The disease killed an estimated 400,000 Europeans per year during the closing years of the 18th century (including five monarchs), and was responsible for a third of all blindness. Of all those infected, 20–60%—and over 80% of infected children—died from the disease.

During the 20th century, it is estimated that smallpox was responsible for 300–500 million deaths. In the early 1950s an estimated 50 million cases of smallpox occurred in the world each year. As recently as 1967, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimated that 15 million people contracted the disease and that two million died in that year. After successful vaccination campaigns throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, the WHO certified the eradication of smallpox in December 1979. To this day, smallpox is the only human infectious disease to have been eradicated.1

Indeed, the triumph over this ghastly demon is such a noble accomplishment, that Rav Yisrael Lipschütz singled out Edward Jenner as one of the most praiseworthy of gentiles for his pioneering work on smallpox vaccination:

[אנחנו] רואים כמה מחסידיהן שמלבד שמכירין יוצר בראשית, ומאמינין בתורה הקדושה שהיא אלקית, ועושין גמילת חסדים גם לישראל, וכמה מהן שהטיבו ביותר לכל באי עולם, כהחסיד יענער שהמציא הפאקקענאימפפונג, שעל ידה ניצולים כמה רבבות בני אדם מחולי וממיתה וממומין2

[This remarkable passage, which I intend to discuss more fully in a future post, בג”ה, was first brought to my attention several years ago by a letter to the editor published in Hamodia, if I recall correctly.]

Now that these cheerful introductions have been made, we move on to the primary themes of this post: Halachah, ethics, decency, love, beauty, and constancy,

Halachah, Ethics and Decency

An issue that I find most fascinating is the intersection between Halachah, morality and decency. I recently encountered a classic example of this intersection in a brief responsum of Rav Yisrael Yehoshua Trunk of Kutna. He was asked about a woman who had contracted ‘the disease of the pox’ (probably smallpox) three months after her engagement, and as an effect of the disease, her face had become “wrinkled”, and she became “repulsive in the eyes of the fiancé, who does not wish to marry her”. The Rav of Kutna begins by ruling that as a matter of law, the man is perfectly entitled to break the engagement, without financial penalty, but he then insists that as a matter of “מוסר ויראה” this is wrong, and makes an eloquent and stirring plea to the man (and his parents) to not be faithless toward the completely innocent and blameless girl with whom he has entered into a covenant, and to not humiliate her by breaking the engagement. Notwithstanding the Talmudic dictum that אין אשה אלא ליופי, he reminds them of the even more ancient (and better known) Biblical admonition that שקר החן והבל היופי, and assures them that he will merit children who are “proper and fearful of sin” if his intention shall be לשם מצוה:

בדבר השאלה בבחור ובתולה שנשדכו ואחר שלשה חדשים חלתה הכלה מחלת הפאקען ועבור זה נעשה פניה קמטים ונמאסת בעיני החתן ואינו רוצה לנשאה,

וצד הכלה תובעין חצי נדן קנס דנסתחפה שדהו וגם רוצים שימתין עוד כי הרופאים מגידים שתתרפא,

הנה כבר מבואר בתשובת מהרי”ק שורש ק”א דבשידוכין לבד לא שייך נסתחפה שדהו לפי שלא זכה בה בשום ענין ואינו אלא כשנים שנשבעו לעשות ד”א לכן אין טענת צד הכלה כלום אם הוא מום דקפדי אינשי, גם הטענה שימתין עוד על הספק אינה טענה

אמנם זה אם החתן אומר יקוב הדין את ההר אמנם על פי המוסר ויראה אינו נכון לעשות כזאת אחר אשר בא עמה בברית והיא לא פשעה נגדו בשום דבר אין ראוי לבגוד בה ולבייש אותה על לא חמס בכפיה ולא עשתה שום עול נגדו

ואם חלתה עד אשר נשחת יפיה הנה הבל היופי ושקר החן וראוי לו ליקח את מקחו לשם שמים ובודאי יהיו לו בנים הגונים ויראי חטא אם יהא כוונתו לשם מצווה

ואל יהיה קל בעיני החתן ואביו ואמו בושת בתולת ישראל וראוי להם לדבר על לב בנם להתפייס בה ויערב לו מקחו והיה זה שלום:

נאום הדו”ש ישראל יהושע חופ”ק קוטנא.3

Love and Beauty

This reminds me of a passage in Radak’s Commentary to Genesis. He notes that Ya’akov apparently falls in love with Rahel (at first sight) due to her great beauty, and wonders why righteous men, whose goal in marriage is procreation, and not lust, should care about such things:

וללבן, ספר זה בתחלה בעבור מה שעתיד לספר באהבת יעקב את רחל, ושעבד בעבורה שבע שנים, כי לא היה עובד מה שעבד בעבור לאה אלא שרמה לו לבן:

ועיני לאה רכות, יפה תואר היתה אלא שעיניה היו רכות ודומעות, אבל רחל היתה יפת תאר ויפת מראה בלא שום מום. ותאר הוא על צורת הפנים ושאר האברים וקומות הגוף, ומראה על הבשר שהיה לבן ואדום והשער שחור:

אעבדך שבע שנים ברחל … ויש לשאול אחר שכוונת הצדיקים לאשה לזרע, למה היו מחזירים אחר אשה יפה כיון שאין כוונתם לתאוה, ויעקב אבינו בחר ברחל לפי שהיתה יפה מאד ועבד בה שבע שנים והתרעם בלבן אחר שנתן לו לאה תמורתה לפי שלא היתה יפה כמו רחל?

ויש לומר כי כונתם לטובה לפי שהאשה יפה מעוררת התאוה, וכדי להרבות בנים היתה כוונתם לעורר תאותם, ועוד כדי שיהיו הבנים והבנות יפה מראה ויהיו דומים להם, ועוד כי צורה הנאה משמחת לב האדם כל שכן הצורה שתהיה לפניו תמיד שתהיה שמחתו בה תמידי, וצריך שיהיה האדם שמח בעולמו ובחלקו שנתן לו הקל, כי האלקים מענה בשמחת האדם ומזמין לצדיק אשה יפה כמו שעשה לאבות ולשאר צדיקים שיהיו שמחים בחלקם ומולידים בנים כמותם:4

[Incidentally, Radak’s somewhat dogmatic insistence that the feminine beauty ideal is red and white skin and black hair is fairly common among the medieval Sephardim; see my discussion in Wine, Women and Song: Some Remarks On Poetry and Grammar – Part III.]

Similarly, Ralbag:

והנה היו ללבן שתי בנות ולא בחר יעקב בגדולה לפי שעיניה היו רכות ודומעות והוא חולי מה. ובחר בקטנה כדי שיהיה הזרע שיהיה לו ממנה יותר בריא ויותר שלם. מצורף לזה שהיא היתה יפת תואר ויפת מראה.5

התועלת העשירי הוא במדות. והוא שראוי לאדם שיבחר באשה שלמת היצירה. כי הזרע שיהיה לו ממנה יהיה יותר בריא ויותר שלם. ולזה לא בחר יעקב בלאה כי היו עיניה דומעות תמיד והוא חולי מה. ובחר ברחל שהיתה יפת תואר ויפת מראה. עם שיהיה זה סבה שתשקוט תאותו בה ולא יהרהר באשה אחרת.6

It seems to me, though, that as we say in Yeshivah: the קשיא is better than the תירוצים …

All this is also reminiscent of this remarkable biographical tidbit about Rabbeinu Tam, recorded for posterity in the name of Maharil:

אמר שמעידין על ר”ת כשהיה רוצה ללמוד תמצית מהלכה חמורה היה נותן לפניו תל של זהובים לשמוח בהן ונתרחב לבו ולמד בכח.7

Constancy

Returning to the situation discussed by the Rav of Kutna, we close this post with excerpts of a famous novelistic account of a lover (and an unprofessed one, at that) who remains faithful to his beloved even after she has been disfigured, also apparently by smallpox:

CHAPTER XXXV—Esther’s Narrative

I lay ill through several weeks, and the usual tenor of my life became like an old remembrance. But this was not the effect of time so much as of the change in all my habits made by the helplessness and inaction of a sick–room. Before I had been confined to it many days, everything else seemed to have retired into a remote distance where there was little or no separation between the various stages of my life which had been really divided by years. In falling ill, I seemed to have crossed a dark lake and to have left all my experiences, mingled together by the great distance, on the healthy shore. …

By and by my strength began to be restored. Instead of lying, with so strange a calmness, watching what was done for me, as if it were done for some one else whom I was quietly sorry for, I helped it a little, and so on to a little more and much more, until I became useful to myself, and interested, and attached to life again. …

First I complimented Charley on the room, and indeed it was so fresh and airy, so spotless and neat, that I could scarce believe I had been lying there so long. This delighted Charley, and her face was brighter than before.

“Yet, Charley,” said I, looking round, “I miss something, surely, that I am accustomed to?”

Poor little Charley looked round too and pretended to shake her head as if there were nothing absent.

“Are the pictures all as they used to be?” I asked her.

“Every one of them, miss,” said Charley.

“And the furniture, Charley?”

“Except where I have moved it about to make more room, miss.”

“And yet,” said I, “I miss some familiar object. Ah, I know what it is, Charley! It’s the looking–glass.”

Charley got up from the table, making as if she had forgotten something, and went into the next room; and I heard her sob there.

I had thought of this very often. I was now certain of it. I could thank God that it was not a shock to me now. I called Charley back, and when she came—at first pretending to smile, but as she drew nearer to me, looking grieved—I took her in my arms and said, “It matters very little, Charley. I hope I can do without my old face very well.”

I was presently so far advanced as to be able to sit up in a great chair and even giddily to walk into the adjoining room, leaning on Charley. The mirror was gone from its usual place in that room too, but what I had to bear was none the harder to bear for that. …

And now I must part with the little secret I have thus far tried to keep. I had thought, sometimes, that Mr. Woodcourt loved me and that if he had been richer he would perhaps have told me that he loved me before he went away. I had thought, sometimes, that if he had done so, I should have been glad of it. But how much better it was now that this had never happened! What should I have suffered if I had had to write to him and tell him that the poor face he had known as mine was quite gone from me and that I freely released him from his bondage to one whom he had never seen!

Oh, it was so much better as it was! With a great pang mercifully spared me, I could take back to my heart my childish prayer to be all he had so brightly shown himself; and there was nothing to be undone: no chain for me to break or for him to drag; and I could go, please God, my lowly way along the path of duty, and he could go his nobler way upon its broader road; and though we were apart upon the journey, I might aspire to meet him, unselfishly, innocently, better far than he had thought me when I found some favour in his eyes, at the journey’s end.8

For I had not yet looked in the glass and had never asked to have my own restored to me. I knew this to be a weakness which must be overcome, but I had always said to myself that I would begin afresh when I got to where I now was. Therefore I had wanted to be alone, and therefore I said, now alone, in my own room, “Esther, if you are to be happy, if you are to have any right to pray to be true–hearted, you must keep your word, my dear.” I was quite resolved to keep it, but I sat down for a little while first to reflect upon all my blessings. And then I said my prayers and thought a little more.

My hair had not been cut off, though it had been in danger more than once. It was long and thick. I let it down, and shook it out, and went up to the glass upon the dressing–table. There was a little muslin curtain drawn across it. I drew it back and stood for a moment looking through such a veil of my own hair that I could see nothing else. Then I put my hair aside and looked at the reflection in the mirror, encouraged by seeing how placidly it looked at me. I was very much changed—oh, very, very much. At first my face was so strange to me that I think I should have put my hands before it and started back but for the encouragement I have mentioned. Very soon it became more familiar, and then I knew the extent of the alteration in it better than I had done at first. It was not like what I had expected, but I had expected nothing definite, and I dare say anything definite would have surprised me.

I had never been a beauty and had never thought myself one, but I had been very different from this. It was all gone now. Heaven was so good to me that I could let it go with a few not bitter tears and could stand there arranging my hair for the night quite thankfully.

One thing troubled me, and I considered it for a long time before I went to sleep. I had kept Mr. Woodcourt’s flowers. When they were withered I had dried them and put them in a book that I was fond of. Nobody knew this, not even Ada. I was doubtful whether I had a right to preserve what he had sent to one so different—whether it was generous towards him to do it. I wished to be generous to him, even in the secret depths of my heart, which he would never know, because I could have loved him—could have been devoted to him. At last I came to the conclusion that I might keep them if I treasured them only as a remembrance of what was irrevocably past and gone, never to be looked back on any more, in any other light. I hope this may not seem trivial. I was very much in earnest.9

We were standing by the opened window looking down into the street when Mr. Woodcourt spoke to me. I learned in a moment that he loved me. I learned in a moment that my scarred face was all unchanged to him. I learned in a moment that what I had thought was pity and compassion was devoted, generous, faithful love. Oh, too late to know it now, too late, too late. That was the first ungrateful thought I had. Too late.

“When I returned,” he told me, “when I came back, no richer than when I went away, and found you newly risen from a sick bed, yet so inspired by sweet consideration for others and so free from a selfish thought—”

“Oh, Mr. Woodcourt, forbear, forbear!” I entreated him. “I do not deserve your high praise. I had many selfish thoughts at that time, many!”

“Heaven knows, beloved of my life,” said he, “that my praise is not a lover’s praise, but the truth. You do not know what all around you see in Esther Summerson, how many hearts she touches and awakens, what sacred admiration and what love she wins.”

“Oh, Mr. Woodcourt,” cried I, “it is a great thing to win love, it is a great thing to win love! I am proud of it, and honoured by it; and the hearing of it causes me to shed these tears of mingled joy and sorrow—joy that I have won it, sorrow that I have not deserved it better; but I am not free to think of yours.”

I said it with a stronger heart, for when he praised me thus and when I heard his voice thrill with his belief that what he said was true, I aspired to be more worthy of it. It was not too late for that. Although I closed this unforeseen page in my life to–night, I could be worthier of it all through my life. And it was a comfort to me, and an impulse to me, and I felt a dignity rise up within me that was derived from him when I thought so.

He broke the silence.

“I should poorly show the trust that I have in the dear one who will evermore be as dear to me as now”—and the deep earnestness with which he said it at once strengthened me and made me weep—“if, after her assurance that she is not free to think of my love, I urged it. Dear Esther, let me only tell you that the fond idea of you which I took abroad was exalted to the heavens when I came home. I have always hoped, in the first hour when I seemed to stand in any ray of good fortune, to tell you this. I have always feared that I should tell it you in vain. My hopes and fears are both fulfilled to–night. I distress you. I have said enough.”

Something seemed to pass into my place that was like the angel he thought me, and I felt so sorrowful for the loss he had sustained! I wished to help him in his trouble, as I had wished to do when he showed that first commiseration for me.

“Dear Mr. Woodcourt,” said I, “before we part to–night, something is left for me to say. I never could say it as I wish—I never shall—but—”

I had to think again of being more deserving of his love and his affliction before I could go on.

“—I am deeply sensible of your generosity, and I shall treasure its remembrance to my dying hour. I know full well how changed I am, I know you are not unacquainted with my history, and I know what a noble love that is which is so faithful. What you have said to me could have affected me so much from no other lips, for there are none that could give it such a value to me. It shall not be lost. It shall make me better.”

He covered his eyes with his hand and turned away his head. How could I ever be worthy of those tears? …

He left me, and I stood at the dark window watching the street. His love, in all its constancy and generosity, had come so suddenly upon me that he had not left me a minute when my fortitude gave way again and the street was blotted out by my rushing tears.

But they were not tears of regret and sorrow. No. He had called me the beloved of his life and had said I would be evermore as dear to him as I was then, and I felt as if my heart would not hold the triumph of having heard those words. My first wild thought had died away. It was not too late to hear them, for it was not too late to be animated by them to be good, true, grateful, and contented. How easy my path, how much easier than his!10

Note to the tender-hearted reader: this thread of the novel, at least, does have a happy ending: (I, II). I confess to having utilized the SparkNotes for help in tracking down the appropriate sections of the text.

  1. Wikipedia contributors, “Smallpox,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Smallpox&oldid=351976669 (accessed March 25, 2010). []
  2. תפארת ישראל, אבות פרק ג’ בועז אות א []
  3. שו”ת ישועות מלכו, אה”ע סימן מ”ו – קשר []
  4. פירוש רד”ק על התורה (פרעסבורג: התר”ב), בראשית (ויצא) כט:טז-יח – קשר []
  5. פירושי רלב”ג על התורה (מוסד הרב קוק – ירושלים: תשנ”ב), בראשית (ויצא [אולם נדפס ‘תולדות’ בראש הדף בטעות]) ביאור הפרשה לא:טז-יח, עמוד קפ”ג []
  6. שם, תועליות, עמוד קצ”ד []
  7. ספר מהרי”ל – מנהגים (מכון ירושלים: תשמ”ט), ליקוטים, אות פ”ג, עמוד תרל”ב []
  8. Charles Dickens, Bleak House, Chapter 35 – link. []
  9. Ibid. Chapter 36 – link. []
  10. Ibid. Chapter 61 – link. []