Bar-Ilan University's Parashat Hashavua Study Center

Parashat Hukkat 5762/ June 15, 2002

Lectures on the weekly Torah reading by the faculty of Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Israel. A project of the Faculty of Jewish Studies, Paul and Helene Shulman Basic Jewish Studies Center, and the Office of the Campus Rabbi. Published on the Internet under the sponsorship of Bar-Ilan University's International Center for Jewish Identity.
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Inquiries and comments to: Dr. Isaac Gottlieb, Department of Bible, gottlii@mail.biu.ac.il


Parashat Hukkat 5762/ June 15, 2002

Was Og Just a Tall Story?

Dr. Admiel Kosman
Naftal-Yaffe Department of Talmud


The Israelites' victory over King Og of Bashan is first mentioned in Scripture in this week's reading (Num. 21:33-35):

They marched on and went up the road to Bashan, and King Og of Bashan, with all his people, came out to Edrei to engage them in battle. But the Lord said to Moses, "Do not fear him, for I give him and all his people and his land into your hand. You shall do to him as you did to Sihon King of the Amorites who dwelt in Heshbon." They defeated him and his sons and all his people, until no remnant was left him; and they took possession of his country.

A previous article of mine[1] discussed the legends that appear in the Talmud and various Amorite sources about Og's supernatural size. The present article deals with the medieval interpretation given to these fantastic legends. First, let us return briefly to the Talmudic story as related in a baraitha in Berakhot 54a:

The rabbis taught: a person who sees ocean straits, fords of the Jordan River, fords of the Arnon, the meteoric rocks on the slopes of Beit Horon, the rock that King Og of Bashan sought to throw on the Israelites, the stone upon which Moses sat when Joshua fought Amalek, Lot's wife, the wall of Jericho that was swallowed up where it stood - on all these he should give praise and thanksgiving to the Lord.[2]

The ensuing Talmudic discussion of this baraitha (loc. sit. 54b) describes the encounter between Og and the Israelites as follows:[3]

[Og] said: "How large is the Israelite camp? Three parasangs [about 12 miles]? I shall go and uproot a mountain of three parasangs and throw it on them and kill them." He went and uprooted a mountain of three parasangs and placed it on his head. But The Holy One, blessed be He, set grasshoppers upon it, and they burrowed a hole in the mountain and it fell round his neck. He tried to pull it off his head, he pulled with his teeth to the right and left, but could not tear it off. This is what Scripture means, "You break the teeth of the wicked" (Ps. 3:8). As Resh Lakish explained, quoting Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish: What does "you break (shibbarta) the teeth of the wicked" mean? Do not read it as shibarta, rather as shirbavta, "you entangled". How [tall] was Moses? Ten cubits. He grabbed hold of an axe ten cubits long, leaped ten cubits, struck Og in the ankle and killed him.[4]

The fantastic figure of Og as presented in these legends caused medieval Talmudic and Aggadic commentators much discomfort. For example, in Hiddushei ha-Geonim[5] we find: "This remark is strange and far-fetched, hard to imagine, and very discomfiting." Therefore many commentators resorted to interpreting these legends symbolically, thus removing them from their fantastic, hyperbolic context.[6] These interpretations not only served those within the Jewish community who found the legends problematic, but also helped defend the Jewish position in disputations with the Christians regarding the status of the Talmud.

One trend in interpretation stressed that the legends of the Talmud should not be taken as an authoritative commentary on Scripture. For example, in his commentary on Deuteronomy 3:11, Ibn Ezra tells us that by the plain sense of the text, the Peshat, we should take the scriptural depiction of the size of Og's bed[7] as indicating that he was twice a tall as a normal person, and nothing more: "By a man's forearm - meaning by the standard cubit. This means that he was twice the size [of a normal person], but it does not stand to reason that Scripture meant [he was twice the size measured] by his own [Og's] forearm,[8] for what could we know from this? Moreover, then he would not resemble a human being at all."

Maimonides (1135-1204) wrote in a similar vein, with great clarity and detail, in Guide for the Perplexed, 2.47:[9]

"As for what the Torah says regarding Og's bedstead, "His bedstead, a bedstead of iron..." this refers to his bedstead, as in [Scriptures], "Our couch is in a bower" (Song 1:16). A person's bedstead is not the same size as the person, since it is not like a garment to be worn. Rather, a bedstead is always larger than the person who sleeps in it. The well-known practice is for the bed to be about one third longer than the person. If the length of this bed was 9 cubits, then the person who slept in it, according to the usual proportion for beds, would have been six cubits or a bit taller. It says "by a person's forearm," meaning the forearm of an average person, that is to say, of the rest of mankind, not Og's forearm, insofar as a person's limbs tend to be proportional; and it says that Og was twice the height of other people, or a bit more. This is undoubtedly rare in the human race, but in no way impossible.[10]

In short, these commentators emphasize that according to the literal sense of Scripture one should not accept the Talmud's explanation. Og was approximately twice the size of an average person, and this exceptional height is noted in Deuteronomy with great emphasis, insofar as evidence of his extraordinary size was preserved in his iron bedstead which survived in Rabbath of the Ammonites (perhaps present-day Amman in Jordan).

How, then, are we to understand the fantastic story in the Talmud about Og's vast size? Should it be rejected as unacceptable to an intelligent person?

Among the important landmarks in the medieval interpretative tradition of reading a text symbolically we must mention two prominent interpretative schools that influenced the commentaries of the later authorities (aharonim) on this legend: one is the mystic, kabbalistic approach; the other, allegorical. Allegorical interpretation of the legend in one way or another reads the legend as symbolizing elevated spiritual matters, laden with significance.[11] It assumes in this case that Og's might and giant size should be viewed as symbolizing another sort of might, not necessarily physical, as we imagine when we read the story according to the plain sense of Scripture.[12] Thus in these commentaries, even if this is not stated explicitly but rather obliquely, the war on Og is transformed from an historical national war, as presented in Scripture, to a mythical war taking place in worlds not disclosed to the human eye.

The kabbalistic interpretation of the story of Og, which had an impact on later exegesis, is found in the Book of Splendor [Sefer ha-Bahir], Hukkat 3.184a:

"But the Lord said to Moses, 'Do not fear him [oto]'" (Num. 21:34) - Twice the word oto is written with full orthography in the Torah, once here and the other, "until your fellow claims it [oto]" (Deut. 22:2).[13] What does this signify? That both were actually signs [ot]. In the case of "until your fellow claims it," this means that one must interpret the sign of the thing lost. Here, too, the "oto" is Og, an adherent of Abraham, one of the people in his household, forced to live with him, and [therefore Og] took on himself the sign of sanctity [circumcision].[14] When Og saw the Israelites approaching him, he said, "Surely I can supercede the merit which they have, and with this I shall confront them." At that very moment Moses was seized by fear, how could he obliterate the sign that Abraham had made? [The Holy One, blessed be He,] said to him, "Surely his right hand[15] is dead," for a right hand is needed to vanquish him. Immediately the Holy One, blessed be He, said, "Do not fear him (oto)" - do not fear the sign which he has, and you shall not even need your right hand. "For I give him ... into your hand" - your left hand will remove him from this world, for he defaced his sign, and whoever has defaced this sign deserves to be removed from the face of the earth. All the more so, your left hand, which is "your hand," will remove him from this world.

According to this angle of interpretation, Moses feared lest Og had certain spiritual merit in G-d's reckoning, merit that had to do with the "sign" that was made in him during the period when he was one of Abraham's servants - the sign of circumcision.[16]

Another commentary in a similar vein was written by Rashba, Rabbi Solomon ben Aderet of Barcelona, in the 13th century.[17] Presumably Rashba was greatly troubled by the strangeness of this legend since it was mentioned repeatedly by the Christians in their attacks on the irrationality of legends in the Talmud. Rashba took up the gauntlet against these attacks, attempting to resolve the difficult passages of aggadah in the Talmud in a way that would be acceptable to the intellectuals of his times. Some scholars even believe he debated face to face with Raymond Martini,[18] one of the main adversaries of the Talmud in that era.

This legend about Og was one of the more notable ones used by Christian polemicists to discredit the Talmud. Evidence of this has come down to us in the arguments by Nicholas Donin in his disputation with R. Jehiel of Paris.[19] This legend was also cited as showing a total lack of rationality by Petrus Alfonsi[20] in his arguments against the Talmud, and was similarly attacked by Peter the Venerable of Cluny.[21]

Alfonsi reckoned as follows: According to this story, by a rough estimate, Og's head measured 10 cubits and therefore the grasshopper[22] would have had to make a 10-cubit hole in the mountain in order for the mountain to come down around Og's neck. How could this have been possible?

Thus, it was for good reason that Rashba prefaced his interpretation of this legend with a lengthy exposition on the difficulties of interpreting legends of the Talmud in general, "which for many reasons use unfathomable language." That this legend greatly troubled Rashba is also evident from the fact that he flatly rejected any literal reading of the text in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 54b. Flat rejection of the plain sense of the text was not an approach that he usually took save for certain special cases where he felt that these legends served as a target for Christian attacks.[23]
In interpreting this legend Rashba used an interesting method. On the one hand he was not ready to give up altogether the realistic description of Og as a normal person, even though he was undoubtedly exceedingly tall and of large dimensions, and therefore was considered an anak, a giant. On the other hand, he did not view the legends of the Talmud as unfounded exaggeration. The solution he suggested was to distinguish between the two texts at hand: the baraitha (Berakhot 54a), which assumes that one could still find the rock which Og sought to throw on the Israelites; and the wondrous story that follows (54b), about Og uprooting a mountain. The rock in the first text Rashba viewed as quite real, and this certainly fits the description of Og as a person of exceptional size. The story about the mountain, in contrast, he believed should not be taken literally at all, but only allegorically.

According to Rashba, the "mountain" that was Og's weapon alludes to the merits of our patriarchs, who have been associated in various homilies with mountains,[24] meaning that Og relied on the same merit given Abraham (see note 14), who was one of the patriarchs and was considered like a "mountain." Therefore Moses feared him. The grasshoppers, an allusion to the prayers of the Israelites ("their might being in their tongues"),[25] caused the merits of this "mountain" to disintegrate. Later also Moses joined in the fray, countering the merits of Og with three other merits: the merits of the patriarchs, alluded to by the ten-cubit leap which Moses took into the past, as it were, to take the merits of the patriarchs to assist the Israelites;[26] Moses' own personal merits, alluded to by the fact that he was ten cubits tall; and the merits of the people of Israel as a whole, alluded to by the ax in Moses' hand ("comparing them to an instrument placed in his hands, that he would use"), which was ten cubits long. All these formed the weapon that Moses wielded against the merits of Og, and through them Og was ultimately vanquished.

In conclusion we can say that in medieval Jewish exegesis Og was restored to real dimensions as a powerful giant, not as a fantastic creature of inconceivable size, as he had been presented in the Talmudic legend.


[1] Hebrew Parasha Vaethanan 5761/ 2001, no. 353.
[2] This is the ruling in Shulhan Arukh, Orah Hayyim, 218a.
[3] There are no parallel variants of this tradition in first-hand tannaitic sources, nor in the Jerusalem Talmud.
[4] On this story and its variants, see: L. Ginzberg, Legends of the Jews, vol. 6 (1946), p.120, n.695; Avidgor Shinan, Targum ve-Aggadah Bo, Jerusalem 1993, p. 172. ( About another mountain that was used as a weapon in battle, see Shinan, p. 139, n. 19). On the measure of three parasangs mentioned here, see Rashi's commentary in Berakhot, s.v. "Mahaneh Yisrael," which cites the words of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah in the Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 55a. According to this source, an interesting idea to consider is the possible connection between the hyperboles of Rabbah Bar Bar Hannah, mentioned there, and the origins of the hyperbolic story at hand (see note 6, below).
[5] Printed in Ein Yaakov on Berakhot 54a, s.v. "even."
[6] On hyperbole in the writings of the Sages in general, see M. B. Lerner, "Ha-Guzma etzel Hazal," Mahanayim 79, 1963, pp. 68-73; Dina Stein, "Devarim she-Roim mi-Sham lo Roim mi-Kan: Iyyun be-Bava Batra 73a-75b," Mehkarei Yerushalayim be-Sifrut Ivrit, 17, 1999, pp. 9-32.
[7] Much of the previous Daf Shavua # 353, mentioned above, is devoted to this subject.
[8] These remarks of Ibn Ezra's relate to Targum Onkelos on Deuteronomy 3:11, which hints at a view that enlarges the figure of Og. In the Targum the words "four cubits wide, by the standard cubit" are rendered as "four cubits wide by the King's cubit." In other words, that Og's height should be measured by the "Kings'cubit," perhaps meaning the forearm of Og himself, as is indicated in Targum Jonathan on this verse. Cf. Avigdor Shinan, loc. sit., p. 144 and n. 224. Rashi makes the following comment on Deut. 3:11: "By a person's forearm - by Og's forearm." Also see the discussion on this in commentaries on Rashi (Mizrahi, Siftei Hakhamim, and Gur Aryeh), as well as in Nahmanides, loc. sit.
[9] Kapah edition, Jerusalem 1977, p. 269.
[10] Cf. Hayyim Rabin, "Og," Eretz Israel, 8, 1967, p. 254, n. 44, citing Wright's finding that the average height of prehistoric man in the Land of Israel was approximately 1.5 meters.
[11] On symbolic interpretation of legends, which began in the time of the geonim, see Yonah Frankel, Darkhei ha-Aggadah ve-ha-Midrash, Givatayim 1991, pp. 501-531. He also reviews the development of this exegetical tradition. A major landmark, influencing many medieval commentators, was the approach taken by Maimonides, that interpreting the aggadah literally when it does not suit the test of a rational view of reality is one of the foolish things that bring disgrace on the Sages and the Torah (cf. Maimonides' commentary on the Mishnah, preface to Helek in Sanhedrin, Kapah ed., p. 200).
[12] A notable and relatively late exception is the interpretation by the Maharal of Prague (approx. 1525-1609), in "Hiddushei Aggadot" on Niddah 24b. He interprets the Talmudic legend about Og symbolically, but stresses time and again that Og's "strength was entirely physical, but the might of Israel is separated from the physical, for they adhere to the Lord Almighty. Therefore Og was described by traits that are entirely physical, such as his great height." Yet elsewhere, even the Maharal took the position most common among commentators; see Maharal's commentary on Numbers 21:35. For other commentaries on this legend, see the list of commentaries printed in Ein Yaakov on the aggadic text in the Babylonian Talmud, Berakhot 54b, and the detailed list of commentators who dealt with this, to be found in Zechariah Porto, Asaf ha-Mazkir, Venice 1680, p. 38a and p. 299b. (I am indebted to my friend, Prof. Yaakov Spiegel, for calling my attention to this book.)
[13] Regarding one who finds a lost object. In both these instances, the spelling in Scripture as we have it is not plene; however the Kennicott Bible (Numbers, p. 322, and Deuteronomy, p. 409) refers the reader to at least one manuscript in which both these words appear written plene (two vavs).
[14] This is made clear by the interpretation given earlier in this homily, in a passage not cited here, which refers to the verse in Genesis (17:27): "and all his household, his homeborn slaves and those that had been bought from outsiders, were circumcised with him."
[15] Rabbi Ashlag, in his commentary Ha-Sulam la-Zohar (vol. 16, Parashat Hukkat, p. 29), maintains that the Zohar was alluding here to Aaron, brother of Moses.
[16] The kernel of the idea that Og accumulated certain "merit points" for good deeds he had done in the past goes back to Genesis Rabbah 41 (42), 13, Theodore-Albeck edition, pp. 413-414. There it says that the Lord promised Og reward for his good deed, informing him of Lot's capture: "On your life, you shall receive reward for your steps, for you shall live long in this world."
[17] Rashba's interpretation appears in Ein Yaakov on Berakhot 54b, s.v. "akar tora." Rashba, a rabbi and posek in Barcelona, authored new insights ( hiddushim) on the Talmud and many halakhic responsa. On Rashba as an interpreter of aggadah, see Carmi Horowitz, "Al Perush ha-Aggadot shel Rashba: Bein Kabbalah le-Philosophia," Da'at 18, 1987, pp. 15-25; Aryeh Leib Feldman, Hiddushei ha-Rashba - Perushei ha-Haggadot, Jerusalem 1991, pp. 5-17; Yonah Frankel, Midrash ve-Aggadah, 3, Everyman's University, Tel Aviv 1997, pp. 868-870.
[18] Cf. Jeremy Cohen, "The Polemical Adversary of Solomon ibn Aderet", JQR N.S. 71 (1980), pp. 48-55.
[19] Vikuah Rabbenu Jehiel mi-Paris, Reuben Margaliyot ed., Lwow 1928, p. 24. Donin was an apostate from Judaism (according to some, a Karaite), who apparently joined the Franciscan order. In the wake of his disputation with Rabbi Jehiel of Paris, the Talmud was seized and burned, apparently in 1242. On this subject, see H. Merhavya, Ha-Talmud be-Re'i ha-Natzrut, Jerusalem 1970, pp. 227-248. Also see Jeremy Cohen, The Friars and the Jews, Ithaca and London 1982, p. 61, note 19.
[20] See Merhavya, ibid., pp. 105-106. Petros Alfonsi was Moshe the Sephardi, who converted to Christianity in 1106; for further reading on him, see Merhavya, ibid., pp. 93ff, and the list of studies cited there, p. 94, n.4.
[21] See Merhavya, ibid., pp. 139-140, and p. 128ff.
[22] According to his version, a small bird, Upupa.
[23] See Karmi Horwitz (n. 17 above), p. 25.
[24] Rashba mentions a homily on the verse in Micah (6:1): "Come, present [My] case before the mountains." A similar explicit homily, as far as I know, is found only in a late midrash called Alpha Betot, copied by Solomon Aaron Wertheimer (with additions by Abraham Wertheimer), in Beit Midrashot, Jerusalem 1973, 2, p. 443: " 'Come, present [My] case before the mountains, and let the hills hear you pleading' - the mountains are none other than the patriarchs of the world, ... and the hills, none other than the matriarchs,..." (see Wertheimer, note 41, loc. sit.). The idea itself, however, appears in the Talmud, thus Rashba was referring to it obliquely by mentioning the idea of leaping, echoing the well-known verse in Song of Songs (2:8): "Leaping over mountains, bounding over hills." See the Babylonian Talmud, Rosh ha-Shanah 11a: " 'Hark! My beloved! There he comes, leaping over mountains, bounding over hills' - leaping over mountains, by the merits of the patriarchs; bounding over hills, by the merits of the matriarchs." Also cf. Tanhuma, Balak 12: "[Balaam] began by saying, 'I was among the lofty, keeping company with the patriarchs'."
[25] On this idea see Maharsha on the same verse, who unwittingly identified grasshoppers with worms. His explanation is based on the fact that the Sages compared Israel to a worm, saying, "This worm has no might save in its mouth." Apparently Maharsha was referring to Midrash Tehilim 22.20 (Buber ed., Vilna 1891, p. 191): " 'But I am a worm, less than human' (Ps. 22:7) - just as a worm has nothing but its mouth, so Israel have nothing but the prayers of their mouths. Just as a worm uproots a tree with its mouth, so Israel uproot with their mouths and their prayers the evil that is devised against them by the peoples of the world, as it is written, 'Fear not, O worm of Jacob' (Is. 41:14)." Regarding the phrase "worm of Jacob," see Genesis Rabbah 100.3, Theodore-Albeck ed., p. 1286.
[26] On the origins of the idea of leaping, see note 24, above.