Haftarah Parshat Naso
June 3, 2017 / 9 Sivan 5777
The heroine of this week’s haftarah, Samson’s mother, remains nameless even though she is the primary character in the story. Professor Y. Zakovitch has suggested that her anonymity was intended to make the character of Samson stand out by minimalizing his familial ties (Hayei Shimshon, p. 25). I have previously suggested that some biblical stories give anonymous characters pronounced roles as a lesson in the significance of every individual no matter their place in society.
Still, anonymity in biblical literature is a phenomenon that seemingly bothered the rabbinic sages. Professor Y. Heineman, in his classic work Darchei HaAgaddah, has pointed out that it is not uncommon in rabbinic literature for the sages to identify a character in the Bible by either giving the person a name or associating a person with a previously known character. This phenomenon was probably influenced by the style of storytelling familiar to them in the Greco-Roman period. (p.21)
In a brief dialogue in the Talmud, Samson’s mother’s anonymity (along with a number of other examples) is given another reason: “Rav Hanan bar Rava further stated in the name of Rav: [The name of] the mother of Abraham [was] Amatlai the daughter of Karnebo; [the name of] the mother of Haman was Amatlai, the daughter of Orabti; and your mnemonic [may be], ‘unclean [to] unclean, clean [to] clean’. The mother of David was named Nitzevet the daughter of Adael. The mother of Samson [was named] Zlelponit, and his sister, Nashyan. In what [respect] do [these names] matter? In respect of a reply to the heretics.” (Bava Batra 91a)
We have no way of knowing whether Rav was dependent on traditions for assigning these names or whether they serve a particular literary purpose. Of course, the Talmud gives an immediate explanation for the names of Abraham’s and Haman’s mothers since the names of the mother’s fathers are based on animal names (Karnebo being a type of ‘pure’ bird and Orbat (orev – raven) being an impure bird) but for the others, no immediate explanation is offered. The Talmud does ask why it is important to “fill in the blanks”. Its explanation is enigmatic – ‘as a reply to the heretics’.
We might speculate from this answer that ‘heretics’ were bothered by the same question raised above and answered by the sages, namely, why were some characters named and while others remained anonymous. The answer of the sages seems to be that the answer can be found in the ‘Torah she’baal Peh – the Oral Torah’. This also might have been intended to make the point that the Torah sh’bihtav – the Written Torah’ was incomplete without the oral tradition. This apparently being another sticking point between the rabbinic tradition and those who denied it.
This little passage offers us a window into the thought processes of both the sages and how they perceived those who might be a threat to the tradition. It might also offer us an opportunity to delve more deeply into our sacred texts as a window into who we are as well.