Pipe Dreams

Jonathan Levine writes from Ann Arbor, Mich., to inquire:

“What is the origin of the Hebrew expression h.alomot be’espamya, or ‘pipe dreams’? My dictionary lists aspamya as a synonym for sefarad, i.e., Spain, which I suppose is easily decodable as a slight mispronunciation of España. But why ‘dreams in Spain’?”

h.alomot be’espanya, or “dreams in Spain,” is an expression that can be traced back to the talmudic tractate of Nidah, which deals with the subject of menstrual laws. In a section on pregnancy, there is a description of the life of the infant in the womb, attributed to third-century C.E. sage Rabbi Simlai, that goes:

“What does the infant in its mother’s womb resemble? It resembles a booklet made of folded paper, with its arms [tucked] by its two sides, and its two elbows on its two knees, and its two heels against its two buttocks, and its head between its knees, and its mouth shut, and its navel open. And it eats what its mother eats and drinks what its mother drinks and does not defecate, so as not to kill its mother. And when it emerges into the world, what has been shut is opened and what has been open is shut, for otherwise it could not live even for a short while. And a candle is lit above its head, and it sees from one end of the world to the other…. Nor should this surprise you, since you can sleep here [in Palestine] and dream that you are in Spain….”

To someone living in the eastern Mediterranean in Roman times, Spain was quite literally the end of the world, its western limit past which there was nothing more. If one can see Spain in a dream, therefore, why can’t the infant in the womb see to the world’s end, too?

The passage in Nidah continues:

“And there are no better days in one’s life than those [spent in the womb]…. And he [the infant] is taught the entire Torah…. And when he emerges into the world, an angel comes and strikes him on the mouth and causes him to forget all he has learned.”

If this sounds familiar to you, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re having a prenatal memory. It’s more likely that what you remember is having been told as a child, as Jewish children once commonly were, that the slight indentation in the middle of your upper lip (you can check in the mirror; it should still be there) came from being struck by the finger of the angel of forgetfulness when you were born. You, too, once knew the whole Torah, and if it weren’t for that aggravating angel, you’d still know it.

This is a charming legend, and if you would like to read an equally charming fictional treatment of it, try Dara Horn’s recent novel, “The World To Come” (W.W. Norton).But it is also more than a mere legend, because there is almost certainly in it a Jewish echo of one of the most haunting philosophical ideas of classical antiquity — namely, Plato’s doctrine of recollection.

Plato’s theory of knowledge, as the philosophy students among you know, was that all basic knowledge — that is, knowledge of fundamental concepts and first principles — is essentially pre-knowledge, since we are born into this world with souls that were given, as it were, a heavenly education. Plato develops this theory most fully in his dialogue Phaedo, in which his teacher Socrates, after having demonstrated that the idea of mathematical equality must be inborn, continues:

“And if we acquired this knowledge before we were born, and were born having it, then we also knew before we were born and at the instant of birth not only the equal or the greater or the less, but all other ideas:… of beauty, good, justice, holiness, and all which we stamp with the name of essence….”

And yet, Socrates observes, since we do not automatically know what beauty, good, justice or holiness is, we obviously do not consciously remember what our souls knew before birth. Rather, “if the knowledge which we acquired before birth was lost by us at birth, and if afterwards by the use of the senses we recovered that which we previously knew, will not that which we call learning be a process of recovering our knowledge, and may not this be rightly termed recollection by us?”

Did Simlai read the Phaedo? Although this is not entirely impossible (many of the ancient rabbis knew Greek, and presumably some of them read it, too), there’s no need to assume that he did. Platonic ideas were very much in the air in the third century, in which Neo-Platonism was the dominant philosophical school all over the Mediterranean, and Simlai could just as well have been exposed to them in the marketplace as in a book. He only had to substitute Torah for “beauty, good, justice, and holiness,” and introduce a Jewish angel of forgetfulness, in order to produce a talmudic legend. It’s no dream in Spain, though, to see its Platonic origin.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to philologos@forward.com.

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Pipe Dreams

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