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The Children of Noah: Jewish Seafaring in Ancient Times

by the late Raphael Patai Princeton,

208 pp, 17.95. Reviewed by Jenny Diski

I was taught to swim so that I could get out of the sea, should I even be so foolish and unfortunate as to find myself in it. For the sea didn't seem kosher. Jewish people I knew were tailors or shopkeepers, their children were supposed to become businessmen, doctors, lawyers, academics, no one ever mentioned the possibility of a career as a mariner. It made traditional sense to me: hadn't Moses ordered the Red Sea to part rather than have the Children of Israel get their feet wet?

There is no evidence that any of the four great Biblical travellers on water - Noah, Moses, Jonah and Jesus - had what you could call a vocation for the sea.

Boat-building in the Bible, and indeed in the other early flood narratives, is not a skill discovered or intuited by humanity, Patai says. Both the need for boats and the ability to make them are bestowed on mankind from on high. Noah is the only shipbuilder in the Bible, and he, too, gets divine instruction: "Make thee an ark of gopher wood; with rooms shalt thou make the ark, and shalt pitch it within and without with pitch. And this is how thou shalt make it: the length of the ark three hundred cubits, the breadth of it fifty cubits, and the height of it thirty cubits".

Neither Noah, nor the ten generations that preceded him back to Adam's time, had any need for boats, Adam is named for the earth from which he was created. His heirs were tillers of soil, and builders of cities. Before Noah, the only time that the sea gets a mention is at the beginning of Genesis, when the spirit of God moved on the face of the waters.

These were the seas that contained Rahab, Leviantham and other sea monsters which sings the Psalmist, God defeated before he made the world: "Thou didst break the sea in pieces by Thy strength, Thou didst shatter the heads of the sea monsters in the waters, Thou did crush the heads of Leviantham, thou gavest him to be food to sharks of the sea". God, it seemed, on some accounts (Psalm 107, the Book of Job, and rabbinical commentaries on Genesis), did not just make the world, he fought with the sea to make it. And having over-mastered the waters, when he wanted to annihilate the world he regretted making, it was the waters he used to destroy it. "I will cause it to rain upon the earth forty days and forty nights; and every living substance that I have made will I destroy from off the face of the earth". (The rabbis, wishing to take God's word literally, worried about the problem of fish, who clearly would not be erased from the world by a flood. It was solved when one rabbi decided that the waters that rained down were boiling, thus doing for the fish, and allowing God to keep his word to the letter).

Little wonder that the Jews had no taste for the sea. Noah is silent. Unlike later chosen ones who questioned and debated with God about his plans, ever changing his mind, Noah never speaks. He simply "did according unto all that the Lord had commanded him". He is a survivor, not a sailor. The waters rise, the world dies and, locked up in the box God designed for him, he endures the wait. But Patai detects at least one element of seamanship in him, by carrying aboard several "shore-sighting birds". The raven and the dove give Noah a certain credibility as a sailor, although Midrashic sources suggest that he spent all his sea-going time learning what and when to feed the animals in his charge. So much so, says one, that he never closed his eyes for one minute during his 150 days afloat. As a sailor, Noah became expert in animal husbandry. Back on land, Noah showed no further interest in the sea: he took up farming and planted the world's first vineyard. Though in becoming also the world's first drunk, he may have been exhibiting an elemental trait of the old seadog. Moses, too, floated to salvation in an ark, though by now, it seems, boat-building skills had been acquired and there was no need for direct guidance from God. When the mother of Moses "could not longer hide hime, she took for his an ark of bulrushes, and daubed it with slime and with pitch, and put the child therein; and she laid it in the flags by the river brink". This is more river than sea-faring, but it's an oddly watery start for a prophet whose life was dominated by mountain and desert. Neither Noah nor Moses journeys on the water for the purpose of trade or discover. The Bible refers on both occasions to the ark as tevah, that is, a chest or box, and not a ship (oniyah).

Though Patai doesn't mention him, Jacob is another who, exhibits a reluctance when faced with water. At Jabbok, needing to ford the Jordan, he sent his wives and worldly goods across, but remained behind for the night during which he encountered the wrestling angel who would change his name to Israel. For all that scholars might suggest his motive was anxiety about facing his twin brother, Esau, whose birthright and blessing he had stolen, it seems to me possible that he was in a watery funk. Only an extremely unpleasant night sent him wading across the river the next morning. Jonah, too, becomes a seafarer through a greater fear of something else. Rather than proclaim against the city of Nineveh, as God wishes, he takes flight and buys a passage on a ship about to sail across the Mediterranean from Joppa to Tarshish. The crew of this ship are not Jewish, and when the Hebrew God foments a storm, they show both proper sea-going superstition and seamanship by crying "every man unto his god, and they cast forth the wares that were in the ship into the sea, to lighten it unto them". Jonah, strangely, sleeps through the whole thing, perhaps because he is such a landlubber that he doesn't know it's time to panic, or because he's such a landlubber that he's been rendered barely conscious by seasickness.

However, if none of these Biblical characters convinces me of a long-standing Jewish attraction to going down to the sea in ships, the fact remains that ancient Palestine had ports on its long Mediterranean coastline, and that there was certainly much toing and froing, warring and trading in the area. Of Solomon, we are told "For the kind had at sea a navy of Tarshish, bringing gold, and silver, ivory, and apes, and peacocks". Its not at all clear whether the ships were built by Solomon's men, but in Judah, King Jehoshaphat "made Tarshish ships to go to Ophir for gold", although Jewish shipbuilding skills are thrown when we find out that these ships "were broken at Ezion-Gever" either by a storm or because they were inexpertly built.

According to the Mormons, however, Jewish seafaring was an ancient tradition. America, claimed Joseph Smith, was populated by a remnant of seafaring Jews. The book of Mormon tells of a group of Jews living in the early sixth century BCE under King Zedekiah in Jerusalem, who, in an attempt to escape from an unfriendly government, sailed, via the straits of Gibraltar, across the Atlantic Ocean, to arrive somewhere on the American continent 344 days after starting out. So perhaps seafaring is a lost Jewish art, after all.

Patai offers plentiful evidence in the form of religious laws for life at sea, Midrashic commentary on the Hebrew Bible, and folklore to suggest that the Jews, reluctantly or otherwise, were indeed a sea-going lot. But this doesn't necessarily mean they like it.

The commentating rabbis were ambivalent about sailors, though they weren't enthusiastic about other professions either: "Let a man not reach his son to become a donkey driver, a camel driver, a potter, sailor, shepherd, or shopkeeper, for their trade is the trade of robbers", the Babylonian Talmud warms. Patai paraphrases the great Rashi, on the other hand, saying "that sailors live in constant danger, and therefore their hearts are inclined toward their Father in Heaven; they travel to places of much danger and are always trembling at the perils that beset them. "The distaste for the sea continues. Were it not for divine dispensation, says a Midrash on the Book of leviticus, "every man who goes down to the sea would die at once".

Sea journeys had become an unfortunate necessity and laws were established for sea-going Jews. The Sabbath had to be kept at sea, during which time no riding or sitting in any vehicle is permitted, so the laws state that journeys had to start no later than Wednesday and that a Jewish traveller had to come to an agreement with the skipper that he would break the voyage for the Sabbath. This was highly unlikely, but it allowed the Jew to blame the Gentile for breaking his world. Not that all skippers were Gentile.

From: London Review of Books

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