Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The Death of Titus

The Gemara (Gittin 56b) tells how a mosquito flew in Titus' nose and picked at his brain. When he died, they opened his skull and found a mosquito the size of a bird.

R. Azariah De Rossi (Me'or Einayim, Imrei Binah ch. 16) famously, and controversially, argued that this is not a literal description of Titus' death but a parable intended to teach that God can use any aspect of Creation to punish sinners.

Similarly, the Maharal (Be'er Ha-Golah part 6) interpreted the passage allegorically. The difference, though, is that the Maharal consider the story to be entirely true, albeit not literal, and found significance in every detail of the story. R. Yitzchok Adlerstein, in his English adaptation of Be'er HaGolah (p. 240 n. 57), suggests that the Maharal was of the view that Titus died from brain cancer, with the story of the mosquito being an allegory to the cancer.

In the latest issue of Derech HaTeva, a journal of Torah and science published by Stern College (under the guidance of Dr. Harvey Babich), Rachel Rechthand surveys the views about Titus' death (I assume she ommitted the Me'or Einayim out of piety) and suggests that he died of a brain tumor. Summarizing articles from the past 15 years, she concludes that the causes of death from various ancient sources, including the Gemara, are all consistent with a brain tumor. And Titus' activities after developing this tumor are not inconsistent with that diagnosis.

(There is much more in this journal. Pesia Soloveichik, presumably R. Meir Ya'akov Soloveichik's sister, writes about the shivah for her grandfather in Israel, during which the American side of the family celebrated the second day of Yom Tov while the Israeli side began mourning. And a special shout-out to Jennifer Polin for citing an online article of mine in a footnote.)

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