The Gemara below is a relatively famous one that play a key role in the long-running debate throughout the Talmud about the theological value of miracles. The dispute arises in many places and inflects the views of our greatest scholars on many key events in Jewish history, including the seminal moment of Exodus:
מסכת שבת פרק ה
ת”ר מעשה באחד שמתה אשתו והניחה בן לינק ולא היה לו שכר מניקה ליתן ונעשה לו נס ונפתחו לו דדין כשני דדי אשה והניק את בנו אמר רב יוסף בא וראה כמה גדול אדם זה שנעשה לו נס כזה א”ל אביי אדרבה כמה גרוע אדם זה שנשתנו לו סדרי בראשית אמר רב יהודה בא וראה כמה קשים מזונותיו של אדם שנשתנו עליו סדרי בראשית אמר רב נחמן תדע דמתרחיש ניסא ולא אברו מזוני
Talmud Bavli Tractate Shabbat 53b (link)
Our Rabbis taught: It once happened that a man’s wife died and left a child to be suckled, and he could not afford to pay a wet-nurse, whereupon a miracle was performed for him and his teats opened like the two teats of a woman and he suckled his son. R. Joseph observed, Come and see how great was this man, that such a miracle was performed on his account! Said Abaye to him, On the contrary: how lowly was this man, that the order of the Creation was changed on his account! Rab Judah observed, Come and see how difficult are men’s wants [of being satisfied], that the order of the Creation had to be altered for him! R. Nahman said: The proof is that miracles do [frequently] occur, whereas food is [rarely] created miraculously.
Let’s start by dealing with this story on its face. Last week, Scientific American published an article reporting that human males can lactate! Turns out that this is not such an unknown phenomenon, having been reliably observed by both scientists and laymen in humans and other mammals. A brief Internet search yielded plenty of corroborating stories, (this one not work safe/not tzniusdik).
Most of the articles talk about some combination of taking the hormone prolactin, which spurs lactation, and stimulating the nipple in order to induce male lactation. Historically speaking, male Nazi concentration camp survivors were observed to lactate during their recovery – evidently, the glands that produce hormones, including prolactin, healed faster than the liver, which breaks down excess hormones in the body. These recovering survivors were generating lots of hormones, which their livers were not yet capable of absorbing. Still, other reports suggest that lactation can be achieved only through stimulation of the nipple, or in one case, through the power of positve thinking alone!
Though some might dispute this point, I would think it churlish to claim that these examples, even if undeniably true, indicate that male lactation is part of the ‘order of Creation.’ Whatever the innate physiological possibilities of the male body, the ability to lactate has gone unactualized in all but the smallest scintilla of the human population. For some it may be comforting to have found a rational basis for the miracle reported in the Talmud, while others may view it as another ax-blow to the roots of faith in God and miracles. That’s not my issue, or at least, not today’s issue.
Abaye and Rabbi Yosef are simply continuing a long line of debate regarding the role of miracles. This debate goes back at least as far as the Tana’im who lived through the destruction, and was an issue particularly for Rabbi Elazar ben Azaryah, who miraculously aged prematurely after being appointed to replace Rabban Gamliel as head of the yeshiva at Yavneh. Though he was only eighteen years of age when he took the job, he miraculously assumed the appearance of a 70-year old man overnight. See Haggadat Beit Halevy for an interesting connection between this topic and the section of the Haggadah that begins “Amar R. Elazar ben Azaryah”.
But what of the responses of R. Yehuda and R. Nachman? Rashi comments that they are responding to the fact that God specifically enacted a miracle to enable this man to feed his child, rather than simply “opening the gates of earnings for him.” In other words, God could have arranged that the man be matzliach in his business, which would have allowed him to hire a nursemaid. R. Yehuda is suggesting that it is in some way more difficult for a man to earn a living than it is for God to change the orders of Creation. R. Nachman points out that miracles occur all the time, but only rarely do miracles create food of themselves.
I’m sure that there’s a lot that can be said on these last two points, especially with regards to the Man that fell in the desert, and I wish I had the time to explore them more fully. Maybe we’ll get some good comments on this aspect of the story. Go on, don’t be shy now.
Today, it seems like we are able to manipulate the orders of Creation with ever-greater ease. In the Western world, we have unprecedented control over how we and our favorite species of animals and plants live, die, and reproduce, and with each passing day we extend our natural order, sometimes blithely ignoring the moral responsibilities that are inseparable from these awesome powers.
Yet even in a society with such power, we find that the statement of R. Yehudah remains true. As a species, mankind still fails to feed himself. Starvation is a problem in even some of the wealthiest countries in the world, and is epidemic among the less fortunate countries. Though rarely, a miracle, a change in the orders of Creation can solve the problems of one man, the greater problems of the world are not often unsolved for lack of tools, but for lack of want. The human orders of Creation – fear, greed, envy and hatred – these lie at the roots of the difficulties that Man faces in meeting his wants, in earning his daily bread. Technological solutions are tools that must be wielded wisely, justly, and most importantly, kindly.