Bava Metzia 87

Who's your daddy?

Today’s daf finds us in the middle of a series of several famous midrashim about Abraham and Sarah that address their son Isaac’s miraculous birth in his parents’ old age. Recall that in chapter 18 of Genesis, three divine messengers appear to Abraham (then about 99 years old) to tell him that he and Sarah (89) will become parents the following year. Sarah, standing at the entrance to the tent, overhears the pronouncement and laughs to herself: “Now that I am withered, am I to have enjoyment with my husband so old?” (Genesis 18:12) The rabbis notice something surprising about how God reports her reaction to Abraham:

It is written that Sarah said: “… and my husband is old” (Genesis 18:12), and it is written: “And the Lord said to Abraham: Why did Sarah laugh, saying: Shall I certainly bear a child now that I am old?” (Genesis 18:13). This verse indicates that the Holy One, Blessed be He, did not repeat to Abraham what Sarah actually said.

Genesis 18:11 tells us that Sarah was post-menopausal. When she hears the angels’ announcement, however, it’s not her own obvious infertility that makes her laugh — it’s her husband’s. But when reporting her reaction to Abraham, God changes Sarah’s words, framing it as self-deprecation: now that I am old. Why does God lie? 

The school of Rabbi Yishmael taught: Peace is of such great importance that even the Holy One, Blessed be He, altered (the truth).

According to Rabbi Yishmael, maintaining shalom bayit, peace in the home, is of such importance that God bends the truth, sparing Abraham from hearing that his wife thinks of him as impotent. Practically speaking, this is not only a kindness to both in their relationship, but imperative for getting Sarah pregnant.

The Gemara supplies several other midrashim that address the complications of geriatric parenting, including one that addresses the inevitable gossip that ensues when this elderly couple steps out with a baby. At the weaning celebration for Isaac, the Talmud says, guests speculated that Abraham and Sarah had bought a foundling from the market and passed him off as their own. To quash these rumors, God caused Sarah to miraculously produce enough milk to breastfeed every baby at the party, and Isaac suddenly became the spitting image of his father. This was enough to silence any rumors about the child’s parentage, as we read on today’s daf:

Everyone exclaimed and said: “Abraham fathered Isaac.” (Genesis 25:19)

These stories about the birth of Isaac in Abraham and Sarah’s old age demonstrate that God will do anything — from lying to performing miracles — to spare Abraham and Sarah embarrassment. Perhaps this should serve as a reminder to us: Are we doing enough to spare those around us the same?

Read all of Bava Metzia 87 on Sefaria.

This piece originally appeared in a My Jewish Learning Daf Yomi email newsletter sent on May 25th, 2024. If you are interested in receiving the newsletter, sign up here.

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