Shadal, García Márquez, and the Stain of Honor

Shadal, García Márquez, and the Stain of Honor

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Daniel Klein

Sex and violence, as everyone knows, make headlines and launch books onto the best-seller list. Even the best-selling book of all timethe Biblecontains more than a few stories about the violence that results from injured sexual pride or honor, as well as laws that are meant to suppress such violence.  So when a book by a modern author deals with themes of sex and violence by blending elements of real-life journalism, fine literary technique, and classic biblical motifs, the result is bound to be of special interest.

Such a book is Crónica de una muerte anunciada (“Chronicle of a Death Foretold”), a 1981 short novel by the Nobel laureate Gabriel García Márquez (1927-2014), who was famous for his style of “magical realism.”  The story was based on a shocking but true incident, an “honor killing” of sorts, that occurred in the author’s native Colombia in 1951. But the plot, almost as plausibly, could have come straight out of the Humash.

Briefly stated, a wealthy young man comes to a small Colombian village, where he courts and weds a local beauty—only to return her to her parents’ home in disgrace on their wedding night after he discovers that she is not a virgin. In the morning, her brutish twin brothers take it upon themselves to redeem the family honor by knifing to death her alleged paramour. There is a horrible inevitability to the crime, as the brothers make no secret of their plan and yet no one in the village makes enough of an effort to put a stop to it.

If the plot had not been ripped from an old South American headline, I would have guessed that García Márquez had simply chosen to write a new version of a biblical story. The book seems to be a mash-up of chapter 34 of Genesis and chapter 22 of Deuteronomy. I am referring, of course, to the incident of Dinah and Shechem on the one hand, and the law of the accused bride on the other. The parallels to the first source, at least, are not exact—there, the two avenging brothers act in treachery and massacre an entire town—yet the points of similarity are unmistakable. And helping us see these similarities are the comments of Samuel David Luzzatto (Shadal, 1800-1865) on certain key verses.[1]

First of all, let us examine Jacob’s bitter reference to the Dinah-Shechem affair in Genesis 49:5.  The verse begins with a seemingly obvious statement about the avengers: “Simeon and Levi are brothers.” In his translation, Shadal inserts the parenthesized word “(entirely)” before “brothers,” and in his commentary he states, “Alike and resembling each other more than the rest of the brothers.”  Shades of the twin Colombian murderers!  We know that Simeon and Levi were not actually twins, but then again, neither were the two brothers who perpetrated the real-life 1951 killing. It’s almost as if García Márquez had read Shadal and decided to play up the resemblance of his characters.

Jacob’s statement continues, “Their weapons (mekheroteihem) are tools of lawlessness” (1985 JPS translation). Shadal renders mekheroteihem as “their swords,” and in his comment he observes that midrashic sources as well as Jerome connected this word with the Greek makhaira, which means “sword” or “knife.”  The weapon of choice in 1951 was a machete, while the García Márquez characters make use of pig-slaughtering knives. Again, the parallel is striking.

Now let us consider the law of the accused bride.  As codified by Maimonides (Mishneh Torah, Nashim, Hilkhot Na’arah Betulah, ch. 3), when a bridegroom claims to have discovered that his bride was not a virgin, her father may bring a complaint against him to the local elders, supported by the testimony of witnesses who contradict those of the bridegroom.  If, upon examination, the father’s witnesses are found trustworthy, the husband is subject to corporal punishment and a fine.

This procedure is in accordance with the majority opinion of the Rabbis as found in the Talmud (Ketubot 46a), who derive their approach from Deuteronomy 22:13-21.  But when we look at those Torah verses, they seem to say something else entirely.  Not a word about witnesses there—instead, the bride’s father says (v. 17), “But here is the evidence of my daughter’s virginity (ve-eleh betulei viti)!” What evidence is this? The verse continues, “And they shall spread out the cloth (ha-simlah) before the elders of the town.” Understood literally, this simlah must be the couple’s bedsheet, presumably stained with blood.  But the majority opinion in Ketubot takes a metaphorical, even fanciful approach: “This teaches that the witnesses of one party and those of the other party come, and they render the matter as clear as a new cloth.”

Why did the majority opt to reject the literal meaning? In his commentary on v. 17, Chief Rabbi Joseph Hertz observes that although the bedsheet evidence, the so-called “tokens of virginity,” was regarded as essential by many ancient peoples, “the absence of those tokens is by no means conclusive of guilt.” Apparently the majority felt that the usual evidentiary regime—under which guilt could be established only by the testimony of two eyewitnesses who had warned the accused of the consequences of her behavior—was a more reliable means of protecting the suspected bride against a potential death penalty.

This position was not unanimous.  Ketubot 46a records the minority view of R. Eliezer ben Jacob, who insisted on calling a simlah a simlah. “The words are to be understood as written,” he said, “simlah mamash”—the actual bedsheet itself must serve as the decisive evidence. Centuries later, this literalist view was defended by Shadal, following his usual approach of examining the Torah’s “plain” meaning (pshat) even if it does not reflect the ultimate normative halakhah.

But how does Shadal deal with the uncertain reliability of the simlah?  Here is his remarkable comment:  “The Torah’s intent was to make it unlikely that a man would falsely defame his wife, and so it gave credence to the proof of the blood, even though it could perhaps have been falsified [emphasis mine], in order to establish peace in the home and to save from death a girl who had been unchaste in her father’s house [i.e., before betrothal (erusin), though the majority opinion made her liable only if the act occurred during the betrothal period]… The Torah wisely softened this harsh measure by commanding us to give credence to the blood, despite the fact that this is a proof that is susceptible of doubt.” In other words, to use modern legal terminology, the Torah meant to create an “irrebuttable presumption” that the bloodstain was genuine and that it conclusively established virginity.  

Scholarly studies have shown that both the inspection of the marital bedsheet and the faking of the evidence thereon are ancient, widespread practices that have persisted into the modern era.[2] They even play a role in contemporary fiction—notably, in García Márquez’s Crónica. The bride in this story knows that she is heading for trouble on her wedding night, and she confides her anxiety to a group of her close friends. These girls advise her not to worry, and they prescribe a precise regimen to deceive her husband: get him drunk, darken the room, and apply alum water and mercurochrome to fabricate a “stain of honor” that could be exhibited the next day in the patio. In the end, the bride finds that she cannot go through with this deception; such shameful acts “could not be done to anyone, least of all to the poor man who had the bad luck to marry me.”  And from there the tragedy unfolds.

Nowadays we view the vengeful murders that took place in Colombia and Canaan as acts of barbarism, although they seem positively chivalrous when compared to the “honor killings” that persist in some parts of today’s world, since the victims of such crimes are usually not men but women—even rape victims—who are regarded as having brought shame on their kin.[3] As for the Torah’s law of the suspected bride, the procedure described in Deut. 22:13-21 is no longer carried out, because this law is now effectively a dead letter.  If Shadal was correct in maintaining that the original intent of the law was to give credence to the stain of honor, even if faked, Shadal himself would have conceded that the Rabbis had the halakhic power to impose their majority view and replace the literal simlah with human witnesses. But in any case, today no Jewish bride would ever be put on trial for committing unfaithful acts during the time of erusin, for the simple reason that this period of formal betrothal was long ago shortened from a full year down to a few minutes at most and now takes place in front of a roomful of wedding guests.

Nevertheless, as we are only too well aware, the present-day religious Jewish community is not free of sexual misconduct.  Although we have may have been spared any full-blown sex-and-violence scandals lately, it might be best not to assume that this particular volcano is extinct, or even safely dormant.  And if it should erupt, has ve-shalom, one can only wonder whether the case would be judged with the wisdom of a Shadal or chronicled with the pen of a García Márquez.


[1] The sources of citations to Shadal in this article are Il Pentateuco volgarizzato e commentato da Samuel Davide Luzzatto, vol. 1 (Padua, 1871) and vol. 5 (Padua, 1876) and The Book of Genesis: A Commentary by Shadal (S.D. Luzzatto), ed. and trans. Daniel A. Klein (Northvale, NJ and Jerusalem: Jason Aronson Inc., 1998).

[2] See, for example, Kathleen Coyne Kelly, Performing Virginity and Testing Chastity in the Middle Ages (London and New York: Routledge, 2000).

[3] For an information resource about honor killings, see the Honour Based Violence Awareness Network website, http://hbv-awareness.com/

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