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J.R.C. Cousland, «‘Her Flesh Was as Grass’: Vita Adam et Evae 10.1», Vol. 81 (2000) 507-510
The Vita Adam et Evae uses an unusual metaphor to describe Eve’s state when she ceases her penitential immersion in the Tigris river: ‘her flesh was as grass from the cold of the water’ (caro eius erat sicut herba). While a number of points of comparison have been adduced to explain the metaphor, including movement and texture, it is more likely to be the colour of Eve’s skin — she is as pale as grass from the cold of the water.
The Vita Adam et Evae relates that, after their expulsion from paradise, Adam and Eve repent of their sin by purifying themselves in the Jordan and Tigris rivers respectively. Satan manages to deceive Eve again by appearing to her in the guise of an angel, and persuading her to stop her penance. The Vita then says:
haec audiens autem Eva credidit et exivit de aqua fluminis et caro eius erat sicut herba de frigore aquae (10.1)1.
M.D. Johnson translates this passage as follows:
Now when Eve heard this she believed and came out of the water of the river, and her flesh was as grass from the cold of the water2.
In this translation one phrase is unusual: ‘her flesh was as grass’. What can the metaphor mean? Several explanations have been proposed. L.S.A. Wells, in his translation, accounts for it by likening Eve’s trembling to the movement of grass: ‘But Eve heard and believed and went out of the water of the river, and her flesh was (trembling) like grass, from the chill of the water’3. Another suggestion, noted by M.D. Johnson in his translation, is that of L. Ginzberg, who argues that the metaphor results from ‘a mistranslation of the rare Heb.·word yaro4qah, "sponge", as though it were related to ya4ra4q, "herb"’4. Ginzberg maintains that the metaphor ‘becomes intelligible only when we compare it with the Hebrew of PRE [Pirqe deRabbi Eli‘ezer]. The translator of the Vita from the Hebrew did not understand this rare word, and thought that it meant a "herb"’5. On the model of PRE, therefore, one could translate the passage ‘her flesh was like a sponge from the chill of the water’. In this case, perhaps, the texture of a sponge might match that of gooseflesh.
While Ginzberg’s conjecture is certainly plausible, it is not free of difficulties. First, other translators of the PRE apparently do not discern the same unintelligibility that Ginzberg does. G.·Friedlander, for instance, translates the passage in this way: