Thursday, July 28, 2011

There Are No Kangaroos In Tehillim

The following letter was sent in Hebrew to Rabbi Amitai Ben-David (author of Sichas Chullin), Rabbi Yisroel Belsky, and Rabbi Yisrael Meir Levinger. (The Hebrew version can be downloaded at this link.)


Greetings! I was surprised to see a letter in which you decided to identify the shafan of the Torah as the rabbit instead of the hyrax. I would like to make several points in this regard:

There is no doubt that Rashbatz, Rashba, and the various other authorities who discussed the shafan were referring to the rabbit. But how is this at all relevant? They lived in Spain, and were thus familiar with rabbits, but not with hyraxes! This is no different from how the Rishonim in Ashkenaz mistakenly thought that the tzvi is the deer, and were therefore confounded by the Gemara which states that the horns of a tzvi are not branched. The reason was that that they were unfamiliar with the gazelle, which does not live in Europe, and so transposed the name tzvi to the deer. Only Rav Saadiah Gaon, who was familiar with the animal life of the Middle East, correctly identified the tzvi as the gazelle and the ayal as the deer—and he likewise correctly identifies the shafan as al-wabr. While some scholars believed the wabr to be the jerboa (a long-eared, long-tailed jumping rodent), this cannot be the shafan, since jerboas do not hide in rocks. As other experts on ancient Arabic point out, wabr is actually the hyrax. The opinion of Rishonim who never knew of the existence of hyraxes, only rabbits, is not relevant.

Second of all, rabbits do not live anywhere near Eretz Yisrael (European rabbits are only native to south west Europe and northwest Africa, and other African rabbits are only in central and southern Africa). It is thus unreasonable to the point of absurdity to posit that the rabbit is the shafan of Tanach. Would the Torah, and David HaMelech in Tehillim, and Shlomo HaMelech in Mishlei, have described the natural habits of an animal that none of the Jewish People knew of? Would they ever have described kangaroos leaping in the Australian bush, or penguins waddling upon ice floes?

Third of all, rabbits escape threats by running away or entering tunnels that they have excavated in earth, rather than hiding in rocks as the shafan is described as doing. The only rabbits which hide under rocks are the African rock hares, which only live in Southern Africa, and are in any case so similar in appearance to the hares of Israel (the arneves) that it is hard to imagine that they would be rated as a separate min.

With regard to the objection that the hyrax is a sheretz – I do not see this as any reason to disqualify the hyrax. First of all, Mishlei 30:24, 26 explicitly says that the shafan is a small animal. Second, hyraxes measure twenty inches in length, weigh up to ten pounds, and walk with their bodies held much higher from the ground that do mice and lizards. Furthermore, if one is going to consider the hyrax as a sheretz, then kal v’chomer that the rabbit, which is much smaller and moves with its body even closer to the ground, is a sheretz!

Finally, with regard to the question of the shafan chewing its cud, there are several explanations for this which are no more problematic than that regarding the hare. In fact, the hyrax appears to be more of a maaleh gerah than the hare; I have recently filmed a hyrax apparently in the act of regurgitating food, chewing it, and swallowing it again.

When David HaMelech describes how “the high hills are for the ibex, and the rocks are a refuge for the shefanim,” and when Shlomo HaMelech refers to the shafan as a small animal that hides in rocks, there is no doubt that they refer to the small animal that hides in the rocks in the exact region of the ibexes—the animal identified by Rav Saadiah as al-wabr — the hyrax. I explain all this at much greater length in my book The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax, which has just been republished in a new, expanded edition.



(There are still some spots left on this Sunday's Torah Tour of the Bronx Zoo. Write to zoorabbi@zootorah.com if you want to sign up.)

30 comments:

  1. Would you be able to post the letter you are referring to as well?

    ReplyDelete
  2. "...there are several explanations for this which are no less problematic than that regarding the hare."

    I think you mean, "no more problematic."

    ReplyDelete
  3. When were the letters sent and have you received any response?

    ReplyDelete
  4. DES - thanks!
    Panki - I just sent the letters today.

    ReplyDelete
  5. DLZ - the original letters are at:

    www.tovnet.org/shafan/ShafanHaskamaRavYisroelBelsky19Tamuz5771.jpg
    www.tovnet.org/shafan/ShafanHaskamaRavYisraelMeirLevinger18Tamuz5771.pdf
    www.tovnet.org/shafan/ShafanHaskamaRavAmitaiBenDavid16Tamuz5771.pdf

    ReplyDelete
  6. It seems to me that Rav Ben-David's methodology is to follow the rishonim, so I don't know what you expect from him.

    ReplyDelete
  7. "David HaMelech in Tehillim, and Shlomo HaMelech in Mishlei"

    It's not very "Rationalist Judaism" of you to ascribe authorship of sefer Mishlei to Shlomo and sefer Tehillim to David.

    ReplyDelete
  8. I'm sure that I'm not the only one who would appreciate your summarizing the "flood of evidence" brought in this book that caused Rav Belski to change his position.

    I realize that you already sent out your letter, but would suggest that you send an addendum that politely requests some other examples of the tanach referring to realia that could not have been seen in the vicinity of Eretz Yisrael.

    (Perhaps the Rabbonim would agree with you on this point and would say that the Torah is referring to an animal that WAS known in EY?)

    ReplyDelete
  9. SQ,

    Oh, as if the very term 'Rationalist Judaism' doesn't pose some very daunting difficulties of its own. But that - in case you havn't yet figured it out - is a line that our distinguished blog host has consistently refused to cross while periodically suggesting that 'one day' he'll get around to it.

    I don't know about you, but I'm not holding my breath.

    ReplyDelete
  10. It seems to me that Rav Ben-David's methodology is to follow the rishonim, so I don't know what you expect from him.

    That would be fine if he qualified the statements as such. "According to the following rishonim... the Shafan is a rabbit." Even so, I wouldn't see the value in this to the exclusion of all other sources. This is more of a פוק וחזי than a question of talmudic discourse.

    ReplyDelete
  11. I'm sure that I'm not the only one who would appreciate your summarizing the "flood of evidence" brought in this book that caused Rav Belski to change his position.

    I haven't seen the book yet, I've just spoken to people who have seen it. But, being familiar with Betech, and having corresponded with him on this issue several years ago, I'm confident that he doesn't have any evidence at all. Maybe I'll post extracts of my correspondence with him (I'll have to figure out if that's appropriate).

    ReplyDelete
  12. But that - in case you havn't yet figured it out - is a line that our distinguished blog host has consistently refused to cross while periodically suggesting that 'one day' he'll get around to it.

    See my post, "The Limits Of Rationalism." Incidentally, no matter what one's views of the authorship of Mishlei and Tehillim, when writing a letter to these rabbonim, it makes sense to ascribe them to Shlomo and David.

    ReplyDelete
  13. IMPORTANT UPDATE: Rav Levinger just replied to me that he did not reach any conclusions on the matter, and was merely commenting that Betech was explaining one view.

    ReplyDelete
  14. BTW Those 19th century bible dictionaries are incredible. Half a century before the Radziner found the sepia, they were discussing whether techeles was made from murex or janthina...

    ReplyDelete
  15. here's a post by Betech on the matter.

    http://slifkin-opinions.blogspot.com/2011/06/why-cant-hyrax-be-biblical-shafan.html

    ReplyDelete
  16. R' Levinger wrote to Dr. Betech that "you have successfully proven the tradition regarding the shafan" and "we have stayed with the same conclusion that you have reached."

    He seems rather enthusiastic about this one view. But he's welcome to backtrack.

    ReplyDelete
  17. "Incidentally, no matter what one's views of the authorship of Mishlei and Tehillim, when writing a letter to these rabbonim, it makes sense to ascribe them to Shlomo and David"

    I could not disagree more. You're sowing the seeds of your own defeat by privileging non-rationalist sensibilities. Chareidim aren't so ashamed of their views that they'll defer to rationalist positions when discussing things with you. you need to shift the Overton window in the frum world by including rationalist positions in the discussions as often as possible so that they're not considering outliers, beyond the pale. That's exactly why Artscroll doesn't include them.

    Say it loud and proud: We're present, we're intelligent, get used to it!

    ReplyDelete
  18. Live and let LiveJuly 28, 2011 at 11:25 PM

    SO is raising an important point.
    Rabbi Slifkin, why are you so keen on changing these hareidi rabbis' minds?
    Why do you care if Dr. Betech sways his own community to accept his conclusions based on the sources and lines of evidence that his community accepts?
    You just posted that you don't respect Rav Belsky's views on this matter anymore.

    You republished your Hyrax book. Your contrary opinion is already out there and will be sought by the members of your community.
    So why not live and let live?

    ReplyDelete
  19. Good question. There are a few reasons:

    First of all, the field of Biblical and Talmudic zoology is quite small, and I very much want to try to keep it on the right track!

    Second, I find that sometimes it just doesn't occur to people that the geographical location of the Rishonim is relevant to their views. It's important to point this out.

    Third, note how Rav Levinger backtracked after I wrote to him!

    Fourth, it's not just about convincing those rabbonim - it's also about educating people who are reading my letters on this website.

    ReplyDelete
  20. Fifth - there are consequences for practical kashrus, which I will discuss in a future post.

    ReplyDelete
  21. 'Fourth, it's not just about convincing those rabbonim - it's also about educating people who are reading my letters on this webs'

    Yeap. I didn't know that the rabbits don't live in Israel. I don't think anyone in my family in Israel or anywhere else knows this either. Now I'm going to tell them. Thanks for a fascinating post!

    ReplyDelete
  22. Ok 20 comments and nobody mentioend it... the image in the post says "image not available" to me...

    ReplyDelete
  23. sixth? it's a mitzvah...hocheach tocheach...
    seventh? just becuz ya care?
    and why is that not reason enough?

    ReplyDelete
  24. It seems that the charedi world is heavily invested in the shafan not being a hyrax.

    Why?

    Was it so controversial when Prof Feliks first suggested it?

    ReplyDelete
  25. "Ok 20 comments and nobody mentioend it... the image in the post says "image not available" to me..."

    This is likely because this was done as a 'clip' from the Google Book, instead of a screenshot. And people who live in places where that book is not made available will get an "image not available" message.

    The way to fix this would be to instead take a screenshot, by pressing the PrintScr key atop the keyboard. Then, open MSPAINT, paste the image from the clipboard, trim the sides of the image by using the selection tool, and saving as an image, perhaps as a JPEG. Then, uploading the image into the post.

    This is what I generally do to avoid using the Google Book clip feature, even though that feature is decidedly easier.

    ReplyDelete
  26. It seems that the charedi world is heavily invested in the shafan not being a hyrax.

    Why?


    Excellent question! That's what the next post will be about.

    ReplyDelete
  27. >>>> It seems that the charedi world is heavily invested in the shafan not being a hyrax. Why?

    Because, if the “shafan” is equated to the hyrax, the author of the Torah has mistakenly identified this creature as a “maalei gerah” (using the classical definition meaning “chewing its cud”) and that argues against the divinity (i.e. all-knowing entity) of the author.

    An impossibility in their minds.

    ReplyDelete
  28. No, there's a different agenda here.

    ReplyDelete
  29. Question: Why do you assume that because a rabbi lived in Spain, that he had to base his opinion of a Shafan on the animals in Spain?

    The reason I ask is because I seem to remember that rabbis around the world would often send letters to each other asking about various things in various places. It would not be difficult for a Rabbi in Spain to send letters to people living in Israel, and asking them about the wildlife there.

    I understand that you want to say that the Rishonim were mistaken, and that is fine. But I think the argument that the rishon lived in some country other than Israel, is not a good enough explanation for why they are mistaken.

    The shafan as a hyrax instead of a rabbit is more of a problem with the correctness of rishonim than the correctness of the chumash.

    ReplyDelete
  30. Yitz Waxman and Rabbi Slifkin -- Rav Ben-David's methodology is to follow the rishonim exclusively. There's no point arguing with him from any other perspective. Think of his masterpiece as a window to the world of the rishonim, not historical truth.

    ReplyDelete

Comments for this blog are moderated. Please see this post about the comments policy for details. ANONYMOUS COMMENTS WILL NOT BE POSTED - please use either your real name or a pseudonym.