Today is Hyrax Day - the day that Daf Yomi studies Chullin 59b, which launches the discussion of the camel, the hare and the hyrax. There are those who suggest that the shafan is not the hyrax, but instead is the rabbit. Previously, I noted that the reason why some Rishonim (medieval Torah scholars) believed that is that they lived in Spain, and were thus familiar with rabbits, but not with hyraxes. The shafan of the Chumash, Mishlei and Tehillim, on the other hand, must have been an animal from the Land of Israel - and in Israel there are plenty of hyraxes (there is one ten feet away from me right now!) but no rabbits.
I wrote to one person, Rabbi Amitai Ben-David, to challenge him on this point. He replied that while he was not certain that the shafan was the rabbit, he was uncomfortable with the idea that the Rishonim of Europe were limited by their geography and thus erred in identifying the animals of the Torah - after all, the Rishonim, and especially Rashi, wrote with ruach hakodesh.
Over the years, I have been so involved in defending the claim that Chazal's statements about the natural world were not the product of ruach hakodesh that I never invested much effort in defending this claim about the Rishonim. Of course, it should be a kal v'chomer, but it is helpful to have explicit sources.
Even Rav Aharon Feldman, in his essay defending the controversial ban on my books, admitted that the reasons for claiming that Chazal were infallible in their scientific pronouncements would not apply to the Rishonim. And there are countless statements by Rishonim that are clearly scientifically incorrect. With regard to geography in particular, I seem to recall various statements by Rashi and other Rishonim which demonstrate their unfamiliarity with the geography of Eretz Yisrael - perhaps someone can remind me of where this is.
The Rishonim themselves certainly did not believe that Rashi possessed flawless knowledge in such areas! One especially interesting example of this is with nataf, a sap used in the ketores, which Rashi (Ex. 30:34) says is also known as teriyake (not to be confused with chicken teriyake). Ramban says that there must either be a scribal error, or that Rashi was misinformed as to the nature of teriyake, since it is a mixture of various substances that could never have been permitted for use in ketores. Theriac (a.k.a. teriyake) was an ancient Greek concoction that was re-introduced in the medieval period by Chasdai Ibn Shaprut; Ramban was thus familiar with it, but Rashi was not (my thanks to Hannah Davidson for sharing with me her doctoral dissertation that discusses this topic). But the point is that Ramban had no qualms in saying that Rashi was misinformed as to the identity of this substance.
Elsewhere, Rashi writes that the trachea leads to the heart! An explicit rejection of Rashi's statements about anatomy is made by no less a mainstream figure than Chasam Sofer:
"What are the meanings of the anatomical terms mentioned in this Mishna? After I researched medical books and medical writers as well as scholars and surgical texts, I have concluded that we cannot deny the fact that reality is not as described by Rashi, Tosfos and the drawings of the Maharam of Lublin. We have only what the Rambam wrote in the Mishna Torah and his Commentary to the Mishna - even though the latter has statements which are unclear. However, you will find correct drawings in the book Maaseh Tuviah and Shevili Emuna…. Therefore, I did not bother at all with the commentaries of Rashi and Tosfos in this matter since it is impossible to match them with true reality. You should know this." (Chasam Sofer to Niddah 18a)
Based on both reason as well as explicit statements by Rishonim and Acharonim, it is clearly mistaken to posit that European Rishonim such as Rashi had supernatural knowledge with made them familiar with the animal life of Eretz Yisrael. Instead, Rashi and the other European Rishonim invariably identified the animals of the Torah as European species with which they were familiar. Thus, the griffin vulture became the eagle, the gazelle became the deer or ibex, the hippopotamus became the elephant - and the hyrax became the rabbit. This is the explanation of the discrepancies between the identifications of animals given by Rashi, and those given by Saadiah Gaon, who lived in the Middle East.
I find it strange that there are people who do not accept this.
(Don't forget that you can order The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax at http://www.zootorah.com/hyrax. And here is a video of a hyrax in the act of rechewing food that it swallowed earlier - not exactly rumination, but certainly close enough to account for it being described that way. I have an even better video that I will upload after I overcome some technical difficulties with it.)