Sunday, August 28, 2011

Last of the Hyrax

This will hopefully be the last hyrax post! But it really shows how this topic relates to rationalist vs. anti-rationalist thought. (Please note that I have decided to make the first part of the chapter on hyraxes from my book available as a free download here - feel free to distribute it.)

Jonathan/Yoel Ostroff is a follower of Rav Shlomo Miller from Toronto, and a passionate advocate of the idea that the universe was created 5771 years ago. He is also known to to readers of this blog as someone with bizarre debating tactics who consistently distorts my views regarding both the science and theology of evolution. He has now entered the hyrax fray, with a post for which the commenting feature appears to be currently disabled. As a result, I am responding to his comments here.

1. The fact that Alexander Kohut, Marcus Jastrow and other such scholars of language explained the shafan to be the rabbit is irrelevant. It is knowledge of animals, not Aramaic, which is relevant here. The European Rishonim and many later European scholars were entirely unfamiliar with the hyrax. So of course they would translate shafan and its Aramaic translation of tafza into an animal that they knew of - they could not and would not translate it with a word that would have no meaning for them or their readers! This is just as they mistakenly thought that the tzvi was a hirsch (deer) - in spite of the Gemara which says that its horns are not branched. (Is Ostroff going to argue that the tzvi is in fact the deer?) In fact, what Ostroff - significantly - does not mention is that Jastrow presents the alternative translation of "coney" - itself a term which was sometimes used for rabbits and sometimes for hyraxes - and he may well have meant the latter, in light of his presenting it as an alternative to rabbit.

2. Having personally owned both rabbits and hyraxes, and having spent many hours observing them in captivity and in the wild, I can attest that the hyrax is much more of a tafza/ jumper than the rabbit! Rabbits rarely jump in the wild; hyraxes do it all the time, in order to get from rock to rock, and they are much better at it than rabbits. The hyrax is also much LESS of a sheretz than the rabbit.

3. Ostroff cites the the example of monkeys and peacocks, mentioned in Tenach, as examples of Tenach speaking about non-local animals. But these were brought as royal gifts, and are highlighted as such. What evidence is there that rabbits were brought? Furthermore, the pesukim in Tehillim and Mishlei specifically describe the shafan in its natural habitat. Is it possible that David was told about that, or knew it by ruach hakodesh? Sure, it's possible. But is it remotely reasonable, in comparison to saying that he was talking about a local animal with which everyone was familiar and was known in other dialects by the same name? Only if one is an extremely irrational person. When David speaks about the aryeh roaring, is it possible that he is actually speaking about a Tyrannosaurus rex, which he knew about via ruach hakodesh? Sure. (And if the aryeh is really the T-Rex, perhaps you can resolve the Gemara which gives a gestation period for the aryeh that is different from that known with lions!) But is it remotely reasonable to say this?

4. Ostroff writes that "The Radak and Malbim explain that Borchi Nafshi is talking about the whole of creation as is obvious from even a supeficial reading of the psalm." But what does that even mean? Yes, it makes mention of the sun, which shines over the whole world. But does it talk about octopi or supernova or quarks? If so, I must have missed that passuk! Barchi Nafshi is speaking about the entirety of creation - from the perspective of its author!

5. Ostroff writes that "As you say, of course, He knows about the rabbits in Spain and elsewhere. So what is so difficult about Him writing about them in His Torah of Truth?" Because nobody would have had a clue what He was talking about. That's why He doesn't say the halachos of electricity or donor IVF (which would have been EXTREMELY useful), or describe anything else with which the ancient Jews were not familiar. Is there a single counterexample? And there is also the matter of Tehillim and Mishlei.

6. Ostroff makes the following incredible statement: "Your position is based on just too many suppositions."

That is too funny!

My position is based on translating shafan as the animal which is called by a similar name in local languages, which matches the descriptions given in the pesukim better than any other animal, which was very familiar to the Jewish People, and which is identified as such by those (such as Saadiah) who actually lived in the region, as well as by virtually every other researcher of this topic (without an anti-rationalist perspective).

Ostroff's position is based on the idea that David and Shlomo were speaking about a South African animal (the European rabbits don't hide in rocks) which they happened to know about via a hypothetical and inexplicable import, or by ruach hakodesh (even though there is no precedent for ruach hakodesh being used in this way), and then mentioned its behavior in its natural habitat to their readers/listeners even though none of them had seen one, and even though there is no other such case of the natural habits of foreign animals anywhere in Tenach - and they did so with a name that just so happens to be used by other peoples in the area to refer to a local animal that matches the description in the pesukim, and which lives together with the ibex that are mentioned in the same passuk! Furthermore, it means describing an unfamiliar animal in place of a familiar one which would be much more meaningful for them to tell the Jewish People about! If you want the nation to ponder God's wisdom as manifest in animals that hide in the rocks, why neglect describing the local animal which does that, in favor of describing a Southern African animal that none of them have ever seen - especially when in every other case that you mention animals, you describe familiar ones? (Honestly, does anyone think that ancient Jews in Israel saying Tehillim would have said "Hey, this is interesting, it's talking about a South African rock rabbit!") And Ostroff's alleged reasons for doing this are flimsy in the extreme - based EXCLUSIVELY on European translations by people who lacked knowledge of animals of Israel!

It is especially ironic that Ostroff claims to be "open to all reasonable possibilities"!

I know, I really shouldn't waste my time with Ostroff. Still, this topic is very dear to me, so I couldn't resist.

29 comments:

  1. octopodes or octopuses, but please not octopi ;)

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  2. > He has now entered the hyrax fray, with a post for which the commenting feature appears to be currently disabled.

    So he's pulling a Shafran over a Shafan. Coincidence? I wonder...

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  3. on a lighter note, but seriously...

    hashafan hakatan shachach lisgor ha'delet...

    could a hyrax axually forget?

    wondering how shafan as a rabbit made it into mainstream ivrit.

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  4. It's a holdover from Europe. (In Ivrit, the hyrax is called shafan sela.)

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  5. octopi vs octopuses vs octopodes* == A wonderful analysis: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wFyY2mK8pxk

    * By the way, it's pronounced octOPuhDees, not OCTuhPoads.

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  6. Just to say it again: Don't bother with Ostroff; he's basically a walking joke. I called him one time and mentioned the fact that animal species don't show common descent from the time of Noach, which would be true if the mabul were literal as written, and he thought I was asking about evolution. It was like I pressed a button and a long and humorously inaccurate diatribe against evolution just popped out. After fifteen minutes and some entertaining back-and-forths, I said, "But that actually wasn't what I was asking...."

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  7. I too am “hyrax saturated”, but i have to ask.

    Reb Natan, aside from the sake of being “intellectually correct”, what is the practical difference if shafan is a hyrax or a rabbit? Both don’t chew their cud and choosing either as the translation shows that the author of the text was mistaken about the animals’ activities.

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  8. 1. Practical difference - none at all.

    2. Ostroff's and Betech's agenda is to limit maaleh gerah to referring to rumination and cecotrophy, and thereby have these animals being the only such ones in the world (since they classify the 150lb, two-foot-tall capybara as a sheretz!).

    3. Technical correction: it's probably only with the hare that we have to invoke dibra Torah k'lashon bnei adam. The hyrax really does regurgitate its food.

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  9. Jorge, I think derech eretz would call for you to keep your criticisms to the man's arguments, not to his person.

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  10. I am a fan of your blog. The point to be noted is that I am French. Last Sabbath I had the surprise to discover that the classic translation in French of the Torah translated the shaffan into jerboa and not into rabbit. Did you know it ?
    Thank you
    Noémi

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  11. Interestingly, we just had a passage in the Daf Yomi on Chullin 63b where the gemara holds that in the identification of bird species it is inadequate to simply be a master of (torah) learning, but one must know the birds as well!

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  12. Slifkin said:
    "Jonathan/Yoel Ostroff is...also known to to readers of this blog as someone with bizarre debating tactics who consistently distorts my views regarding both the science and theology of evolution."

    So you say. Respectfully, to be fair I would make the charge that you do the same with many an opponent to your views. The comments features are working on his site.

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  13. Respectfully, I would disagree.

    I tried commenting on his post from two different computers without success.

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  14. How can a yeshivish guy cite Marcus Jastrow? He thanks reform rabbis and forerunners of the conservative movement in his intro! Zecharia Frankel, Henrich Graetz, and a few more - and (gasp) Abraham Geiger! Oy! A kofer.
    Would he cite Jastrow in a shiur klolli?

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  15. I hope you'll be pleased to hear that the Gutnick edition of the Chumash, which includes an English translation along with (among other things) the Lubavitcher Rebbe's commentary on Rashi, translates shafan as hyrax. So even some mystical branches of Judaism (well, at least one -- Chabad) seem to accept the reality that the shafan refers to the hyrax. (As an aside, I recommend the Gutnick edition to anyone interested in getting a digestible taste of some Chabad philosophy and interpretation. Its commentary is much more detailed, thorough and in-depth than the Artscroll, which rarely includes any comments longer than a couple sentences.)

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  16. How come Artscroll Saperstein edition translates Shafan as Hyrax, but Tzvi as Deer?

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  17. Pliny, I actually was only referring to his statements and ideas, not his character. He fails to bother listening to those who are speaking with him,and he recycles the most tired examples of anti-science thinking.
    Furthermore, his claim that only forward-looking science is actually scientific is silly and logically fallacious, but he pushes it as if it made sense.

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  18. Just noticed while reciting "Barchi Nafshi" this morning that the Metsudah Siddur translates "shafanim"as "rabbits".

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  19. Rabbi Slifkin can you explain to me why a day has gone by without people having commented on the post you say is not apparently having comments on it? You yourself commented on it. I think your claim has to be taken with a great grain of salt. You give at least as bad as you got.

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  20. YA, you're nuts (and that's a nice way of putting it), and I've been getting increasingly fed up with you. What, do you think I was lying??? I tried submitting comments from two computers, and failed. I have no idea why it didn't work. But I am not lying - and I find your implication that I was lying to be loathsome.

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  21. I'm not saying you lied. Althouhgh you accuse your opponents of it plenty. What I do say is that maybe you were not anxious to see if there was a real way to get on to his site because you did not want to debate him but wanted your own pulpit. So don't call me nuts.

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  22. I agree with all of what you've written except for one thing: hyraxes don't jump as well as rabbits. That is, they can jump HORIZONALLY extremely well (from rock to rock), but I've never seen a hyrax jump vertically like a rabbit does (http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/binky)

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  23. I have seen my pet hyrax jump MUCH higher than my rabbits could jump!

    But in any case, I think that those who translated shafan as tafza probably (mistakenly) thought that it was a jerboa.

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  24. Rabbi Slifkin, can you apologize for calling me nuts and as for you getting increasingly fed up with me, what for? Have I ever insulted you, calling you a name like you did me? I rather gave my opinions with respect and not having it be personal against you. It would only be insecurity on your part how you behaved towards me. Act that way towards another commentator. I'm not taking it. I have born no anger towards you. I read your books. I even defended you. A little tolerance and niceness from you would be in order.

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  25. The world record for a jumping rabbit is 39.17 in (around 23 inches is average) and apparently they do this a lot when being hunted.

    Couldn't find any info on jumping Hyraxes.

    I would imagine that how high a hyrax or rabbit can jump will depend on the exact species etc.

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  26. YA when you make silly accusations against Rabbi Slifkin like the ones you are making, ascribing nefarious motives to a person, it really is disrespectful and insulting. Whether you really are unaware of that being disrespectful, or you are knowlingly being disingenuous I cannot possibly know, but either way I think this approach is commonly denoted by the phrase "passive aggressive." Saying it politely does not remove the insult.

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  27. Student V you are being passive aggressive. If comments are disabled it aught to be there is nothing to click on. Rabbi Slifkin could have made a mistake jumping to the wrong conclusion. I did not say he was lying. It sure has been that people can post comments on that site. It would be big of Rabbi Slifkin to put away away silly pride and not just post my refutations but simply say sorry. Revenge is not allowed in Halacha.

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  28. YA, I apologize for my intemperate language. But I was offended by your implication that I was lying - which apparently was a misunderstanding of what you were saying. I am still offended by your equating my treatment of Ostroff with his treatment of me. And might I remind you that in these comments and in our email correspondence, you have said some pretty harsh things to me (e.g. "silly pride"). As I've said before, I don't think that this forum is for you, and I would rather that you did not participate in it.

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  29. Rabbi Slifkin, I am very happy to accept your apology and I realize there was a misunderstanding and apologizing was completely big of you. A very big Shkoiach. If I have been critical in the past I still did not quite notice perhaps the extent being as I was more caught up in the argument then actually internalizing it as more than one of critiquing your ideas. Believe me if we would talk on the phone there would not be rancor but more understanding. May Hashem give you and your family all Bracha and Hatzlacha in the coming year.

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