Monday, August 1, 2011

Much Ado About Hyraxes

A very perceptive question was posed in the comments to the previous post. The questioner asked why various people are up in arms about the identity of the shafan. Is it just a dry technical issue of animal identification – or is there something larger going on?

The answer is the latter. The underlying agenda behind the discussion for many people is (a) to ensure that the Torah is scientifically accurate, and (b) to ensure that the straightforward understanding of the Gemara, that the four listed animals with one kosher sign are the only four such types in the world, is scientifically accurate.

It’s fascinating to see how this plays out. When analyzing this topic, there are a number of questions that need to be resolved. Here is a list of some of them:

  1. Are the lama, alpaca, vicuna and guanaco to be classified as being of the same min (type) as the camel?
  2. Is the rabbit classified as being of the same min as the hare?
  3. Does cecotrophy (the reingestion of special fecal pellets) by hares and rabbits rate as ma’aleh gerah?
  4. Do we believe those zoologists who say that the capybara practices cecotrophy?
  5. Is the capybara considered to be a sheretz or a chayah?
  6. Is the shafan the hyrax?
  7. Does the hyrax practice merycism?
  8. Is merycism considered to be maaleh gerah?
  9. Is the alleged merycism of koalas and proboscis monkeys the same as that of the hyrax?
  10. Is it likely that the shafan and arneves are extinct, unknown animals?

Now, when I analyzed this topic, I evaluated each of these questions in isolation, without considering the wider implications (at least, as best as I could). I was thus very disappointed to discover, at the end of my investigation, that there was no way in which it could be said that there are exactly four animals with one kosher sign. Eventually, I was able to find various ways of resolving this.

But other people, such as Isaac Betech and certain people in Aish HaTorah/ Discover, approach this list of questions entirely differently. Consciously or subconsciously, the final goal is that there should exactly four animals with one kosher sign. And the answers to all the questions in this list are arranged such that they will produce this result.

  • If the rabbit is identified as the shafan and thus classified as being a distinct type from the hare (which is the arneves), then the lama, alpaca, vicuna and guanaco must be classified as being the same type as the camel. (Even though vicunas are far more different from camels than rabbits are from hares!)
  • If koalas and proboscis monkeys practice merycism to the same degree as the hyrax, then merycism is not to be considered as maaleh gerah, and the shafan is not to be identified as the hyrax. (But if there were no other animals to practice merycism, you can be sure that the hyrax would be gleefully endorsed as the shafan.)
  • If it sounds convincing to say that the shafan and arneves are extinct, unknown animals, then cecotrophy and merycism are to be definitively rejected as viable interpretations of maaleh gerah, and the mesorah on the arneves is likewise to be rejected. (But if the arneves is accepted to be the hare, then these people will declare that it is unlikely that there are extinct, unknown animals that likewise practice rumination or cecotrophy!)

Some people might accuse me of having no basis to accuse my ideological opponents of having their evaluation of the individual questions driven by the overall conclusion that they are determined to reach. But it’s clear-cut. First of all, with some of them, such as Betech, he is clearly opposed to the idea that Chazal could be mistaken in any way. Second of all, I have an audio recording of Rav Yisroel Belsky in which he explicitly states that the reason why he prefers Betech’s approach is because the end result of it is that the simple, absolute interpretation of Chazal’s statement (that there are only four animals in the world) can be upheld!

When people such as Isaac Betech analyze the topic of the four animals, the final conclusion is established in advance; it’s just a matter of how to get there. Of course, that does not necessarily mean that the analysis of the individual questions is incorrect in all or any cases. But it does shed light on why the answers to the individual questions are so inconsistent with each other. The tiny vicuna is vastly different from the huge camel, and yet it is rated as being definitively (not even probably, but definitively) of the same min, whereas the rabbit is definitely rated as being of a separate min than the extremely similar hare. The tiny, five-pound rabbit is definitely rated as not being a sheretz and thus as being part of the list, but the 140 pound, two-and-a-half feet tall capybara is rated as being a sheretz and therefore disqualified from the list!

The irony in all this is that the credibility of Chazal is not even on the line with all this – only the simple and simplistic interpretation of Chazal’s statement about animals with one kosher sign, popular in the charedi world, is on the line. As everyone knows, I am certainly ready to say that Chazal were mistaken in their positions regarding the natural world. But, as I explain in The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax, the statements of Chazal about animals with one kosher sign does not need to fall into that category.

35 comments:

  1. It is one thing to claim the Talmud is mistaken, another to claim the Torah itself is mistaken. If you identify the Shafan as the hyrax, you contradict the Torah which says that the Shafan chews the cud.

    It is not so difficult to claim that the llama (2 l's), alpaca, vicuna and camel fall into the same "min", as the Torah only lists 10 "minim" between chaya and behaima to include all the hundreds of kosher animals.

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  2. "When people such as Isaac Betech analyze the topic of the four animals, the final conclusion is established in advance; it’s just a matter of how to get there."

    I approach Torah by assuming that it comes to tell us something that we didn't already know, some limud that is a new idea. So I do not understand how one can "learn" Torah with preconceived ideas about what it's telling us and work backwards.

    That said - Rabbi Slifkin, since the Torah gives us four animals -- what is the message?

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  3. The question always comes back to:
    If Chazal were to come back to life today and be presented with science in its current state, what would they do?
    1) Accept it, realize their understanding of the natural world was limited by the knowledge base of the times and strive to learn current science?
    OR
    2) Bury their heads in the sand, insist that the world is flat, that the sun revolves around it, that there's a dome, etc.?
    The Betech/Aish crowd want the second to be the definitive answer and that anything else is not respecting Chazal.
    Me, I think Chazal were interested in truth, not preconceived dogma.

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  4. "Is it just a dry technical issue of animal identification – or is there something larger going on?...The irony in all this is that the credibility of Chazal is not even on the line with all this"

    Theoretically(assuming one understands the Chazal in its simple sense), according to the opinions which hold that Chazal can be mistaken about science, is the case of the Four Animals different than say, lice or astronomy, since it involves an intepretation of pesukim or a mesorah? Is there any discussion about this difference, according to those shittos, anywhere?

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  5. rabbi, what of the hippopotamus which is not listed despite also possessing only split hooves?

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    1. Hippos don't have split hooves. Google hippo feet.

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    2. Hippos don't have split hooves, google images hippo feet

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  6. The similarity in the convergent evolution of ruminants is extremely fascinating. In the primates the ruminants all have selective pressures of trichromatic color vision which attunes a third opsin gene to the red area of the spectrum. All primate ruminants have trichromatic color vision attuned to red.

    The ability to see red allows these animals to find the nutritious, new, red leaves of which other species are unaware. The selective pressure is then in place for the ruminant development.

    There is selective pressure to favor the mutations of ribonuclease genes. These genes provide the enzymes with which the animals can deal with the increased acidity in the foregut.

    But there are also other effects on the evolution of these animals. For example, having all the new information from the trichromatic vision, selective pressure is relieved from the olfactory receptors [which other animals need to get information about their environment]....and many of the olfactory receptor genes "fossilize" [another type of "fossil" record].



    Gary Goldwater

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  7. How do I get the Hyrax book? Is there anyone from whom I can buy a copy in Israel while you're in Klipafornia?

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  8. While I agree with your logic for taking up this particular battle, I think it's important to remember that despite being in a camp called 'rationalist judaism', that our defacto position should still be that Chazal is correct. Should we find in our evaluation of the facts of any given topic (particularly in the arena of science) Chazal is incorrect, we can say such. But I would not necessarily fault anyone for beginning an analysis with the assumption that Chazal is correct and try to work out the details to fit the picture Chazal painted. Only when this picture's logic becomes indefensible should we then search for other answers.

    Rafi

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  9. speaking about the hyrex, I ordered the book online about 3 weeks ago and it hasn't arrived yet. Should I be worried?

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  10. If you take the Torah as a source of God-given truth (which I think is a pretty well established idea in Judaism), then its scientific accuracy is a foregone conclusion only because that's what this divine source of truth is asserting.

    It's like doing math with your fingers and getting different results with a calculator. You naturally try to make the results match because both methods are considered reliable sources of truth.

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  11. Hmmm. I think that what you are saying is that those with your approach are the better judge of the facts because they do not have beliefs that are dependent on the outcome. Since Rabbi Menken and Rabbi Shafran have stated that they are great believers in this concept, I wonder if they are willing to admit that you have the better vantage point to judge the facts of the cud chewers and split hoofers. Somehow I think that they will find some way out of making that admission.

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  12. It is not so difficult to claim that the llama (2 l's), alpaca, vicuna and camel fall into the same "min", as the Torah only lists 10 "minim" between chaya and behaima to include all the hundreds of kosher animals.

    Circular reasoning at its finest!

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  13. Rabbi Slifkin, since the Torah gives us four animals -- what is the message?

    As the Rishonim say - even though you will see the surrounding nations eating these animals, DO NOT EAT THEM.

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  14. is the case of the Four Animals different than say, lice or astronomy, since it involves an intepretation of pesukim or a mesorah?

    Yes, that does make a difference, but not an insurmountable one. I discuss this in the book.

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  15. what of the hippopotamus which is not listed despite also possessing only split hooves?

    That's not the case. There's a book that I can recommend...

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  16. HaRazieli said...
    How do I get the Hyrax book? Is there anyone from whom I can buy a copy in Israel while you're in Klipafornia?


    Yes, there is someone who has them. And, unless I am getting my pseudonyms mixed up, that someone is you!

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  17. speaking about the hyrex, I ordered the book online about 3 weeks ago and it hasn't arrived yet. Should I be worried?

    The books were all mailed from California a week ago. But the US postal service can sometimes be very slow. Can other people comment on whether they received their copy yet?

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  18. Garnel, your bitterness has gotten the better of you again. First, you gave a set of two choices, one of which was sensible and one ridiculous. (Plus, there's a third choice you neglected.) Also, you wrote with a bitter pen when you broadbrushed the "Aish crowd."

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  19. circular reasoning at its finest!

    I seem to recall someone who wrote a book on this topic that used this very reasoning. that someone is you!

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  20. That was one of the things that I changed in the new edition!

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  21. "(b) to ensure that the straightforward understanding of the Gemara, that the four listed animals with one kosher sign are the only four such types in the world, is scientifically accurate."

    I apologize for not being completely up on this issue(for me it does kind of fall into the "dry technical issue of animal identification") but it seems to me that this is a little understated.

    Is it really just an issue of confirming the scientific accuracy of Chazal? Rather it seems to me that Chazal represent the Torah as implying that it can be falsified by counter-examples...which the Sages go on to note was not the case (in their opinion/understanding). Perhaps there is an alternative approach to understanding this but it does not seem obvious nor have I notice you address this (even if you save the full explanation for your book)when it seems to be the issue.

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  22. Do you think that anyone who lived in the generation of the giving of the Torah believed that there were only 10 known animals that chewed the cud and had split hooves. Therefore, it is not exactly circular reasoning to posit that there are many animals included in each "min".

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  23. My copy arrived in Baltimore on Erev Shabbos. I would imagine that days or more of variation in delivery time throughout the US would be normal.

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  24. it seems to me that Chazal represent the Torah as implying that it can be falsified by counter-examples... which the Sages go on to note was not the case (in their opinion/ understanding). Perhaps there is an alternative approach to understanding this but it does not seem obvious nor have I notice you address this (even if you save the full explanation for your book)when it seems to be the issue.

    This is precisely what I address in my book. I agree that it *seems* to be the issue - but a more careful analysis of the Gemara and Acharonim reveals otherwise.

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  25. Do you think that anyone who lived in the generation of the giving of the Torah believed that there were only 10 known animals that chewed the cud and had split hooves

    Yes, absolutely!

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  26. "The books were all mailed from California a week ago. But the US postal service can sometimes be very slow. Can other people comment on whether they received their copy yet?" - I just received my copy and I can't wait to read it on Shabbos!

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  27. "Do you think that anyone who lived in the generation of the giving of the Torah believed that there were only 10 known animals that chewed the cud and had split hooves

    Yes, absolutely!"

    Why do you believe that if not all kosher animals which existed/exist around Israel are mentioned?

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  28. Do you have an explanation for why the Talmud Hulin 59a lists the Gamal as the only cud chewer with one sign? Maimonidies also. I know that Rashi adds the shafan and arneves.

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  29. It is not so difficult to claim that the llama (2 l's), alpaca, vicuna and camel fall into the same "min", as the Torah only lists 10 "minim" between chaya and behaima to include all the hundreds of kosher animals.

    Do you think that anyone who lived in the generation of the giving of the Torah believed that there were only 10 known animals that chewed the cud and had split hooves. Therefore, it is not exactly circular reasoning to posit that there are many animals included in each "min".


    Let me elaborate. You first made the claim that llamas and alpacas etc. can easily be fitted into the camel category, just as all kosher animals fit in the ten categories listed. But how do you *know* that all kosher animals can be fitted into the ten categories listed? That is a claim made by one opinion in the Gemara, which is not only disputed by other opinions, but is also difficult to reconcile with all the kosher types that we know. I have no doubt that those of Chazal who espoused this view thought that the list of ten was comprehensive - but that is because they were genuinely unaware of all the diverse kosher species in the world.

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  30. Do you have an explanation for why the Talmud Hulin 59a lists the Gamal as the only cud chewer with one sign? Maimonidies also

    Um, did you read the book?

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  31. I must say that I find it odd that many people are asking questions which I have already dealt with in the book. If you want to understand this topic, read the book!

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  32. "since the Torah gives us four animals -- what is the message?"

    A theory: How about that the Torah is giving us four prototypical animals. For the three "cud chewers" each is given to let us know that what that animal does IS considered chewing cud. Therefore, what the rabbit does is chewing cud, and whatever it is the hyrax does is chewing cud. If true, this would perhaps make the piccary kosher, but its a safek so no one would eat it :)

    The Gemara's statement "was Moshe a trapper?" could be just that it is amazing that Moshe would know these three kinds of "cud chewing" behaiviors since he was not a zoologist, and hence the info was given to him from Hashem.

    the three ANIMALS are not unique, but rather their behaiviors.

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  33. We call it "Shooting the arrows and drawing the circles around them."

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