Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Venom of Wolves

Here is a letter that I received yesterday:

Dear Rabbi Slifkin,

Today’s daf discusses the case from the Mishnah (42a) that states that animals become Tereifos by being attacked and clawed ("Derisah") by various types of wild animals and birds. RASHI (42a, DH Derusas ha'Ze'ev) writes that the reason why "Derisah" renders an animal a Tereifah is that the attacker "hits with its claws, and injects poison [into its victim] and burns it." Similarly, Rashi 52b (DH Aval b'Makom) states that the attacking animal "gets angry, and it has a strong poison which it injects into it (its victim) when it hits it with its claws." This explanation is difficult for me, because as far as I am aware, none of the predatory animals and birds listed in the Mishnah have any poison that they inject through their claws into their prey. Is there any other explanation you are aware of?

Thank you
Kol Tuv
M.F.

In response, here is an extract from the chapter on wolves in my forthcoming Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom:

An animal is only kosher for consumption if it is in good physical health at the time of slaughter. The Mishnah lists various terefos, fatal defects, which render an animal prohibited for use as food. One of these fatal defects is a mauling by a wolf:

These are the terefos in domesticated animals… if it fell from a roof, if most of its ribs were broken, a mauling by a wolf; Rabbi Yehudah says, a mauling by a wolf [is considered a fatal defect] with a small domestic animal, and a mauling by a lion [is considered a fatal defect] with a large animal. (Mishnah, Chullin 3:1)
Although wolves usually hunt in packs, single wolves are capable of bringing down even very large prey such as moose or bison. They usually prefer not to take on such prey, however, since one kick from a moose can disembowel the wolf. Furthermore, the wolves of North America, which bring down such large prey, are much bigger animals than the wolves of Israel and the surrounding region. While North American wolves average 100 pounds, with the record specimen weighing 175 pounds, the wolves of the Middle East average only about 50 pounds and take much smaller prey. Thus, from a halachic standpoint, if a wolf mounts an unsuccessful attack against a large animal such as a cow, the animal is not considered to be mortally wounded and it may still be slaughtered for human consumption. Only with small livestock, such as sheep and goats, is a mauling by a wolf considered a fatal defect. The Talmud further clarifies that a wolf is the smallest creature with which a mauling on a small domestic animal renders it as possessing a fatal defect.

Unfortunately, these laws give rise to difficult contradictions with our knowledge of wolves. One difficulty is that the Talmud states that the result of such maulings is that venom is injected into the prey animal (Chullin 53a). Needless to say, this is not consistent with modern zoological knowledge of wolves.

One solution presented for such difficulties (see Michtav Me-Eliyahu, vol. IV, p. 355, footnote 4) is that the Talmud is not referring to a chemical venom generated by the animal, but rather to infections caused by bacteria accumulating in the animal. Such "venom" certainly exists:

“Many people mauled by lions have died from wounds that should have been survivable: the meat caked under the attackers’ claws and teeth injected the victims with disease, and they died in a gangrenous fever.” Gordon Grice, The Red Hourglass: Lives of the Predators (London: Penguin Books 1998), p. 104.

This answer is offered with regard to why the cat is listed as a creature whose mauling is considered a fatal defect, whereas a dog is not (see Chullin 53a). It is explained that since cats have long retractable claws, dirt can accumulate beneath them. However this explanation falls short with our discussion, since the wolf is listed as an animal that can cause such damage, even though it is physiologically essentially the same as a dog rather than a cat.

A second difficulty is that the Talmud rules that these maulings which are rated as causing fatal defects are referring to maulings inflicted with the claws, not with the teeth. This, too, conflicts with contemporary observations of wolves, which reveal that wolves never attack prey with their claws, only with their teeth. The reason for this reflects the very different hunting strategy of wolves compared to members of the cat family such as lions and leopards. A big cat is an ambush predator. It is not built for running at speed, but rather for firmly seizing its prey. It uses its strong arms and claws to grasp its prey, enabling it to make a killing bite in a precise spot. Wolves, on the other hand, are pursuit predators. The legs of a wolf are slender, and the paws not jointed for grasping; its body is built for long-distance pursuit, not for bringing down prey. The wolf’s claws are strong, but very blunt, because the tips are worn off by constant contact with the ground. These are used for digging and gripping the earth while running, not for seizing or killing prey. Wolves kill with a large number of minor slashing bites, rather than the single lethal bite of a big cat.

These contradictions resist simple resolutions that preserve the correctness of both the Talmud and modern zoology. It appears that they force one to take sides in the centuries-old dispute concerning statements in the Talmud that are contradicted by science.

22 comments:

  1. IMHO, the solution of Rav Dessler himself is closer to the truth. There are other reasons for the disqualification. Not just venom. The effects of the bacteria were attributed to venom by the Babylonian Talmudic sages, probably in line with the scientific understanding of the time.

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  2. Interesting post. It might not be relevant for the Torah encyclopedia (when is that expected to be ready?) but would you care to analyze the source of their mistake? I'll give you some examples:
    1. Not being familiar with wolf anatomy/physiology hunting practiices
    2. Not having seen a wolf
    3. Not understanding why animals attacked by a wolf die suddenly despite minor wounds and therefore inventing a reason
    4. Reliance on secular knowledge or assumptions that were faulty
    5. Subtext to forbid eating attacked animals for some other reason ie. not the real or only reason for the prohibition

    I guess I see this as different than the Gemara in Pesachim where it is clear that faulty cosmologic assumptions and lack of familiarity with celestial body movement contributed to the mistake. This something that should be an observable phenomenon so less easy to attribute to the contradiction between Torah and science.

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  3. > A big cat is an ambush predator. It is not built for running at speed, but rather for firmly seizing its prey.

    I know some cheetahs that would like to speak to you about this...

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  4. The question is: where did chazal take their zoological knwoledge from? I'm not familiar with ancient zoology, but I think that a rationalist should deal with such contradictions in a honest way, by accepting that chazal wrote according to THEIR understanding in zoology. Therefore, to understand chazal correctly, we need to cross-check their words against ancient, not modern, zoology.

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  5. I just noticed that R. Josh Waxman posted an interesting discussion on this topic today:
    http://parsha.blogspot.com/2011/08/daf-yomi-chullin-52a-do-hawks-martens.html

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  6. Eric. That's a great question, but your proposed solutions are way off. Before you start second guessing Hazal (which is OK in my book), you've got to at least learn the whole sugya first.

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  7. Zohar,

    I have learned the sugya. Your comment posted before mine tracks with my fifth suggested reason - that the reasons given are a sort of asmachta for the true "reason" - that Chazal had a tradition that such animals are forbidden.

    The problem with R. Dessler's answer (besides the zoologic issues that R. Slifkin refers to in the post) is that the entire flow of that gemera is under what circumstances will the animal release its venom (fear, paw cut off) - if it's forbidden we could have just closed off the whole shakla v'tarya with Halacha L'moshe Misinai. If you're going to give A reason, why not choose a more convincing or factual one - someone could just watch the wolf kill and see that their reason doesn't hold up. This is different than urethral anatomy or cardiac physiology where there is a certain element of "black box" as to how the organ actually functions.

    Note that the Rambam while mentioning that the prohibition is only for claw inflicted damage makes no mention of the reason suggesting he felt that the Gemara's reasoning of venom was not essential for the prohibition.

    Anyway I was hoping that R. Slifkin given his extensive knowledge in these areas would give his opinion on what the source of the mistake could be.

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  8. If the Halacha is dealing with what could happen in theory ie. the "venom" could be injected if the wolf would only go beyond its habit and use it's claws under the circumstances, then it is not a contradiction. We can see the Halacha as concerned with what the wolf is capable of doing and not with what physical studies show as the wolf's psychology rather with an inner psychology, perhaps even spiritual, that under the right circumstances the Talmud would be saying could be made to come out and do the the damage.

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  9. Another reason can be offered as to why the explanations offered fall far short, even from within the sugya itself. In the middle of Chulin 53a the Gemara concludes that an animal can only cause its' victim to become a treifa if it clawed with intent and while (the attacker) is alive. See Rashi 'shelo medaas' (12 lines down) where he states that if an animal accidently fell off a roof and its' claws became embedded in the victim there will be no release of 'venom.' However if the venom is really bacteria, then these differentiations of intent and being alive would be meaningless.

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  10. In this case, who is saying the wolf has "venom" and "gets angry"? Rashi or Chazzal?

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  11. > One solution presented for such difficulties (see Michtav Me-Eliyahu, vol. IV, p. 355, footnote 4) is that the Talmud is not referring to a chemical venom generated by the animal, but rather to infections caused by bacteria accumulating in the animal.

    I heard R' Yisroel Belsky present the same exact solution during a shiur. He also explained the Gemara's discussion of Maror having poision (and thus requiring Charoses to counteract it) in a similar fashion, i.e., that Maror contains some sort of bacteria.

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  12. >>>> I heard R' Yisroel Belsky present the same exact solution during a shiur. He also explained the Gemara's discussion of Maror having poision (and thus requiring Charoses to counteract it) in a similar fashion, i.e., that Maror contains some sort of bacteria.

    And what, the charoses has antibiotics??? Did he really say this??. I hope you are certain in reporting this.
    To me, it is very upsetting whenever such apparent non-sense comes forth from a person who is to be respected as a Talmud Chochem. Do they not realize that they make fools of themselves and in effect create a chillul Hashem.

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  13. Re. Maror-
    It does not say that maror has poison, just a sharpness that can cause indigestion which is ameliorated by dipping it in the charoses.

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  14. alex - hazal
    henoch - good
    yeedle - good. where do you think they got this info?
    eric - better. there is a solution like rav dessler

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  15. elemir:
    well, don't forget that charoses has wine, which has some anti-bacterial effects.

    (too much wine in that Pesach dish, though, could lead to charoses of the liver...)

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  16. Bites by wolves which were rabid but exhibiting one of the versions of symptoms that differs from the classical frothing rage (which was known to Chazal and to classical medicine) might be another explanation.

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  17. >>And what, the charoses has antibiotics??? Did he really say this??. I hope you are certain in reporting this.
    To me, it is very upsetting whenever such apparent non-sense comes forth from a person who is to be respected as a Talmud Chochem. Do they not realize that they make fools of themselves and in effect create a chillul Hashem.

    He most certainly did say this. Do you have a better explanation of this Gemara/Halacha? Were the Amoraim also creating a Chillul Hashem by mentioning this?
    Perhaps the Charoses combination has some natural, medicinal benefit.

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  18. >>>> Do you have a better explanation of this Gemara/Halacha?

    Yes. It’s obvious that the sage(s)quoted in this Gemorrah had his/their science wrong. Isn’t it time we admitted that Chazal’s knowledge of science was limited to the general science knowledge of their times. What is the big deal to admit this truth.

    >>> Were the Amoraim also creating a Chillul Hashem by mentioning this?

    of course not. They certainly did not go around spouting “facts” that any 15 year old could’ve refuted. In fact, I believe that they made every effort to understand nature as best as was known in their time. Heck, that’s the irony. They wanted to know as much science as could be known, and today, many of the so-called gedolim of our time eschew studying science, as best as they could.

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  19. Thanks for the post. I shared it with my maggid shiur for daf yomi, who is a son-in-law of Rav Carmell z'l.

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  20. One possibility seems to be dirt. My father had a nasty fall from a ladder resulting in a compound fracture. Bacteria from the soil caused a major infection causing him to lose his leg.

    I wonder if an animal being bitten and/or knocked down might be subject to a bacterial infection from the surrounding soil?

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  21. In evaluating the knowledge of the natural world possessed by the sages of antiquity, one should refer to specific individuals rather than making general pronouncements. Most of the citations in the post are from Rashi. While Rashi has a deserved reputation as the pre-eminent translator and expositor of the talmud, his knowledge of animal behavior in the wild was necessarily very limited. His views on the nature and effect of predatory attacks on animals are wildly incorrect. Besides city folklore that he had absorbed, he also based himself on the view of Abaye in Hulin 53a. That opinion which asserts that only the forepaw claws render the animal victim a treifa is inconsistent with the reality of a wolf attack -as noted by R' Natan. However, the Mishnah which opens the perek makes no such assertion. As R' Natan noted, a wolf attack generally involves various bites which may leave the victim weakened but alive if the attack is interrupted. The probability of long-term survival of such a bitten animal would then be dependent, in part, on its inherent strength. That may be why wolves are specifically mentioned by the anonymous author of the mishna, and why R' Yehuda distinguishes between a large and small animal victim. In other words, the Mishna may be correct in this matter, while Abaye is incorrect, and Rashi - wildly so.

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  22. Mighty Garnel Ironheart writes:

    I know some cheetahs that would like to speak to you about this...

    Cheetahs aren't exactly cats. But like other felidae they tend to be ambush predators with terrific acceleration but no endurance. If the first burst of speed doesn't catch and take down the prey it's all over.

    When wolves are hunting large prey they can chase it for miles. Slow blood loss works just as well or better for them as the quick bite to the back of the head.

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