Wednesday, May 16, 2012

That Bothersome Bardelas!

One of the numerous challenges in writing my Torah Encyclopedia of the Animal Kingdom is that I am trying to make it suitable for as broad an audience as possible - including the charedi community. In cases where I run into an insoluble conflict between Chazal and science, I simply acknowledge the conflict (and I will write something in the introduction that outlines the range of approaches). But one animal requires me to point out that the Talmud Bavli misunderstood the Mishnah (although I am writing it more delicately than that!)

Many students of the Gemara have been perplexed by a mysterious creature called the bardelas, which appears in several places in Shas. People ask, is it a cheetah? A hyena? A polecat? (And, some people ask, what the heck is a polecat, anyway?) Even Tosafos admits to being perplexed.

The answer is that it depends on who's discussing it.

The first reference to the bardelas is in the Mishnah, discussing the laws regarding which animals are classified as dangerous, such that their owners have a higher degree of liability for damage that they cause:
"The wolf, the lion, the bear, the leopard, the bardelas and the snake are muadin (rated as expected to cause damage). (Mishnah, Bava Kama 1:4)
The word bardelas is not Hebrew or Aramaic - it is quite obviously a transliteration of the Greek pardalis. This name originally referred to the leopard, but cannot refer to the leopard here, since the Mishnah lists the leopard separately. In the Mishnah, it therefore presumably refers to another spotted cat — the cheetah.

However, while the authors and audience of the Mishnah, living in the land of Israel, were familiar with such Greek terms, the same was not true of the sages in Babylon, who had far less exposure to Greek culture. The Babylonian Talmud therefore asks what type of animal the bardelas is, and concludes that it is the hyena:
"What is the bardelas? Rav Yehudah said: The nafraza. What is the nafraza? Rav Yosef said: the afeh. (Talmud, Bava Kama 16a)
The afeh is identical with the af’ah that appears as the Aramaic translation of “valley of the Tzevo’im” in I Samuel 13:18. From an etymological standpoint, af’ah is actually the same word as tzavua, in Aramaic transliteration (where the “tz” sound becomes “a”; cf. eretz becomes ar’a). Thus, the bardelas is being identified with the tzavua. This is definitely the hyena, which, as Rambam points out, is called al-tzaba in Arabic.

(While the reference to the bardelas in the Talmud here refers to the hyena, it seems that other references to the bardelas in the Talmud do not refer to the hyena. Instead, they are apparently a corruption of the word mandris, which refers to the mongoose, polecat, or similar such creature.)

Because the Bavli identifies the bardelas as the tzavua, it then runs into a difficulty: that Rabbi Meir adds the tzavua to the Mishnah's list, as an additional animal. The Bavli is forced to answer that the bardelas and tzavua are both the hyena, but that one term refers to the male hyena, and one to the female hyena. While the Gemara attempts to explain why this is necessary, the answer is forced.

Of course, from the perspective of Rabbi Meir (who lived in Eretz Yisrael and understood bardelas to refer to a cheetah), he was not adding a different gender of an already-named animal; he was adding a different animal.

And if it's not bad enough that I have to point out that the Bavli did not understand the Mishnah's terms, the Bavli then goes and speaks about how hyenas transform into bats, and then into thorns, and then into demons.

Siz shver tzu zein ah ZooRabbi!

Fortunately, I'm able to finish the chapter with an inspirational concept, based on Perek Shirah, about how the hyena is an essential part of the circle of life. With thanks to Rav Moshe Shapiro, who told it to me a number of years ago.

(For the definitive study on this topic, see Avraham Ofir-Shemesh, “The Bardelas in Ancient Rabbinic Literature: A Test Case of Geographic Identification” (in Hebrew), Mo’ed 14 (5764) pp. 70-80.)

38 comments:

  1. So then, to clarify, when Rabbi Meir says that the bardelas is a nafraza, he is identifying it with the cheetah, because he lived in Israel and knew Greek, but when Rabbi Yosef says that Rabbi Meir's nefraza is a afah, he is wrongly identifying it with a hyena, since he lived in Babylonia and did not have exposure to Greek?

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  2. And what has your own investigation of Nafraza told you about its true meaning?

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  3. Oops, I wrote Rabbi Meir by mistake, it should be Rabbi Yehudah that identifies it as nafraza.

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  4. I've been down this path a long time ago. I want to address an issue that I have experienced myself.

    Once one starts to entertain the possibility that the sages were ignorant of ascertainable knowledge at the time, one has opened a Pandora's box of questions concerning the viability of rabbinic Judaism. It is easy to compartmentalize that their knowledge of science was flawed without invoking criticism of their sacred knowledge. The way I understand it most of your readers were not exposed to talmudic criticism, and these ideas are new to them. The issues involved in being traditionally orthodox but applying modern academic methods to talmudic study are much harder to deal with then the scientific issues. I think it isn't appropriate to expose your readers to this, and most are illy equipped to deal with the issues.

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  5. You need to correct it again, it is actually Rav Yehudah. Had in been Rebbi Yehudah you would still have the same problem that he would have known Greek.

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  6. If you include the content of this post in your Encyclopedia, it’s going to get banned. In which case, what’s the point in pandering to Chareidi sensibilities?

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  7. This wouldn't really help for reconciling the Gemara with the Mishna, but I'm just wondering, is it possible that namer in the Mishna refers to a tiger (the modern-day translation) and bardelas a leopard?

    Also, if you assume that namer is the leopard, must the bardelas be a cheetah? Could it be a jaguar (also spotted, or at least blotchy)? Or is that geographically unlikely?

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  8. R' Natan, my question on your interpretation has to do with whether there is existence of evidence of cheetahs in Israel during the Mishnaic period or in ancient times. If so, then your interpretation is well taken, if not, then you have a problem.

    As to the referenced gemara (BK 16a), the issue is the problematic identification by Rav Yosef of the bardelis with the afah or tzavua = hyena when R' Meir adds the tzavua to the list of 6 dangerous animals that includes the bardelis. The distinction the gemara makes between the male and female hyenas, one being the bardelis and the other, tzavua is rather fanciful - as you implied.

    On the other hand, the gemara appears to take less note of the addition of R' Elazar to a list of dangerous animals. He adds the nachash, which already appears in our text for the list of dangerous animals. Perhaps, then, there were a different versions of the Mishna which didn't contain either bardelis or nachash?

    My question on both the Mishna ahd gemara is the omission of other predatory wild animals that still live in Israel such as the jackal and the fox. Is this a question of a not uncommon incomplete listing (mai shiur dehai shiur - and there are at least the 2 animals missing)? If so, why doesn't the gemara comment on it?

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  9. Dan - tigers and jaguars don't live anywhere near Israel.

    Y. Aharon - cheetahs lived in Israel until the early 20th century.

    There's no reason to expect jackals and foxes in the list. First, they're not dangerous. Second, it's discussing animals that might be kept in captivity, which wouldn't have happened with jackals or foxes.

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  10. I have heard this sort of thing explained a different way before.

    You could argue that the Talmud is not confused about the meaning of the Mishna, as much as it is attempting to make the mishna relevant to their generation. I have heard this argument used in many places where it is obvious that the Talmud is seemingly and purposefully changing the meaning of the Mishna to something else.


    However, I am curious what the suggested understanding is of why, if animals are being added to the list, nobody in the later generations suggested the cheetah by another name.

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  11. great post !
    R'Moshe Shapiro to the rescue...!!

    but aren't there going to be many instances where it would be quite a feat to present the conflicts in a way which they can find Hashkafically palatable ?

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  12. Rabbi Slifkin, you wrote:

    The word bardelas is not Hebrew or Aramaic - it is quite obviously a transliteration of the Greek pardalis. This name originally referred to the leopard, but cannot refer to the leopard here, since the Mishnah lists the leopard separately. In the Mishnah, it therefore presumably refers to another spotted cat — the cheetah.

    However, while the authors and audience of the Mishnah, living in the land of Israel, were familiar with such Greek terms, the same was not true of the sages in Babylon, who had far less exposure to Greek culture.


    I'm having trouble understanding what this question has to do with knowledge of Greek terms. You say bardelas is a corruption of the Greek word for leopard, but you admit that the bardelas of this mishna CANNOT be referring to the leopard because the nahmer is already listed.

    So what does knowledge of Greek have to do with the identity of the bardelas IN THIS MISHNA, if it cannot refer to the leopard?
    You speculate that it must refer to a spotted cat which is similar to the leopard--like the cheetah. But that is not what a bardelas really is.

    If that's the case, than you are conceding that the authors and audience of the mishna living in the Land of Israel were similarly misinformed about the meaning of the Greek terms.

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  13. E said:
    It is easy to compartmentalize that their knowledge of science was flawed without invoking criticism of their sacred knowledge.
    Read some of the monographs on the right-hand side of the homepage. For example, Sod Hashem Lireiyav.

    E said:
    I think it isn't appropriate to expose your readers to this, and most are illy equipped to deal with the issues.
    You don't know who the readers of this blog are and R Slifkin has often posted about such topics in the past so all the regulars have been exposed to these kinds of things.)
    Also, even if there are people that haven't been exposed to such ideas, it's not necessarily a bad thing for people to be exposed to them. Better to hear it first from R Slifkin than from many other people I can think of.

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  14. R" Natan, thanks for the information about cheetah's in Israel. I don't understand your comment about jackals and foxes not being kept in captivity and not being dangerous. Why would keeping a jackal or fox be rarer than keeping a lion or snake? They're all wild animals not readily domesticated. While a jackal or fox may not be dangerous to adults, they would be to small domestic animals such as chickens (or to human infants). I thought that the issue in BK 16a was that their proclivity to damage makes them a 'muad', ab initio.

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  15. You mentioned that the sages of Eretz Yisrael knew Greek, and that therefore the identify of the Bardelas was obvious to them.

    Does the Yerushalmi address this issue at all therefore, or what is perhaps so thoroughly obvious that it doesn't come up?

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  16. Why would keeping a jackal or fox be rarer than keeping a lion or snake?

    Lions and snakes are much cooler than jackals and foxes.

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  17. Why isn't "dog" on the list of dangerous animals?

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  18. Could it be that its a animal not from the land of Israel. someone said maybe a tiger , a tiger could have been brought from India. The coliseum in Rome had animals brought from far flung places of the then known world.why can't the the animal being discussed have originated outside of Israel,it would make sense why its so hard to identify, because its not native to the region.

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  19. "So what does knowledge of Greek have to do with the identity of the bardelas IN THIS MISHNA, if it cannot refer to the leopard?
    You speculate that it must refer to a spotted cat which is similar to the leopard--like the cheetah. But that is not what a bardelas really is.

    If that's the case, than you are conceding that the authors and audience of the mishna living in the Land of Israel were similarly misinformed about the meaning of the Greek terms."

    Good point. Basically we are speculating what the Jews of Israel mistakenly believed the word to mean. And we assume that the Jews in Bavel had no clue what the word meant either.

    I'm starting to understand the Bavli a bit more here.

    It could be a cheetah, and it could be a bob-cat, or it could be a spotted owl or a spotted jackal etc.

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  20. I don't understand your comment about jackals and foxes not being kept in captivity and not being dangerous. Why would keeping a jackal or fox be rarer than keeping a lion or snake?

    Lions ans snakes were kept by people for entertainment/ display. And were thus kept by others for trading purposes.

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  21. You say bardelas is a corruption of the Greek word for leopard, but you admit that the bardelas of this mishna CANNOT be referring to the leopard because the nahmer is already listed.
    So what does knowledge of Greek have to do with the identity of the bardelas IN THIS MISHNA, if it cannot refer to the leopard?
    You speculate that it must refer to a spotted cat which is similar to the leopard--like the cheetah. But that is not what a bardelas really is.
    If that's the case, than you are conceding that the authors and audience of the mishna living in the Land of Israel were similarly misinformed about the meaning of the Greek terms.


    Allow me to explain. In antiquity, leopards and cheetahs were not considered to be two species as distinct as lions and tigers. The cheetah was rated as a variety of leopard. So the authors of the Mishnah were not misinformed as to the meaning of bardelas; they simply opted to use the Greek term in order to specify the cheetah.

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  22. why can't the the animal being discussed have originated outside of Israel,it would make sense why its so hard to identify, because its not native to the region.

    Then why use a Greek word that did refer to an animal from the region? Besides, tigers have a name in the Gemara - they are called tigris.

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  23. Why isn't "dog" on the list of dangerous animals?

    Because they are not all that dangerous?

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  24. Dogs are about the least dangerous animal there is.

    Housecats are cute, but scary.

    The Yerushalmi doesn't deal with the meaning of these words at all. But it *does* say something very interesting: It says that R' Meir adds tzavua- and then R' Yosi says in the name of R' Avin that he means only a *male* tzavua, which "has a time" when it as dangerous as a lion.

    Therefore, tzavua can't be a male (or female) only- as the Yerushalmi says that a tzavua can be male *or* female!

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  25. "Allow me to explain. In antiquity, leopards and cheetahs were not considered to be two species as distinct as lions and tigers. The cheetah was rated as a variety of leopard. So the authors of the Mishnah were not misinformed as to the meaning of bardelas; they simply opted to use the Greek term in order to specify the cheetah."

    I don't understand this. If they are so similar and their difference is like between say a Donkey and Mule, then why list both? And why not list the Jungle Cat and the Sand Cat?

    And why does the Yerushalmi say that it's an animal that only the males are aggressive in it's time if it's a cheetah?


    "Dogs are about the least dangerous animal there is."

    There are way too many dog bites in Israel for that to be a relevant statement.

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  26. If they are so similar and their difference is like between say a Donkey and Mule, then why list both?

    It's the kind of situation whereby some would consider them to be two types, others two sub-types, etc.

    And why not list the Jungle Cat and the Sand Cat?

    They are very small.

    And why does the Yerushalmi say that it's an animal that only the males are aggressive in it's time if it's a cheetah?

    I don't understand the q, but anyway the Yerushalmi is talking about a hyena, not a cheetah.

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  27. Amateur, it's well known that dogs react to how they are treated. Their natural inclination is to be loyal. (That's what makes them different from wolves.) They'll lick you silly. Cats will ignore you and plot the death of a bird or something.

    To be clear, I like both.

    Aren't hyenas famous for being practically identical, sex-wise? Maybe that would help explain the Yerushalmi.

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  28. Yes, that's what I explain in the book.

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  29. "Amateur, it's well known that dogs react to how they are treated. Their natural inclination is to be loyal. (That's what makes them different from wolves.) They'll lick you silly. Cats will ignore you and plot the death of a bird or something.
    "

    Sounds like you aren't being serious. The Gemora says that dogs are corrupt, not loyal.

    "I don't understand the q, but anyway the Yerushalmi is talking about a hyena, not a cheetah."

    I think I started writing one question and ended up writing another, because looking back, I don't understand the question either.

    However, what I most likely wanted to ask, is Why the Mishna is listing animals that are so specific, but aren't general categories of animals that can be used as archetypes. I likely switched my question half way through when I realized that other archetypes of animals and categories tend to come from the Chumash and not the Mishna itself.

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  30. Thus blog caused me to go and listen to Rabbi Moshe Shapiro in person, and I was amazed by his brilliance.

    I think it is possible to respectfully disagree with him on issues of Torah and science, and also be in awe of his Torah knowledge and originality of thought.

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  31. Sure. The problem is, that according to him there is no originality of thought - he believes that he is merely discovering Chazal's true meaning, rather than inventing it.

    See http://www.zootorah.com/controversy/ravmoshe.html

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  32. Rabbi Slifkin your piece on Bardelas and how bavli misunderstood the mishna for me has crossed all red lines. Yes, i am a rationalist, probably more of a rationalist than you however i am honestly beginning to feel that what Rabbi Shlomo Miller said about you 5 years ago is proving to be true.
    I feel you are just confused.

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  33. Mmm-hmmm. Which red line did it cross? What is it exactly that I am allegedly confused about? And what do you think a bardelas is?

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  34. Where did Chazal have Ruach Hakodesh and where did they not?

    What is ruach Hakodesh anyway?

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  35. Rabbi Slifkin,

    Please could you answer?
    Where did Chazal have Ruach Hakodesh and where did they not?

    I think it gets to the heart of Richard's concern.

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  36. See my monograph "Sod Hashem Liyreyav."

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