Sunday, May 6, 2012

Lactating Snakes and Vampire Owls

What are tanim? I used to think that this was fairly straightforward, but I recently realized that there may be a basic error that was made by those who studied the natural history of Scripture and assigned names for animals in Modern Hebrew.

In Scripture, there is mention of tanin (with a nun at the end) and tanim (with a mem at the end). The former is a generic term for serpentine/ monstrous creatures such as snakes, crocodiles, and whales (singular tanin, plural taninim). But what are the tanim (which, incidentally, is a plural form; the singular is tan)? The tanim are mentioned in several places in Scripture as creatures that live in ruins and desolate areas, along with birds called bnos ya'anah (ostriches or some kind of owl), and they are described as making a wailing sound. Thus far, they could be either jackals or a different type of owl.

There is one crucial verse which is thought to conclusively resolve this: 
Even the tanin have bared their breast, nursing their cubs; yet the daughter of my people has become cruel, like ya’enim in the wilderness. (Eichah 4:3)
In this verse, there is a kri/kesiv mesorah that the word written as tanin is to be read as tanim. There is reason to believe that this is the correct reading - no serpentine creature nurses its young. Thus, tanim are mammals. Hence, the tanim described elsewhere as wailing creatures of the wilderness must be jackals, not owls. That is why in modern Hebrew, jackals are called tanim.

This all seems straightforward. But there is an assumption being made here, which is not necessarily correct! The assumption being made is that the Scriptural writer knew which animals nurse their young and which don't. However, as Rambam and others make clear, the prophets (and even the Torah) speaks within the scientific worldview of antiquity. Thus, there is no reason to assume that the zoological description is necessarily accurate.

What does this mean with regard to tanim? One scholar, Othniel Margalith, argues that the verse in Eichah should be read as tanin - which matches the Septuagint's translation of draco (serpent). Margalith claims that this verse reflects a belief in antiquity that snakes nurse their young on milk. As evidence, he points to clay cobras from Beth Shean which are seemingly formed with breasts. Thus, the verse in Eichah is referring to snakes, and is not talking about the wailing tanim of the ruins that are mentioned elsewhere in Scripture. These can therefore be identified as some kind of owl.

While Margalith's view should certainly be taken into consideration, I don't know if it is necessarily correct. The interpretation of such clay figurines is debated; even if they do depict breasts, some argue that it may reflect artistic or idolatrous concepts rather than zoological beliefs.

(See too R. Yaakov of Lisa, Palgei Mayim (link: p. 171, second column, line 8), who, in a different approach, says that Chazal believed that snakes would take milk from women. I haven't been able to find any reference to such a thing in Chazal, and I would be indebted if anyone can point me to such a source.)

But Margalith's approach led me to consider another possibility. Even if the verse in Eichah should be read as tanim (and is referring to the wailing tanim of the ruins), does it rule out owls? As R. Josh Waxman pointed out in another context, there was an ancient belief in a strange type of owl called a strix, which was thought to nurse its young on milk.

There are advantages to positing that tanim are strix owls rather than jackals. Tanim are always translated by Targum Yonasan as yarudin, and the Talmud Yerushalmi (Kilayim 8:4) identifies these as birds. Thus, the most ancient traditions for the identity of tanim favors owls rather than jackals (whereas the earliest source for positively identifying them as jackals is Tanhum Yerushalmi, in the thirteenth century).

A further piece of evidence is that Gemara in Sanhedrin 59b mentions a “yarod nala”; according to Sokoloff's Dictionary Of Jewish Babylonian Aramaic, s.v. נלא, this refers to a demon or vampire. The strix was believed to be a demonic bird which sucked people’s blood, and thus this phrase in the Gemara is further indication that the yarod (which is the tan) is the strix.

Of course, it's still not absolutely straightforward. The verse in Eichah refers to the young of the tanim as gurim. This word is elsewhere used only to describe lion cubs, which would perhaps favor identifying tanim as jackals, which have cubs, rather than strix owls. Still, it seems that Chazal, at least, understood the term to refer to lactating vampirous strix owls. And one thing is clear: the identity of the tanim of Scripture is certainly not as straightforward as is often assumed.


  1. Oh, those demonic owls...:

  2. It is incorrect to say that Targum Yerushalmi is from the 13th century. While there are some elements from that time much of it is much earlier. We find similar things in both Onkulos and Jonathan. Besides once you are taking a academic view Targum Jonathan isn't as early as it is claimed.

  3. It is incorrect to say that Targum Yerushalmi is from the 13th century.

    Fortunately, I didn't.

  4. Fascinating post. (And yes, Natan said Tanhum, not Targum. But why bother to read what he wrote, if you can just attack without reading?)

  5. Great post. You're really advancing.

    Small tense problem: "prophets speaks"

  6. you mention whales as possible examples of taninim. They sort of nurse their young, don't they?

    That would be consistent with the Eicha pasuk, no?

  7. That was suggested by Yehudah Feliks. In Sacred Monsters, I discuss a number of reasons why it doesn't work.

  8. You create more problems than you solve by questioning if the biblical writer had his nature facts straight. For if the Bible cant' be presumed to get it right, then rabbinic literature cannot either. And neither can any of the other ancient writers because, after all, they also make mistakes. So now there is no way of identifying anything based upon an ancient description, because possibly that description is wrong.

    Thus, for example, to apply this method - its commonly assumed that the nesher is the eagler because, among other reasons, the verse describes it as bald. But perhpas the Biblical writer was really referring to a heron, and mistakenly thought herons were bald? Or consider all the ink spilled in questining whether or not the tzvi is actually a deer, based on pesukim. Well, perhaps, the pesukim are wrong, so why bother concerning ourself with what the pesukim say?

    You should adopt the approach you advocate, that of R. Glasner, and say [however intellectually dishonest this is] that klal yisrael has accepted the pesukim in Tanach as a baseline standard, and hence for purposes of identifying animals we can presume its descriptions accurate.

  9. I find your comment extremely strange.

    Whenever we try to decipher any account, from any time or any culture, there is always the possibility of error. That doesn't mean that the entire exercise is a waste of time!

    Each case has to be weighed up based on its merits. Whether or not a familiar bird is bald can be easily seen, so a description of that can be presumed accurate.

    Rav Glasner's approach is irrelevant to this. He is talking about legal authority, not historical truth.

  10. OK, so , let me clarify.

    R. Glasner's approach that you favor, boiled down to its essence, is that we Jews should adopt chazal's interpretations of mitzvos, whether we agree with them or not, whether we think they understood the verses correctly or not, because WE - Jews - have cannonized their opinions to serve as our baseline legal cannon. [Never mind the fact that we never actually cannonized anything, nor could we have even if we wanted to.] This gives us more or less a neat universal framework which all Jews can work from. So R. Glasner.

    What I'm saying is, you should apply that same approach to Tanach vis-a-vis using it as a source for describing natural phenomena. That is, accept the facts stated in Tanach as cannonized. [Indeed, Tanach has at least some claim to being offically cannonized, whereas the Talmud has no such claim.] Thus, assume that the writer of Eicha knew that snakes dont nurse their young, and thus the tanim must refer to jackals.

  11. What I'm saying is, you should apply that same approach to Tanach vis-a-vis using it as a source for describing natural phenomena.


  12. " The assumption being made is that the Scriptural writer knew which animals nurse their young and which don't." I think you should differentiate between scientific knowledge and natural observations whereas the scriptural writer and the sages relied on the science of their times, the vivid descriptions of nature in the Tanach reveal a detailed knowledge of the natural world they lived in, I think knowing which of the animals in their geographic region nurse their young is a information that someone who spends enough time in nature could be expected to know.

  13. Please can you give an example of a verse in the Torah which is scientifically inaccurate? If not the Torah then Nach.

  14. See the various posts discussing the firmament, kidneys, dew, etc.

  15. In response to your question of "why" to me, above:

    For the same reason R. Glasner and you advocate the belief that the opinion of the body of chazal were somehow cannonized: Because if you dont accept this view, the foundation collapses. Once you start questioning the natural knowledge of the authors of Tanach, ain lidavar sof. Perhaps you can extend the Abarabanel's comments about Jermeiah, and say the hebrew in Tanach is imprecise. Perhaps their knowledge of Israeli geography was inexact. If one goes down this road, the Bible is not an authoritative source for literaly anything.

    Besides, you now have to ask yourself, if the Bible is wrong, then everyone else is wrong too. thus, to use your own example, what is the significance that the talud yerushalmi identifies yarudin as birds? Maybe the Talmud is wrong. Etc. Etc.

    [Of course, I would agree with the commenter Avraham's distinction, between science of the time, and science based upon observable phenomena. What I am saying here does not mean that one has to accept the Biblical view of the sun's path.]

  16. Because if you dont accept this view, the foundation collapses.

    What is "the foundation"? And in what way does it "collapse"?

    what is the significance that the talud yerushalmi identifies yarudin as birds? Maybe the Talmud is wrong.

    Indeed, maybe it is wrong. That's what some Rishonim felt. But since it is very close in time to Tenach, it is a weighty source.

  17. "But since it is very close in time to Tenach, it is a weighty source."

    How does being close to Tanach make it an important source, if even teh Tanach itself can be wrong?

    The other question you asked, about what is the foundation and how it collapses, is much more involved. And you already know very well the answer. Basically, the whole point of the Glasner approach is to accept Talmudic jurisprudence because if we didnt, the foundation of orthodox Judaism, which in turn is the foundation of all of Judaism, would collapse. Thus he posits, or if he doesnt I posit it, a tacit social contract exists between orthdox Jews and the Talmud to follow for example chazal's interpretation of Exodus 23:19 (and parralells, because otherwise the concept of kosher - as we know it - is destroyed. Likewise the definition of shabbos, the observance of the holidays, etc. It's all bottomed upon the interpretations of chazal. R. Glasner says we should accept their opinions as cannonized and unchangeable, even if we simply think they misread the pesukim, because the result of doing otherwise would result in a Judaism quite alien to as its been known for millenia, and eventually, no Judaism.



  18. How does being close to Tanach make it an important source, if even teh Tanach itself can be wrong?

    It's an important source regarding what the words in Tenach mean, not regarding a scientific claim.

    Halachah has to be canonized because otherwise Judaism falls apart, due to halachic anarchy. Rav Glasner does not say that we have to believe that Chazal were actually correct (in fact his point is that we do not believe that). Likewise, we don't have to believe that Tanach is scientifically accurate. As has been said since at least Rambam's time.

  19. R. Glasner's approach works great for little things, like keeping 2 sets of dishes, bc after all its really no skin off my back. But what do you when the rubber really hits the road? Like when someone wants to marry someone he loves, but cant do it b/c someone in ancient Persia darshened a passuk a certain way in yevamos. What then?

    Much less drastic examples too, you know. Like how do people really eat when they're on the road, and no one's around to see. Vichu.

    [agav, Im not saying I have any better approach than R. Glasner. Just pointing out the obvious flaws.]

  20. Well, such a person will have to decide which community he wants to be in.

    But it doesn't mean that Rav Glasner's approach means that you can't acknowledge scientific inaccuracy in the Torah.

  21. Weeeellll . . . it does and it doesnt. Obviously that wasnt the point he was addressing in Dor 4. But seems to me the ame principles of anarchy would apply. There is a whole literature, including yours, based on trying to identify the flora and fauna mentioned in the Bible. But if the Biblical writers got their facts wrong, what on Earth is the point of trying to make these identifications? Why try to prove the Tzvi must be the Ibex becaause of the way its horns are described by the possuk in X, when perhaps X was simply mistaken?

    Anyway, this debate is better carried out ba'al peh. Good luck with the plans to create the museum. I admire your energy. It's an awesome idea. hatlzlacha.

  22. I honestly don't understand you. People try to figure out what animals Marco Polo was describing, and they don't consider him to be infallible! You weigh everything up, and try to assess the reliability of each of the clues.

  23. You might be interested in checking Iaaiah 13:21-22 where the creatures mentioned may all be owls or night birds. One of them is the tanim. See Y. Feliks "HaChai shel haTanach" (Sinai, 1954) pp. 70-79 where he identifies tanim as the Palee Desert Eagle Owl (Bubo bubo desertorum).

  24. The very first thing that I do, when researching an animal, is to look up all Scriptural citations. The next thing is to look up all relevant literature, including Feliks!

  25. No-one has mentioned that the verb in the pasuk in Eichah is in the plural, so that the subject must be tanim, not tanin, ruling out lactating snakes.

  26. DIscussed in my book. Margalith argues that it was emended.


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