Saturday, August 4, 2012

Being Beeish

(This is based on a talk that I gave last Shabbos at Young Israel of North Beverly Hills. As you can see, my style for Shabbos drashos is different from my usual writing style.)

The fifth book of the Torah, Sefer Devarim, begins with the words “Eileh hadevarim… These are the words that Moshe spoke.” However, the Midrash homiletically reads the second word not as devarim, which means “words,” but rather as devorim, which means “bees.” 
“These are the devarim” – Rabbi Shmuel bar Nachman said: The Holy One said, my sons were conducted in this world like bees with the righteous and with the prophets. (Midrash Devarim Rabbah 1:5) 
 Bees are viewed extremely positively in Judaism. This isn’t just because they’re not WASPS. Nor is it due to the honey that they provide. It is also because of their organizational structure. One of the references to bees in the Torah occurs with the story of Shimshon, and it alludes to their remarkable social structure: 
“And after a time he returned to take her, and he turned aside to see the carcass of the lion; and, behold, there was a nest of bees (adas devorim) and honey in the carcass of the lion.” (Shoftim 14:8) 
 As the commentaries explain, adas devarim refers to a nest of bees. But the word adas is based on the word eidah. This means “congregation” or “community,” and this name reflects the unique structure of a bee colony.

A beehive consists of anywhere from 20,000 to 250,000 bees. There are three basic kinds of bee in the colony: The queen, drones, and workers.

The queen is the mother and master of the hive. She is the only bee that gives birth, and lives approximately 2 years, laying up to 2,500 eggs per day. Towards the end of a queen’s life, she will produce an egg from which another queen will hatch. The queen communicates her demands to the rest of the hive by releasing a scent. The other bees fan the smell around the hive, letting the entire hive know.

Drones are male bees. There are only a few hundred drones in a hive at any time. These males do no work; their only purpose being to fertilize the queen. After the drones have completed their single task, they are evicted from the hive and left to starve to death outside of the hive. Though this sounds unfair, they do so often out of their own accord, as if they understood this as their only purpose in life.

The other 99% of bees in the hive are worker bees, which are all female. They have different tasks, depending upon their age. Guard bees protect the hive. House bees clean the cells so they can be used again. Wax bees build new cells and repair old ones. Nurse bees care for and feed the undeveloped young; they also make necessary for the development of the larvae. Forager bees are the oldest and most experienced bees; they gather pollen and nectar, spending a lot of time away from the hive.

The extraordinary nature of bee colonies is the reason for the Midrash seeing them as being alluded to in the word devarim. In the words of another Midrash: 
“These are the devarim” – Just as with the bee, its children are led after it, so too Israel is led by the righteous and the prophets. (Midrash Yalkut Shimoni 1:795) 
 Etz Yosef explains that just as bees follow the greatest bee, the queen, so too with Israel do people of lesser stature follow those of greater stature. Bees live in a hierarchal society, headed by a queen. This symbolizes Jewish society, in which there is also a hierarchal system – the people follow their leaders, be they kings, prophets, or Torah scholars. And just as bees are able to accomplish amazing things by virtue of their organized, methodical social structure – namely, producing honey – so too the Jewish people are able to accomplish amazing things – preserving an ancient way of life against overwhelming odds.

(The name of the bee is related the concept of a leader. Simply speaking, the bee is called devorah because its buzzing sound sounds like a form of communication (even though it is actually merely a byproduct of its wings beating). But others suggest that the bee earns its name by virtue of its nature to follow the direction of a leader. The word dover means “to direct”; “davar” means “leader.” And since the bee’s leader is female, the bee’s name is devorah in the feminine gender. Thus, eileh hadevarim would mean these are the directions that Moshe directed, and would also be homiletically read to refer to those who follow leaders – both bees, and the Jewish People.)

This parallel between Jews and bees can be taken further. Sefer Devarim is also known as Mishneh Torah, the review of the Torah. Devarim is the repackaging of the Torah for the next generation. There are many such “repackaged” versions – the Mishnah, the Jerusalem and Babylonian Talmud, the Rambam’s Mishneh Torah, the Shulchan Aruch, and so on. Of these, the most important by far is the Babylonian Talmud, the siyum of which was celebrated this week.

The Babylonian Talmud has been the backbone of Jewish life for centuries. It is a fascinating text. It’s not a code of law. It’s a presentation of discussion and analysis by the Amora’im of the words of the Tanna’im. There is a clear hierarchal structure, like that of bees. Just as the worker bees scurry around, busy with activity, never undermining the leadership of the queen, so too the Sages of the Talmud busy themselves with discussion and analysis, never undermining the leadership of the Mishnah.

But perhaps this parallel between Jews and bees can be even more revealing. Bees in many countries are currently suffering from colony collapse disorder. The reasons for this are not well understood. It has been attributed to parasites, disease, pesticides, cellphone radiation, and a host of other problems. Some suggest that it’s due to the bees having allergies – they always have hives (ba-da-bum!). But it is generally thought that, whatever is causing colony collapse disorder, the reasons why bees are especially susceptible is that domesticated bees today do not have sufficient genetic diversity to cope with these threats. In order for bees to successfully cope with problems, they need genetic diversity – which means that bees must not be perfect, uniform, carbon copies of each other. This used to always be the case – despite the ostensible appearance of perfect uniformity, there is genetic variation in bee colonies. But domestic bees today are all descended from a very limited starter group. There is therefore very little genetic diversity, which renders them especially vulnerable to problems. It’s the artificial farming of bees that put them through a genetic bottleneck and made them too uniform.

The parallels to the Bavli are fascinating. The truth is that the notion of the sages of the Talmud as expounding upon the Sages of the Mishnah with perfect replication is somewhat of a myth. There is tremendous innovation, and even revisionism of the Mishnah. In fact, according to Menachem Fisch, in his book “Rational Rabbis,” this is the very reason why the Bavli is not presented as a legal code- the point of it is to present an approach to dealing with earlier codes, and showing how to adapt them without overtly undermining them. The Talmud says that “one who argues with his teacher, is as one who argues with the Shechinah” – but the Talmud is full of people arguing with their teachers! The Rishonim explain that the problem is only one of undermining their authority. It is possible to disagree, and even act differently from one’s teacher, without undermining their authority.

Bees are able to be extraordinary insects due to their hierarchal structure. But their hives collapse if there is only perfect replication without genetic innovation. So, too, if we try to innovate a new form of Judaism, it won’t get anywhere; but if we just carbon-copy what previous Jews have done, we will not be able to cope with new challenges. We need to follow the approach of the Bavli, which, while paying great respect to earlier traditions, knows how to subtly adapt to changing circumstances. It’s a difficult balancing act – fealty to tradition, but knowing how to adapt. If we’re going to succeed at being Jewish, we need to know how to be beeish!

NOTE to readers in Chicago - This Sunday, as well as the Torah Tour of the Lincoln Park Zoo in the morning, I am giving a lecture on Rationalism Vs. Mysticism in the evening. See details here. I will also be selling books at the lecture, at a discount.


  1. Marvelous article.
    "Bees are viewed extremely positively in Judaism. This isn’t just because they’re not WASPS."


  2. Do we know how much Chazal (and/or the people in the time of Tanach) understood about how bee colonies work -- specifically, that (1) there is a single bee that that is the "leader" of the hive, (2) that it is female, (3) and that all the other worker bees follow her lead and that (4) there is an established hierarchy among the bee colony ? How much of this zoology was known to the ancient world? Perhaps the trait of bees to attack in a swarm (Devarim 1:44), just like an army following a leader into battle may have contributed to the image in the midrash of the young bees following the bee "leader"?

  3. From Moshe Koppel's review of Fisch's Rational Rabbis:
    Fisch contrasts two views of the halakhic process which he calls "traditionalism" and "anti-traditionalism," respectively. As Fisch defines them, traditionalists are "unflinchingly dogmatic in preserving their legacies." In contrast, anti-traditionalists (the good guys) view the Oral Torah as "at all times the tentative, hesitant, conjectured product of ongoing human exegetical and judicial reasoning" which must be "troubleshot" when laws prove to be inadequate...
    But he fails to prove that the framers of the Bavli or anyone else ever held the view that halakha as commonly practiced may be consciously troubleshot to reconcile it with some undisclosed goals.

  4. Rabbi Dr. Yaakov Elman describes the Bavli in a similar way:

    "Formally, the Bavli is a commentary on the Mishnah, a collection of laws and rules governing almost every area of life promulgated about 220 CE, but one which does not—in common with law collections of the time—decide issues at contention. But at times the Bavli will set aside the mishnaic view on matters that are not disputed as a minority opinion, or it reinterprets it so as to change it substantively, or even marginalize it in some other way."


  5. The "beeish" drash sounds like Nosson Slifkin. I prefer his newer incarnation.

  6. To get ahead of your critics

    We need to follow the approach of the Bavli, which, while paying great respect to earlier traditions, knows how to subtly adapt to changing circumstances.


    (said with tongue firmly implanted in cheek)

  7. I would like to note what I like and what I disagree with about this drasha.

    First, what I like.

    It's a beautiful reading of the Midrash which wonderfully combines Rabbi Slifkin's knowledge of the natural world with a (seems to me successful) attempt to understand the basic peshat of what the Midrash is trying to say.

    Well done!

    What I disagree with is when he moves beyond the Midrash to a modern problem facing Bee colonies and seemingly tries to work that back into the Midrash.

    If one wants to know what Chazal have to say about dealing with contemporary issues and challenges, the place to find out about that is Chazal and the Mefarshei Chazal.

    If this Midrash doesn't address that issue, then find another Midrash or other Mamrei Chazal which does address it.

    To note that Bees lack genetic diversity is interesting, but is not at all what the Midrash is trying to say and no one knows if Chazal would make the comparison that Rabbi Slifkin is suggesting, unless he finds other SPECIFIC Mamrei Chazal to back up the assertion.

    To note generally the relationship between the Gemara and the Mishna just opens up a pandoras box of basically being able to argue for any type of change (within the confines of tradition) without giving real, specific and based guidance.

    I can use Rabbi Slifkin's reading to argue for programs as diverse as the most liberal streams of Modern Orthodoxy to the most stringent forms of the Chareidi world. Both positions relate somehow or other to what came before them, but are new innovations based on contemporary events.

    Such a reading reminds me of the saying the devil knows the Bible well - which basically means that you can justify anything from reading the Bible. If we make such general readings from midrashim and the Gemara we can reapply that to the Gemara - the Satan knows the Gemara well.

    In my opinion, if one wants to argue for a particular change - then they should make a detailed argument for a particular type of change based on solid readings of particular sources in Chazal.

    That, I believe, is what the Sredei Aish did when he allowed Bnei Akiva to have mixed singing and that is what Rav Moshe did when he argued for the modern Kollel system.

    Such arguments are specific and relate to particular issues and can be argued for and/or against.

    Overly general statements, on the other hand, are open to almost any type of interpretation and can be used to justify actions that I want the Torah to allow instead of trying to find out what the Torah has to say about how to deal with the reality that I find myself in.

  8. Y. Aharon, and Moshe - I agree with your comments! (That's why I wrote the quasi-disclaimer at the beginning.)

  9. To Rabbi Slifkin:

    Good to know - thanks.


    P.S. I for one would love to hear more drashot like the first half of the piece.

  10. Why are worker bees classified as female if they take no part in the reproductive process? Do they possess reproductive organs which are simply unused?

  11. To Avi: "A certain maiden gave some bread to a poor man, hiding it in a pitcher. When the matter becoming known, they daubed her with honey and placed her on the parapet of the wall, and the bees came and consumed her. Thus it is written: "And G-d said: 'The cry of Sodom and Gomorrah, because it is great.'" (Talmud, Sanhedrin 108b-109a)" -- I've been told that bees will be attracted to the honey, but will not eat the person, and probably not even sting her. Perhaps R' Slifkin can verify this.

  12. nice droshah. you can avoid getting flak and/or leaving your listeners with less clues than they started with as to why the bavli is binding, by also emphasizing and providing reasonings for the necessity to maintain fealty to the talmud and to halacha.


    'The word dover means “to direct”; “davar” means “leader.” And since the bee’s leader is female, the bee’s name is devorah in the feminine gender.'

    to nit pick-- “daBar” means “leader.”

    i wonder why chasidah, arneves, duchifas, tinshames and others are in feminine. i also wonder why the mishnah used the feminine 'chuldah' instead of the biblical 'choled.'

    is it true that if the queen bee dies a female, but not a drone, transforms into a queen? if yes, this potential would explain why they are considered female.

  13. Hello,

    I am a beekeeper who is interested in the history of bees, and I am currently looking into the role of bees within Judaism and found your site.

    I would like you to know that the hive is not a hierarchal system but in fact a collective. All of the bees within the colony are part of the decision making and the queens main purpose is the be the ovaries of the hive, not so much the decision maker.

    To learn more please look into the work of Dr. Tom Seeley


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