Friday, October 19, 2012

Rules With Exceptions

I'm not just controversial for arguing that Chazal's statements about the natural world were sometimes incorrect. Occasionally, I've also engendered controversy when explaining how Chazal were correct.

In several instances, Chazal pronounce rules about the animal kingdom, which seem to be contradicted by certain species. For example:
  • The statement that every animal lacking upper teeth is kosher - contradicted by anteaters, armadillos, and white rhinos.
  • The statement that every animal possessing upper teeth is non-kosher - contradicted by several types of deer.
  • The statement that every animal that "brings up the cud" is kosher, aside from camels, hares and hyraxes - contradicted by capybaras, koalas, proboscis monkeys and others.
  • The statement that every fish with scales has fins - possibly contradicted by sea-snakes and swamp-eels.
  • The statement that a headless chicken will die - possibly contradicted by "Mike the Headless Chicken."
  • The statement that every animal which lays eggs does not nurse its young - contradicted by platypus and echidnas.
  • The statement that the only living things that copulate face-to-face are people, snakes and fish - contradicted by the bonobo and stitchbird.

In all these cases, I argued that the rules are not incorrect. It's true that Chazal didn't know about these animals, but even if they would have known about them, they would not have been bothered. The reason is that they were not concerned about animals that live in remote places, and they were not concerned about rare exceptions. Ein lemedin min haklalos - one does not take general principles as absolute rules.

Despite the fact that I brought numerous sources to bolster this approach (see The Camel, The Hare And The Hyrax), it ruffled a lot of feathers. True, I said that Chazal were not mistaken - but claiming that their rules were not absolute was seen as undermining their authority.

Not that this bothers me anymore. With R. Yonasan Eybeschutz and R. Yaakov Tzvi Mecklenburg and Chassam Sofer and numerous others presenting such an approach, I'm happy to be in their company. Still, I appreciated a fascinating source that my friend R. Eliezer Zobin sent to me recently.

Koheles 7:20 states that "There is no righteous man in the world who does good and does not sin." Tosafos, to Shabbos 55b, challenges this, based on a Gemara which lists four people who died without sin. He answers - talking about a passuk in Tenach! - that it is not an absolute statement, just a generality, which can have exceptions. The Pnei Yehoshua doesn't like this approach, but that's what Tosafos says.

The Tosafist wasn't a rationalist. But he was level-headed, and didn't see a need to interpret a statement as being some kind of Discovery-style scientific claim.

(If you're looking for a post about Noah's Ark and the Flood, check out last year's post.)


  1. Without addressing the specific examples which I haven't looked into much, I very much prefer an approach that isn't one-size-fits all.

    On a tangent, I have seen several approaches discussing the old saying, "the exception proves the rule", most of which offer a "peshat" that has almost the opposite meaning. For what it is worth I have always thought it is obvious that an "exception proves the rule" insofar as the counter-example is recognized as exceptional shows that the converse is generally the norm. I always think of "I before E....except after C", but I digress.

  2. I clicked the "emes" button, but with one slight reservation. There was no such person as Tosafos. Although it's common to talk as if there were, it would have been more precise to say that "the Ba'al Tosafos in question" was not a rationalist but was level-headed. Great post otherwise.

  3. Maybe a reader knows what I'm referring to: Didn't some Torah scholar not too long ago write a study of the word "kol" in the Torah, showing that it doesn't always mean all/every/entire?

  4. i know u specifically stated that chazal weren't necessarily only making those comments because they didnt know about the other animals, but u have said that the reason the torah doesnt mention dinosaurs (and penguins) is cuz bnei yisrael never saw them and they werent relevant to them. Why, then, does the torah say tht tzara'as is white like snow? i highly doubt any of the ancient israelites saw snow in egypt, israel, or anywhere in between... i know its not rlly related to this post but a freind just asked me today so i figured id ask u...

  5. Moshe- what do you mean? It snows in Israel to this day, and it probably did even more so back then, when it seems to have been cooler at times. Mountains are often topped with snow as well. Just as the Torah doesn't mention things outside of its "world," so too it only mentions things within it, at the very least so people would understand it.

  6. By chance, I saw (in the Guiness Book of World Records for the frum population) about Mike the headless chicken--it's a bit of an anomaly, since they left part of the bird's brain attached to the body, and fed the chicken with an eyedropper.

  7. To Pliny's question:
    Maybe this is it: The phrase goes,אין למדין מן הכללות ואפילו במקום שנאמר בו חוץ
    Kiddushin, 34a

  8. Moshe,
    Supposedly it snows in the Sinai.

  9. I've discussed this topic a couple of times with one of my Rabbis. It seems that "all doesn't really mean all" is a consistent convention throughout Tanach and Shas. It seems to have been a comfortable and accepted convention of "speaking".
    I find myself wondering whether there are many conventions of loose and imprecise speech which may be used as a given in Tanach, which we moderns with precise scientific expectations just don't recognize.
    Anybody have thoughts on this? Is imprecise language merely the tip of the iceberg?

    Rabbi Slifkin - have you ever considered creating an online forum so your readers can discuss topics like this without clogging your post-comment section, or to discuss tangential topics?

  10. Rabbi Slifkin,

    Sea Snakes are not fish, they are reptiles.

  11. One more for your collection. Rav Sadiah Gaon to Daniel 7:6 says the leopard is the fastest of all animals.

  12. That's not a rule, and it doesn't have an exception.

  13. sorry, I should have said one more for your collection of erroneous rabbinic prnouncements on the animal kingdom.[But presume you are already familiar with.]

  14. But it's not erroneous! (And he's not Chazal)

  15. I know he's not chazal. Rabbinic statements, k'amina. Like erroneous statements you've written about from R. O. from Bartinuro.

    How is it not erroneous? Is the leopard the fastest of the beasts? Or did I misremember what RSG said?

  16. I haven't checked what he said. But if he said that the namer is the fastest, he's correct.

  17. Isn't the cheetah fastest?

  18. As a secular, "cultural", American Jew... at least according to Reform norms—my mother was Catholic—perhaps this blog isn't aimed at me. But I find it very interesting; I just wish it had a glossary. I'm unfamiliar with almost every word in italics.
    What I do understand, though, I'm enjoying. Thanks!


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