Thursday, January 17, 2013

Here Comes Lice Day!

Tomorrow is Lice Day!

Yes, that's right. Tomorrow, Daf Yomi reaches Shabbos 107b, the page of the Gemara which references lice spontaneously generating. As you may remember, my pointing out that this is an errant belief (albeit with no halachic ramifications) caused a spot of bother back in 2004/5. As far as most of the Charedi Gedolim were concerned, such a view was utter heresy (or at least forbidden to say). This was notwithstanding the fact that my statement was simply a repetition of an observation that had been made by many great Torah scholars (such as, specifically with regard to spontaneous generation, Rav Yitzchak Lampronti, Rav Hirsch, Rav Herzog, and Rav Dessler). Not to mention the fact that it was clearly true.

Meanwhile, there are always those who claim that the Gemara isn't actually saying that lice spontaneously generate. I remember Rabbi Moshe Meiselman literally (and I mean "literally" literally) screaming at me that on Yom Kippur, I will have to beg forgiveness for having accused Chazal of believing such a thing. When I pointed out that this is clearly how Rashi and other Rishonim interpret the Gemara, he responded that that was irrelevant. So here's an extract from the chapter on lice in my book Sacred Monsters, which you can buy directly from me online or at bookstores, which addresses this claim:
Some have attempted to defend the notion of the scientific infallibility of the Talmud, or at least the applicability of this ruling, by reinterpreting this statement about lice. A popular argument is that the Sages actually meant only that the eggs of lice are halachically insignificant due to their small size, not that they do not exist. Similarly, some claim that the life-force of a louse is not halachically classified as an animal life-force (just as a plant is alive and yet is not classified in a halachah as a living creature). An alternate claim that is advanced is that since the eggs or larvae require this particular environment in which to develop, it can be said that they are generated from there.

However, there are numerous problems with such explanations, notwithstanding their obvious appeal. First, there is no independent evidence for these explanations; they are presented simply on the grounds that there could not be a scientific error in the Talmud. Yet, as we discussed in the introduction to this work, most authorities understand that the Sages of the Talmud did make a scientific error in believing that the sun passes behind the sky at night. And since the Sages spoke of a mouse that grows from dirt, they clearly did believe in spontaneous generation. Thus there is no reason to accept that they could not have believed that lice generate this way, which was the common belief in their era.

Second, the words of the Talmud say nothing about the eggs being halachically insignificant, or about the life-force of lice not being like that of other animals. It simply states that they do not reproduce sexually. While it is not impossible that this could be a shorthand reference for something else, the burden of proof is certainly upon those who would make such a claim. Especially since, in Talmudic times, the entire world believed that lice spontaneously generate, it is highly unreasonable to state that when the Sages spoke of lice as not reproducing sexually, they intended a different meaning entirely.

Third, such explanations are inconsistent with the views of the traditional Talmudic commentators. Rambam, Rashba, Ran, Tosafos and others all state that lice spontaneously generate from sweat or dust. True, it is not impossible that they misunderstood the nature of the Talmud’s ruling—indeed, we posited similarly in the case of mermaids. Yet in the case of mermaids, there was compelling textual evidence that the Talmud was referring to dolphins instead; here, no such evidence exists. Furthermore, those who posit that the Talmudic statement about lice must be scientifically correct are usually the same people who are reluctant to posit that the traditional commentators all erred in their understanding of the Talmud.

The final objection to such reinterpretations of the Talmud’s statement is that there is a straightforward refutation from the continuation of the Talmud:
Abaye said: And do lice not reproduce? Surely it was said, “God sits and sustains from the horns of aurochsen to the eggs of lice” (which shows that lice come from eggs)? — That refers to a type [of organism] which is called eggs of lice (but not that lice actually hatch from these).
If the Sages were not denying the existence of lice eggs, why do they reject the simple meaning of the statement that speaks about God sustaining the eggs of lice, and resort to difficult explanations instead? Let them simply state that although lice do hatch from eggs, these are too small to be halachically significant! It therefore seems that they did not consider this possibility. (I am aware that some claim that the Talmud means that since the eggs are halachically insignificant, they cannot be the subject of the statement about lice eggs. However such a reading is highly contrived, lacks any evidence, and is certainly not how the Rishonim and Acharonim understood the Talmud.)
Eight years later, how do things look? Has the Daas Torah of the Charedi Gedolim triumphed? Or have people calmed down, and are matters back to the way they were before the controversial ban, when views such as those expressed in my book were tolerated? If you attend a Daf Yomi shiur, perhaps you could post a comment and let us know what was said. And I would also like to point out that I have a Hebrew translation of Sacred Monsters ready to be published, if someone would like to help sponsor it!


  1. Truth is truth whether one believes it or not. Lice are born from eggs fertilized by a male louse and laid by a female louse. No amount of pronouncements, threats or censorship will change this.

  2. Consider microscopic organisms. Chazal weren't aware of them, and they are indeed halachically insignificant. Why not say that Chazal were unaware of lice eggs, and they are also halachically insignificant?

    From a point of view that only approves of secular wisdom only if it has impact on Torah, why would we expect Chazal to know about lice eggs?


  3. Thanks to all those who commented or called me to point out that I accidentally wrote Pesachim instead of Shabbos. I've got Pesachim on the brain, because I'm doing some work on it for the Koren Talmud.

  4. From the 'Insights' of

    Although in the times of the Chachamim (and until just two hundred years ago) it was accepted by all that some creatures are formed from inanimate objects, today the concept of spontaneous generation is no longer accepted as a scientific truth; modern science professes that all living things come about through propagation and regeneration. Is the Halachah different now if lice are not spontaneously generated?

  5. why no mention that lice eggs are visible ?

  6. in Talmudic times, the entire world believed that lice spontaneously generate

    If you're not sufficiently convinced of the power of this argument, have a look at this article:*.html

    My question: If everyone in the ancient world believed that lice spontaneously generate, what in the world did they think all those nits were? (Anyone who's dealt with lice in kids' hair knows that nits are hardly microscopic!)

    1. In the article you linked, he brings Aristotle who says: "But whatever creatures are spontaneously generated ... when such are generated male and female, then from the copulation of such spontaneously generated males and females there is generated a something — a something never identical in shape with the parents, but a something imperfect. For instance, the issue of copulation in lice is nits...

  7. Hi,

    I was wondering if it is at all possible (and/or scheduled) to have Sacred Monstesr (and other titles) in Epub format, for your international readers and general E-book readers that would make those books a lot more accessible.


  8. Ephraim,
    Even if lice eggs are to small to be halachically significant their is still the issue of them reproducing.
    The problem is that some people refuse to acknowledge that ALL people are Human Beings and instead believe in Superhuman Magic Possessing Individuals.

  9. "If everyone in the ancient world believed that lice spontaneously generate, what in the world did they think all those nits were?"

    Ah, if you had a copy of Sacred Monsters, you wouldn't ask that question!

    The answer is that while people were indeed aware of nits, and some were even aware that these were laid by lice, it was thought that lice did not hatch from them. Rather, nits were thought to be merely the useless result of two spontaneously-generating lice mating with each other. Aristotle explained this as follows:
    "But whenever creatures are spontaneously generated, either in other animals, in the soil, or on plants, or in the parts of these, and when such are generated male and female, then from the copulation of such spontaneously generated males and females there is generated a something—a something never identical in shape with the parents, but a something imperfect. For instance, the issue of copulation in lice is nits; in flies, grubs; in fleas, grubs egg-like in shape; and from these issues the parent-species is never reproduced, nor is any animal produced at all, but the like nondescripts only."
    Aristotle, History of Animals, Book V, Part 1

  10. Rather, nits were thought to be merely the useless result of two spontaneously-generating lice mating with each other.

    Fascinating. In other words they start with the presumption of spontaneous generation and then have to explain away the existence of the egg as being a "non-egg"! Reminds me of starting with the presumption of a young earth and then having to explain what all those dinosaur bones and ice layers are doing there.

    Also goes to show people should put the "religious dogma" of Chazal into perspective. As the Greeks demonstrate, everyone at the time was liable to ignore seemingly obvious empirical evidence in order to support the theories of the day. It doesn't make anyone not brilliant or wise or righteous - just human, all too human.

  11. I just came across a piece in the Zohar Parshas Shemos which describes birds born from (NOT in) trees.
    The Perush Mossuk mi'Dvash adds that you still find these trees in India, which give birth to little birds. When the season is ripe, these little birds fall into "Mayim Chayim" & turn into live birds.

  12. I have a chapter on those in Sacred Monsters, too. They are also mentioned in the Shulchan Aruch.

  13. Jeremy, Stanmore, UKJanuary 17, 2013 at 7:02 PM

    I had a long chat with my Rabbi some weeks ago about the banning of your books after what you wrote about lice etc. One of the points i put forward was your complaint that the Gedolim who banned it did not even understand English.
    He said i should ask you if certain Rishonim (he mentioned the names but i forgot)who banned the rambams Moreh were also wrong as they lived in France and could not have understood Arabic which Moreh was written in.
    Obviously they relied on the testimony of 2 wittnesses which the Torah even allows us to use to kill a person never mind just banning a book.
    So even if those rishonim did know arabic, his main point that the Torah trusts 2 wittnesses was a strong one and i admit he won me over.

  14. Rabbi Elefant's OU Daf Yomi podcast explicitly discusses the problem and mentions Rav Dressler's approach while leaving the difficulties unresolved (but with a clear understanding that the tanaim/amoraim misunderstood the science).

    He does not mention the possibility of nitshatnah teva, even though I believe he has brought it as a solution in the past.


  15. Jeremy - How do you know that the rabbis who banned the Moreh were correct?
    Besides, I'm not sure if one is allowed to rely on such witnesses when there is testimony (i.e. haskamos) that the book is kosher. At the very least, it would require hearing both sides.
    And certainly, when the "witnesses" are clearly zealots, it reflects very poor judgment to rely on their "testimony."

    But in any case, I've never made such a big deal about the rabbis who banned my books not being able to read English. I'm pretty sure that even if they could read English, they would still have banned them. The reason that the Gedolim were wrong is that they were wrong! Contrary to their mistaken belief, the idea that Chazal could be mistaken about science is not some novel maskilish idea. It's a mainstream view in the Geonim and Rishonim which has constantly been in use.

  16. After 120 Slifkin is standing before the heavenly court:
    GOD: "Nosson,for your utter disrepect & chutzpah to the Gedolim who banned your books yet you brazenly persisted you need 1 year in gehinnom.
    SLIFKIN: "B B B But Almighty" Slifkin stutters "Have you not read my piece "In defence of the Gedolim"
    The point with this joke is that you cannot carry on forever with your rants against rishonim and Chazal.
    A day of reckoning will come, it is not to late to repent Nosson.

  17. I wonder, will the Gedolim and Rabbi Meiselman also be condemned to Gehinnom for their utter disrepect & chutzpah to the Rishonim and Acharonim who said that Chazal occasionally erred in science?


  18. Jeremy: Come to think of it, the idea of citing the principle of two witnesses is completely off base. Was there a proper din Torah here, with all the requisite protocols, and cross-examination? Of course not. So what we are talking about is whether they exercised good judgment. And the answer is clearly not (quite aside from the more important fact, that they simply are not proficient in the subject matter.)

  19. Natan (or anyone else) - There is a well known halacha that one must wash one's hands after touching a part of the body that is normally covered because of the presence of "zeia" (sweat). The problem is that there are parts of the body that are normally covered that manifestly do not have "zeia," such as the upper arm, legs, etc. I know that people were generally dirtier back then, but still . . .
    Do you know anything about sweat being considered poisonous in the ancient world? Also, chazal state that sweat from the face is NOT harmful.
    Any insight into this would be much appreciated!

  20. It seems to me that we have discussed this topic previously. My contention then and now is that the gemara in T.B. Shabbat 107b is the sole basic source for the contention that lice do not engage in sexual reproduction. It is the view of the Amora, Rav Yosef. A young Abaye asks him to account for the mention of lice eggs in a well-known aphorism. A forced answer is provided about an otherwise unknown species called "egg lice". The fact is that earlier in the masechet, a beraita about lice on shabbat describes a dispute between bet Hillel and Shammai on the permissibility of killing body lice. Bet Hillel permits it, and that is the halacha. No rationale is given for the permissibility. The rationale given centuries later by Rav Yosef, may not be the basis of the halacha. I can adduce some other basis such as the fact that human body lice are totally dependent on a warm human body for existence, and are thus in a different category than the organisms used in the temple whose killing is prohibited. At best, then, the prohibition would be of a rabbinic nature that is removable due to the serious annoyance (itching) caused by the biting of the organism.

    In other words, one must distinguish between an ancient halacha and the rationale later given for it. The former does not depend on the latter. It, therefore, doesn't matter that Rav Yosef and Rishonim believed that lice are spontaneously generated. They were wrong, but the halacha remains standing.

  21. So what happened in between the writing of Tehillim and the time of Chazal? Did people earlier realize that lice hatch from eggs and then abandon this in favor of Aristotle? Did David Hamelech write B'ruach Hakodesh and have Chazal abandon the literal interpretation of Scripture in face of the best science of their day? Or something else entirely?

  22. Rav Slifkin,

    Are there any Rishonim who say that Chazal never erred in science?

    (Why is "Science" a field where many contemporary Rabbis say everything that Chazal said is 100% accurate?)

    What really bugs me is that there are plenty of statements in Chazal about rabbis or even Biblical figures who made moral and ritual mistakes, admitted them, and then dealt with the consequences.

    Why does so much of the Orthodox world ignore these statements of Chazal?

    It's as if we're creating a culture that says: "Everything we do is 100% correct and there's no use in even trying to better ourselves because those who say we err are in fact the ones who are wrong."


  23. Mike - the phrase about "eggs of lice" is not from David HaMelech or from Tanach at all.


  24. Chanokh - To my knowledge, there aren't. However, there are certainly Rishonim, especially in Ashkenaz, who generally strived to avoid saying that Chazal erred in science. Remember, in medieval times, the general assumption was that all the ancients - Jew and non-Jew alike - were much wiser in all matters.


  25. Chanokh - To my knowledge, there aren't. However, there are certainly Rishonim, especially in Ashkenaz, who generally strived to avoid saying that Chazal erred in science. Remember, in medieval times, the general assumption was that all the ancients - Jew and non-Jew alike - were much wiser in all matters.

  26. >rambams Moreh were also wrong as they lived in France and could not have understood Arabic which Moreh was written in.

    First, I would think it's a given that they were wrong to ban it. Jewish legend considers that Rabbenu Yonah wrote Shaarei Teshuva as part of his own personal teshuva regimen for denouncing the Rambam's writings.

    But more importantly, Ibn Tibbon translated the Moreh into Hebrew (why it is *called* the Moreh) in 1190. So those French rabbis who did not like the Moreh certainly were able to, at least, read the translation - a translation authorized by the Rambam himself.

  27. To me the best argument re Chazal and their understanding of science is not relating to one case but that as far as I know every mention of science in the Talmud corresponds to the exact knowledge of science in the time it was written (the whole is greater than the parts). This includes many examples here most of the medicines and treatments described in Talmud , the council of the kidneys, the 4 elements, the mudmouse, the sun disappearing at night, coloured light composed of white plus that which is added from coloured glass, fire rising because it is attracted to its source below the moons orbit vs water faling being attracted to the depths below the universe revolving around the earth etc . The list goes on and in every single case chazal agree exactly with the science of the times

  28. R. Slifkin - can you please explain what R. Meiselman meant when he said that what Rashi commented is irrelevant? He is nothing if not logical, so what was his logic?

  29. Jeremy Stanmore: I was about to make S.'s point As every one owho presumes to know something about the Rambam ought to know, the Moreh was translated into Hebrew by Samuel ibn Tibbon in the Rambams lifetime and with his authorization. Will you now go back to your Rabbi and tell him that his justification of the ban agaisnt Rabbi Slifkin's books was based on grossest ignorance???

    Lawrence Kaplan

  30. B"H

    In today’s Daf Yomi the famous matter of "kina ena para veraba" is mentioned.

    In our forthcoming book "The enigma of the Biblical Shafan" we have included a short English appendix on this issue and also an expanded Hebrew version.

    Please follow the link ( for a version without footnotes and illustrations.
    Posted by Dr. Isaac Betech


  31. Greetings Dr. Betech! Thank you for giving us a free extract from your book. However, if you were to have read the post that you just commented upon, you would have seen that I refuted your approach on numerous grounds. It's a pity that you didn't read my book before preparing yours.

    I am, though, fascinated to see that you apparently deny the possibility of genuine spontaneous generation. What, then, do you say about the Gemara's account of the mouse that is generated from dirt, the Shulchan Aruch's reference to birds that grow on trees, and the numerous statements in Rishonim and Acharonim insisting on the reality of genuine spontaneous generation?

    Here is but one of many examples:
    רש"י חולין דף קכו/ב
    יש מין עכבר - שאינו פרה ודבה אלא מעצמו נוצר מאדמה כאשפה המשרצת תולעים ואם עדיין לא נברא העכבר אלא צדו אחד הימני או השמאלי הנוגע בבשר טמא באדמה שכנגדו טהור:

    Since you attempt to present the non-rationalist approach not only to the shafan but also to spontaneous generation, I am confident that you will address this.

  32. BH
    Dear Natan,
    You wrote:
    However, if you were to have read the post that you just commented upon, you would have seen that I refuted your approach on numerous grounds.

    Lets go one by one. Please select one of your refutations to my approach, and will analyze it BH.


  33. Sorry, I'm not falling into this trap again. Everything is spelled out in my post. You are welcome to prepare a comprehensive response, and post a link to it.

  34. Although I would generally agree with you that it is not fruitful to engage Dr. Betech in arguments (at least on-line), here I feel his argument should be addressed, since he has finally provided us with his written opinion on this topic. Specifically, I don't think he finds your first three arguments very persuading (although others certainly might), but your final argument from the gemara itself he must address. Also, he should respond to your questions about other mentions of spontaneous generation.

    I would also like to mention the approach of Hillel Fandel of Lakewood in his kuntris on shratzim and Anasakis, that the gemara is actually referring to nits with beitzei kinim, just the gemara is saying they are considered a separate specious due to the molting process they go through. Thus, in their mature form, they "spontaneously generated" from their not-yet-mature selves. Of course, this approach will still suffer from your first three critiques and cannot explain the dirt-mouse or tree-bird.

  35. B”H
    Dear Natan,
    I am sorry you feel you are in risk of “falling into this trap again”.
    I am also sorry you did not agree to analyze “your refutations to my approach” one by one; but since your refutation in this blogpost (as well as in your book) are trying to refute simultaneously several different approaches to the lice issue, in case I would like to follow your advise and prepare a comprehensive response, at least I would need you to specify which of your four refutations you consider are refuting my approach.

  36. I thought that the halachic ramification (at least in theory)is that if lice are not born in the usual way then killing them on Shabbos would not be an issur d'Orayta. Please clarify.

  37. My point was that even though the scientific reason was incorrect, the halachah still stands, for reasons discussed in my book (and on this blog).

  38. Dr Betech,

    Rabbi slifkin seems a bit sceptical about your essays. To reasure us, can you give a time when the response will be ready by. ?

  39. BH
    Dear Gershon
    I am in the middle of a very busy long weekend (as you can imagine, now it is 2 hours after midnight in Mexico), nevertheless I am planing to invest some time on this issue BH.
    Shabua tov

  40. dr Betech,.

    thanks. should it be ready within a month ?

  41. B”H
    Dear Natan
    You wrote:
    You are welcome to prepare a comprehensive response, and post a link to it.



  42. Great! I'm glad that you've finally decided that my objections are worth addressing, and that you seemingly suddenly remembered that you mentioned some of them in your book. I leave it to my readers to decide whether your responses actually address all the questions, whether they are remotely convincing, and whether you have accurately presented the real positions of Chazal and the Rishonim.

    Meanwhile, it's a pity that you didn't address the sources that I cited in my book, such as Rambam:
    ספר המצות להרמב"ם - מצות לא תעשה - מצוה קעט
    ואינו נמנע התילד הצרעה או הנמלה או זולתם ממיני העופות והשרצים מן העפושים ובתוך האוכלים אלא אצל הסכלים שאין להם ידיעה בחכמת הטבע אלא יחשבו כי כל מין אי אפשר שיתילד איש מאישיו אלא מזכר ונקבה בעבור שהם רואים זה הענין ברוב כן
    ...or Pachad Yitzchak, Rav Dessler, Rav Elyashiv, etc., all of whom believed that Chazal, and all the Rishonim after them, were discussing spontaneous generation.

  43. RNS said ...or ... Rav Elyashiv, etc., all of whom believed that Chazal, and all the Rishonim after them, were discussing spontaneous generation.

    where does r elyashev discuss this?

  44. It's in my book!

    cited by Shevet Kahasi and in turn by Rabbi Moshe Shmuel Leitner, Harigas Kinim B’zmanenu, Yeshurun p. 598.

  45. (Not that it's a chiddush, of course; that's how absolutely everyone learned it until very very recently!)

  46. reject said... where does r elyashev discuss this?

    Natan Slifkin said... It's in my book! ... ...

    so dr betech is arguing with the late posek hador. perhaps we must stay out of his 4 amos.

  47. B"H
    Dear Reject
    Before you fulfill your obligation to distance yourself 4 amot, please write a comprehensive answer to my above linked documents.

  48. dr betech
    i was writing b'derech hashash. until someone clarifies the issue, he must be mahmir. WADR your writings are too indirect, to say the least, to shed light on this and other issues. when i find time, (i.e. around when you find time to respond thoroughly to r slifkin), i will read your linked documents, and that might remove my hashashot.

    also, from my perspective, r elyashev's [written!] decision regarding r slifkin's books is also contradicted by many sources. so ironically, now you & r slifkin are in the same boat, in that you side with your sources - if your sources are as good as r slifkin's - against r elyashev. in the spirit of "treating another as you treat yourself" you should treat yourself the same way that r slifkin was & is treated.

    or, treat him as you treat yourself.

    i am actually hesitant to address you at all, my previous comment was addressed to *others* regarding you. if your only response is ask questions without offering anything real - as has happened too many times in the past - i have no interest in continuing this exchange.

    btw, soon after "lice daf" 107 is "snake daf" 110. it's about cures for various situations involving snakes. the subject of talmudic cures has already been dealt with, and toward the beginning of the daf artscroll has a nice summary in the notes of how the commentaries approach talmudic cures. [even r avraham ben harambam's maamar al haagadot is referenced!]
    --but unique to the "snake daf" are the resoundingly unusual conditions, medical and otherwise, that the cures ameliorate. artscroll cites virtually nothing about them. has anyone heard anything enlightening at a daf shiur? thank you.

  49. B”H
    Dear Reject
    Thank you for your answer.
    1. You say that my “writings are too indirect…” and from the same paragraph it seems that you have not read them…

    2. I have already responded thoroughly to NS, please check again:

    3. To the best of my knowledge I have no writings against R Elyashev´s writings; if you are aware, please let me know.

    4. You wrote:
    “…if your only response is ask questions without offering anything real…”

    Please read the following and then decide by yourself. (brief summary of my position) (conciliation with the Gemara-text) (conciliation with the Rishonim-text) (comprehensive refutation to the four purported refutations NS published against my position on lice).

    5. Sorry that by now, addressing the "snake daf" is beyond the scope of this discussion (regarding lice reproduction).

  50. Rabbi Slifkin, it has been many years since I read your take on this gemara in your book so forgive me if you have made this point already.

    I take away from this Gemara that Chazal were ready to reinterpret poshut pshat in a posuk based on the best science (Aristotle) of their time. I find that astounding.

    I don't understand however, why you think the Halacha should remain the same even if we know the science is incorrect. It would be one thing if Chazal were explaining the rationale behind a Halacha L'Moshe MiSinai, but here it is a machlokes in the Gemara. Shouldn't we say that science has vindicated the opinion of R'Eliezer (if I am remembering correctly)?


  51. See Sacred Monsters, or my post here about Rav Moshe Glasner (google it)

  52. I understand that position, and rationale, where there is no opinion in the Gemara that is in line with the facts as we know them today. But with respect to the lice, whether or not they spontaneously generate was gufa the machlokes in the Gemara.

    There was no machlokes as to the underlying halacha, the machlokes is in the facts and we know now that R'Eliezer was right. I don't see how that weakens the edifice of halacha. Halacha always changes when the facts change.

  53. Rabbi P.E Falk takes the view in volume 2 in the worm fish teshuvah. They could not see lice having baby lice, so halachically they do not.

    Did they know hether they could be having babies microscopically,maybe yes maybe no. It would not have been of mush Halachic interest to them either way as it does not affect the Halachah.

    (he also sharply limits the application of nishtaneh hativim to only 3 categories. difference in size, difference in timing
    and something else I forgot.)


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